What Is a VPN?

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What Is a VPN?

VPN stands for virtual private network. A VPN is used to help maintain your privacy when surfing the web. To illustrate how a virtual private network works, imagine a tunnel. On one side of the tunnel is you and on the other side of the tunnel a server. When you search for something on the internet using a VPN, you travel through the secure tunnel to the server on the other side, retrieve the data you were looking for, and bring it back to your device without anyone watching you. This provides you increased privacy from your internet service provider (ISP) and hackers that would otherwise be able to track your movement on the internet.

But why do you need to use a VPN to keep your searches private? Your computer has a unique IP address, similar to your fingerprints. Your IP address can be traced back to you and show prying eyes everything you have touched on the web. However, a VPN acts as a shield of privacy and covers up your fingerprint like a pair of gloves, making it so hackers can’t steal your information, or even worse, your identity. But it isn’t just hackers you have to worry about. In today’s modern world, even your ISP can record and sell your data to advertisers. For many, the decision to use a VPN allows them to control their privacy.

While, traditionally, companies used a VPN connection to protect data online, recently there has been an increase in VPN services for personal use. Examples include using a VPN to access geo-restricted content on streaming services, to get around filters on public Wi-Fi networks, and to secure data when accessing financial websites.

You can use a VPN on your laptop, mobile device, tablet, smart TV, or router. On any of these devices, using a VPN can help you remain more anonymous by hiding your location online and it can provide added security when you connect to public Wi-Fi.

To create this secure connection, you use a type of software on your computer called a VPN client, which connects your computer to a VPN server in another location. All the traffic between your computer and the server is encrypted, preventing others from seeing the data that you are sharing.

What Does a VPN Do?

A VPN hides your internet activity from others and it can make your location look like it is in a different city or country. It is important to understand that a VPN promotes privacy, not protection. A virtual private network is designed to help promote anonymity on the web. It provides you a degree of privacy by encrypting your information so that your data isn’t available to advertisers or those with malicious intent, such as identity thieves. But, unless paired with good antivirus software, your computer is still susceptible to malware.

Businesses use a VPN to keep information secure when an employee needs to connect to the company’s database while working at home or when traveling. This type of VPN service makes it look like your computer is on the same network as the company’s servers and provides access to applications and data just as if you were in the office.

Many personal users rely on a VPN service for security or privacy. The same encryption that keeps company information safe can help keep your browsing safe when you are at home or using public networks. This service can also hide your IP address from websites and can keep what you are doing online secret from your internet service provider.

A VPN can also make it look like you are in another location. This is called geo-spoofing and is often done to access a streaming service library that is only available in a specific region or country. For example, you could make it appear that you are in a different country to stream a sport that is normally unavailable to you due to geo-blocking. To spoof your location, you will need to connect to a VPN server in the area you want to stream from, and you still need to have a subscription to the streaming service itself. Therefore, it is important to research where a VPN provider has servers to make sure they can meet your needs.

You can also use a virtual private network to get around content filters that some schools, companies, or governments put in place to block specific websites. It may even speed up some of your internet browsing and streaming. This is because some internet providers throttle (or slow down) traffic to specific services or websites. Throttling your internet speeds is especially common for those who use torrent applications for peer-to-peer (P2P) downloads. A VPN can be very helpful in this situation because it hides this traffic from your ISP, who may otherwise slow your traffic if it detects you are using lots of bandwidth while legally sharing large files.

How Does a VPN Work?

A VPN works by encrypting your information and sending it through a secure tunnel to a VPN server and back. Imagine this process as if you are using the pneumatic tube system to cash a check at the bank. On your end, you have sensitive information that you wouldn’t want to share with anyone. You place your banking information within the carrier and into the pneumatic tube, where it is secure while it is transported to the banker, who safely returns back your sensitive information and currency.

A VPN works similar to this process. On your device, you enter an inquiry into a search engine. The VPN uses a VPN protocol to encrypt your data (placing it into the carrier) and sends it through a secure tunnel (the pneumatic tube) to a VPN server (the banker). The server decrypts the information and retrieves the answer to your search inquiry from the desired website (your desired currency). The server then encrypts the retrieved data and returns it to you through the tunnel for decryption back on your end. During this process, your information is kept private and inaccessible to anyone outside the tunnel system.

