VPN apps running on a laptop computer and smartphone.
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When looking at what a VPN can do for you, you may have come across something called a VPN browser extension. These are handy little doodads that can help keep you safe while browsing, but they come with some drawbacks you should be aware of. Let’s go over what VPN browser extensions are and whether you should use one.

How a VPN Works

To fully understand how a VPN browser extension works, we need to take a look at what VPNs are and what they can do. Normally when you connect to the internet, you connect to a server run by your internet service provider (ISP) and from there to the site you want to visit. In this scenario, the site knows who you are and your ISP can see what you’re doing there.

When using a VPN, you connect from your ISP’s server to a server run by your VPN provider and only then to the site you’re visiting. Rerouting your connection makes it so that you use the IP address associated with the VPN server rather than your own—called “spoofing”—which is great when you want to prevent the site from tracking you.

Besides rerouting your connection, the VPN also creates something called a VPN tunnel. This encrypts your connection, making it impossible to see what you’re doing online by anybody watching, be that your ISP or some kind of surveillance.

Using a VPN

The most common way to connect to a VPN server is to use what’s called a VPN client, a program from your VPN provider that you install on your computer or mobile phone—though they’re usually called “apps,” then. Usually, all you need to do is to pick a server to connect to and then hit a button and that’s it, you’ve established a secure connection to the internet. (Modern operating systems have built-in VPN support, but it’s almost always easier to use your VPN provider’s client instead.)

RELATED: Beginner's Guide to ExpressVPN: What You Need to Know

When you use a VPN client, all the internet traffic to and from your device is encrypted and showing the spoofed IP address. The only exception is if you’re using some kind of split tunneling to make some programs run without the benefit of the VPN.

However, the client isn’t the only way to switch on a VPN connection. You could use a VPN router, for example, which automatically connects every device on a given WiFi network to a VPN server. Another, simpler option is to use a browser extension instead.

VPN Browser Extensions

A browser extension is a small app or program that can extend the abilities of your browser. For example, you can get an extension that will clip specific parts of a text so you can save it for later, or you could get one that functions as a powerful password manager.

Many, if not most, VPNs will also offer browser extensions which let you connect to a VPN straight from your browser, or at least use some of the functionality associated with your VPN. Both ExpressVPN and NordVPN offer them, for example, and they’re good little tools to have.

However, as ExpressVPN explains, VPN browser extensions do come with one serious drawback: they only protect your traffic while browsing, they do not, like a client, protect all your internet traffic. There are a handful of VPNs that defy this rule, like Private Internet Access, but in most cases, you can assume that a VPN browser extension only works for the browser it’s installed on.

The exception is if you have your VPN client already running and then you switch on the browser extension. In that case, you’re using the extension as a way to control the client (ExpressVPN, among others, offers this functionality,) and all your traffic is protected.

This means that if you engage your VPN through your browser extension without a client running, you’re protected while visiting websites. However, if you’re running a torrenting program at the same time, anybody can see that you’re doing so with all the consequences you’d expect.

In a way, it’s like split tunneling, but you’re only running your browser in the tunnel. This isn’t all bad, though, as it’s a great way to get around VPN speed issues. For example, if you’re downloading a large game via Steam, you can use your browser extension to browse anonymously without slowing down your download.

Should You Use a VPN Browser Extension?

VPN browser extensions are handy little apps that are extremely useful in the right situation, like if you want to use your browser with some measure of anonymity while letting background programs run without interference.

That said, there is a small danger in using them as it may lull you into a false sense of security. If all you use your VPN for is to protect your browsing, then you can use them without worry. If you’re an avid torrenter or use your VPN to run other programs, then always make sure your client is running, too.

Many of the best VPNs offer optional browser extensions—including our favorite VPN, ExpressVPN.

The Best VPN Services of 2022

Best Overall VPN
ExpressVPN
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Best VPN for Streaming
ExpressVPN
Best VPN for Gaming
Private Internet Access
Best VPN for Torrenting
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Best VPN for Windows
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Best VPN for Privacy
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Profile Photo for Fergus O'Sullivan Fergus O'Sullivan
Fergus is a freelance writer for How-To Geek. He has seven years of tech reporting and reviewing under his belt for a number of publications, including GameCrate and Cloudwards. He's written more articles and reviews about cybersecurity and cloud-based software than he can keep track of---and knows his way around Linux and hardware, too.
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