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Virtual Private Network (VPN): What is it? How can it help me?

You have probably heard the term Virtual Private Network—or VPN—thrown around in conversations or in tech-related articles. You may even have experienced using a VPN through your place of employment (“I’ll VPN into the network from home”).

But what exactly is a VPN? And is it something you need for your home?

Let’s start by saying we aren’t going to go into the nitty gritty technical details of what a VPN is and isn’t, but we’ll give you a broad overview. If you want that deep dive you can do Internet searches and find many good explanations. Instead, we’re going to try and help you understand whether a VPN can help you and if it’s something you should consider using.

What is a VPN?

In the simplest definition, a VPN allows you to remotely access a work or company network securely, or browse the Internet safely, securely and anonymously.

To get started, you can simply sign up for one of the many commercial VPN services that are available, or you could also set up your own VPN at home if you have the technical knowledge.

Examples of commercial VPN services include PureVPN, NordVPN, ExpressVPN and IPVanish VPN, but there are many available. You can sign up for one of these services (usually for a fee) and then install the VPN application on your device to get started.

When active, the VPN service creates an encrypted connection to a server somewhere in the world (generally, you can pick where you want that connection to go to). This connection is a secure tunnel—think of it as a highly secure method of communication from your device to the remote server.

Let’s say you wanted to visit a website—you would type the URL into your browser and hit send.   Normally, that request will be routed across the open internet to the web site and the response is then sent back to your computer.

However, with a VPN the request would be tunneled inside of a highly secure and anonymous connection to the VPN service. The VPN service would receive your request and then securely relay it to the original destination, in this case the website, then securely relay the response back to your device.

The VPN service provides the benefits of having safe, secure and anonymous access to the internet and makes it exceptionally difficult for attackers to intercept your information.

When should you consider using a VPN

You can benefit from using a VPN at any time, but you are especially vulnerable on open wireless networks such as the ones found in places like airports and hotels. This makes using a VPN service very attractive to people who travel a lot or those who are concerned about security and privacy.

What devices should use a VPN

Any device—such as a phone, a laptop, a desktop computer or a tablet can use a VPN. However, mobile devices tend to be connected to public wireless networks which make them especially vulnerable to attack.

Common benefits of a VPN

  • You can browse the Internet safely, securely and anonymously.
  • You can remotely access your company’s work network securely.
  • You can access content that may be blocked geographically. This is mostly needed in nations that block specific content in their country so it’s not much of a benefit in the United States. However, there are times where a site might block content from U.S. viewers.
  • You prevent sites that you visit from being able to see your location—which can be useful for marketing purposes.

Downsides of VPNs

  • Good services cost money and will typically cost between $50 and $80 a year, but watch for specials as you can often find lifetime deals for as low as $100.
  • VPNs can sometimes have speed issues. As we have noted, they are essentially your gateway to the Internet, but if your VPN provider is having any issues with speed it could negatively affect your activity. Be sure to look for a VPN service that advertises fast speeds.
  • A VPN doesn’t provide you with 100% security. Don’t think you are immune to attacks such as ransomware and phishing scams just because you have a VPN installed.

What’s next

If you are interested in learning more about VPNs, we recommend the following:

  • Read reviews of VPNs. Free VPNs tend to not be worth the hassle.
  • Try different VPNs if the service is slow.

 

About Matthew Breen

Based in Colorado, but from Madison, Wisconsin, Matt likes to blog about travel, auto, gadgets, food and entrainment. Follow author Matt Breen on Google + or read his recent stories on Pursuitist.

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