VPNs: Frequently Asked Questions

Whether you've got one installed right now or you're just curious what they're all about, this FAQ should leave you knowing a lot more about the technology and if using a VPN service is the right choice for you.

If you've ever had even a basic interest in how to stay private online, then you've heard about VPNs. But before subscribing to one, or even using a free one, it's important to have a few questions answered.

+ + +

What is a VPN?

Short for virtual private network, it's an encrypted connection over the internet from one location (like your phone) to another (like somewhere in Africa). You can think of it like a tunnel that nobody can see into except whoever is at both ends: you and the VPN provider.

See VPNs 101: What They Are & How They Work for more on their features and other basics.

Bottom Line: A secure way to access the internet.

Why do people use VPNs?

It's a common misconception that you must be hiding something pretty serious if you need to pay a company to bore a highly encrypted tunnel through the internet just so that you can access the web. But it's not just dark web users that find them beneficial; anyone, even your neighbor or grandma can connect to one for legitimate reasons.

If not simply for general anonymity while using the internet, some people have a specific situation in mind when they opt for a VPN:

  • Accessing georestricted content like movies and apps.
  • For privacy when using a shared Wi-Fi network, like in a school or airport.
  • Speeding up internet access after their ISP slows it down (bandwidth throttling).
  • Sending sensitive data through an unsecure program.

Bottom Line: Lots of reasons, depending on what you want out of one.

Are VPNs necessary?

It's a different answer for different people. It really depends on what you're doing on the internet.

In a general sense, no, you don't need a VPN in order to connect a phone, computer, or other device to the internet. You could continue the rest of your life without ever using one and possibly get by without any hiccups.

But a VPN is like insurance. You buy it not necessarily with the intention of it being useful all the time, but instead for those rare situations.

When you use a VPN, you're basically installing a fort for the tech side of your life. Since most of us do basically everything we can on the internet, we're bound to run into things that we'd rather other people not have their noses in—paying bills, transferring money, buying things, and sending private messages come to mind. A VPN provides that protection.

Bottom Line: Yes and no (depends who you are).

Does it replace my internet?

No, your internet connection is provided by your ISP. Downloading a VPN doesn't mean you can disconnect your internet and rely on just the app, nor does it bypass data restrictions baked in to the subscription you have with your service provider.

Your internet service provider is responsible for getting you online and providing you with a data plan. A VPN is simply something you can use while you're already on the internet.

It's true that both your ISP and a VPN will provide you with an IP address, which is necessary for using the internet, but in order to reach a VPN server, you have to first run the connection through your ISP.

Similarly, despite the fact that a VPN creates its own network line through the internet, it still relies on several things, such as your Wi-Fi or wired connection. You can't disconnect your internet or remove your router; those things are still very necessary for a VPN.

In one way, though, you might consider that the VPN replaces your ISP in the sense that it's your new endpoint to the rest of the internet. Instead of your internet provider being the middleman that can check up on the sites you're visiting and potentially record all your activity, those abilities are handed off to the VPN (see what a VPN can monitor for more on this).

Bottom Line: VPNs use data just like normal traffic; they're not a substitute for your regular internet connection.

Is a VPN the same as incognito mode?

Using them together can beef up your privacy more than either can alone, but they're not the same thing, and they don't pretend to be.

Incognito mode is a free feature in web browsers that lets you use the internet normally like to access web pages and search for things, but without leaving a trace on the device. When you close the browser, you're automatically signed out of any sites you logged in to and none of your web trails are searchable by anyone who uses that software later. Think of it as a normal browser but with the history option disabled.

Using incognito mode without a VPN still exposes your IP address and network activity since its benefits are just local to the device you're using. However, using just a VPN still leaves a local trail of what you've been up to online (unless you deliberately erase that data yourself).

To get the best of both of them, simply use incognito mode while the VPN is enabled.

Bottom Line: No, they are two completely separate privacy-minded functions.

Are two VPNs better than one?

In terms of privacy, yes. But not speed. Your internet might already run slow on just one, so squeezing everything through a second one will cause even more delays.

The advantage of running one VPN inside of another is obvious: all your traffic would be routed through an additional server, sheltered twice by encryption and leaving an even longer trail to follow before reaching your real location. The downside is that your device most likely won't let you do this unless it's a feature built-in to the VPN software, something often called a double VPN.

If the VPN client doesn't support this, one way you can try mimicking it is to use a virtual machine. If you access the internet from inside a virtual machine that's using a VPN, it will be forced to pass through the host computer first. So if you run a VPN on the host computer, too, or the router, you'll be using two VPNs at once. The same is true for a setup where there's a VPN on the desktop and another one running through a browser extension.

