Wednesday 22 September 2021

Everything you need to know about VPNs (including whether you need one)

Photo: Depositphotos.com

You have probably heard about VPNs and maybe you have even been thinking about getting one for yourself. But how much do you really know about how they work in the Netherlands? Here are five key questions and answers to help you get started.

1 What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It is a tool that enhances the privacy and security of internet users.

‘A VPN essentially does two things,’ says Koen Kuijper from VPN.nl. ‘First of all, it encrypts everything you send and receive over the internet. This means it is really difficult for other (unwanted) parties to intercept your online data, especially when using public Wi-Fi.

Secondly, a VPN swaps your real IP-address with a new one, so your online actions are virtually untraceable.’

Without a VPN, your internet service provider (ISP) has a record of the websites you have visited. But when you use a VPN, your web activity is linked with the VPN server’s IP-address, instead of yours.

Here is a one minute video explainer

2 What are the advantages to a foreign national in the Netherlands with using a VPN service?

The main reason people choose a VPN is to protect and anonymise their online activities, such as sending e-mails, online shopping, paying bills, streaming and downloading content.

‘But there are also specific advantages for expats or international students in The Netherlands,’ Kuijper says. ‘Changing your IP-address means you can virtually travel to another part of the world. So essentially, a VPN lets expats browse the internet from their home country, as if they had never left. Travelling to another virtual location also means you can bypass local censorship and stream movies and series anywhere you go.’

3 Isn’t there something dodgy about using a VPN? Why would someone with nothing to hide use one?

Edward Snowden once remarked: ‘saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide, is like saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.’

There is nothing dodgy about using a VPN for surfing the web, streaming or gaming. It is completely legal. In fact, a Dutch government initiative recommends the use of a VPN for self-protection, especially when connected to a public Wi-Fi network.

Nevertheless, it is good to mention that using a VPN for downloading and sharing copyrighted material is illegal. So having a VPN is a little bit like owning a gun in Texas –  only use it for self-protection.

4 Should I choose a free VPN?

We all like a free online service, and the same can be said for a VPN. However, there are many untrustworthy free VPNs out there. Some may even sell your search data, while others simply do not work properly.

In other words: ‘If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re actually the product being sold.’

There are a handful of reliable free VPN providers, like Proton or Hide.me. But even with these, there could be a data cap, preventing you from using the free service without restrictions. Moreover, you are likely to experience performance issues when using a free VPN.

In general, free VPNs are not an optimal solution, so definitely consider paying for a good service. A four or five star VPN shouldn’t set you back more than €3 to €5 per month. Keep in mind that prices go down considerably when choosing a one or two year plan. Moreover, all providers offer a 30-days-money back guarantee, so you can test their services without spending a penny.

5 What are the main things to look out for when choosing a VPN?

There are a few things to look out for when choosing a (paid) VPN-provider.

‘Privacy is key. So make sure you choose a provider with a no-logs policy,’ says Kuijper. ‘Secondly, it is smart to get a VPN with its head office in a country with favourable privacy laws, like Switzerland, Panama, Romania, Malaysia or the British Virgin Islands.’

Other important aspects to take into account include:

  • Speed: how is the performance when browsing, streaming and downloading?
  • Ease of use: are the apps easy to use on your laptop and smartphone?
  • Tech support: is there a 24/7 live chat to help you with any issues you may have?
  • Server list: a decent VPN lets you choose from a huge list of servers, spread over at least 50 different countries. Make sure it has one in the Netherlands and your home country.
  • Device support: some providers have no limit to the amount of devices you can link to one VPN-account, whilst others prevent you from connecting more than five or six devices.

Finally, don’t forget to take a look at the available payment options that the VPN providers offer. Most of them support iDEAL, credit card and PayPal. But if privacy is your top concern, you will likely want to search a provider that allows you to pay anonymously using cash or a crypto currency, like bitcoin.

To make choosing a VPN a bit easier, there are several comparison sites that have reviewed all the popular providers for you.

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