VPNs: Everything you wanted to know but didn’t care enough to ask

I have a confession to make.

Although I fuss at you guys to avoid public WiFi, I’m guilty of resorting to it every once in a while when my hotspot is spotty or if I’m just being lazy. It’s just so easy to connect to the free network and start surfing, right?

But I feel guilty about it every time, especially since I give you guys a hard time. So I finally broke down and researched a protective tool that lets me use public WiFi without worrying about the bad guys.

Here’s what you need to know before you get your own VPN:

1. You Need a VPN

A VPN is a virtual private network. It basically hides where you are from hackers and encrypts the data you’re sending and receiving so bad guys on public WiFi can’t intercept what you’re typing or reading or sending. This means much greater security when you have to check your bank balance in a Starbucks or compose an email with critical business information to your boss while you’re at a conference.

I was always kind of intimidated by a VPN, like it was some kind of advanced tool that only IT folks used. But last year I finally downloaded a free one, Windscribe, to try.

The free version was very limited with data, and after the first couple of weeks I stopped even bothering to turn it on because I exceed the free limit almost immediately. I suppose I could have saved the data for when I had to do something private, but I just forgot about using it.

But a couple of weeks ago, I really got tired of my own hypocrisy, and I finally researched VPNs to find the best one for me.

2. You’re Going to Have to Pay for One

If the product is free, you are the product.

Nowhere is that more true than in the VPN world. Think about it: You’re installing a tool that manages your data and where it goes. Imagine if you’re a bad guy who wants to see that data. It’s all right there!

Many free VPNs can be bad actors that are trying to steal and sell your data or worse. I like this list from the Restore Privacy website that shares all kinds of dangerous VPNs to avoid. The site also has this handy article about VPN scams.

One of the things you’ll notice right away when you Google “best VPN” is a host of sites like bestvpnreviews and vpnforever toptenVPNcheerleaders and whatever. They’re probably like the “best website hosting” sites that are run by the tools that they “review,” thus are complete scams. Thus I went to what I consider to be reputable review sites like CNET and Tom’s Guide. Even though these sites often have affiliate links so they make money when you buy through their site, they are generally trustworthy.

One exception to the free VPN conundrum: Cloudflare’s thingy. Basically it’s a mobile app that speeds up your connection and protects your data. It’s free. Nerds love it.

3. The Top VPN Lists Are Similar

I checked out maybe 5 sites to find the best recommendations, and ExpressVPN came out on top in almost every list. I ended up going with another one that was consistently in the top 5: NordVPN. The main reason was because it was a little more affordable (I paid $108 for three years of coverage), and I can install it on up to 6 devices.

4. You Don’t Have to Know Anything About VPNs to Use a VPN

Like I said, I was intimidated to use a VPN because I thought it was complicated. It’s anything but. You install it on your device, and when you connect to the internet, it just works. Your VPN chooses a different server somewhere in the world so that the hackers don’t know where you are, and it scrambles your data. But all that is automatic, so you don’t have to do anything special.

5. You Can Get Around Some Blocked Sites

I speak in Canada every once in a while, and sometimes my streaming video sites are blocked because I’m not in the right country. No problem! I just choose a server on my VPN that is based in the accepted country, and I can stream away.

6. It’s Going to Slow Down Your Connection

Even though I’m excited to feel protected, I’m frustrated by some issues that having a VPN creates. One of the worst ones is that you may (or may not) notice a significant slowdown in your internet connection rate. Ugh! This drives me nuts. At my house near Nashville, I have a ONE GIGABYTE connection. I mean, that’s HEAVEN. That’s 1000MB, and my San Diego connection was like 25-50MB. But when I use my VPN at home (I don’t need to… I just forgot to turn it off), the connection sank to like 350MB. That’s still insanely good, but it’s not INSANELY good.

7. Some Sites Won’t Work Properly

It’s a mystery to me why some sites mess up when I have the VPN on. For example, for this article I tried to go to Tom’s Guide to get the link to their VPN reviews. I got an error and a blank screen. Then I turned off the VPN, and poof: the website reappeared. I also use Adblock Plus to block popups, ads and malicious web content, and sometimes weird things happen when I have that enabled on a site as well. I don’t know what they’re blocking, but it’s annoying. Sometimes I can play around with the VPN options to get the page to come up, but it’s easier just to disable it for a few minutes.

What Do You Think?

So are you ready for a VPN? Do you use one already? Tell us!

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