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What is a VPN? Here’s why you might need one

Headshot of Cara Haynes
Researched by
Cara HaynesContributing Writer
Headshot of Bri Field
Reviewed by
Bri FieldAssigning Editor
Updated 1/27/23

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A VPN (virtual private network) is a service that encrypts all your internet traffic via a remote server from a third-party company. A VPN will hide your IP address and virtual location, making it more difficult (but not impossible) to tie your internet traffic back to you. There are paid and free VPNs, although we strongly recommend you get a VPN with a no-logging policy, which might require you to pay.

There are several reasons you might want to use a VPN, but VPNs also come with distinct disadvantages you should be aware of before you sign up for one.

How does a VPN work?

An infographic portraying how an internet connection with a vpn works versus one without a vpn

VPN technology serves as a protective intermediary between you and the rest of the internet, no matter which device you’re using. Once you log in to use your VPN, it sends all your internet traffic through an encrypted data tunnel, called VPN tunneling. It does this by routing your traffic through secure VPN servers located around the world.

Most VPNs will allow you to choose which server you want to log in from, but it’s still a good idea to look into where a VPN service has servers available before you sign up. Depending on your VPN server location, your internet speeds while using a VPN will fluctuate. For example, if you choose to use a VPN server on the other side of the world, you’ll likely experience higher latency (more lag) in your connection.

What is a VPN used for?

In a nutshell, VPNs protect your online privacy, although they aren’t perfect at it (VPNs have some disadvantages). That said, VPNs are typically used for the following reasons.

An infographic outlining the most important reasons to use a VPN

You want to make sure your online data is secure

Not every website or app follows the same security protocols, so surfing the web with a VPN adds an extra layer of protection for your sensitive data in case you come across a website or app that might exploit your passwords or bank information. VPNs can also help mitigate tracking from your internet service provider (ISP), the government, and some advertisers.

You frequently use public Wi-Fi hotspots

Public Wi-Fi hotspots in places like coffee shops and libraries are very convenient, but they come at the cost of putting your online safety at risk. Because public Wi-Fi hotspots are free to anyone, they are vulnerable to the exploitations of hackers and identity thieves. If you frequently work or play on public Wi-Fi hotspots, it’s a good idea to use a VPN. Adding that extra level of encryption on your online info will make using public Wi-Fi hotspots a lot safer for you.

You want to access entertainment content available in other places

Many people rely on VPNs to access different entertainment options through streaming services like Netflix. Since Netflix bases your content offerings on your IP address (where you’re logging into the internet from), you can manipulate this feature by using a VPN to create an alternate IP address that looks like it’s coming from a different region or country than the one you’re actually in. Many sports fans use VPNs to get around TV blackouts to avoid missing some of their favorite team's games.

It’s important to note, however, that VPNs are illegal or tightly regulated in the following countries:

  • China
  • Russia
  • Turkey
  • Iraq
  • North Korea
  • Uganda
  • And more

Using a VPN to get around regional restrictions can also violate the terms of service for some streaming providers, so double-check the local laws of your country or the country you’re visiting and your provider’s terms of service before you fire up shows via your VPN.

You’re a gamer and need protection from the trolls

Using a VPN can make it more difficult for online attackers to use distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that could knock you offline and ruin your fun. (1) If you’re a high-profile gamer who might be subject to attacks—or if you just don’t have time to deal with trolls in any shape or form—try gaming with a VPN. Many VPN services offer features where you can share your VPN protection with all your friends during a LAN (local area network) party.

You work remotely and need to keep your work-related information secure

It’s always good to consider working through a VPN at home, especially if you’re handling sensitive information for your company. Some companies have information so sensitive that they don’t allow their employees to work from home, period. But for those companies willing to let employees work remotely, a VPN can help ensure company information stays with the company. It can also be a good idea if you’re a freelancer or own your own business.

Disadvantages of VPNs

Although VPNs make a lot of exciting promises, it’s important to know their limitations. VPN companies may overpromise their benefits and conceal their downsides, so check out the best VPN options available to you and read the fine print before you sign up. When it comes to a VPN, just going with the first free option you find could be a huge mistake that costs you your privacy and your sanity.

An infographic highlighting the disadvantages of using a VPN

Free VPNs often sell your data

This is the most important thing to avoid: using a free VPN that actually exposes you to the same exploitations you were trying to avoid in the first place. Not all free VPNs will do this, but many will. And if they don’t, they’re likely low quality or have low monthly data caps. To get a VPN that truly does everything you want and actually keeps your data secure, you’ll have to pay for it.

Make sure you use a VPN with a no-logging policy—otherwise you’ll still be giving away your personal information. A no-logging policy means that the VPN won’t store your personal browsing data. It’s important for a VPN to uphold this policy because internet privacy is usually why people turn to VPNs in the first place. However, many free VPN services make money by taking your browsing data and selling it.

VPNs use more data and slow down your connection

If you have a limited-data plan with your internet service provider (like a satellite internet connection from Viasat or HughesNet), it’s probably not a good idea to use a VPN unless you absolutely need to. When monthly data is already tight, using a VPN for all your internet traffic will make your internet activities even more data hungry.

There’s also the fact that using a VPN will likely slow down your internet connection, although it will be unnoticeable in most cases. Since a VPN sends all your internet traffic through one additional gateway, it adds an extra step to your internet usage that can deteriorate your experience. The worst VPNs out there will have a very noticeable effect. This is another reason we encourage people to get a paid, reputable VPN: life can be frustrating enough without dealing with extra slow internet.

VPNs have limitations in how much data they can protect

VPNs won’t be able to protect you from browser fingerprinting and web cookies, and they won’t protect you from all malware or phishing scams either. The techniques that many online companies, including Google and Facebook, use to track your web activity online can not be completely thwarted by a VPN. If you don’t want these companies to use your personal data in any way, the best option is to just not use their services.

Lastly, malware attacks can still happen if you click on a dangerous ad or share your personal information with a hacker—even if you have a VPN. And other forms of online attacks, like phishing, will still be up to you to prevent. No VPN on earth can stop you from responding to a potential catfish. As great as VPNs are, that’s still up to you.

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We believe the best information comes from first-hand customer experience and methodical research by subject-matter experts. We never source information from "content farms," and we don’t generate content using artificial intelligence (AI). You can trust that our recommendations are fact-checked meticulously and sourced appropriately by authentic, industry-recognized people.
Contributing researcher
Headshot of Cara Haynes
Researched by
Cara HaynesContributing Writer

Cara Haynes has been writing and editing about internet service and TV for six years. Previous to contributing to Helpful, she worked on HighSpeedInternet.com and SatelliteInternet.com. She graduated with a BA in English and a minor in editing from Brigham Young University. She believes no one should feel lost in internet land and that a good internet connection significantly extends your lifespan.

Contributing reviewer
Headshot of Bri Field
Reviewed by
Bri FieldAssigning Editor

Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.

Endnotes and sources