How to Use a VPN: A Primer on Virtual Private Networks

Learn all about how to use a VPN and why you’d want to

Should you be using a virtual private network? And what the heck is it, anyway? If you’re wondering whether a VPN is really necessary for you, personally, the answer depends to some extent on what you do online and what other security measures you are already taking. Here are the basics about what a VPN is, what it does, how to set up a VPN, and more, so you can make an informed decision about what’s right for you.

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. A literal private network, for instance, could be one that you have in your office which no one can connect to but employees. You might be familiar with that concept already from what’s known as a LAN, Local Area Network. A VPN connection can simulate this when you use a shared network with others, including at home, at work, or in a cafe, thereby creating a “virtual” private network.

What is a VPN connection?

VPN platforms have servers all around the world. As soon as you connect to the internet, you would connect to one of these servers before opening up any browsers or other programs. That will be your virtual private network connection.

What does a VPN do?

When you connect your computer or device to the internet, you set up a pathway of sorts between them, along which your data travels back and forth. Others using the same network to connect to the internet will be using the same pathway, although everyone will be assigned their own lanes.

Then what does a VPN do? The virtual private network connection turns your lane into a tunnel. So no one else can even see the data transmitted within it, much less interact with it in any way.

via CactusVPN

Why use a VPN?

There are three main reasons why anyone would benefit from using a virtual private network: security, privacy, and access.

Security

Any data you transmit online is at risk on any shared network, particularly on public WiFi networks. Although most websites handling sensitive personal information have extra security in place, even the information on your laptop is vulnerable when you connect to public networks. VPNs often use military-grade encryption to protect you from identity theft, financial losses, and much more.

Privacy

While maybe not quite as scary as your security risks, the number of companies following you around the internet is downright creepy. And the fact is, there could be some severe consequences from third parties being privy to your personal circumstances, browsing history, or purchases you make. Location data in and of itself can be hazardous.

Access

There is a great deal of online content that is restricted due to your geographic location. You could be visiting a country that censors certain websites—or you could be at home, trying to watch that show everyone on Twitter is raving about, except it’s not available where you are. When you connect to one of your VPN’s servers in a different city or country, it shows your location as being in that city or country.

How to find the best VPN for you

The first thing you need to decide is what you will be doing online regularly. For example, if you are most worried about your passwords getting hacked, you may be able to make do with an outstanding password manager. Similarly, ad blockers can do a pretty good job blocking trackers, as well as ads obviously. And no matter what a service promises about protecting you from malware, you still need to use dedicated antivirus programs, so don’t disable Windows Defender or the like.

A VPN provides additional layers of protection, so if you decide to take the plunge, there are two main categories for you to choose from: free and paid.

Free VPNs

If you feel that you’ll only need a virtual private network occasionally, then a free service may be fine. Although one thing you need to be aware of is that some free services can slow down your internet connection. So if you are planning to use a VPN mainly for watching movies from overseas, a slow connection may mean you have to deal with buffering.

Another restriction you could run into with free services is how much data they will allow you or how many devices you can connect with. The good thing about free VPN services is that you can just keep trying them out to see which works best for you.

Paid VPNs

The good news is that paid services are relatively inexpensive, especially if you find a good VPN deal. So if you decide to invest, here are the factors you will want to consider.

  • Encryption: If you are paying for a VPN to protect your data, it should have military-grade encryption.
  • Privacy: A VPN can keep even your internet service provider from accessing your data, but the VPN operator itself still has access to it. You want a service that holds on to as little as possible (often referred to as “zero logging”) and, under no circumstances, sells your data to third parties.
  • Company Location: Where a VPN company is headquartered can be important, because different countries have varying laws regarding what information a VPN is required to retain and turn over to law enforcement agencies.
  • Server Locations: Do you want your VPN to have servers in the country where you live, where you travel, where the content you want is located—or all three?
  • Streaming Servers: Netflix and other streaming services block VPNs, so you will need a VPN that has special servers dedicated to video streaming to access that content.
  • Devices: You should be able to connect to your VPN from at least 5 devices.
  • Limits: Only pay for a VPN that has no restrictions whatsoever on how much data you use.
  • Speed: Either use free trials or short term contracts to make sure you get a speedy VPN.
  • Kill Switch: If you want to be absolutely sure that none of your data leaks from your internet connection, then you should choose a VPN that will disconnect you from the internet as soon as it detects that your VPN connection is dropped.

How to install a VPN

If you’d love to upgrade your privacy and security, but you’re intimidated about how to set up a VPN, you’ll be relieved to hear that it’s no more difficult than installing any other app. Just download it onto your computer or mobile device and follow the simple installation instructions provided by the service. You, of course, do have to choose the plan you prefer and enter login information at some point.

How to use a VPN

Don’t worry about learning how to use a VPN; it’s almost ridiculously simple.

  1. Connect to the internet as you usually do, but do not open any browsers or other programs. For most, that simply means turning your computer, phone, or tablet on, since they’re auto-connected to known WiFi networks. If you’re away from known networks, log in to the WiFi where you are, but don’t start using sites or your usual apps yet.
  2. Click on the VPN app to open it.
  3. Sign in to your account, unless you’ve set the program to do that automatically.
  4. The app may automatically connect you to whichever of the company’s servers is located closest to you. If you want a different one, then just choose from the list. You do need to be aware that the further away from you a server is, the more your connection will degrade.
  5. Now you can just use the internet as you usually do.

Mobile business professionals, frequent travelers, and entertainment buffs should definitely have VPNs, but everyone else should consider using them, too, to add extra protection to their online activity.

Not sure where to start when it comes to shopping for the right VPN? Check out our VPN buying guide to explore the best VPN deals available right now.