What is a VPN?

'What is a VPN?' conceptual visualisation

A virtual private network (VPN) is an increasingly popular cybersecurity tool that protects your information while browsing, while also unlocking region-restricted content. Here we look at the ins and outs.

A VPN is a secure means of accessing the internet from your computer or device, creating a ‘tunnel’ that encrypts your data. The best VPN software will route your information via a secure server, giving you a different IP address and making it seem as if you’re in a location of your choice. As such, it’s possible to unblock restricted content while abroad, while also protecting you from hackers, cybercriminals and other third parties – even governments.

In essence, in combination with getting the best broadband deal available, it’s a means of becoming a supercharged internet user. Read on to find out how a VPN can save you money while keeping you safe online – no matter where you are. We’ve also tapped up the experts at our sister site Techradar for their tech and security expertise.

Already know what a VPN is? Jump straight to VPN top picks.

*When you sign up via this link, we may earn an affiliate commission from this deal. Here’s how it works.

What does a VPN do?

When you browse the internet or use any online services, your device is a bit of an open book. It sends and receives data about everything you’re doing, meaning anyone with access to your internet traffic can see what you’re doing – be it your broadband provider or the questionable public WiFi you just connected to.

Plus, websites you’re using may be able to find out a surprising amount about you. They might be able to tell your approximate location, device information, browsing activities and some personal information.

You’re even more exposed if you use a public Wi-Fi hotspot. Your information is open to hotspot operators and potential hackers.

A VPN encrypts your browsing data, meaning it’s completely private from any other internet users – such as hackers, governments and even your ISP. Because of the importance of making what you’re doing online indecipherable to third parties, it’s vitally important to choose a good VPN.

How does a VPN work?

The VPN links your device to a secure server somewhere in the world and creates a private network for you. In doing so, it encrypts your data, making it secure from any third parties.

Your VPN provider will usually own a large number of servers located around the world. It’ll route your traffic via one of these servers, replacing your IP – the digital signature that identifies your device. This means it’ll appear as if you’re browsing from that location. So if you connect to your VPN’s server in San Francisco, it’ll appear as if you’re browsing from the west coast of the United States, rather than the UK.

Some servers may be physically located in a country, while other networks you connect to may be virtual. But as a rule of thumb, the closer the server is located to you physically, the better the internet speeds you’ll be able to get.

It’s worth noting that some of the lesser established VPN companies may rent servers, rather than own them. This can sometimes lead to less bandwidth, slower speeds and possible security risks. For this reason, it’s important to do your homework and pick the right provider.

When you access any website, app or service, your device will make a data request from them. It’ll then receive information back. So you may request to see a page on a website, or a feed from a social network, and you’ll receive the data in return.

Normally, your device will make these requests directly. But when you’re connected to your VPN, any request that your device makes will go via its server. This makes you almost impossible to track – whether that’s by websites, advertisers, cybercriminals or even governments.

In addition, as your data is encrypted, this makes it almost impossible for third parties to decode. Let’s say a hacker in a coffee shop sets up a hotspot called ‘Free cafe Wi-Fi’. If you connect to this normally, your device will be exposed. But if you connect via a VPN, your data will appear as a scramble of letters, numbers and symbols. As such, it’s an extra level of security for your personal information.

Diagram of how VPNs work. Image credit: ExpressVPN

Image credit: ExpressVPN

What are the benefits of a VPN?

Using a VPN has numerous advantages, especially if you’re using your device away from home, such as abroad or using public Wi-Fi.

Be secure online

Connecting your device to the net via a VPN means your data is encrypted. Say you’re using public Wi-Fi. If you don’t want the Wi-Fi operator to have access to your personal information, connecting using a VPN is a smart way of protecting your data. This may be especially important if you have sensitive personal information on your device, or you’re using a work laptop with access to customer data, for instance.

Similarly, it also protects your web activity from hackers or other unscrupulous users wishing to gather your information.

Sidestep online censorship

Sometimes networks may block access to certain sites. While often this is for your protection, other times it may be frustrating. But if you connect to a VPN, the network operator can’t see the sites you’re visiting, meaning it can’t block them.

