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What is a VPN and why do I need it?

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It seems like we spend most of our lives online these days, sharing more personal information than ever before. To make sure our online activity is as safe and secure as possible, many people prefer to use a VPN when connecting to the internet, at home, at work, and on public Wi-Fi.

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. In the simplest terms, a VPN creates a private network connection that you can access on your computer, laptop or mobile device. As the name suggests, they make accessing the internet more private, which can make sharing information online more secure.

What is a VPN Connection

A VPN connection is made up of a network of servers at locations anywhere in the world that are run by a VPN provider. When you establish a VPN connection, all traffic going to and from your device becomes encrypted and then goes through an intermediary server at a location of your choosing.

How does a VPN work?

VPN works by connecting you to a set of servers in a process known as tunnelling. These servers act as a ‘virtual home’ on the internet, in a sense moving your online experience into a more secure online network.

As you explore the internet from this secure space, the data that you send and receive is encrypted, which gives you more security and anonymity while online.

Whenever you click on a link or type an address into your browser, your computer sends out a series of communications through a number of computers. Your data travels across your local network, through a number computers on the internet, and through even more computers on the website’s servers, before following the same route back again to return the information to your computer.

When you use a VPN, those data packets are encrypted at the originating point, usually hiding both the data as well as the information about your originating IP address.

There are two types of VPN. The first is a corporate VPN, sometimes called an enterprise VPN, which is often used by companies in order to secure information transfer between two office local networks. A corporate VPN involves controlling both endpoints of the VPN

The second is a consumer VPN, which secures only one endpoint. and consumer VPNs, which are the type you would use when logging onto public Wi-Fi to secure your information. Consumer VPN services help ensure that your communications on applications such as social networks, email, online shopping and banking are protected.

Want more information? Read our review of Surfshark's VPN.

What does a VPN hide?

A VPN hides all your personal information when you access the internet. A VPN encrypts all of your device’s data while rerouting it through a separate server and hides a lot of different types of personal information while online.

A VPN hides your IP address which anonymizes your activities, preventing ISPs, marketers, hackers, and search engines from being able to track your movements online.

A VPN also hides your identity on social media as well as your online shopping habits, which also makes it harder for marketing companies to target you, while at the same time keeping your sensitive information secure.

Finally, a VPN hides your geographic location. As your data is rerouted via intermediary servers and your IP address is hidden, there is no way to track your location directly when you use a VPN.

Why use a VPN?

1. Security

Security is the main reason to use a VPN since your data will be encrypted making it more difficult for others to access your browsing activity. This is especially important when entering personal information or payment details like credit card numbers. This is why using a VPN when connecting to public networks is a particularly good idea.

2. Privacy

In much the same way, a VPN also protects your privacy. The encryption provided by a VPN means what you search for, what you say in comments or forums, and what you watch on streaming platforms is kept private and none of anyone else’s business.

However, it’s important to remember that a VPN protects the data you transmit from your computer, but it doesn’t necessarily prevent your information being tracked with cookies or other web trackers. A VPN ensures that your communications can’t be intercepted or accessed, but it doesn’t affect application features like cookies.

3. Virtual location

Another popular reason for using a VPN is to give you a virtual location. Accessing the internet via a VPN means you can appear to be browsing from another country. This allows you to access content that might be restricted where you are. This is especially useful when travelling. If you want to continue streaming a show you’re watching back home, or access online banking or personal records, you can use a VPN to access the internet as if you were back home.

How to set up a VPN

You can set up the majority of VPN apps instantly, as most will have an OpenVPN protocol, meaning it’s a simple matter of allowing the app to configure your settings for you. However there are a few small differences to be aware of when setting up a VPN on Windows, Mac, Chrome, Apple and Android devices.

How to set up a VPN on Windows

Once you’ve created a VPN profile, you might need to configure your Windows VPN settings.

  • Go into Settings -> Network & Internet -> VPN.
  • Click ‘Add a VPN connection’.
  • Select Windows (built-in) for your VPN provider.
  • Fill in the details for Connection name, server name or address, VPN type and the type of sign-in info.
  • You have the option to add a username and password for added security, which we would recommend.
  • At this point you also can select Advanced Options to edit the connection properties, clear your sign-in info, or set up a VPN proxy.
  • Select ‘Connect’ and enter your password if you’ve set one.

How to set up a VPN on a Mac

  • If you need to set up a VPN manually on a Mac, go to ‘System Preferences’ and then click ‘Network’.
  • Click on the ‘+’ icon and select VPN from the drop-down menu.
  • You’ll need the details from the VPN service you’ve signed up for to complete this sign up.
  • Click ‘Create’ then fill in the server address, remote ID and local ID in the appropriate fields.
  • Click ‘Authentication Settings’
  • At this point you’ll need to enter the username and password for your VPN, which you can set through your VPN app.
  • Click ‘OK’ and ‘Connect’.