A related question is whether you can have more than one VPN installed at once, but not being used simultaneously. This is actually a great idea if you're sticking to free VPNs since most will limit how much data you can transfer throughout the month. Storing up a few of these apps makes it easier to switch between them for more VPN data, and it will work just fine so long as you're not trying to run all of them at the same time.

Bottom Line: Maybe! Two will give you more privacy but you'll experience slower speeds.

Are there VPNs I should avoid?

There are several reasons you might want to avoid a particular VPN:

  • If it's not private enough or is known to leak personal data
  • If it's not secure enough to prevent hacking
  • If it's hard to use
  • If it doesn't have the features you want
  • If it's not priced appropriately
  • If it's considered a fake VPN

A few of those things, like ease of use and price, might be less important to some people and won't be a driving force behind a decision to pick a particular provider over another. But most people can think about those things when choosing a VPN to get an idea of whether it's worth it to them.

Since many VPN users are in it for the privacy and not just a simple georestriction unblock, focusing on the privacy side of things is usually what makes informed users choose not to use a particular VPN. There are two primary things to look for:

  • Is it part of the 14 Eyes?
  • Does it keep logs that could identify you?

It's important to keep both of those things in mind because a provider that claims to keep zero logs might still be forced to do so against your knowledge if the company exists in one of the 14 Eyes countries.

Ideally, for the best privacy possible, you'd choose a VPN that isn't part of that group and that you can confirm doesn't keep any identifying logs, the latter of which can be verified through audits, by carefully reading through their privacy policy, and by observing how they've dealt with user data during any requests from authorities.

Bottom Line: Absolutely, but knowing who to trust isn't always easy.

What's wrong with a Five Eyes VPN?

If you're looking for a VPN with the lowest privacy risk, it's best to choose one outside of the Five Eyes. This refers to countries (like the US and Canada) that gather and share data on users. Any VPN whose headquarters are in one of those countries are subject to their rules, which could mean that your data is shared with the government.

A sneaky way the authorities might leverage their power over a VPN in their jurisdiction is to force it to log user data without letting the provider inform the users that they're being spied on. This means that even if the VPN advertises as a no-log provider, the government could twist their arm to do it anyway, and you'd be none the wiser.

If you're using a VPN within the 5 Eyes (or 9 or 14 Eyes) and you're not planning on switching to a more private provider, you could get more protection by routing your traffic through additional servers, something you can do with a VPN that supports multihop and/or by using Tor on the VPN.

Bottom Line: It's harder to guarantee privacy.

Aren't they all the same?

All VPNs function similarly—to provide secure access to something over the internet. But they aren't mere copies of each other, nor do they provide a "one size fits all" solution.

Inexperienced users might prefer an app that has next to zero options so that they don't feel overwhelmed, but someone who knows what they're doing might be after something that lets them tinker with lots of settings to make it work exactly how they see fit.

Where one VPN might provide an iPhone app that lets you connect to a server in Germany, another might only work from a computer or have no servers in Europe at all. Some VPNs keep track of user data while others advertise "zero-log" policies. Other differences exist when it comes to security features; some will auto-connect when the device first starts up, or disconnect the internet if the server connection fails unexpectedly. Some are totally free and others run several dollars or more per month, offer a trial version, or can be purchased for three years at once for a steep discount.

If the VPN doesn't cost, you might be allowed to transfer only a limited amount of data through their servers every day or month. Others might have security features disabled or heavily restrict server choice or speed.

Bottom Line: In some ways, yes, but there are distinctions that could be important to you.

Are VPNs scams?

Some are most definitely scams but this is absolutely not the case for all VPNs. Basically all of them, even the ones considered a sham, work as advertised by changing your IP address and encrypting your data. What makes some of them fraudulent is what they're doing behind the scenes with your data.

Those VPNs aren't staying true to what most people want out of one. Users want their data to not be tracked, they want the freedom to use the internet without borders, and they want to trust that paying for the service will give them those things without exceptions. VPNs that don't uphold those basic tenets are considered scams.

So how do you identify a fake VPN? Neither high nor low cost is a good enough measure. A fake VPN could be chock-full of features and offered at a premium price or for free and still be considered unsafe. A VPN's website or app might be really nice looking, or use fancy words, or offer tons of payment options and lots of user reviews...but those things also aren't reliable indicators of a real VPN.

