This article breaks down the ins-and-outs of private internet access and VPN (or virtual private networking). So we’ll be looking at the best VPN services as well as looking at the pros and cons of free versus paid VPNs. We’ll also dig into what a VPN is and how it works (in layman’s terms). But first we’re going to start with why people use VPNs in the first place.
Who Can Benefit from Using a VPN?
VPNs afford people more peace of mind when accessing the internet. VPNs are popular amongst people who connect to public Wi-Fi networks (think your local coffee shop) because it is actually quite easy for hackers to snoop on your browsing activities on unsecured and untrusted networks.
People who want to block ads and/or want to stop websites from tracking them also use VPNs. In this instance, a VPN can provide an extra layer of security and privacy while browsing the web.
Employees of many businesses often use VPNs to connect to their work network while they are away (at home or traveling) so that they can do thinks like print from the office printers while out of the office.
Still others using VPN technology to unblock geo-restricted content (like on Netflix where some shows are blocked in certain regions) or to bypass internet censorship.
Of course there are shady reasons to use a VPN as well.
What is a VPN and How Does It Work?
As previously mentioned, a VPN is a virtual private network (or it could also be used as virtual private networking).
Just like every house has a physical address, every computer (whether it’s a laptop, a mobile phone or a gaming console) has a digital address: it’s IP address (or Internet Protocol address). Put very simply, a VPN masks your IP address.
When your computer “talks to” other computers (when you do things like surf the internet, send emails or stream content) it needs to know the IP address of those other computers and the other computers need to know your computer’s IP address as well.
But if you don’t want to share your IP address — which can let others track you or restrict the information that your computer can access — then you can use another IP address, via a VPN, to connect. So instead of going straight to your internet destination, you traffic can isntead take a bit of a detour first. Here, I’ll explain it to you like you’re five (ELI5: VPN)…
A Helpful Illustration: Mailing a Letter
When you research VPNs you’ll probably come across the term tunneling. Here’s a good way to envision what’s actually happening on the technical side of things. Lets say you are in Argentina and you want to send a letter to your friend in Canada. The thing is you don’t want anyone in Canada to know your letter originated in Argentina. So you first send your letter to a friend in Germany to puts your envelope inside another envelope and then mails it to it’s final destination in Canada.
What to Look for in a Good VPN
Looking for a VPN to use is a bit like going through a swamp: there’s so many options that you can easily get bogged down. While you can certainly find many VPN solutions that “work” in terms of facilitating private internet access, in my mind there are actually four main points to consider when selecting the VPN that will work best for you. I think it goes without saying that you want to use a VPN that’s easy to use and that gets out of the way.
The first is price and this is probably going to be the thing the average person weighs the most in making a decision. While there are certainly free VPN options available (and I’ll get to why you should think twice before using them in just a minute), if you’re serious about using a VPN it’s probably worth paying for. The good news is, there are some really affordable professional options to choose from.
The next major factor in selecting the right VPN is probably going to be availability. Not all VPNs work on all devices. Some are mobile apps, some are browser plugins and others are hardware-based solutions. If you want the most comprehensive VPN experience, you’ll probably want to choose a VPN that works everywhere you might want to use it.
You’ll also want to consider speed. As you can imagine, routing your internet traffic around the globe can potentially add some lag to your browsing experience. The best VPN solutions are fast.
Finally, VPNs that don’t distinguish themselves based on price, availability or speed might offer additional features like encryption (or even double encryption), automatic activation when on an untrusted network, a no logging policy or more to try to entice you.
If you’re really into security and privacy you’ll probably want to read through the terms and conditions, too (you might want to keep an eye out for encrypted connections and anonymous IP addresses).
I’d also say that a good VPN will cooperate with law enforcement when necessary and possible. Since you are a law-abiding citizen, this should not worry you.
A Warning Against Using Free-VPN Services
A free VPN sounds like a great idea, right? Well, in reality it is rarely a good idea to use a free VPN. The list of reasons is long: many free VPNs actually log your activity (sometimes to sell to third parties, whether anonymized or not), many free VPNs have ad-heavy experiences, the speeds can be very slow, there might be a limit on bandwidth usage and… you get the picture.
The Best (Affordable) VPN Services
TunnelBear is a great place to start your VPN search. Not only do they give you 500MB worth of data for free, but the $7.99 per month unlimited data plan is very reasonably priced (and this drops to $4.16 per month if you choose to pay annually).
Right off the bat I like the TunnelBear works everywhere: phones, tablets and computers. In fact, you can benefit from TunnelBear’s speedy, encrypted connection on up to five devices.
And TunnelBear offers some interesting extra features. For instance, there’s the GhostBear feature which helps defeat VPN blocking and makes it harder for governments, businesses and ISPs to detect your encrypted VPN data. There’s also Vigilant Mode which automatically blocks unsecured traffic in the event that your connection gets disrupted for any reason. Plus, TunnelBear turns on automatically at startup so you don’t have to remember to enable it yourself. Finally, TunnelBear will connect to the closest tunnel so you won’t have to choose the closest country manually.
