From any number of scammers, thieves, and con artists, to your internet service provider (ISP) and favorite search engine, everyone’s after your private data and internet habits. Believe it or not, you’re worth a lot of money.
That’s where VPNs enter the picture. In theory, they’re supposed to keep us anonymous and secure online, preventing precisely this sort of data grab and profiling. But, is getting a VPN worth it and is it the silver bullet everyone claims it to be? And, assuming it is, why not just go for a free solution instead of opting for a so-called premium provider?
What Is a VPN?
Let’s step back for a second to understand what we’re really talking about here.
A VPN, or virtual private network, is a service which creates an encrypted connection (called a tunnel) between your device and a VPN server. Every provider will have dozens, if not hundreds, of these servers located at many different locations around the world.
Connecting to a VPN does three key things:
- It encrypts your data as it travels between your device and the VPN server
- It strips your IP address and replaces it with that of the VPN server
- It makes it seem like you’re physically located where the VPN server is located
The combination of those three things lets you stay anonymous online, keeps your activities private, and prevents anyone from tracking you.
When using a VPN, you can also prevent your ISP from throttling your internet, as well as side-step internet censorship and view geographically restricted content (as long as you pick a server located in a country wherever that content is available).
Is Using a VPN Necessary?
Whether you should use a VPN is indeed the million-dollar questions (or at least the $3 per month subscription cost question).
Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear non-subjective answer. It all depends on what you do online and your comfort level with giving up varying degrees of your privacy.
There definitely are many good reasons to use a VPN. And plenty of those apply to even to most casual of internet users. You may want to use a VPN to:
- Prevent your ISP from looking in on your online habits and selling their findings to advertisers and data miners
- Circumvent censorship (which is common in more places than you might think)
- Access geo-restricted content
- Secure your data when connected to public Wi-Fi hotspots
- Protect your VoIP traffic from eavesdroppers
- Save money by purchasing goods from another location where they’re cheaper (airline tickets are a great example of this)
- Enhance security when using online banking or other sensitive services
In reality, there are not many things we do online that couldn’t benefit from the additional security and anonymity that a VPN provides. Using one is far from an absolute necessity, but it certainly isn’t a bad idea.
Is a VPN Worth Paying For?
If there are clear reasons why you need to use a VPN, or if you’re just security conscious like me, then yes, a VPN is absolutely worth paying for.
With so many providers to choose from, every one of us should be able to find one that has all the features we care about at a price we’re willing to pay. After all, even some of the best VPNs out there don’t cost more than a few dollars per month.
Yes, there are free solutions. But, as we’ll see shortly if you opt for a free VPN you’re almost better off just not using one at all.
In an online world which thrives on buying and selling your user data, a free VPN does very little for you at a potentially high cost.
Should You Be Using a Free VPN?
In addition to the many paid VPN options available, there are also a number of free VPN services.
Many people gravitate towards free providers, often using the argument that they don’t use a VPN often enough to warrant paying for one. But, as with most things in life, you get what you pay (or in this case don’t pay) for.
Free VPN services are typically only free from direct fees, but they are not charities. That means they have to find ways other than subscriptions to pay for their infrastructure and operations costs and, ideally, turn a profit.
In many cases, free VPNs make money by collecting and selling your data, something many of us are trying to avoid by using a VPN in the first place.
It’s also not uncommon to see browser ad injection, while some free providers go even further and generate pop-ups or open those annoying ad-filled browser windows in the background.
In my experience, free services also tend to suffer from performance issues. They simply don’t have the same level of capital to invest in their infrastructure as do pay providers.
That may make using a free VPN difficult for even normal browsing activities, let alone for streaming video or file downloads.
Basically, free VPNs charge you exactly what they’re worth – nothing.
What Features to Expect From a Premium VPN
As I’ve already mentioned, there is no shortage of paid VPN services in the market. For the most part, that’s great news for us the consumers.
All premium providers tend to keep each other in check, knowing full well they must deliver the best product possible or quickly find themselves losing customers to another service.
They also all compete with each other on price.
The downside of choice is having too much of it. With so many options available, it’s not always the easiest things to pick a single provider without at least having a prior point of reference to compare against.
With that said, there are several features every premium VPN provider worth its salt should offer:
- Good speeds (here is a list of the best performers as tested by yours truly)
- A comprehensive no-logging policy
- User-selectable servers located in dozens of locations around the world
- No data limits or throttling
- Multi-platform support
- A variety of encryption options and security features
- Support for multiple simultaneous connections
- Excellent customer service
Depending on your specific needs, you’ll also likely need to dig a bit deeper than this list.
If, for example, all you care about is securing your PC, then a good Windows VPN is probably what you should invest in. On the other hand, if you’re interested in catching up on the latest in British TV, only the best VPNs for the UK will do.
While there is some overlap, there, unfortunately, isn’t one provider that will be everything to everyone. But, any top-ranked VPN will deliver and is more than worth the little (in the grand scheme of things) you pay for it.
The Bottom Line
VPNs are a popular, effective and very useful way to become anonymous and regain your privacy on the internet. They offer cheap and flexible protection no matter where you are, at home, in the office, or on the road. They also give you access to online services you would otherwise be unable to use.
Which provider you may want to go with will ultimately depend on your needs and preferences, but getting a VPN is well worth it. In the end, you have much to gain and very little to lose.