This can be useful if you’re visiting a country where certain content is censored, such as social networks or selected news outlets. By connecting to a VPN, you’ll be able to browse your chosen sites as usual.

See country-specific content

As your VPN allows you to appear like you’re in a different country, you may be able to access deals that you might not be able to at home. For example hotel rooms, concert or event tickets and even flights may be priced more favourably in a country you’re planning on visiting. Connecting to your VPN’s server in that country may be able to make your money go further or get access to products or events which you might not otherwise.

You can also bypass geo-blocking, which is when content is restricted for those in particular countries. Sometimes users choose to access shows only available in the US from overseas, for instance. Although, doing this may put you in breach of your streaming service’s terms and conditions, which could see you booted off your subscription.

However, it could prove useful for accessing your home streaming services while abroad, particularly if your regular shows are blocked. For example, if you’re holidaying overseas but need to catch up with new episodes of Strictly on your device.

If you’re off on your travels, it may be worth considering taking mobile broadband with you.

Remain comparatively anonymous

Using a VPN cloaks your browsing, allowing you to remain fairly anonymous. This can be useful for concealing your identity from advertisers and websites. Say goodbye to those ads that stalk you round the web, regardless of whether you’ve already bought them or have no interest in them.

It’s worth noting that a VPN doesn’t make you completely anonymous. But it certainly greatly reduces your chances of being tracked.

Benefit from additional security tools

Many premium VPNs come with additional security and browsing tools, such as:

  • Antivirus
  • Password managers
  • Ad blockers
  • Tracker blockers
  • Cloud storage
  • Data breach scanning
  • Parental controls

Another way in which your information can be used is by data brokers, which sell your details on for profit at the expense of your privacy. Some VPNs such as Nord and Incogni offer data broker information deletion request services, giving you greater control over your data, while reducing spam and potential scams.

What are the limitations of VPNs?

While very useful, it’s also worth knowing what VPNs can’t do. For example, while certain VPNs will offer virus protection, this isn’t a guarantee that you’ll be immune to viruses, malware or online scams.

They also can’t guarantee complete anonymity. This is in part because, if you log into any of your regular accounts while using the VPN, that site will know exactly who you are. Plus they’ll often use cookies to track the way in which you use the site. There’s usually nothing sinister about this – they’re just gathering data on how users behave using their websites. But all the same, your movements may not be entirely private.

Finally, it’s best not to view VPNs in terms of getting loads of free stuff, like being able to stream lots of free TV. If a VPN advertises that it’s great for streaming, this may be true of watching certain channels and sports overseas. But it doesn’t mean you’ll get paid services for nothing.

VPN top picks

These are the top 30 VPNs, as reviewed and rated by the experts at our sister site. You can see how Techradar has scored the VPNs here.

Please note that we haven’t included VPN prices, as these change frequently.

