What is a VPN and Why Would You Use One?

Learn what a VPN is and why you might want to use one for secure and encrypted internet connections.
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A VPN, or virtual private network, is a tool that’s designed to help you create a secure and private internet connection. You might use one at home or while traveling to keep your online activity private, protect yourself from hackers on a public Wi-Fi network, access geo-restricted content, and much more.

Keep reading to learn more about how VPNs work, the key features of a trustworthy VPN service, and how you can use a VPN to enhance your digital security. Plus, we offer a price comparison of the best VPN services we've tested. 

In this article
What is a VPN?
How much does a VPN cost?
Why you should use a VPN
How does a VPN work?
VPN features
VPN FAQs
Bottom line

What is a VPN?

A virtual private network (VPN) is a way to connect to the Internet privately and securely. VPN apps and software are compatible with various devices and operating systems, such as Android, iOS, macOS, and Microsoft Windows. Some VPN services include a VPN browser extension, which you can use to access the VPN on restricted networks. 

VPNs work by masking your IP address. Your internet service provider (ISP) typically has information about each device you use to connect to the Internet, such as smartphones and computers. This includes your Internet Protocol (IP) address.

An IP address is a unique identifier that allows an exchange of information between devices on a network. Each internet-connected device has its own IP address that lets your ISP and potentially other entities know general information about your location. This could include your city and country but typically wouldn’t include your street address.

Your IP address is essential, but it could give away sensitive information to your ISP and anyone who can access it. In some cases, your ISP could also track your online activity. This could include collecting data about the websites you visit and any passwords you enter.

Fortunately, VPNs could ‌help solve these issues of privacy and anonymity.

Benefits of using a VPN

You might use a VPN for many reasons, though they’re commonly used to help improve online security and privacy. They could also be used to bypass internet censorship or firewall restrictions and to access geo-restricted content on streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+.

  1. VPNs encrypt your online traffic so it can’t easily be seen.
  2. VPNs mask your true IP address so your physical location is hidden.
  3. VPNs can provide you with a different IP address, allowing you to access geo-restricted content and bypass censorship.
  4. VPNs thwart ISP throttling by making it difficult for internet service providers to track your data usage. 
  5. VPNs safeguard your privacy and allow for anonymous browsing, even within your own network.
  6. VPNs allow for secure connections on public Wi-Fi networks.
  7. VPNs can improve your gaming experience by lowering your ping (or latency).

How much does a VPN cost?

Here's a quick breakdown of popular virtual private networks we've tested and their monthly vs. annual costs.

5 popular VPNs and their monthly costs

Monthly plan Annual plan
$12.99/mo $4.99/mo (billed annually) Learn More
Read Our NordVPN review
$15.45/mo $2.79/mo (billed annually) Learn More
Read our Surfshark review
$12.95/mo $6.67/mo (billed annually) Learn More
Read our ExpressVPN review
$11.99/mo $2.19/mo (billed every two years) (for 24 mos) Learn More
Read our PIA review
$12.99/mo $2.03/mo (billed every two years) (for 24 mos) Learn More
Read our CyberGhost review

VPNs don’t typically cost much — around $2 to $8 per month is common — and are often sold as subscriptions from VPN service providers. Depending on the provider, you might have options for monthly or annual subscriptions. Monthly plans will always be more expensive than annual or multi-annual plans. The monthly price tends to drop dramatically if you choose a longer plan and pay a higher upfront cost compared to paying on a month-to-month basis.

The downside is that you might be locked into paying for a specific VPN service for a year or more. If you want to test a service before committing to a period of time, look for money-back guarantees and free trials.

Find out how to save with our VPN price guide.

How to save money on a VPN

Additionally, consider these three other strategies for saving money on VPN costs.

1. Look for promotions and deals

Software companies, including VPN providers, have frequent deals and sales. It could be worth checking for promotions around certain holidays, including popular shopping dates such as Black Friday or Cyber Monday.

2. Share costs with friends and family

It’s not uncommon for VPN service providers to allow multiple devices to be used simultaneously on the same account. This could allow friends and family to access VPN services while sharing the cost.

3. Buy a software bundle

VPNs are one of many available services that could help keep you safe and protected from cybersecurity threats. Other important services include antivirus software, anti-malware software, and password managers.