In addition to the reasons to avoid a VPN are these signs that should make you rethink things:

  • It claims things that aren't true, like worldwide servers when there are only a handful, or "absolutely zero logging" when the privacy policy says otherwise.
  • It's unclear how the company makes money. If it's extremely cheap or free but has loads of features, they're probably selling your data.
  • The company's website isn't secure. Sites that use HTTP over HTTPS aren't as secure, and it's a great first impression of how they run their business.
  • It needs unnecessary personal information like your phone number, home address, or GPS details. No provider needs those details.
  • The user reviews are primarily populated with what looks like a bot or identical comments praising the VPN.
  • There's nobody on the other end of the support line. Email is a super common way for VPNs to communicate with their users, but if you can't find a contact method or they don't respond in a reasonable amount of time, then they aren't putting their customers first.

Ideally, the best way to avoid a fake VPN is to stick to one that's fully transparent so that you can clearly see how it works, who owns it, why it costs what it does, and how long it's been in operation. It should have a solid privacy policy and routine third-party auditing that can prove it, plus a long history of positive feedback.

Unfortunately, most VPNs can't tackle all of that. This makes it a struggle to separate the pros from the fakes.

Some things might seem like a scam but are actually pretty common marketing strategies:

  • Price cuts for first-time users. This is how they convince you to subscribe.
  • A limited-time trial aimed at making you fall in love with the VPN so that you'll decide to pay.
  • A 100% free version that's limited in one or more ways so that you'll be incentivized to buy the full version.
  • More monthly data for free users who refer friends to use the service or who post about their experience on social media.
  • Claiming the unverifiable, like "#1 VPN of all time" or "a VPN that unblocks any website."
  • Declaring "unlimited speeds" makes you think that you could get faster speeds than what your network supports.

Bottom Line: Some VPNs are scams but others are real, trustworthy, and reliable.

Are VPNs free?

There are completely free VPNs you can use if you don't want to buy one, and even the ones that do cost will usually have a free version you can use with limited features. Generally, however, you'll have to pay if you want premium benefits.

If you're just wanting to see how you like it but not commit to a subscription, there's sometimes a trial option available so that you can test out the features for a few days without having to pay. This is often the best way to get a free VPN without compromising features. But if you want more than just a taste and you're not willing to fork over the cash, you'll have to go with a free VPN or lean on the company's money-back guarantee (which most have).

Since a free provider isn't making money from its users, the service is often limited in several ways. It might restrict how long you can be connected or limit you to just a handful of servers. Others pause the VPN if you use too much data too quickly, or will deprioritize your connection in favor of the customers paying for top speeds. In some cases, a free VPN is worth it to the company because they show you ads or sell your data to the highest bidder.

Bottom Line: The better VPNs cost, but some are free if you don't mind the lower quality.

What are VPN servers?

A server is what hosts the software and hardware necessary for you to actually use the VPN. When you connect to a VPN, you're really connecting to one of the company's servers.

The reason servers are an integral part of the network is because that's where your connection to the rest of the internet is coming from. When you use your laptop to reach a VPN server in the UK, all of your internet access from that point onward runs through the UK connection instead of the one your laptop is starting from.

When it comes to the privacy benefits of a VPN, the server is there to "hide" your IP address. While it doesn't technically remove it, it does give you a new one so that it's that address that's seen by the places you visit online.

Bottom Line: Devices run by a VPN provider that you connect to in order to access the internet.

Does it matter which server I connect to?

Most providers offer multiple servers for you to choose from. Depending on why you're using that VPN in the first place, you might select one that supports the features you're after.

If you need it to be as fast as possible because you plan to stream HD movies, you could select a server that's physically closest to your real location or that has a low server load (preferably both). Or maybe you want to download torrents, in which case you'd jump on a server that allows P2P traffic. If streaming Netflix doesn't work where you are, you could use a server located in the country that's delivering the titles you want to watch.

Some VPNs will tell you outright which servers support torrents or which one would be the fastest for you to use. Look out for those details in the VPN software or on the company's website. Double VPN servers are usually called out in the app.

Bottom Line: It might. Some are faster than others or support different features you might want.

How does a VPN work?

How you connect to a VPN varies between providers since they don't all support the same devices and every app looks a little different. But it goes something like this in most cases:

  1. Download the VPN program.
  2. Log in with the same credentials you used when signing up.
  3. Pick the server you're interested in.

Depending on the device's limitations, you might have to follow a lot more steps. One example is if you're setting it up from a router or a TV, but if those devices are supported, you'll be given detailed setup instructions.

Once you're connected to the server, the way in which you access web pages, download files, etc., is the same as if you weren't using the VPN. But what's happening behind the scenes is a little different:

  1. Your request is encrypted by the VPN program.
  2. It's sent through your ISP to the VPN server, where it's decrypted.
  3. The server makes the request for you and then encrypts the data.
  4. It's sent back to you through your ISP, still encrypted.
  5. The program on your device decrypts it so that you can use it.

