WHAT IS A VPN?
Last updated on January 17th, 2019
by Martin Robson (intro by Vanessa Anderson)
If you aren’t a “techie” person, you may be asking the question “What is a VPN?”
Very simply, a VPN can keep your data safe on the internet while traveling? It can help protect your identity, banking info, and more. And it allows you to watch TV shows from your home country broadcasters.
A virtual private network (VPN) is technology that creates an encrypted connection over a less secure network. The benefit of using a secure VPN is that it ensures the appropriate level of security for the connected systems when the underlying network infrastructure alone cannot provide it.
Essentially it keeps your data safer, but it can also allow you to connect to services in your home country that would normally restrict you while travelling abroad.
International house sitter and traveller, Martin Robson explains in easy terms why you might need to consider using this technology while you are on the road.
HOW A VPN HELPS YOU REACH YOUR DESTINATION
You’re in a foreign country. You know where you want to go, but are not sure how to get there. So you ask the first helpful looking local and they tell you to go ask at the fruit shop on the corner. The fruit shop lady tells you to take the A35 road for 20 miles to an intersection where you’ll find a wood carving shop. You should ask there for more details.
You do as instructed and begin your journey.
It’s an easy straight road but traffic is heavy and progress is slower than you’d hoped. Eventually you arrive at the shop and make enquiries. “Oh yes”, says the wood carver, “I can see from your car you have come from Sofia. Did Jean send you?” We confirm she did. He is happy about this and directs us around the one way system to our destination.
I’m sure this story will sound familiar and resonate with at least one experience you’ve had while travelling?
What might not be so familiar is the inner workings of the internet! I mean, when you type an address into your browser, how the heck does it know where the computer is that hosts your desired website?
Actually it’s pretty similar to the above scenario. You connect to an internet service provider (ISP), which has a computer that “knows” another computer “down the road”, which “knows” another one, and so on. Finally you reach the computer that knows the exact destination you are looking for. Normally all this takes just seconds at most. Amazing!
Why do I need a VPN when house sitting or traveling?
But what if, in our original scenario, instead of just one local, there were loads of them and one of them knew that you didn’t have to go to the fruit shop lady every time – and that right now it would be a bad idea because she only knows about the A35 and it’s really busy at the moment? You would have got an alternative route and got to the wood carver much more quickly.
And what if the wood carver doesn’t like Jean and refuses to tell you the final instructions? All that travel but now you are unable to complete the journey!
In the world of internet travel, that’s where a VPN comes in. Without one, your ISP will send you the same route every time. If that route is busy, your website will load really slowly or not at all.
If you come from a location that your website doesn’t like then the website will tell you that you can’t come in. In the UK, for example, the BBC TV channel doesn’t like anyone from any other country watching their programs.
So a VPN is a piece of software that can take different routes to get to your destination, and in so doing can fool the destination website about where you have come from.
The net result is that you can access sites that are geo-blocked (only accessible from certain countries) and potentially you can get to some sites more quickly. If we are thinking about TV or sports streaming (on the most common blocked sites) then speed matters…
Do I still need a subscription with my chosen TV network?
If you don’t have a Sky Sports, Netflix or Hulu premium subscription, then taking a different route to get to their websites still won’t get you in. There are ways to do that, but they are not entirely legal and they are not what a VPN is designed for.
Besides allowing you to load websites that are geo-blocked, a VPN will also allow you to load sites like Facebook and Twitter if you happen to be in a country (such as China), where the government doesn’t want its own citizens to access these sites.
Where do I get my VPN software?
There are many companies that sell VPNs, generally on a subscription basis, and there are some free ones too. You simply download a piece of software and install it. When you next connect to the internet, this software will give you some options to select before you get sent anywhere on the internet by your ISP.
One of these options is the country you would like to be seen to have come from. So using our BBC example, to watch this channel from the USA, you would tell the VPN software that information sent on your internet connection must also be seen to come from the UK.
Each VPN software has its own pros and cons and some extra features beyond the basic functions, so it’s good to compare which best meets your specific needs.
Why it doesn’t pay to use free VPN software
The free VPNs are not as good as the paid ones. It takes a lot of investment to make a good quality VPN. They have to be regularly updated as the TV networks, for example, find new ways to block them.
Free VPNs can only afford to keep going via advertising income and that slows everything down, which if you’re going a circuitous route to your destination anyway, is not a great idea. There are a heap of other considerations too, mainly involving the security of your data as it passes around the internet.
Which VPN should I use?
I have tried many VPNs over the years, and to keep this simple, I have recommended what I consider to be the best solution.
It is PureVPN – which costs a little under $60 a year with the 50% discount at this link – or looking at it another way, just over a buck a week to be able to:
- keep in contact
- view exactly what you want
- guarantee social media access while on the road
Visit my website if you want to delve a little deeper into why I recommend this particular company – see my author bio below.
USING A VPN IN CHINA
A VPN will allow you to bypass the “Great Chinese Firewall” and access any website you want. But you need to choose wisely as only a few of the many available works well in China.
This article on a website specializing in all things Chinese has been testing VPN services for many years, and they have a great up-to-date comparison of the best software to use in different areas of China.
Originally a business analyst turned long-time IT Project Manager, I worked in UK and US and got the travel bug. I changed my life completely. I quit my job and put myself through Open University to get an English degree and teaching qualification.
Whilst in Turkey I met and married Gonul and changed her life completely too! We have just finished a year long road trip through North and South America. This included house sitting and house swapping (in Ecuador).
I earn a living online building websites, marketing, and teaching English. My mission is to help people and to try ice cream in every country. Where do you think has the best?
You can contact me at: http://www.robsononline.co.uk