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What is a VPN? Meaning, Benefits, and How to Get One

Top 5 Mobile VPNs

You’ve probably been hearing more and more about Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) for home use, public Wi-Fi protection, and safe internet usage during travel. That’s because it’s vitally important to be smart and safe while you’re on the internet, wherever you are. A VPN can make the internet safer, more secure, and more private. It allows access to the web without being tracked, monitored, and identified.

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is an easy way to add an extra layer of security to your online activities. It takes your internet connection and makes it more secure by masking your individual IP address with a temporary one, hiding your true IP address from every connection you make online. 

A VPN is a service that you sign up for online for a small monthly charge. Once you have an account, your VPN service should be “on” when you’re online.

VPNs are not a new concept. Microsoft developed the idea in 1996 to allow employees to access the tech giant’s network remotely. VPNs are now standard in nearly every organization, and growing steadily as a security resource for individual internet users and networks worldwide.

  • A VPN is Virtual…because it’s as if you have a private connection directly to any website or another computer you connect to.
  • Better yet, it’s also Private…because all your website visits and online activity is between you and the websites you visit.
  • It’s also a secure Network…because you’re using a special network of VPN servers that covers the entire globe.

What does a VPN do?

Consider it a cloak of invisibility that allows you to move freely around the web without detection. VPNs encrypt your connections and make you virtually anonymous online. It can even allow access to censored sites and blocks. It reroutes your internet traffic through a server, making your activities appear to originate from that server instead of your personal IP address.

Why Hide an IP address?

Your IP address is a behind-the-scenes number your Internet provider assigns to your computer that allows you to go anywhere on the Internet. It’s something like the house number on your home. Unfortunately, your IP address also gives away your computing location, at home or on the road. 

Governments and bad actors have tracked people down by their IP address, with the help of the person’s Internet Service Provider. Also, online businesses of all kinds monitor activity coming from IP addresses. They may not know your name, but they know you like their website.

Online companies and networks can (and do) restrict someone’s access to a website based on where the user is located. Your location is given away by your IP address. 

It’s not enough that you can be tracked and monitored through your IP address. Hackers can break into networks and sometimes take over devices. Once on your device, these hackers can track all of your information including stored passwords, financial information, and accounts of all kinds.

Bad actors will also sell your IP address on the dark web so other bad actors can access your devices as well.

How does a VPN work?

A VPN is a service that encrypts data. Encryption turns recognizable information into a garbled collection of unreadable code for anyone who doesn’t have a key to decode it. The only entities who hold these keys are your device and your VPN provider. For everyone else, especially those online spies, your information is unreadable. This feature, combined with hiding your IP address, makes a VPN a smart layer of security for all your devices.

Once in place, a VPN will not affect the quality of your online activities in any way.

Absolutely Doable and It's Free.

What Devices Will a VPN Protect?

A VPN can be used for every device with internet access:

  • Personal computers
  • Smartphones and devices
  • Tablets and laptops

VPNs can be used on all operating systems, including MAC and Windows.

What Are the Benefits of Using a VPN?

A virtual private network levels the playing field in a world of ever-increasing, ever-evolving cybercrime targeting both businesses and individuals.  A VPN account instantly and consistently provides: 

  • More privacy. Your connections cannot be linked to your computer or your identity. You can visit any website and your ISP doesn’t know where you’ve been.
  • Better security. VPN connections are super secure. The network is hack proof and all of your internet activity is encrypted (coded) and unreadable in transit.
  • Increased website access. No more blocks or censorship. They can’t prevent you from getting to websites based on an IP address.
  • Greater anonymity. Your true IP address is hidden. You’re unidentifiable online because you’re constantly using a different IP address, never your own. In fact, it typically looks as if you’re in a different part of the world from where you really are.
  • Peace of mind: Knowing you have added an extra tool to your cybersecurity arsenal will give you the confidence to browse, game, and shop online with less fear of being hacked.

How to Get a VPN

Getting a VPN is as simple as finding a provider and package that suits your needs. Some considerations for making your choice include:

  • Multiple device VPN capabilities: All your devices should be covered under one subscription
  • Fees: While some services are free, the better VPN providers will be subscription-based
  • Company location: Not necessarily the geophysical location of the company, but the company’s jurisdiction and applicable local data retention laws
  • Internet speed: The VPN shouldn’t significantly affect your connection speeds or create lags when in use
  • Trustworthiness: Do your research and read reviews of your VPN choices before committing to a contract
  • Robust encryption: Look for AES-256 level encryption, widely considered the “gold standard”
  • Privacy policies: The provider should not keep records of your activities while using the VPN 
  • DNS security: The VPN should protect against Domain Name Server leaks to your ISP provider
  • Killswitch: Automatically blocks devices from connecting to unprotected and unverified sources

Most VPN providers offer free trials. Take advantage of these trials to make sure the services promised are what you need before signing on the dotted line.

Getting started with your VPN

Once you’ve selected the VPN provider and the terms of the agreement, it’s time to install the program on your devices.

