Why You Need A VPN (And How To Choose One)

You might know what a virtual private network (VPN) is, but the odds of you actually using one are low. You really should be using a VPN — ultimately, you may end up seeing it as just as vital as your internet connection. We'll tell you why, explain how to choose a VPN provider and list five that are worth considering.

Title image remixed using konmesa (Shutterstock) and Toria (Shutterstock).

When we took a look at your five favourite VPN service providers, we noticed a few things. First, being the "best" is big business for VPN providers, and they'll fight hard to be identified as one of them. Secondly, there are so many VPN providers that it's difficult to choose a really good one. VPNs are not all created equally, and in this post, we're going to look at what a VPN is, why you want one, and how to pick the best one for you. Let's get started.

What Is A VPN?

Put simply, a virtual private network is a group of computers (or discrete networks) connected together through over a public network — namely, the internet. Businesses use VPNs to connect remote data centres. Individuals can use VPNs to get access to network resources when they're not physically on the same LAN (local area network), or as a method for securing and encrypting their communications when they're using an untrusted public network. Photo by Pavel Ignatov (Shutterstock).

When you connect to a VPN, you launch a VPN client on your computer (or click a link on a special website), log in with your credentials, and your computer exchanges trusted keys with a remote server. Once both computers have verified each other's identity, all of your internet communication is encrypted and secured from eavesdropping.

The most important thing you need to know about a VPN: It secures your computer's internet connection to guarantee that all of the data you're sending and receiving is encrypted and safe from prying eyes.

Whether the VPNs you're familiar with are the ones offered by your school or business to help you work in remote locations or the options you pay to get you watch your favourite shows in another country as they air, they are all doing the same thing. For much more detail on what VPNs are, how they work, and how they are used, check out this How Stuff Works article.

Why You Need A VPN

A VPN alone is simply a way to bolster your security and access resources on a network you're not physically connected to. What you choose to do with a VPN is a different story. Typically, VPN users fall into a number of separate categories:

  • The worker/student. Generally uses a VPN service provided by their company or school to access resources on their corporate network when they're at home or travelling. As well as securing network resources, when using airport or cafe WI-Fi hotspots, the VPN helps ensure no-one is snooping on their connection. In most cases, this person already has a free VPN service provided to them, so they're not usually shopping around. Photo by Ed Yourdon.
  • The downloader. Whether they're downloading legally or illegally, this person doesn't want to end up on some media company's hitlist. Better safe than trying to defend yourself in court or paying a massive fine for something you may or may not have even done, right?
  • The privacy-minded security advocate. Whether they're a in a strictly monitored environment or a completely free and open one, this person uses VPN services to keep their communications secure and encrypted and away from prying eyes whether they're at home or abroad. To them, unsecured connections mean someone is potentially reading what you say.
  • The globetrotter. This person wants to watch the Olympics live as they happen, without dealing with their crummy local TV network's scheduling and commentary. They want to check out their favourite TV shows as they air instead of waiting for translations or re-broadcasts (or watch the versions aired in other countries,) listen to location-restricted streaming internet radio, or try out a new web service or application that looks great but has been limited to a specific country or region. (The country this kind of VPN lets you access is often referred to as the "exit location".)
  • A combination of the above. These categories aren't mutually exclusive, and many of us will fall into one or more of them. In all of these cases, a VPN service can be helpful.

Even if none of the above really sound right to you, you can still benefit from using a VPN. You should definitely use one when you travel or work on an untrusted network (read: a network you don't own or manage.) Opening your laptop at the coffee shop and logging in to Facebook, or using your phone's Wi-Fi to check your email at the airport can all potentially put you at risk.

We've shown you how to build your own VPN for remote gaming and browsing that also protects your security, explained how to make a VPN even more secure, and discussed dozens of services that operate free and paid VPNs you can sign up for and use.

Free is always a tempting price tag, but paying often makes sense. Free VPN providers are more likely to log your activities and serve contextual ads while you're connected. They're also more likely to use your usage habits to tailor future ads to you, and often have fewer exit locations and a weak commitments to privacy. If you're trying to access overseas services; free providers are often quickly identified and blocked by content owners, so you may find yourself switching frequently. If logging and privacy are important to you, you may want to avoid them. However, if you just need quick, painless security while travelling on a budget, they're an option to consider.