All of these steps are performed automatically, in real-time. You don't have to manually encrypt or decrypt anything, or even know how encryption works at all.

Bottom Line: Run the VPN program and it'll do all the work for you.

How do I know if my VPN is working?

Since a VPN is supposed to mask your real IP address by providing you with a completely different one, the easiest way to check that the VPN is on and working correctly is to see what your IP address is. If you're not sure what your address normally is when not connected to a VPN, you'll need to check it once before you connect and again when you think it's enabled.

Some VPN programs include a built-in IP address checker to verify whether there's been a change after choosing a server, and a few even show your fake location on a map. But you can also check yourself through websites like IP Chicken and MyIP.com.

To confirm that the server you picked is showing up to other websites as coming from that location, you can use a tool that includes location details, like What Is My IP Address. Compare the country or region you see there with the one listed in the VPN client.

You might think a GPS checker would be an accurate way of seeing if your IP address has changed, but those are only helpful if the VPN is also spoofing your GPS location details.

Bottom Line: Use a website that can check that your IP address has changed.

Can I keep it on all the time?

For the highest degree of privacy, you should stay connected to a VPN 100% of the time. But you might not need it for everything you're doing and it might even have some built-in restrictions that prevent you from using it 24/7.

One circumstance where it's unwise to let a VPN run all day every day is if there's a cap on data usage. If the service provides 1 GB of data only, then you should use it intentionally or it will become maxed out dealing with things that most people don't care to use a VPN with, like app updates, file backups, or social media.

It's possible that some VPNs might be extremely restrictive and let you use it only for a certain number of hours. In that case, it's obvious that you'd want to turn it on only when you really need it so that you can squeeze as much time out of it as possible.

Leaving a VPN running can also lead to error messages, specifically if the thing you're trying to access is blocking the VPN. Some financial websites and streaming services, for example, are on the lookout for VPN users and will block you from their sites and apps until you turn it off.

Another thing to watch for when a VPN is always on is slow downloads and uploads. It's common for a VPN to slow down your internet, so if you need faster speeds and privacy isn't necessary, turn the VPN off while you're doing that task to get the most out of your bandwidth.

It's important to remember that for a VPN to work as it's intended to, it must remain connected. It's not enough to simply download the VPN software to your device; you have to actively enable it and connect to a server.

Bottom Line: For most VPNs, yes, but some might be restricted.

Do they work on all devices?

VPNs are available for a wide variety of devices, including phones, tablets, computers, TVs, and routers.

One thing to look for when picking a VPN is device support. If you plan to use it from your phone and home computer, make sure they're both supported.

They all work a bit differently, though. Most VPNs come in the form of a mobile app, desktop app, and/or browser extension. The one you pick should depend on what you want to do through the VPN.

If there isn't an app, the service might let you set up the VPN manually. This is often the only path to using a VPN on a router.

Bottom Line: It depends on the VPN you choose, but most support computers, phones, and other devices.

Can I use one account on multiple devices?

Some providers let you use your account on multiple devices. You pay for just one account and it lets you access the VPN from any variety of devices, like all your phones and computers. If this isn't supported, then you need a separate account for each device.

Since all VPNs are slightly different, you might run across one that allows simultaneous connections on five devices while another supports only three, or unlimited, or just one.

Bottom Line: It depends on the provider, but multiple devices are usually supported.

A VPN does not put you above the law, so it doesn't let you avoid copyright rules. At best, and depending on the privacy features of the VPN, using one might make it harder for authorities to identify you as the culprit. But again, VPNs don't let you off of hook if you're responsible for copyright infringment.

Here's one way this sometimes plays out:

  1. You download a copyrighted movie/software/etc. from a website.
  2. Someone monitoring the situation contacts the website to start their investigation.
  3. The website contacts your ISP to inform them of the situation.
  4. Your ISP gives you a warning or shuts off your internet connection.

A VPN's role in all of this is protection from your ISP. At #3, instead of the site contacting your actual ISP, it's the VPN that's contacted, because that's who the site saw when you accessed that resource. Assuming the VPN doesn't keep logs of what their users are doing, #4 can't be completed—there's nothing the VPN can find to tie you to that specific activity, so the investigation essentially ends there.

Bottom Line: No, but it might prevent someone from connecting the copyright violation to you, specifically.

What does my ISP see when I use a VPN?

More than you might think, but that doesn't mean the VPN isn't working or that it's not useful.

Encryption stops your ISP from viewing specific details regarding what you're doing. One way to visualize this is with a train...

