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VPN FAQ: What you need to know about the basics of virtual private networks

VPNs seem complicated, but we'll walk you through the basics of what protections they do (and don't) offer.

VPN for online security and privacy
We promise you don't need to be a tech whiz to use a VPN.
James Martin/CNET

We've put together a list of some of the most common questions people typically have about virtual private networks, and we've done our best to answer those questions as clearly and concisely as possible. So we'll try to keep the jargon at a minimum and focus on what you need to know about VPNs without getting bogged down. 

Hopefully, once you've had a flick through this list of VPN FAQs you'll find that VPNs are accessible, easy to use and essential for a whole host of things you do online. We'll also keep this list of frequently asked questions updated, so check back for more answers in the future. 

Read more: The best VPNs right now   

What is a VPN?

Put simply, a VPN is a piece of software that establishes a secure connection between your computer and the internet by running your internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel to a server in a remote location. This encrypted connection can help you protect your privacy online, and it can help you bypass firewalls and unblock geographically restricted online content. More on all that below. 

Read more: Understanding VPNs

What does a VPN do?

A VPN keeps your internet traffic private and hidden from anyone looking to snoop on what you do online -- whether it's your ISP, your employer, your school, network administrators, hackers on public Wi-Fi, web trackers or government agencies. In the process, the VPN also conceals your true IP address and swaps it out for the IP address of the VPN server you're connecting through, meaning any website you visit sees the VPN's IP address rather than your own. Since your IP address is tied to your physical location, the sites you visit won't know where you actually are. Instead, they'll think you're wherever the VPN server you're connected to is. (Yes, this is the key to unblocking geo-restricted content across the web.) 

How much does a VPN cost?

That depends on how long you're willing to commit to one VPN provider. The longer you commit, the more money you can save in the long run. Many VPN providers these days offer yearly plans, two-year plans, three-year plans, or even lifetime subscription plans. However, given the volatility of the VPN market, we do not recommend purchasing a plan that spans more than two years. If you end up going with a yearly or multiyear plan, you could be paying what works out to about $2 to $10 a month, depending on the provider. If you choose a monthly plan, you're probably going to be looking at about $10 to $15 a month. Go with whatever suits your particular needs and budget best, but remember that more expensive doesn't necessarily equate to higher quality

We also generally recommend avoiding free VPNs. For one, there's a good chance they're going to be selling your data to advertisers and other third parties, which defeats the whole purpose of having a VPN in the first place. Some free VPNs have even been known to inject users' devices with malware and are downright dangerous to use. Even if that's not the case with every free VPN, most will be limited in the number of server locations offered, data allowance, speed, unblocking ability, features and so on.  

VPNs can be very affordable. So you're much better off getting your hands on a premium VPN product and getting the full package for just a couple bucks a month.     

Read more: The best cheap VPNs

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VPNs protect your data by encrypting it in a virtual tunnel.

Sarah Tew/CNET

How does a VPN work?

When you connect to a VPN through its app or desktop software, your VPN encrypts your internet connection. As your traffic passes back and forth through that encrypted connection -- traveling the virtual tunnel between your device and the server you selected -- your online activity and your IP address are effectively masked from outside entities. 

In a nutshell, the process works like this: As you connect to a VPN server, your device and the VPN server swap encryption keys during a process known as a "handshake." This handshake process is completed instantly and is essential because it ensures that only the VPN server will be able to decrypt the data you're sending from your device and that only your device will be able to decrypt the data being sent back from the VPN server. 

Once the handshake is completed, your secure tunnel to the internet is established. Your data is encrypted before it leaves your device, it then gets shot through the tunnel to the VPN server, where it is decrypted and passed along to the website you're visiting. Then the website sends data back to the VPN server, where that website's data is encrypted and shot back through the tunnel to your device. Once it arrives on your device, the website data is decrypted so you can read it. 

Any entity attempting to monitor your activity when you're connected to a VPN will only see a bunch of random gibberish. They won't see what websites you're visiting, what you're buying, what you're downloading or what personal information you're transmitting. And they won't see that you've been on YouTube with Men Without Hats' Safety Dance music video on repeat for the past six hours. The encrypted VPN tunnel hides all of that.        

Read more: How to identify a good VPN          

Are VPNs legal to use?

In the vast majority of countries around the world, VPNs are perfectly legal to use. There's absolutely nothing wrong with taking steps to protect your privacy online, and you shouldn't have to worry that using a VPN for privacy will get you in any kind of legal trouble. That said, there are countries where VPNs are banned and/or illegal. If you're using a VPN in a country like China, Iran, Oman, Russia, Turkmenistan, the UAE or Belarus (to name a few), then you may find yourself in legal trouble if you're caught using a VPN. The irony, however, is that these are the kinds of places that restrict access to certain apps and platforms, which can therefore only be accessed via VPNs. As a result, in those locations, only VPNs that provide obfuscated servers can safely protect your online data by disguising your VPN traffic as ordinary HTTPS traffic. 

