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Everything You Need To Know About VPNs

May 23, 2024
Everything You Need To Know About VPNs

As more and more of us spend more and more time online - to do even the most basic things for our day-to-day lives - we are increasingly transferring huge amounts of personal data on a regular basis. 

To protect ourselves against that data getting into the wrong hands and being used for ill-gotten gains, you can use a VPN. But what exactly is a VPN? And why are they useful? 

Here, we look to answer those questions, amongst others so that you learn everything there is to know about VPNs. You’ll be able to subscribe to a service with confidence - safe in the knowledge that you have picked a provider who answers your needs. 

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. When you establish one, once you are connected to the internet, that internet connection is protected - even when using public networks. That’s because VPNs encrypt all your internet traffic as well as masking your online identity. In doing so, your data cannot be read, intercepted or altered by any third parties. Instead, your data is only used by those for which you intended. 

Why is a VPN useful?

A VPN is useful for many reasons. First and foremost, it helps protect you from online harm. Hackers, cybercriminals, as well as intrusive authorities around the world often want to see and use your data for their own means. While authorities may want to use it to see what you are up to and ensure you are abiding by their laws, hackers may intercept your data to commit identity fraud or for their own financial gain. Think, for instance, about how much of your financial management and banking you do online - without the right security in place, that data can be accessed by sophisticated cyber criminals. 

Secondly, a VPN is useful for accessing content that may otherwise be geo-blocked. This means that some content is not accessible in certain countries. For example, if you subscribe to a video library, many video library providers have restrictions on what can be viewed in certain countries. That's for copyright and broadcasting reasons. However, if you’ve subscribed to such a library and you are away on holiday or away for work in another nation where your content is blocked, sometimes a VPN can help get around that problem. It does so by making you look like you are in the country that you need to be in for access. 

What should I look for from a VPN provider?

The market for VPN providers is vast. Picking one that’s suitable for you can be tough therefore - though our reviews will undoubtedly help. When we investigate and research a provider, here’s what we like to see so that we think they’re worthy of our recommendation:

Fast connection times

You want your time online to be quick, slick and uninterrupted. Without doubt, you need a provider who offers a quick connection speed. If they don’t offer this, the likelihood is that you won’t establish a VPN each and every time you connect to the internet. That’s because poorly designed VPN software will materially slow down your time online, making it such a bad user experience that you don’t want to use it. 

If your VPN slows your connection down, you can expect slow page load speeds, buffering while streaming video content, or window freezes during gaming. The natural human reaction is to stop connecting to a VPN, but that leaves your data exposed and accessible to hackers and authorities. 

Ensure that whoever you sign up to has technology that is imperceptible while you are using it. That way, you will always establish a VPN whenever you send data over an internet connection.

Military grade encryption

In addition to having lightning quick speeds, it’s essential that VPN providers encrypt your data with the best encryption techniques around. Only then is it almost impossible to hack and read. 

To get the best encryption possible, you need to look for a technique called the Advanced Encryption Standard. It’s used and approved worldwide by governments and cybersecurity experts. In general, the top level of AES is perceived to be AES with 256-bit keys - which the US’s NSA uses for securing classified information - even to top secret level. 

Encrypting your data is one of the main things you want your VPN provider to be doing, so if they’re not doing it to the highest standard out there, you won’t be getting all of the benefits you can. 

Kill switch

A kill switch is not always something that VPN providers offer as standard, yet we think it’s a really nifty little feature. Essentially, if your VPN connection drops out for any reason, a kill switch will cut your internet connection too - so you know that your activity and data will never be exposed. 

It’s easily done, too with lesser examples of VPN technology. You can establish one at the beginning of your session, and carry on as normal. It’s easily done too with lesser examples of VPN technology. Sometimes, when a VPN drops out, the technology or provider won’t always tell you. You can inadvertently be using the internet without the protection of a VPN as a result. 

A kill switch can automatically and immediately prevent that from happening. It keeps you safer and means you can enjoy your time online as you wanted - without having to constantly check your VPN is still connected.

Compare VPN Providers

No logs policy

Not all providers offer this as standard, yet it’s so essential. If a VPN provider does not stipulate they don’t keep logs of your activity, it means they could be recording what you get up to online. They can then sell those records to a third party or even hand over their logs to the authorities. This is the very thing that you will likely have signed up to prevent when subscribing to a VPN provider. 

The most reputable, and useful, VPN providers won’t keep logs. More and more countries are asking that these companies do at least keep some records, but the biggest firms are ensuring that they remain log-free. It goes to the very core of staying anonymous, which is what so many people use a VPN to become. 

Large server network

Providers need to ensure that they have servers available in a wide and vast array of countries, so that users can establish a VPN in the countries they need. Without a large network, you may not be given an IP address for the country you require, so you can’t get round the geoblocks you want. 

A large server network is usually linked to better connection speeds too as it means less users are going through the same server as you. Plus, a large server network can help improve your guarantee that you’ll get a connection every single time you log on to your VPN provider’s network.

Multiple device coverage

The likelihood is that you will need a VPN for more than just one device. In fact, if you want to protect your whole household you’ll likely want coverage for lots of devices. The very best providers will offer this as standard for their packages - or at least will have coverage for large numbers of users at very little extra cost. That’s important as we all have a phone, a tablet and a desktop at a minimum - which can go up exponentially if you have several people who you also want to use your VPN subscription. 

Value for money

VPNs need not be expensive. In fact, your subscription fee on a monthly basis should only really cost the same amount as a coffee or two. You could probably get it even cheaper if you sign up for a year all in one go. Not all providers are that cheap though - and sometimes that’s not reflective of a higher quality. You need to ensure that what you are paying is commensurate with the value you are getting from your provider. 

The best VPN providers, like the ones we recommend, are not expensive. Yet, they are still able to offer a high quality service which includes all of the above features as standard. You don’t have to pay extra for more features. Instead, the best providers believe that it is only through offering them all together that they are able to give customers a comprehensive online protection tool. 

Subscribing to a VPN service

Using a VPN is what we should all be doing every time we log onto the internet. There are simply too many sophisticated cybercriminals out there that are able to infiltrate your systems if you don’t have a robust cybersecurity plan in place. A VPN can be at the forefront of that plan thanks to how it encrypts your data and makes your time online anonymous. 

VPNs can vary from provider to provider though - particularly in terms of quality, level of protection and all round user experience. We believe it’s possible to subscribe to a product that has all of the above features while still not costing the earth. 

Everything You Need To Know About VPNs

Rachel Lee

Having worked at Morgan Stanley and BNYMellon for over 10 years in pensions and investments, Rachel now works as a full-time business and financial writer.