Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) protect your privacy, keep your information safe, and unlock geo-blocked content. But, many of us are still unsure if we really need one. Or if VPN use is even legal, for that matter.
Aren’t VPNs just for covering up sketchy online activities?
Absolutely not. And, it’s time to set the record straight.
In this article, I’ll debunk the most common VPN myths and misconceptions. And I promise, no complicated techy explanations – just simple, easy-to-understand language. So, by the end, you’ll understand VPNs and why you might need one a bit better.
Myth #1: You Only Need a VPN if You Do Something Illegal
VPNs hide your online activity and make you anonymous on the internet. So, it’s no wonder many of us think:
Unless I’m doing something illegal, why would I need one?
It’s the age-old argument of “Why hide if you’re not doing anything wrong?” While flawed, this is a common response we have to concerns about online privacy. Ask yourself:
Even if you’re doing nothing shady, do you feel like exposing your private information to the world?
In the physical world, protecting your privacy comes naturally – putting up curtains, shredding documents with sensitive information, etc.
Online, it’s easier to feel safe. Scrolling through social media, ordering food online, or going to Amazon for a new pajama set (or a bacon-scented mustache, real product) – none of these feel dangerous.
But you’re sharing information at every online step. Some of this data is very sensitive and needs protection – money transfers, for example. You want your payment information to reach the online store but to stay otherwise hidden.
The trouble is you never know who is listening.
We all think hacking happens to other people until we get hacked. When you connect through a public network (a hotspot at your corner coffee shop, for example), your information could get intercepted. And a VPN service an excellent way to protect ourselves against this.
VPNs were first created to help businesses transfer data securely. They pick up your traffic, encrypt it, send it through a VPN server, and then to the internet. This process both protects your information and masks your digital identity.
Sure, this is useful for hiding online crimes, but that’s not what 99.9% of us do.
The most common reasons people get a VPN is to access geo-blocked content, secure sensitive information, and avoid surveillance.
Myth #2: VPNs Slow Down Your Internet Too Much
VPNs automatically add extra steps for accessing the internet. When you connect to one:
- Your data is
- It travels from your device to a VPN server through a secure tunnel.
- The server forwards the data to its ultimate destination on the internet.
Websites (or other online services) then see traffic coming from the VPN server, not your IP address. This protects your identity, while the encryption ensures no information is intercepted.
Doesn’t all this slow you down?
Yes, VPNs can negatively affect your internet connection speed. But the slowdown can be negligible.
Step one is to choose a fast VPN. Not all providers are speed daemons and picking the wrong one can indeed make your connection much slower.
Other than how good the VPN infrastructure is, your upload and download speeds also depends on:
- Bandwidth, which is how much data is transferred in one second. Your internet service provider (ISP) sets the maximum bandwidth for your connection.
- Latency, which is how long your device takes to send and receive information: the higher your latency, the slower the transfer.
If the VPN server you connect to is far away, the latency increases. It takes longer for it to receive your traffic and reroute it. As a result, your internet speed drops.
If you choose servers close to you, that effect is minimized.
The one exception is steaming geo-blocked content – in this case, you’ll have to connect to a server within the country or region where you’re trying to view the content, not one that’s closest to you.
How VPNs Can Speed Up Your Internet
In some cases, a VPN can make your internet faster.
Some ISPs throttle your connection to prevent network congestion. They will intentionally slow it down for things that require a high bandwidth – like watching YouTube videos or streaming a movie on Netflix.
VPNs can help you prevent bandwidth throttling. They mask traffic, so the ISP doesn’t know what you’re doing, speeding up your connection (i.e., the ISP can’t slow down what it can’t see).
Myth #3: Using a VPN Is Technical and Complicated
Are VPNs only for the techiest among us? That’s one of the biggest myths of them all.
No, they’re for anybody who wants online privacy and data security.
VPN technology is complicated, but you don’t have to understand the nuts and bolts of private networks to use them.
