Virtual private networks (or VPNs) are great for protecting your privacy and data while you browse the web. They provide increased security on public Wi-Fi networks (coffee shops, airports, etc), and prevent ISPs from collecting personal data, data they want to sell to advertisers. VPNs are also pretty good at letting users circumvent location-based content restrictions put in place by companies like YouTube, Spotify, and Netflix. While they’re not foolproof, here’s how to pick a VPN, and boost your chance of enjoying a bit of Star Trek: Discovery without paying CBS a dime.
It’s Evil Week at Lifehacker, which means we’re looking into less-than-seemly methods for getting shit done. We like to think we’re shedding light on these tactics as a way to help you do the opposite, but if you are, in fact, evil, you might find this week unironically helpful. That’s up to you.
Pick a Proper VPN
Your VPN of choice should provide you with increased security by employing an encrypted connection, otherwise known as a VPN tunnel. You should choose a VPN that features multiple servers and access points located around the world. If your VPN includes choices in countries abroad, then it’ll be easier for you to pretend you’re browsing the web from a different location. If you want to enjoy some UK-based content, for example, selecting a server based in the United Kingdom can trick whatever service you’re using into thinking you’re right in the heart of jolly old England, and display the proper British baking program.
Some VPNs keep logs of your browsing activity—a problem for privacy-conscious VPN users, or those engaging in some…light piracy. When picking a VPN, look for one that doesn’t keep records of your data. Free VPNs might be attractive, but they’re also more likely to keep logs of your online activity, as well as show you ads based on your browsing habits. This isn’t great if you want to remain anonymous. Even if you pay for your VPN subscription, and even if they claim to offer a log-free service, be sure to read their privacy and data retention policy to ensure they’re not keeping any records of your activity.
You should also double-check user reviews to see which VPNs suffer from security flaws, like leaking your supposedly encrypted IP addresses. You can also run your own test using What Is My IP Address to compare your IP addresses before and after you connect to your VPN provider. Getting the same IP address? Pick a new VPN.
Prep Your Browser
Some VPNs offer browser extensions that let you enable your VPN and select your server from the browser itself. Providers like NordVPN and Private Internet Access(PIA) also provide smartphone apps so you can encrypt your Internet connection on your iOS or Android device without making modifications to devices like your router, or going VPN-free on a public network.
You might have to take a few more steps, however, if you’re trying to game the system. Your browser is probably storing enough information about you to throw a wrench in your content-viewing plans, leaving you frustrated or confused. Having trouble watching that Japanese YouTube music video? Try clearing your browser’s cache, which dumps identifying data like cookies and browsing history.
Remember, No VPN Is Perfect
Any VPN worth its salt encrypts your browsing data and obfuscates your IP address using servers based in different locations around the world. Some services, like Netflix, are pretty adamant about stopping VPN use with its streaming service. They do so by blocking IP addresses found to be associated with VPN providers, so even if you do use a VPN and connect to an international server (like one in the United Kingdom), if your IP address is on Netflix’s list, you won’t get far without being redirected or shut out entirely until you shut down your VPN.
To combat Netflix’s crackdown on VPNs, certain VPNs employ tactics to still allow users to watch region-restricted content. NordVPN (my personal preference), based in Panama, uses servers that change IP addresses frequently, making it harder for services to recognize which IP addresses belong to VPN users, or servers providing VPN access points. They also rely on smaller servers that are less likely to be associated with VPN user access points. Unfortunately, no VPN service is bulletproof.