Should I use a VPN? — VPN benefits and limitations

This post was updated on October 21, 2022.

VPNs are not only a way to stream restricted content or hide your browsing activity. Learn how a VPN can increase your overall security, privacy, and freedom online, no matter how you use the internet.

We explain why and when you should use a VPN and some of the benefits and limitations of VPN usage.

What is a VPN?
What does a VPN do?
What is a VPN used for?
Do I need a VPN?
When to use a VPN
Should I use a VPN at home?
Limitations of a VPN
Protect yourself with Proton VPN

What is a VPN?

A virtual private network (VPN) is a tool to protect your internet connection so that you remain private and secure online. It can also help you access restricted content online, bypassing internet blocks based on your location.

By encrypting the data from your computer, smartphone, or tablet, a good VPN can secure your web traffic against spies, criminals, or anyone else that gains access to your network, legally or otherwise.

What does a VPN do?

A VPN establishes an encrypted tunnel between your device and the VPN server. When you browse the internet using a VPN, all your traffic passes through this encrypted tunnel to a VPN server before reaching the public internet. 

Encrypted VPN tunnel showing how a VPN protects you online

This means your internet service provider (ISP) cannot see what websites you’re visiting, and the website you visit cannot see your IP address or location.

Learn more about how a VPN works 

What is a VPN used for?

You can use a VPN to protect your privacy and security whatever you’re doing online. But here are some activities for which a VPN is particularly useful:

  • Streaming: Some streaming services use “geoblocking” to restrict access to content based on your location. A VPN changes your public-facing IP address to make it look like you’re back home, so you can stream your favorite shows while abroad.
  • Gaming: As with streaming, a VPN can help you access cloud gaming services outside your region. A VPN can also help you avoid bandwidth throttling, when your ISP slows down your connection based on your online activity.
  • Activism: Using a VPN can help you access censored content and help hide your identity online. So a good VPN is an essential tool for political activists and journalists, especially in states with authoritarian regimes.
  • Peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing: A VPN hides your real IP address to keep you safe from potential malicious actors on the network while sharing files using BitTorrent. A VPN can also help you access torrent sites that your ISP may block.
  • Business: By encrypting your internet traffic, a VPN can help keep your business data secure. For example, a VPN can help you work from home securely and protect your confidential business transactions.

Do I need a VPN?

We believe that everyone deserves privacy online. Using a VPN to encrypt your internet traffic is the most impactful way to protect your browsing activity from prying eyes. 

To protect your privacy all the time, we recommend using a VPN whenever you connect to the internet. The Proton VPN kill switch and always-on VPN features help ensure your browsing traffic is always protected.

It’s not just activists and journalists who benefit from VPN protection. Everyone can benefit from encrypting their online activity. Here’s why you should use a VPN:

Stop ISPs spying on you

When you use a VPN, it routes your internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel to a VPN server that sits between your device and the rest of the internet. That prevents your ISP from seeing which websites you visit.

Without a VPN, your ISP can see almost everything you do online. ISPs can exploit this capability to throttle certain websites or charge more for access to “premium” websites. 

Block government surveillance

Many states, such as those in the 5 Eyes, 9 Eyes, and 14 Eyes agreements, also use ISPs to conduct mass surveillance(new window) on citizens. Government agencies, like the US National Security Agency (NSA) or the UK’s GCHQ, rely on ISPs to log their users’ browsing histories for this surveillance.

Because a VPN prevents your ISP from seeing the information you send and receive online, it becomes more difficult for the NSA and other agencies to monitor you.

Browse anonymously online

It’s not just your ISP or government who can spy on you. When you visit a website without a VPN, the website can see your IP address and location. A VPN can prevent websites from tracking you across the internet because it masks your IP address and replaces it with the IP address of your VPN server.

There are, however, other ways for websites to track users, which is why it’s also important to use a privacy-focused browser(new window). For even more anonymity, you can use the Tor network (you can access Tor servers with one click with Proton VPN).

Access censored content

ISPs don’t just spy on you, they also monitor your online activity so they can slow down or block certain websites or file-sharing protocols like BitTorrent.

In some countries, governments also impose internet censorship to prevent citizens from accessing certain websites. These blocks are put in place to stifle protests or limit the spread of opinions critical of the government.

Using a VPN is your best protection against your ISP or government tampering with your ability to use the internet without restriction.

Proton VPN also includes anti-censorship tools like alternative routing(new window) and the Stealth protocol to prevent our app itself from being blocked. And we’ve made our VPN available for download in places that are hard to block, like GitHub(new window).

When to use a VPN

Although you can use a VPN every time you connect to the internet for maximum protection, there are times when using a VPN is crucial — when your data is more at risk or when you cannot otherwise access censored or restricted content.

Browse securely on public WiFi

The most important time to use a VPN is whenever you’re connected to a public WiFi hotspot. Public WiFi has some vulnerabilities that criminals can exploit, making it risky to connect to public WiFi without a VPN. These attacks can include:

  • Man-in-the-middle attacks (MITM) — A hacker intercepts traffic between your device and the router, often without you noticing at all.
  • Malicious hotspots — A hacker creates a hotspot that mimics legitimate public WiFi to gain access to your network traffic.
  • Malware — A hacker sends a malicious program to your device when you’re connected to unsecured WiFi.
  • WiFi sniffing — Attackers monitor a hotspot’s network traffic to analyze your data and try to steal passwords or private information.

To find out more about these risks of public WiFi, read our public WiFi safety guide.

Using public WiFi without a VPN can also mean that the hotspot provider can sell your browsing metadata to advertising and analytics companies (this metadata includes the domains you’ve visited, when you visited them, and for how long).

