A VPN is a Virtual Private Network. Think of it as a spy-proof connection between you and the internet that stops anyone from seeing your activity and your financial and personal information.
There are many reasons to use a VPN and they're legal in most countries. Plus, there are plenty of legitimate uses for a VPN.
Why you should use a VPN
A VPN prevents people from seeing what you do while you use the internet. This stops your internet provider from slowing down your connection based on your activity, and it also means it can't sell your data to third parties which might target you with annoying adverts.
Most free Wi-Fi that you find in cafes, hotels, airports and shopping malls is 'open' which means you can connect without entering a password. That's convenient, but it also means it's very easy to steal people's data and see what they're doing because, without a password, that Wi-Fi connection is not encrypted.
Using a VPN on public Wi-Fi fixes that, because all VPN connection are encrypted.
Another use for such a service is to make it appear as if you are located in another country. This can unlock services that are blocked from your real location, for example, you can watch shows on Netflix that aren't available in your region. Plus, if you love to play online games, you can lower your ping by connecting to a VPN server in the country where the game is hosted.
What's the difference between free and paid VPNs?
There are many VPN services available, and some are free to use. Depending on why you want a VPN, a free one might be fine, but for most people they are too limited because they offer a tiny selection of servers (probably not in the countries you want) and only give you a small data allowance that's rarely enough for streaming videos. In rare cases, a free VPN service might sell your email address and browsing habits to cover the cost of you using its service, which negates the whole point of using a VPN for some people.
You can see our recommendations for free VPN services, but given that there are so many advantages of paying for a VPN - and that the monthly cost is so low - it makes more sense to subscribe to one.
Paid VPNs typically offer hundreds or thousands of servers in locations around the world, and give you unlimited data so you can stream as much video as you want.
How to choose a VPN
VPNs are built around trust, so it's important that you pick one that's trustworthy. All services these days say that they keep no logs of your activity - such as when you used the service, your IP address and other data - but as a user, you can't verify whether this is true or not. You have to take their word for it.
Beyond these aspects, you should factor in whether the service offers apps for the devices you want to use a VPN on - Android, iOS, Windows, Mac etc - and whether it has servers in the countries you need.
All VPNs will have an effect on your internet connection speed, but this won't be noticeable with the fastest services.
The first thing to do once you've chosen which service to use (see below for our recommendations) is to sign up for an account and then download the app.
In most cases, the choice is how long to subscribe for: the longer, the cheaper the monthly cost. In all but rare cases, they offer a 30-day money back guarantee so you can try the service and get a refund if you're not happy.
How to use a VPN
With the app for your chosen service installed on your device, launch it and enter your username and password. Some services provide an activation code instead, which you need to enter.
Choose a VPN server
When you're logged in you'll usually see a prominent 'connect' button and possibly the option to pick a server automatically based on being the closest to you or the one which will offer the fastest connection.
You might see a list of countries or a map. In the case of NordVPN the main screen shows both a clickable map as well as a menu of recently used servers, speciality servers and a full list of locations.
Simply click on one and wait until you see it say 'Connected' or 'Protected'. This typically takes only a few seconds, but can be up to around 20-30 seconds.
The location of the server you connect to is then your virtual location, meaning the internet thinks that you are in that location right now. That's why the server you choose will largely depend on what you want to use the VPN for.
It can be worth picking a server that's in the same country or even city for general web browsing as this adds a level of privacy that you don't get otherwise.
If you want to watch a show that's only on US Netflix you'll need to choose a US-based server, or to watch BBC iPlayer you'll need a UK-based server. Of course, it's important to note that doing so goes against both services terms and conditions, but is not illegal.
If you want to use a different server, you can usually just click or tap on it in the list, and you can turn the VPN off by tapping or clicking Disconnect.
To test whether the VPN is working, you can use IPleak.net which will tell you what your virtual IP address location is. It should be roughly the location of the server you chose, rather than your actual location. If it is, your VPN is working.
Enable the kill switch
Many VPN services have a kill switch that will terminate your connection to protect your privacy if the VPN connection stops unexpectedly. Often you have to go into the app settings to enable this, as it's not turned on by default.
There's a good reason why kill switches aren't on by default. In Nord's case, as with lots of other services, you won't be able to access the internet unless the VPN is connected.
That's why a good alternative is to use the App Kill Switch option. This lets you pick which apps should have their internet connections cut off if the VPN stops working, and leaves all others working as normal.
In other VPNs, a similar feature is called split-tunneling and it means you can choose which apps use the VPN connection and all others use the normal connection.
There are other options, but that's really all you need to do to: using a VPN is simple.
The only other setting that could be useful is to make the VPN connect automatically your laptop or phone connects to an unsafe Wi-Fi network.
Tech Advisor's recommended VPN services
Since it's remarkably easy to set up your own VPN service, just about anyone can do it. And this means it's important to choose your service wisely. We've been testing VPNs for years and we've ranked and rated the best ones here:
If you're in a hurry, though, then here are three quick picks:
NordVPN - Best VPN overall
ExpressVPN - Best premium VPN
Surfshark - Best value VPN