What Is a VPN, and Why Should You Get One?

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Whether you’re a hard-core geek or a technophobe, a VPN (virtual private network) is probably a good idea – and on the plus side, you can get one for cheap or even free. We’ll break down exactly what a VPN is, help you decide whether you need one, and name some of the best places to get one for cheap.

In this article:

What is a VPN?
Why do I need a VPN?
How do I choose a VPN?
The best free and paid VPNs out there

What is a VPN?

A VPN, or virtual private network, is a method of adding a layer of security and privacy to both private networks and public ones like Wifi hotspots. It combines the security of a private network and the flexibility of the broader Internet. To better understand what a VPN is, let’s talk a little bit about private networks in general.

A (non-virtual) private network is designed to send data only to other people on the same network. For example, a business might set up a private network within the office so that its employees can communicate with each other, but a rival company can’t get access to the data. The downside, of course, is that you can only access the data when you’re at your work computer.

A public Internet connection (such as wifi a coffeeshop or, in all likelihood, one of the things that Comcast charges you an arm and a leg for) provides much more flexibility. You can send and receive information from friends a thousand miles away, Skype with your mom or just Google something. It’s convenient, but also less secure: hackers and/or government officials can access your data much more easily.

VPN’s give you the best of both worlds. They use public networks (the Starbucks wifi) to establish a private connection (a business’ intranet) to connect remote websites or users. They also encrypt your data so that snoopers can’t read it, and some offer additional services like masking your IP address so that advertisers can’t track you. With a

Why do I need a VPN?

There are four main reasons to get a VPN:

  1. You have to get one. Sometimes, companies require their employees to set up a VPN when they work remotely, or will only allow you to work from certain IP addresses. Hopefully, the companies will cover the cost.
  2. You’re doing something you don’t want anyone to know about. Even if you’re using a service like BitTorrent legally, you can still end up on someone’s blacklist and have to defend yourself.
  3. You’re out of the country often. Some video streaming services are only available from an American IP address, so a VPN can allow you to watch Hulu from Georgia the country as well as Georgia the state.
  4.  You’re worried about security and privacy. If you’re sending credit card numbers, security codes (don’t do that) or any other sensitive information, you might want an added layer of security against hackers. And given the recent revelations about the NSA, it’s nice to know that they’ll have to work a little harder to get your data.

This last designation applies to pretty much all Internet users, which is the reason I recommend that everyone at least consider a VPN.

How do I choose a VPN?

When it comes time to choose your virtual private network, there are a few factors to consider:

  • Which devices are supported? While VPNs typically support Mac, Windows and Linux, if you want a VPN for your smartphone, make sure that it will support Android or iOS.
  • Location. If you want a VPN so that you can watch America-only shows internationally, make sure that the service is based in the US. If you want to watch NFL Game Pass or something else that’s blacked out in the US, you should get a VPN that’s based internationally. Which is illegal, so don’t do that.
  • Logging. Most VPNs claim to take privacy seriously, but some of them do log users’ activity. These logs can be hacked into, or in some cases, given over to the government. If a provider tracks its users, it’s pretty subpar.
  • Bonus: virus protection. Some VPNs come bundled with malware and spyware protection, but the level of protection varies from service to service, and with the cost of using the program. Also check out our article on free antivirus software for more cost-effective methods of keeping your computer safe.

You probably don’t have to worry about protocol (the way your data is encrypted). A casual user is probably fine with any of the major types.

The best free and paid VPNs out there

All VPNs listed here don’t log users’ activity and don’t offer virus protection. Unless otherwise noted, they support Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS and Android.

Best paid VPNs

Service Location Price
Private Internet Access US + 8 other countries $6.95/mo
$39.95/yr ($3.33/mo)
Astrill VPN US + 48 other countries $29.95/3mo ($9.98/mo)
$39.95/6mo ($6.66/mo)
$69.95/yr ($5.83/mo)
WiTopia (basic) US + 42 other countries $49.99/yr ($4.16/mo)
$69.99/yr ($5.83/mo)
TorGuard US + 19 other countries $9.99/mo
$19.95/3mo ($6.66/mo)
$59.95/yr ($4.99/mo)

Private Internet Access. The service has locations worldwide, so you can choose a US or international location. It’s one of the cheapest options out there, and is based in the US. It’s pretty committed to privacy, recording only your email address and payment info.

Astrill. Astrill’s main feature is ease of setup: it’s pretty much a one-click install. They also offer routers with a pre-configured VPN for those who don’t want to go through the setup themselves. However, there have been concerns about their commitment to anonymity.

WiTopia. They offer a wordwide network with very few connectivity issues, as well as great customer service. They, too, have an easy setup, and they have the prettiest website of the lot. (Yes, that matters.)

TorGuard is one of only two to offer per-month pricing, which is ideal if you’re cash-flow constrained and don’t want to pay it all upfront. They also have separate plans specifically for anonymity (these start at $5.99/mo), torrenting ($4.99/mo) and general VPN services (listed above).

Best free VPNs

Product Data limit Why it’s free
Hamachi None You need to be logged in to connect; you have to pay $29 a year to run Hamachi in the background
HotSpot Shield None Supported by ads; paid version is ad-free
Private Tunnel 100MB/month Must purchase more data if you exceed 100MB/mo

Hamachi is a super-simple DIY VPN. It’s still free to use as long as you log in and have the Hamachi desktop app running, but if you want to use it to host a network or access unattended computers, you’ll have to pay a $29 annual licensing fee.

Hotspot Shield offers great speeds and a decent level of encryption, but it’s ad-supported, which can get a bit annoying. On the bright side, it offers malware protection as well.

Private Tunnel is ideal if you’re a very casual user, but be careful of the monthly data limit.