If you use public internet (at a coffee shop or an airport), you’re vulnerable to severe attacks. Hackers could steal your passwords, commit fraud with your identity, and rob your bank accounts. They could detect that you have a dating app on your phone. They could even plant illegal content onto your phone through webpages you visit. If you use public WiFi, you should be using a VPN.
There are several more reasons you might want to use a VPN that is addressed in our advanced VPN articles (see “Surveillance: Why you need a VPN for privacy”). But security is the most basic reason for a VPN — the most essential reason for protecting your day-to-day personal internet security.
This article walks you through the fundamentals, points you to some solid choices, and steers you away from dangerous VPN providers.
What’s a VPN?
Some people think that a VPN is just for people with something to hide, but in truth it’s an essential tool for digital safety. When you connect to a public internet, the next thing you should do is to switch on your Virtual Private Network. These days you can usually do it with the tap of a “connect” button on a pre-configured app. Before you hit connect, your phone or laptop is sending out all kinds of digital signals, even if you’re not sending any messages on purpose. And all of these signals are like open postcards floating around the coffee shop for anyone to read. The app turns all your communications into private sealed letters, written in a coded language, and sent through a tube to arrive only for their intended recipient.
Operating without a VPN is like taking calls on a cell phone with the speaker volume on full blast. Everyone can hear what you’re saying and what the people on the other end of the call are saying. It’s even worse than that because you can’t see who is listening in. Hackers might be actively reaching into your device for personal, private, and financial information that they can use in the moment, or use later to attack you.
Technically, a VPN re-routes your traffic through a special channel that no one else can break into. It encrypts your messages in a code that others can’t read. And it hides the websites you visit from others on the same network. A private network gives you peace of mind, protects your private information, and saves you from sneak attacks (like being redirected to dangerous websites designed to trick you).
Everyone should be using a VPN when they’re out in public. To use a crude analogy, a VPN is like a condom for shared WiFi. Protect yourself. It’s simply unsafe to do otherwise.
Picking a VPN
If you’re looking to solve this one problem (the risks of shared internet), you’ll want to pick a reliable, trustworthy, and affordable service provider. There are many VPN services. But be careful! Some of the most popular and cheapest services may put you at higher risk. Bad providers harvest your data and resell it. Bad providers charge you low fees for lifetime services, then disappear, change management, change policies, or drop service quality. To get the benefits of a VPN, you have to get a trustworthy VPN provider. Fortunately, there are many good ones. Equally serious, there are many bad ones. We can guide you to safety.
There are many satisfactory VPN services to protect shared WiFi users. Here are three worth considering, with an explanation of why they made the list.
TunnelBear ($4.99/mo annual plan)
Perfect entry-level option with high security and an easy-to-use interface for every operating system.
IVPN ($8.34/mo annual plan)
Easy to use. Reliable, consistent, high-speed service.
Private Internet Access (PIA) VPN ($3.33/mo annual plan)
Well-designed interface with advanced features.
NordVPN ($5.75/mo annual plan)
Huge server network means reliable connections. Well-made apps.
Yikes! There might be some good options, but if their business model is to give you something for free, they are probably getting something from you that’s even more valuable. Some might be harvesting and reselling your data. Some might be actively harming you. Be careful out there.
Basic safety is not the only reason to use a VPN, but it’s an excellent starting place. We believe it’s better to start somewhere and learn more late than to be paralyzed by indecision and exposed to danger.
For advanced options, see our reviews of TorGuard VPN and Mullvad VPN.