• >
  • What is a VPN and do I need it?

What is a VPN and do I need it?

Written by Max Beckett, Broadband Expert

4 June 2020

In this beginner’s guide we’ll explore the basics of VPNs – what they are, how they work, why they’re useful, and the potential risks that come with using them. A VPN isn’t necessary for everyone, and can be a costly investment, but they can provide the perfect level of online security and privacy that’s ideal for businesses and can be just as useful for individuals too.

Girl using laptop with VPN

What is a VPN? 

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. Using one allows you to transmit data from your device to the internet and vice versa, privately, without your activity being tracked by your internet service provider, or by third parties through cookies.

Essentially, everything you do online is a two-way system of you inputting information and user data and receiving data in return, so a VPN, even a free VPN, will stop your user data showing. VPNs will also hide your true location, so it looks like you are logging on from the location of the server, not your home.  

How do VPNs work? 

A VPN works by rerouting your internet connection through a private server, as opposed to through your internet service provider (ISP). That means that the data you transmit when you’re online comes from your VPN, rather than directly from your device, preventing your IP address and identity from being detected.

With a VPN, all data transmitted between your device and the internet is encrypted, preventing any other entity from accessing the information. Data is usually transmitted as binary code, but VPN encryption will transform this binary into a protected, indecipherable combination of characters. You and the VPN server will be the only parties with access to the encryption key.

Essentially, it’s as close as you can get to surfing the internet anonymously, without your previous search history or location impacting what websites display. While you may not think this makes much difference to your everyday browsing, you’d be surprised at the difference a VPN can make.  

What are the benefits of a VPN? 

The following are just a few of the many benefits of utilising a VPN on your devices, spanning not just security but also general convenience and even money-saving tips:

Improved security

VPNs add an extra level of privacy and security to your device. Using a VPN will decrease the chance of hackers and data thieves being able to access your personally identifiable information. That’s not to say you should use it instead of other anti-malware programs but while malware is downloaded onto your device and attacks your operating system, hackers just need to find you online, so a VPN protects your online activity.

Feel more secure on public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi hotspots are a great thing — after all, who doesn’t love free Wi-Fi? That said, what you gain in frugality, you lose in security. It’s well known public Wi-Fi connections just aren’t as secure as your personal home broadband.

A VPN can help make your online activity more secure, so if you have no choice but to access sensitive information via public Wi-Fi, a VPN can help improve the security. However it’s still advised you avoid free Wi-Fi for these activities.

Peer-to-peer file sharing

If you are uploading files to the cloud or sharing them with a friend, a VPN can keep everything secure. A VPN definitely does not allow for illegal file sharing to take place, so no matter what you may read online, pirating digital files is never ok. 

Remote access

If a technician needs to access your laptop or device remotely to help repair an issue, then you will also want to use a VPN. A secure network created with a private VPN makes it secure and easy for a trusted expert to start work on your device from a remote location. 

Block cookies

More of an annoyance than a security concern, a VPN prevents advertisers from using your cookies to tailor what is shown to you. Targeted advertising is useful for some, but others might feel uncomfortable or that their private activity has been capitalised on. If this sounds like you, a VPN would do wonders. With a VPN, advertisers can’t log your activity, nor can any other party, including your ISP. 

Book cheaper flights and hotels

There are plenty of tips, tricks, myths and facts about booking things online. If you, like most people, search for the same flight multiple times before going ahead with a purchase, you might see the price slowly increase. In some cases this might be totally innocent, but sometimes it’s all down to cookies.

If you are searching for a flight with the same website for the second or third time, try turning on your VPN – the site will act as if this is your first time and (if your cookies were indeed influencing figures) you should get the same price you originally found.

What are the different types of VPN? 

VPNs can come in a few different shapes and sizes, and the type of VPN you get will impact the service you receive. 

Browser Extensions

You can use a VPN directly through your browser, like Chrome, Safari or Firefox, by installing one as an extension or add-on.

These could be seen as lower-level VPNs, as they will only protect data and activity that is transmitted through that browser, so anything you do online using other apps – like an email client, cloud storage programme or streaming app – will still be vulnerable. On top of that, browser extension VPNs are said to be less secure than other types.