Certain companies might offer bundles that include multiple services at a lower price than if you were to pay for each one individually. For example, the bundled cybersecurity suite Surfshark One offers a comprehensive package that includes its super fast and secure VPN client, Surfshark VPN, plus reputable Surfshark Antivirus software, Surfshark CleanWeb ad blocking, private browsing services, identity protection alerts, and more. 

Full Suite of Cybersecurity Tools on Unlimited Devices
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Surfshark One
Save up to 80% + 3 extra months
  • Blocks ads and pop-ups, including cookie consent requests, while browsing
  • Can also browse ad-free without a digital footprint with the Surfshark Search engine
  • All-in-one app includes VPN, antivirus scans, alternative ID creation, malware protection, and more on unlimited devices

Why you should use a VPN

You can use a virtual private network to increase your online security and privacy. According to a survey from Surfshark, about 43% of people use a VPN for security reasons. The same survey found that 26% of respondents use VPNs for streaming, 12% for privacy, and 9% for accessing content. So, security and privacy concerns play major roles in VPN usage, though streaming and accessing other content also contribute their fair share. 

While your reasons for using a VPN will vary, here are specific scenarios in which you can legally use one and scenarios in which you probably shouldn't.

What are VPNs good for?

In addition to safeguarding your digital privacy, you can use VPNs for the following:

General security and privacy

There’s nothing wrong with being concerned about cybersecurity and online privacy. Billions of personal records, which could include names, Social Security numbers, and other information, are often exposed through company data breaches yearly.

If you want to shore up your personal efforts at online security, by all means. It’s a good mindset to have, and using a legit VPN service is one additional step toward achieving better security.

Hiding online activity

Your ISP can likely track your online activity. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing anything with your personal data, but it’s probably not fun thinking about your information being in someone else’s hands.

Unfortunately, your ISP can and likely is tracking your online activity and data, which it can share with other parties. But data tracking and collection policies depend on your specific ISP. This is why you might need a VPN at home. With the right VPN, you could help mask your online traffic from your ISP. So even though the ISP could likely see you're using a VPN, they are less able to access any specific details about your online activity. 

Using public Wi-Fi

Have you ever used a public Wi-Fi network at a cafe, airport, or somewhere else? It might be convenient to jump on Wi-Fi if you don’t want to use data or you’re not in a good service area.

But unsecured networks such as public Wi-Fi pose huge cybersecurity risks. Because just about anyone can connect to them, it could leave the door open for hackers to see and access other devices on the network. This could expose your personal information, including usernames and passwords.

A VPN encrypts your online traffic, making it difficult for prying eyes to see what information is flowing through your connection, even on public Wi-Fi.

Accessing geo-restricted services

Did you know that many streaming services, such as Netflix, have different content libraries in different parts of the world? For example, Netflix in the U.S. doesn’t have all the same shows and movies as Netflix in the U.K.

This is typically because of licensing agreements and restrictions that are likely impossible for a streaming service to change. But viewers who want to access more content have found that VPNs can help bypass geo-restrictions.

This isn’t necessarily an illegal practice, though it’s likely against the terms of service for most streaming companies. However, many VPNs continue to function as a way to change your real IP address to other worldwide locations and access more streaming content.

NordVPN is Our No. 1 Choice for Streaming Netflix
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On NordVPN's website
VPN
NordVPN
Up to 69% off 2-year plans + a Saily eSIM data gift
  • Ultra-secure, high-speed VPN complete with malware protection and automatic blocking of intrusive ads and third-party trackers
  • Other benefits include a premium password manager, dark web monitoring, and access to IP-restricted content
  • 3 plans to choose from for custom protection on up to 10 devices

Bypassing internet restrictions

You might experience internet censorship, or restricted access to certain websites, depending on where you live, where you go to school, or where you work. A VPN could help unlock restricted websites in some cases, but it could depend on the type of VPN being used and the restrictions in place.

Using a double VPN, also called a multi-hop VPN, adds extra layers of encryption that can better protect you against internet censorship.

What don’t VPNs do?

VPNs can be misused, so it's important to understand when and how you might unintentionally break state and national laws. Consider not using VPNs for the following reasons:

Legalizing illegal activity

Using a VPN won’t magically legalize an illegal online activity. The illegal activity will continue to be illegal even if you use a VPN.

But are VPNs legal? Mostly, yes. VPNs are legal in most countries, but it’s typically best to research local laws and policies before traveling abroad.

Completely hiding your online activity

It might not be possible to hide your online activity completely, and using a VPN won’t change that. A VPN could help hide some of your activity, including from your ISP, but different websites could still track your movements online using computer cookies.

