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What is a VPN and how does it work?

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If you want to use the internet securely and privately, a VPN could be the answer. Let's go through everything you need to know - from what a VPN is, to how it works, and whether you need one.

What does VPN stand for?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. You can easily search for and buy access to a VPN online.

What are the benefits of using a VPN?

A VPN is designed to protect your privacy online. It creates an encrypted connection from your device, such as a laptop or tablet, to the internet. That helps prevent you from being targeted by hackers or scammers while stopping outsiders from seeing your IP address and what websites you visit.

How do VPNs work?

It’s best to think of a VPN like a private tunnel through which you can access the internet. When connecting to the internet without a VPN, your internet service provider (aka broadband provider) and anyone with access to your network can see what you’re doing online. A VPN routes all your traffic through its own servers, meaning that when your data reaches websites and other internet services it looks as if it’s coming from the VPN, not your own network.

A VPN hides your IP address, the unique number of your home network, meaning that your connection is encrypted and cannot be tracked, essentially placing it in its own ‘tunnel’ rather than being visible to hackers on an open highway. This is especially useful if you’re in a country where internet access is restricted or you have concerns about your safety online.

What are the different types of VPN?

There are two main types of VPN to know about.

Remote access VPN

This is the most common type of VPN used by consumers. It involves downloading an app for your laptop, tablet or phone, logging on and then accessing the internet via the VPN’s own private encryption tunnel. If you sign up to use a VPN, you’ll be using a remote access VPN.

Site-to-site VPN

This is the kind of VPN you’ll find in corporate environments. Essentially, this is an intranet where lots of sites around the world access a central server, used to deliver private information about a company.

Should I use a VPN?

Using a VPN is a great idea if you’re at all concerned about being tracked or hacked, or simply want some privacy.

They come in particularly handy when using open public Wi-Fi networks - it only takes one hacker to log on and see your web activity.

At home, it stops your web activity from being seen by your ISP or any other entity. And it can also come in handy when travelling - if you have a UK-based VPN, you can then log on to your streaming services and watch the same shows as you would back home.

Are there any disadvantages to using a VPN?

Yes. Some VPNs keep your data, which defeats the point of you using one to provide anonymity.

It’s also worth remembering that they remain illegal or heavily restricted in certain countries. They also tend to slow your internet down, and good ones can set you back by quite a bit of money too.

In an age when ISPs are improving security, you may not feel the need to use one at home.

What devices can I use a VPN on?

You can get VPN clients, or apps, for Mac, PC, iOS and Android. That means they work across desktop, laptop and tablet, as well as smartphones. Remember that you will need to connect to the VPN each time you want to use it to protect your personal information when online.

How do I get a VPN?

You can get VPNs through Google Play or the App Store for iOS on your smartphone or tablet. Alternatively, you can download them directly from VPN websites.

You’ll need to sign up and pay for the privilege. The process is easy, with dedicated apps ensuring you can log onto a VPN quickly and securely.

Do I really need a VPN at home?

VPN providers will tell you that you need one at home, as well as when browsing the web on public hotspots. However, routers and general broadband security have improved greatly in recent years. If you have antivirus software installed and a strong password, you can prevent hackers from accessing your home network.

Of course, your ISP will still be able to see what services and web domains you access. If that makes you feel uncomfortable, a VPN may be worth investing in.

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