VPN software

The most common type of VPN is a standalone app that you can install to your device, be it a mobile, tablet, laptop or desktop computer. These will then protect connections from the entire device, as opposed to just from the browser, and they tend to be even safer than browser extension VPNs.

Router VPN

Some routers are VPN-enabled, allowing you to protect every device that’s connected to them. This is a great way to keep your entire household protected under one single service. You’ll need a router that is specifically designed to be compatible with VPNs, otherwise the process can get a bit complicated. 

Site-to-Site VPN

Site-to-site VPNs allow you to connect a network in one location to another. This is most commonly used in corporate environments by companies who operate from multiple locations or who have employees working remotely, allowing them to maintain a fully private connection across every office.

In Site-to-Site VPNs, one router is the VPN client and the other is the VPN server, and any devices connected to those routers will be connected via the VPN. A private intranet can then be hosted via the VPN where companies can share files and information safely.

Can I get a free VPN?

There are plenty of free VPNs available, but these are not the most trustworthy services. As a matter of fact, in order to make revenue, a lot of free VPNs have a very limited service and some actually sell your information to advertisers and other parties – the complete opposite of what a VPN is supposed to do. So, be very careful with free VPN services, using them could actually make your data more vulnerable than not having a VPN at all.  

Downsides of a VPN

As much as a VPN can improve your online experience, it can have some downsides too:

A VPN is not antivirus

It’s important to remember that a VPN is not antivirus software — you can definitely still fall victim to malware and viruses if you’re not careful, whether you have a VPN or not. There may be some VPN providers who offer additional security services, but most VPNs will not automatically provide antivirus support.

Lower speeds

Because of the extra leg work needed to reroute your connection and encrypt your data, using a VPN is very likely to reduce your connection speed. With an active VPN, you can expect average speeds to drop by about 10-25%. If you’re using high-speed fibre broadband, this might not be an issue, but it is definitely something to remember, especially if you’re a gamer or if you like to stream a lot in 4K. 

Traffic management and limitations

Some VPNs may also employ traffic management to limit the connections of users who use too much data, like if they’re downloading or streaming too much, for example. This isn’t something that VPN services would advertise outright, so it’s hard to know which providers may use this tactic.

Most UK internet service providers offer unlimited downloads with no traffic management, but a VPN can bypass this and implement its own restrictions. 

Questionable trustworthiness 

Lastly, there’s a lot of trust involved when it comes to using a VPN – but you can never really be 100% sure that your VPN is protecting your data and information. There isn’t really any solid way to prove that a VPN is always doing what it claims to do – and third-party audits of VPN services are very rare.

It’s always important to check reviews and see what feedback other customers have before choosing a VPN service. If the service is used by millions and reviewed positively, you should be able to trust it for the most part, but always remember you can never be completely certain when sending your data to and through a third party.

Do I need a VPN?  

There are a few things you should always consider when choosing a VPN service:

  • Speed: Most VPN services will advertise their server speeds, so you can keep an eye out for providers who wouldn’t slow your connection down too significantly.

  • Available geolocations: With a single VPN service, you can connect to different servers around the world. If you’re using a VPN to access geo-blocked sites, you’ll need to be sure that your VPN provider does have a server in the country where the content originates.  

  • Privacy: Each VPN provider will have its own privacy policy and you should make sure to read through these to find the one that seems most trustworthy and reliable. 

  • Tracking: Look out for VPN providers who promise to use a zero-logging policy, so you can be as sure as you can be that your data and activity is not being tracked. 

  • Data limits: Think about how many devices you’d want connected through a VPN, as different providers have different limits. 

  • Customer service: Look for a provider with a dedicated, reputable customer service support. A lot of free or cheaper services can be notoriously hard to reach, and subsequently offer the most problematic performance. 

There are many thousands of VPN providers globally. Among the most popular and trustworthy are ExpressVPN, NordVPN, PureVPN, and CyberGhost. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, and these are all paid services each with thousands of servers across the world that you can access at any time. 

VPNs provide a great extra level of security and privacy for your data and information, and while they can sometimes be quite costly, more often than not the protection is worth the price.

Choosing a reputable VPN is crucial, and we definitely wouldn’t recommend opting for a free service; you should see this as an investment and not simply opt for the cheapest service unless you’ve got good reason to completely trust it.