A. What is a VPN service?
A VPN service allows computers or mobile devices to connect to the internet securely via a VPN tunnel. This tunnel encrypts data between a user and a VPN server.
There are concepts that you need to be aware of in order to understand what a VPN is. The following sections explain that in detail so read on.
- Got no time? You can quickly select the best VPN for your device or region
How does a VPN service work?
Every device, be it a computer, mobile device or smart TV, has a unique IP (Internet Protocol) address which identifies it on the web. A perfect analogy is your phone number that identifies you on the mobile network. Similarly, no two devices have the same IP address.
Look at these two scenarios…
1. Movement of data when there is no VPN
As you can see, when you go online your identity is represented by the IP address of your device. This device is connected to the internet via a WiFi router or mobile network.
Data flows to a server of the website you want to view and your ISP provides the internet connection. Thereafter, the server retrieves the data and sends it back to your device using the same route.
The incoming data knows the destination because of your device’s unique IP address. However, anyone who intercepts the data in between can view what you are sending or viewing, which is a security concern.
This is called a man-in-the-middle attack.
1. Movement of data when there is a VPN
In this case, when you go online, a VPN client on your device encrypts your data. If you use a VPN router, you secure all devices linked to it.
In addition, your device uses a new IP address. Next, this encrypted data passes through a VPN tunnel and goes to a VPN server which retrieves the site you want to view.
Thereafter, data goes back to your device via the VPN tunnel and it is decrypted by the client. In this case, anyone who tries to access your data between your device and the VPN server sees encrypted data.
This gives you peace of mind as your personal data is secure. Note that even your ISP is not able to view your data, but only sees a stream of encryption.
- At a glance, the following are the best VPNs and our overall pick is NordVPN:
B. Types of VPN services
I do not go into much detail about VPN for a large corporate with specific hardware requirements.
However, it is good to know the types of VPNs that are available and they have been described below. In addition, the basics of securing data are similar in all cases.
1. Remote access VPN
This is the commonest VPN configuration that you most likely plan to use.
Here is why…
It is relatively cheaper than site to site VPN (described next) because you don’t have to set up expensive VPN servers. Instead, a service provider with VPN servers allows you to sign up and use their servers.
You download and install a VPN client on your device (that app you install), then you get credentials that are used for logging in. This VPN client links you to the VPN server on the internet via a VPN tunnel.
There are numerous remote-access VPN services, some free and some paid.
In the next section, I go through both types so grab a coffee. More importantly, you need to use a VPN service that has good security policies.
2. Site to site VPN
A site to site VPN mainly connects corporate offices as it links remote LAN (Local Area Network) locations via VPN tunnels. Resultantly, company branches communicate with each other privately and securely over the internet in a WAN (Wide Area Network).
Usually, the company has dedicated VPN servers for their operations, allowing only those with valid login credentials to go through.
By using an encrypted VPN tunnel, there is an extra layer of protection as third parties cannot access sensitive company data. Different companies can share information in the WAN and still keep their confidential information safe.
A VPN concentrator handles large a number of VPN tunnels but all that is not our primary focus as we focus mainly on VPNs used by most consumers.
Site to site VPN is costly for an ordinary user. If your primary goal is only want to mask your identity on the internet or change your geo-location, use a trusted remote-access VPN.
C. Pros and Cons of a VPN service
- The benefits of a VPN outweigh the disadvantages
What are the benefits of VPN?
There are several important benefits of a VPN that have seen proliferation of its use amongst non-corporate individuals.
All these benefits come together to give a highly secure environment for you to surf the internet.
However, this only applies if you use recommended VPN services because there some which are not robust.
Let’s jump into VPN benefits:
1. A VPN hides your IP Address
The first benefit of a VPN is IP-masking, which renders you ‘invisible’ on the internet. When hackers want to access your device, they need its IP address and this is difficult when you use a VPN.
This VPN number becomes even more difficult to crack if there are many VPN servers. As a result, any malicious attempt to access your device hits a brick wall as your IP is unidentifiable.
This is one of the main reasons why you need to use a VPN every time you are browsing the internet. Unscrupulous individuals lurk on the internet and want to find their way into your device.
With IP address masking, you appear to be surfing from anywhere in the world where the servers of the VPN are.
2. A VPN encrypts your data
A VPN provides 3 layers of security to prevent access to your data when you are on the internet. I will go through them one by one to give you more clarity.
