How to Become Invisible Online: Your Introduction to VPNs

Written by | Updated July 15, 2019

Have you ever been scrolling through your favorite social media site and started to see ads pop up for a product you’ve recently shopped for online? It’s creepy, right? Fortunately, a virtual private network (VPN) can help.

Maybe you’ve heard about VPNs, but you’re not really sure what they are, what they do, or why you might need one. In this article we’ll break them down for you in plain English, and we’ll also give you some advice on how to choose a VPN service if you decide it’s right for you.

Do I need a VPN?

Well, that depends. Do you mind being watched while you Google your ex, shop on Amazon, and check WebMD for that weird thing on your foot? Yes?

A VPN is a good way to close your curtains to snooping companies and surf the web in private.

Just like you’re in the habit of locking your car after you park, even though you’re pretty sure a carjacker isn’t lurking around your kids’ school, you should get into the habit of locking up your connection when you’re online, even though you’re probably not in immediate danger most of the time.

VPNs are also especially useful for travelers relying on public Wi-Fi, since it’s surprisingly easy for hackers to lurk on open networks found in hotels and airports and sniff out any sensitive data floating around. Virtually any website URL without “https” as a prefix is vulnerable to hacked data collection.

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You may also appreciate a VPN connection if you like to download large quantities of data (torrents) in your spare time. While some torrent downloading is legal and some isn’t, either one has the potential to land you on a watch list for companies that don’t approve of the practice. Deploying your VPN before you download is a good way to fly under the radar.

What should I look for in a VPN?

Many VPN services will try to lure you in with lots of servers and high encryption levels. While those are certainly important to think about, there are three other important security elements that VPN services may not advertise but are essential to consider.

  • Privacy
    Most people start using a VPN to protect their privacy, but what if the VPN provider starts using its trusted position as your internet bodyguard to watch your every move? It’s disturbing, but it’s true: many VPN providers admit to tracking their VPN clients’ internet activity and selling it to third parties. Pay close attention to the fine print before signing on with a VPN.
  • Kill Switch
    If you’ve ever tried to access a website and seen the message “Can’t connect to server” on your screen, then you know that all connections experience hiccups from time to time, and a VPN connection is no exception. A good VPN will have a “kill switch” that will automatically suspend your internet connection if the VPN gets dropped. That way, your IP address will never be exposed.
  • Speed
    Let’s face it: if your VPN connection puts a significant drag on your internet speed, you probably won’t use it. Look for a VPN with a light impact on your system so you’ll be sure to use it when you need it.

Most VPN providers offer both paid and free services. If you don’t spend much time on unsecured networks and you aren’t too worried about businesses spying on your midnight Google searches, then a free VPN service with limited data might be a good choice. But if it’s something you’ll need frequently for travel or for sensitive information, then a paid subscription for a VPN with a little tighter security and more flexibility would be your best bet.

How do I use a VPN?

In the past, VPNs were complicated pieces of software designed for computer geeks, but today’s VPN apps and software are easy to use. Most require you to download an app and create an account, and then they walk you through setting up your preferences. The whole thing usually takes less than 10 minutes.

Preference options you might see with a VPN service include whether to have pop-up notifications let you know when the VPN kicks in, or whether you want to automatically run the VPN whenever you open a certain internet browser. You can also choose to have your VPN automatically start up when you’re using an unsecured public network. This is a great option if you’re using a free VPN service that might limit the amount of data you can use each month, since you’re more likely to need the protection of a VPN when you’re on a public connection.

The only option on your VPN that you might want to change after the initial setup is the location of the VPN server you use. Most virtual private networks have between a few dozen to several hundred servers located all over the world, so you can decide where your IP address will be located. If you’re traveling in a foreign country where certain websites are restricted, you can select a VPN server located in a different country to access the censored sites. But keep in mind that the farther away a VPN server is from your actual location, the greater the delay you may experience. After all, it’s the internet, not witchcraft and wizardry.

What are the best VPN services?

We’re glad you asked. We’ve tested a variety of different VPN services and selected our top picks for our Best VPN Services Guide.

VPN FAQs

What is an IP address?

An IP address is assigned to you by your internet service provider, and it’s a lot like the return address on a letter you send in the mail. Anytime you use your phone or computer to make any request on the internet—whether you click on a link, send an email, or use a search engine—your IP address gets attached to that request so that the receiving server knows where to send its reply.

Does a VPN change your IP address?

A VPN technically doesn’t change your IP address, but because you’re using a server from your VPN provider, it does hide it by routing your requests through that server. When your request hits the server provided by your VPN service, it takes on the IP address of that server. Basically, it gets stamped with a new return address.

How do I stay safe on public Wi-Fi?

Using a VPN is a great start, but it’s also important to do your homework and make sure the Wi-Fi you’re using is safe. It’s also never a good idea to use public Wi-Fi networks for accessing your banking records or other sensitive information.

What is a site-to-site VPN?

Site-to-site VPNs are commonly used for businesses that need to share sensitive information between multiple offices in different locations. Offices usually have their own private network for inter-office data sharing, and a site-to-site VPN can expand that network to anyone with access to the VPN.

You may not have access to a magical invisibility cloak in real life, but if you want to stay anonymous online, a VPN is the next best thing. Find out more about other ways to protect yourself with our picks for the Best Identity Theft Protection Services.

Written by Kasey Tross

Kasey Tross is a stay-at-home mom with four energetic kids, and she's married to a security expert, so safety is a top priority in the Tross home. When she's not writing, she enjoys reading, hiking, playing the flute, helping out at church, and eating far more chocolate than she should. Learn more

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