You might have heard of VPNs from adverts or from friends. For many people they’re still a mystery, so here we explain what you need to know.

VPNs are for two main things:

  • online privacy
  • watching blocked video

What does VPN stand for?

It stands for Virtual Private Network. A VPN provides a secure, encrypted connection between your computer, your phone or another device and the internet. You might think your connection is already secure, but that's only true when you visit certain websites, such as your bank.

But without a VPN your internet service provider can see exactly which websites you're visiting. They can't see the content you're viewing, but for many people, this is a breach of privacy.

A VPN offers a much better privacy as well as security by routing all the data from your device to one of its own servers via the encrypted 'tunnel' we've mentioned, which stops anyone - even your ISP - from looking in and seeing what you're up to.

Many VPN services also talk about how they make you anonymous online. That's true so long as you don't log into a website where your account contains personal details because, quite obviously, signing in with your username and password tells the website exactly who you are. Anonymity is really about stopping your ISP and other third parties from identifying and tracking you.

The other reason to use a VPN is so that you can watch video (or access other content) that's not available in your country or region. If you are in the UK but choose a US server in your VPN app, for example, Netflix will think you are in the US and show you US content.

We've tested dozens of VPN services and our top picks are NordVPN and ExpressVPN, but you can find our selection of the top ten in our round-up of the best VPN services.

Find out how to watch BBC iPlayer abroad here, and how to watch US Netflix here.

How to get online privacy and anonymous browsing

Even if you’ve been using a private or Incognito Mode in your web browser, your internet service provider (ISP) will still know - and record - all the websites you visit.

Those sites may not show up in your browser history, but they are still tied to your IP address, which is unique to the device you’re using (such as your phone or laptop) and can therefore be traced back to you.

What is a VPN?

Your ISP could therefore be ordered by the government to hand over those records if it is compelled to do so.

If you don’t like the sound of that, you should use a VPN whenever you use the internet.

In the US, this has become even more of a reason to use a VPN, after the Senate voted to remove broadband privacy rules that prevented ISPs from selling or sharing web browsing data without permission.

Yes, you read that correctly: US ISPs can sell your web browsing data to advertisers without asking you first. 

Even if you’re not too concerned about this, you should use a VPN whenever you’re using a laptop or phone on public Wi-Fi. That's because unlike home Wi-Fi, most public networks aren't password protected. This is very bad for security because it means the connection between your device and the hotspot is not encrypted so pretty much anyone with basic software can intercept any data sent across that connection.

However, if you connect to a VPN server on that device, the VPN connection is encrypted so your data is safe from snoopers.

Using a public Wi-Fi network for shopping or anything else which requires your financial details without protecting yourself with a VPN is almost like leaving your door unlocked at home - you’re making it easy for a thief to steal from you.

How to access blocked videos

Beyond the all-important privacy benefits, a VPN offers more freedom.

If you enjoy watching catch-up TV or subscribe to streaming services like Netflix or Hulu, you may have found that the shows on offer differ depending on where you are in the world. Some are even blocked completely in some regions.

What is a VPN?

For example, BBC iPlayer is only available to view if you are located in the UK, and although Netflix is available around the globe, the content available varies across countries due to licensing restrictions.

A VPN lets you get around these restrictions (although it’s important to note that in many cases doing so means you're breaking the service's terms and conditions). Check out our recommendations for the best VPNs for streaming if this is your primary reason for wanting a VPN.

Using a VPN for P2P

Another use for a VPN is to bypass ISP restrictions such as throttling when downloading files using peer-to-peer (P2P). By using a VPN, your ISP can’t tell what you’re doing and the throttling won’t kick in.

Now that you know what a VPN is and what you can use it for, you might be interested in getting one. As we've said, our current favourite is NordVPN, which you can find out more about and sign up to by clicking here.

However, there are lots of other great options at different price ranges, which you can find in our round-up of the best VPN services.

You can also find out more about how to use a VPN here and if you're really interested, how a VPN works.