From viruses and ransomware to phishing scams and identity theft, our personal privacy and security are consistently under threat online. Along with antivirus programs and firewalls, VPNs are a key part of keeping us protected online – but they’re probably the least understood. And you may be wondering: Are VPNs safe?
The short answer is yes.
But keep in mind that a VPN doesn’t make you invincible. There’s no single solution that protects you from everything. So we’ll cover the key points you should know about and some best practices for using a VPN.
What is a VPN?
In the simplest terms, a virtual private network (VPN) is a service to hide (or mask) what you’re doing online. From a consumer’s perspective, it’s completely online and doesn’t require any additional hardware. Just sign up and install an app, then log in and choose a server. The most reputable VPNs include NordVPN, ExpressVPN and PureVPN, although there are many to choose from.
How does a VPN work?
Again, keeping it short and simple, a VPN has encrypted servers all around the world that hide your IP address from others. It does this by creating a “digital tunnel” for your data to pass through. Think of your device (computer, phone, etc.) as being the entrance to the tunnel and the VPN’s server as the exit.
When should I use a VPN?
Using a VPN at home adds an extra layer of protection and security, and if you’re subscribed to a VPN, you may as well use it. There are very few occasions when not using a VPN is preferred. In fact, there are specific circumstances when a VPN is not only highly recommended, it’s necessary.
Use a VPN when using public wi-fi
Have you ever gone to a coffee shop and logged in to the free Wi-Fi to save on your data plan? Yeah, so has everybody else. That’s why these public connections – which typically have poor security in place – are a favorite hunting ground for cyber snoops and crooks.
Those Wi-Fi networks are about as secure as a high school locker in July — no padlock and wide open. But using a VPN encrypts your data, making it secure even on a network that isn’t. It’s like wearing a hazmat suit through the danger zone.
Use a VPN when traveling
If you’re overseas for business or pleasure, a VPN can come in handy. It can allow you to access streaming services that you can only use in your home country.
As a standard security precaution, some sites – such as your bank or Amazon – might lock you out of your account if they detect you’re in another country. This can be doubly problematic if they’ll only unlock your account via SMS to your mobile. Best case scenario, you get dinged for overpriced international roaming fees. Worst case, you’re someplace you can’t use international roaming.
Use a VPN for business
Small businesses have become a common target for cyber-attacks because they generally have less security compared to big corporations. But with common resources such as shared drives, printers and remote applications used daily, nefarious actors have multiple points of attack.
A VPN provides an extra layer of security against these attacks. It also offers a secure link for employees traveling abroad, or even domestically, to connect to HQ.
Use a VPN for gaming
Any hardcore gamer worth their Steam Points uses a VPN for gaming. A VPN can protect you against DDoS attacks and keep your personal data private. But it can also reduce lag by putting you closer to the game server, grant access to geo-blocked game servers, and circumvent any throttling your ISP might try to impose.
Check out our look at the best gaming VPN (plus a few other options) for more on this topic specifically.
Use a VPN when streaming sports and entertainment
All major sports leagues – NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB and even MLS – implement local blackout restrictions for live games. And most, if not all, streaming services have international geo-blocking in place due to licensing agreements.
Using a reliable VPN allows you to watch your favorite sports teams, movies or TV shows where you want to.
Be sure to check the network map when choosing a VPN. ExpressVPN has the widest network, with servers in 94 countries and 160 cities, while PIA has the largest overall network with 35,000 servers in 95 cities throughout 84 countries.
Use a VPN to access blocked content
In addition to video games, sports, movies and TV shows, a VPN also lets you access services that may be geo-blocked, such as Spotify or social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. All 3 of them, for example, are blocked in China. (Read about how to unblock Spotify here).
These sites and services are also commonly blocked on school or company networks. But with a VPN on your laptop, you’re good to go.
Other considerations to keep in mind
Are VPNs legal?
VPNs are completely legal in most countries in the world. Even the FBI recommends using a VPN. Of course, there are a few places where they’re either strictly regulated or banned outright.
If you live in one of these countries, you likely already know this. But for travelers, here’s the list of places where you should think twice about using a VPN:
- North Korea
- United Arab Emirates
If you’re still worried about using a VPN in the States, here’s all you need to know about if VPNs are legal in America.
Is a VPN all the security I need?
VPNs hide your IP address and encrypt your online activity, but that’s about it. They’re not the same as antivirus, anti-malware or firewall software. If you visit an unsecure website or download malicious files, you are still at risk of viruses, malware, trojans, ransomware and whatever else the internet can throw at you.
The safest course of action is to use a VPN in combination with an internet security suite (or separate antivirus, anti-malware and firewall programs).
Can I use a free VPN?
You can, but should you? And the answer to that is maybe!
To paraphrase Richard Serra back in 1973 – if the product is free, you are the product. He was talking about TV, but the internet has made the apothegm even truer today.
Free VPNs make their money by selling ads or selling your data – or both. (Most often both.) In fact, a recent study found that 38% of 283 free Android VPN apps had some kind of malware. A free VPN will typically:
- Threaten your security
- Track your online activity
- Limit your usage based on time, data, or both
- Noticeably slow down your internet speed
- Include ads (often a lot of them)
- Offer limited geographic coverage
Keeping all that in mind, if you find yourself in a position that you need to use a free VPN, check out our thoughts on the best free VPN, plus a couple of other options.
How do I choose a VPN?
As with most purchases, the best thing you can do is research. Read independent reviews to make an informed decision. Some things to keep in mind are a VPN’s:
- Home country
- Security experience and track record
- Server network and locations
- Device compatibility
A VPN’s home country can dictate how it handles your data, particularly with regard governments. A zero-log policy implies they don’t keep records of your online activity. Read the fine print and check online to see how each VPN abides by this policy.
If you need to log in to a particular country, make sure your VPN has strong presence there. And if you need to use your VPN on a specific device or platform — such as Fire TV, Android TV, or Linux — make sure the VPN has a native app for it. For example, IPVanish has an app for Chrome OS but not Android TV, while PureVPN has an app for Android TV but not Chrome OS.
You can’t really go wrong with the top ranked VPNs, such as NordVPN, ExpressVPN and PureVPN. It just depends on whether you prioritize price, privacy, speed or something else. Our list of the 6 Best VPNs can help get your research started.
Our Takeaway: Use a VPN for a safer browsing experience
The reasons to use a VPN range from privacy to security to entertainment. They can even increase your internet’s performance in certain situations. We strongly recommend avoiding free VPNs altogether. Shop around for an established and reliable VPN that meets your needs and fits your budget.
Douglas Wright • Author
Douglas Wright is a freelance writer based in Japan. A former web designer and technical writer, he left beautiful Vancouver for bustling Tokyo, where he spent a decade recruiting for software and high-tech firms. No longer commuting through the world’s busiest train station, he writes fiction and a wide range of formats for clients around the world. When he gets AFK, he’s either outdoors with his two boys, streaming a show with his wife, or reading a book over a French-pressed, hand-ground coffee.
Desiree Wu • Editor
Desiree is a full-time Honours Business Administration student at Ivey Business School at Western University. She also served as an Editorial Intern at Flixed. Desiree is based in London, Ontario.