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What VPN Should I Use?

Are you sure you need one?

VPNs protect from certain types of surveillance and more. I'll discuss what they're good for and what to consider when selecting one.

For a variety of reasons, VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks, have become quite popular. It seems like you can’t open a tech website or news source without hearing that VPNs are the solution to all your security and privacy issues.

Sadly, that’s not the case.

But VPNs can be useful in several specific cases.

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Which VPN?

VPNs can solve certain specific problems:

  • Sniffing: protecting your communications from being intercepted and viewed by hackers.
  • Relocation: appearing as if you are located somewhere other than your actual location.
  • Surveillance: protecting your communications from being monitored by network providers.

Exactly what to look for in a VPN depends on which of these problems you’re trying to solve.


When you use an open Wi-Fi hotspot, you’re broadcasting your information in such a way that anyone within range of the wireless signal can listen to or “sniff” your data.

Encryption is the solution. If someone does manage to see your communications, all they’ll get is unintelligible noise.

When using a browser, connecting via an https connection does this. Https encrypts your data as it travels between your computer and the site or service you’re using.

But what about everything else? How do we ensure the privacy of http connections as well as connections made by other software on your computer?

A VPN solves this by creating an encrypted “tunnel” through which all internet communications are routed. This tunnel between your computer and the VPN provider protects all of your communications crossing the sniffable Wi-Fi connection.

Most reputable VPN services accomplish this quite nicely. Look for how easy the software is to set up and configure and the overall performance impact when the VPN is in use. A good VPN will be both easy to set up and have minimal impact on your online experience.


A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between your computer and the VPN’s servers. This makes it look like you’re located wherever those servers are located.

When I use my VPN here in Woodinville, for example, it appears as if I’m located in New York. Several VPN providers allow you to choose the location from which you want to appear. I can change my VPN settings to make it appear as if I were in The Netherlands, Australia, or any number of other countries in which my VPN has servers.

This virtual relocation can be used to bypass country or location-specific blocks. A VPN might be used to view video content made available to residents of one country but not another, or to access content otherwise blocked to residents of a specific locale. Unfortunately, those putting the blocks in place realize this and often specifically block known VPNs.

Some VPN providers are better at providing this relocation service than others. Some don’t focus on it at all. When choosing a VPN with this in mind, it’s important to determine whether this is a priority and whether they’re willing to take steps to overcome periodic blocks. When streaming video, the performance impact of the VPN service should be as minimal as possible — something difficult to accomplish when traversing long distances.

Surveillance protection

Recent news encourages you to look to VPNs to protect yourself from surveillance by your government or internet service provider (ISP).

The good news is almost any VPN that can perform the first two tasks (protection from sniffing and virtual relocation) is a candidate for solving this problem, too. The same encryption that prevents a Wi-Fi connection from being sniffed also hides the information from your ISP. The same relocation that makes it appear as if you’re in a different country also removes your traffic from being monitoring by the country in which you are.

Unfortunately, there are several possibly serious problems:

  • Your ISP will still be able to see that you’re using a VPN and which VPN you’re using.
  • Your government will be able to see you’re using a VPN and which VPN you’re using.
  • Your VPN service takes the place of your ISP; now they can monitor your connection.
  • Depending on where they’re based, your VPN service may be subject to laws and regulations.
  • You may not be as protected as you think, since a VPN encrypts only your connection and does nothing to protect you from the many other ways your activity can be tracked by the websites you visit and the services you use.

Choosing a VPN provider to protect you from surveillance is perhaps the most difficult of all. Not only do you need speed, encryption, and relocation features; you also need a complete assurance of privacy. Even when stated publicly as policy, you’ll need assurance that the policy will be followed.

In the worst-case scenario, a malicious VPN service could collect all the information your ISP might have and more, and share that with government agencies or even post it publicly.

Specific VPN providers

I’ve used two different VPN services at various times.

Both seem reliable and have met my needs: primarily sniffing protection, with occasional relocation.

If you’re looking for more recommendations, I’ll point you at this list from Tom’s Hardware.

VPN providers to avoid

There is one class of VPN I would avoid completely: free ones.

VPNs are not inexpensive to set up and run. Providers of free VPNs usually make their money in some other way, putting your privacy — the very reason to use a VPN — at risk. At a practical level, free VPN services are usually more restrictive and perform less well than the alternatives.