The first layer is by the establishment of a VPN tunnel once you connect to the internet. It is difficult to break into the VPN tunnel and access any traffic secured inside.
In contrast, hackers can easily intercept data when there is no VPN protection.
The second layer is the encryption of your data when using a VPN. Encrypted data makes it super-difficult for hackers to take advantage of your sensitive, personal information.
This information includes credit card details, login information, emails, and more.
In other words, even if hackers break the first layer, they won’t be able to decrypt your data, hence it remains secure. Modern VPN protocols like OpenVPN or Wireguard encrypt your data effectively every time you are in a VPN network.
The third layer is the ability to terminate a tunnel once the VPN detects a security breach. When this happens, the network automatically creates a new, secure tunnel to ensure you remain connected.
Fortunately, this whole process disconnects any hackers trying to access your tunnel, thus viewing your data. In practice, this happens in a split-second.
However, if you use a VPN with a dubious configuration you experience frequent network drops as it detects frequent breaches.
Hence I have gone in-depth on the best VPN services and you can browse through the reviews before making a decision.
3. A VPN allows access to geo-restricted sites
Some countries do not allow users from other countries to access their content or services online. In this case, a VPN bypasses this restriction and you enjoy entertainment freely.
A good example is Netflix, where some regions outside USA have varying Netflix content as explained in one article on Investopedia.
For example, while those in USA have no problems watching all shows on Netflix, citizens in Zimbabwe may not view the same content.
Here’s the thing…
The IP address on one’s device allows service providers to identify the geo-location of that device. Consequently, it’s easy for these providers to restrict IP addresses from a particular geo-location.
This where a VPN comes in handy.
As described above, a VPN allows you to change an IP address to represent a new location. As you know, VPN service providers have servers located all over the world.
Therefore if you want to access content in a particular country, the VPN assigns to you an IP address for that country, in this case USA.
You can then enjoy content in that country just like anyone who is currently in that location.
In addition, a VPN allows you to choose a desired country easily from a list of available VPN servers.
4. A VPN gives better network speed during peak hours
A VPN enables you to browse the internet faster when there is network congestion on the ISP side. As a result, this becomes crucial when you perform actions that require a lot of bandwidth e.g. online gaming and streaming.
Every time you go online, your internet service provider (ISP) monitors the sites you visit and adjusts your bandwidth when necessary.
This ensures that during peak hours everyone is able to access the internet, but it comes at a cost of reduced network speed, a phenomenon called throttling.
This is why you may experience a poor network when streaming HD videos on YouTube. Fortunately, a VPN solves this problem by means of its features.
When you use a good VPN, your ISP is not able to see the sites you visit. Instead, the ISP only sees a constant stream of encrypted data, so cannot throttle you.
In fact, with the best VPNs like NordVPN, you notice an increase in network speed, allowing you to enjoy unrestricted access to the web.
5. VPNs enable access to cheaper services
When you change a country, there is a significant variation in how much you pay online for the same service.
Let’s take hotel booking as an example…
Booking charges usually differ depending on which country you are booking from. A remote booking made from one country can be more expensive than the same booking done in another country.
Here’s is how a VPN comes in to save your pocket.
Previously, I wrote that a VPN allows you to change your geo-location. Consequently, you access content that you were not able to view. This is not limited to unblocking sites, but the ability to place orders as if you are local.
You can take advantage of discounts and promotions in a country. Simply select the country which gives you the best deal! In addition, this also applies to other services like car rentals, purchases etc.
You can save big when shopping online with a VPN. A VPN allows you to get quotations of the same item from different countries.
Case Study: How Zimbabweans used a VPN to unblock social media
In January 2019, the Zimbabwean government blocked Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter as part of its effort to thwart the opposition.
Prior to this directive, citizens openly communicated using these platforms, voicing their concerns. However, communication was re-established, thanks to VPN.
All they did was to install paid and free VPN services on their devices. As a result, it proved impossible to block social media in the country.
What are the disadvantages of a VPN?
There are numerous VPNs out there and if you select randomly, you run into challenges. Fortunately, we have done all the research for you, thus you don’t run into pitfalls.
Without further ado, here are the disadvantages of using a VPN:
1. Distance from the VPN server affects speed of the network
If you use a low-quality, untrusted VPN service with few servers around the world, you face a challenge of data delay. The data has to traverse a long distance before reaching the intended site.