Think of a normal, unencrypted connection passing through your ISP as a glass train. The service provider sits off to the side as a viewer, seeing everything as it moves by. Just like how glass is easy to see through, so too is your data transparent when filtered through your ISP. They see what the train is hauling (your data), how fast it's traveling (the speed), where it started (your IP address), and where it's going (the places you're visiting online).

When a VPN is turned on, your ISP can still see that there's a track and can tell very easily if you're stopped or moving, and even how fast the train is traveling. It can still see where the train started and where it's headed and is still fully in control of the track (they can stop everything at once if they so choose). But instead of glass, there's now a thick, black, bulletproof coating around the train, blocking anyone from seeing inside.

Again, your real IP address and the address of the VPN server are still seen because the ISP has a full view of the entire track, but everything on the train is 100% out of view. This means anyone else, too, like passersby, will see the same unidentified train heading down the track, with no idea what it's carrying.

If the train analogy is confusing, just remember that a VPN prevents your ISP from seeing all the sensitive things you're doing on the internet, but there are still some surface-level details that you can't hide from them:

  • The fact that you're using a VPN (some VPNs can get around this).
  • Your original IP address and the VPN's (unless you use a double VPN).
  • When you use it, and for how long.
  • How much data you're transferring through it.

Bottom Line: Nothing that could substantially compromise your privacy.

Can VPNs monitor what I'm doing?

All VPNs can monitor the details of your activity, just like your ISP can without a VPN. But whether they do is a completely different question, and it depends on their logging policy and whether they need to follow any data retention rules.

While it's true that most VPNs include encryption, that data is eventually decrypted when it reaches the server because that's the only way they can understand your requests. It's what happens after it's decrypted that explains whether that particular VPN can monitor you.

For tabs to be kept on you, they'd have to store records of your activity. Each time you visit a website, for example, or log in to the VPN, a new entry in a file could be created on their server. Each log could be cataloged by user, and further organized by date and time. A provider that stores all of this information could easily pull it up at any time to see what you've been up to, or could even sell it to other companies or give it up to authorities who demand it.

What makes VPNs appealing to so many people, and why certain providers are more preferred than others, is how they deal with your data. Since they all work differently, one might store essentially useless information about its users while another keeps hard evidence like all the sites that each user accessed while connected.

A "zero-log" VPN is one way some of these services are advertised. This might catch your eye at first, but what do zero logs really mean? It's unlikely that it's claiming to keep absolutely zero records because there are several things a VPN must keep track of in order to function. They might need to know how many users are online at any given time, which servers aren't being used, whether there are connection errors they need to address, how many devices each user has the app installed on, how much data is being transferred through each server, etc.

Those records could remain pretty anonymous since they're just statistics. But some companies might go further with it and keep a history of all the sites you've been visiting and store enough personal information to see exactly which files you downloaded on a specific day several months ago. That's hardly the virtual private network most people are looking for.

For those reasons, always be cautious of a provider that has "zero logs" plastered all over their home page. There might be some truth to it sometimes, but not always.

Knowing what type of personal information a VPN logs is extremely important when deciding to use one. And unfortunately, you can't rely on their privacy policy to be clear enough to understand their logging practices. They could state that they keep zero logs but then be forced by the government to begin spying on their users, and you might never know because they could be prevented from disclosing it to you.

One way to make sense of it all is to have a third-party company audit the VPN to see if they're operating in accordance with their stated policies. Or if there have been hacks or government requests for data, reviewing how the provider responded is a great way to confirm how serious they are about privacy. Some other tactics would be to run a multihop VPN and use a provider that's based outside the surveillance of the Five Eyes.

A related question might be whether VPNs can see passwords you enter into websites or read your emails or bank transactions while you're connected. Fortunately, most (hopefully all) of those kinds of websites use their own encryption, so there's already a layer of security provided there. Just be sure to deal with sensitive data only through websites that use HTTPS in the URL.

Bottom Line: Absolutely. Some are more adamant than others that they don't monitor you, and can prove it, but others might be lying.

Does a VPN make you completely anonymous?

Even assuming the VPN doesn't keep logs of your activity (see above) and is fully equipped with strong encryption, whether it grants total anonymity depends on how you use it.

Think of social media. Without a VPN, when you post something on Twitter, your name is attached to it. Everyone seeing the post can identify that it came from you. They don't need to know your IP address or even your real physical location because your face and name are presumably accurate and shown right there along with your post.

Now, if you switch over to a VPN and post on those same sites with your same information publicly available, you're not really doing anything differently. The VPN gave you a different IP address, so Twitter assumes you're located wherever the VPN server is, but you didn't change how you interacted with the public. In this situation, VPN enabled or not, your quest for total anonymity went right out the window when you used your real identity.

