You don’t need a VPN at home. But in the interest of protecting your privacy online, you might want one. The benefits of VPNs aren’t reserved for corporations and tech-savvy types. Anyone can set up and use a VPN. So why and when would you—and wouldn’t you—want to use one?
What is a VPN?
A VPN, or virtual private network, is a software tool that masks your public IP address and routes your data through an external VPN server so you can access the internet more privately.
When you connect to the web, your internet service provider, or ISP, assigns your device—typically your router or broadband modem—a public IP address, a unique identifier, like a mailing address, that helps deliver the content and information you request from the web.
Like fingerprints, no two IP addresses are exactly alike, and like fingerprints, you leave behind traces of your IP address when you roam the web. Your IP address can be used to link your activity across multiple sites, which through association can lead to your interests and even your identity being known to those who you didn't expect.
A VPN helps keep your online activities and browsing history to yourself, shielding your traffic from prying eyes by funneling it through an encrypted tunnel, inaccessible to potential eavesdroppers, like your ISP, which can otherwise see what you’re up to. With a VPN, only you, your VPN provider, and the sites you visit know where you’ve been. You can use a VPN with any of your connected devices, like a computer, tablet, or smartphone.
VPNs gained traction in the 90s, as businesses were looking for ways to safely access corporate resources from personal devices. Today, one third of internet users connect through VPNs for the protection and freedom they afford—including the ability to access websites as if you were in another country.
You don’t necessarily need a VPN at home, but you might want a VPN for the added layer of defense it offers. When it comes to cybersecurity, a combination of various internet safety measures—like using a password manager and an ad blocker—goes a long way.
5 reasons you should use a VPN
A VPN is one of the best ways to boost your security and privacy, but it can also alter how you experience the web, making it helpful in all kinds of situations. For instance:
1. When using public wifi network
If you’re in public—maybe at a coffee shop or a library—you might need to log into public wifi networks to get online, especially if you’re on a laptop, if your mobile reception is weak, or if you’re low on data. But the convenience of public wifi can come at the expense of your security.
Public networks are commonly targeted by attackers. Some set up trap networks with familiar names to lure victims. Once on their network, they can track your online activity, and execute what’s called a man-in-the-middle attack, allowing them to monitor and intercept your encrypted data and steal your usernames and passwords.
It’s safer to shield yourself with a VPN when using a wifi network that isn’t your own, regardless of whether it’s password-protected, or whether you’re on a laptop or mobile device.
2. When you want to browse anonymously
You don’t need to be hiding anything to want a bit more privacy and anonymity. It’s hard to know who might be prying or what they might do with your information.
Your IP address is like your online identifier. You don’t want it in the wrong hands. But a VPN service assigns you a shared IP address, masking your identity, preventing anyone from linking you to your activity.
Using a VPN at home is a good idea, especially if you shop or bank online. It can also protect your communications, like emails or Zoom meetings. VPN-enabled anonymous browsing hides your online activity from:
- Your ISP. The company that gives you access to the internet can see what you’re doing online. Worse, Congress has allowed ISPs—like Comcast and Verizon—to sell data about their users to data brokers, who then aggregate and resell the information. While they claim the data is anonymised, you may want to shield your activity. Using a VPN helps obscure your online activity and your IP address from your ISP.
- The sites, apps, and services you use. You may have heard that many of the most popular apps and internet services—namely, Google and Facebook—have been called out for how they use your data. You might have also noticed that when you search for something or talk about something online, you suddenly start seeing ads for related products. A VPN limits how companies can monitor your browsing and location in order to serve you targeted ads.
- Your government. ISPs and Big Tech companies aren’t the only ones eager to know what you’re up to online. Edward Snowden’s 2013 data leaks revealed that Verizon was collecting and selling user data to the NSA—i.e. the government. As recently as January 2022, The New York Times obtained an unclassified memo showing Defense Intelligence Agency analysts paid third-party data brokers for location data from smartphone apps and searches without a warrant. In the same way a VPN shields it from your ISP, it can mask your online activity from government surveillance.
3. When you want to change your apparent location
VPNs are mostly for security and privacy, but they can also grant you more freedom online. Because a VPN connects you to the internet through a server in a specific location—often a foreign country of your choice—you can skirt geographic restrictions to access content exclusive to your apparent location.
Online stores and services sometimes offer better prices to certain locations; masking your general location can give you access to better deals. If you’re traveling or living abroad, you may want to access your favorite streaming service. This tactic is also popular among sports fans who want to watch certain games or listen to commentary in a specific language.
Note that many companies, including Netflix, are picking up on the practice and getting better at detecting and blocking VPN users—although some VPN providers let you purchase a static IP address, unassociated with a VPN, giving you a better chance with certain websites. Be cautious: In the end, you’re liable to whatever contractual agreements you accepted with your streaming provider.
Changing your apparent location with a VPN connection can also help circumvent censorship if the content you want to access is blocked by a local government. But again, be cautious: using a VPN doesn’t exempt you from local laws, and VPNs are illegal or highly regulated in many countries, including Russia and China.
4. When you want to avoid ISP throttling
Some ISPs impose bandwidth limits that slow down the speed of data transmission for certain content. This is known as bandwidth throttling, or throttling, and often targets streaming content, or file sharing apps, like BitTorrent. ISPs do this to get you to upgrade to more expensive services with faster speeds. The easiest way to avoid throttling is to use a VPN connection, which blocks your ISP from knowing the kind of content you’re trying to retrieve, making it impossible for them to discriminate. If you stream or game, you might find a VPN a valuable asset.
