What is a VPN, how do they work and are they legal?

'WHAT is a VPN?' and 'Are VPNs legal in the UK?' are common questions for those new to the software.

They add extra security and data protection to PCs and smartphones, but what are they? We tell you all you need to know.

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for 'virtual private network'. It is software which when activated changes the "address" of a computer, laptop, tablet or mobile.

Software which uses VPN technology adds an extra layer of security to computers, laptops, tablets or smartphones.

VPNs make it much harder for snoopers to monitor your online activity, helping to protect personal data and information.

And because of an increase in concern around personal data protection – and keeping online activity from prying eyes – VPNs are more common than ever.

They can help secure your browsing on public WiFi (in cafes, shoppings centres or on public transport), and overseas – although they are banned in some countries.

But there is some confusion around whether VPNs are legal in the UK.

And there is some debate around what the best VPN service providers are too.

Who are the best UK VPN providers?

With so many VPN providers available, it can be tricky to choose the one which is right for you.

Our tech experts have tried and tested a number of them, which you'll find in our pick of the best VPN services.

Some offer better services for desktop computers, some offer mobile apps and features can differ.

Here's a quick list of some VPNs that we have tested and can recommend:

  • Cyberghost, from £1.75 per month – buy here / read our CyberGhost VPN review
  • Surfshark, from £1.86 per month – buy here / read our Surfshark VPN review
  • NordVPN, from £2.89 per month – buy here / read our NordVPN review
  • ExpressVPN, from £5.15 – buy here / read our ExpressVPN review
  • PIA VPN, from £1.67 – buy here / read our PIA VPN review

Is using a VPN legal in the UK?

Using a VPN service isn't illegal in the UK if it is used within legal guidelines.

You can own a VPN subscription and make use of it to add extra security to your own browsing at home or on the move.

But VPNs can be used to get around 'geo-restrictions' which prevent the watching of video content outside of certain countries – such as watching Netflix content that isn't available in your own region.

While activities like this aren't looked at fondly by streaming platforms, it's not an illegal practise. Read our pick of the best VPNs for Netflix if this is something you're interested in.

Around the world, VPN services are banned altogether in some countries – including North Korea and Iraq.

Meanwhile only government-approved services are allowed in countries including Russia, China and Turkey.

How do I set up a VPN?

Most VPN programs have a very big and useful switch on/off button that you'll be able to click on to enable default protection immediately.

In that case, you won't have to worry about any particular option. The program will connect to the best available server, and your connection will become automatically secure. Piece of cake, right?

However, if you have particular needs related to location and/or services, you'll want to specify particular options in the settings.

For how daunting that may sound, the truth is that VPN providers have come a long way from being tools for the tech-savvy, and most of them now have pre-set profiles specifically aimed at satisfying a particular need.

Do you need to look like you're connecting from a different country? Just access the server list and select one located in the country you're interested in. 

Will a VPN make me entirely anonymous?

We live in a deeply interconnected world, and being completely anonymous online is a hard feat to achieve.

A VPN is a good step towards online anonymity, but it won't do the trick just by itself.

This because a lot of information about you, for example, is revealed to third parties through your browser.

Choosing a secure browser is then one of the key steps you can take to avoid fingerprinting.

Closely related to that is targeted advertising. Apps and websites collect a lot of options about your personal taste through ads to help improve their suggestions. 

You can solve this problem by installing an ad-blocker browser extension.

Therefore, using a VPN in addition to these other tools will aid you attaining greater anonymity online.

How to choose a good VPN

There are several factors, beyond price, you should consider when looking for a VPN.

First of all, most VPN services have limitations on the number of maximum simultaneous connections. If you're relying on a VPN for all your devices make sure you select a service with multiple connections.

Secondly, you should check in which countries are the servers your VPN is using. Having several servers in one area may help spread the load, but does not necessarily mean faster performances, as more people may be using the service, thus making it slower.

Another, more technical factor regards the VPN's connection protocols. Ideally, a good VPN should use either OpenVPN or IKeV2 protocols, but PPTP, L2TP AND SSTP are all valid options.

Finally, there's privacy. VPN services are generally used to maintain users' anonymity and privacy, but the truth is not all VPN providers delete all user data after they terminate a session. Make sure to read the company's policy before start your first VPN surfing session.

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