If a website doesn’t use HTTPS, WiFi hackers and “evil twin” hotspots can also monitor everything you do on that website. HTTPS secures the connection between your browser and a website, so the widespread adoption of HTTPS over the last several years means that using public WiFi hotspots is not as dangerous as it once was. 

Access blocked video streaming and other content

One of the most popular reasons for using a VPN is to access video streaming services or other content that is unavailable in some locations. 

Using a VPN server in a different country allows you to browse the internet as though you were in that country and access content that would otherwise be restricted. That way, you can use a VPN to stream your favorite shows when traveling abroad.

For example, imagine you live in San Francisco and take a trip to London. You have a paid US Netflix subscription, but you’re while in the UK, you may not be able to watch your favorite Netflix shows or movies as they’re only accessible from the US. But if you connect to a VPN with a US server, you can continue watching as if at home.

Please note that while it’s not illegal to use a VPN to watch a streaming service abroad, you need to make sure you comply with the service’s terms of use.

For example, the Netflix Terms of Use(new window) say:

“You may access the Netflix content primarily within the country in which you have established your account and only in geographic locations where we offer our service and have licensed such content”.

So using a VPN to watch content that’s not licensed for the area you’re currently in is against Netflix’s policy. However, you have a right to watch content you pay for and can normally access when you’re home.

For more information about streaming with Proton VPN, check out our streaming guide.

Unblock censored content

If you live in or travel to a country with restricted or censored internet, a VPN can help you access blocked websites. Using a VPN can also help bypass censorship on a more local level, such as blocked websites on your employer’s or university’s network.

When you use a VPN, your traffic is encrypted, so your internet provider cannot see the domains you are accessing. The people running your network cannot block what they cannot see, making a VPN crucial in accessing restricted content.

For example, when Proton Mail(new window) was temporarily blocked in Turkey(new window) in 2018, Proton VPN provided a way for users to bypass the government internet censors. And Proton VPN has been an important tool in helping Russian and Iranian citizens fight censorship(new window) during government crackdowns in 2022.

Should I use a VPN at home?

We recommend using a VPN whenever you connect to the internet for maximum protection. Whether you work from home or just go online for leisure, a VPN helps to protect your privacy and security, whatever you’re doing.

A VPN helps prevent your ISP, governments, tech giants, or hackers from spying on you and allows you to browse the web more privately and securely. So if you’re sick of being tracked online, keep your VPN on as much as possible.

Limitations of a VPN

As with any security product, it’s extremely important to understand the limitations of a VPN to avoid any false sense of security.

Can I be traced using a VPN?

A VPN hides what you are doing online and masks your identity by hiding your IP address and location. But a VPN alone cannot make you completely anonymous. Snoopers can sniff out data that can help identify you even when you’re using a VPN.

For example, your ISP can see your connection logs showing the time you spent online and volume of traffic.

Websites cannot see your IP address but can still track you with cookies(new window) or browser and device fingerprinting(new window).

Search engines, social media, and mobile apps have multiple ways to track you(new window) when you’re signed in, depending on the permissions you give them.

And even the best VPN is no guarantee against a well-resourced state agency that decides to target you specifically.

Remember, too, that your VPN provider will always know your IP address at least and will always be able to view and store your internet activity if it wants to.

So if you’re a journalist or activist and hiding your identity is critical, consider using other privacy tools, like the Tor network, which routes your encrypted data through multiple random servers.

Learn more about the threats a VPN is designed to guard against

Get Proton VPN!

Can I trust a VPN?

When you use a VPN, all your online traffic passes through the VPN, so the VPN provider sees everything. You’re effectively transferring trust from your ISP to your VPN. So it’s essential you choose a VPN you can trust.

But not all VPN providers are worthy of your trust. According to one independent study of Android VPN apps(new window), around 38% of the apps reviewed contained malware, and 18% were not even encrypted. Other VPN services claim to keep “no logs” but actually record large amounts of user data.

With Proton VPN, full details of the user information we store are laid out in our privacy policy. As we’re based in Switzerland, our strict no-logs policy is subject to Swiss privacy laws. Under current Swiss law, we’re not obligated to log user data, and the government cannot order us to start recording it either.

What’s more, all our apps are open source and independently audited, so you can be sure they’re trustworthy. And we’ve published our VPN threat model, so you can understand exactly what Proton VPN can and cannot protect you against.

Can VPNs beat internet shutdowns?

While a VPN is a great tool to help access censored content, it may not be effective against more sweeping forms of censorship. For example, an ISP may slow down or shut off your entire internet connection, or a website may block all traffic coming from known VPN servers. 

Governments can also attempt to block connections to VPN servers, locking users into the local network. 

However, VPN services like Proton VPN make it easier to bypass blocks by providing multiple VPN protocols and alternative routing(new window). Proton VPN also has Stealth, a unique protocol that can avoid detection and help you defeat censorship.

Does a VPN protect me from viruses and other malware?

A VPN helps to protect your privacy and security online by hiding your IP address and encrypting your web traffic. But it cannot replace antivirus or malware removal software.

If you click on a malicious link and install software that turns out to be malware, a VPN cannot protect you. You still need to use antivirus software, which actively scans your device to detect and remove malware.

However, the best VPNs have additional security features to protect you online. Proton VPN has the NetShield Ad-blocker, which prevents many forms of malware, adware, and other trackers from being automatically downloaded onto your device in the first place.

Protect yourself with Proton VPN

Now you know why you should use a VPN, you can start using Proton VPN right away for free. Or, if you already have a free account, consider upgrading to a paid plan.

As a community-supported project, we rely on support from paying members of the Proton community. With your help, we can continue to provide a free VPN to millions around the world.

Feel free to share your feedback and questions with us via our official social media channels on Twitter(new window) and Reddit(new window).

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