Have you been wondering how to protect your privacy when you go online? Or maybe you want to secure your internet connection while also getting access to blocked content, censored media, and anything else that’s restricted by online gatekeepers…
Well you can do it all with a virtual private network – or VPN for short.
The demand for VPNs is quickly rising in response to frightening mass surveillance trends. This is especially true in places like the US, the UK, and Australia where internet service providers (ISPs) are logging everything you do online and handing it over to governments and third parties. With all the developments in tracking and corporate surveillance, your entire digital life is quietly being harvested and sold to the highest bidder.
But before we discuss the solutions to these problems, let’s cover some basics.
What does VPN mean and how does it work?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is an encrypted connection between your computer/device and a VPN server. Think of this encrypted connection as a protected “tunnel” through which you can access everything online, while appearing to be in the location of the server you are connected to. This gives you a high level online anonymity, provides you with added security, and allows you to access the entire internet without restrictions.
Without a VPN, everything you do online is easily traceable to your physical location and the device you’re using via the device’s IP address. Every device that connects to the internet has a unique IP address – from your computer to your phone and tablet. By using a VPN, you replace your computer’s IP address with the VPN server’s IP address and also hide your true location.
Good VPN service providers typically maintain servers all around the world – which gives you lots of connection possibilities.
After purchasing a VPN service and downloading the software, you can instantly connect to any of these worldwide servers.
Benefits of a VPN
Now that we’ve covered some of the basics, here are a few things you can do with a VPN:
- Surf the internet without revealing your real IP address and geo-location.
- Add an extra level of security by encrypting your internet connection.
- Prevent your Internet Service Provider (ISP), third parties, and governments from spying on your online activities (thanks to encryption).
- Access blocked content that’s restricted to certain geographic locations.
- P2P download and stream media (such as Kodi) in safety.
- Bypass censorship by easily getting around regional restrictions.
- Save money on flights and other online purchases by changing your IP address (geographic location).
- Protect yourself from hackers anywhere you go – especially while using public WiFi connections in cafés, hotels, and airports.
- Protect your private data, such as bank passwords, credit cards, photos, and other personal information when online.
- Surf the internet with peace of mind.
With all the benefits to VPNs, it’s easy to see why their popularity is quickly growing throughout the world.
Are VPNs safe?
Using a good, high quality VPN is generally considered safe.
The two main criteria used by RestorePrivacy to rank and evaluate VPNs are privacy jurisdiction (where the VPN is legally based), and testing results, which determine how well it actually protects you. Only the VPNs that do well in all these different areas will be recommended on this website. (See the Best VPNs list for our current recommendations that passed all tests.)
And as a final warning, avoid free VPNs like the plague. Free VPNs are usually just tools to collect and sell your data and private information. Here are the seven hidden risks of free VPNs:
- embedded malware (quite common with free VPN apps)
- hidden tracking (many popular VPN providers hide tracking in the apps to collect your data)
- third party access to your data
- stolen bandwidth
- browser hijacking
- traffic leaks (IP address leaks, DNS leaks)
- fraud (identity theft and financial fraud)
These are a few of the common risks with free VPNs.
Online privacy and security – the details
A good VPN can provide you with both online privacy and security.
Without a VPN, your internet service provider (ISP) can easily see and record everything you do: sites you visit, comments you make, social media interactions, and everything else. With so many ISPs working directly with governments and third parties, disclosing sensitive customer information, many people are feeling betrayed and worried.
But when using a VPN, your ISP can only see that you’re online and connected to a VPN server. That’s it. Your information is encrypted and secured, blocking their access to private data.
Due to the encryption that goes with a VPN, public WiFi connections are once again safe to use. Important: you should never use public WiFi without a VPN. Hackers and other criminals regularly exploit public WiFi to steal peoples’ identity, personal data, credit cards, bank accounts, and other private information.
While it’s very difficult to be 100% anonymous online, here are a few things you can do to have a very high level of online anonymity:
- Use a good VPN (while avoiding VPNs with known problems).
- Use a secure browser, such as the Tor browser, which is a hardened and protected version of Firefox. This will also protect you against browser fingerprinting – see setup instructions here.
- Practices good privacy precautions (further discussed in the Simple Online Privacy Guide).
