Choose the Best VPN Service for Your Needs
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are veritable Swiss Army Knives when it comes to privacy enhancement, censorship avoidance, anonymous file sharing, and more.
We’re about to walk you through what VPNs are, why people use them, how to assess your VPN needs, and the important questions to ask when shopping for a VPN. If you’re impatient and you just want a really good VPN right this second, you can always jump right to the end and check out our recommendations. A thorough read from start to finish, however, will show you why we’re recommending the services we are.
What Is Virtual Private Networking, and Why Do People Use It?
Through the use of software (and sometimes, at the corporate and governmental level, hardware) a VPN creates a virtualized network between two physically separate networks.
VPN use, for example, allows an IBM employee to work from home in a Chicago suburb while accessing the company intranet located in a building in New York City, as if he was right there on the New York office’s network. The same technology can be used by consumers to bridge their phones and laptops to their home network so, while on the road, they can securely access files from their home computers.
VPNs have other uses cases, though. Because they encrypt your connection, VPNs allow users to prevent others from seeing the data they’re transferring. This keeps data secure, particularly on public Wi-Fi networks in places like coffee shops and airports, ensuring no one can snoop your traffic and steal your passwords or credit card numbers.
Since VPNs route your traffic through another network, you can also make it appear as if it’s coming from another location. That means if you’re in Sydney, Australia, you can make your traffic appear to come from New York City. This is useful for certain sites that block content based on your location (like Netflix). It also allows some people (we’re looking at you, Australians) have to deal with insanely high import taxes on software that see them paying twice (or more) what US consumers pay for the same products.
On a more serious note, an unfortunately large number of people live in countries with high levels of overt censorship and monitoring (like China) and countries with more covert monitoring (like the US); one of the best ways to get around censorship and monitoring is to use a secure tunnel to appear as if you’re from somewhere else altogether.
In addition to hiding your online activity from a snooping government it’s also useful for hiding your activity from a snooping Internet Service Provider (ISP). If your ISP likes to throttle your connection based on content (tanking your file downloads and/or streaming video speeds in the process) a VPN completely eliminates that problem as all your traffic is traveling to a single point through the encrypted tunnel and your ISP remains ignorant of what kind of traffic it is.
In short, a VPN is useful anytime you want to either hide your traffic from people on your local network (like that free coffee shop Wi-Fi), your ISP, or your government, and it’s also incredibly useful to trick services into thinking you’re right next door when you’re an ocean away.
Assessing Your VPN Needs
Every user is going to have slightly different VPN needs, and the best way to pick the ideal VPN service is to take careful stock of what your needs are before you go shopping. You may even find you don’t need to go shopping because home-grown or router-based solutions you already have are a perfect fit. Let’s run through a series of questions you should ask yourself and highlight how different VPN features meet the needs highlighted by those questions.
To be clear, many of the following questions can be satisfied on multiple levels by a single provider, but the questions are framed to get you thinking about what is most important for your personal use.
Do You Need Secure Casual Browsing?
Even if you aren’t particularly security or privacy conscious, everyone should have a VPN if they regularly use public Wi-Fi networks. When you use Wi-Fi at the coffee shop, the airport, or the hotel you’re staying at while traveling cross-country, you have zero idea whether or not the connection you’re using is secure.
The router could be running outdated and compromised firmware. The router could actually be malicious and actively sniffing packets and logging your data. The router could be improperly configured and other users on the network could be sniffing your data or probing your laptop or mobile device. You never have any guarantee whatsoever that an unknown Wi-Fi hotspot isn’t, either through malice or poor configuration, exposing your data. (A password doesn’t indicate a network is secure, either–even if you have to enter a password, you could be subject to any of these problems.)
In such scenarios, you don’t need a beastly VPN provider with massive bandwidth to secure your email, Facebook, and web browsing activities. In fact, the same home VPN server model we highlighted in the previous section will serve you just as well as a paid solutions. The only time you might consider a paid solution is if you have high-bandwidth needs that your home connection can’t keep up with (like watching large volumes of streaming video through your VPN connection).
Do You Need to Geo-Shift Your Location?
If your goal is to appear as if you’re in another country so you can access content only available in that are (e.g. BBC Olympic coverage when you’re not in the UK) then you’ll need a VPN service with servers located in the geographic region you wish to exit the virtualized network in.
Need UK access for that Olympic coverage your crave? Make sure your provider has UK servers. Need a US IP address so you can watch YouTube videos in peace? Pick a provider with a long list of US exit nodes. Even the greatest VPN provider around is useless if you can’t access an IP address in the geographic region you need.
Best VPN Service : Conclusion
As you can see, VPNs are a very versatile tool! For many, they are just a convenient way to watch Netflix from abroad. However, they are also a valuable privacy and security tool.