The things you need to know in order to make an informed decision.
In order to understand why this is a problem, you first need to understand the basics of how a VPN works. Put simply, a VPN creates an encrypted connection between you and the VPN server. All of your internet traffic is then sent through that encrypted tunnel, which only gets decrypted once it reaches the VPN server. This means that while everyone on your network(i.e. public Wi-Fi) won’t be able to see what you’re up to, your VPN provider can still see the websites you’re visiting. The VPN provider can then log that information, and eventually sell it.
This is especially a problem with “free” VPN providers. Think about just how much money it takes to maintain thousands of VPN servers. Now, think of how sustainable it would be to give access to said VPN servers for free. Add the fact that many VPN providers are for-profit companies, and something seems a little bit suspicious. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Unfortunately, that rule applies here as well. The “free” VPN providers are more likely than not making money by selling your data, which negates the whole purpose of using a VPN*.
* Ok, depending on how you look at it, having just one company sell your data may be better than countless hackers on that free Wi-Fi you’re using doing the same thing. Or, if you’re just using a VPN to bypass geo-restrictions and don’t care about privacy much, you probably don’t care about some company selling the fact that you watch Netflix.
Look for a trustworthy VPN provider which isn’t free and has a strict no logging policy.
Speed, Speed, Speed
A VPN works by creating an encrypted tunnel, which adds yet another step to the rather complicated process of using the internet. While it doesn’t make things any harder for you, it does add more work for your computer to do. Since all of your internet traffic is being sent through a VPN server and then to its destination, your internet speed will take a hit. But, how much of a hit will depend on a bunch of factors, with a big one being your VPN provider. With possibly thousands of people per server, even a high-end gigabit connection can be saturated if enough people are (100% legally, of course) torrenting large files. There’s not much advice to give here, because companies will always advertise the maximum theoretical speed, and not what you’re likely going to get. The best thing to do is sign up for a free trial and run a few speed tests. Oh, and servers closer to you will generally perform better as long as they’re not overloaded or anything like that.
Some VPNs will slow down your internet connection more than others!
This isn’t as important as other items on this list, but it could be important to you. If a VPN provider wants you to pay for access to like five servers, you should probably be suspicious(unless they’re dedicated VPN servers). The most important thing to look for is how many locations there are to connect to. The closer the server, the better the performance. And the more server locations offered, the higher the chances of there being a VPN server close to you wherever you are.
Also, if you want a VPN to access geo-restricted content, this is even more important. In order to bypass geo-restrictions, you’ll need a VPN that has an IP address in the country you’re pretending to be in. While this doesn’t technically require the server to actually be in that country, it usually is. This also means that servers in one country don’t necessarily have an IP address from that country, so you may run into issues if that’s the case. Speaking of bypassing geo-restrictions…
Choose a VPN provider with a decent server selection.
Streaming Service Compatibility
While many VPN services advertise that they can bypass geo-restrictions for you, that’s not always the case. Sure, they can make it appear as if you’re browsing from another country, but that doesn’t guarantee that your favorite out-of-country streaming service will work. In order to prevent people from bypassing geo-restrictions, many services that use such practices will likely also block VPN servers from accessing their content. I’ve personally encountered this issue from Amazon Prime Video when trying to play US only content while traveling. And, let me tell you, there’s nothing more annoying than having a VPN server in the US, thinking you can watch your TV shows on the go, only to have the streaming service say you’re in an unsupported country(or some other similar error due to your IP being that of a VPN server).
If you want to stream content from another country, check if the VPN provider mentions compatibility on their website. Many VPN providers specifically market Netflix compatibility as one of their features, so choose one of those if that’s what you need.
As always, the most important privacy tool you have is common sense.
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