This is frequently as simple as downloading the provider’s app or downloading the program directly from the company website. Once installed, you will be prompted to log in. You will be automatically connected to a VPN server, frequently one that is closest to your physical location so that your internet speed isn’t affected.

You can choose to manually make changes within your operating system, but this is unnecessarily complicated and can keep you from enjoying all the benefits of the VPN.

Choosing the right VPN server

Your device will automatically connect to a server that is close to your location, but you may choose to find servers that are better suited for activities such as gaming or streaming. You may even opt to use a server from a different country to avoid blocks and censorship imposed by that country and access region-locked sites across the world.

Which VPN is the Best?

The pros at WhatIsMyIPAddress have reviewed dozens of VPNs and shortlisted some of the best providers.

1. CyberGhost

With a monthly subscription fee of less than $3 and a 45-day money-back guarantee, Cyberghost gives users the full benefit of basic budget-friendly VPN services.

  • Features over 8.930 servers
  • Allows seven connected devices 
  • Choose a server from the global list
  • 45-day risk-free trial
  • Antivirus and other upgrades available to enhance security
  • Available for all operating systems

Get CyberGhost

2. Express VPN

Express VPN offers fast speeds, no-log privacy protection, and is available for all devices.

  • Available for all operating systems
  • Lower price for annual subscriptions
  • Global accessibility in 94 countries
  • 256-bit AES encryption
  • Threat protections

Get ExpressVPN

3. NordVPN

With many included features such as a password manager and file encryption tool, NordVPN is a versatile and affordable VPN option.

  • Plans starting at just over $3 per month
  • Malware protection included in all packages
  • 30-day risk-free trial
  • “Always on” threat protection
  • Available for all operating systems and devices 
  • Flexible privacy settings
  • Ad blocker included

Get NordVPN

4. Surfshark

Surfshark is a very affordable VPN option with lots of extra value-added goodies. With plans starting at $2.30 per month (82% off their regular price)  Surfshark offers:

  • Unlimited devices
  • Ad and malware blocker
  • Two-factor authentication
  • 24/7 support
  • Two months free

Get SurfShark

How Much Does a VPN Cost?

While there are free VPN providers, they may not offer the same features, speed, and privacy as paid subscriptions. There are a few factors that may impact subscription prices, such as:

  • Data limits
  • Streaming capabilities
  • Number of devices covered
  • Number of available servers
  • Length of contract

The average cost of a VPN per month is just under $10, but providers will offer heavy discounts for annual subscriptions. You may be able to save up to 70% with a longer-term agreement, bringing your monthly price down to $2 per month for some providers. A two-year contract costs an average of $3.40 per month.

VPN providers may also offer packages and upgrades, such as ad blockers and antivirus, for a small increase in price. If you’re looking for a complete security toolkit, these upgrades will help you patch up existing holes in your current antivirus protections.

What A VPN Can’t Do

VPNs will block your information from online spies and public wifi threats. It encrypts data so that, even if your information is hacked, it cannot be used by bad actors. It’s important to note that even though a VPN will protect your browsing and internet history, it will not protect against a user’s risky behaviors.

You will still be at risk for a breach if you install suspicious files, open spam and phishing emails, and don’t follow strong password creation strategies.

That’s why a VPN is only one layer, although an important one,  of a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy. Practicing safe online behaviors and a good antivirus will help patch the holes in your security.

Zero trust

Never click a link in a text or email, even if it is allegedly from your bank or a government agency. Go directly to the official website and seek your notifications there.

No suspicious downloads

If you’ve received a document via email or text and were not expecting one, never download it onto your computer. This includes orders you never authorized, financial documents, and other documents labeled “urgent.” As above, go directly to the official website and look for the download there.

Beware the social media DMs

Never open any link shared via social media messenger until you have contacted the sender and verified the link. These are usually malicious links and, as discussed earlier, sent from cloned or fraudulent accounts.

Recognize spam

Spam emails and texts are pretty easy to recognize once you identify common mistakes hackers make.

  • English is nonsensical: Hackers will not follow proper grammar and spelling. This is a dead giveaway that the message is malicious.
  • Unusual fonts: Hackers will frequently use unusual, unprofessional appearing fonts in the subject line.
  • Threatening: Messages sent by bad actors will frequently appear threatening, hoping to frighten the recipient into action. These include the “restricted account” and “unusual activity” messages from financial institutions. 
  • Unexpected:  You will expect receipts and communications from sites you’ve made purchases from, but never trust a message about a purchase you didn’t authorize. Go to the vendor’s website and check your order history; never click on these links.
  • Company name misspelling: Look for variations and misspellings of the alleged company name. These can be very subtle, such as “AmaZon.”
  • The sender doesn’t match the organization: Hover over the sender to check that the address is from the company it claims to represent.
  • Your name is misspelled: Your name may be misspelled in the subject line or elsewhere in the message.
  • Your name is not used at all: Organizations will address you by the name they have on file for you. Never trust a message addressed to “valued customer” or other generic references.

Not sure how to choose the right VPN for you? Try our VPN Simplifier.

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