In the early days of the internet, there were fewer restrictions on content — and fewer worries that your data might be snapped up by the wrong person for nefarious purposes. But the internet has changed, and it’s not as safe or accessible a place as it used to be.
Getting a VPN provider for your internet-connected devices is a way to fight back against these encroachments on your online privacy and freedom. But to really use a VPN to its fullest, you should also be aware of what they’re not good for.
That’s why today, we’ll be covering the pros and cons of using a VPN, in clear and full detail. But before we get into the meat of things, a quick refresher:
The Best Premium / Paid VPNs?
What Is A VPN, Anyway?
VPN* stands for Virtual Private Network. And that’s a fair description of exactly what a VPN does: It sets up a series of connections via a VPN server that make your virtual browsing and downloading more private.
Instead of each internet traffic request getting routed through your Internet Service Provider’s network, you send one request for a VPN connection and then route all requests through their network. Think of it like an encrypted tunnel from your device directly to the website you want.
That’s what makes a VPN a great way to protect your private data while you’re browsing online, and also to access your favorite sites no matter where you’re located in the world.
*Editor’s Note – When we say VPN, we are assuming that the VPN is an audited, professional, and trustworthy company. We *do not* recommend using a VPN just because they are a VPN – just like we don’t recommend handing your money to someone because they say they are a bank. VPNs are almost all commercial companies. As such, they are supposed to be incentivized to do what you are paying them for. In theory, unsafe VPNs go out of business just like airlines with poor safety records go out of business. But just like airlines or banks, things still can and do happen. There is no government regulator for VPNs, so use *all* VPNs with clear eyes.
Pros of Using A VPN
Here are the most important VPN advantages that come with using a VPN to protect your browsing:
1. Protects Your Online Identity
If you’ve ever been unnerved by the stories and products that are being recommended to you, then a VPN might be your saving grace. That’s because a VPN makes it difficult for companies to track, collect, and use your data for marketing and advertising.
A VPN does this by masking your IP address, the “signature” of your computer while you’re online. This gives a double benefit, by both preventing your data from being collected for advertising and creating a barrier to protect you from invasive hackers, untrustworthy Internet Service Providers (ISPs) , or government agencies.
2. Gives You Access No Matter Where You Are
Depending on where you live in the world — or where you’re traveling to — a good portion of the internet may be blocked off due to government, ISP, or even website firewalls. But once again, a VPN can come to the rescue.
Also known as “geo-blocking”, sites or streaming services can prevent access by browsers from certain regions of the world. But a VPN can bypass this by choosing from a wide variety of locations to represent your browsing, so you can choose your country of “origin” to match the website that you’re trying to access.
3. Can Stop Internet Speed Slowdowns
Did you know that some ISPs will automatically reduce the speed of your internet connection when they deem it appropriate? This can be anything from having used “too much data” that month, to downloading a large file, to streaming high quality video.
Also known as “bandwidth throttling”, this unpleasant practice can put a real damper on your web surfing. Some ISPs even use this shady tactic as a way to encourage you to upgrade to costlier data packages — but you don’t have to let them. A VPN will encrypt your browsing information, leaving your ISP unaware of your activities and unable to reduce your speeds because of it.
4. Get Around Pesky Firewalls
If you’re logging on to someone else’s WiFi, there’s a good possibility that they’ll have a firewall restricting access to certain types of sites. Hotels, offices, schools, and airports almost always have a firewall, preventing you from getting to the data you need online. And if you want access to that restricted content, a VPN will give it to you.
5. Might Get You Cheaper Flights or Products
Did you know that car rental companies, hotels, and flight booking apps change the prices they offer based on where you live, or where you’re searching from? It’s true — and that means that if you don’t obscure your personal data, you might end up paying more than you needed to for a work trip or vacation.
This is an area where VPNs really shine, as they completely prevent this discriminatory pricing from happening in the first place. Combine a VPN with incognito mode on your browser, and you can rest assured that you’re actually getting the best price for flights, rentals, and lodging.
6. Protects You During File Sharing
Need to send or receive sensitive documents, like confidential papers from work? If you want to do that from any network, rather than a dedicated one at your office, you’ll need a VPN. It’ll prevent your data from being captured by third parties, by encrypting everything that is sent and received.
The same goes for torrenting, or distributed file sharing accessed through a web-based app. Anyone who torrents should have a VPN, bar none.
7. Gives A Sense of Safety and Anonymity
The last benefit of using a VPN is much less tangible than the first six — and that is a sense of being safe and secure while you’re browsing online.