Here is an example…
When you access a site in USA using a VPN server in Singapore. It means data has to travel half-way across the globe.
- Solution :
Use a VPN known to have many servers in multiple locations around the world so that data movement takes the shortest possible route.
As a result, the connection is faster without any network drops.
NordVPN is our top pick because it has all the essential features at a cost better than ExpressVPN.
2. Poor configuration of VPN servers slows network speed
If a VPN has a few servers that are not powerful, network efficiency drops. Bandwidth also is limited quickly if many users are logged in.
This causes the network to be very slow, a common problem with dubious VPN services.
- Solution :
As highlighted above, make sure you use only a trusted VPN service with powerful servers that are able to handle content requiring a lot of bandwidth e.g. streaming HD videos.
3. A VPN is not legal in some countries
Some countries have restrictive media laws that prohibit the use of a VPN. This is because the respective government monitors each and every device which goes online.
As a result, if there is any suspicious activity, your device is easy to identify.
This lack of access to VPN services exposes your data to hackers and other undesirable elements.
Countries like China have strict laws against VPNs and those that they allow are heavily monitored. As a result, these dubious VPNs gather you data when in operation.
Read more in one article where we explore whether the legal issues of VPNs
- Solution :
Check first with your internet regulatory authority before using a VPN. In most cases there are no such bans to VPNs.
4. Some sites block VPNs
There are sites that block your access when they detect a VPN. This is common if you use an unstable, poorly constructed VPN with a limited number of servers.
As a result, the number of IP addresses you can use anonymously is also limited.
You end up failing to access these sites as they only allow users from specific regions.
- Solution :
Only use best, trusted VPN services that are stable and have widespread servers. You get more freedom on the web.
ExpressVPN has the fastest servers, perfect for streaming sites.
D. What VPN service should you use?
Each VPN has its strengths. Therefore you should know which VPN is suitable for your needs by considering the following factors.
As highlighted in the first section, the top VPNs are as follows:
1. Speed of VPN
Time is money and if you are doing something on the internet on a slow network, your productivity drops. This is critical for businesses where some operations are time-dependent.
Even if data is secure, it needs to be delivered in a timely manner for effective operations. Hence, you need a VPN service provider with powerful servers.
Other activities like online streaming or gaming require a lot of bandwidth.
2. Level of security of a VPN
For some, speed alone is not enough because data protection is now a very sensitive topic. It is important to use the latest protocols when encrypting data in a VPN tunnel.
This is crucial for individuals where confidential information ends up being misused in the wrong hands.
On the other end, if you only want to access geo-restricted sites this may not be a big issue.
3. Cost of VPN
Your budget may restrict you from getting the best VPN service on the market. However, there are some pocket-friendly VPN services available. They offer above-average security and have good speed.
Learn about cost-friendly VPNs that you can start using today
Quick tip: Stay away from free VPNs because when you don’t pay cash, you ‘pay in kind’ (see below)
4. How a VPN handles your data
As you know, data handled by another party raises concerns. Therefore, VPN service providers that don’t keep logs of your activity are more secure if you are dealing with sensitive data.
That’s why a trusted VPN service is recommended because it has clear policies on how your data is handled.
If you are in Europe, make sure the VPN service provider is GDPR compliant.
5. Availability of servers worldwide
The more the VPN servers the better the network because more servers are in close proximity, hence network speed is better. In addition, chances of network failure are greatly reduced as data is re-routed to other servers in the event of a problem.
In addition, this also gives confidence to businesses as there is room for expansion without worrying about overloading of servers.
6. Business package
This mainly applies to businesses that need a VPN service provider to offer services more tailored to their operations. On the contrary, a one-package-fits-all approach is usually adequate for personal use.
Therefore, if you are a business and require the best business package, this factor plays a major part.
7. Is there a VPN kill switch?
Remember, a VPN establishes a secure VPN tunnel that allows encrypted data to flow between the user and the server. Hackers may attempt to access sensitive data.
If this happens, a high-quality VPN should be able to terminate this connection and re-establish a more secure VPN tunnel.
This kill switch keeps your data safe. Make sure you use a VPN service with a kill switch when you work with sensitive data.
8. Is there a good review of the VPN provider?
This is an easy way to find out quickly if you should use a particular VPN service or not. A quick search on the internet gives you a picture of what you sign up for.
