A VPN, or virtual private network, might sound like a robot escort service from the future – but it's actually far more accessible. What it does is keep your online identity safe, secure and anonymous as you use your phone, tablet, laptop and plenty more besides.
The use of a VPN isn't just for security though as it'll also get you access to otherwise geo-blocked content. So if you're on your holibobs and want to catch the latest BBC iPlayer show, you won't be able to as it's locked for UK viewers only. Fire up your VPN and it'll look like you're back on Blighty shores (or home to wherever you live) so you can watch away to your heart's content.
So the concept is is simple enough. But what are the cogs that are whirring away to make it all happen? Keep reading, and we'll tell you a little more about how VPNs go about their business.
How does a VPN work?
The network part of the VPN name is the giveaway here as this is what helps to mask your identity. When you log on you're assigned an IP address which shows who and where you are. This can often have personal information associated with it, leaving you exposed.
A VPN uses lots of servers which bounce your signal, effectively making you appear as another IP address. All that means that you can appear in one place as one address when in reality you're physically somewhere quite different.
Since these servers are usually heavily secured and all the data is encrypted, that should make you very safe. Lots of VPNs also operate a no logging policy which means no details of the data passing through the servers is kept, making you even more anonymous and secure.
In the case of watching geo-restricted content, a VPN will allow you to select the server country you want. So if you want to watch US Netflix while on holiday, simply select a US server location and the Netflix VPN will make you appear to be logging on from there. Fire up Netflix and it'll think you're in the US, giving you a US focused selection of content for you to enjoy.
What is a proxy server?
This is the key to all that anonymity goodness. It's a dedicated computer that sits between you and the website you're on.
Essentially it's a go between, taking your request for a show over to Netflix (continuing with the example above) and then handing you back the result. Netflix thinks it's dealing with the server when really it's you behind it all, secretly interacting with an unknowing Netflix.
Since proxies can work at high speeds you may find that even with this extra layer of security you don't lose speed. In some cases you may actually find that the use of a VPN speeds up your connection compared to what you're used to - strange but true!
Which is the best VPN?
Like with any product, some VPNs are better at certain things than others. That's why we've dedicated a whole guide to getting the very best VPN for your purposes.
So you may want to prioritise speed, or perhaps security is your primary focus. As you'll see from our top 10, the all-rounder that comes out on top on all fronts is ExpressVPN for speed, security, great customer care, location selection and more. It even comes with a 30-day money back guarantee, so that you can try for free before you fully commit.