VPN’s were never intended for the average online user
VPNs‘ or Virtual Private Networks’ have come a long way since I first used them for work back in 2004.
Initially created in the mid-1990s for employees to access their company files and intranet servers remotely, VPN’s were never intended for the general public or the average internet user.
I didn’t know much about VPN’s.
In 2004, I didn’t know much about VPNs other than the fact that when I worked from home, I needed to log onto the VPN installed on my laptop.
Once logged on, not only could I access my company’s intranet servers and company files remotely as if I were physically at the office, but my connection was secure and private.
I had no idea what “secure, safe, or private internet connection” meant at the time, but I was ok with that because I didn’t know how my TV worked either, but I managed just fine with my remote.
If you’re not familiar with VPNs, let me briefly explain.
A VPN is a useful digital tool, typically software or an app that you install on your computer or mobile device, which creates a private connection between devices across the internet- a kind of internet within the Internet.
When turned on, the VPN encrypts your data, anonymizes your online activity and keeps things like your web searches, passwords, credit card and personal information private and safe from malware and hackers by routing your internet connection through a server of your choosing anywhere in the world.
Also, once connected to a VPN server, you’re given a new IP address, which has the added benefit of making it appear as if your internet device is connected at another location rather than your true physical location.
Flash forward many years- VPNs’ are not just for employees and cybersecurity anymore…
The web has changed a lot over the years. It’s experienced exponential growth, internet users have become savvier and hackers sneakier, creating an increasing demand for more sophisticated methods cybersecurity for the internet. That’s where VPNs come in.
Even so, I never imagined I would ever use a VPN for personal use.
Nevertheless, that’s what happened when my husband and I moved to France with our children in 2010 and discovered by accident the many uses of a VPN.
Let’s dig in…
A VPN can unblock regional websites by hiding your actual geographic location.
When a site you visit on the internet blocks you based on your location, it’s called geo-blocking ore region blocking, and you’ll usually know you’ve been blocked because you’ll see a splash page stating as much.
There are different reasons why sites might block you based on your location, but the two most common are licensing laws or complying with federal economic sanctions such as the GDPR privacy rules in the EU.
Here are a few types of websites which you can unblock with a VPN.
Watch Free and paid streaming websites only available in other countries: Region blocked sites.
When I moved to France back in 2010, Netflix was not available. Then I discovered that a VPN not only unblocks Netflix but Hulu, Sling TV, HBO now and a whole host of streaming sites blocked to me because of my location. (**update**Netflix finally arrived in France in 2014).
Since VPNs allow you to change your IP address, all you need to do is logon to a VPN and choose a server in the same country as the streaming site. That site will see your new IP address location rather than your actual physical location.
Watch Free Streaming TV Networks in other Countries
If you don’t have a paid streaming service like Netflix, you’re in luck.
Many TV channels around the world offer streaming TV for free on their websites in order to remain relevant.
The only catch is that most of the time, viewers need to be physically located in the country of origin.
Want to watch original programming from ABC and Lifetime from the US or BBC from the UK. No problem with a VPN.
Unblock geo-restricted e-commerce sites
Nothing is more frustrating than getting blocked from your favourite e-commerce site while travelling. If this happens to you while travelling through Europe, it’s probably because of GDPR privacy rules in the EU.
Take ModCloth, an American online retailer of indie and vintage-inspired women’s clothing which isn’t accessible to anyone in the EU. The screenshot above is the message I get when I try to access their site from France.
To get around geo-blocked sites, just fire up your VPN and choose a server located outside the EU, like Canada, the US or even Australia. Then open up a new window and start shopping.
It’s not just shopping sites and video streaming sites that can block you from viewing their content based on your location. I followed a link to a youth soccer organization in Salt Lake City and was greeted with the following page.
I was geo-blocked from viewing the site because I was trying to access the website from within the EU.
Unblock geo-restricted news websites
If you live in the US and travel to Europe, it’s natural to want to check out the news back home. Unfortunately, some news sites are also blocked in the EU, specifically US news sites, thanks again to GDPR privacy laws.
A VPN can save you money shopping at websites online that use dynamic pricing to get you to pay more.
When it comes to shopping online, most people assume they’re getting the same price for the same product or service as everyone else. That’s not always the case.
Thanks to the intelligent design behind the Internet, wireless networks and Internet Protocols, online sellers know your exact physical location and your browsing history.
Some online sellers use this information to change the price dynamically in real-time to get you to pay more for identical products. This practice is known as “dynamic pricing.”
