Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) boost online security, protect our privacy, and make geo-restrictions a thing of the past. But that’s just scratching the surface.
From saving money to potentially speeding up your internet connection – there is so much you can do with a VPN. And in this article, I’ll show just how powerful a quality VPN subscription can be.
Yes, I will cover the basics – the VPN uses many of us probably already know about.
But you might also discover a few surprising (and super handy) VPN features you didn’t know were at your fingertips.
What to Do With a VPN
When you connect to one of your VPN provider’s servers (i.e., connect to the VPN), three important things happen:
- All traffic traveling between your device and the VPN server is encrypted – no one can intercept and read your data.
- Your traffic doesn’t reach the internet at large until after it leaves the VPN server – no one can tell where the traffic really comes from.
- When your traffic reaches the internet, the VPN server’s IP address replaces the one assigned to you by your internet service provider (ISP) – your traffic becomes anonymous.
It’s the combination of these three things that means VPNs let us do all of the following:
Unblock Content from Other Countries
Virtually all streaming platforms have geo-restrictions:
- Netflix libraries differ between countries.
- The BBC iPlayer is only available in the UK.
- Hulu doesn’t have international plans.
- … and the list goes on and on.
Restrictions usually happen because of territorial licensing – content owners only give distribution rights for a specific region. For example, currently, Netflix has the rights to show The Office in the UK, but not the US.
To keep their contractual promise, streaming sites set geographical restrictions and effectively maintain different libraries for different countries.
And geo-blocking goes beyond movies and series, too.
News sites, blogs, even YouTube all restrict content to certain countries (or regions) only. The same goes for online games – for example, you can only play League of Legends on your local server.
VPNs offer an easy workaround for all of the above.
Connecting to a VPN server in a different country makes it look like you’re in that country. Even if you’re thousands of miles away, you still look like a local.
Use a Japanese server, and you unlock Netflix Japan (anime anyone?) Go through the UK, and you can watch the BBC iPlayer. Pick a US server and enjoy Hulu. You get the point.
Getting around geo-blocking is an excellent use of a virtual private network – and the main reason many of us get one.
Access Content at Home Abroad
Just like VPNs unlock foreign content, they can help you enjoy programming from your home country.
Say you are a frequent traveler. Or an expat. Or an international student.
You still want to watch your favorite team, use the streaming services you pay for, or play games on your usual server. Unfortunately, you can’t always access everything from a different location – again, due to geo-blocking.
What you can do, however, is use a VPN to virtually “travel” back home and enjoy all the content you’re used to – as if you never left.
Hide Your Online Activities
With a VPN, your online activity becomes anonymous. Anonymity is especially useful if you live in a country with mass surveillance (hint: most Western countries) or you use P2P file-sharing services (more on the latter later).
VPNs can protect you from government spy agencies, nosy ISPs, and potential copyright infringement penalties.
Recall that when you connect to a VPN server, all the information leaving your device is encrypted. That makes your traffic impossible to analyze by any potential eavesdropper.
And by the time your traffic comes out the other end of the VPN server, your original IP is stripped off. You now have a new one linked to the VPN server, not your device.
In other words, no one can look at your traffic while it is still identifiable as yours, and by the time the traffic is readable, its true source is unknown.
Finally, most reputable VPNs don’t keep logs. So even if the government came to a provider with a warrant seeking information on activities coming out of their servers, the provider would have no information to give.
Secure Your Internet Traffic
When you connect to a VPN, any data leaving or coming to your device does so through a secure tunnel.
Think of the secure tunnel as an envelope around your message. Without one, anyone can see what you wrote.
A VPN creates this tunnel through encryption.
Encryption is a way to mathematically “jumble up” data using a series of numbers, called a key. To anyone who doesn’t have that key (i.e., everyone other than you and the VPN server), the information is unreadable.
So, couldn’t someone guess the encryption key? In theory, yes. In practice, not a chance.
To prevent hackers (or governments) from doing that, VPNs use Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) keys, which are very, very long. It would take billions of years to try every combination to see if it works – even with a supercomputer.
That’s why AES encryption has never broken – and I doubt it ever will.
Going hand-in-hand with strong encryption are kill switches – a feature any VPN worth its salt implements.