Think about it:
Can you explain how your smartphone works? How about your microwave? Heck, I’m not even sure how planes fly yet I’m on them all the time.
We still use these things because they have a user-friendly interface. And that is exactly what we look for in a good VPN provider.
Take one of my favorites NordVPN for instance. It’s a great example of a provider built with non-tech VPN users in mind. Setup only takes a few clicks, their software automatically recommends the best server, and 24/7 customer support is always just a few clicks away.
Myth #4: You’re 100% Anonymous When Using a VPN
A very common VPN myth is that by using one, we get total anonymity. What does total anonymity even mean?
Not leaving any digital trace is near impossible. Even if you stay off the internet, businesses and government agencies do not, and you can’t control how they protect your information.
I’m not saying this to make you paranoid.
VPNs are an excellent tool for masking your digital identity, which is a step in the right direction. When you use one, third parties see the traffic coming from the private network. Your online self remains hidden.
But what about the information you willingly share?
If you enter your credit card number into a suspicious site, a VPN connection won’t protect you.
The same goes for privacy when you sign in to a site or service. Companies track your internet activity to learn about consumer behavior, personalize content, and optimize ads, among other reasons.
Online anonymity goes beyond your IP address. So, while a VPN protects you from data theft and surveillance, it’s only one aspect of online security.
Myth #5: A VPN Protects You From All Online Threats
VPNs are powerful online privacy and security tools (and they help you watch Netflix abroad, too). They’re a valuable part of an overall cybersecurity strategy.
But this doesn’t mean you can throw all other precautions to the wind. VPNs won’t protect you from:
- Phishing scams that trick you into sharing your passwords, bank account information, or credit card number.
- Untrustworthy sites you access through the VPN. The private network provides a safe means of getting to a website. But if the page itself is compromised (e.g., contains viruses), the VPN can’t protect you.
- Malware that secretly logs your information or tracks what you do online
Some VPNs block sites containing known malware. But it’s still up to you to go to secure pages, only share information with trusted sites, and install antivirus software to protect your device.
Myth #6: Free Providers Are Just as Good as Paid Ones
Why pay if you can get it for free? Unfortunately, free VPNs create more problems than they solve.
When you pay for a VPN, your subscription money goes towards running the service.
With free providers, you are the product.
It sounds harsh, but it’s true. Free VPN companies have to make money somehow, and you’re not paying for their service. So, they rely on third-party advertising and selling your data instead.
Who are these third-party advertisers?
It turns out they are often trackers and malware. This study looked into 283 free VPN apps and found 38% had positive malware reports, and 72% tracked online activity.
Using a free service compromises your privacy and potentially exposes you to dangerous software. It defies the purpose of using a VPN in the first place!
Endless Loading Times
All these ads slow things down and make for a frustrating user experience. Free VPN companies also deliberately set restrictions on internet usage to encourage you to upgrade.
Some even sell your bandwidth for profit, letting other users leech off your connection.
What About Streaming Services?
Free VPNs can’t help you there either.
Streaming providers like Netflix frown upon us circumventing their geo-blocks. So, they restrict traffic from known VPN servers. Free VPN providers don’t have the resources to keep coming up with new IP addresses when the old ones get blocked.
Currently, no free VPN can reliably unblock Netflix from other regions – or any other streaming services for that matter.
Myth #7: All VPNs Are the Same
Okay, free VPNs aren’t great. Just get a premium one, and you’re set? Not really. That’s yet another myth.
Just like any service, different providers have different perks (and pitfalls).
How do you know which ones are good?
The basics include:
- A no-logs policy – no tracking, logging, or sharing your personal data point-blank
- Unlimited bandwidth – ensures fast internet speed.
- Multiple devices – some providers (like Surfshark) even offer unlimited device protection.
- Servers and locations – make sure your location is covered with multiple nearby servers; if you’re using a VPN to unlock geo-blocked content, look for servers in that country.
- Ease-of-use – a simple, user-friendly interface will save you time and frustration.