We've featured several reader-driven Hive Five Lists of the best providers out there. There are lots of choices, so how do you pick a solid VPN service?

What Makes For A Good VPN?

The best VPNs offer a solid balance of features, server location, connectivity protocols, and price. Some are great for occasional use, others are geared towards getting around the location restrictions companies put on their apps and services, and others are targeted at people who do heavy downloading and want a little privacy while they do it. Here's what you should look for.

  • Protocol: When you're researching VPN providers, you'll see terms such as SSL/TLS (sometimes referred to as OpenVPN support,) PPTP, IPSec, L2TP, and other VPN types. We asked Samara Lynn, lead analyst for networking and small business at PCMag, which options were the most useful. "SSL is what is commonly used these days," she said, but emphasised that the details are less important for most users. "All of these protocols will provide a secure connection."
  • Corporate and Exit Locations: Your service's location and the "exit locations" you can choose that identify the country you're browsing from are key considerations. If you want to watch the BBC iPlayer service, for example, your VPN service provider will need servers in the UK. If you're concerned about privacy or state-sponsored snooping, you may want to pick a service operated outside of your home country. It's important to make sure a VPN has servers in multiple locations — or at least the location you're interested in — when shopping.
  • Logging: When you connect to a VPN, you're trusting the VPN service provider with your data. Your communications may be secure from eavesdropping, but other systems on the same VPN — especially the operator — can log your data if they choose. If this concerns you, make absolutely sure you know your provider's logging policies before signing up. This applies to location as well — if your company doesn't keep logs, it may not matter so much where it is located. For a good list of VPN providers that don't log your activities when connected (and many that do), check out this TorrentFreak article.
  • Anti-Malware/Anti-Spyware Features: Using a VPN doesn't mean you're invulnerable. You should still make sure you're using HTTPS whenever possible, and you should still be careful about what you download. Some VPN service providers — especially mobile ones — bundle their clients with anti-malware scanners to make sure you're not downloading viruses or trojans. When you're shopping around, see if the providers you're interested in offer anti-malware protection while you're connected. For example, previously mentioned Hotspot Shield offers malware protection to its premium users. It may not be a dealbreaker for you, but it's always good to have someone watching your back.
  • Mobile Apps: If you're going to spend money on a VPN service provider, you should be able to get a consistent experience across all of your devices. Most prominent providers offer desktop and mobile solutions for individual users. You shouldn't have to use two different VPNs with two different policies and agreements just because you want to secure your phone along with your laptop.
  • Price: Finally, go into your user agreement with both eyes open. You should read the privacy policy for the service you're interested in, and be very aware of the differences between free and paid services. Most paid providers offer free trials so you can give the service a shot first, but remember: just because you're paying for a service doesn't mean you shouldn't do your homework.

A mix of features and price make a good VPN, but plenty of bad VPNs masquerade as good ones. Look for articles written by trustworthy sources that discuss the merits of each service based on its features rather than simple rundowns and user testimonials, which are almost always polluted by a combination of fanatical users and corporate bootstrapping.

Which VPNs Are The Best?

When we ran our recent Hive Five on VPN service providers, we heard from VPN providers begging to be included, angry CEOs who claimed their company was maliciously left out, and others accusing some of the contenders of illegal or unethical behaviour. While we're not convinced the poll was gamed, we decided to come up with our own top five list based on the criteria discussed here. There are plenty of other options out there (and we're happy to hear about alternatives in the comments) but these are all solid choices.

Private Internet Access

Supports: Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS, Android

Protocols: SSL, PPTP, IPSec, and L2TP. You can also configure Private Internet Access to work on your DD-WRT or Tomato router (via SSL/OpenVPN) for constant security.

Home Country: United States, and has exit servers in the US, Canada, the UK, Switzerland, Romania and the Netherlands.

Logging Policies: The service keeps no logs of your activity whatsoever (in fact, the only things PIA does keep are your email address and payment information, and uses shared IPs.

Price: Pricing ranges from $US7/month to $US40/year; you can read more about PIA's plans and pricing here.

proXPN

Supports: Windows, OS X, iOS

Protocols: SSL, PPTP

Home Country: United States, with exit servers in the US, The Netherlands, Singapore and the UK.

