I get it.
Many people feel insecure when they’re using the internet. They’re unsure who’s tracking their activity and what they’re doing with it.
The scary news is, you should feel insecure about using the internet. After all, everything you do is being tracked.
Your browsing history, your Google searches, the videos you watch online? These things are all tracked.
Your geographic location, the type of device you’re using to access the internet and the time you’re using it? This information is also collected.
All of this information is sold to third parties in exchange for money. You have no idea who’s collecting your data, and who they’re selling it to.
On the bright side, there are things you can do to make your internet usage more private from prying eyes.
One of these options (that I’m sure you’ve heard of) is a VPN. So the question stands: will a VPN hide your location or will you still be tracked by third parties?
Let’s take a closer look.
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. What a VPN essentially does is it makes a private network that you can use when accessing the internet.
Once you’re connected to a VPN, you become an anonymous user of the internet.
Your IP address becomes hidden from websites and other search engines that are trying to collect your information. With your IP address hidden, not only do third parties not know who you are, but they also don’t know where you’re located. You can’t be identified or tracked like you can if you don’t use a VPN.
On top of hiding your IP address, VPNs also encrypt your traffic. This added layer of security further protects your internet traffic from those trying to see what you’re searching.
With the combination of a hidden IP address and encrypted internet traffic, you can be confident that your internet searches are private and your location is hidden while using the internet.
Virtual Private Network usage has been growing at a significant rate, which highlights the value they provide. According to a study performed in 2019, the usage of VPNs is expected to grow 11% annually until 2024.
With more people working remotely and more devices connecting to the internet than ever before, it poses significant security risks to companies and individuals. It’s obvious from the expected growth rate of VPNs that this is viewed as a technology that’ll help you use the internet in a safer manner.
How does a VPN work?
Ok so when you’re using a VPN your IP address will be hidden, but how does the VPN service do that?
Let’s dig a little further into the details.
VPN request steps
When you connect to a VPN, you’re connecting to one of the VPN provider’s servers. Some VPN providers have servers located all around the world, so you may not know which one you’re connecting to.
Upon logging into a VPN service, you first need to enter your username and password. Once verified, you will be connected to the VPN and the VPN server will carry out your internet requests for you.
For an example, let’s say you’re connected to a VPN and you want to go to Google.com. Your device will send an encrypted request to the VPN telling it that you want to go to Google.com.
The VPN server will then send a request to Google.com asking for its webpage.
Google.com responds to the VPN server’s request with the requested webpage.
Upon receiving the webpage from Google.com, the VPN server sends the webpage back to your device over the encrypted connection.
Your browser will then load the web page that the VPN server provided.
Simple as that.
How does a VPN hide your location?
To recap, when using a VPN service the VPN server carries out your internet request for you. Using the example above, Google.com only sees that the request is coming from the VPN server. They don’t even know you exist on the other end of the connection to the VPN server.
Google.com will track the IP address of the system making the request, which in this case is the VPN server. They more than likely know that this IP address is for a VPN server, but this doesn’t affect you as the VPN user.
Other subscribers to the same VPN service will also be using that VPN server to make requests for them. As a result, your internet requests will get mixed in with other people’s. This further muddies the waters for websites that are trying to track you.
So how does this hide your location?
When making an internet request, your IP address can be tracked to a specific geographic area.
Don’t believe me? Put your IP address into the search bar on this IP location site. You can use an IP address to get the latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates of your location, which is pretty specific. Although your exact location may not be tracked, it’s a little too close for comfort.
Anyway, let’s go back to the example above. In this case, Google doesn’t know you are the one using the VPN service. They only know the IP address of the VPN server that made the request. If they were to track this IP address, they would get the geographic location of the VPN server. This doesn’t do them much good.
As a result, we can safely say that by using a VPN correctly, your location will be hidden.
Can you still be tracked when using a VPN?
Even if you’re correctly using a VPN connection and have a trustworthy VPN provider, you still need to be careful.
If you’re not connected to your VPN
One very important item to be aware of is that you need to connect to the VPN service before you start using the internet in order to be protected.
You’ll need to make sure you’re connected to the VPN each and every time you’re going to use the internet. Buying a VPN subscription does not mean your internet traffic will automatically be private and anonymous.
