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What Is a VPN (Virtual Private Network)?

Simon Migliano

Simon Migliano is a recognized world expert in VPNs. He's tested hundreds of VPN services and his research has featured on the BBC, The New York Times and more. Read full bio

A VPN, or virtual private network, is a piece of software that creates a secure connection between your device and the internet.

A good VPN will encrypt your web traffic and protect your privacy and security online.

Sadly, not every VPN is trustworthy or effective. We recommend using a reliable VPN that doesn’t leak your IP address, log your data, or put you at risk in any way.

Keep reading to see which fast and secure VPNs we recommend using.

What Is a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a piece of software used to keep your internet activity private and secure.

The VPN creates a secure tunnel between your device and a private VPN server before forwarding your traffic on to the website or application you’re trying to reach.

This stops third-parties from tracking what you do online. It also protects you from hackers looking to intercept your traffic.

A VPN keeps your web activity private by encrypting your internet traffic by routing it through a secure VPN server.

Top VPN Services

We regularly test over 71 VPN services on criteria such as speed, security, privacy, customer support, and more.

Here are three top-performing VPN services:


ExpressVPN is currently the best VPN there is.

It’s very fast, uses highly-secure AES-256 encryption and OpenVPN protocol, and is excellent for high bandwidth internet activity.

The VPN service has a verified no-logging policy and is based in a privacy haven (British Virgin islands) so you know you can trust it with your data.

The service offers 3,000 servers in 94 countries, and its apps are user-friendly and compatible with all major devices and platforms.

Try ExpressVPN Risk-Free for 30 Days.


IPVanish is particularly good for internet users seeking high security.

It delivers fast connection speeds and protects your data using the strongest encryption protocols.

The service offers user-friendly computer and mobile apps, and comes with a 30-day risk-free money-back guarantee.

IPVanish won’t work in countries like China, UAE and Turkey, though.

Try IPVanish Risk-Free for 30 Days.

Private Internet Access

Private Internet Access is also a very good VPN service.

PIA VPN delivers strong security, privacy and speed for a budget-friendly price.

The VPN service offers the highest number of VPN servers (over 25,000), and its apps feature a multitude of security settings.

Try PIA VPN Risk-Free for 30 Days.

Best VPN by Category

Each user differs in terms of what exactly they’re looking for from a VPN.

There may be a particular VPN service that is optimal for you based on the devices you own, the amount you’re willing to spend, and what you plan on using it for.

Here is a quick overview of our VPN recommendations in a range of categories:

Category Our Recommendation
Best Overall VPN ExpressVPN
Best Cheap VPN PIA VPN
Best VPN for Windows ExpressVPN
Best VPN for Mac ExpressVPN
Best VPN for Android ExpressVPN
Best VPN for iPhone ExpressVPN

Why You Should Use a VPN

A VPN can be relied upon to stay secure online and maintain your privacy.

Below are two common reasons for using a VPN:

1Protect your Online Activity from Third-parties

Blurred man hidden behind a magnifying glass.

Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can see all the websites you visit and will almost certainly be recording that information.

In some countries, ISPs are required to collect and store user data for long periods of time and the government is able to access, store, and search that information.

This is the case in the US, UK, Australia, and much of Europe — just to name a few.

Because VPNs encrypt the internet traffic from your device to the VPN server, your ISP or any other third party won’t be able to spy on your online activity.

3Secure your Data on Public WiFi Networks

A man connected to public wifi while traveling.

Exploiting public WiFi networks to gather data is simple and incredibly cheap.

Criminals can take advantage of open and unencrypted networks to steal important data like your bank details, credit cards, photos, and other personal information.

When you use the public WiFi connection in a café, hotel, or airport you are putting your sensitive data at risk.

Hackers are increasingly targeting hotels and shopping malls in pursuit of high-value targets.

You can protect your device by using a VPN, which will encrypt your internet traffic and make it much, much harder for hackers to intercept and steal your data.

5Stop ISP Throttling

A man speeding up his connection

Your ISP almost certainly monitors your online activity. If you live in a country without strong Net Neutrality laws, your ISP can even deliberately slow down your connection when you carry out bandwidth-heavy activities. This is called bandwidth throttling.

VPN encryption can help to prevent ISP throttling, meaning that you can enjoy all internet activities at high speed.

How Does a VPN Work?

A VPN creates a private and encrypted internet connection between your device and a private server.

This means your data can’t be read or understood by your ISP or any other third-parties. The private server then sends your traffic onto the website or service you want to access.

How a VPN works.

Here’s how a VPN works:

  1. You sign up to your chosen VPN service.
  2. Install the VPN software on your device. This software is called a VPN client or application.
  3. Sign in to your VPN with your account details and choose the location of a VPN server you want to connect to.
  4. When you click ‘connect’ on the VPN app, the VPN client will look up the IP address of your chosen VPN server.
  5. The VPN client initiates a connection with the VPN server. They then establish an encrypted VPN tunnel. The VPN tunnel is a secure link between your device and the VPN server.
  6. Your device’s internet traffic is sent through the encrypted VPN tunnel to the VPN server.
  7. The VPN server then forwards the internet traffic onto the website or service you are trying to access.

Every VPN service comes with a list of server locations, and the best VPNs will let you choose from a range of countries and cities around the world.

Cyberghost VPN's server locations.

Screenshot of CyberGhost VPN server locations in the Windows app.

Avoid Free VPNs if Possible

There are lots of free VPNs on the market, but most of them are limited at best and dangerous at worst.

Here are the main issues with free VPNs:

  • Monthly data caps.
  • Limited server choice.
  • Slow speeds.
  • Abuse of your personal data.

The True Cost of Free VPNs

VPN services can monetize your data in unexpected ways.

It’s expensive to develop and operate a reliable VPN, and many low-cost or free services choose to subsidize the price of subscription with income from other channels.

If you’re not paying for your VPN service at all, it’s likely that some form of data collection, sharing, or sale is occurring in order to cover the cost of the product.

Many of these free services also rely heavily on advertising, which is less than ideal for privacy.

Our investigations have revealed that some of the most popular free VPNs on the market have secret links to mainland China, while 85% of the most popular free Android VPN apps feature excessive permissions with the potential for privacy abuses.

About the Author

  • Simon Migliano

    Simon Migliano

    Simon Migliano is a recognized world expert in VPNs. He's tested hundreds of VPN services and his research has featured on the BBC, The New York Times and more. Read full bio