It might sound paranoid to say you should use a virtual private network (VPN) as often as possible, but there are real threats to your privacy. If you find yourself using public instead of office Wi-Fi because of the novel coronavirus (or for any other reason), unscrupulous individuals can attempt to intercept your information. Whenever you connect to the internet, your internet service provider (ISP) has access to everything you send and has been given the green light from Congress to sell your anonymized information to advertisers. Out on the wide-open internet, advertisers can track your movements between websites and discern your location by peeking at your IP address. And don’t forget what three-letter government agencies may be up to—it’s scary out there!
The fact is that the internet was created for easy information exchange, not user privacy, anonymization, or encrypted communication. While HTTPS goes a long way toward protecting your information, it doesn’t guard against ISP snooping or local network attacks—a major problem if you ever use a connection that isn’t yours, such as one you might be using while working from home.
Until a new, more private internet comes together (probably never), using a VPN is the easiest way to make sure that you’re sharing as little information as possible.
What a VPN Does and Does Not Do
As with any security tool, it’s important to understand the limitations of a VPN. After all, you wouldn’t expect a Kevlar vest to save you from falling out of an airplane or a parachute to stop a bullet.
When you switch on a VPN, your traffic is routed through an encrypted tunnel to a server operated by the VPN company. That means that your ISP and anything (or anyone) connected to your router won’t be able to see your web traffic. From the VPN server, your traffic exits onto the public internet. Unless you’re headed to a site that uses HTTPS, your traffic is no longer encrypted.
Because your traffic appears to come from the VPN’s server, your actual IP address is effectively hidden. That’s important, because IP addresses are distributed geographically and can be used to find your rough location. If someone checks your IP address, they’ll see the IP address of the VPN server. This can come in handy if you want to spoof your location. By connecting to a VPN server in London, you can make it appear as if you were accessing the internet from the UK.
What a VPN won’t do is completely anonymize your traffic. To do that, you’ll want to use a service such as Tor. This excellent anonymization service is most easily accessed through a special version of the Firefox browser. Instead of just piping your data through a single intermediary (such as a VPN server) Tor bounces your data through several different volunteer computers. This makes it much harder for someone trying to track your activities to see what you’re up to.
Additionally, websites can track your movements through cookies, browser fingerprinting, online trackers, and other tricky tools. Using an ad-blocker such as Privacy Badger and a privacy respecting browser such as Firefox helps suppress these ever-watchful nasties and can make it much harder for advertisers to follow your movements across the web.
Finally, just because you have a VPN doesn’t mean you can forget about the security basics. While some VPN services claim they can block malware, we recommend standalone antivirus software for your computer, because these tools are designed specifically to protect your computer from malicious software.
Phishing attacks—when an attacker uses a bogus website that mimics a familiar one to trick you into entering your login credentials—are so common as to almost be mundane, so stay alert. You can protect against the dangers of phishing sites and password breaches by using a password manager, because recycled passwords are a major point of failure. We’re particularly fond of Dashlane and Keeper password managers. While you’re locking down your passwords, be sure to switch on two-factor authentication wherever possible.
How to Choose a VPN
When we review VPNs, there are a few key metrics we look for. For one, a VPN service should allow you to connect at least five devices at a time. The best services now easily surpass this requirement. Another is whether or not the VPN service allows BitTorrent or P2P traffic on its servers. Nearly all do, but you don’t want to run afoul of the company to which you’re paying a monthly fee.
Speaking of fees, the average cost of a top-rated VPN service is $10.10 per month. A VPN service that is charging more per month isn’t necessarily ripping you off, but it should offer something significant, such as a great interface or lots of server locations to sweeten the deal.
You can usually get a discount if you buy longer-term contracts. However, we recommend avoiding those until you’re certain that you’re happy with the service. There are a very few VPNs that offer a free subscription, which we highly recommend you try before you buy.
It’s also useful to know where a VPN company is based. Keep in mind that this isn’t always the physical location of the business, but a legal distinction that outlines what jurisdiction the company operates under. NordVPN, for example, is in Panama, while ProtonVPN is in Switzerland. That means that these companies are not beholden to data retention laws, which would require them to hold on to certain information that could be obtained by law enforcement. Hide My Ass VPN, on the other hand, is based in the UK, which has more intrusive laws.