The secret to hacking “dynamic pricing” is to hide any trace of your personal details, browsing history and sometimes your location before a website’s bots can see them. Sometimes the best deals are given to visitors who appear to be new to that site.
Examples of how online retailers use dynamic pricing to charge you more:
- Geo-targeted pricing based on your location (your IP address): Sometimes, online retailers charge people from wealthier countries or more affluent postal codes more because sellers know they can afford to spend more.
- Browsing history: Every time you visit a website, an internet cookie is dropped in your browser. These web tracking cookies identify users, save site login information for you and make it possible for sites to serve you up customized web pages. They can also track your online history, which means online sellers know if you’ve visited their website more than once. Some sellers use this information to charge you more since you clearly wanted an item enough to come back multiple times.
Unfortunately, sellers online don’t tell you if they use dynamic pricing:
Most e-commerce stores and services that use dynamic pricing are not very open about their practices, so you won’t know for sure if it’s happening? With the help of a VPN, you might be able to determine if a site is using dynamic pricing.
Because a VPN allows you to change your device’s IP address by connecting you to a different server located anywhere in the world, the e-commerce sites you visit see the location of the server in the area of your choosing and not your actual location.
A VPN also disconnects your identity from the tracking cookies that websites create, making it impossible for them to track your online shopping activity and browsing history.
Once you turn on the VPN and the sites can’t detect any information about you, if you notice lower prices, then they were probably using dynamic pricing.
Here’s a look at some types of websites that use dynamic pricing.
1) Get lower prices for plane tickets and hotels with a VPN
If you’ve ever researched the best deal on flights or hotels, I’m sure you’ve noticed that prices go up and down without rhyme or reason based on many factors such as the time of day, season, or even the day of the week. That’s primarily because airlines and hotels are notorious for using the practice of dynamic pricing, which I mention above.
Another way airlines and hotels can manipulate their prices is based on your physical location and browsing history.
If you make repeated searches for the same destinations or itineraries, some airlines or hotels use this to their advantage and charge you more since they know you’re interested in certain itineraries. And sometimes you’re charged more because of your location.
Not all hotels and airlines do this, so it’s up to you, the searcher, to do some testing.
Try installing a VPN and connect to a server in a lower-income country to see if prices fluctuate. Clear your cookies and cache and use a private incognito window to block them from seeing repeated searches for the same itinerary.
Use different country versions of websites.
Some websites like the “Food Network” and “Netflix” redirect you to different versions of their website, depending on your physical location.
There’s nothing evil about this; however, if you’ve bookmarked various recipes on the “.com” site and travel to Europe, you can’t access them because you’re automatically redirected to the UK version.
The recipes are also very different on the two food network sites.
Several of my British friends have told me that they wished they could access the .com version because the UK version contains a fraction of the recipes included on the .com version.
Ironically if you’re outside of Europe, you can view both the .com and the UK version of the FoodNetwork’s website.
Watch different versions of Netflix.
Netflix is available in over 190 countries worldwide, and each country has its version of Netflix, which you’ll get redirected to automatically based on your location.
I live in France, so I automatically get redirected to the French version. When I travel to Montreal to see my family, I get redirected to the Canadian version. And in Switzerland, where my husband works, I get redirected to the Swiss version.
Most of the time, this is fine and even desirable; however sometimes it’s not.
For instance, if you reside in the US and travel to France, suddenly some movies and TV shows are no longer available due to your new geographic location. Another situation that might occur is that not all seasons are available for a particular series in some countries.
The same is true the other way around.
Here in France, I can watch Poldark and Outlander on the French version of Netflix. I love these two shows.
At the time of this writing, the US version of Netflix only contains three seasons of outlander while the French version has five seasons. The BBC show Poldark is available on Netflix France, but not on Netflix USA.
Watch Netflix from other countries
Similarly, if you wanted to watch the French version of Netflix because you’re interested in original French TV shows and movies not available to you in your country, fire up your VPN, choose a server in France and then log in to Netflix. Make sure you use a separate incognito window before logging on to Netflix.
Once logged on to Netflix with your VPN turned on, you should automatically get connected to Netflix France and have access to all its content.
One thing to keep in mind is Netflix is cracking down hard on VPN’s. While most VPN’s claim they can access Netflix and Hulu, many cannot. So if your main goal is to access Netflix content from another country, try out several different VPN’s to see if it works.