Another clear example of this at work is if you were to post your credit card number online. Doing so behind a VPN or not doesn't really make a difference. Your information is exposed either way. The VPN simply made you appear to be divulging your private information from a different place in the world. That's it.

To stay faceless online when using a VPN, you have to take note of what you're revealing. Encryption is great at blocking ISPs, hackers, and other eavesdroppers from seeing the sites you're visiting, but if you're not also hiding your identity at your exit point to the internet, the VPN can't protect you completely.

A VPN couldn't care less if you're sending emails or texts, writing on a blog, sharing things on Instagram, etc. It's all encrypted during transit from your computer to the VPN server, but at that point, you can easily be identified by the information you're making public. A message from your email address, for example, is still coming from your email address whether or not the VPN was enabled when you sent it, and Google searches made while logged in to your account can still be traced by Google.

Taking it all in, a VPN itself isn't enough to anonymize your whole identity. For that, you'd need to also use nameless social media accounts, email addresses, etc.

Bottom Line: Not on its own, but it can if you avoid giving out personal information while connected.

Can they be hacked?

VPNs can certainly be hacked much like a website. But if the provider doesn't keep identifiable information on its users, then a data breach isn't something to really worry about. Hacking a website that has nothing but blank pages is pretty useless, which is essentially what an attacker might gain by hacking a VPN server that stores zero user logs.

Also, since strong encryption is used on most VPNs, there's next to zero likelihood that a hacker could uncover anything useful from your data. To use the train example above, a hacker attempting to see what you're doing would be akin to them taking a picture of a moving train with tinted windows...it'd be too blurry and dark to really see anything.

In fact, it's pretty unfathomable just how long it would take to crack something like AES 256-bit encryption.

On that note, not all VPNs provide encryption. You won't run across many like this, but if privacy and security are important to you, it's best to avoid those.

Bottom Line: Yes, a VPN can be hacked much like anything else can be.

Can a VPN protect you from hackers?

If a hacker is defined as someone who's spying on your internet connection to collect your passwords and other private data, then yes, a VPN's encryption is enough to make that information useless to the hacker. However, a hacker can still breach your online user accounts and your local computer, even if there's VPN software running on it.

One clear example is if you're using a laptop in an airport. Everything you do through the VPN on the airport's Wi-Fi will be protected from eavesdroppers. But if you leave your laptop unattended when you get up, and someone steals it, there are password cracking techniques they can use to get into your user account and ultimately any online account that you've left logged in (think banking sites, online retail sites, password manager software, etc.).

Similarly, weak passwords and malicious programs are just as vulnerable to attacks whether you are or are not using a VPN. Every phone, computer, tablet, etc. that you own can be connected to a VPN 24/7, but if your email password is too easy to guess or is leaked online in a data breach, or you install a program that contains a virus, the VPN won't provide any help.

Bottom Line: In one sense, yes, but a VPN alone doesn't protect you from local attacks or poor password management.

Do they keep working when I move locations?

As long as the connection to the VPN server remains active, you can move freely between Wi-Fi and mobile networks and cross over countries without an interruption.

One exception is if the VPN service doesn't work in the country you move to, which is likely if it's illegal there.

Something else to realize is that depending on the situation (like when disconnecting mobile data to switch to Wi-Fi), the server connection might become disrupted for just a few seconds. But there's nothing to worry about as long as the app has protections in place for this, like a kill switch and the option to reconnect automatically.

Bottom Line: For the most part, VPNs don't care about physical borders.

Are VPNs illegal?

It depends where you live, but most people can use a VPN legally.

The reason this is even a question is because encryption prevents authorities from seeing what you're doing online; great for the users, but not so great for governments that want to survey their citizens or control the information they can access.

There's currently a fairly short list of countries that are known to ban, restrict, or discourage the use of VPNs:

  • Belarus
  • China
  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • Oman
  • Russia
  • Turkey
  • Turkmenistan
  • North Korea
  • UAE

This list might not be complete since laws surrounding encryption change frequently. If you think it might be illegal to use a VPN where you are, be sure to check local laws.

Bottom Line: Most countries do not outlaw VPNs but a few do.

Will it slow down my internet speed?

Generally, yes. But in some really specific cases, a VPN might even make your internet faster.

Since using one introduces another network that all your internet traffic must pass through before getting back to you, it's understandable that there will be delays that affect the overall speed.

However, even if it advertises top speeds that outperform what you pay your internet provider for, a VPN can't exceed that limit. In other words, it's always the slower of the two that will be the speed you get—if your ISP is slower than the VPN, you'll get your ISP speeds; if the VPN is slower, that's what you'll max out at.

