Do You Need a VPN?

by Sandra Henshaw - , Last Updated on May 12, 2017, Buying Guides

Never heard of a VPN? Don’t worry, we’re here to help. Privacy is a growing concern for all of us, and our mobiles are no different than our computers. Though VPNs are more traditionally used with PCs, there are an increasing number of mobile options available. So, what’s a VPN? Do you need one? How does it work? We’ve got the answers to all these and more…

What’s a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. The technology behind VPNs gets pretty complicated if you’re not too tech savvy, but it’s best to think of them as a middle man. A VPN is a server or collection of networks that you can gain access to by having the right password. If you want to connect to Netflix, for example, without a VPN your phone communicates directly with Netflix. With a VPN your phone communicates with the VPN server or network, then that server or network communicates with Netflix before passing all the information back to you. Simple, right?

So Why Would I Need One?

The biggest benefit of a VPN is that because your phone isn’t communicating directly with a source (in this example, Netflix), then that source can’t get information from your phone. That might not seem terribly important, but the repercussions of this are larger than you might think. In our example, perhaps you’re in the UK trying to connect to Netflix in the USA. You don’t have a VPN running, so when you try to connect to US Netflix the site takes location information from your phone, finds out you’re in the UK, and doesn’t allow you to connect to the US site version. With a VPN (some of them, we’ll get to that later…) theoretically as long as the VPN server you’re using is based in the US you can connect to US Netflix (since Netflix will communicate directly only with the VPN server and detect that the server is in the US).

That’s just one example, but there are tons of other benefits to using a VPN as well. Perhaps you have a business phone and would prefer that your company’s IT department doesn’t know all the websites you visit on your private time, a VPN can make this possible. Perhaps you often use public WiFi spots and don’t want to open up your phone to hacking opportunities. A VPN can prevent the websites you visit from knowing your device name, your location, or getting other private info from your phone. The bottom line here is privacy. With a VPN you get more privacy, and for many of us, that’s a good thing.

What CAN’T a VPN Do?

Eh, that’s a tough question. There are no guarantees here. VPNs do occasionally get breached (not often). More importantly, they occasionally get blocked. The use of a VPN is NOT illegal in any way. However, companies don’t like you using them (because those companies want your private data for all kinds of reasons), so they look for ways to detect the VPN servers and block them from accessing the company website. The above example with Netflix is a good one. Netflix has recently started to crack down on users using VPNs to access content in other countries, and many of the standard VPNs are now blocked, so even with a VPN running you might not be able to access that US Netflix that you want so much…

More importantly, VPNs are not an excuse or reason to avoid getting into trouble. Whilst the use of a VPN isn’t illegal, that doesn’t mean that you can get away with streaming or torrenting. VPNs are a popular way for some users to torrent (illegally download) media content, since their mobile or PC’s identity is hidden. The chances of you being caught torrenting using a VPN are smaller than if you didn’t have a VPN, but you can still get caught, and torrenting is still illegal, whether you’ve got that VPN or not.

Are There Any Downsides?

The main downside of constantly using a VPN is that your phone will be a little slower. The reason for this is simple: your phone isn’t connecting directly with a website, it’s connecting with the VPN then the VPN is connecting with the website, then the website is connecting with the VPN, then the VPN is connecting with your phone. It’s easy to see why this could slow your speeds down a little… However, most people don’t have a VPN turned on all the time, they simply turn it on when they need it, such as when they’re connecting to a public WiFi network.

I’m Sold, How Do I Get a VPN?

There are many VPNs on the market, and there are many ways to use them. Even Android itself let’s you add VPNs to your connectivity options. However, many of these methods are complicated and take some tech know-how. If you’re a newbie, then the easiest way for you to connect to a VPN is by simply downloading an app. We recommend TunnelBear or SurfEasy for beginners, since they’re both easy to use. You’ll get a certain amount of data for free (usually around 500mb), and you’ll need a paid account if you want more data. All you do is download the app, set up an account, and you’re ready to go. Both these apps let you easily turn your VPN on and off with a switch inside the app. So turn the app on when you want to be hidden, and off when you don’t.

If you’re a little more into the tech side of things, then StrongVPN is an app that gives you more customisation options. You can also look into open VPN servers (Google it!), but you’ll need to download the OpenVPN Connect app in order to use an open VPN. Again, this will take some tech know-how, so it’s not a good option for novices.

Having a VPN isn’t a necessity. But in a world of growing privacy concerns, it might be safe to have one just in case. And if you’re a big open WiFi hotspot user, then you should definitely consider getting a VPN app!