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.
Ben Walker, Author
Catherine McNally, Editor
Last updated Jun 13, 2022

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 for a variety of different reasons. This could include keeping your online activity private or protecting yourself from hackers on a public Wi-Fi network.

Keep reading to see more reasons why you might use a VPN and how VPNs work, and learn about different VPN features.

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 VPN is a way to privately and securely connect to the internet. VPNs are available on many mobile devices and operating systems. You might find VPN apps and software available on Android, iOS, and Microsoft Windows devices.

Your internet service provider (ISP) typically has information about each device, such as smartphones and computers, you use to connect to the internet. This includes an IP address, which stands for internet protocol 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. They’re designed to:

  1. Encrypt your online traffic so it can’t easily be seen
  2. Mask your true IP address so your physical location is hidden

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+.

How much does a VPN cost?

VPNs don’t typically cost much — around $2 to $8 per month is common — and are often sold as subscriptions from VPN service providers. You might have options for monthly or annual subscriptions depending on the provider.

Here are a few popular VPNs and their monthly costs.

5 popular VPNs and their monthly costs

VPN Monthly plan Annual plan
Private Internet Access (PIA) $11.99/month $2.19/month (for 24 months)
NordVPN $11.99/month $3.99/month (for 24 months)
Surfshark $12.95/month $2.49/month (for 24 months)
ExpressVPN $12.95/month $8.32/month
Hotspot Shield $12.99/month $7.99/month

You may have noticed that the above table’s monthly costs don’t completely align with what was mentioned about VPNs costing $2 to $8 per month — that is, unless you opt for an annual or multi-year subscription plan.

This is because it depends on what options are available from each VPN provider. The monthly price tends to drop dramatically if you choose a longer plan — or paying a large upfront cost compared with 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. Keep an eye out for money-back guarantees and free trials if you want to test a service before committing to any period of time.

Additionally, consider 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 at the same time on the same account. This could open up opportunities for 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, Avast One from Avast offers a comprehensive package that includes antivirus, VPN client, and private browsing services.

Why you should use a VPN

You should typically use a VPN if you want to increase your online security and privacy measures. Your specific reasons for using a VPN might vary, but that’s a primary goal for many VPN users.

About 43% of people use a VPN for security reasons, according to an anonymous survey from Surfshark, a popular VPN provider. The same survey found 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, whereas streaming and accessing other content contribute their fair share as well.

Here are specific scenarios where you might and might not use a VPN.

What are VPNs good for?

Consider using VPNs for these reasons:

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 feel 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.

Your ISP can likely track your online activity. The unfortunate reality is that it probably is tracking your data and could be sharing it with other parties. However, it could 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. This way, they might not be able to access any specific details about your online activity. However, they could likely see you’re using a VPN.

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.

VPNs encrypt 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 IP address to other worldwide locations and access more streaming content.

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.

What don’t VPNs do?

You likely shouldn’t consider using VPNs for these 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.

How does a VPN work?

In a nutshell, VPNs typically work by routing your internet connection through a VPN server that connects to your ISP. So you send information, including your IP address, to the 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 VPN subscription from a popular service 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.

VPN features

Consider these features if deciding between different VPN services.

Number of servers and locations

The number of servers and locations available to a VPN could dictate the functionality of your service. Having more servers and locations typically offers more flexibility for users.

For example, if you want to watch content from Netflix in South Korea, you would need to connect to a server in South Korea.

Different VPNs provide access to servers and locations. In a head-to-head comparison, ExpressVPN offers over 3,000 servers in 94 countries. NordVPN offers over 5,500 servers, but in fewer (60) countries. You might prefer one provider over the other if you want access to a server in a different country.

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. 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. This includes when you use 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 internet connection. You might not want a static IP if you prefer more protection over internet 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 they provide, but it could make a difference with VPN providers. This is primarily because of multi-country government alliances called Five Eyes, Nine 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:

Five Eyes

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

Nine Eyes

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

14 Eyes

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

3 popular VPNs compared

VPN ExpressVPN NordVPN Hotspot Shield
Number of servers and locations
  • Over 3,000 servers
  • 94 countries
  • Over 5,500 servers
  • 60 countries
  • Over 1,800 servers
  • More than 80 countries
Encryption AES-256 AES-256 AES-128 or 256
VPN protocol Lightway, OpenVPN, IKEv2, and L2TP/IPSec IKEv2/IPsec, OpenVPN, and NordLynx (based on WireGuard) Hydra (based on OpenVPN), IPSec, and OpenVPN
Split tunneling Yes Yes Yes (called Smart VPN)
Kill switch Yes Yes Yes
Dynamic or static IP addresses Dynamic Dynamic Dynamic
No-logs policy Yes Yes No
Headquarters British Virgin Islands Panama U.S.

VPN FAQs


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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

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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.


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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.


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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 encrypting 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 and not free VPNs. Free 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 how to set up a VPN and boost your cybersecurity efforts today.

Author Details
Ben Walker
Ben Walker is a writer at All About Cookies 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.