Circumvent censorship and blacklisted sites when travelling to certain countries like China
Most of us never wonder about Internet censorship because we’re not affected by it. We take for granted that the Internet allows us to keep up with world news, discuss or exchange ideas with others as well as express our true opinions.
Unfortunately, some countries censor, block or filter the internet in hopes of silencing people’s voices and limiting their access to information.
Internet censoring and surveillance over what users can or cannot do online is typical of countries with strong authoritarian regimes.
Reporters without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF), a Paris-based organization calls these countries “Enemies of the Internet” and they claim there are roughly 18 such countries. One of those being China.
Using a VPN in China to access censored websites like Facebook and Wikipedia
The government of China and the ruling Communist Party, which has one of the most advanced Internet filtering programs in the world, blocks any website or app that has the potential to undermine communist party rule. This consists mainly of western news media, social network sites with user-generated content and pornography.
To circumvent the issue of censored websites, many travellers visiting China and ex-pats living in China use a VPN to unblock websites such as Wikipedia, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Whatsapp, Pinterest, Netflix, Youtube, Google and hundreds more.
The issue is, would you want to, considering the government of these countries? Only you can make that choice, but according to this person’s personal experience, no foreigner has ever been arrested for using a VPN.
Prevents advertisers and marketing companies from tracking your online activity
If you’ve ever spent any amount of time online, you’ve probably seen ads that seem to follow you around the internet. It’s called retargeting.
Retargeting is a type of online advertising that usually relies on a cookie (a tiny code dropped into your browser) when you visit a website. These third-party trackers give websites, eCommerce shops and search engines the ability to track your unique browsing habits and show you relevant ads when you visit other sites.
Retargeting goes something like this:
You start looking for a product- In my case, I was looking for a sander and a jigsaw for small DIY projects. Afterwards, I decided to visit Facebook and a couple of DIY blogs.
Every site I visited seemed to show me banner ads of the same Ryobi sander I was shopping for during the week.
If you’re concerned about advertisers tracking you and want to stop them from showing you retargeted ads, you have a few options.
- You can manually manage your cookies in your web browser by deleting your cache and your web browsing history. Unfortunately, you’ll have to clear your cache after every website you visit. And if you tend to forget logins and passwords, you’ll end up deleting those too.
- Another option is to turn off cookies in your web browser altogether. You’ll still see ads; they just won’t be based on other websites you’ve visited.
- In most browsers, you can choose a private window. In Chrome, it’s called an “incognito window”. This will prevent sites from dropping new cookies, but the old ones on your computer can still track you. So you’ll still need to clear your cache and delete your cookies before using Chrome.
An easier way is to use a VPN.
If you want to stop retargeting but don’t want to fidget with your browser settings, A VPN might be your solution. Websites using retargeting can’t place cookies on your system when you use a VPN coupled with a private incognito window, making it virtually impossible for marketers to track your browsing history and send you retargeted ads.
Avoid VAT Taxes in Europe and other countries that charge Value Added Tax.
In Europe and many other parts of the world, you typically have to pay VAT (Value-Added Tax) on goods or services you purchase. In some countries such as France, they can be as high as 20%, which adds up. It’s very similar to sales tax.
The one silver lining is you can request a VAT refund at the airport on your return home which can be a hassle.
The same goes for non-tangible things such as ebooks and digital products that you purchase online while in countries that charge VAT. However, with a VPN, you can sometimes avoid VAT altogether.
By using a VPN, you can make it appear that you are physically somewhere else making the purchase and avoid VAT tax altogether.
For example, I found an online course that teaches photo editing using Adobe Lightroom for USD 79. When I placed the course in my online shopping cart, I was automatically charged an extra $15.80 or 20% VAT tax because their website was able to sniff out my IP address and knew I was physically located in France.
I closed out the window, turned on my VPN and chose a US-based IP address (because I know the US does not charge VAT). Then I went back to the website and put the same course in my shopping cart and voila, the VAT tax was no longer there. (see screenshot below).
You can do this for many other online services and digital purchases while in a country that charges VAT.
A VPN protects your personal data on your mobile phone when you access public Wi-fi hotspots.
More and more people are using their mobile phones to access the internet, especially while travelling.
If you like to take advantage of free public wifi in places like airports, hotels and coffee shops, keep in mind that whenever you browse on your mobile phone, would-be hackers logged onto the same public Wi-fi hotspot can steal your private information, logins and passwords.
Using a VPN app on your mobile devices or tablets while travelling ensures data encryption and privacy, which helps keep your mobile activities anonymous, no matter where you’re connected.