Cloak is a VPN service designed specifically with Apple users in mind. If you are looking for the best VPN for a Mac, iPhone or iPad, I’d start here.
And affordable pricing is one of Cloak’s strong points. The Mini Plan starts at just $2.99 per month and offers 5GB of data which is a perfect fit for many individuals. The Unlimited Plan is $9.99 per month. There’s a fourteen day free trial if you want to give it a spin before committing.
Cloak is a very simple and straightforward service (and that’s not a bad thing). It’s designed to be easy to use and the apps — which reflect this philosophy — look really nice as a result. On the other hand, Cloak doesn’t offer much in the way of extras.
Cloaks public policy states that the company will never share your personally identifiable information with any third party for any reason — ever (with the one exception being responding to a legal request). Likewise the company also won’t share your anonymized session data with any third party.
Tunnello is a very new VPN service that is currently free as it is in beta (testing). Eventually, when the team behind the product has done enough polishing then Tunnello will become a premium (paid) service.
What’s most interesting about Tunnello is that it is a cross between a VPN and a proxy service. The end result, Tunnello claims, is that their product is 10 times faster than a “normal” VPN (while being equally as secure).
Since it is still such a new product, however, Tunnello currently only works as a Chrome extension. But that’s actually not quite as limiting as it might sound as it will work on Macs, PCs and Linux machines.
With Tunnello there is no data cap: it’s simply unlimited. Additionally, Tunnello uses 4096 bit encryption which is very, very strong.
Tunnello retains your IP address for 30 days but will not log your traffic or communications. Tunnello’s policy is not to resell your data.
SaferVPN offers unlimited data for $12.99 per month (although at the time of writing they are having a summer sale for $7.50 per month).
The service promises a fast and easy experience on their worldwide network of 30+ server locations but in general seems to stick to the basics (not offering much in the way of technical extras). You’ll get basic 256 bit encryption, Automatic Wi-Fi Security (SaferVPN will automatically turn on when you jump on an untrusted network) and multiple VPN protocols like OpenVPN, IKEv2, L2TP/IPSec and PPTP.
But where SaferVPN does seem to stand out from the crowd some is in the customer service department. For starters, every plan comes with a 14-day money back guarantee. And you’ll get 24/7 “friendly” support via live chat and email.
NordVPN easily has one of the most robust and comprehensive VPN offerings in terms of pure features and it will cost you $11.95 per month (but is cheaper if you want to pay six months at a time or annually).
It’s hard to pick a feature to start with so I’ll go with the double data encryption which can keep your information extra safe across a network of 640 worldwide server locations. NordVPN claims to be fast and easy and offers a kill switch so that if your VPN connection drops out any site or sites you specify in advance will be instantly shut down. You’ll also benefit from a DNS Leak Resolver, encrypted chat and unlimited access for up to six devices at the same time. But the features don’t stop there. Also included are OpenVPN, PPTP, L2TP, IPSec protocols, TOR over VPN and firewall pass-through. Finally, P2P works on NordVPN and the service accepts Bitcoin.
In terms of privacy NordVPN has posted a manifesto on their website which states they do not keep logs and strive to provide absolutely un-compromised safety and privacy.
A VPN Router?
Not all VPN solutions are strictly software-based. Betterspot is an interesting new router with VPN technology baked right in. The idea is that, rather than installing apps on all of your devices, you can just install this router and it will handle VPN functionality for you — automatically. So as soon as a device tries to access a webpage, Betterspot will switch on VPN protection.
Betterspot works on OS X, Windows, iOS and Android and even Linux and Windows Phone. It also offers you the option to switch between TOR and VPN and can also be used in direct mode where it will act as a normal router.
Throw in auto updates and location selection (so you can pick the country with the fastest servers) and you’ve got a very interesting product.
At the time of writing Betterspot is currently raising money on Kickstarter where you can score a sweet discount as an early adopter.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Can’t decide? Let me help:
- If you want a VPN that’s reasonably priced, works everywhere and definitely won’t store your IP address then check out TunnelBear.
- If you’re looking for the cheapest monthly option (and you’re an Apple user) then Cloak’s starter pricing is unbeatable.
- If you simply want the most features and strongest encryption you should check out NordVPN.
- If great customer service is important than SaferVPN might be right for you.
- And finally if a simple Chrome plugin will suffice, Tunnello is your best bet — plus, if you’re looking for a VPN free, this is probably the best option while it’s in beta (though it won’t be forever).
Online security and privacy is important and using a VPN is a necessary step if you’re one to be cautious or proactive.
If you have a moment, you might also be interested in the smart firewall built specifically for smart homes and for protecting IoT gadgets called the CUJO which I recently reviewed.