If you believe you really need a VPN, I strongly recommend you pay for a reputable, paid service.

Do you really need a VPN?

The ultimate question, of course, is: are you sure you need the expense, complexity, and added risk of using a VPN?

My position remains that unless you travel frequently or are regularly involved in highly sensitive communications, you probably don’t need one. It’s very likely that it’s enough to remain aware of the steps to use a Wi-Fi hotspot safely, and apply those to any potentially suspect internet connection.

On the other hand, if you do travel regularly, if you do need your connection to “appear” to be located in another country, or if you really have reason to distrust your ISP or local government, then carefully selecting a VPN service may be an appropriate step.

Do this

First, determine if you even need a VPN — chances are you don’t.

If you do, select either of the ones I’ve used or check out trusted recommendations from others. Avoid free VPNs (although free trials can often be a way to determine whether or not the VPN meets your needs).

Then, subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

Podcast audio


Footnotes & References

1: I switched because it was included in a package when I upgraded ProtonMail.

Additional Resources

45 comments on “What VPN Should I Use?”

  1. 100% agree. Free VPNs should be avoided like the plague. I use {removed} and the reason I like it so much is because they don’t keep logs (also, they’re one of the few companies to offer network locks on their windows apps).

    • I removed your recommendation. In a previous article Leo said:

      Now the one thing that I have to avoid in this particular case, is I’m going to be very, very careful about VPN recommendations because I suspect that some of you have experience with specific VPN providers and might like to mention who they are. That being said, I’m going to keep an eye out, because it’s also an opportunity for spammers to come in and spam their less than reputable VPN providers.

      • I am in Turkey so I need my bbc programs etc etc… I now have {removed} x 2 years and am very happy with it.. I had {removed} over a year ago and had some problems but it was not too bad then i got a billing as it was on Auto Billing of late and had a big fight getting a refund ? So beware of auto billing is all i can say… Michael .

  2. I agree with Leo’s comment about “free” VPN’s.
    A friend of mine used one some time ago (to watch TV programs that had a location restriction) only to be ‘banned’ from it days later.
    His investigations found out that the free VPN he had used had attempted to use his machine (and his bandwidth) as a staging platform – downloading data to his machine then attempting to upload it somewhere else. Sinse his firewall automatically blocked outgoing connections unless they were ‘whitelisted’, he surmised that the VPN had tried to upload data, failed a number of times, then blocked his IP.

  3. One thing that doesn’t get mentioned when talking about VPNs is that services like gmail and Facebook check if the access is different than normal. If you sign in to Facebook (or other social networks) from the Netherlands in the morning and Australia in the afternoon, your account gets flagged and you have to verify it was really you. That is a good thing, security wise, but people using VPNs should be prepared for it to happen.

    • Hotmail is huge on this. They lock people out of accounts if the location suddenly changes. I wonder if “reverse VPN” of a sorts would get them back in. Like find a VPN that makes it look like you are still home.

  4. I’m a bit of a novice in this area. But I use Opera, and it offers free VPN through Canada. So far (a few months now) other than being slightly slower it seems to work. Given that it’s based out of the USA it seems a logical choice. Anybody have any thoughts / experience on this? Or ideas on how does one test a VPN for quality of service?

    • I’m using Opera too, so I’d be interested too what you think about it.
      Btw you can choose between Canada, US, Singapore, Germany, and Netherlands VPNs.

    • Opera’s VPN is not a true VPN. A VPN forces all internet activity through the VPN: email, all browsers, torrents, program updates FTP etc. The VPN offered by Opera just routes its browser’s traffic through their encrypted proxy. That’s fine for many purposes, but it’s good to know the difference and its limitations.

  5. I’m considering a paid VPN primarily to avoid Sniffing – and primarily for my kids using open WIFI with their phones (1 iPhone, 1 Android). As near as I can tell, I have no real need for Relocation. As for Surveillance…I do have some interest in this, and I get that you are simply transferring your trust from your ISP to your VPN provider. All that having been said, my research of paid VPNs – that support Windows, IOS and Android – has basically brought to me the VPN provider recommended by my ISP ({removed}, headquartered in Finland). Would using them be a mistake for any reason? I’ve yet to see any VPN article that addresses this scenario. {removed} must be doing something behind the scenes to get my ISP’s endorsement…should this concern me? Our, does the fact that they are partners likely decrease the possibility of performance issues? Thanks.