To understand how a VPN protects your information, we’ll cover the different encryption types. Without getting bogged down in details, there are four common encryption protocols used with VPNs today:
- PPTP – Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol. This is an older encryption protocol with known security vulnerabilities. We do not recommend using the PPTP protocol with your VPN service due to the security problems.
- L2TP w/ IPSEC – Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol with Internet Protocol Security. This protocol is more secure than PPTP, but is can be does not always have the best speeds when compared to OpenVPN.
- OpenVPN – Is an open-source project developed for multiple types of authentication methods. This is generally considered the most secure protocol with solid speeds. In most cases, this is the best encryption protocol to be using with a VPN service. (Most VPN providers will make this the default protocol, but double check when you’re connected to a VPN.)
- IKEv2 – Internet Key Exchange version 2 is also a fast and very secure encryption protocol. It is automatically pre-configured in many operating systems, such as Windows, Mac OS, and iOS. It works very well for re-establishing connection, especially with mobile devices. The one downside is that IKEv2 was developed by Microsoft and is not an open-source project, like OpenVPN.
The main takeaway with encryption is recognizing which protocols a VPN service offers and the corresponding level of security.
VPN logs – different types
When it comes to privacy, it’s good to pay attention to logs and logging policies.
Here are the different types of VPN logs:
- Usage (browsing) logs – These logs basically include everything you do online: browsing history, times, IP addresses, metadata, etc. From a privacy standpoint, you should avoid any VPN that collects usage data.
- No logs – There are very few VPNs that truly meet the “no logs” criteria. Having a truly no logs policy is very difficult to implement. This is especially the case when VPNs need to enforce restrictions such as bandwidth or the number of devices being used per subscription.
Key point: maintaining minimal connection logs is not overly concerning in terms of privacy.
VPN performance and speed
When you’re using a VPN, a lot is going on behind the scenes. Your computer is encrypting and decrypting packets of data, which is being routed through a remote VPN server. All of this takes more time and energy, which will ultimately affect your internet speed.
To ensure the fastest speed while using a VPN, it’s best to connect to the closest VPN server that fits your needs. For example, if you’re in the UK and want to watch blocked videos that are available to people in the United States, choosing a VPN server in New York is a good idea (rather than Los Angeles).
A good VPN service should not affect your internet speed considerably. On the other hand, some of the lower-quality VPN services may significantly decrease your internet speed. This is often the case when their servers are overloaded with users (see NordVPN).
Tip: See if you can find a server status page for your VPN provider. If not, that might mean their servers are overloaded with users, resulting in slow speeds and connection problems.
VPNs on phones and tablets
While VPNs have improved significantly on iOS and Android devices, they still don’t work quite as well as they would on a computer. The main reason for this is that using a VPN is a bit more complicated than typical applications, requiring connection to external servers, encryption, and decryption. Naturally, this is a bit more challenging on a phone which may go in and out of connectivity.
The good news is that mobile device VPN applications are quickly improving, as is the processing power of phones and tablets. These developments are good for people who spend lots of time connected to a mobile device.
One word of caution: avoid cheap or free VPN mobile apps. These apps are usually very “buggy” and will often be clogged up with advertisements, malware, or trackers, which further compromise privacy and security. Fake apps that are loaded with ransomware are also becoming increasingly common. See the VPN Warning List for examples. The Hidden Dangers of Free VPNs also explains some of these risks.
In general, mobile devices have a bad reputation in terms of security and privacy. That’s because many of the apps (especially social media apps) access personal data on your device and send this info directly to the company or third parties. If you’re interested in securing your mobile device and better protecting your privacy, check out these guides:
- How to Secure Your Android Device (5 Simple Steps)
- How to Secure Your iPhone & iPad (5 Simple Steps)
VPN on a router
VPNs can also be installed on a router. A VPN router setup offers the following advantages:
- extends the benefits of a VPN to all your devices without installing software
- protects you against mass surveillance and internet service provider (ISP) spying
- secures your home network against attacks, hacking, and spying
This VPN Router Setup Guide will give you everything you need.
Need help finding a good router that will work with a VPN? See here: Best VPN Routers for 2017
How to choose a VPN
Choosing a VPN can be difficult because the internet is full of scams and deceptive marketing. Instead of looking for the best “deal” or cheap solution, look for quality providers that have transparent policies and good track records.