The most important thing about a VPN is trust. If the location, pricing, or terms of service don’t fill you with confidence, try another service. In all our VPN reviews, we make sure to report on all of these issues and highlight anything we think is confusing or problematic.
At PCMag, we perform extensive speed testing on all VPNs. That said, we don’t believe that speed should be the primary factor when choosing a VPN. There is so much variation in performance that a service with top scores today could be very slow tomorrow. We recommend testing out a service on your home network to see for yourself how it performs.
Free or Paid VPNs?
We at PCMag recently conducted a survey of 1,000 people, asking questions about VPN use. According to our results, 62.9 percent said they didn’t want to pay more than $5, and 47.1 percent said they want to use a free VPN.
Many VPN services offer a free trial, but usually for a limited time. Others, like TunnelBear and AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite, have totally free versions but may limit some features to paid users. ProtonVPN is our top choice for free VPNs because it places no data limitation on free users.
Unfortunately, most VPNs are a far cry from free. Or even from costing $5. But you don’t need to break the bank to get protected. If after trying out a service for a month or two, you can save more by purchasing longer-term contracts. Our list of cheap VPNs is a great place to start.
Getting Started With a VPN
Once you’ve settled on a service, the first thing to do is to download the company’s app. There’s usually a Downloads page for this on the VPN service’s website. Go ahead and download the apps for your mobile devices as well: You’ll want to protect as many of your devices as you can. Generally, you pay one subscription fee for a certain number of licenses (usually five) and then you can use the service on any device for which it provides apps.
If the VPN service you’re considering doesn’t offer an app for the devices you use, consider finding a different service.
We have found that when releasing VPNs for Mac, companies occasionally have different versions available in the Mac App Store and on the company website. This appears to be in order to comply with restrictions imposed by Apple. Figuring out which will work for you can be tricky, but we’ve broken down the differences in our reviews.
Once you’ve installed the apps, you’re prompted to enter your login information. In most cases, this is the username and password you created when you signed up for the service. Some companies, such as Mullvad and ExpressVPN have unusual login systems that provide customers with more privacy but can be confusing at first. Be sure to read the instructions carefully.
Once you’re logged in, your VPN app usually connects to the VPN server closest to your current location. That’s done to provide better speeds when using the VPN, as performance degrades the farther the VPN server is from your actual location. That’s it: Your information is now being securely tunneled to the VPN server.
Note that you do not have to install the VPN company’s app. Instead, you can configure your device’s network settings to connect directly to the VPN service. If you’re concerned about the potential for surveillance within app ecosystems, this might be a good option for you. Most VPN services will have documentation on how to configure your device. That said, we discourage most users from going down this path. Manual configuration means you’ll have to manually update the server information on your computer, which is annoying. You also won’t be able to access any of the other features provided by the VPN service, which you’re already paying for.
Choosing a VPN Server
Sometimes you might not want to be connected to the server the VPN app recommends. Perhaps you want to spoof your location, use BitTorrent via VPN, or take advantage of custom servers. It may be that the nearest server just doesn’t work well.
You should check to see whether your VPN service allows BitTorrent traffic on any server or just specific ones. ProtonVPN clearly marks the servers cleared for torrenting, and others do the same. TorGuard on the other hand, is all about torrenting and allows its use on all the company’s servers.
Many VPN companies include an interactive map as part of their app. TunnelBear and NordVPN, for example, let you click on countries to connect to servers there. It’s a useful way to understand where your information is going, but there’s almost always a list showing available servers.
Choosing a server depends entirely on what you want to accomplish. For better speeds, you should choose a nearby server. To bypass government censorship, choose a server in a country different from your own. Some VPNs include options to automate this process. To access region-locked content, you’ll want a server that’s local to content you want to watch. If you’re trying to watch the BBC, you’ll want to tunnel to the UK.
Some VPN companies have specialized servers for streaming video. These specialized servers are useful because streaming services such as Netflix block VPNs. At issue are the licensing deals Netflix secures with studios, which provide different content for different regions.
Other services like NordVPN, Surfshark VPN, and ProtonVPN have enhanced security options, such as access to Tor or multihop VPNs. Tor, as mentioned above, is a way to better protect your privacy, and lets you access hidden websites on the so-called Dark Web. Multihop VPN is similar: Instead of just routing your traffic through a single VPN server, a multihop connection tunnels you to one server and then another. Both of these offerings trade speed for enhanced privacy.
