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A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is a quick way to make it appear as though your computer traffic is coming from a location different than where it resides. This is done through the creation of a virtual network which takes the traffic from your devices and tells it to go through an encrypted tunnel. When it comes out on the other side, it looks like the traffic originated from the same place in which your VPN server resides.
This type of technology gives you the ability to work around censors, geographic restrictions, and make you nearly invisible and anonymous while you surf online. Unfortunately, there are dozens of VPN options available on the market. The question then becomes, which one is the right one for you?
Let’s take a closer look at how you go about finding the best VPN for your needs.
By using a specific type of software, VPNs are able to create a virtualized network that creates two separate physical networks. For instance, some companies are able to give their employees the ability to work from home even though they’re accessing the intranet in a different city.
The same capabilities are available to consumers who want to access their home network even while away on vacation or business. That way, they can access their personal files from their home PCs or devices whenever they need to.
There are, of course, other use cases for VPNs. Since this technology encrypts your traffic, using a VPN gives you protection from others who want to access your data. Your information is kept securely, especially if you’re using a public wifi connection. In airports, coffee shops, and restaurants, hackers and crackers like to snoop through your traffic and steal credit card numbers and passwords.
VPNs move your traffic through a separate network, which means you can also make it look like you’re in a place other than where you actually are. So if you’re in London, England, and you want it to look like you’re in Portland, Oregon, a VPN can help you do that. This is especially useful for any sites that restrict content based on where you live.
Additionally, a VPN can help people who usually have to pay very high prices on imported software. They can pay the price that the software would be in a different country and still get the same features and benefits offered by that specific software.
One last use case for VPNs applies primarily to countries where there are high levels of monitoring and censorship. It’s also beneficial in countries where overt monitoring might be going on. Using a VPN is a great way to move around monitoring and censorship since it creates a secure tunnel to appear as though the traffic is originating elsewhere.
Not only will a VPN hide your online movements from a spying government, but it’s also great for keeping your activity anonymous from your Internet Service Provider. Sometimes your ISP might throttle back your connectivity speeds based on what you’re doing. Using a VPN prevents this as all your data moves through an encrypted tunnel while your ISP is clueless as to what is going on.
Whether you want to protect your information from the government, your ISP, or folks who are on the same local network, a VPN is a handy piece of software to have. Additionally, you can use your VPN to make services think you’re in the same room when in reality you’re on another continent.
The best way to determine which VPN works for you is by taking a moment and considering your needs before you buy one. Everyone will have different requirements for their VPN. For instance, you might find that you don’t need to shop for one because your router already has one that does exactly what you need.
Still, it’s better to be safe than sorry, so let’s go through some questions to ask yourself to get a better idea of exactly what you want or need in a VPN. These questions should help highlight what you prefer to have.
For clarification, the answer to many of these questions can be addressed by one VPN, however, the purpose of the questions is to get you thinking about what you want most in a VPN.
Is the only thing you care about connecting t your home network through a secure connection? If so, then you don’t necessarily need a VPN. In this case, you’re simply not using the right tool for the job. A VPN service provider gives you remote access, not access to your personal network.
If you want to use a secure connection for your home network, you’ll need to set up a VPN server on your home router. Running a VPN at the router level is going to give you the best security options and won’t consume much in the way of power. If your router doesn’t already have VPN capabilities available, you might want to find one that does.
Not everyone is as concerned about privacy or security as they probably should be. If that were the case, everyone would use a VPN when on a public wifi network. When you’re at your local coffee shop surfing the internet, you have no idea exactly what type of connection they’re using. Is it secure? Is it protected? How easy is it to access?
For all you know, the router you’re connected to is running firmware that’s outdated and compromised. Someone connected to that same router could be logging your data or actively watching your data. There are no guarantees that the hotspot you’re using is protected, which means there’s always the potential that your data is exposed.
If this is the case for you, then a VPN might make sense. But you don’t need a bloated solution to protect your Facebook, email, and browsing activity. A simple VPN option would do the trick.
No, we’re not talking about closing yourself. We’re talking about telling a website or software that you’re in a different place when in reality you’re at home. Some applications or sites will only give you access if you’re in a certain country. With a VPN you can tell the site you’re in the right place when in actuality, you’re sitting in your pajamas on your bed.
So if you need access to foreign countries so you can watch coverage of a sporting event or keep up with your favorite show, choose a VPN that supports the countries you need. The most expensive VPN on the market is useless if it doesn’t give you access to the locations you need.
Most VPNs on the market provide a certain level of anonymity, which is enough for you to have plausible deniability if you’re doing something like file sharing. With a VPN, it can appear as though your IP is coming from somewhere other than your home, you’re protecting yourself and creating an additional level of anonymity.
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you probably need a VPN, although not one that keeps track of your logs and one that has a large subscription base. The bigger your VPN provider, the more traffic there is going through exit nodes. This makes it more difficult to determine exactly where data originated.
Now that you’ve answered the important questions, and we’ve talked about why you may or may not need a certain type of VPN, let’s focus our attention to what you want to look for when you’re choosing a VPN provider.
So what should you look for when selecting a VPN provider? One of the most important items users consider is a fair price. If it doesn’t fit in your budget, then take a look around for one that days. There are other points you should consider as well.