Cookies are small files that are stored on your device or browser. They keep track of your requests and are often used by websites to customize your user experience.

Boosting your internet speeds

VPNs aren’t designed to increase internet speeds and could have the opposite effect. Using a VPN won’t always have a dramatic slowing effect on your internet, but it might be noticeable in some situations.

Think your internet is being throttled, or slowed, by your ISP? A VPN could help in this situation — here's how to speed your internet back up.

How does a VPN work?

In a nutshell, virtual private networks typically work by routing your internet connection through a VPN server that connects to your ISP. So you send information, including your real IP address, to the VPN server, and the server sends a different IP address and encrypted information to your ISP.

This helps mask both your true physical location and your internet traffic.

Of course, the details are a bit more complicated than that, but the average user doesn’t have to worry about complex details. Most users who purchase a subscription from a popular VPN provider won’t have to do much more than follow these steps:

  1. Log into your VPN account
  2. Select a server location worldwide
  3. Press the “Connect” button

It’s typically that simple to get started with many VPNs. Digging into different VPN features can shed some additional light on how VPNs work.

Heads up: VPNs use some extra data

A VPN uses more data than you would if you didn't have one turned on. This data is used by your VPN to encrypt your online information and connect to VPN servers around the world. Luckily, it shouldn't need too much extra data to keep you safe, and there are ways to reduce VPN data usage, too.

VPN features

When choosing the right VPN provider for you and your household, it comes down to cost as well as features, features, features.

Number of servers and locations

The number of servers and locations available to a VPN could dictate the functionality of your service. Having more VPN servers and locations typically offers more flexibility for users, and more servers means you have a better chance of connecting more easily. 

Location is also super important, especially depending on your interests. For example, if you want to watch Netflix content from South Korea, you would need to connect to a server in South Korea. Or, if you want to watch sports in the USA, providers with more U.S. servers would be essential.

The availability of a VPN server and location varies by VPN provider. So you might prefer one VPN service over the other if you want access to a server in a specific country to stream geo-restricted content, for example.

Encryption

VPNs encrypt traffic by using ciphers, or complex algorithms that are often virtually impossible to crack. The most common and secure cipher is Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).

You might see AES employed as AES-128 or AES-256, which are two forms of the same encryption. AES-256 is considered more secure and is commonly used by many VPNs — and the military. However, even trying to crack AES-128 is estimated to take many, many years (think billions of years).

VPN protocols

A VPN protocol is basically a set of rules that works to keep your internet connection private and secure. If you think of a VPN as a way to send traffic through a secure tunnel, a VPN protocol decides how that traffic is sent and what kind of encrypted tunnel is used.

Here are common types of VPN protocols and their general security levels:

VPN protocol Security
OpenVPN Excellent
WireGuard Excellent
IPSec/IKEv2 Good
SSTP Good
L2TP/IPSec OK
PPTP Poor

Note that some VPN providers have developed their own protocols. This typically involves building on top of an existing protocol. For example, NordVPN uses NordLynx, which is based on WireGuard. HotSpot Shield uses Hydra, which is based on OpenVPN.

Split tunneling

Split tunneling is a method of customizing which app or device traffic is routed through your VPN tunnel and which traffic connects directly to your ISP. You might want split tunneling if:

  • You want to access devices on your local network, such as your printer
  • You want to use less bandwidth
  • You want to access local and foreign networks at the same time

Kill switch

VPNs are designed to encrypt your online traffic, but what if your VPN suddenly disconnects? Your device would typically revert back to connecting to the internet directly through your ISP and potentially reveal your internet activity.

VPNs use kill switches to solve this issue by preventing your device from connecting to the internet if your secure connection isn’t active. So if your VPN’s connection drops, the kill switch feature will block your internet access automatically.

Dynamic and static IP addresses

Each device is assigned an IP address each time it connects to the internet, including when using a VPN.

A dynamic IP address typically changes each time you connect to the internet. You might want a dynamic IP for increased anonymity while online. You might not want one if you use a VPN for school or work, and the organization has to accept your connection continuously because your address keeps changing.

A static IP address is the same whenever you connect to the Internet. You might want a static IP for a potentially faster VPN connection, but you might not want one if you prefer more protection over speed.

No-logs policy

A no-logs policy means a VPN doesn’t log your online activity. This is important because one of the primary reasons for using a VPN could be to hide your traffic. But if a VPN is tracking you rather than your ISP, what’s the difference?

Many VPNs advertise “no logs” or no-logs policies that indicate they don’t track your traffic. Here are some examples of VPNs with strict no-logs policies:

  • CyberGhost
  • ExpressVPN
  • NordVPN
  • Private Internet Access
  • ProtonVPN
  • PureVPN
  • Surfshark
  • TunnelBear

VPN headquarters

A company’s headquarters rarely matters for the services it provides, but it could make a difference with VPN providers. This is primarily because of multi-country government alliances called 5 Eyes, 9 Eyes, and 14 Eyes.

Not many details are known about these alliances, but it’s widely believed that the countries within these alliances share sensitive information with each other about their citizens. In other words, these alliances are believed to be a global surveillance network.

If a VPN’s headquarters fall within a country that’s part of one of these alliances, your VPN might not offer as much privacy as you’d hope, even with a no-logs policy. This is because certain countries within the alliances often force VPN providers to give up customers’ data.

Here are the member countries of each alliance:

5 Eyes

  • U.S.
  • U.K.
  • Canada
  • Australia
  • New Zealand

9 Eyes

  • Countries from 5 Eyes alliance
  • Denmark
  • France
  • Netherlands
  • Norway

14 Eyes

  • Countries from 9 Eyes alliance
  • Belgium
  • Germany
  • Italy
  • Spain
  • Sweden

3 popular VPNs compared

Starting price Starts at $3.99/mo (billed every two years) Starts at $2.19/mo (billed biannually) Starts at $2.03/mo (billed every two years)
Number of devices 10 Unlimited 7
Server count 6,300+ in 111 countries 3,200+ in 100 countries 11,700+ in 100 countries
Streaming support
Torrenting support
Learn more See NordVPN Pricing See Surfshark Pricing See CyberGhost Pricing

VPN FAQs


+

Who needs a VPN?

You might need a VPN for one of these or a related situation:

  • When connecting to an open Wi-Fi network in a public location such as a cafe
  • When traveling and accessing private school or work pages
  • When connecting to the internet away from home
  • When you want to hide your online activity from your internet service provider

+

Which VPN protocol is the most secure?

OpenVPN is often recommended as the most secure VPN protocol among common protocols. It provides 256-bit encryption as its default option, but can also be configured with other ciphers. WireGuard is another secure VPN protocol that’s widely used and gaining popularity. Learn more about WireGuard vs. OpenVPN.


+

Can the government track my VPN activity?

The government typically can’t track your VPN activity if you’re using a legit VPN. The government might be able to see that you’re using a VPN, but it likely wouldn’t be able to know the specific details of your online traffic. Unless your VPN collects data about your activity and the government has access to that data.


+

Which VPNs have no-logs policies?

The most popular VPNs have no-logs policies or policies stating they won’t track most identifiable information. Here are some VPNs with no-logs or similar policies:

  • NordVPN
  • Surfshark
  • ExpressVPN
  • CyberGhost
  • Private Internet Access
  • PureVPN
  • IPVanish
  • TunnelBear
  • ProtonVPN

Bottom line

Here are a few things to consider when learning about VPNs:

  • What is a VPN? A tool that provides a secure and encrypted connection.
  • How does a VPN work? It routes your online traffic through a virtual tunnel, which masks your true IP address and encrypts your online activity.
  • Why should you use a VPN? It depends on your situation, but you might use a VPN to stay protected on public Wi-Fi, to hide your online activity from your ISP, or to access geo-restricted content.
  • How much does a VPN cost? It depends on each VPN service provider and whether you opt to pay monthly or annually. But it’s common to pay around $2 to $8 per month for popular VPNs if you buy an annual or multi-year subscription. The best VPNs are typically paid services, not free VPNs, which may not be as secure and can limit your data usage. Plus, free VPN services often have fewer features and might log your online activity.

VPNs are important resources for helping improve your online security. They might seem complex, but it’s typically easy to get started with one. Learn how to set up a VPN and boost your cybersecurity efforts today.

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  • High-speed global servers offering industry-leading 256-bit AES encryption and no data logs
  • Unlimited bandwidth, DNS and IP leak protection, and automatic kill switch available for up to 7 devices
  • Configurable with your router, smart TV, Amazon Fire TV stick, or gaming console
  • No split tunneling feature on desktop

Author Details
Ben Walker is a security, travel, and credit card writer with a passion for all things internet and technology, whether it's using VPNs while away from home or organizing his life with password managers.