Logging Policies: proXPN keeps minimal logs of your activity. It collects your email address, payment information (if you're a premium user,) bandwidth usage, connection duration and login/logout times. proXPN has committed to only keeping those logs for 14 days or less, and promises to never share its logs with anyone, ever.

Price: proXPN has a free plan, which limits your transfer speeds to 300kbps and restricts you to one exit location (Miami) in the United States. Premium accounts unlock support for PPTP (if you want to connect a mobile device or a router,) remove the transfer cap, and allow you to choose from any of the company's other exit locations. Premium plans start at $US10/month, and you can read more about pricing and plans here.

TorVPN

Supports: Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS, Android

Protocols: SSL (TorVPN often refer to it as OpenVPN), PPTP, and full SSH tunnelling

Home Country: Hungary, with exit servers in Hungary

Logging Policies: The service doesn't log your connection aside from bandwidth usage to compare against your quota, and your payment details. It also are committed to your privacy, and specifically says it won't surrender data without a Hungarian court order.

Price: Free TorVPN users are limited to 1GB/month downloaded before they're cut off. Premium accounts start at 5 EUR/month for 5GB/month and go up to 30 EUR/month for 100GB. TorVPN has a no-refunds policy. Even though you ride the Tor network when using this service, it's an entirely separate entity from the Tor Project. You can read more about its pricing and plans here.

TorGuard

Supports: Windows, OS X, Linux, and iOS and Android via built-in VPN

Protocols: SSL (OpenVPN), PPTP and L2TP (with 256 bit security)

Home Country: Panama, with exit servers in The Netherlands, Romania, Ukraine and Panama.

Logging Policies: TorGuard uses the Tor network, so you can feel a little more secure that your connection is secure and anonymous. It purges logs daily, and only keeps payment information and registration info. TorGuard doesn't even keep login/logout times.

Price: TorGuard offers plans specifically for anonymity (starting at $US6/month), for torrenting (starting at $US5/month), or for overall VPN services ($10/month). You can read more about TorGuard's pricing and plans here.

WiTopia

Supports: Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS, Android, webOS, Chromebooks

Protocols: SSL, PPTP, IPSec and L2TP (with 256 bit security)

Home Country: United States, with exit servers in 10 US cities, and countries in Latin and South America, Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East — way too many to list here.

Logging Policies: WiTopia does not log information that can be attributable to individual users, purges logs weekly, and only saves registration information and payment details when you sign up.

Price: $US50/year to $US70/year depending on the level of encryption and protocols you need. WiTopia also sell a VPN router you can take with you when you travel. You can read more about WiTopia's pricing and plans here.

Alternatively, Roll Your Own VPN

We've shown you how to roll your own VPN using Hamachi, and even how to set up Privoxy to secure your web browsing once you have your personal VPN set up. Hamachi isn't the only option: you can also download and configure OpenVPN (a free SSL VPN) on your own home server and also on your home router for overseas access. Combined with Privoxy, you get the privacy and anonymity benefits of a VPN without spending a cent.

Both of these options put control in your hands, and while they're not quite as anonymous as subscription methods and don't offer international exit locations, they do give you the most important benefits of a VPN: security, privacy and anonymity while you're away from home.

Samara Lynn is Lead Analyst, Networking and Small Business at PCMag.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @samaralynn. She graciously volunteered her expertise for this post, and we thank her.


Comments

    I don't know why you picked up private internet access as the best one, they even don't have 24hrs customers support. I wanted to ask them a few questions. I was only able to watch their video. Seems they have OpenVPN GUI as software which in my opinion is not that great. Number of servers is not impressive either.

    I used Witopia last year but it was dreadfully slow. Contacted tech support but they were not able to find a solution. They blamed "congestion". My internet works fast and perfectly without Witopia. So my conclusion is they oversell or simply their servers are slow. If you are looking for 0.5 mbit speed, then it might work for you.

    Proxpn looked legit at first look, but when I saw 2048-bit and 512-bit encryption, that's a no-no sign. I have a friend working for an ISP and I asked him what's max possible encryption. It's 256-bit only ! So know, any company which says over this is lying to you. OpenVPN can do max 256! PPTP can do max 128 bit ! PPTP Is flawed and unsecured so if a VPN company bases on PPTP, that's not good for protection. I can't trust a company to protect my privacy if they try to deceive me straight at signup. The only nice thing on their web site is that video. But they didn't convinced me to signup. Number of servers is not impressive either.

      So rather than just complaining about the list, would you like to tell us who is good?

      I personally use Privateinternetaccess and have never had an issue.

        Uhh..... You can configure OpenVPN with 2048 bit encryption if you feel like it... default_bits = 2048.. done.

          I can't speak highly enough of HideMyAss https://www.hidemyass.com/vpn/r20533/. Using Melbourne server, I can download at full speed ~ 10MB/sec cable all encrypted and happy.

          As noted their policies/privacy stuff is best in class also.

          Love them, am very happy.

          Last edited 05/04/16 5:47 am

        I would suggest boxpn (https://www.boxpn.com) vpn service. They provide SSTP protocol as well over 2048bit encryption, never experienced any issue over 8 months now. Support is superb 24/7.

        I signed up with PureVPN 2 days back

        It seems to be good and effective at what I want if for for e.g. streaming. There has been no drop in speed. 10/10 from me https://www.purevpn.com/australia-vpn-service.php

        Last edited 01/03/16 4:35 pm

      I used BTGuard over OpenVPN until a month ago. It was waaaay too slow, and the pptp option doesn't seem to hide my IP address at all.

      0.5 mbit/s could work for me, you think thats slow?

      ... what? I'm not sure is even a hard limit on maximum size of encryption keys. Either your friend was wrong or he thought you were asking another question.

      2048 bit encryption is entirely possible and doable, and commonplace - it's just a different cipher (RSA). In fact, RSA 4096 bit keys are not uncommon.

      I totally agree with you, never had any issues with Witopia last year but this year its totally different. I think it started when they revamp their signup page, previously you can signup as guests now you need to register into their customer database and also needs phone verification. I almost never had speed issues with Witopia for last few years that I been with them. This year I been getting erratic speeds, not just here in Australia but also when I was in Singapore. When contacted their staff was pretty unhelpful told me it was my end. Which is funny considering without Witopia I am able to get blazing speed. I have feeling they are oversubscribed.

      Lately I been security conscious, so I looked up on Witopia address. Do you know they are located in Virginia, USA specifically somewhere very near the CIA? I quickly gave up the idea of renewal since I rather not have some big spy agency listening on me. I since left them and turn to a more security conscious vpn service, Ipredator. They don't seem to log anything and not to mention their support staffs were quite fast to respond to my email compare to Witopia's staffs.

        An excellent informative article thumbs up author. I have been using many VPN services for some years now, and I know how it feels when you can access the blocked content in your region by using a VPN. My favorite and the most recommended VPN service is ExpressVPN https://goo.gl/r5Wteh.
        It is reliable, established and most secure VPN so far and recommended by many VPN review websites over the internet.

        Last edited 17/11/16 7:14 am

      That’s a good article. I personally prefer UnoTelly. It’s similar to Torguard but they offer a DNS server close to physical location and I can achieve better performance.

      I am just trying out Private Internet Access http://bitly.com/privateinternetaccessvpn. The speeds on most US servers seem to be good they also have a Melbourne server which is pretty good. You can get 7 days money back guarantee. One thing i do like is the client most clients you have log out and back in to change servers. However with this client you can change servers with out logging out. All up very decent speeds.

      Last edited 25/02/16 2:29 pm

    This list would be better if it included confirmation on whether these services work with netflix.
    I'm using strong VPN $7/mo works with netflix, but I get the feeling they would share my details with third parties.

      It wouldn't matter if they did stu, since netflix is a legal service. Even News Corp reccomends using a VPN to watch netflix (they had an article on it last year).

      You could always ask Strong what their policies are, but a good provider should have it on their support pages somewhere and not buried in legal jargon within the T&C's.

        i can confirm that strong passes on details of their users. according to other forums they constantly have passed on dmca notices

    The main thing stopping me from using my VPN more is the inability to remote into my machine, or access content on my home network from elsewhere via FTPS.

    So if I did start up a VPN session, i'd have to wait until i'm home again to stop it.

    I have accounts with Witopia and Hidemyass. I picked up HMA after witopia forwarded on a cease and desist letter, whilst simultaneously letting me know they don't support torrenting on their network.

    HMA can be a little slow, but that depends on which server you choose. I've been able to get 8mbps+ speeds from it just fine before and they do allow torrents. They are reasonably priced and you can pay by the year (which i prefer).

    HideMyAss also fully supports OpenVPN for Android and has a great setup guide and gives you all the files to make it easy to do.

    I had a look at witopia's instructions for using OpenVPN and gave up after about an hour of trying to work it out.

      May have just found a way around the remote access issue - still might prevent FTP though.

      I wish one could edit their lifehacker comments!

        Use TeamViewer (free and works over VPNs), I use it with Astrill VPN on both ends just fine. And it has built in FTP-ish functionality.

    I get VPN free as an addon to my Usenet service.. I use it occasionally but not all the time because while it is relatively fast by comparison to open proxies and older VPNs.. It's simply not responsive enough unless all I am doing is streaming or downloading. If I am downloading, my Usenet provider already encrypts everything with 256bit encryption anyway.

    I'm on 100Mb/s cable. Are there any VPNs that won't reduce my connection to a tenth or twentieth of normal?

      Try Astill VPN. I'm at a corporate client site here and I'm not seeing any loss in speeds. Though, not 100Mb/s, I'm getting around 35Mb/s with VPN on/off.

    I used Astrill while I was working in China last year. It worked very well, although Chinese internet is crap. I'm now in Australia and I had no need for VPN, but I think I might get Astrill again for Netflix. Many of my friends use it in Australia and say it's very fast.

    One thing missing from the article was any guide on the speeds these services are able to provide. I understand there are a lot of variables but some info on the actual experience of using them would have been handy.

    I'm looking for a VPN that will help access NetFlix at decent enough speed. And the occassional torrent here and there perhaps maybe sometimes on and off.

      I've signed up with Private Internet Access. I'm normally able to torrent at a max speed of about 2mb/sec on a well seeded torrent. I've found that with torrents now, it'll take quite a while to get up to high speed downloading. Everything else seems to be okay. I don't use Netflix or similar, but I imagine that if you have a decent broadband speed, you won't notice too much of a hit

    My personal solution was to run an on demand AWS EC2 micro instance ($0.02 / hour) and set up OpenVPN on that. Works perfect for any US region locked services and I only pay for what I use.

      how do you set it up and access it ec2

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    Thanks for including TorVPN ( https://torvpn.com ) in the article!

    I'd like to add a quick note about a recent change if you don't mind.

    The highlight about no-refunds in the article really left a bad taste in the mouth. The reality is that TorVPN has given refunds a number of times, for example when the customer could not manage to set up a connection because of technical difficulties or they were in a special network where opening a TCP connection would have needed several extra steps that they (understandably) did not want to complete. Over the 2 years that TorVPN has existed there have been no disputes over refunds other than credit cards used without permission and a few reversals where the customer did not even try to contact TorVPN.

    To make it clear what we're about, the disclaimer about "no refunds" has been changed to reflect what is happening in practice:

    "Refund policy: in the case of Paypal, Credit Card and Bitcoin payments, we will give you a refund in the unlikely event that you have problems using the VPN or cannot create a connection. However we kindly request that you take advice and guidance from TorVPN support and try to resolve the problem before giving up."

    For the record, since we have Youtube videos with step-by-step instructions for different ways of establishing a connection (PPTP, OpenVPN, SSH / XP, Win7) the number of people who stay and have data transfer usage vs those who abandon after a few tries (likely without watching the videos) has increased by far.

    That's all. Thanks again.

    using a VPN that resides in USA seems dangerous. I used to use ipredator (one of your old recomendations)

    I'll definitely try Tor I used to have it... Anyone know a reliable VPN for usage in Indonesia / Malaysia?

    Edit: It's good that you mentioned VPNs A great addition to your list would be highspeedvpn.com/. Check it out if you'd like!

    Last edited 31/01/13 12:26 pm

    That's all well and good, but how does this work with your ISP's DNS?