Provider Rating Summary
1. ExpressVPN ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ The best VPN overall and our top pick for most use cases.
2. NordVPN ⭐⭐⭐⭐½ The fastest VPN, plus a full security suite with ad-blocking and malware protection.
3. Surfshark ⭐⭐⭐⭐½ The best cheap VPN, and also the fastest in our tests.
4. Private Internet Access ⭐⭐⭐⭐½ The best Linux VPN. A dedicated GUI for Linux, and a no-logs policy that was proven in court twice.
5. IPVanish ⭐⭐⭐⭐ The best of the rest. An up-and-coming provider that supports Linux.
6. PrivadoVPN ⭐⭐⭐⭐ The best free VPN. It even unblocks Netflix.
7. ProtonVPN ⭐⭐⭐⭐ A popular free VPN service with a history of advocating for the freedom of the internet.
8. Windscribe ⭐⭐⭐⭐ A fast service with a popular browser proxy.
9. CyberGhost VPN ⭐⭐⭐⭐ A popular and easy-to-use platform that's great for beginners.
10. Mullvad ⭐⭐⭐⭐ Good for Linux, and you can even pay in cash.
11. PureVPN ⭐⭐⭐⭐ One of the cheapest premium VPNs on the market.
12. Hide.Me ⭐⭐⭐⭐ A speedy service with plenty of customization.
13. Atlas VPN ⭐⭐⭐½ A new player in the VPN industry that's already making waves.
14. TunnelBear ⭐⭐⭐½ A reliable free VPN but no support for content unblocking.
15. Mozilla VPN ⭐⭐⭐½ A well known brand with a VPN that currently underperforms.
16. Hotspot Shield ⭐⭐⭐½ A fast VPN service with lots of great features.
17. VyprVPN ⭐⭐⭐ A reliable VPN with a dedicated protocol for bypassing even the most severe censorship.
18. Norton VPN ⭐⭐⭐ Known for its popular security suite with a lacklustre VPN.
19. PrivateVPN ⭐⭐½ An excellent cheap service that offers plenty of support for streaming and torrenting.
20. AstrillVPN ⭐⭐½ A mid-range VPN that's popular for bypassing Chinese censorship.
21. FastestVPN ⭐⭐½ Making its way up the list, but not yet living up to its name.
22. StrongVPN ⭐⭐ Another mid-range VPN that continues to improve.
23. AirVPN ⭐⭐ Built by hacktivists, for hacktivists.
24. Goose VPN ⭐⭐ An incredibly cheap mid-range VPN.
25. TorGuard ⭐⭐ A torrent-friendly VPN that's good for accessing foreign content.
26. UltraVPN ⭐⭐ Fast and secure with plenty of server locations.
27. Le VPN ⭐⭐ Lots of locations to choose from and integrated SmartDNS technology.
28. VPNArea ⭐⭐ A mid-range VPN that struggles to hold up against the industry leaders.
29. ZoogVPN ⭐⭐ A fairly underwhelming VPN from Greece.
30. Google One ⭐⭐ Google's history with data doesn't give us much faith in the service.

How do I choose a VPN?

There are a number of factors to consider when choosing a VPN provider:

  • Price. Premium VPNs can cost between £1 and £10 a month. Often you’ll be asked to pay for a year upfront, although this may factor in a reduction. There are free VPNs, although you have to consider what they get out of it. It’s best to spend a little to go with a trusted provider. Note that you may be asked to pay in US dollars.

    Top tip: Keep an eye out for reduced price VPN deals on Black Friday.

     

  • Plan lengths. Monthly and annual plans are typical, with discounts usually offered for longer plans. Some VPN providers even offer five-year subscriptions, which could work out better value if you plan to use them long-term.

     

  • Server network. It’s a good sign if a VPN has a large network of servers, although make sure they offer the location(s) you want.

     

  • Number of devices protected. VPNs usually cover as many devices as you like. But check to see that your chosen devices can all be connected at the same time.

     

  • Service and expertise. A good VPN will need several fast servers, minimal downtime and expert support staff who can help you with technical issues 24/7. Again, a VPN is very much a service where you get what you pay for.

Are VPNs legal?

In most countries, it’s legal to use a VPN. There are outright bans in countries such as North Korea, Belarus, Turkmenistan and Iraq. Use is restricted in countries like China (where you can only use a government-licenced VPN), Russia and Turkey.

Notably, VPNs are restricted in countries that rely heavily on censorship and score poorly on the World Press Freedom Index.

Ultimately, if you’re travelling abroad with a device with a VPN, the buck stops with you when it comes to understanding the rules.

It’s also worth noting that, even in the large number of countries where VPNs are perfectly legal, they can still be used illegally. By sharing copyrighted material, hacking into a network or buying and selling on the dark web, you’re most likely breaking the law. If in doubt, see your VPN’s terms and conditions for activities it doesn’t allow.

Can VPN providers be trusted?

Many VPN providers are indeed trustworthy. It’s their job to protect your privacy, which the top providers take very seriously.

However, there may be VPN providers who claim to protect your privacy but aren’t up to the task. Worse still, there may be unscrupulous companies who might pass on your personal information, or may even install malware on your device. Your personal information is valuable and you’re trusting your VPN provider a lot by putting it all in their hands.

This is why it’s vital you do your research before you buy. The VPN services we link to on this page have all been verified as safe by our sister site Techradar, which has teams of experts dedicated to testing software. Only providers guaranteed to be secure make the cut. For the most safe providers on the market, see Secure VPN providers: safe options for the best security and encryption.

Looking to save money? Here’s how to cut down on your broadband bills.