A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a way of making your connection to the Internet secure against hackers when you are away from your trusted Internet connections.
When you login to the Internet from a hotel, apartment, café or transport terminal, your connection may be vulnerable to hackers. They may be able to see or record everything you send and receive, including usernames, passwords, credit card and bank account numbers, etc.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) makes it much more difficult, if not impossible, for them to hack you. It works for any type of computing device: laptop, tablet or smartphone.
Here's how it works:
1. You register with a VPN company, download any necessary application or app software, and arrange for payment. Most companies offer basic service for free, and more robust services for a reasonable fee.
2. When you login to a "foreign" Wifi network (that is, a network that is not your own trusted home or office network), you start the VPN app, it encrypts your transmissions and connects you to one of its own servers. Then you have a special, separate, private "virtual pipe" through the Internet directly to the VPN company's server, a pipe that is used only by you, a pipe that a hacker cannot see or enter. Everything you send and receive along the VPN pipe is encrypted, so even if hackers could see it, what they would see is gibberish.
3. Most VPN companies maintain servers in a variety of locations and countries, and may allow you to choose which location or country you use. For example, you may be in a foreign city, but by connecting to the Internet via VPN, the Internet will believe that you are connecting via a server in California, or Germany, or the UK, or some other location.
Internet connections may be slower when using a VPN. If you notice a slower connection (you may or may not), you can always decide to use the VPN for sensitive information (usernames, passwords, credit cards, banking) and use the simple "foreign" Wifi connection, which may be faster, for simple web browsing of non-sensitive websites.
Virtual Private Networks have other characteristics: they can sometimes route your connections around barriers erected by some companies, organizations and governments to limit access to particular websites and services.
For example, if the country you are traveling in, or the establishment where you have your Wifi connection, prohibits connections to a particular website (perhaps for political or commercial reasons), using a VPN connection may allow you to complete the connection as you wish.
Also, some companies and websites limit access to their content to a certain political or economic area (a country, or list of countries). For example, if you are a registered user of a movie, video or music service in your home country, when you attempt to access the service from another country, the service may not allow you access for distribution reasons. A VPN, which allows you to login to the Internet from a server in your home country, makes it look as though you are still in your home country, and eligible to use the service.
There are many good Virtual Private Networks. I've used these two VPNs successfully:
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Hotspot Shield Elite ($4.99 Month-to-month subscription)
Hotspot Shield Elite ($29.95 1-year subscription)
—by Tom Brosnahan