This story is part of War in Ukraine, CNET’s coverage of events there and of the wider effects on the world.
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, cybersecurity risks have become more of a concern for small businesses and unsecured home office networks. The uptick in larger cyberattacks has also created a target-rich environment for small-time malicious actors. Virtual private networks play an increasingly important role in securing your home office router or mobile devices against snooping. VPNs are also critical for people who need help bypassing government-imposed internet restrictions to communicate beyond national borders.
A VPN is software that protects your privacy online by encrypting your internet connection while routing it through a secure tunnel to a server in a remote location (usually in a different country). This keeps your data and internet traffic shielded from government entities, cybercriminals, internet service providers and network administrators.
When a government takes action to censor online platforms like Russia did when it made the move to block Twitter and partially restrict access to Facebook, it takes away vital communication channels from ordinary citizens. It suppresses dissenting voices and allows dangerous propaganda and misinformation to spread. When something like what we’re seeing unfold right now happens, many people turn to virtual private networks to help them access these platforms and reclaim their voices online.
If you’ve never used a VPN before, now is the time to start.
Read more: VPN FAQ: What You Need to Know About the Basics of Virtual Private Networks
How to choose a VPN
If you’re working from home out of a small office, or if you’re part of a small business that hasn’t yet developed a digital security arm, a VPN can be a quick way to improve overall data privacy. Have a look at our guides on choosing the right VPN for remote work if you’d like a quick run-down on what to look for in a solid VPN service.
There are several things to look for when considering using a VPN for privacy and security. Though your specific needs may vary based on how critical your need for privacy is, you’ll want to look for a VPN that offers military-grade encryption, doesn’t log any of your online activity and includes a kill-switch and DNS leak protection. These are the features that will most likely ensure your connection is secure and that none of your data or traffic is exposed to any unauthorized party as you’re using the VPN. If a VPN you’re considering is missing even one of these features, look elsewhere.
If your primary concern is evading online censorship or if your country bans VPNs, then your VPN must have an obfuscation feature that disguises your VPN traffic as regular HTTPS internet traffic. You’ll also want to check the jurisdiction of any VPN you’re considering. For maximum privacy, we’d recommend avoiding any US-based VPN or any VPN based in a country that’s a member of the Five-Eyes Alliance, because of the data-sharing agreements between the countries.
VPNs can slow your browsing speeds by half or more. So, no matter what purpose your VPN serves you’ll want it to offer fast connection speeds and a global network of servers located in countries you’d want to connect through. This way, you should have enough speeds for accessing the sites and services you want, whether your goal is to connect with others through VoIP or video chat services or if you want to stream content from other countries.
We do not recommend using a free VPN under any circumstances because they tend to sell your data to third parties and can do more harm than good for your digital privacy. They’re also typically bogged down with restrictions on bandwidth, server locations and usage time. But don’t worry. There are plenty of affordable VPNs and we keep a close watch on the cheapest services available for those users who need privacy on a budget.
Read more: How We Evaluate and Review VPNs
How to set up your VPN
Modern VPN providers have vastly simplified the process of installing and configuring a VPN. Even if you’ve never used one before, setting up a VPN on your laptop is simple.
If you’re choosing a VPN from among our recommended providers, you can navigate directly to their website and look for a section labeled “Download.” From there, choose the version of the software made for your device. In most cases, the VPN provider’s website will recognize the type of device you’re using and direct you to the version of their software appropriate for your operating system. From here, install the software like you would any other program. All our recommended VPNs have software that automatically guides you through the rest of the five-minute process.
If you’re using a Windows 10 machine, you’ve got two options. You can install a simple VPN software client as described above, or you can tailor your Windows VPN connections to your specific needs with a few handy advanced configurations.
If you want to install a VPN on your other home devices, check out our guides on VPNs for your Amazon Fire TV Stick, using a VPN with your smart TV and configuring your Xbox for VPN. For even more advanced options, you can consider whether installing a VPN directly on your router is the right choice for your home office.
Don’t forget your phone
Mobile devices can present as many security threats and vulnerabilities as the devices on your desktop and coffee table. Connecting to insecure public Wi-Fi networks is less dangerous these days, but giving your ISP a full view of your every online move isn’t a good idea when that data is transferred to countless third parties. That’s where a VPN comes in handy.
Setting up a VPN on your phone is as easy as installing any other mobile app. Just go to the app marketplace of your choosing and search for your preferred mobile VPN provider.
If you’re using an iPhone, take a look at our recommendations that are specific to Apple users’ needs. We’ve also got a round-up of those VPNs we found to work best on Android. Just remember: There are a lot of dubious VPN services available for free in both the App Store and Google Play Store, and you should avoid them at all times.
Even if you don’t go with one of our recommendations, you can quickly vet a VPN service for yourself by watching out for major red flags we’ve identified during our testing.