  6. Hello Leo thank you for this great article.
    You mentioned TunnelBear is what you used and I myself as well, but the part I got confused was when stated “Speaking of avoiding, there is one class of VPN that I would avoid completely: free ones.”
    You see the free one I use is TunnelBear.
    Can you explain to me where I’m lost.
    Thank you in advanced

    • TunnelBear is a paid service with a limited bandwidth for free. That’s essentially a trial version with the idea that people will move up to the paid version if they like it. Many paid services do things like that.

      • Mark,
        Thank you for your reply on TunnelBear free confusion. It now makes sense. Side note I think this is a great topic to talk about.
        Have a great day.

    • It’s effectively a free trial. You’ll find that the limits are such that you’ll want to upgrade to the paid version (as I did) eventually.

  7. I use a VPN to avoid sniffing while traveling, and it’s free, but it’s mine. My combination DSL Modem/Router/WiFi Access Point/Cordless Telephone Base Station (DECT/GAP standard), an AVM Fritz!BoxFon (very popular here in Germany), can host a VPN, and it’s not difficult to set up. They also have a smart phone app that allows the smart phone to connect to the base station via WiFi, making it an extension on the land line. When the smart phone uses the VPN connection, it’s part of the home network and I can make calls from my home land line from anywhere in the world I have WiFi access, avoiding roaming charges. Unfortunately, some open hot-spot providers (some shopping centers and a few hotels) seem to block connections using VPN protocals.

  8. One of the other reasons for not having a VPN (that wasn’t mentioned in your fine article) is when you’re provided a Fictitious Address from your VPN and, then you do on-line banking (like I do from here in the Philippines with my Financial Institution located in the U.S.), the first time I attempted to perform an Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT) from my U.S. Financial Institution to my bank here in the Philippines where I have a U.S. Dollar Savings Account (as this is what most Military Retirees have here in the Philippines, to get their money EFTd from their U.S. Financial Institution), my Financial Institution asked of me: “Did you move back to the U.S. and not inform us?” as my “Ghost Address” was located somewhere near San Diego, CA. Since I perform an EFT twice a month, (as that is how I was paid while serving my country and, later on when I was employed and retired from Civil Service too) I realized that having a VPN wasn’t the best idea, because you would have to remember to close down the VPN to perform an EFT and, then re-open a new VPN until you needed to perform another EFT (which is tiresome at the least).

  9. What about TOR? How does that compare to a VPN?
    At one point there was a TOR browser. Not sure whether the package has expanded to include all comm traffic.

    • TOR is an anonymous browser. It’s similar, yet distinct, from a VPN. I don’t believe becoming a full VPN for all comm traffic is part of their mandate.

  10. Yes, free VPN services should be avoided. It’s rare to even find reliable providers who offer free trials. {removed} offers a short trial but quickly makes you upgrade your account.

    Paid VPN are the way to go though. I’ve had great luck with connection speed and customer service when using both {removed} and {removed} in the past. Sometimes it’s nicer to use the smaller companies and get a but of personal touch with support should you need it.

    • Your recommendation of using smaller companies is great. One big advantage of smaller VPNs is that it takes sites like Netflix much longer to identify and block them, if ever. Sometimes they tend to be more expensive, and it can be hard determining which ones are good as they haven’t built up a reputation.

      I’ve removed the links from this comment as it’s difficult for us to determine the safety and validity of recommended products.

  11. Leo, I’ve noticed using my VPN slows my internet speed down by 2/3. I know this because checking my speed on Okla without the VPN is around 100 mbps and around 33 mbps with it. Is that common? Is that the price you pay for the extra security?

    • Yes, that would be common. A VPN, basically, re-routs you, so you would be limited by the size and speed of their servers, coupled with whatever minute difference the extra distance may add.

    • If you have a choice of countries, and cities in your VPN, you need to experiment with different ones to see which gives you the best speed. Server speed can vary wildly from place to place, especially in some Baltic countries. Some places will greatly surprise you by giving you a far better speed than you are paying for at home. Also, if your VPN does not tell you that it does not log it clients, then you need to change to one that does not log what you do.

