A rundown on what a VPN is, and why you should always use a VPN when browsing the internet, traveling or not.
If you travel, you’ve probably heard of VPNs. Especially if you’re planning a holiday to China, Iran, North Korea, Turkey, or Cuba, the concept of a VPN has probably popped up at one point or another.
But few of you use a VPN on a regular basis, and that could put you in serious danger. I’m here to tell you why you should always use a VPN to protect your online identity, even if you’re not traveling.
What is a VPN?
A VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. As far as you are concerned, it’s a program you run on your computer, tablet, or mobile to provide security and privacy while browsing the web.
Most people use VPNs to trick their internet into thinking they’re in different country. For example, while flicking through Facebook in Tehran, your internet service provider might think you’re visiting the web from a city in Kyrgyzstan. Or you might use it to access American Netflix while backpacking in Georgia (because let’s be real, everyone knows the American version has the best options).
People assume that’s all VPNs are for: evading censorship or accessing their local shows. But VPNs are useful for more than just using Facebook in China or watching porn in Iran (we know what the internet is really for). In fact, you should always use a VPN while online.
Why you should always use a VPN, even if you’re not traveling
Reason 1: to block prying eyes
Why? Well, for starters, VPNs protect your privacy. Websites are always trying to collect information about you. Sometimes it’s just for business, sometimes it’s for more sinister reasons. A VPN blocks them from doing so by encrypting your data and making you anonymous.
You might think this is only useful for people like Edward Snowden, but think again. Any kind of wireless network can be a target for malicious software, be it your local coffee shop’s wifi or the airport internet hotspot. You never know who’s creeping around on your network, but a VPN can prevent people from creeping around on YOUR internet.
Reason 2: to save money
Most online data collection is done to make money. For instance, once air ticket websites know you’re planning a holiday to Kazakhstan, they’ll increase the prices for plane tickets to Kazakhstan exclusively for you. Sound like a rotten deal, right?
A VPN counters this. Because the air ticket website can’t tell who you are, and doesn’t know your browsing history, they don’t know to up the price on your ticket. Hellooo money saved!
Reason 3: to stay safe online (the most important reason of all)
You’ve probably had to deal with spam, malicious websites or annoying viruses at one point or another. A good VPN protects you from all of the above.
We learned the importance of this the hard way. While in Goris, Armenia, we logged on to our hotel’s wifi. Innocent enough, right?
However, someone had tampered with the router, and once I opened up a browser window, I was routed to a malicious website which downloaded malware on my laptop.
Every time I visited a website, popups appeared and my browsing attempts were redirected to other strange websites. And that’s just what I could see—there might’ve been more going on under the hood that I didn’t realize, like my banking details being stolen, or our passwords being logged.
I ended up having to factory reset the computer, and lost all my files and programs. Our tablet, on the other hand, wasn’t affected because our VPN blocked the malicious website from opening. +1 for VPNs!
You might think this won’t happen to you, but this can happen anywhere—again, your local library or coffee shop is just as likely of a target for malware and other forms of hacking, if not more so.
TL;DR VPNs da best
To summarize, a VPN:
- Lets you circumnavigate internet censorship in countries like China, Turkey, and Iran
- Protects you from prying eyes by encrypting your data and making you anonymous
- Protects your personal data, countering the possibility of identity theft
- Saves you money by preventing websites from tracking your behavior and inflating prices accordingly
- Blocks ads, malicious websites, and viruses
Because of this, we highly recommend you always use a VPN, not just when traveling.
Which VPN service should I use?
That’s a good question. We’ve tried—and still use—several VPNs. The following are our favorites:
My personal favorite. CyberGhost offers military grade protection, blocks malicious sites, ads and online tracking, and doesn’t keep any logs. It does have connectivity problems in Iran and China, though, and not many Latin American server options.
- Good for: Spies and whistle blowers. People who like their privacy, and those who like to browse the internet while knowing they are as secure as possible.
- Bad for: People who solely use VPNs when traveling to countries with restricted internet. (Way to pay attention to my advice.)
Interested? Get Cyberghost now.
PureVPN is well designed, has the biggest number of countries and servers to choose from, and has multiple easy-to-use settings. It can also be used on 5 devices at once.
The downside? It offers less privacy than CyberGhost and doesn’t block ads. We also had some connectivity problems with PureVPN in China.
- Good for: People on a budget, have many devices, or want an easy-to-use option.
- Bad for: People who despise ads.
Sounds good? Get PureVPN now.
ExpressVPN is the best known on this list… but it’s also the most expensive. It is the easiest, fastest, and most reliable of the options, and it’s what we used while traveling in Xinjiang, China. If you want to make sure this VPN is money well spent, also check out this ExpressVPN review.
- Good for: People who use VPNs primarily for travel, prefer speed over anything else, or are traveling to China.
- Bad for: People on a budget. ExpressVPN is certainly reliable, but it’s not cheap!
Sold? Get ExpressVPN now.
What about free VPNs?
Please, please be careful with free VPN services. People often build malicious software into these services that scrape your data while you use it–the price you pay for using their “free” app. We really don’t recommend using free services, due to the security risks.
Some reputable VPNs have free versions (CyberGhost included), but they don’t offer the same protection and user experience that the paid versions do. Given that yearly contracts aren’t very expensive given value of VPN protection, we only recommend paid options.
What VPNs do we use?
Yay transparency! There are affiliate links in this post. If you buy a VPN subscription through those links we’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you. Never fear, we honestly use or have used all of these VPNs, and would never recommend something we wouldn’t use ourselves.