Here's When You Should Use A VPN

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
Welcome to What the Tech?!, Refinery29's weekly column explaining the basics behind a buzzword or concept you've heard tossed around in conversation (but maybe don't actually understand).

Using a VPN is a smart thing to do if you're traveling, using an open Wi-Fi network, or just want to ensure no one snoops on what you're doing online. If you've never used one before, no sweat. Here's what you need to know about a VPN — from what it is in the first place to how to get started.

VPN stands for "virtual private network." It's a secure, usually encrypted network connection that piggybacks on an existing wireless network (kind of like a private tunnel connecting your computer to whatever else you're doing online). You can set up a VPN on your computer, or use a third-party app to create one.

So, when and why would you want to use a VPN?

A lot of companies and educational institutions use VPNs so that you can access private, locally stored databases even when working remotely. Or, if you're traveling, or live in an area where content is blocked because of your location (Netflix, we're looking at you and your geo-restrictions), a VPN can often get around those location-based restrictions. VPNs also make general web browsing safer and more secure by encrypting what you're doing online, which is handy if you're on an open Wi-Fi network at an airport or café.

If your company wants you to use a VPN, someone from IT will likely give you instructions on how to set things up. You'll basically head to the Networks section of your computer's settings, and enter in the information provided, your account name, and password. When you want to connect, you'll just head back to that section of your settings and log in.

If you want to protect your internet traffic from prying eyes or sketchy wireless networks, you can install a third-party VPN, such as Hotspot Shield or F-Secure Freedome. (On your phone, you can try SurfEasy VPN or TunnelBear VPN.) An added benefit of these services: They also block potentially malicious ads, which are a growing source of viruses and malware. Caveat: You'll have to pay a small fee to use these apps, but it's well worth it.

If you live in the U.S. and have access to private wireless networks, you may not need to use a VPN too often, but it can be a useful tool to have installed just in case.

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