If you work on a computer or mobile device away from home, you probably use Wi-Fi hotspots in hotels, cafés, restaurants, airports, or on campus. The problem is, there is no way to know exactly how secure those networks are.
The best ways to stay safe on a public Wi-Fi network is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN is basically an encrypted tunnel between your device and the Internet that makes all your online interactions safe from prying eyes lurking on the same network.
There are many free VPNs around, and they may serve your needs initially. Eventually, you really should consider paying for a VPN.
Paid VPNs tend to run faster, aren't ad supported, and don't have the same bandwidth limits that some free options do. Plus, VPNs are relatively cheaply priced around $5 per month or less--depending on the payment plan you choose.
But before you dive in and sign up for a VPN, here are five key questions you should ask your prospective new service provider.
Hulu, Netflix, Amazon on Demand or whatever other favorite service may be blocked when you're outside the U.S. Many people turn to a traditional VPN to get around these regional restrictions. The key is to make sure your VPN has exit servers in the U.S. that will make it look like you are just a regular U.S.-based user and not some guy sitting in a hotel room in Paris.
If all you need a VPN for is consuming video content overseas, you might be better off with Media Hint. Unlike a traditional VPN, Media Hint is a Chrome browser extension that you install with no configuration required. For $4 per month or $39.50 per year, it offers access to streaming content in the U.S. and the U.K.
Are you using it for torrents?
Just like some Internet Service Providers (ISPs), a number of VPNs actively block torrent traffic. You'll want to read over the service's frequently asked questions and policies before you download all those various Linux distributions you've been meaning to try out.
Is it cross platform?
Your VPN should work across all your devices, not just your PC. Mobile access to a VPN may seem like a frill, but with tablets and smartphones a regular part of our daily lives, it's an important consideration.
Ideally, you want a VPN without bandwidth limits so that you don't have to worry about how often you're connecting. Most major VPNs don't enforce bandwidth limits, but you may find a service that does, so it's worth verifying before you buy.
What's their anonymity like?
Some VPNs keep usage records for short periods (anywhere from 10 minutes to thirty days or more). Depending on how you feel about privacy, you may want to look for a VPN that doesn't keep any records of activity whatsoever.
For the services that do keep logs, records generally include the time you connect, and sometimes an IP address. Torrent Freak recently did a detailed rundown of several VPNs and how they handle your privacy.
VPNs are a great tool for privacy and getting around regional restrictions, but not all VPN services operate under the same conditions. For savvy shoppers, a little research is required.