The exception to this is if your ISP is intentionally lowering your internet speed, a practice called bandwidth throttling. They do this by monitoring what you're doing to watch for high-bandwidth activity (like video streaming). Since a VPN hides the type of data you're transmitting through your ISP, using one could restore speeds closer to what you're paying for.

It's also rare for a VPN to reduce ping, but we've seen it happen. If you rely on ultra-low ping for gaming or other live activities, don't expect a VPN to give you better results than you get without using one, but also don't assume that it will always negatively affect it.

All other things aside (Wi-Fi interference, bandwidth capacity, etc.), some of the biggest factors that affect VPN speed include the:

Bottom Line: A VPN will most likely make your internet slower, but whether that's true, and by how much, depends on a few things.

What does 'unlimited bandwidth' mean?

Some VPNs advertise unlimited bandwidth, which just means that you can download and upload as many files as you see fit. They won't cancel your subscription or kick you off the server if your usage hits a certain number of GBs.

Keep in mind, however, that this feature only pertains to the VPN provider, not your internet service provider (i.e., the company you pay to use data from your phone or computer).

For example, if your phone caps out at 6 GB of data per month, that's still your limit even if you're using a VPN with unlimited bandwidth. This reason for this is that despite the fact that your VPN is encrypted and your ISP can't see what you're doing, you're still using their network to transmit the data coming and going over the VPN, so you must also still abide by any data usage rules they've put in place.

Bottom Line: Limitless data transfers.

Do VPNs work with Netflix?

You can stream Netflix on a VPN if a) the server you're connected to is in a country that supports the title you want to watch, and b) Netflix hasn't blocked the VPN.

Say you want to watch a TV show that's available only to customers in the US. To view it while you're in Australia, you need to log in from a US server. Netflix will treat your connection just as they would someone living in the states.

The exception to this is if they've blocked your IP address. You could try another server to get a different address, but that might not work either. If this happens, it's more than likely the case that Netflix has banned one or more IP addresses belonging to the VPN provider. Unfortunately, this is pretty easy for them to do, and much more likely to happen if the VPN is used by lots of people or if they only offer shared IP addresses.

This applies to every other website as well, including other streaming sites, financial institutions, etc.

Bottom Line: It depends heavily on the VPN—some do and some don't.

Is Smart DNS the same as a VPN?

Smart DNS isn't technically the same thing as a VPN, but depending on what you want out of a VPN service, you might be able to get away with just using Smart DNS.

A Smart DNS service can provide only some of the same benefits as a VPN, namely access to georestricted content. If you want to watch movies or play games that aren't available where you are, Smart DNS is all you need to set up on your game console, TV, or other device. Sometimes, it's the only option for select devices if the VPN provider doesn't offer a VPN app or manual VPN configuration details.

Smart DNS is also useful if you need the best streaming possible. The lack of encryption means you'll get closer to your normal speeds when watching movies and downloading files.

Those benefits, of course, come at a cost, and that's why a VPN is necessary in certain circumstances. Unlike Smart DNS, virtual private networks supply you with a different IP address and will encrypt/hide everything you do while you're connected to it.

Here's an easy way to remember which one to use if you're given the choice:

Use a VPN when:

  • There are geoblocks you want to overcome
  • You'll be dealing with sensitive information
  • You connect to public Wi-Fi networks
  • There are extra features you want (e.g. split tunneling)
  • Your internet access is being controlled by the network provider
  • You plan on using torrents

Use Smart DNS when:

  • There are geoblocks you want to overcome
  • Privacy isn't needed
  • You want more reliable streams
  • You're on a low budget
  • There isn't a VPN app for your device

Just like when choosing a VPN service, you should always be extra careful which Smart DNS service you pick. Even though they're different, the DNS company could be doing some of the same things unfavorable VPNs do like monitoring you, storing all the websites you visit, or redirecting you to malicious websites.

Bottom Line: No. Use a VPN if you need privacy, use Smart DNS if you need to unblock something.

Does Tor make a VPN more secure?

Tor is a network of servers that anyone with the Tor Browser can access to bounce their data through multiple hoops before reaching the destination, providing better anonymity than using a typical browser.

Since a VPN encrypts your data and provides access to the internet from a different location, adding additional layers of encryption to the mix via Tor improves your overall privacy while using the internet.

However, in most cases, accessing Tor is only possible through the Tor Browser, so it's unlike a VPN that can provide its benefits to all your apps. And like any additional layer of encryption or location bouncing, performance will take a hit, so you can expect slower speeds while using Tor with a VPN (i.e., probably don't use it to stream Netflix).