If you’ve opted to ignore first-party apps and configure your network settings manually, you will probably have to enter the information for each VPN server individually. This is time-consuming and part of why we advise against manual configuration whenever possible.
Advanced VPN Settings
The set of features in each VPN varies from service to service, so we can only generalize about what you may see when you open the VPN Settings. But we encourage you to read through the documentation and try clicking some buttons. The best way to learn how to use a tool is to try, after all.
Most VPN services include some kind of Kill-Switch feature, which prevents your computer from transmitting or receiving information if the VPN becomes disconnected. It’s useful for preventing little bits of data sneaking through unencrypted.
Settings look different for each VPN.
Most services offer an option to select a VPN protocol. This can be intimidating, since they have weird names and companies rarely provide information about what these are, and what changing the protocol will do. In general, this is something you can leave alone.
But if you’re interested, the protocol we recommend is OpenVPN. It’s open-source, so it has been picked over by many eyes for any potential vulnerabilities. IKEv2 is also a good, secure option if OpenVPN is not available. Note that on some platforms, such as macOS and iPhone, OpenVPN is not always available, because of additional restrictions placed on developers. The best VPNs for iPhone give you access to the latest and greatest protocols available on that platform.
You might see an option to use the WireGuard protocol in your VPN app. WireGuard is experimental technology, and isn’t strictly speaking “finished” in any sense. Even in its current state, however, it appears to provide incredible speeds unlike any current VPN solutions. It’s very likely the future of VPNs, but it’s best to be patient and wait for it to be completed and thoroughly vetted by researchers before rushing to adopt it.
When Should I Use a VPN?
For the best security, you should use a VPN as often as possible and, ideally, all the time. But that’s an ideal, and it’s not always achievable. You can always disconnect if it’s causing a problem, and don’t beat yourself up. At minimum, you should use a VPN whenever you’re using a network that’s not one you control, and especially if it’s a public Wi-Fi network.
VPNs for Android and other mobile devices are a little trickier, particularly if you frequently move in and out of cellphone coverage. Each time you lose and regain data connectivity, the VPN has to reconnect, which adds a frustrating wait. It’s also just less likely that your cell traffic can be intercepted by bad guys, but we’ve seen researchers prove that it can be done.
Most mobile devices can automatically connect to any familiar looking Wi-Fi network. That’s out of convenience to you, but it’s trivially simple to impersonate a Wi-Fi network. Your phone may be connecting to a digital honeypot without you even realizing it. At minimum, you should use a VPN when connecting via Wi-Fi to keep your data safe, even if your device falls for an attack like this one.
Many VPNs have settings for how and under what circumstances they should reconnect if they become disrupted. We honestly cannot think of a reason you wouldn’t want your VPN to try reconnecting and encourage everyone to make sure their settings reflect this.
If you’re concerned about VPNs slowing your connections or blocking important traffic, you should take a look at split-tunneling options. Again, different companies give this feature different names, but the gist is that you can decide which apps will use the VPN for their traffic and which apps can transmit without the VPN. TunnelBear, for example, includes an option to not tunnel any Apple apps to ensure they function properly on a Mac. Frequent video streamers and gamers in need of a VPN may want to look into this as an option.
How to Use a VPN For Streaming With Chromecast or AirPlay
Chromecast and AirPlay let you share music and video from your computer or mobile device to speakers, TVs, and streaming boxes. But all of them require Wi-Fi, which can be a problem when you’re using a VPN.
When a VPN is engaged, your traffic is moving through an encrypted tunnel to a distant server. That’s as it should be, since you don’t want someone snooping around a network to see what you’re up to. Sadly, it also means that Chromecast and AirPlay likely won’t work when you have a VPN active. These devices are looking for data coming from the same network they are connected to, not back from a VPN server.
The simplest solution is to switch off your VPN, but that’s not your only option. You can use split tunneling, as mentioned above, to route only the traffic you want secured through the VPN. Alternatively, you can install a VPN on your router. Doing so means that all the devices connected to your router—from your phone to your smart juicer—will have their traffic encrypted. It’s a great option on paper, but we think it could prove to be a major headache for the average person.
VPNs Aren’t Rocket Science
Too many of you aren’t using a VPN, and maybe that’s because they seem like arcane security tools. But many companies have worked hard to make them friendly and easy to use. Most are now set-and-forget security tools, as it should be. A VPN is one of the best and easiest ways to guard your web traffic from, well, just about everyone.
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