Virtual private networks, or VPNs, encrypt your internet traffic and tunnel it through a VPN server, which swaps out your IP address for its own in the process. When you connect to any sites or services on the internet, they see the VPN server’s IP address rather than your ISP-assigned IP address, providing you with enhanced security and privacy and affording you some measure of anonymity.
I used the expression “some measure” because even if you don’t access any services that reveal your identity, there are other ways you could be identified beyond just your IP address, like device identifiers or cookies stored in your browser.
Despite that caveat, VPNs provide users with better security and privacy. And that’s only some of what a VPN can do for you. These days, people use VPNs for a host of different things. In this post, we look at all the things a VPN can do for you (that you may not have thought of before).
Note that when I refer to a VPN in this article, we mean a well-established, paid VPN service – not a free VPN. Free VPNs have small server networks, have poor security practices, and are prone to leaking sensitive information. I don’t recommend free VPNs.
Benefits of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)
Here are the biggest benefits of VPNs:
1. Enhancing your privacy
No surprises here. Enhancing privacy online is why VPNs exist in the first place. As we mentioned in the above paragraphs, VPNs achieve this by substituting your IP address for the IP address of the VPN server you’re connected to. This allows you to avoid disclosing your actual physical location while enabling you to spoof your location to a different one of your choice (within your VPN provider’s available locations).
VPNs also enhance your privacy by encrypting your traffic between your device and the VPN server. That makes it a lot harder for would-be snoopers to track your activities and access your private data.
DNS traffic can reveal what sites, apps, and services you use to your ISP. A good VPN tunnels your DNS requests to their own in-house DNS servers by default to prevent DNS leaks.
Of course, you need to trust your VPN provider because you’re essentially handing all your data to your provider. So make sure to choose a well-established and trustworthy VPN – we recommend NordVPN.
Now let’s take a detailed look at all the other benefits of using a commercial VPN service.
2. Securing public WiFi
There’s no shortage of bad actors waiting to get a piece of your information for nefarious reasons. Free public WiFi hotspots are a great hunting ground for these folks. These networks typically have either weak security or no security at all. That makes it rather trivial for a bad actor connected to the same network to snoop on your activities and scoop up some of your personal information in a Man-in-the-middle attack.
By using a VPN, you can protect yourself against these attacks. Because the VPN encrypts your traffic as it exits your device, anyone who manages to access your traffic will see nothing but gibberish.
I recommend staying away from public WiFi unless you have a VPN.
3. Accessing geo-restricted content
Streaming sites provide access to more content than ever today, but there’s a significant caveat: the content they broadcast is geo-restricted. The license agreements streaming services get into compel them to enforce the rights holders’ geo-restrictions.
The most common way to determine a user’s location online is through their IP address. IP address ranges are tied to approximate locations. A VPN can bypass streaming services’ geo-restrictions by changing your IP address to one where the content you’re after is available. This is known as location spoofing.
Remember that most streaming services actively block VPN connections to their servers. They want you to refrain from circumventing the geo-restrictions that they have a contractual obligation to enforce. And not all VPNs support streaming, to begin with. You want to choose a provider explicitly stating it works with streaming sites. And you might need to try different servers before finding one that works. With a well-established provider that clearly supports streaming, you’ll be able to access geo-restricted content you otherwise couldn’t watch.
NordVPN and ExpressVPN have very good for streaming support.
4. Bypassing internet censorship
Sadly, censorship is alive and well in today’s world. And for many people worldwide, their government restricts the internet, rendering many sites and services inaccessible from within a given country’s borders.
Using a VPN can allow you to bypass the blocks. By connecting to a VPN server and swapping out your native IP address for one from a different country (the VPN server IP), you can bypass the blockades that may be in place in your original jurisdiction. This is possible because once you’re connected to the VPN server, it’s as if you were accessing the internet from outside your current country, cutting your government out of the loop.
As with streaming, you need to make sure the VPN provider you choose can connect from your location. So, again, choosing a well-established provider that clearly states that it works from specific countries like Russia, Iran, and China.
Surfshark is an excellent VPN provider that’s known to work from China.
5. Bypassing restrictive firewalls
You’ve probably had this experience before. You’re at work, and you want to look at something online. You launch your web browser and type in the URL in the address bar only to find that your company’s firewall has blocked the site. It doesn’t even have to be a website with questionable content. Many employers block access to social networks, for example.
By using a VPN, you can get around these restrictions.
Much like the last point (internet censorship), by using a VPN, you can circumvent your organization’s firewall. As long as the firewall allows you to connect to the VPN in the first place, once connected, it’s as if you’re accessing the internet from outside your organization, and you’re no longer subject to its firewall rules.
Sometimes, even VPN connections can be blocked. Some VPNs employ obfuscation to disguise your VPN connection attempts as regular traffic.
6. Torrenting anonymously
P2P file-sharing is another online activity that can benefit from VPN use. A VPN can let you torrent anonymously and more securely. You gain a measure of anonymity by having your IP address swapped out for the VPN server IP address, so it will be difficult to uniquely identify you within the swarms of seeds and peers. And you enhance your security via the VPN’s encryption.
Beyond gaining a measure of anonymity and security while torrenting, a VPN can also help you avoid ISP throttling when torrenting – as we’ll see in our next point.
7. Avoiding ISP bandwidth throttling
Bandwidth throttling is the practice of your ISP deliberately slowing down your internet connection for various reasons. Sometimes they do this to reduce traffic on congested servers. Other times they do this because specific individuals are hogging up all of the bandwidth, so those users’ bandwidth gets throttled.
But most of the time, ISPs throttle certain types of traffic they deem lower priority. It’s the ISP’s call, so the kinds of traffic they throttle or not could be pretty much anything. But most of the time, throttling applies to streaming and torrenting.