See this Tor overview on their website for some more information. A much deeper look at how Tor works is available here, including how it's different from a VPN.

Bottom Line: Yes, Tor is a free way to browse the web more anonymously while on a VPN.

Can they be detected?

Most of the time, yes, because VPN servers and their related software use IP addresses and network ports like any other public-facing network device, meaning that they can be detected and blocked.

This is why bypassing geoblocks doesn't always work. If Hulu, for example, maintains a list of IP addresses that it knows are used by the most popular VPN providers, then anyone connected to those servers will be denied access.

Some websites that can see that you're using a VPN will tell you that you need to disconnect it before you can access the content. Others will show an error or the page simply won't load, and it's not until you turn off the VPN that the site will treat you normally.

There are several reasons a VPN might get blocked. Maybe a video streaming service wants to provide a video to users in one country only, so they need to block VPNs which can be used to fake the location. Schools could block VPNs to stop students from bypassing content restrictions. Governments invest in VPN-blocking tech to ensure that they can control what the citizens have access to online.

Sometimes, you can "bypass" VPN detection by using a dedicated IP address or by simply trying another server. Switching to a different server provides you with a different IP address, which might be all you need to get the VPN working again. It could even be a server from the same country as the one that was blocked.

However, whether that works depends on how the VPN is being detected. They can also be blocked by analyzing the encrypted data to search for cryptographic signatures, which is why some VPNs offer countermeasures such as servers designed to hide these signatures and special anti-censorship VPN protocols.

Bottom Line: It's usually possible for a website, country, etc. to notice that you're using a VPN.

Will it protect me from viruses?

A VPN, in and of itself, doesn't have an antivirus option. So you can't connect to one and assume that any worries about infecting your device are now gone. A VPN offers encryption, which has nothing to do with viruses.

Some programs, though, that aren't primarily known for offering a VPN do include one with their arsenal of other tools. There are several security suites that have a VPN mixed in with their virus scanner, malicious link checker, etc. because they're all related to privacy and security.

Likewise, apps that are advertised primarily as VPNs might include their own supplementary tools like a malicious link scanner or phishing detector.

A program's list of features will be clear before you download or purchase it.

Bottom Line: No, a VPN itself does not.

Do VPNs block ads?

This goes hand in hand with the virus question above. Do some VPN apps also block ads? Yes. But plenty are also just regular programs that don't have these extra options.

Bottom Line: Not all VPNs stop ads, but some do as an added feature.

Will it work without Wi-Fi?

VPNs work on both data connection types: Wi-Fi and cellular (as well as wired). You can use one from a computer or phone, on or off Wi-Fi.

Something to keep in mind is that a VPN doesn't magically give you unlimited data usage. The bandwidth question above touched on this. It doesn't matter if your limit is 2 GB or 20 GB, your phone carrier will still know when you reach it, even if you used the VPN the whole time.

Bottom Line: Yes, VPNs work no matter what type of connection you're using.

Does a VPN change my GPS location?

Some VPNs can double as a location spoofer but most just give you a different IP address.

When you're using a different IP address, apps and websites that identify you by that address will think that you're located elsewhere. However, your real physical location is still visible if the way in which they identify your whereabouts is through GPS.

The exception to this is if GPS faking is included in the VPN software. If so, weather and travel-related apps will show the fake location instead of your real one. Typically, it works by giving you a GPS location that's in the same area as the server you choose.

Bottom Line: Not usually, but some VPNs have it as an extra feature.

Can I use one to connect to my computer remotely?

There are two kinds of VPNs. What we talk about on this website is the kind that anyone can subscribe to for benefits like content unlocking and privacy through encryption. The other type is common in business environments where a user connects to the company's VPN so that they can reach their work computer when away from the office.

In that sense, the VPNs you read about on The New Review aren't used for remote desktop abilities. That said, there are some that can do this. If you're looking for one, make sure the VPN supports port forwarding or that the site/app explicitly states that remote access is allowed.

Bottom Line: Most people don't use a consumer VPN product for this reason, but it is possible.

Are there reasons not to use a VPN?

As useful as VPNs are, there are several reasons someone might choose not to use one:

  • They're illegal in some countries.
  • Your internet speed can take a hit in some circumstances.
  • Most of the better VPNs require a monthly subscription.
  • Some websites won't let you access their content until you turn off the VPN.

However, these points shouldn't be taken as 100% accurate for all users all the time. Most countries don't outlaw VPN services, the better providers don't cause a significant speed difference, and probably only a relatively small fraction of the sites you visit will block the VPN you use.

Bottom Line: Yes, but most people won't have all these problems.