When the VPN server communicates your inquiry with the website you are trying to reach, the website sees the server’s IP address instead of yours. Your IP address and all of the identifying information that is linked to it, such as your geographic location and browsing history, are kept private throughout the entire process.

However, a VPN only works if it is properly enabled on your device. Therefore, it is important that you understand how to get and set up a VPN on all of your devices, including smart TVs, game consoles, media stream devices, smart refrigerators, and anything with a Wi-Fi connection. You may also want to consider reading more about how a VPN works to determine where you can benefit from using a virtual private network and if connecting it to your router is right for you.

Why Should I Use a VPN?

VPNs Are Good For:

  • Hiding your online activity
  • Making it look like you are in another location
  • Avoiding content filters
  • Using P2P file sharing
  • Keeping you safe from hackers when using public Wi-Fi

VPNs Are Not Good For:

  • Watching streaming services without a subscription to the service
  • Completely anonymizing your online activity
  • Blocking all viruses or malware (unless it’s an added security feature with the particular VPN service)

“Consumer VPNs are typically used to provide privacy protections when the consumer does not want their Internet service provider to have insight into what they are browsing or downloading,” explains Nick Consolo, principal of cybersecurity firm Simple Cyber LLC. He recommends using a VPN “anytime you want to protect your privacy, and also anytime that you are on a network that you do not control the security of, such as public Wi-Fi, airport, hotels, etc.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also recommends that mobile travelers use a VPN when connecting to public networks. When you connect to a public Wi-Fi network a VPN helps protect you from someone trying to steal your information (like your password) or take advantage of you (by sending you to a malicious website). When you are on a public connection that uses content filtering, a VPN can also help you access websites and services that are normally blocked.

Though a VPN is most helpful when you are connecting to public Wi-Fi, you may still want to use one at home. You can use it to hide your browsing activity from your internet service provider, access geo-blocked content from your favorite streaming service, or legally torrent a large file, like open-source software or an upgrade for your multiplayer game, without your ISP throttling your internet speeds. VPNs may even help you find better deals when searching for things like airline tickets, as some websites adjust pricing based on factors such as your location and browsing history. VPN’s have also grown in popularity over the past year for their ability to circumnavigate social media bans. In response to the U.S. government’s threat to ban Tik Tok in 2020, Daniel Markuson of NordVPN reported to CNBC an increase of 34% in online inquiries for VPNs.

Keep in mind that sometimes using a VPN can slow down your internet speed, especially if your computer is already slow. “A VPN is encapsulating all of your Internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel,” Consolo says. “The overhead the encryption adds, as well as possibly adding more network hops to route the traffic creates additional latency, which makes connections to services slower. “This is why it is important to look for a VPN provider with plenty of servers and modern VPN protocols.

While using a VPN at home, you can also use a VPN to make it look like you are in another location. This enables you to stream media from a library that is otherwise geo-blocked or shop different versions of a store in another country. It may even help you find better deals, as websites adjust pricing based on factors such as your location and browsing history.

Though people often use a VPN to stream content that is otherwise region-blocked, content providers are constantly fighting against this, and can even successfully block some VPN traffic.

This is why it is important to look for a VPN with a free trial or a money-back guarantee so that you can test the service.

When you need to use a P2P service to download a large file, like open-source software or an upgrade for your multiplayer game, your ISP may slow your traffic, known as throttling. With a VPN in place, the download speeds will likely be faster.

A VPN can hide your browsing activity from your ISP and change your location, but it can’t completely anonymize your online profile. Cookies and other technology still make it possible for some websites to track you. Depending on the VPN’s privacy policy and local data collection laws, some VPNs don’t completely hide your online activity from a government entity, and may turn over information on your online activities if sent an official request.

A VPN is also not a substitute for antivirus or malware software. Some VPN providers bundle in the ability to block malware, pop-up ads, and tracking, however, this doesn’t always come with the same type of system scan that a quality antivirus product has.

How Much Is a VPN?

