Written by Tabby Farrar

It is a term that is increasingly being used in relation to online security, but what is a VPN (Virtual Private Network) and why do you need one? Talk of encryption tunnels and data packets can feel about as clear as mud, which is why this guide is designed to keep things simple. Read on to find out exactly what a VPN is, how it works and the benefits of using this security measure.

What is a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network is an online service that increases your privacy and security when browsing online, by helping you to access the internet over an encrypted connection – essentially hiding your activity. An ordinary home or public WiFi connection is usually unencrypted, meaning your movements and habits online can be viewed and tracked.

VPNs are made up of a collection of secure computer networks, known as servers. VPN users connect to these servers rather than accessing the internet over an unencrypted connection, and can then access sites and services online as normal. The act of using a private, encrypted connection to send data over an otherwise unsecured network is called tunnelling.

When you browse using a VPN, you can be safe in the knowledge that all of your data, from browsing history to passwords, is encrypted and protected from outside threats.

VPN services are available for business and personal use across computers, laptops and mobile devices.

Why do I need one?

In a world that continues to become increasingly dependent on the internet for shopping, work, and communication, the importance of securing your personal information and data has become essential. While security around protecting your bank details is common, privacy is equally important. Everything you search for and each website you visit could be tracked, but a VPN will mask this activity, keeping your search history private.

This level of security is especially important on mobile devices. While antivirus and other security measures are not a common consideration for mobile users, the increase in mobile use in recent years means that more and more sensitive information is being sent through unsecure networks. By using a VPN service, you can make sure that all of your communications are encrypted, wherever you are.

How does it work?

To use a VPN, you will first need to sign up to a VPN client and download their app. Depending on your service, you may be able to use multiple devices on your account.

Every device has a unique IP address, which is a form of identifying code. By using a VPN your IP address will be hidden, showing only the address of the VPN and allowing you to browse anonymously.

Without a VPN a third-party such as your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can see all of your activity, and many monitor and log the activity of their users. But if you’re using a VPN, your ISP won’t be able to decipher any of your internet traffic or where it is travelling to and from. The same is true for any hackers and other cyber criminals who may be trying to access your connection.

By accessing the internet through a protective VPN tunnel, your online activity will be secure and anonymous. However, this does not mean you are invisible – while VPNs do make the internet much safer, there is still a risk that you can be tracked using cookies.

Is a VPN legal?

Unless you are living in an authoritarian country like China or Syria, there no laws or regulations that make the use of a VPN illegal. It is simply a tool to encrypt data and protect online privacy, which is not against the law. However, if you were to use this to download or stream illegal content, you would still be committing a crime.

Should I pay for a VPN?

With any free service there is always the question of how the provider is paying for the costs of keeping their servers running, which could mean that your data might not be as secure as you would hope. To ensure the security of your data it is worthwhile to invest in a paid VPN, which is likely to offer a wider selection of international servers and better protection.

Because a VPN routes your internet traffic through an extra server rather than it going direct to your ISP, use can sometime result in slower than usual speeds, especially on free services. This may be fine for general browsing, but to make sure you are getting the best possible speed and can successfully stream and upload content, the likelihood is you’ll get much faster speeds with a paid-for VPN service.

Why you should use one

Virtual Private Networks have multiple benefits and a wide range of uses. The key feature is increased security, which will help to hide your browsing history, protecting you from being monitored or having your data shared with third parties. The encryption also allows you to transfer files securely.

VPNs are also useful for avoiding ad-tracking, so that your online habits are not monitored and used to target adverts to you.

Another useful element is that a VPN can make it appear as if you are accessing the internet from another country – very useful for journalists operating from behind censorship walls around the world, and for enjoying streaming services from your home country while living and working abroad. This can also help you to get cheaper prices on services available for different prices in different locations.

A mobile VPN is especially useful for people who are reliant on free WiFi. Normally, free WiFi is unsecure and should not be used for activity where financial details are at play, such as shopping or online banking. However, if you use a VPN your data will be securely encrypted. Great for people who spend a lot of time in airports or on the move.

With the increase in the variety of security risks online, the use of VPNs is becoming more essential than ever before. Versatile and easy to use, they offer increased protection in a variety of tasks and provide peace of mind that whether you’re shopping, streaming or simply surfing the web, that layer of encryption means you aren’t being watched.

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