How to set up a VPN on Chrome OS

The easiest way to set up a VPN on Chrome OS is to install a VPN extension. Visit the Chrome Web Store and search for your VPN of choice and simply add the extension to your browser from there.

If you need to set up a VPN manually Chrome has native support for L2TP/IPsec and OpenVPN. To install a VPN that works with one of these formats:

  • Go to Settings and in the ‘Network’ section click ‘Add connection’ -> ‘OpenVPN / L2TP
  • You’ll need to include all the information you have from your VPN service including things like server hostname, service name, provider type, pre-shared key, username and password.
  • Save your identity and password
  • Click ‘Connect’.

### How to set up a VPN on an Apple device

Setting up a VPN on an iPhone or iPad is fairly straightforward, and if you download an app from the App Store it will automatically configure your settings for you. However, if you need to adjust anything or set up a VPN manually on an Apple device, here’s what you need to do:

  • Go to ‘Settings’ -> ‘General’.
  • Scroll down and select VPN, tap ‘Add VPN Configuration’.
  • Select a security protocol from ‘Type’ following the instructions given by your VPN service.
  • Return to the ‘Add Configuration’ screen and enter the VPN description, server, remote ID and local ID.
  • Enter your username and password as well as a proxy if you want to.
  • Tap ‘Done’.
  • Finally, toggle the ‘Status’ switch to on.

How to set up a VPN on an Android device

  • Go to Settings -> Network & Internet -> Advanced -> VPN.
  • Tap the ‘+’ icon
  • Fill in the VPN name, type, and Server address.
  • Tap ‘Save’.
  • From the VPN screen, tap on your newly created VPN, enter your name and password, then tap ‘Connect’.
  • At this point you can also choose to save your account information, and you can make the VPN always on.

How to use VPN on Xbox One

Gaming devices are more connected than ever, and a VPN can help make online gaming more secure as well as unlocking restrictions and even potentially making gameplay faster.

Typically, the main reason for using a VPN on an Xbox One is to access restricted regional content, but a VPN can also help your console achieve lower multiplayer gaming latency in some cases. A VPN can even overcome bandwidth throttling if your ISP is limiting your speed on selected sites.

How to set up and use a VPN on Xbox One

Xbox One doesn’t have native VPN support or any formal VPN apps, so the easiest way to access one is to connect to a VPN-enabled Windows PC via an ethernet cable.

  • Connect your Xbox One to your PC with an ethernet cable and enable your VPN.
  • Go to Settings -> Network & Internet -> VPN
  • In the ‘Related settings’ section on the right, click ‘Change adapter option.
  • Right-click on your VPN icon and select ‘Properties’.
  • In the ‘Sharing’ tab, check ‘Allow other network users to connect through this computer's internet connection’ and select your ethernet connection from the drop down menu and click ‘OK’.
  • On your Xbox One, go to the Network settings and select the ‘Test network connection’ tile and your console should connect to the internet via your VPN.

Just remember to keep your console connected to your PC at all times.

Are VPNs legal?

In most countries, the use of a VPN is legal, but there are a few countries in which it is not, like the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, China, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. Restrictions and penalties vary in each of these countries. For example, China allows only certain approved VPNs, while in the UAE you could potentially go to jail or face a fine of $100,000 if you get caught.

Can I use a VPN to stream TV from other regions?

A VPN allows you to access the content of streaming platforms in other countries since each territory has a slightly different catalogue of TV shows and movies in its library. For example, if you’re a Netflix subscriber you’ll likely notice a different list of available programs when you log on while overseas. So in order to keep binge-watching your favourite shows while you travel you’ll need to access Netflix through a VPN.

However, Netflix and other streaming services are aware of subscribers using VPNs to access geo-restricted content and regularly block access. If a platform like Netflix registers traffic coming from a particular IP address that belongs to a VPN it will block it and you’ll see the following proxy error message:

“Whoops, something went wrong. Streaming error. You seem to be using an unblocker or proxy. Please turn off any of these services and try again.”

How to watch Netflix with VPN

Once you’ve set up your VPN on your device as instructed above, you’ll be able to access that region’s version of Netflix automatically (you might need to clear your cache on your browser if you run into problems on your computer).

To watch Netflix with a VPN –– or any streaming service for that matter –– you’ll need a VPN service that’s fast, reliable and with enough data allowance to accommodate streaming video files.

Which VPN is best?

A good VPN will be one that delivers fast and secure connection for a good price. There’s always some debate over which VPN is best, but here are some of the top contenders for the title of Best VPN:

Surfshark

Surfshark is one of the smaller VPN providers available. But, while it may have fewer servers than some of its rivals, it still provides an excellent service. One of its biggest pros is the unlimited device support you get, meaning you can connect every device in your home without having to worry.

