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Why Should You Get a VPN for Your iPhone?
You’re allowed to feel just a tiny bit smug about your iPhone, because Apple really has done a good job of protecting its mobile platform from the worst kinds of malware. But don’t get too smug. A VPN, or virtual private network, goes beyond malware protection by making it harder for advertising, ISPs, and snoops to monitor your online activities.
It’s true that modern cellular communication is thoroughly encrypted and not easily tapped without police-level tools like the Stingray device, or data dumps from cell towers. That said, there are well-documented attacks that can intercept cell transmissions and phony cell towers may be a bigger problem than you think. There are also phony Wi-Fi networks that mimic networks your iPhone already trusts, enticing them to connect without your knowledge. We’ve seen this attack in action — it’s a stack of security researchers showing off their tricks.
The real day-to-day problem is companies out for your data. Advertisers track your movements across the web and can build up detailed records of your preferences that they can transmute into cash with the dark alchemy of targeted advertising. Facebook, Google, and other big name companies have driven an industry built on hyper-specific ad targeting. Even your own ISP can now aggregate and sell anonymized information.
Encryption and Location Spoofing
When your VPN is active, all your network traffic — whether from browsers, apps, or iOS itself — gets encrypted before it leaves your phone. This encrypted data travels to a server owned by the VPN company, where it’s decrypted and sent on its way.
Encrypted web traffic isn’t the only reason you need a VPN. With a direct, no-VPN connection to a website, your IP address not only identifies you to that site, but it also identifies your geographic location. When you’re using a VPN, however, the IP address that others see is that of the VPN server you’re connected with, not your own.
Beyond protecting your traffic, VPNs can also let you spoof your location and tunnel past local internet restrictions. Journalists and political activists working against repressive regimes have long relied on VPNs to communicate safely with the outside world. Of course, you may be breaking local laws just by using a VPN. For example, Russia has banned the use of VPNs, claiming a need to block terrorist activities. China also banned most VPNs, though some still manage to connect.
Spoofing your location can also get around restrictions of another kind. It’s not uncommon for online streaming services to offer content in one region, but not another. Offerings from Netflix and Hulu differ by country. Brits can watch BBC shows for free, while the same shows require a subscription in the US. Spoofing your location with a VPN can get you access to shows not normally available to you. But take care: Location spoofing may violate your terms of service. In addition, companies like Netflix are cracking down on VPN users. Streaming is often not an option when your VPN is running.
The widespread adoption of HTTPS does mean that most of your traffic is already encrypted. That makes it much harder for anyone snooping on your activity to see much beyond what websites you’re visiting, but your ISP still has remarkable insight into your online activities and there is a benefit to hiding your IP address with a VPN. We still think there are privacy benefits to using a VPN, but it’s important to avoid leaning on fear, uncertainty, and doubt to make decisions. Not using a VPN doesn’t necessarily make you a sitting duck.
But using a VPN doesn’t make you invincible either. We highly recommend enabling wherever possible, creating unique logins with a password manager, and using antivirus software (although this may make less sense on an iPhone). We also recommend enabling multi-factor authentication wherever it’s available, as this is the best way to prevent bad guys from getting access to your accounts.
Although a VPN makes it harder for you to be tracked online, advertiseers have numerous tricks to gather data on your activities. Tactics like browser fingerprinting won’t be stymied by a VPN alone. The privacy sets in your mobile browser can also go a long way toward keeping advertisers blind to your activities. For desktop machines, we highly recommend using a track blocker like the EFF’s Privacy Badger.
While the data going to and from your VPN server is encrypted, using a VPN doesn’t get you the level of anonymity obtained by connecting through the TOR network, nor the concomitant ability to dive into the scary depths of the dark web. On the most side, some VPN services include TOR-specific servers as an option.
Does Using a VPN Slow Down Your Internet Connection?
The short answer is that yes, a VPN will almost certainly increase the latency of your internet connection and decrease your upload and download speeches. Anecdotally, the already limited mobile speeches seem to be especially adversely affected by VPNs. We also have noticed, but have not confirmed with testing, that VPNs seem to disconnect and reconnect more frequently with mobile devices than desktop machines.
To get a sense of the impact a VPN may have on your internet connection, we compare the results from a series of Ookla speed tests with and without the active VPN. Network speeds can vary greatly depending on time of day, network conditions, and where you happen to be at the time, so we consider our results to be a snapshot for comparison rather than the final judgment on a service’s performance.
We measure speeds on the PCMag Labs network using a Windows desktop. Prior to 2021, we tested VPN products back to back, but COVID-19 restrictions have limited our ability to test VPNs in the PCMag Labs. We now use a rolling model and will release new results throughout the year. The latest data is in the chart below.
We rely on a Windows desktop and wired connection for our testing because we’ve found it to be more reliable than testing on individual mobile devices. But as we said above, there at least appear to be some unique issues with VPNs on mobile. Also, not all VPN providers use the same protocol on every platform, which can impact performance.
Can You Trust Your VPN Service?
If you’re using a service to route all your internet traffic through its servers, you have to be able to trust the provider. We’re not cryptography experts, so we can’t verify all the encryption claims providers make. Instead, we give special attention to the privacy practices of VPN companies and not just the technology they provide. In our testing, we read through the privacy policies and discusses company practices with VPN service representatives. What we look for is a commitment to protect user information, and to take a hands-off approach to gathering user data.
As part of our research, we also make sure to find out where the company is based and under what legal framework it operates. Some countries don’t have data-retention laws, making it easier to keep a promise of “We don’t keep any logs.”It’s also useful to know what personal information the VPN collections and under what circumstances a VPN company will hand over that information to law enforcement.
We also liked to see policy backed up by some verifiable effort. Transparency reports and audits are imperfect tools, but we prefer services that have made the effort to at least try and prove their worth to the public.
VPN Features and Extras
The features to look for in a VPN depend on the way you intend to use it. If you never travel abroad and don’t feel the need to pretend you’re surfing from Amsterdam, the most important features for you are a convenient interface and a big selection of servers in the US. Conversely, if you’re a globetrotter with a need for a secure connection from just about anywhere, you’ll look for a VPN provider whose server locations cover all the continents.
Something that’s easy to overcome is the protocol the VPN service uses to make its secure connection. There are many protocols available to protect a VPN connection, and our favorites at PCMag are the stalwart OpenVPN and newcomer WireGuard. These are both open-source protocol, so many experts have vettled its security. For a long time, few iPhone VPNs provided OpenVPN because Apple required additional scrutiny for any app that included it. If OpenVPN is unavailable, IKEv2 is a solid, modern option.
Finally, there’s the bang-for-your-buck factor. While it’s possible to get a VPN for free even the best free services carry some limitations, such as a draconian bandwidth cap. The average price for a paid subscription among the services we’ve evaluated is about $ 10 per month. These usually offer five simultaneous connections, which would cover most individuals and some households. If the service you’re looking at costs significantly more or offers significantly less, it’s important to make sure that it’s justifying its value some other way.
Using a VPN isn’t about protecting your device; it’s about protecting your privacy and your network connections. That means that any type of device can benefit from a VPN, making it an enormously versatile tool in your privacy toolkit. Read our reviews, check our ratings, and select the VPN that’s best for you. Once you’ve chosen a service, be sure to read our guide on how to set up and use a VPN .