A VPN, or virtual private network, creates a network connection that could help hide your location and protect your online privacy. VPNs are commonly used when connecting to public Wi-Fi networks that lack certain security measures.
But if you primarily use your home internet connection, do you need a VPN?
In some cases, maybe not. But VPNs offer multiple benefits, including hiding your online activity from your internet service provider (ISP). See the benefits of VPNs and whether you might need one.
Do I need a VPN?
You typically need a VPN if you want to improve your online security. Cybercrime could happen whether you’re traveling or at home, but having a VPN could help reduce your security risks. This could include protection from hackers and preventing your online activity from being tracked.
Here are a few examples of situations where it might make sense to have a VPN.
Surfing the web on airport Wi-Fi
Airports worldwide often provide free Wi-Fi to travelers passing through. It’s possible to connect to the internet within a few seconds since you typically don’t need to enter a password.
But public Wi-Fi networks pose huge cybersecurity risks since there are often no protections involved for its users. This means your online activity, including emails and any websites you visit, could be visible to other people.
VPN apps are designed to offer improved security measures, including encryption, to keep your information private. This could help protect personal data such as credit card numbers and addresses.
Using hotel Wi-Fi overseas
Hotel Wi-Fi might seem more private than airport or cafe internet — after all, you typically have to be a guest to use it, right? This is correct in many cases, but it’s likely still an unfamiliar network that potentially hundreds of people are connecting to.
You can’t be sure what security measures were put in place by whoever set up the network, which raises security concerns for safely using the internet.
But with how a VPN works, there’s an added layer of security that a hacker would have to crack.
Working while traveling
Apart from using the internet for personal reasons, you might also need to get online for work. Businesses often have loads of sensitive information they wouldn’t want getting into the wrong hands.
Using a VPN, especially while traveling, could help protect your and your employer’s data.
Using your home internet
If you’ve set up your home’s Wi-Fi and router with security measures, you might not see much reason to use a VPN. Other than friends and family, nobody else is likely to access your network.
But one of the main reasons to have a VPN at home is to hide your online activity from your ISP. Internet providers often have full access to your online activity, which could include your searches, downloads, emails, and more.
With a VPN, you’re able to mask your activity and increase your privacy. However, a VPN connection could slow down your internet speed and decrease your bandwidth.
The benefits of VPNs
VPN apps can come in handy in a variety of situations, but what are their benefits and how do they work?
The primary benefits of VPNs are to encrypt your data so it can’t be accessed and to mask your location. These benefits could help maintain online privacy against cybercriminals, governments, and internet providers.
Here are how VPN benefits work in a few different ways.
1. Protect against hackers
VPNs encrypt your internet and provide a secure connection. This means your online activity is kept private so other people, including hackers, can’t see it.
A VPN might make the most sense if you’re away from home and using different Wi-Fi networks. This could include using Wi-Fi at a shopping center in another country or using the internet at the coffee shop down the street. In these cases, the connection might not be secure and your data could be stolen.
But with a VPN, your connection is encrypted and secure — providing opportunities to use public Wi-Fi without giving up online security.
Hackers might not be as big of a concern if you’re at home on your own Wi-Fi network. You likely have security measures in place, including a strong password. And you might not have more than a few trusted people accessing your network.
If you’re worried about the strength of your Wi-Fi password, consider using a password manager to generate a random string of numbers, letters, and symbols.
2. Get around firewalls
Firewalls are a type of security measure that can be used to monitor and block certain types of internet traffic. You might personally use a firewall to block traffic from a malicious website or program. Cybersecurity companies such as Avast offer firewall, anti-malware, antivirus, and VPN services for comprehensive security.
Some governments use firewalls to prevent access to specific websites. This means anyone in certain countries typically wouldn’t be able to access any blocked content — unless they use a VPN.
It could be against the law to access restricted content in these countries, which begs the question, are VPNs legal? It depends on where you are. It could also depend on whether you live in a country or are only visiting.
For example, China is known for “The Great Firewall of China,” a restrictive set of internet censorship laws. These laws block access to certain content, but the legality of using a VPN in China is vague. To err on the side of caution, you’d likely want to avoid using a VPN where the laws fall in a grey area.
3. Protect your online privacy
Do you need a VPN at home if you're worried about hackers? Probably not. It’s likely far easier for most hackers to use public Wi-Fi networks to snoop around and access information than it is to use your private home network.
But there’s still a major case for using a VPN at home if you don’t want your ISP to track your online activity.
From a privacy standpoint, there’s a flaw in the relationship between consumers and internet service providers. You pay money and an ISP gives you internet access. That should be the end of the equation, but it’s not.
ISPs often have access to your online activity, including:
- Browsing activity, data, and history
- Social media data
This is because you’re assigned an IP, or internet protocol, address that’s associated with all your activity. So if you’re doing something as common as online shopping, your ISP might know.
A VPN assigns you a different IP address and provides encryption to mask your actions online, effectively protecting your data from your ISP.
A free VPN app can sound like the perfect solution, but not all free VPNs are made equal. Many log your personal data, and some even sell it to third parties. If you decide to go with a free VPN, make sure the one you choose has a good reputation.
4. Get past geographic restrictions
One of the most common uses of VPNs is changing your IP address location to skirt geographic restrictions on streaming services. This is a popular strategy for viewing content in other countries.
Let’s say you’re located in the U.S. and a new show releases on Netflix in the U.K, but not here. Using a VPN provider, you could change your IP address to a VPN server in the U.K. and try to watch the new show while still physically located in the U.S.
Since many streaming platforms have varying content libraries in different countries, this is a simple way to access more content with little effort. And you most likely aren’t breaking any laws.
Though, using a VPN in this manner is typically against the terms of service for streaming providers. You might get an error if you try to use a VPN while streaming. It’s also possible for your account to be banned or suspended.
Why should I use a VPN?
You should use a VPN if you want to:
- Hide your online activity.
- Protect against hackers.
- Bypass certain firewalls.
- Play streaming content from other countries.
- Stay protected on public Wi-Fi.
- Safeguard your personal data.
- Protect sensitive work information.
Do I need a VPN on my iPhone?
You might need a VPN on your Apple iPhone, Android, or another mobile device if you want to protect your online privacy and stay safe from hackers. This could especially be true if you use public Wi-Fi networks that lack essential security features. Using a VPN on your smartphone could help keep your online activity private and safeguard your personal information.
Do I need a VPN for Amazon Fire TV Stick?
You might need a VPN for an Amazon Fire TV Stick if you plan to stream content from other countries than where you’re located. While this is a common use, bypassing geographical restrictions with a VPN is against the terms of service for most streaming platforms. Keep in mind that not all VPNs are compatible with the Amazon Fire TV Stick.
Do I need a VPN for streaming?
You might need a VPN for streaming if you want to bypass certain geographical restrictions on streaming platforms. This is because services such as Netflix have different content catalogs in different countries.
For example, Netflix in the U.K. has different content than Netflix in the U.S. You could potentially use a VPN to change your IP address and watch streaming content from another country.
VPNs are important tools for helping protect your online privacy and personal information. By masking your location and encrypting your data, you’re typically better protected from hackers and trackers than if you weren’t using a VPN. This could be helpful for keeping your online activity private while at home or abroad.
Cybersecurity is important for both businesses and individuals. But a VPN alone won’t offer you the most protection possible. Consider different ways to improve your online security and learn how to stay safe online.