Be sure you take the time to review each of these features prior to signing up with a VPN provider. Also, take a moment and sift through reviews and find any complaints about service. Do they really support what they say they do? Are users saying that they don’t do what they claim?
Now, let’s take a look at some of the features to think about as you decide which VPN provider is the one for you.
Many people don’t think about this one when making their decision, but it’s an important one to consider. What happens if your VPN provider only allows for one connection at a time? You can’t use any other devices with the same VPN. Or what about additional family members that want to use it? You need multiple simultaneous connections.
At the very least you want a VPN provider like VPN Unlimited or Nord VPN that give you several concurrent connections. Ideally, the more the better, so you can connect as many devices for as many family members as you need to.
Some VPN protocols are better than others. However, the protocol you most want your VPN provider to offer so that you’re getting high-security levels is OpenVPN. So, for example, you’d want to go with Tunnel Bear, but not Winscribe.
If you notice a VPN provider touting PPTP, move along. This protocol is outdated and provides weak encryption at best. It’s good enough for casual browsing but doesn’t come anywhere close to what you’ll need for more serious security and privacy protection.
What it boils down to is that you want to stick with a VPN provider that offers OpenVPN. There are other protocols that are beneficial, but this is the one that takes the cake. If you want to learn more about why OpenVPN is so important, take a minute to check out our piece on VPN protocols (thought this might be a good future piece).
The only real reason you would select a VPN provider that supports L2TP/IPsec and not OpenVPN is one where the majority of your connections will take place through a mobile device. That’s because neither Android nor iOS devices support OpenVPN. They do, however, offer support for L2TP/IPsec, which is a decent alternative.
A decent VPN provider will support all the protocols mentioned above. An even better one will tell you more about each protocol while moving you away from PPTP. No matter what, make sure the protocols you need are offered by your VPN provider. Otherwise, you’re just paying for a service you’re not using.
One of the main reasons people decide to employ the use of a VPN is due to ISP throttling. If you’re paying for a VPN that throttles your service on top of the internet bill you’re already paying, then what’s the point? Restrictions, limitations, and throttling is one area where VPN providers are less than transparent, so be sure to do your due diligence.
Not too long ago there wasn’t much concern about bandwidth limitations. Nowadays, however, we live in an era where streaming is the norm and it’s easy to chew through that data as you watch movies, listen to music, and browse the internet. Try to steer clear of VPNs that have bandwidth limitations unless the cap is very, very high. One good example of this is SurfEasy VPN, which offers no data caps on paid subscriptions.
Unless you’re only going to use your VPN for some sporadic browsing, you should have much more than just a few GBs worth of data. If you’ve got a few TBs, you should be good, but ideally, you’ll just avoid limited bandwidth altogether.
Lastly, be sure you validate that none of the services or protocols you want are blocked as well. So, for example, if you’ll need to use file sharing through your VPN provider, go through their information and ensure that file sharing isn’t a blocked service. Again, the last thing you want is to pay for a service you can’t use, or that doesn’t allow you to use the features you need.
If you need to access media sources in a foreign country, then a VPN is ideal for you. For example, if you want to do some online trading, but it’s not available in your country, you can use a VPN provider to make it look as though you are.
When it comes to server locations, make sure your VPN provider offers servers in various countries around the globe. With the resurgence of VPNs in the past few years, it’s not unrealistic to expect a VPN provider to offer hundreds (at the very least) of servers throughout the globe.
Additionally, if you’re focusing on where servers are located and how many are available, then you might also determine where the company resides. Will the location of the VPN provider cause any problems with your online activities? This is something you’ll want to determine before choosing your VPN, especially if you run into VPNs that turn over information to the government anytime it’s requested.
Most VPN providers don’t keep user logs of any type. This is ideal for both their users and themselves (storing logs requires lots of storage space). Some of the larger VPN providers are pretty upfront about keeping logs. They have no interest in tracking the movements of their users, and even if they did, it doesn’t make sense financially to begin doing so.
There are a handful of VPN providers that will tell you they keep logs to manage updates or determine that the network is performing as it should. Still, there’s not really a reason to accept a VPN provider that is keeping any logs at all.
If your primary reason for finding a VPN provider is to protect your traffic against snooping wifi while you’re traveling, then you may want to explore alternative payment options. Additionally, you might want to explore anonymous payment options like cryptocurrencies. Some VPNs even let you pay with gift cards.
That’s right. There are several VPN providers that will allow you to pay for their services via a gift card from retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, or Amazon. They’ll give you credit in exchange for the funds you have on your gift card. If you want to avoid using your personal information when purchasing VPN services, loading up a gift card is a great way to do so.
Finding the right VPN provider isn’t as simple as doing a quick Google searching and going with the first one that comes up. There are many questions to ask before selecting one and many features to consider before signing up. Be sure you’re doing your due diligence and digging deeper into what every VPN provider offers before you make a final decision.
What’s really important to you will drive your decision, but also remember that there are certain features you want to avoid. Things like bandwidth limitations and connectivity throttling aren’t good for anyone, especially if you do a lot of online streaming.
Lastly, take the proper precautions as you put your VPN to use while online. Does it support the protocols you want and offer servers where you need them? There’s no point in paying for a service that’s not doing you any good.
The following is a summary of the various VPN services that I – or my team – has reviewed over the years:
If you are specifically stuck between two services, the following comparisons represent the head to head matchups we’ve written over the years: