What is a VPN? Credit: Martyn Williams/IDGNS
Networking & Communications

What is a VPN?

A VPN, which stands for Virtual Private Network, can be used to protect your online privacy and offer access to region-blocked content. Here, we explain exactly what a VPN is and how it works.

Public awareness of VPNs is growing, but for many they’re still a mystery. Traditionally, they were used by businesses to enable their employees to access a company’s internal network securely. Nowadays people use them for two main things: privacy and watching TV.

Our favourite VPNs are NordVPN and ExpressVPN, but you can find our pick of the top ten in our round-up of the best VPN services.

A VPN works by creating a private tunnel from your computer, phone or tablet over the internet to a server. The data sent via this tunnel is encrypted and can’t be intercepted. This means your privacy is protected and you are able to be truly anonymous whilst browsing the web.

If you choose to connect server located in a country that isn’t the one you are currently located in when using your VPN, you’ll also be able to access blocked content. If you are in the UK but choose a US server location, for example, your Netflix account will think you are in the US and show you US content.

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

Using a VPN for online privacy and anonymous browsing

The story of activists such as Edward Snowden and Apple’s battle with the US government to unlock an iPhone have raised the profile of the need for privacy.

Your internet service provider (ISP) will have records of all the websites you visit, even if you’ve been using a private browser or Incognito Mode. The websites you visit 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 and can therefore be traced back to you.

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

If you don’t like the sound of that, using a VPN all the time makes sense.

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: this vote means US ISPs can sell your web browsing data to advertisers without asking you first. NordVPN has more information on this on its website here.

Even if you’re not too concerned about this, when you’re using a laptop or mobile device on public WiFi, you are exposing your browsing habits to anyone that is so inclined to snoop.

Using a public WiFi network for online banking 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.

Using a VPN for streaming

Beyond the all-important privacy benefits of using a VPN, there are other perks to using one.

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

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

A VPN can help (although it’s important to note that in many cases doing so is breaking terms and conditions - you can find out more about that here).

Using a VPN for P2P

Another use for a VPN is to bypass ISP restrictions such as throttling when 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. 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 2018.

You can also find out more about how to use a VPN here.

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