When the kill switch is on, if you accidentally disconnect from the VPN, your internet connection automatically turns off until you reconnect. This feature prevents unprotected data from leaking out – even for a split second – keeping you nice and secure.
Use P2P Anonymously
Peer-to-peer sharing is a smart and efficient way to download files. Instead of going to a single server, every downloader also becomes an uploader once they have at least part of the document.
And while P2P is faster and more reliable than traditional file distribution models, it has some side effects.
First, by default, P2P is not anonymous. As soon as you start to download or serve a file, other members can see your IP address. It’s done this way by design.
You can’t avoid this information leak. But you can protect yourself by covering up personally identifiable data. And VPNs do precisely that.
Secondly, P2P and torrenting are less-than-welcome in many countries. Governments block torrent trackers, monitor users who use peer-to-peer and persecute perceived rule-breakers.
Of course, copyright infringement is a crime (with or without a VPN). But draconian rules can also hurt those of us who aren’t breaking the law.
If you’re using P2P or torrenting, always do so over a VPN. By routing through a secure server and anonymizing your traffic, you can get around tracker blocks, prevent potential fines, and avoid surveillance.
Prevent Bandwidth Throttling
Here’s a pretty sneaky thing some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) do: When they see you’re doing something bandwidth-intensive, they slow down your connection.
Let’s say you’re watching Netflix.
Most people stream video around the same evening hours and high-quality video needs a lot of data. To prevent network congestion, ISPs have two options:
- Optimize their infrastructure,
- or throttle our connection.
Many ISPs pick the latter and slow down high-bandwidth activities like streaming video and music, playing games, or making video calls.
Some ISPs do it at peak hours only. Others may throttle speeds all day, every day.
If you notice your internet is slower than it should be when you go to certain sites or at specific times, this could be why.
What can you do? As it turns out, VPNs are great at preventing ISP bandwidth throttling.
Since a VPN encrypts your traffic, the ISP can’t see what exactly you’re doing. You could be streaming in 4k (high-bandwidth activity) or checking email (very low-bandwidth activity). In either case, they won’t know, and so they won’t throttle you.
Avoid Internet Censorship
If you think internet censorship is only for totalitarian regimes and dictator-controlled countries, think again.
Virtually every country in the world filters the internet.
Many banned websites make the list because they incite violence or contain illegal material, for example. But, depending on your location, more run-of-the-mill sites like news sources, blogs, and social media could also be censored.
When you use a VPN, you access the internet through the VPN server. That server can be in a different country – one where the censorship you’re running up against does not exist, and everything is accessible.
Censorship is not possible by the time information is traveling back to your device from the VPN server either. Your traffic is encrypted, so no one other than you can read it.
And if your government goes as far as restricting VPN use, there’s a solution for that too – it’s called obfuscated VPN servers.
Get Around Network Restrictions
Are you able to load Facebook from your work computer? Consider yourself lucky if you can.
Most work and school networks put various network restrictions in place. Those restrictions may stop you from accessing Netflix, social media, adult sites, or anything else deemed inappropriate.
It’s a bit like totalitarian government internet censorship, just on a much smaller scale.
But, just like VPNs can defeat government filters, they can also help you circumvent the restrictions at your work, school, local library, coffee shops, Wi-Fi hotspots, etc.
If you connect to a VPN, your data travels over a secure and encrypted tunnel. And what network filters can’t see, they can’t block.
Save Money on Flights, Car Rentals, and Hotels
This is one of the sneakiest ways to use a VPN – and a personal favorite.
Travel sites are notorious for changing their prices to fit the customer. Location-based offers ramp up prices in wealthier areas and keep them low in less affluent regions.
For example, you and your friend are looking to book a flight. You’re in downtown LA; she’s currently in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
You enter the same dates, pick the same airlines, and the same flight number. But somehow, your flight ticket is $200 more expensive. For the exact same flight and seats!
The airline knows that (statistically speaking) people in downtown LA can afford to spend more on a plane ticket than those in Brazil. So, to optimize their earnings, they change the price depending on your location.
This practice is prevalent in the travel industry.
Whether you’re booking a flight, car rental, or accommodation, changing your location with a VPN could save you hundreds of dollars.
Avoid Price Discrimination
Price discrimination (i.e., different prices in different markets for the same product or service) goes beyond the travel industry, too.