Best VPNs of 2021

COMPANYMONTHLY PLANANNUAL PLANSERVER COUNTSIMULTANEOUS CONNECTIONSLEARN MORE
ExpressVPN »4.4 out of 5$12.95/Month$8.32/Month3,000+5View Plans »
NordVPN »4.3 out of 5$11.95/Month$6.58/Month5,5026View Plans »
Surfshark »4 out of 5$12.95/Month$4.98/Month3,200+UnlimitedView Plans »
Holiday Sale: Save 83% + Get 3 FREE months on 2 year plans, ends 12/31
CyberGhost »3.7 out of 5$12.99/Month$3.99/Month6,800+7View Plans »
IPVanish »3.7 out of 5$10.99/Month$3.20/Month1,900UnlimitedView Plans »

Expand List


Based on the VPN providers that made our Best VPNs of 2021 rating, you can expect to pay an average of $11.79 for a month-to-month plan. However, your monthly fee can be drastically reduced by opting for an annual plan. Month-to-month plans range from $9.00 to $12.99, but annual plans range from $3.33 to $8.32 a month.

So if you are on a budget and considering a VPN provider, you will actually save a good amount of money by committing to an annual plan. For example, in a year’s time you would pay $141.48 at the average cost of a month-to-month VPN service. Whereas, the average annual VPN plan costs $5.31 a month and only $63.72 a year. However, you may not be ready to commit to an annual plan right away, and that’s when a month-to-month plan makes more sense.

It is a good idea to start by purchasing a single month of a VPN service or choosing a provider that offers a free trial. This will allow you to test out the VPN and ensure it is compatible with your devices and meets all of your needs. Many of the Best VPN providers on our rating help ease you into their service by offering free trials and money-back guarantees. While trial periods range from 1 to 30 days, the majority of the VPN services have 30-day money-back guarantees.

There are even free VPNs. These services tend to be less robust than paid versions and have strict data and simultaneous connection limits. But, if you are looking for somewhere to start and have minor needs for a VPN, using one of the Best Free VPNs of 2021 may be a great way for you to test out using a VPN.

Regardless of whether you choose a free VPN, a month-to-month contract, or an annual plan, take the time to review what the VPN service offers to be sure that your needs are met. Some important things to consider when purchasing a VPN are the number of simultaneous connections you will need and the compatibility of your devices.

How Do I Set Up a VPN?

Many VPN providers make setting up a virtual private network as easy as signing up and downloading a browser extension or VPN app on your device. Most services have simple installation and setup procedures, so you don’t need to be tech-savvy to start using a VPN. But, if you decide to set up a VPN on your router, it can be a bit tricky. You may find it helpful to review our guide on how to get and set up a VPN. We break down the basic steps of setting up a VPN on typical devices, such as laptops, cell phones, tablets, and routers.

The Best VPN Services of 2021

A virtual private network is a great way to keep your internet activity private. If you are looking to access geo-restricted content or simply seeking more anonymity on the internet, a VPN may be right for you. We’ve created a list of the Best VPNs of 2021 to save you time and effort in your search.

Below you will find our top 12 companies providing VPN services. Our rating is based on an unbiased evaluation of the services that these companies provide and data collected between December 28, 2020 and January 20, 2021. Click on any of the VPN providers below for an in-depth review of their services, including a detailed look at the features, prices, and compatibility of their VPNs.

#1 ExpressVPN
#2 NordVPN
#3 Surfshark
#4 CyberGhost
#4 IPVanish
#4 ProtonVPN
#7 HMA VPN
#8 Hotspot Shield
#8 Private Internet Access
#8 TunnelBear
#11 VyprVPN
#11 Windscribe

Learn More

Still looking for more information about VPNs or trying to find the best VPN for you? Explore the directory below to learn more about these services.

Other Guides from 360 Reviews

Considering other internet or security services? Take a look at our other guides for information that you may find helpful in your search.

360 Methodology for Evaluating VPNs

We explain what matters most to consumers, experts, and professional reviewers when it comes to VPNs. Then we provide an unbiased evaluation of VPNs available at the time of review. Our goal is to empower consumers with the information and tools they need to make informed decisions. More information about our 360 Reviews methodology for evaluating VPN companies is here.

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