Beginner’s Guide: What Is A VPN? (And Do I Need To Use One?)

Do you ever log into a public wi-fi network when you’re at the airport, your local Starbucks, or even your local library? If so, you’ve probably seen the little message that pops up on your screen letting you know that you’re accessing a non-secure public network.

In case you don’t know what that means for you, it means that the network can be compromised by bad actors who may be able to see (and steal) your personal information.

If someone with malicious intent is sitting in the same coffee shop as you on that public wi-fi network, then they can not only see what you’re looking at on your computer, phone, or tablet but they can also intercept any passwords or other personal data that you’re transmitting online.

You can prevent this from happening to you by using a VPN, or a Virtual Private Network. Not sure what a VPN connection is? Let us break it all down for you.

What Is It?

A VPN lets you use public wi-fi networks without worrying about security issues because the VPN secures your computer, tablet, or phone against hackers. In essence, then VPN takes that unsecured wi-fi connection and makes it a secured connection for you.

vpn explained

In more technical terms, it works by encrypting all the data that you send from your device so that hackers can’t see your actual data. It gives you a layer of privacy and security when you’re using the internet on a network that is public.

So, what is a VPN connection? It’s just the secure connection from your internet-connected device to the VPN server that you’ve selected.

How Does It Work?

The more technical answer here is that the encrypts your data so that it moves from your device to the VPN server, and is then routed to the website that you are using online.

In essence, it’s like the data you’re sending online is put into a protective bubble where no one else can see what is inside it. And that bubble is then sent down a tunnel from your device to the VPN’s server, where it is then routed down the tunnel that sends to it the website you’re transmitting that data to.

For example, if you’re sitting in a Starbucks and accessing our banking website with a VPN, then your data gets put into that little encrypted bubble before being sent to the VPN server and then routed to your banking website.

Without a VPN, any hacker connected to that same Starbucks network could intercept your banking login data and then access your online account on his own.

guy working in coffeeshop

One cool feature of a VPN is that it gives you the ability to block your actual current geographic location and change it to something else. For instance, if you live in the United States but want to access online content that is only available to Canadians, then you can just use a VPN to change your online location to Canada to access that content.

You can use a VPN on pretty much any device that you connect to the internet. You can install it on your computer or use an app on your phone or tablet.

What is a VPN app? It’s just an app for connecting to the VPN network that you’ve signed up for. You can still select your location on the app, just like you can on your computer.

Who Needs A VPN and What Is It Used For?

Anyone, or any business, who wants a secure network to protect their privacy and security is a good candidate for a VPN.

As a traveler, I need a VPN for when I’m using the wi-fi at airports, train stations, hotels, coffee shops, libraries, on planes and other places that I visit with public wi-fi access. Pretty much the only time that I’m not using a VPN is when I’m using my cell phone data or when I’m at a private home that has a secure network.

But you don’t have to be a frequent traveler to need a VPN service on your laptop, phone, or tablet.

If you want to have the utmost security and privacy, then you need a VPN when you are online. You may also need it for other reasons.

Do you want to stream content that is restricted to you based on your geographic location? If so, a good VPN can probably help you access that content. As a Netflix user, I often use a VPN to access the different versions of Netflix, since they seem to have different content available based on location.

netflix

You can also use a VPN to get around firewalls at work or school. For example, my university blocked gaming websites when I was a student there, but using a VPN allowed me to use the school’s public wi-fi and still access those gaming sites.

If you just want to stay anonymous at home so your ISP doesn’t know what you’re doing online, then a VPN can offer you the privacy protection that you want at home. Depending on the country where you live, this might be more important to you than other internet users.

Even businesses need a VPN sometimes, such as when they’re moving highly confidential data from one network to another.

Are There Any Downsides To Using A VPN?

Right now you’re probably thinking that using a VPN sounds pretty great, huh? Well, there are some negative aspects to it that you should be aware of.

Since your data has to go through the VPN server before reaching the target destination, it will be a slower process than if you were not using a VPN. In technical terms, this is called latency.

Latency is defined as how long it takes a packet of data to reach its destination.

And the further away your VPN server is from the target destination, the more the latency increases. So, if you’re trying to access your online bank account in the United States, then you should use a VPN location in the USA instead of one in Europe or Asia.

phone to phone transfer

Another negative you might encounter is that sometimes sites catch on to VPN usage and block access (or limit it) when they suspect someone is using a VPN. Among Americans, you see this often mentioned when someone is trying to access Hulu with a VPN. Personally, I experience this when trying to using my cable subscription login to stream shows on some VPN connections.

You may also encounter extra layers of security when logging into accounts using a VPN. Personally, I experience this with PayPal and Facebook when I use a VPN away from home. Usually I just have to take extra steps to verify my identity, but it’s worth it to protect my online data.

Summary

As you can see, a VPN is just a way for you to protect all of your online data from hackers when you’re using a wi-fi network in a public space.

Though there are some negative aspects of using a VPN, the peace of mind you gain from knowing that your data is always secure far outweighs the downsides of not using one.

CC 2.0 image credits: 1, 2, 3

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