VPN providers make a lot of promises. They have a tendency to describe their product as a silver bullet for all your privacy needs. To cut through the noise, we’ve put together the five most important things you should use a VPN for.
When Should You Use a VPN?
VPNs forward your traffic, making you appear as if you’re browsing from somewhere you’re not. They do this while creating an encrypted tunnel that hides your browsing habits from local network providers and your internet service provider.
This makes VPNs great for circumventing regional restrictions, as well as partially hiding your identity online—though note we say “partially,” something we’ll get into more below.
This makes VPNs tools with a fairly specific use, they’re no panacea for all your online ills. That said, when used correctly, VPNs will allow you to do all manner of things that you couldn’t do otherwise, or at least not without getting into some measure of trouble.
Probably the most wholesome reason to use a VPN is the ability to avoid government censorship. The internet is restricted in several countries—including China, Iran, and Russia—and a VPN is the best tool to get around those restrictions. The reason for this is that most of these blocks work on the idea of shutting down access to a certain IP address. It’s no surprise that VPNs are illegal in some countries.
For example, when China banned Facebook from its borders, it made it so any Chinese server trying to access Facebook’s IP address would be blocked. To get around that block, you would need to first connect to a different server outside of China, one with an unblocked IP, and then from there go to facebook.com. We explain further in our guide on how to use the internet from China.
It’s a relatively simple solution to a complicated problem, and VPNs are without a doubt one of the most important tools for people in certain countries that want to have unrestricted access to media, or even just people that want to play games deemed “bad” by the authorities for whatever reason.
The same technology that lets you circumvent blocks put up by authoritarian governments is also very effective in avoiding surveillance, be it from governments or corporations. Whether you want to make sure that your ISP doesn’t see what you’re up to online or worry that the secret police are keeping tabs on you, a VPN can give you some measure of anonymity.
However, this is also where reality crashes the most into the promises made by VPN providers. Your IP address is only one of the many ways in which you can be tracked online. Browser fingerprinting is another effective method. If you’re signed in to a service like Facebook or Google in your browser, they can track you, too—even with a VPN engaged.
Though VPNs definitely are part of any strategy aimed at staying anonymous online, they’re far from a one-stop solution. For one, you’ll need to get used to using incognito mode together with a VPN if you want to be harder to track while browsing.
Another form of surveillance VPNs will help you avoid is that of copyright watchdogs, which generally stand sentinel over torrenting sites like The Pirate Bay and threaten fines and lawsuits to anybody downloading copyrighted material via peer-to-peer connections. Though it’s not a worldwide obstacle, in most North American and European countries using Bittorrent can lead to some serious legal trouble.
As such, a VPN is an absolute must-have for torrenters in most countries. Without one, you can expect some nasty notices on your doormat, while with one you can torrent away without a worry—except of course accidentally downloading a bad torrent.
The ability to appear to be somewhere else than where you are comes in handy in many cases, but its most conspicuous use for most people is streaming. As you may have noticed, many streaming sites—Netflix is the prime example, but Hulu and Amazon Prime Video have the same system—limit what you can see depending on your physical location.
For example, Netflix’s library in the United States is several times the size of that in any European or Asian country. Without a VPN, you’d be stuck to just watching what is on offer in your own country. Using a VPN allows you to unlock all of Netflix. It’s great.
Or rather, we should say “allowed” as Netflix has cracked down rather harshly on VPNs. Currently, it’s becoming harder and harder to break through the blocks put up by Netflix and other streaming sites. As a result, we’ve put this reason to get a VPN a little lower on the list as the days of easily breaking into other regions’ libraries may be over.
Last, there’s still a solid reason to use a VPN, namely to protect yourself from hackers, particularly ones using a so-called man-in-the-middle attack. In essence, these attacks will hijack a public Wi-Fi signal and track everything you’re doing online. They have the potential to be pretty dangerous, but using a VPN when on a public network means that all the hacker can see is encrypted gibberish, which is great for you.
That said, public Wi-Fi is safer than ever thanks to the advent of HTTPS, an encrypted protocol that has made communication over any network, not just public ones, a lot more secure. Though there’s still a small case to be made for using a VPN when on public Wi-Fi, it’s not the absolute necessity it used to be.
Though there are other reasons to use a VPN, these five are probably the most common and important. Check out our best VPN picks to see which services are best for which task.