Finding a good VPN can be broken down into two steps:
- Avoid VPNs with known problems, see the VPN Warning List.
- Look for good, trustworthy VPNs that have passed our testing and are located in good privacy jurisdictions, see the Best VPNs list.
The most important thing to remember is to place a premium on quality, not price. Cheap or “free” VPNs are generally not worth the hassle, privacy risks, or time.
What about Tor?
Tor, which stands for The Onion Router, is a combination of network and browser that utilizes multiple “hops” to protect user privacy. Tor was created and financed by the US government in 2002 and is still used by privacy-enthusiasts. But it has some drawbacks:
- The Tor network has been compromised
- The Tor network is known to leak the user’s identity
- Microsoft’s DRM can easily expose Windows-on-Tor users
- Viewing PDF documents while using Tor can also leak your identity
- Tor users are vulnerable to end-to-end timing attacks
- Tor is too slow for everyday use (especially video streaming)
For these reasons and more, I recommend a VPN instead of Tor if you’re looking to protect your privacy online.
Are VPNs legal?
With very few exceptions, such as in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), VPNs are completely legal to use.
Some Middle Eastern countries, such as the UAE and Iran, frown on the use of VPNs because the government works so hard censor the internet and social media. Naturally, they don’t like anything that lets people get around this censorship.
This is also the case in China, where the government has been fortifying its “Great Firewall” to prevent VPN access. The solution is to just choose a good VPN provider located outside China that will not get blocked (my two recommendations for China are VPN.ac and VyprVPN).
In general, you don’t have anything to worry about when using a VPN, especially for the purpose of protecting your privacy. Of course, you should be familiar with and abide by the laws in your own country.
The VPN checklist
Choosing a good VPN is all about your individual needs. Here are some important considerations when looking to purchase a top-tier VPN service:
Server Network – One of the biggest factor separating VPNs is server quality. Good servers are expensive and are important for speed, reliability, and also security. See if you can find a server status page that shows you real time bandwidth stats.
Logs – Don’t trust “no logs” claims on the homepage. Carefully read the fine print. (See this guide on logs for more info.)
Encryption Protocols – Which encryption protocols does the VPN offer? OpenVPN is considered one of the most secure VPN protocol with solid speed and performance. IKEv2 is also very good. Try to avoid using the PPTP protocol, which has known security risks.
Multiple Devices and Compatibility – Check to see how many devices are supported with the VPN plan. Can you connect your computer, phone, and tablet all at the same time? Most VPNs offer 3-5 connections per subscription (but some offer an unlimited number of connections). Does the VPN software work on all the devices you want to use (Windows/Mac/Android/iOS/Linux/routers)?
Support – What kind of support comes with the VPN? Access to live chat support is helpful if you run into problems or need tips on optimizing the VPN performance. But 24/7 ticket-based support also works well.
Price – With the quality of a VPN service, you typically get what you pay for. You can expect to pay between $5 and $12 per month for a good VPN. Yearly subscriptions are usually much cheaper than paying month to month. Most VPNs also provide a cancellation/money-back guarantee within a certain time window if you aren’t satisfied. Some, such as VyprVPN, also offer a 3 day free trial.
Security – Protecting your privacy and security is one of the main reasons people us a VPN. You can test out any VPN for IPv4 and IPv6 leaks, DNS leaks, WebRTC leaks, and MS leaks all on this security checks page.
Right now governments everywhere are spying on their own citizens, enforcing harsh censorship laws, and enacting Orwellian (thought police) regulations.
Tech companies and internet service providers are harvesting as much of your private life as possible and using it to make more money (without your consent of course). So naturally, it’s easy to get discouraged with the direction things are heading.
But there’s good news. Using a VPN can help you break free from the censorship, spying, and all the other annoying restrictions put in place by online gatekeepers. It will also provide you with much-needed security and privacy when you go online.
In short, VPNs are a tremendous resource to keep your internet experience unrestricted, private, secure, and most importantly… fun.
Best VPNs for Privacy, Security, and Speed
After testing and analyzing many different VPNs, here are the top recommendations that passed all tests and are located in good privacy jurisdictions: