What Is a VPN, and Why Would I Need One?

A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, allows you to create a secure connection to another network over the Internet. VPNs can be used to access region-restricted websites, shield your browsing activity from prying eyes on public Wi-Fi, and more.

VPNs essentially forward all your network traffic to the network, which is where the benefits – like accessing local network resources remotely and bypassing Internet censorship – all come from. Most operating systems have integrated VPN support.

What Is a VPN?

When you connect your computer (or another device, such as a smartphone or tablet) to a VPN, the computer acts as if it’s on the same local network as the VPN. All your network traffic is sent over a secure connection to the VPN. Because your computer behaves as if it’s on the network, this allows you to securely access local network resources even when you’re on the other side of the world. You’ll also be able to use the Internet as if you were present at the VPN’s location, which has some benefits if you’re using pubic Wi-Fi or want to access geo-blocked websites.

When you browse the web while connected to a VPN, your computer contacts the website through the encrypted VPN connection. The VPN forwards the request for you and forwards the response from the website back through the secure connection. If you’re using a USA-based VPN to access Netflix, Netflix will see your connection as coming from within the USA.

Uses for VPNs

VPNs are a fairly simple tool, but they can be used to do a wide variety of things:

Using a VPN

Connecting to a VPN is fairly simple. In Windows, press the Windows key, type VPN, and click the Set up a virtual private network (VPN) connection option. (If you use Windows 8, you’ll have to click the Settings category after searching.) Use the wizard to enter the address and login credentials of the VPN service you want to use. You can then connect to and disconnect from VPNs using the network icon in the system tray – the same one where you manage the Wi-Fi networks you’re connected to.

Some VPN providers may offer clients that do this configuration for you.

Our Recommendations

If you’re just getting started with VPNs and want a basic VPN for using on public Wi-Fi hotspots or accessing region-restricted websites, there are a few good, simple options. We like SurfEasy and TunnelBear. SurfEasy has better speeds, but TunnelBear offers a free option, as long as you aren’t using more than 500MB per month.

There are other VPN products on the market, of course–we also like StrongVPN for all the configuration options it provides–but those are a good starting point.

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You may also be interested in setting up a VPN on your own server, which you can do with Tomato, OpenWRT, or on Linux. Of course, this won’t allow you to  access geo-blocked websites – unless you’re travelling outside the country and accessing your own network remotely.