What Is a VPN and How Does It Help Me?
In very simple terms, a VPN connects your PC, smartphone, or tablet to another computer (called a server) somewhere on the internet, and allows you to browse the internet using that computer’s internet connection. So if that server is in a different country, it will appear as if you are coming from that country, and you can potentially access things that you couldn’t normally.
So how does this help you? Good question! You can use a VPN to:
- Bypass geographic restrictions on websites or streaming audio and video.
- Watch streaming media like Netflix and Hulu.
- Protect yourself from snooping on untrustworthy Wi-Fi hotspots.
- Gain at least some anonymity online by hiding your true location.
- Protect yourself from being logged while tor-renting.
How Does a VPN Work?
When you connect your computer (or another device, such as a smartphone or tablet) to a VPN, the computer acts as if it’s on the same local network as the VPN. All your network traffic is sent over a secure connection to the VPN. Because your computer behaves as if it’s on the network, this allows you to securely access local network resources even when you’re on the other side of the world. You’ll also be able to use the Internet as if you were present at the VPN’s location, which has some benefits if you’re using pubic Wi-Fi or want to access geo-blocked websites.
When you browse the web while connected to a VPN, your computer contacts the website through the encrypted VPN connection. The VPN forwards the request for you and forwards the response from the website back through the secure connection. If you’re using a USA-based VPN to access Netflix, Netflix will see your connection as coming from within the USA.
How to Choose the Right VPN
The right VPN for you will depend on how you plan to use the internet.
- Basic online privacy at home, work, or school: Perhaps your main concern is browsing privacy. If so, consider going with a budget or premium provider offering the OpenVPN protocol.
- Protection over public Wi-Fi: If you want to protect sensitive data when using public Wi-Fi, you should generally avoid free services, and go with a provider offering protection (apps) for multiple devices.
- Fast speeds for file sharing and torrenting: If you want a VPN for torrenting, you’ll want to go with a premium provider that offers fast speeds, dedicated P2P servers, and strong encryption protocols.
- Outsmarting geo-restrictions. If your main objective is bypassing geo-restrictions for entertainment and communication purposes, a provider offering fast speeds and unlimited bandwidth is a good choice.
When it comes to choosing a VPN, free or cheap isn’t always better. Often, it’s worth it to pay extra for a service that’s fast, reliable, and offers the best encryption and security protocols for your needs.
1. Browse the Web Securely on Public Wi-Fi
You’re out shopping, stopping for coffee somewhere, or you’ve just booked into a hotel. You notice there is free Wi-Fi. The common reaction is to get online quickly, and start browsing the web, checking social networks, email… you know how it goes.
The problem is that this is an extremely risky activity without a VPN:
- Your browsing is unencrypted, and unencrypted radio waves can be picked up by anyone.
- Malware from one laptop in the coffee shop could find its way to your device via the router.
- The free Wi-Fi on offer could be a trap—a fake internet connection operating as the pleasant face of a phishing scam.
Bear in mind also that legitimate free public Wi-Fi invariably demands person information from your for signing up. This is data that can be used to track you, and far from private.
With a VPN installed, you overcome all three of these problems. In short, a VPN installed on your laptop, tablet or smartphone enables you to use public Wi-Fi securely.
2. Beat Location-Based Streaming Restrictions
Where are you in the world? Do you want to watch something on BBC iPlayer? Perhaps you’re in the UK and want to catch the latest streamed releases on the US version of Netflix?
Instead, you can employ a VPN and specify a “local” server. Most VPNs typically have dozens, if not hundreds of servers, that you can securely connect to and route data via. These servers are based around the world, so a computer in New York could connect to a server in the UK and catch the latest episode of Doctor Who the night it goes out via BBC iPlayer.
3. Defeat Oppressive Government Censorship
Governments have the power to prevent you from accessing websites that you might need to use. Perhaps you live in an oppressive state, where certain materials or services are unavailable to you and your countrymen.
Perhaps you need to communicate with the outside world, a message from an uprising, maybe.
A VPN can be used to access the materials and services you need to use without any security apparatus being made aware. The data is encrypted, which means that every online action is private.
They cannot be read.
If you are based in an oppressive regime, incidentally, you should look at Streisand, a tool that can be used to create a VPN server—plus instructions—allowing friends and families to access the web beyond the eye of the censors.
4. Save Money Shopping Online
Amazing as it might seem, some online stores will display different prices for the same item, based on which country you’re browsing from. This could be anything from a handbag, shoes, new car, or even hotel rooms.
This is clearly unacceptable for a consumer to have to contend with. The solution, therefore, is to search for prices carefully, methodically switch VPN servers with each attempt, until the lowest price can be found!
It might take a bit longer, but if we’re talking about saving hundreds of dollars (if not more) then it will be worth the effort.
5. How to Save Money on Flights With a VPN
It isn’t just accommodation in other cities that you can save money on with a VPN. Airfares can also be cheaper if bought from a different country. While the departure and destination locations remain the same, the country that you view the ticket vendor’s website from can be changed using a VPN.
In one example, prices for the same plane ticket were cheaper via a Norwegian IP address than via a Malaysian IP.
6. Automatically Encrypt Everything
This might seem like something from some cybercrime movie or TV show, but a VPN client on your PC or mobile really can encrypt the data you exchange with remote websites and servers.
Indeed, any online activity you conduct with a VPN app running and connected to a server will be encrypted.
In effect, a secure, private tunnel is created for you to send your data through. This is how public Wi-Fi can be made safe and how data and browsing activity can be kept from the eyes of government censors.
Every VPN service offers a client app. Through this, you choose the server you wish to use, and connect to it. All internet activity is routed via the virtual private network, ensuring privacy and security. Even if your data is intercepted, it will mean nothing to the hacker.
7. Improve Online Gaming Speeds
It’s not fair and is usually done to offer a uniform service to all users. But how can you overcome this? Well, a VPN can be used to disguise the fact that you’re playing games online.
However, this tip comes with a caveat. You need to make sure that the VPN server you’re using is nearby, and capable of handling the load. (Most VPN clients will show how busy your chosen server is at any time). Otherwise, you could face speed and bandwidth issues, making the exercise a little pointless!
8. Enjoy Private and Secure Voice Chat
A VPN can deal with this, however. If you’re using Skype, or Google Hangouts chat, enabling your VPN will ensure that any online conversation is kept between you and other parties. Connected to the point on censorship, above, this will prove particularly valuable if you live under an oppressive regime.
Note that any speed reductions imposed by the VPN can cause Skype to drop calls it considers to be “low” quality. This happened to me recently, so unless you’re talking about something of considerable sensitivity, it’s probably best to leave your VPN disabled for Skype chats.
9. Complete Sensitive Research Without Interference
Many types of research can be considered “sensitive”. Following on from some earlier points, if you have an oppressive government, researching their activity may well attract attention. As might looking up censored material or movies.
Conversely, if you’re in business, and you wish to assess the quality of your competitors, then keeping your activity private will stop them from catching on.
10. Use a VPN for Torrents (Keep Your Activity Private)
While BitTorrent peer-to-peer networking has been identified as a leading means of software piracy and copyright theft, the truth is that it is so widely used by legitimate services that it cannot be banned.
With a VPN installed, you can keep your torrents private. Different VPNs have their own rules with regard to BitTorrent, and you might find that a service specifically catering to BitTorrent users is more suitable for you than a general VPN.
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