5. When you’re working remotely
A VPN encrypts your data, scrambling it so it can only be read by whoever holds a decryption key—great for keeping confidential information from anyone it isn’t meant for. This makes VPNs especially useful for companies and remote workers. Employees can safely connect to an office network and handle sensitive information from their personal devices. Remote working persists even as the pandemic comes to an end; a VPN can be a worthwhile security investment.
Does browsing in incognito mode replace the need for a VPN?
Browsing in incognito mode and using a VPN are not the same. Each serves its own purpose; neither is a replacement for the other.
Browsing in incognito mode means your browser automatically deletes your local browsing history and cookies when you close all of your incognito tabs. While this can be useful in certain circumstances, it can also give you a false sense of security if you’re unaware of its limitations. Despite what “incognito” and “private” suggest, private browsing doesn’t mask your identity or your activity, and it doesn’t make your browsing untraceable.
Even in incognito mode, your ISP, and whoever is in charge of your network, like your employer or your school, can still see that you are connecting from the same IP address. As a result, they can still see that it’s you browsing the web. Even if you browse only HTTPS sites, they can still see what DNS queries are made so they can see what sites you visit and what IP addresses you connect to. In contrast, a VPN masks your IP address and encrypts your DNS and HTTP traffic so that the sites you visit are protected.
Again, a combination of privacy measures goes a long way: Browsing incognito while using a VPN is a great way to protect your privacy online.
Disadvantages of using a VPN
A VPN isn’t a perfect tool. It has drawbacks. Before using a VPN, keep some of these protection and performance limitations in mind:
- Your VPN provider can still see your browsing data. Because it’s passing through their servers, your VPN service has access to your data. You have to trust they’re not going to misuse it. Paid services tend to prioritize personal privacy over commercial exploitation. Go with a reputable VPN provider, ideally one with a no-log policy, meaning they don’t collect or sell the data they handle.
- Not impervious to malware and attacks. Like other forms of software, a VPN is susceptible to malware and online attacks, and once compromised, its security benefits are null. Free VPN services are especially vulnerable because, to make money, they might run ads, some of which can contain malware.
- Traffic isn’t invisible. ISPs and other onlookers can sometimes still tell if your internet traffic is coming through a VPN thanks to an IP address, port number, or deep packet inspection. Some governments, notably China, block traffic they determine is coming through a VPN.
- Doesn’t block all web tracking. A VPN doesn’t obscure everything about your activity, especially if you’re logged into a website. For example, liking a post on Instagram while using a VPN won’t stop the app from logging your behavior and using it to tailor ads and content in your feed.
- Heavier battery usage. Using a VPN adds a slight computational load to all of your internet communications, about 5% to 15%. You might find your battery usage goes up when your VPN is turned on, especially on a mobile device. If poor battery performance is already a problem, connecting to your VPN won’t help.
- Slow upload and download speeds. Using a VPN can slow your internet connection. When your VPN is on, your web traffic passes through an outside server, meaning it has to go through more intermediates. This tends to have a negative effect on upload and download speeds, although some VPNs perform better than others.
- Compatibility problems. Many smart home applications need to see your traffic in order to work, but a VPN prevents that. It can obstruct devices on your network from communicating with one another, meaning your phone, for example, might not be able to send media to your Chromecast.
- No local services. When your actual location is relevant to your online activity, like when you want to find a local restaurant in your neighborhood, a VPN can actually get in the way. VPN services generally provide a number of locations, but their location options may not be granular enough for your purposes.
Note that most VPNs have a pause button, meaning you can turn it on and off without having to completely disconnect your service, and a VPN doesn’t need to be on all the time (although you generally want to keep it on as much as possible).
How do I get a VPN?
Virtual private networks are relatively straightforward to install and use. How to set one up one depends on your device and its operating system, though the process generally involves the few following steps:
- Choose your preferred service.
- Sign up and pay for a plan, either a monthly or annual charge.
- Download and install the platform-specific VPN client application.
- Log in to the application and configure it to your preferences.
- Turn it on.
Most protection plans help keep you safe on multiple devices. Detailed instructions for installation and configuration vary depending on VPN companies (refer to your service provider’s documentation for details). When choosing your virtual server, note that the closer you are to its location, the faster your connection will be.
If you’re in the market for a VPN, here are a few that we recommend:
- Bitdefender (premium version included in Neeva Premium membership for $4.95/mo or $49.95 annually)
- ExpressVPN (strong privacy, lots of locations, advanced technical options, $13/mo or $100 annually)
- NordVPN (strong privacy, advanced technical options, $12/mo or $110 annually)
- TunnelBear (free, but data limits apply; unlimited upgrade available for a fee).
Are you ready for a search engine that prioritizes your safety and protects your data? Neeva is the world’s first private, ad-free search engine, committed to showing you the best result for every search. We have membership options for everyone, from a full-featured Free Basic tier to a Premium tier that includes access to best-in-class privacy tools such as Bitdefender Premium VPN and LastPass Premium Password Manager. We will never sell or share your data with anyone, including advertisers. Try Neeva for yourself at neeva.com.