If you pay for a VPN subscription but aren’t connected to it when you use the internet, you’ll be exposed to prying eyes as if you didn’t have a VPN in the first place.
If you’re signed into a website’s account
When you’re using a VPN and you sign into your account for a particular website, the website will be able to collect information about you.
This is especially true for Google. If you’re signed into your Google account and performing searches, they’ll know it’s you because you’ve identified yourself.
If you’re using a VPN for privacy reasons, it defeats the purpose if Google is still tracking your activity.
When you use a VPN I recommend signing into accounts only when you need to. When you’re done with your account, make sure that you sign out of it. For example, sign out of Google once you’ve checked your email and you want to search for something on the web. This will limit the amount of information that’s tracked about you.
Another thing you’ll have to worry about is the VPN provider you choose (we will discuss this later).
Are there alternatives for hiding your location on the internet?
Many people are under the misconception that using private mode on your browser will hide your location on the internet. This is not the case.
Private mode will not make you anonymous on the internet.
If you want to be anonymous on the internet, another alternative is to use Tor.
Tor stands for “the onion router”. It’s an internet browser that makes you anonymous on the internet. It’s a free alternative to using a VPN which is nice, but the internet experience it provides is not as seamless as using a VPN.
If you would like to learn more about why private mode doesn’t make you anonymous on the internet or the pros and cons of using Tor, check out our previous post: What is Incognito Mode Used for?
What are the best uses for a VPN?
Now we know what a VPN can do and how the service works.
Let’s discuss the reasons why you’d want to use a VPN.
To prevent tracking by ISP and third-parties
As previously mentioned, when use the internet without a VPN your internet service provider and many other third parties are collecting and selling information about you.
With a VPN you don’t have to worry about this. All your ISP will be able to see is that you connect to a VPN. They’ll track the IP address of the VPN server and the time you connect to it, but other than that they’ll have no insight into your internet activity or browsing habits.
In addition, Google won’t be able to collect any specific information about you if you’re using a VPN and you aren’t signed into your account. They are notorious for being the worst in terms of tracking your internet activity, so this is a big reason for using a VPN.
Hiding your location
As previously mentioned, websites won’t be able to see your IP address when using a VPN. They’ll only be able to see the IP address of the VPN server you’re using, which hides your location from the site. In fact, the website will think you’re located at the geographic location of the VPN server.
This is especially useful if a website only works in a particular geographic area.
Let me provide an example.
If you live in the United States and have a Netflix account (as I’m sure many of us do), you can’t access the US library of content if you’re outside the United States.
Let’s say you’re traveling abroad on vacation and want to watch your favorite Netflix show at the end of a long day. If the show is part of Netflix’s US-only catalog of content, you’ll be out of luck.
That is unless you have a US-based VPN. If you’re connected to a US based VPN, Netflix will think you’re located in the US…
Do you see where I’m going with this?
This is also useful in countries like China where services like Facebook aren’t available. If you subscribe to a VPN service located in a country that has Facebook, you’ll be able to access it as if you’re sitting in that other country.
Browsing safely on public networks
Raise your hand if you use public WiFi networks when you’re traveling or away from home. I’m sure that is just about all of us.
I’m talking about airports, hotels, coffee shops, and other public areas. These places provide everyone with free access to their internet, but their networks come with a lot of risks.
In many cases these public networks are not as secure as they should be. Combined with the fact that there are hundreds of people that connect to these networks every day, public WiFi is a perfect target for hackers.
The good news is with a VPN on your mobile device, you won’t have to worry about this. Once you’re connected to your VPN service, hackers won’t be able to “listen in” on your internet connection to steal your personal information, passwords, or bank account numbers.
Disclaimer about VPNs and internet security
There’s a common misconception about VPNs that I need to address.
This misconception is the belief that if you use a VPN you are safe from viruses and other malicious downloads. This is not true.
VPNs don’t protect you from downloading harmful software on your devices.
Although they improve your internet security by making it harder for bad guys to steal information about you and your accounts, VPNs don’t stop you from clicking on sketchy links or pop-ups that you shouldn’t.
All this is to say that even with a VPN, make sure you practice good cyber hygiene. Don’t click the link that promises you a trip or the newest iPhone for free.