If renowned clients use the service it means it is good. That is what I do on this site, giving you an in-depth review of genuine VPN services so that you stay informed.
Trustpilot is the go-to site if you want to check ratings of top VPN services. Here, you can also rate VPNAnchor if we provide valuable information.
9. Is VPN customer support effective?
There should be an effective help-desk to address any queries you may have when using a VPN. This is crucial especially for businesses that have data stored in the cloud and need minimal server downtime.
Customer service should be quick to provide solutions for any problems that may arise.
A bad customer support is bad for business or for online activities that you may be carrying out.
E. Free VPN vs Paid VPN Services
A VPN is used for many reasons. When it comes to free VPN, you have to understand that there is always a catch as the providers want to make money, so it is not entirely free.
This is critical because when using a VPN it means you are cautious with your data.
Therefore any party that promises to keep your data safe on the internet has to adhere to that security policy.
Unfortunately, most free VPNs (more than 80%) have hidden agendas that they don’t disclose to you when you sign up, thus putting your data at risk.
In addition, some of the free VPNs are not user friendly as developers add unnecessary features to make a buck.
Below is what you have to worry about when using a free VPN…
1. Annoying Ads in the VPN app
When you run a free VPN client, Ads may disrupt the user experience. This can also slow down the network as these Ads need internet access to refresh content.
Service providers also offer a paid version with no Ads and either way they make money. You never know which Ads are displayed and some may be inappropriate.
In addition, trackers share your browsing pattern with third-parties to display targeted Ads.
This compromises your security, and defies the whole purpose of a VPN.
- Solution :
Get an Ad-free VPN with trusted security policies
2. Free VPNs do not unblock all sites
A free VPN does not do a good job of unblocking popular sites. This means it is difficult to access sites like Netflix. This goes to show that the VPN configuration is not robust and may even come with other security problems.
Most free VPNs have limited servers hence a network gets jammed easily and IP addresses are also limited. This makes it easy for sites to recognize and block these IP addresses.
- Solution :
To avoid frustration, stick to well-established VPNs that have an extensive network of VPN servers
3. Free VPN has low security
Not all VPNs use high-end security protocols. To cut costs, free VPNs only come with very basic features. If your main concern is security and you are using a free VPN, remember that your data is not safe.
Ads incorporated in the VPN raise the risk of malware. In addition, the only way the providers of the free VPN service make money is by selling your browsing habits to advertisers.
Therefore you are not secure when using a free VPN.
- Solution :
Choose a VPN with a proven track record in security and doesn’t log your data
4. Free VPNs Log your data
When you are using a VPN, one of the goals is to hide your online activity. However, a VPN service provider has the ability to track that activity, unless they indicate that they have a no-log policy.
Free VPNs don’t have such a policy and so they can keep track of your online activity and sell your data to third-parties. This becomes critical when you are dealing with sensitive data, either personal or business.
Some governments demand access to data in VPN servers. Therefore if nothing is not logged, nothing is retrieved.
- Solution :
Choose a VPN with a no-log policy
5. Free VPNs limit the data you use
Free VPNs are notorious for limiting the data you use via their network in order to force you to pay a subscription. This leaves you in the open once you reach your limit.
With limited data, internet browsing is not exciting. On top of that, the providers cash in by displaying ads and manipulating your bandwidth.
- Solution :
Get a paid, trusted VPN. You can start with a free-trial.
6. Free VPNs deliberately slow network speed
In order to accommodate a lot of users and preserve a degree network functionality, free VPN services slow down the internet speed. As a result, this compromises user experience especially if you are carrying out activities requiring higher bandwidth.
Another reason for slowing down the network speed is to force you to upgrade to a paid subscription out of frustration.
- Solution :
Subscribe to the best VPN tailored for you.
In the end, you realize it is better to sign up for an affordable paid plan. With the bulk of free VPNs, you actually pay by sacrificing your privacy and user experience.
Premium VPN services have free trials with a money-back guarantee, hence there is transparency.
You get a chance to select the best VPN that suits your needs and the private policies are clear with no risk of unethical activity.
Now that you understand what a VPN service is, you are now in a position to make an informed decision.
This site has been structured to make it easy for you to find the best VPN service.
Our overall pick is NordVPN, due to its good pricing and plenty of security features.
Share the page with your friends and bookmark it for future reference. Subscribe to our blog updates that come right in your inbox.