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In the age of everywhere internet access, VPNs are a common tool. But, even if you've heard of someone using you may wonder what a VPN is. These virtual private networks allow you to access the internet privately so that your internet service provider (ISP), third-party websites, or any other users can't track you, your location, or your activity.
VPNs are legal in most countries, and they're useful for maintaining privacy, especially when browsing the internet in public. However, there are some limitations to how you can use them.
Below, we'll explore more about VPNs work, when you might want to use them, and any problems or limitations you might face. We'll also recommend three of our favorites.
Most people connect to the internet through their local ISP. This can be a cable provider, like Xfinity, Spectrum, Cox, Frontier, or CenturyLink. Or it can be a fiber network provider, like AT&T Fiber, Google Fiber, or Verizon Fios. It may even be a satellite provider, like HughesNet or Viasat.
When you go online, you're assigned an internet protocol (IP) address. With this IP address, your ISP can track your online activity across every website you visit. These websites can also identify your location in the world.
However, when you go online through a VPN, your information becomes encrypted, making it impossible for your ISP or others on the internet to see your personal IP address. That's because your VPN re-routes you through its servers, which could be anywhere in the world, before sending you to any particular websites you visit.
Thus, when you go online through a VPN, your ISP and third-party websites will see the IP address of the VPN service you're using instead of your personal IP address. This prevents them from identifying you or tracking your activity.
There are many uses of VPNs. But specifically, what is a VPN used for?
There are many uses of VPNs, but here are some of the most common ones.
Probably the most common use of a VPN is to protect your privacy online. With a VPN, your ISP and third-party websites won't be able to track your activity.
For example, without a VPN, if you're shopping for baby clothes online, you'll soon begin to see ads for other types of baby clothes or other baby gear. This happens because your IP address has shown up in searches for baby clothes.
Taken further, these sites may see that, besides baby clothes, you searched for cribs, car seats, and strollers. With that information, they may determine you're pregnant and start sending you discounts for diapers or baby formula, even if you never searched for those items.
However, if you complete that same search through a VPN, those same sites won't be able to see that the search came from you. This allows you to keep your searches private so brands can't dive into your personal life.
Another primary feature of a VPN is the security it provides when you're using a public Wi-Fi connection. If you connect to the internet through the public Wi-Fi at a coffee shop, mall, grocery store, airport, or most any other public location, your connection is not secure.
On an unsecured network, it's much easier for hackers to attack your computer, phone, or tablet and compromise your personal data. However, if you connect to your VPN before opening your browser, the encryption provided by the VPN makes it harder for hackers to access your data.
When you use a VPN, websites can't find out where you're located. They can't tell if you're in New York City or London. Since your activity is funneled through your VPN, which could be in London, New York, or anywhere in the world, there's no way for the sites you visit to track your true physical location.
This could be helpful when you're shopping. For example, if you live in New York, but want to send a gift to a friend or relative in London, you may find a completely different set of prices for the gifts, not to mention different shipping costs. You may find it's cheaper to shop from the London VPN as opposed to the New York VPN.
The same is true when traveling and booking flights and hotel accommodations. You may find vastly different rates if you log in from different locations.
The titles or live programming offered on streaming platforms like Netflix, Disney+, and others may vary greatly depending on where you're located. As in the previous example, shows that are available in the U.S. may not be available in the U.K. and vice versa. With a VPN, you can access titles from around the world no matter where you live.
However, keep in mind that this violates the terms of service for some streaming services. So it's important to review a service's terms of service before changing your location.
One of the biggest potential disadvantages to using a VPN is that it may slow down your internet speed. This is because the data is being re-routed through additional servers.
However, this is where your choice of the VPN comes into play. There are free VPNs, but you get what you pay for. VPNs with a monthly cost have been able to minimize this issue for their subscribers.
In most countries, including the United States, it's legal to use a VPN.
However, the use of a VPN may go against the terms of service of some providers, like streaming networks and streaming services. There are some streaming service providers, such as MLB TV, and regional sports networks, like Bally Sports, that block some titles based on your geographic location.
For example, if you live in Baltimore, MLB TV may not show Baltimore Orioles games in the Baltimore market. This is because they want you to watch the games on the local network that has the contract to show them.
Conversely, for most regional sports networks, you must live in the area to watch those teams. So, for example, you must live in the Detroit metro area to see Bally Sports Detroit, which will show games for MLB's Detroit Tigers, the NBA's Detroit Pistons, and the NHL's Detroit Red Wings. Before you attempt to use a VPN as a workaround for these types of situations, read the terms of service for your provider.
Additionally, while using a VPN is legal, this use does not allow you to conduct illegal activities online, such as downloading copyrighted material or hacking. In that case, though, it's those specific activities that are illegal, not the use of a VPN.
The safety, security, and privacy provided by VPNs make them an important tool for anyone who uses the internet. So, what is the best VPN? Three services we recommend are ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and Surfshark.
ExpressVPN offers three plans, and each comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee. With the monthly plan, you'll be billed at a rate of $13/mo., or you can purchase a six-month plan -- in which you're billed $60 every six months. This comes out to $10/mo., which is a discount of 23% off the monthly plan.
ExpressVPN's most popular plan is its annual plan, which costs $100/yr. This monthly rate of $8/mo. is a 35% savings over the monthly rate.
NordVPN also offers three plans -- a one-month plan, an annual plan, and a plan that lasts two years. Billed monthly, the one-month plan is $13/mo., while the annual plan is billed at a rate of $69/yr. for the first year and $125/yr. afterwards. This is under $5/mo. for the first year, or a savings of more than 60%.
NordVPN's best value is the two-year plan, which costs $89 for the first two years, then $225 for each subsequent two-year period. This $3/mo. for the first two years is a saving of 76% over the monthly plan.
Like NordVPN, Surfshark offers monthly, annual, and two-year plans. Surfshark's monthly plan is $13/mo. The annual plan is $48/yr. for the first year and $60/yr. after the first. This gives it a monthly rate of $4/mo. for the first year, a savings of 69% over the monthly plan.
If you're willing to pay for two years up front, you'll get Surfshark's best rate. It costs $60 for the first two years, which is about $2/mo. — a savings of more than 80% compared to the monthly plan. Note that after the first two years, you'll pay $60/yr. rather than $60 per two years.