Using a VPN will allow you to avoid having your connection throttled in many cases. Because all your traffic between your device and the VPN server is encrypted, your ISP can’t tell what you’re up to (although it knows you’re using a VPN, it doesn’t know what specific activities you’re engaged in). If it doesn’t know what you’re doing, it can’t throttle your connection based on traffic type.
Note that a VPN won’t help if all your data is being throttled, for example, when you hit your monthly data cap.
8. Blocking ads and malware
The internet is a pretty hostile place, with viruses, malware, crypto-miners, and ads. They span from the dangerous to the obnoxious and annoying.
Many VPN providers include ads and malware blockers with their subscriptions. When enabled, ads and known malicious URLs are blocked, giving you a cleaner browsing experience with fewer annoyances and distractions and enhanced security.
The way this typically works is called DNS blackholing. By referencing your DNS requests against a list of ad networks and malicious sites, malicious requests are blocked.
Again, you need to choose your VPN provider carefully if you want this benefit, because not all VPNs block ads and malware.
9. Anonymous browsing
Combined with your browser’s incognito or private browsing mode, a VPN allows you to browse anonymously. Private browsing mode ensures websites can’t store identifying cookies on your device, and the VPN hides your IP address, making you effectively anonymous.
Just make sure NOT to sign into the site, or the jig is up – you’ll have identified yourself.
10. Saving money on online purchases
Using a VPN could save you money when shopping online. Online retail prices can differ from country to country. So, for example, an online shopper with a US IP address may see higher prices for the same items than an online shopper with a Polish IP address.
It may seem unfair, and it may well be, but that practice is nothing new. Companies market their products differently from one region to another, and that marketing includes pricing.
Using a VPN to spoof your location could potentially save you a few bucks on online goods. Flight-booking and accommodation-booking websites are good candidates for this.
11. Accessing local content securely while abroad
Have you ever been on a trip abroad and encountered a message stating, “We’re sorry, that content isn’t available in your region” when trying to access a site from your home country? You’re not alone. It isn’t only streaming sites that enforce geo-restrictions. Many news sites do as well. And it can be frustrating trying to access that content when abroad.
Because VPNs give you the ability to spoof your connection, they can solve that problem relatively efficiently. Simply connect to a server located in your home country, and you should be able to access locally restricted banking, news, and shopping sites.
12. Enhanced privacy from your ISP
Your ISP is in a privileged position when it comes to monitoring what you do online. And it simply couldn’t be otherwise, seeing as how everything you do happens on its network. Your ISP, by default, is privy to every site you visit, every file you download, and every video you stream. Those who have ever received a warning from their ISP for “illegal file-sharing” will know this already.
Using a VPN can (at least partially) cut your ISP out of your online loop and gain a significant measure of privacy. Below is a list of what a VPN will keep private from your ISP:
- The websites you visit
- The videos you stream
- The files you download
- Your DNS requests (unless your DNS is leaking).
That’s a net gain, in my book. But there are some things you won’t be able to hide from your ISP. And number one on that list is that it will know you’re using a VPN. This is what your ISP will know concerning your VPN use:
- The VPN provider you’re using
- The port and VPN protocol of your connection
- Your connection times
- Your consumed bandwidth
While the above may seem like a lot, it’s definitely better than without a VPN. Your privacy will thank you.
13. SMB network scalability and reduced infrastructure costs
All of the benefits we’ve listed so far pertain to individual users. But commercial VPNs can also help small and medium-sized businesses whose pockets may not be as deep as multinationals. Many VPN providers also have a business tier, with services and subscriptions tailored for professional organizations.
As a small business grows, it may require a larger network infrastructure. But the costs of building that infrastructure on-premises are often prohibitive. Commercial VPNs allow businesses to connect their existing infrastructure to the VPN provider’s distributed network, providing remote and international locations with more connectivity, which translates to higher service quality while benefiting from enhanced security.
Another benefit VPNs can provide in a business setting is reduced infrastructure maintenance costs. By using a VPN in a business setting, organizations effectively outsource a big chunk of their infrastructure maintenance because the VPN infrastructure is not on-premises. That allows smaller businesses to reek the benefits of a modern and robust network infrastructure while avoiding the steep costs and maintenance overhead required with an on-premises deployment.
NordLayer (from NordVPN) is an excellent example of an effective business VPN solution.
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Disadvantages of using a VPN
There are a few. But I really feel the benefits significantly outweigh the disadvantages. But let’s go over them.
A VPN – any VPN – will inevitably slow your connection down somewhat. That’s because when you’re connected to a VPN server, your traffic needs to transit through the server before moving on to its destination. That extra stop creates an inevitable delay that translates to a slower connection from the user’s perspective.
But that’s not all. All your traffic needs to be continuously encrypted and decrypted, slowing down your connection further.
A high-quality and well-established VPN will provision its servers with more bandwidth and perform various network optimizations to try and keep the slowdown to a minimum. So, again, choose your VPN provider carefully in order to get the best possible experience.
See also: The Fastest VPNs of 2023
Potentially illegal in some countries
Some of the more authoritarian countries legally ban VPNs, though many thousands of users in those countries still manage to use them. If you get caught using one in a country in which they’re illegal, it could get you in trouble with the law.
So that’s pretty much the lowdown on the benefits (and pitfalls) of using a VPN. Overwhelmingly, I feel the benefits far outweigh the pitfalls, and I would recommend to everyone who values their digital privacy to sign-up for a well-established and trustworthy VPN provider.
Every human being has “something to hide.” That’s why we have locks on our doors and curtains on our windows. Privacy is an essential human right. But that’s not stopping various entities on the internet from attempting to violate it at every digital turn. A VPN is one of the best tools for protecting your privacy.
Stay safe. And use a VPN.