Anyone who remembers the thrill of the early internet will likely think back fondly on how easy it was to be relatively anonymous, searching to your heart’s content. Now, as tech giants like Google and Facebook seek to make as much money as possible off of your data, the internet can feel like a very small and unpleasant echo chamber inspired by your search history. So get a VPN, and set things back to a genuine sense of safety and anonymity.
Cons of Using A VPN
And here are a few of the potential downsides that come with using a VPN:
Free All VPNs Are Inherently Risky
A popular saying from sales and marketing rings true here: “If it’s free, you are the product.” That means if you’re being offered a good or service for nothing, you can be certain that the person selling it is making money off of your data and experience with the service.
Never is this more true than with the wild wild west of “free” VPNs. They’re an enticing option, sure — why not get your online privacy and anonymity back without paying a dollar? But with most free VPN service options, you’re not really getting any privacy. You’re only changing who gets to look at and sell your data, from Google and Facebook to whoever made the VPN.
Furthermore, free VPNs are notoriously unreliable. And if your encryption might cut out in the middle of a sensitive browsing session, wouldn’t that be a risk you’re not quite willing to take? The lesson here: Stay away from “free” VPNs if you know what’s good for you.
Additionally, even premium VPNs with long track records can and have failed. Just like a bank or an airline, every procedure has to be done flawlessly at all times. A mis-configured server or software update can easily affect even the most prudent of VPNs. If you are trusting your life, money, or health to a VPN – understand the risks and how to mitigate them.
9. Paid VPNs Can Be Expensive
Of course, there’s a reason why such a market exists for free VPNs: Paying a monthly recurring fee for a VPN subscription can add up quickly. And if you’re already on a tight budget, adding a VPN to a costly internet service package might just push your wallet over the edge.
On average, VPN service packages can range from $10 to $20 per month. If you buy a subscription for a longer period, though, this cost can be substantially reduced. At my last check, many one-year VPN plans work out to under $10 per month — though you’ll have to pay the entire cost of about $100 upfront, rather than in installments.
10. Might Make Browsing and Downloading Slower
On older computers or those with less processing power, the added burden of a secure connection running in the background can overtax the system, causing it to slow down. Make sure that your computer has enough RAM, though, and a VPN isn’t likely to cause any problems at all.
This is another area where paid VPNs beat out free VPNs every time. Paid VPNs have a streamlined VPN application and VPN software streamlined and designed not to interfere with your browsing and downloading speeds, whereas their free counterparts can be bloated with extra features meant to capture your data. If you’ve tried a free VPN before and been disappointed with your browsing speed, consider upgrading to a paid service.
11. Some Sites Block VPN Use
Since VPNs have been around for quite a few years at this point, some savvy website owners have gotten wise to their tricks. Streaming services in particular have found ways of blocking users from accessing their services if they’re also using a VPN.
So if you thought that it would work to use a VPN company and get free or unedited Netflix, think again — they have solid VPN blockers on internet users trying to skirt their rules. Not a deal-breaker, sure, but it can be frustrating to turn your VPN on and off to access different sites online.
12. Can Be Difficult to Set Up Properly
Even the most user-friendly of VPNs will have a lot of options to dig into. This means that no VPN is really a “plug and play” sort of situation — you’ll need to learn what parameters to set up for your browsing situation.
You can get around this problem by choosing a paid VPN, though. A big part of what you’re paying for with these subscriptions is actually the customer service, so you can rely on a team to help you get your privacy setup exactly as you want it.
13. May Not Be Supported On Your Device
What sort of computer, tablet, or smartphone are you hoping to use your VPN app on? Depending on how new — or how old — your device is, finding a compatible VPN may be trickier than you expect. This is doubly true for free VPNs, which don’t publish updates for compatibility nearly as often as paid VPNs.
Thankfully, plenty of paid VPNs make themselves available for users of every stripe. Just check out the offerings on ExpressVPNs services page to get a feel for how many devices (including for a single VPN router) can run a paid subscription for privacy.
In Conclusion: Who Is A VPN For?
At this point, you should have a nice and balanced view of VPNs. Do you think you need one to protect your information and enable the browsing habits you want? Or are your internet needs simple enough that all this talk of clandestine activity seems over the top?
If a VPN does seem like a good idea for you, I would encourage you to consider signing up for a paid subscription and avoiding free VPNs altogether. It’s easy to get burned on a malware-infested free download, so the extra few dollars a month for a paid subscription will set your mind at ease.