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What is a VPN?

You may have been told to use a VPN while streaming, banking, and browsing the internet. What is a VPN and do you need one?

Laurie Garrison

A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a tool that can help improve your online privacy. A VPN essentially creates a private, encrypted connection between your device and a server, making it more difficult for others to track your activity or intercept your data. VPNs are legal in most countries, though there may be some restrictions in place. 

In this article, we're going to answer the question, what is a VPN. We'll also cover how VPNs work, what they're used for, if there are any disadvantages to using a VPN, whether they're legal, and our recommendations.

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How Does a VPN Work?

Most people connect to the internet through their local internet service provider (ISP). This can be your cable provider, like Xfinity, Spectrum, Cox, Frontier, or CenturyLink. Or it can be your fiber network provider, like AT&T Fiber, Google Fiber, or Verizon Fios. It can also be your satellite provider, like HughesNet or Viasat. 

When you go online, you're assigned an internet protocol (IP) address. With this IP address, your internet service provider 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 activity becomes encrypted and your ISP and the sites you visit can no longer see your personal IP address. When you use a VPN, you first connect to one of the VPN's servers. Most VPNs have servers around the world and each has a different IP address.

So, 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 being able to identify you or track your activity.

What are VPNs Used For?

There are many uses of VPNs. But specifically, what is a VPN used for?

Privacy

The primary purpose of a VPN is for privacy when surfing the web. Your ISP and third-party sites will no longer be able to track your activity. 

For example, without a VPN, if you're shopping for baby clothes online, all of a sudden, you'll start seeing 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, in addition to baby clothes, you searched for cribs, car seats, and strollers. With that information, they can determine you're pregnant and you could start receiving discounts for diapers or baby formula, even if you never searched for those items.

However, if you complete that same search when using 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 and brands won't be able to dive into your personal life.

Security

Another primary feature of a VPN is the security it provides when you're using a public Wi-Fi connection. If you go to a coffee shop, the mall, grocery store, airport, or most any other public location, and connect to the internet through their public Wi-Fi system, your connection is not secure.

An unsecured network makes it easier for your computer, phone, or tablet to be hacked and your data compromised. 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.

Location Blocking

Using a VPN, it's no longer possible for websites to know where you're located. They can't tell if you're in New York City or London. This is because, instead of being tracked to your IP address, which is tied to your location, your activity is tracked to the IP address of your VPN. Since most VPNs have servers around the world, while you may be in New York, to websites, it may appear like you're in London.

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, in addition to 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.

Streaming Services

The content offered on streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, 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 content from around the world no matter where you live.

However, for some streaming services, this is against their terms of service. So it's important to review a service's terms of service before changing your location.

Are There Disadvantages to Using a VPN?

One of the biggest potential disadvantages to using a VPN is the possibility your online speeds may be a bit slower. This is because the data is being re-routed through additional servers. 

However, this is where the choice of the VPN you're using comes into play. There are both free VPNs and those that require a monthly fee. The VPNs that have a monthly cost have been able to minimize this issue for their subscribers.

Are VPNs Legal?

In most countries, including the United States, using a VPN is completely legal.

However, the use of a VPN may go against the terms of service of some providers, like streaming networks. There are some streaming service providers, such as MLB TV, and regional sports networks, like Bally Sports, that block some content 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 network that has the contract to show those games.

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 market area to see Bally Sports Detroit, which will show games for MLB's Detroit Tigers, NBA's Detroit Pistons, and NHL's Detroit Red Wings. 

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.

Our Recommendation

The safety, security, and privacy provided by VPNs make using 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

ExpressVPN offers three plans and each comes with a 30-day guarantee. With the monthly plan, you'll be billed at a rate of $13/mo., while you can also purchase a six-month plan -- in which you're billed $60/yr. upfront. This is $10/mo., which is a discount of 23 percent.

ExpressVPN's most popular plan is its annual plan, which costs $100/yr. This monthly rate of $8/mo. is a 35 percent savings over the monthly rate. 


NordVPN

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 $12/mo., while the annual plan is billed at a rate of $60/yr. for the first year and $100/yr. afterwards. This is $5/mo., or a savings of 39 percent.

NordVPN's best value is the two-year plan, which costs $96/yr. for the first two years, then $99/yr. for each subsequent year. This $3/mo. is a saving of 60 percent over the monthly plan. 


Surfshark

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 a savings of 69 percent over the monthly plan. 

If you're willing to pay for two years upfront, you'll get Surfshark's best rate. It costs $60/yr., which is about $2/mo., a savings of more than 80 percent -- compared to the monthly plan.