But VPNs are totally legal throughout most of the world, and you won't run into any trouble with the law just for using one. Keep in mind, though, that engaging in illegal activity online is still illegal regardless of whether you're using a VPN.

Will a VPN make me totally anonymous online?

No. And don't let any VPN company try to convince you otherwise. Complete anonymity via VPN is a common misconception that only breeds a false sense of security. It's virtually impossible to achieve absolute anonymity online, but that doesn't stop many VPN providers from trumpeting misleading claims about keeping users anonymous. A VPN is an excellent tool for protecting your online privacy by encrypting the data you transmit through the tunnel, but it won't be able to make you 100% anonymous online. The digital footprint you create as you use the internet is next to impossible to completely cover up. 

Read more: Why you should be skeptical about a VPN's no-logs claims

cyber crime

VPNs protect your privacy from outside observers, but they're not a substitute for good internet security practices.

Can I get hacked while using a VPN?

Yes. Even though you're using a VPN for online security and digital privacy, you still need to follow basic security best practices when you use the internet. If you click on a phishing link or download a shady email attachment, you may be supplying your sensitive personal data or giving full access to your device directly to a hacker whether you're using a VPN or not.   

Read more: 7 data privacy tips for your phone

Do VPNs protect against malware?

No. You can easily infect your device with malware if you're not careful online, even if you're connected to a VPN. Some VPN providers do offer malware blocking and anti-phishing features that help guard against these types of threats, but it's ultimately up to you to practice basic cyber hygiene and protect yourself from malware.

Read more: 3 things VPNs can't help you with

Will a VPN speed up my internet connection?

Generally, no, unless your ISP is deliberately throttling your connection

The process of encrypting your data coupled with routing your traffic through a remote server -- which may or may not be an ocean away -- will take some time, and will result in a slowdown in your connection speeds. This is a normal and unavoidable consequence of using a VPN. If you're using a quality VPN that offers fast connection speeds, however, your speed loss will be barely noticeable.   

But if your ISP is throttling your connection, you could theoretically use your VPN to boost your connection speeds. Maybe you're downloading a ton of stuff at once, or maybe you're gaming heavily, or engaging in some other data-intensive activity that's eating up bandwidth and putting a strain on the network. Your ISP may throttle your connection as a result. 

A VPN sidesteps that throttling because everything you're doing is hidden from your ISP. And if your ISP doesn't know what you're up to, it doesn't know what traffic to throttle. But in normal circumstances you shouldn't expect your VPN to increase your internet speeds.

Can I use a VPN on my phone?

Yes. Basically any VPN provider worth its salt will offer a user-friendly mobile app that you can download to your phone whether you're running Android or iOS. Although it's not as objectively secure as the OpenVPN protocol, we'd recommend using the IKEv2 protocol when running a VPN on your phone whenever possible because the protocol is fast, secure and reliable, and it will stay connected even if you switch between Wi-Fi and cellular data. That last point is what makes IKEv2 really an ideal protocol for mobile devices. The top VPN providers on the market today all offer support for the IKEv2 protocol, so you should have no issues connecting via the protocol when using a VPN on your phone.

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You can use a VPN on most internet-connected devices

Sarah Tew/CNET

Why should I use a VPN?

If you value your online privacy in any capacity whatsoever, you should use a VPN. But a VPN can do so much more than just hide your online activity from third parties like your ISP, government agencies, cybercriminals, advertisers or anyone else looking to snoop on your internet activity. Here are some of the reasons you should use a VPN, depending on which type of VPN user you are.

Critical VPN users

If you have critically heightened privacy needs -- whether in the US or a country with internet censorship blockades -- you should prioritize security and privacy when choosing a VPN.

  • If you want to evade internet censorship, you should use a VPN.
  • If you want to bypass firewalls at work or school, or those imposed by the government of the country you're in, you should use a VPN.
  • If you want to access communication tools like Skype, Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter, Viber and Zoom from countries with repressive regimes, you should use a VPN.
  • If you're in a country during any period of political or social unrest when access to these vital communication tools is suspended or restricted, you should use a VPN.
  • If you're traveling and connecting to unsecured public Wi-Fi hotspots, you should use a VPN. 

Casual VPN users

If you're not thinking about government surveillance or ISP monitoring when you are considering a VPN, then you're a casual user and you can use your VPN for tasks a bit less privacy-critical. 

  • If you want to unblock geo-restricted streaming content on services like Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, HBO and Disney Plus, you should use a VPN.
  • If you want to access your bank account from abroad, you should use a VPN.
  • If you want to find the best deals on anything from video games to cosmetics or airline tickets, you should use a VPN.
  • If your ISP is throttling your internet speeds for any reason, you should use a VPN.
  • If you're a gamer and want to truly globalize your gaming experience and join gaming networks all over the world, you should use a VPN.

Next steps

It's more important than ever to take steps to protect your privacy online. No one's going to do it for you if you don't take the initiative to do so yourself. Getting the answers to your questions about VPNs is an important first step. Your next move is to get yourself a VPN and start using it. Take a look through our guides, reviews and comparisons to find the best VPN for your particular needs.