How—and why—you should use a VPN any time you hop on the internet

How—and why—you should use a VPN any time you hop on the internet

Updated 7/6/17 to include recommendations for VPN services and links to full reviews of top products.One of the most important skills any computer use

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Updated 7/6/17 to include recommendations for VPN services and links to full reviews of top products.

One of the most important skills any computer user should have is the ability to use a virtual private network (VPN) to protect their privacy. A VPN is typically a paid service that keeps your web browsing secure and private over public Wi-Fi hotspots. VPNs can also get past regional restrictions for video- and music-streaming sites and help you evade government censorship restrictions—though that last one is especially tricky.

How it works

The best way to think of a VPN is as a secure tunnel between your PC and destinations you visit on the internet. Your PC connects to a VPN server, which can be located in the United States or a foreign country like the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, or Thailand. Your web traffic then passes back and forth through that server. The end result: As far as most websites are concerned, you’re browsing from that server’s geographical location, not your computer’s location.

We’ll get to the implications of a VPN’s location in a moment, but first, let’s get back to our secure tunnel example. Once you’re connected to the VPN and are “inside the tunnel,” it becomes very difficult for anyone else to spy on your web-browsing activity. The only people who will know what you’re up to are you, the VPN provider (usually an HTTPS connection can mitigate this), and the website you’re visiting.

A VPN is like a secure tunnel for a web traffic.

When you’re on public Wi-Fi at an airport or café, that means hackers will have a harder time stealing your login credentials or redirecting your PC to a phony banking site. Your Internet service provider (ISP), or anyone else trying to spy on you, will also have a near impossible time figuring out which websites you’re visiting.

On top of all that, you get the benefits of spoofing your location. If you’re in Los Angeles, for example, and the VPN server is in the U.K., it will look to most websites that you’re browsing from there, not southern California.

This is why many regionally restricted websites and online services such as BBC’s iPlayer or Sling TV can be fooled by a VPN. I say “most” services because some, most notably Netflix, are fighting against VPN (ab)use to prevent people from getting access to, say, the American version of Netflix when they’re really in Australia.

For the most part, however, if you’re visiting Belgium and connect to a U.S. VPN server, you should get access to most American sites and services just as if you were sitting at a Starbucks in Chicago.

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