Top features of Surfshark:

  • Unlimited number of devices
  • Easily unlocks major UK streaming platforms like BBC iPlayer
  • Strong security and privacy protections
  • Included ad blocker

Surfshark is currently only £1.49 a month.

NordVPN

Probably the most recognisable VPN brand out there, NordVPN is extremely popular due to its low monthly cost. Like a number of VPNs, NordVPN applies a true zero-logging policy, meaning there’s no data retention of user sessions, traffic or timestamps.

Top features of NordVPN:

  • Low monthly cost
  • Zero-logging policy for complete anonymity
  • Operates 650 servers in the UK
  • Connect up to six devices simultaneously
  • Can be used with popular streaming site such as Netflix, BBC iPlayer and Amazon Prime Video

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is a popular choice as it’s one of the fastest VPNs available. This makes it ideal for streaming Netflix when overseas. It utilises TrustedServer technology to power its network, making its privacy and security top notch.

Top features of ExpressVPN:

  • Fast
  • Zero-log policy for excellent privacy
  • Quality setup guides and information
  • Kill switch to prevent network data leaks
  • Bitcoin payment option

Cheap and Free VPNs

Free VPNs are fairly easy to find, but don’t always offer a completely free service. Many will have some significant limitations or will be free only for a set period of time.

However, if you’re only intending to use a VPN occasionally and don’t need a huge amount of bandwidth or features, there are plenty of cheap and free VPNs to choose from.

ProtonVPN

One of the most common limitations of free VPNs is the amount of bandwidth you have. Many free VPNs will set a fairly low limit and require you to upgrade to a premium paid service for more. ProtonVPN doesn’t have any bandwidth restrictions, meaning you can use it as much as you want and even stream video content without running out of data.

Of course it does have some limitations, such as only being able to use it on one device and only three locations to choose from, but for a free VPN this is still really good.

Top features of ProtonVPN: Unlimited bandwidth allowance/no data limits Great privacy features Native software for Windows PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, plus Android

Limitations of ProtonVPN free: Only three server locations Only one device supported Free users deprioritised so speeds may drop at peak times

Hotspot Shield

Hotspot Shield offers a free version of its premium service that includes many of the same features. The free version of Hotspot includes 15GB of data every month, which works out at roughly 500MB a day –– plenty for everyday browsing and some light streaming from YouTube.

The Hotspot Shield apps are easy to install and setup, making it one of the easiest and most straightforward VPNs available.

Top features of Hotspot Shield: Easy to use 15GB data allowance each month Security focused

Limitations of Hotspot Shield: Not ideal for streaming high quality video Performance can suffer on occasion

TunnelBear

TunnelBear is one of the best known free VPNs available, it also happens to be the cutest, with its animated bear mascot literally tunneling to other countries when you connect within the app.

The free version of TunnelBear is easy to use with user friendly mobile apps that are ideal for less tech-savvy users. The biggest downside of TunnelBear is the fairly low monthly data allowance of just 500MB, the same amount Hotspot Shield gives you per day.

Top features of TunnelBear: Mobile apps that are very user friendly Available on mobile and desktop Easy to use and set up

Limitations of TunnelBear: Basic features Limited to 500MB per month

VPN for Firestick

If you’re looking to stream geo-restricted content via your Amazon Fire TV Stick, you’re best subscribing to a VPN with a dedicated Fire TV app. Once you’ve signed up to the service, all you need to do is download the equivalent app from the Amazon Appstore in order to access the same VPN services on your Firestick.

A VPN with a high server count will typically allow for a faster, more reliable connection which is especially important when streaming video content.

Top VPNs for Firestick

ExpressVPN NordVPN Surfshark IPVanish Cyberghost

VPN for Router

It is possible to set up a VPN for your router, which allows every device that connects to your home broadband via your Wi-Fi router to be connected via your VPN of choice. Once set up, each device in your home can connect directly to your VPN without having to log in individually; this includes smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, laptops and streaming sticks.

Some routers support connecting to VPN services via OpenVPN, however this can cause problems when implemented in low-cost routers. In order to access your preferred VPN you’ll need to source firmware that can implement it within your router, the most popular being DD-WRT.

This is a linux-based alternative to OpenSource firmware and allows you to set up your VPN directly on your router.

You can install DD-WRT on any compatible router which will save you some money, as long as you know what you’re doing. It’s worth remembering that altering your router’s firmware will probably void its warranty, and might be against your broadband provider’s T&Cs.

How to get a VPN

There are loads of VPNs to choose from. Our favourite at the moment is Surfshark, as it comes with a handy ad blocker and lets you use it on unlimited devices. And right now, it only costs £1.49 a month.

Get a VPN with Surfshark.

Category: Guides
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