Yes, price plays a role. But, shop around for the best value, not just the best VPN deal. Also, check if the provider has a money-back guarantee.
Why the money-back?
It ensures you don’t get stuck with a product you don’t like. All the best providers offer them. If the company isn’t sure you’ll like what they offer in a few weeks… Do you really want to buy it from them?
Myth #8: Only the Paranoid Use a VPN
What’s the big deal with data mining and surveillance? We’re not in some anti utopic novel. You can still speak your mind, and the police won’t come knocking on your door.
This is the nothing-to-hide argument all over again. Just because you have nothing to hide doesn’t mean you want to show everything.
Protecting your information from hackers is just as common sense as locking your door. We connect to public Wi-Fi networks all the time, and they are not all that difficult breach.
Data mining and targeted advertising pose more subtle threats. Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma” and Dr. Zeynep Tufekci’s TED talk “We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads” are good starting points if you want to learn more.
Finally, even if you’re completely fine with privacy breaches and potential security threats, what about geo-blocked content? VPNs are great for catching the latest season of your favorite anime on Netflix Japan or watching Hulu while on vacation abroad.
Bottom line: VPNs have a lot to offer beyond appeasing anti-surveillance paranoia.
Myth #9: Proxies or Tor Are Just as Good as a VPN
The Onion Router (Tor) is free software that runs your traffic through an overlay network (i.e., a bunch of computers) before sending it to websites. This rerouting masks your identity and makes you unrecognizable to anyone watching.
So, if it’s free and private, why not use Tor?
For several reasons:
- Tor slows down your internet so much even checking your email can be an exercise in frustration.
- ISP and governments know you’re using it and may flag your online activities as suspicious.
- Websites see you’re on Tor and might restrict your access. For example, Wikipedia doesn’t allow edits from Tor users.
As for proxies, they mask your IP address but, unlike a VPN, don’t encrypt your traffic. While they’re useful for anonymity, proxies can’t protect your sensitive information from attackers.
Free proxy servers are particularly dangerous – you send traffic (including information about your device, location, browser, etc.) to a third-party server. You’re not paying for this service, and you usually don’t know who the proxy belongs to. It’s a recipe for disaster if there ever was one.
Myth #10: VPNs Are Illegal
Internet criminals use VPNs, that much is true. But private networks aren’t illegal in most places because they’re mainly privacy and security tools.
You are entitled to protecting your identity. So, most countries do not ban VPNs, nor do they track people who use them.
There are exceptions, though.
Countries that want to control their citizen’s internet access tend to dislike the technology. Belarus, China, Iraq, North Korea, Oman, Russia, and the U.A.E. all impose strict rules or ban VPNs altogether.
If you live in the US, however, it’s perfectly legal to use a VPN. The same is true for any other western country. Nobody is going to throw you in jail just because you want privacy.
Myth #11: VPNs Are Expensive
No, good VPNs don’t have to be pricy. You can easily get a safe, easy-to-use, Netflix-friendly VPN for under $5/month. In fact, quite a bit less.
Other top-rated VPNs can be even more inexpensive. Surfshark, for example, will set you back a mere $12.95 per month.
Sure, enterprise plans can get pricy. But in 2020, all VPN services have affordable plans for regular internet users like you and me who just want to feel safer online. Or maybe just want to watch some UK TV from abroad.
For the price of a Starbucks drink, you get peace-of-mind on the internet, plus access to all the geo-blocked content your heart desires. It is a pretty sweet deal.
The Bottom Line
VPNs have come a long way since they were first invented. Today, private networks are easy-to-use, cost-effective, and protect you from a many internet threats.
And no, you don’t have to be a tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorist or a tech genius to use one.
Cybercrime is on the rise – it’s increased by 67% in the past six years. Hopefully, after exploring these VPN myths, you see that VPNs are a reliable ally in our quest for a safer, more private internet experience.
Do you use a VPN already? Why or why not? And if you do, which one (I like NordVPN)? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!