What is a VPN, and why would I need one?
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A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, allows you to create a secure connection to another network over the Internet. VPNs can be used to access region-restricted websites, protect your browsing activity from prying eyes on public Wi-Fi, and more.
VPNs these days are very popular, but not for the reasons they were originally created. It was originally just a way to securely connect business networks together over the Internet or allow you to access a business network from home.
VPNs essentially redirect all network traffic back to the network, which is where the benefits—such as accessing local network resources remotely and bypassing Internet censorship—all come from. Most operating systems have VPN support built in.
What is a VPN and how does it help me?
In very simple terms, a VPN connects your computer, smartphone or tablet to another computer (called a server) somewhere on the Internet, and allows you to surf the Internet using that computer’s Internet connection. So if this server is in a different country, it will appear as if you are coming from that country, and you can access things that you wouldn’t normally have access to.
How does this help you? Good question! You can use a VPN to:
- Bypass geo-restrictions on websites or streaming audio and video.
- Watch streaming media like Netflix and Hulu.
- Protect yourself from snooping on untrustworthy Wi-Fi hotspots.
- Get some anonymity online by masking your real location.
- Protect yourself from being logged in while torrenting.
Many people these days are using a VPN for torrenting activities or bypassing geo-restrictions to watch content in a different country. It’s still very useful for protecting yourself while working in a coffee shop, but that’s not the only use anymore.
How do you get a VPN, and which one should you choose?
Depending on your needs, you can either use a VPN from your workplace, create a VPN server yourself, or sometimes host one from your home – but realistically the vast majority of people are just looking for something to protect them while torrenting or to help them watch some online media that They cannot access it from their country.
The easiest thing to do is simply head to one of these sites, sign up and download a VPN client for your Windows PC, Mac, Android, iPhone, or iPad. It’s that easy.
- Best VPN: ExpressVPN
This VPN server has the best combination of really easy to use and fast servers, supports media streaming and torrenting, all at a cheap price.
- Free Option: TunnelBear
This VPN is really easy to use and great for coffee shop use and it has a free (limited) tier. It is not good for torrenting or media streaming activities.
- Strong competitor: StrongVPN
It is not quite as easy to use as the others, but you can definitely use it for torrenting and media streaming activities.
All of them have free trial periods, so you can easily get your money back if you change your mind.
How does a VPN work?
When you connect your computer (or another device, such as a smartphone or tablet) to a VPN, the computer behaves as if it is on the same local network as the VPN. All of your network traffic is sent over a secure VPN connection. Since your computer behaves as if it is on the network, this allows you to securely access local network resources even when you are on the other side of the world. You’ll also be able to use the internet as if you were in a VPN location, which has some benefits if you’re on public Wi-Fi or want to access geo-blocked websites.
When you surf the web while connected to a VPN, your computer connects to the website through an encrypted VPN connection. The VPN forwards the request for you and forwards the response from the website over the secure connection. If you are using a USA based VPN to access Netflix, Netflix will see your connection coming from within the USA.
Other Example Uses of VPNs
VPNs are a fairly simple tool, but they can be used to do a wide variety of things:
- Access to business network while traveling: Business travelers frequently use VPNs to access their business network, including all local network resources, while on the go. Local resources do not need to be exposed directly to the Internet, which increases security.
- Access your home network while traveling: You can also set up your own VPN to access your private network while traveling. This will allow you to access Windows Remote Desktop over the Internet, use local file shares, and play games online as if you were on the same LAN (Local Area Network).
- Hide your browsing activity from your local network and ISP: If you’re using a public Wi-Fi connection, your browsing activity on non-HTTPS websites will be visible to everyone near you, if they know how to search. If you want to hide your browsing activity for more privacy, you can connect to a VPN. The local network will only see one secure VPN connection. All other traffic will go through the VPN connection. While this can be used to bypass connection monitoring by your ISP, keep in mind that VPN providers may choose to log traffic from their ends.
- Access to geographically restricted websites: Whether you are an American trying to access your Netflix account while traveling outside the country or you want to use US media sites like Netflix, Pandora and Hulu, you will be able to access these region-restricted services if you connect to a VPN located in the USA.
- Bypass internet censorship: Many Chinese use VPNs to get around the Great Firewall of China and gain access to the entire Internet. (However, it appears that Great Firewall has started interfering with VPNs recently.)
- File Upload: Yes, let’s be honest – many people use VPN connections to download files via BitTorrent. This can actually come in handy even if you’re downloading completely legal torrents – if your ISP is throttling BitTorrent and making it very slow, you can use BitTorrent over a VPN for higher speeds. The same is true for other types of traffic that your ISP may be interfering with (unless it’s interfering with the VPN traffic itself).
Use a corporate VPN for Windows
Connecting to a VPN is fairly simple. In Windows, press the Windows key, type VPN, and click Set up a Virtual Private Network (VPN) Connection Selection. (If you’re using Windows, you’ll have to click the Settings category after searching.) Use the wizard to enter the address and login credentials for the VPN service you want to use. You can then connect to and disconnect from VPNs using the network icon in the system tray — the same icon where you manage the Wi-Fi networks you’re connected to.
Our VPN Recommendations
If you are just getting started with VPNs and want the best VPN to use on public Wi-Fi hotspots or access region-restricted websites, there are some good and simple options. We love ExpressVPN because they have great speeds and much more functionality than average including clients for just about any device – you can even get a router pre-installed with their VPN client.
There are other VPN products on the market, of course – we also like StrongVPN for all the configuration options it offers – and for limited use, TunnelBear has a free option limited to 500MB – which is great if you only need a client for a while.
Related: How to choose the best VPN service for your needs
You may also be interested in setting up a VPN on your own server, which you can do with Tomato, OpenWRT, or Linux. Of course, this will not allow you to access geo-blocked websites – unless you are traveling outside the country and accessing your private network remotely.