Today, most companies tailor the client shopping experience. Territorial pricing is just one way they do it – but it’s the one that hurts our wallets the most.
VPNs are a great way to make price discrimination a thing of the past. Just choose a country (or area) less affluent than your own and enjoy the savings.
Using a VPN can also give you additional online shopping perks:
- More free stuff. Some websites allow a limited number of free articles or free trial days. But these offers are often tracked per-IP address. Use a VPN to change your IP and enjoy extra freebies!
- Limited edition items. Limited releases (for sneakers, for example) usually work like a lottery – and you get one entry per IP. Do you want an advantage? Use a VPN to create multiple accounts and increase your chances of winning!
- Get local-only offers. Some promos are only available to customers in a specific country or city – again, changing your IP with a VPN gives you access!
For the best online shopping experience when using VPNs, delete your browser’s cache and cookies before visiting any sites. This action removes all information the site already has on you from the previous times you visited (perhaps without a VPN).
Using a private or incognito browser window works well, too.
And if you’re in Europe, you can also simply turn off the customization and ad cookies for any site (thank you GDPR). Websites won’t then leave cookies, and there will be nothing to delete before you visit again.
Secure Public Wi-Fi Connections
Anytime you use public Wi-Fi, you should use a VPN. Period. In a nutshell, when you connect to the internet through a public network, all your traffic is up for grabs.
There is a potential for eavesdroppers. Man-in-the-middle attacks happen when hackers place themselves on the public network between you and the internet. That allows them to intercept any data you send or receive.
The network itself could be malicious, too. Ultimately, you don’t know who configured it and how it was done. The hotspot could also be a scam (e.g., a fake “Starbucks” network).
VPNs can protect you from both hackers and fake networks.
Since your information travels through an encrypted tunnel, only you can read it. Therefore, the traffic will be gibberish and useless to anyone else listening, be it an outsider eavesdropper or the network admin.
Spoof Your GPS Location
Global Positioning System (GPS) spoofing is another cool thing you can do with some VPNs – and it’s a little-known one, too.
Plenty of mobile apps track your physical location using GPS. Among other things, that may help them see right through your geo-blocking site stepping efforts – because your VPN IP won’t match the GPS location of your mobile device.
There is a way around that, though.
VPN provider Surfshark has recently introduced a GPS spoofing function. It lets you “teleport” your device to anywhere in the world with the click of a button.
In the meantime, if you’re already using a different VPN, you can combine it with a third-party GPS spoofing app. It’s a little more inconvenient, but the end effect is the same.
Keep VoIP Conversation Private
Voice-over-IP (VoIP) lets us make audio and video calls over the internet. At this stage, I’m sure we’ve all used the likes of Skype, Zoom, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, etc.
Unfortunately, VoIP conversations are relatively easy to listen in on by third parties. Yes, eavesdropping is becoming increasingly difficult. But, it’s still very much a danger – especially when someone with the right resources (i.e., the government) is involved.
VoIP servers are also illegal in some countries. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), for example, is a place where, under normal circumstances, using Skype is simply not an option.
But, once again, VPNs come to our rescue.
By encrypting your conversation, a VPN not only stops potential surveillance, but also prevents VoIP from being detected in the first place (and, hence, blocked).
VPNs have come a long way since their early days. What was a technology used only by big companies and the tech-savviest among us is now an accessible online privacy and security tool we can all benefit from.
A VPN can help you:
- Watch geo-blocked movies and series, no matter where in the world you are.
- Play any server of your favorite game.
- Cover up your online identity to prevent government surveillance.
- Protect yourself when you’re using P2P services and torrenting.
- Keep your information safe, even when you connect through a public network.
- Get around network restrictions – at work, school, the library… anywhere.
- Access government-censored internet content and protect your freedom of speech.
- Keep your VoIP conversations (and all other communication) private.
- Spoof your GPS location (Pokémon GO anyone?)
- Save money on flights, car rentals, accommodations, and take advantage of local-only promos.
It’s an impressive list of benefits.
If you don’t yet have a VPN, definitely consider one. All the best providers offer at least a 30-day money-back guarantee. That gives you plenty of time to try them out risk-free. And these days, they’re more affordable than ever.
And if you already have a VPN? Then be sure to let us know your favorite VPN tricks in the comments below!