Slightly sketchy hacks: I wouldn’t usually recommend
Folks, it should come as no surprise that VPNs can be used for nefarious or questionable reasons. Here are a few.
Spoof your IP address and read more free articles
Have you ever visited one of those news websites that let you view a certain number of articles per month or day before you have to pay? The way that they know you’ve viewed multiple articles is through your IP address.
Since a VPN changes your IP address, you can make it appear as if you’re visiting the site for the first time, and you’ll be treated like a brand new visitor.
Spoof your location for PokemonGo and “catch ’em all”!
I’m not a PokemonGo player, but I know it’s extremely popular, even with grown men and women.
Unfortunately, the game is region blocked in some countries or banned from schools and campuses while others may have access to the game, but find themselves in areas where Pokémon are rare.
If you would like to hunt and catch Pokémon anywhere around the world from the comfort of your home, you’ll need to spoof your location.
To spoof your location, you’ll need these three things:
1) GPS spoofing app, 2) mock locations masking module, 3) and a VPN. These three tools used in conjunction allow you to change your location on the pokemon map anywhere you in the world. Try dropping yourself in a big city like Paris and see what you find.
A VPN protects you when you download torrents.
Although many people associate BitTorrents and torrenting with illegal activities like downloading pirated films and music, there are legitimate and legal reasons for using a torrent for file sharing.
Many mainstream companies such as Facebook and Twitter use BitTorrent internally to share and move files around. Nasa and the UK government have also used this file-sharing technology to share large chunks of data because torrents are a quick and efficient way to distribute large files quickly, which can save money on bandwidth.
If you’ve used Torrents, you probably know that media companies are cracking down on torrent traffic on peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, so make sure the torrents you download are not copyright protected. If you do accidentally download something that happens to be copyrighted, a VPN will keep you somewhat safe because it hides any peer-to-peer activity.
A VPN also hides any peer to peer activity from your ISP. Some ISP’s throttle or slow your connection when they suspect questionable downloads via a BitTorrent.
Bypass Restrictions When Gambling Online
Online gambling is extremely popular, especially in the UK, Australia and the US.
If you travel abroad and like to gamble online, it’s likely that at some point you’ll end up somewhere where you won’t be able to access online gambling sites because it’s banned.
This can be due to local cultures that don’t approve of gambling, religious beliefs, or local laws.
Even if you’re not geo-blocked from online poker sites, it’s still a good idea to use a VPN mask your IP and encrypt your data to protect your personal information from cyber hackers, and trackers.
Hide your browsing history from your employer
Assuming your employer gives you administrative rights to install a VPN software on your computer, once installed it can keep your web searches and internet activity private. Just make sure you use an incognito window and clear your cookies and cache since a VPN only hides your browsing history on the company server.
How to use a VPN
Most VPN’s work the same way. Once you sign up with a VPN service, you’ll need to download some software onto your computer. Choose the server in the country of your choice and connect.
For example, if you want to make it appear as if you are physically in the US, choose a server from the US. See my video below.
And for an added layer of privacy, open up a new private window or incognito window in Chrome.
Are VPN’s free?
Yes, there are free VPN’s, but as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. Free VPNs make money from you indirectly, using methods that are sometimes dishonest, hidden and even dangerous.
- Free VPNs might not cost you any money, but the company needs to make money somehow, so some bombard you with ads. Very annoying!
- Many free VPNs contain advertising malware, which defeats the purpose of using a VPN, in my opinion.
- The majority of free VPN’s track your online activity so advertisers can show you targeted ads. Ironic since one of the purposes of a VPN is to prevent this from happening.
- Free VPNs often limit the amount of data you can use. Not good if you are a heavy user or want to stream movies.
- Sometimes free VPN’s just don’t work or slow your internet speed to the point that you’ll notice and hate it.
If you’re going to use a VPN just once in a while, then maybe a free VPN will do as long as the issues above don’t bother you.
However, if you plan on using it regularly, then go with a premium or paid VPN, which is relatively easy to set up and inexpensive with most costing anywhere from USD 2.00 to USD 8.00 per month.
Results Vary: Nothing is full proof
Nothing is full proof. Results can vary based on your location, your connection, and a multitude of variables?
Sometimes a VPN works then suddenly it doesn’t. Here are the VPN’s I’ve used over the years.
Overplay has a 5-day money-back guarantee.
You can try Cactus VPN free for 3 days.