Here is a good rule of thumb to follow: if something seems too good to be true, it isn’t. Especially on the internet.
Accessing corporate networks
You can also use a VPN to access another network that’s not available to the public internet. I’m sure you’ve seen this if you work remotely from home.
By remotely connecting to your company’s network with a VPN, you can access the company’s shared documents and internal sites. In other words, a VPN gives you the same remote access to your company’s network as if you were sitting onsite. General users of the internet won’t be able to access these sites and documents from the internet without a VPN.
You can also use a VPN to connect to your home network if there are resources you’d like to access while you’re away.
How do you get a VPN?
VPNs come in the form of software applications. With more people than ever using mobile devices to access the internet, most VPN services are available for both computers and mobile devices.
When you purchase a VPN service, the VPN application will either be installed on your computer, or there’ll be a website you need to go to in order to connect to it.
Once you create a username and password for your account you’ll be off and running. There are no changes you need to make to your device or network.
In some cases employers will provide you with one-time password tokens that are used to generate passwords for your VPN account, but these not required for a VPN to work properly.
What should you consider when getting a VPN?
There are many VPN services on the market, so it’s important to do your homework when finding the service that works best for you.
Let’s dive into some factors that you may want to consider when picking a VPN.
You may find some free VPN services on the internet, but very rarely do these offer the protection or performance you would want.
The good news is some VPN services will allow you to try their product for free for a short period of time. I would recommend doing this if you are unsure what service you want.
The majority of VPN services will charge you on a monthly basis and they will cost anywhere between $5-$15 per month.
Although this is an important factor, you shouldn’t be picking your VPN solely on how much it costs. You need to consider all the factors that make up the service.
Does the VPN work on mobile?
Most VPN services today come with a mobile option, but you’ll want to verify this before you sign up for a subscription.
More people than ever are accessing the internet on mobile devices, so you need to make sure you can protect yourself while you’re using them.
This is especially important if you’re looking to protect yourself when using public WiFi networks. You’ll most likely be using your phone or tablet when you’re on these networks. Make sure the service you get will work on these devices.
Privacy the VPN service provides
By sending all your internet requests to a VPN server, the VPN service could theoretically have a record of all your internet activity. If your VPN provider chose to sell your information, they could do that. Worse still, if the authorities were investigating you and requesting your internet search history, they may hand it over.
With that said, there are many VPN providers who vow not to sell your information, if they even track it in the first place. You just need to do your homework to make sure you choose a provider you can trust with your information.
Number of devices supported per subscription
Some services will have subscription prices per device, while other subscriptions will support multiple devices.
With that said, you need to know how many devices will be using the VPN. Pay attention to the number of devices the subscription supports to make sure you get the right service.
Does the VPN have a kill switch?
If you are serious about your privacy on the internet, you’ll want a VPN service with a kill switch.
Have you ever thought about what would happen if you’re using the internet and your connection to the VPN gets dropped or interrupted?
If your VPN doesn’t have a kill switch, you and all your browsing activity will be exposed until the connection to the VPN service is restored.
A VPN kill switch will disconnect you from the internet until the VPN connection is back up and running. In other words, a kill switch ensures you only use the internet while connected to your VPN service.
Most good VPN providers include a kill switch as part of their service, but you’ll want to double check to make sure.
Does the VPN block ads?
When surfing the internet, ads can be both annoying and dangerous. In fact, infected websites often display pop-up ads that contain viruses and other malicious software.
If you can, you’ll want to avoid pop-ups entirely. This will not only speed up your internet because your browser won’t have to load the pop-ups, but you’ll be safer when using the internet as well.
As with most of the other VPN features mentioned, the good VPN services will include ad blocking. To get the most out of your internet experience you’ll want to ensure your VPN has an ad blocker.
Now that you know what VPNs are and how they are commonly used, you can decide if a VPN service would be a good fit for you. You also know what to look for when deciding which VPN service best fits your needs.
If you want to look at alternatives you can learn more about why Incognito Mode (AKA Private Mode) is not a good choice by checking out our blog post detailing Incognito Mode.
As always, feel free to comment below to ask me any questions you may have or if there’s anything in particular you’d like me to write about. After all, my goal is to help you safely get the most out of your internet experience.