    Basically, will your ISP still be involved at the DNS stage and therefore be logging your resolve requests, or will it see requests from your 'VPNd' IP or will it no longer be involved?

      it's no longer involved. that's why the term tunnel is used, the initial VPN connection is made via your ISPs DNS. Once the connection is made a private tunnel is built through the internet to the exit node of the VPN. That is where the requests end up appearing to reside from the perspective of the internet, then that traffic is wrapped up and sent back through the tunnel to you. So your ISP can see the "amount" of traffic between you and the VPN server, but its complete gibberish and can't even figure out where the original packet came from.

    Which are the best VPN's for Hulu, Netflix and BBC iPlayer? Realistically the only reason I'd use one is to pretend I'm not Australian for TV content, and I'd only be setting up a VPN for my PS3 to use these services.

      Obviously it comes down to personal preference.. there are a lot of offerings out there and they all have their own pros and cons. I personally like VyprVPN because I switch end-point servers any time I like without any cost and they have enough end-points to satisfy my need for US, Hong Kong, EU and UK. There is one I recently considered, StrongVPN, which have hundreds and hundreds of end-points dotted across the globe. If you only wanted a single end-point, which doesn't allow you to change it more than a handful of times per month, you could go with this mob for cheaper than Vypr.. but there's also a restriction on concurrent user logins as well... so even if you were to pay the same amount that VyprVPN costs in order to be allowed to change your end-point more times (but still not unlimited times) per month.. you're restricted to a single login per user at a time. These are just two of the many offerings out there. really it does come down to personal preference.

      As for BBC iPlayer.. you can get the iPad/iPhone version with the ability to download episodes for offline viewing directly from the iTunes store for Australian customers. If you're not wanting to pay the subscription and use the British version, which is only available as a desktop app (as far as I know), then you'll need the ability to switch back and forth between a US based end-point and a UK-based end-point every time you want to go from Netflix/Hulu to BBC..

    I have found HideMyAss to be the best for the BBC iPlayer and US TV. Nice support and nice speeds, well worth adding to the list and reviewing, it can be found here: http://hidemyiponline.com/hmvpn

    Very useful list. I would suggest adding VPNBook.com to the list as a free alternative. VPNBook provides free PPTP or OpenVPN service and has servers in three countries. As PPTP client is included in most operating systems and OpenVPN is an open source project, no propriety software is needed.

    For Netflix watching I would recommend DNS unblocker like unblock-us.com It cost just $5/month and can be setup on router for all your devices like SmartTv, PS3, etc. You can also watch BBC iPlayer and Netflix US at the same time - no need to switch.
    VPN is more for privacy.

    well , seriously you forgot to mentions this service ,, i use waselpro since one year now and to be honset i couldnt change it , and i dont want actually . here you go https://www.waselpro.com/en/ its a very good vpn service for me at least :)

    VPN lets you log on to servers in other regions. For e.g you are playing Dota 2 and you want to log on to a US server but you are located somewhere in asia. Your normal ISP connection will have a high latency but if you connect through a US server using a VPN you will be able to play with less latency. Some people use VPN for downloading games, demos and DLC that are not available in their region (for example games that are available in Japan only). But you need to choose VPN provider wisely in order to bypass ll the restrictions. I recommend you to chose from top 5 VPN providers only in order to get fast connectivity and best VPN for Torrent to Enjoy Unrestricted File-Sharing as well. Source: Give it a try. http://www.vpnranks.com/torrent-vpn/

    Please can someone recommend a VPN that enables to select US states at will? Thanks in advance

    Would someone please recommend a VPN for Linux Mint 16.Hamachi state this o/s is not currently supported

    I use PureVPN for accessing my U.S. media streaming services such as Netflix and Pandora, plus to securely access my banking and other accounts in the U.S.
    The service was easy to setup and I loved the chat help. Plenty of instructions on how to setup the VPN if you want or need to do it manually. One more plus is that they accept Bitcoin to make it as anonymous as possible.

    What about Express VPN? Can anyone recommend a good all-round VPN for someone in Australia? And another thing, I see Popcorn Time now has its own in-built VN service, vpn.ht – is this any good, or are we better off with a more wide-reaching, less app-specific one?

    I use ActiVPN . It's a very good VPN for some reasons, first security is the best ever because ActiVPN got a bug bounty program like Apple, Facebook etc. Secondly, speed and bandwidth is unlimited, thirdly it's not very expensive as HMA or others VPN....

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