      • “Some places will greatly surprise you by giving you a far better speed than you are paying for at home.” Not really, because the connection between your computer and the VPN is limited to your assigned bandwidth.

  12. Leo, as a follow up to clarify my previous question, I noticed you said free versions limited your bandwidth. I use a paid subscription to Express VPN. Does that make a difference?

    • All VPNs decrease or rather, consume bandwidth, even the best ones simply by virtue of having to pass through the VPN server. Free ones do so to a greater degree, often because they dedicate fewer resources to non-paying customers. I would expect a free trial to run at full speed, so as to make a good impression and win customers.

    • What would make a difference is the service that the company gives you. In this case, bandwidth. It just stands to reason that a free service would not be able to offer as much as a paid service.

    • Depends entirely on the provider. You’ll have to check with them. I don’t know about Express. It could, or it could be completely irrelevant.

  13. Great article, helpful for someone like me who’s new to the vpn stuff. Although, I’ve subscribed with astrill as of late and would say, it’s working flawlessly. I’m in Asia, so you’d understand why this is important to a college student like me. You might want to add them on vpn providers to try list that you have, cheap and fast.

  14. It is VERY important to routinely live test a VPN to see if it is working correctly. I suggest testing using, just ignore the VPN advert at the top of the page. More extensive testing for DNS leakage can be done at

    [Background Info] I paid for and used a VPN (proXPN) in April 2016 and was amazed to find that when I started a Bittorrent client the VPN consistently reverted to using my PCs actual IP address and the DNS reverted to using my ISP’s DNS server. The VPN would also randomly stop protecting my PC even when the Bittorrent client was not running. Sometimes the VPN Client would report errors but it would still tell me my PC was protected even though it was not. The VPN client would sometimes switch my chosen destination server, i.e. change countries without asking. In all cases the VPN client told me that my PC was protected even though it was NOT. As I said it is VERY important to live test a VPN to see if it is working correctly.

  15. I would suggest reading an article you can find by searching for “5 eyes 9 eyes 14 eyes”… The article will be from Restore Privacy. I was told about it a week ago, and it’s a real eye opener.

  16. Dear Leo,
    I know that by using vpn i can access other countrie’s pages which you cannot normally access without vpn. But can you also access other countrie’s pages on deep/dark web without using vpn?

  17. There is one potential drawback to using a VPN, which I have personally experienced, that I feel ought to be drawn to your readers attention.
    I use a VPN, the name of which I will not mention, on my mobile ‘phone and tablet am extremely happy with it and how it performs; however I’m domiciled on the UK and regularly play the UK National Lottery and couldn’t figure out, when it first happened, why I couldn’t access my lottery account to buy my lottery tickets online using my ‘phone. Eventually I remembered that I have to be physically in the UK when I buy tickets and the VPN was telling the lottery website that I was in some other part of the world. I believe that I can pick what country the VPN indicates I am in but if I tell it to say I’m in the UK that is, partially, defeating the purpose of having it which left me with 2 options – either turn off the VPN briefly while I buy my tickets or use my desktop which is connected to the web by ethernet cable so doesn’t use the VPN. I choose to use option 2 of the above.
    I can’t imagine that my situation is the only one in the world where this issue arises so, hopefully, this may be of help to others who are puzzling over a similar problem.

    • I’ve had that happen, but it only takes a second or two to disable the VPN and enable it again. My solution is to tell the VPN to use their server in the country I’m in. I don’t see how selecting the country you are in partially defeats the purpose of a VPN. The main purpose of a VPN is to encrypt your communications. I only use the other country option to view country restricted content.

  18. I have thought about a VPN, but a few years ago a tech that had fixed a bug in my desktop had set up
    no-ip because I’m running a security camera system at my home and had worked flawless until my 12 year old NG dnc2000 died. Now we are in the process of setting up our new AX NG and still think the “free” version of no-ip will work fine.
    Warm regards, Ed

  19. Hello Leo,
    Would you, or anyone else please comment on Nord VPN? They seem to be fairly reputable and also solve the issue of 5 or 14 eye snooping in that they are based out of central America with zero knowledge policies.

  20. I see that – ProtonVPN, – which you recommend, offers a free version. How does that square with your recommendation to never use free VPNs. What do you know about this particular free version?


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