A VPN (or Virtual Private Network) is a versatile tool that enhances your digital privacy.
Students can use a VPN to stay safe when using public Wi-Fi hotspots (in libraries and coffee shops), access resources from across the globe, and browse the net without leaving an identifiable trail. So, whether you’re on campus or learning remotely, a VPN is a great investment in your security.
What is a VPN?
VPNs are easy to install and use—and you don’t have to be a cybersecurity expert to understand how they work, either!
Your VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between your device (a PC, laptop, tablet, etc.) and a server (which the VPN owns). Your data will travel through this encrypted tunnel to the server before reaching the internet.
- This encryption prevents your ISP (internet service provider) from collecting and selling your browsing history to nefarious buyers.
- Similarly, snoops and cybercriminals lurking on public hotspots won’t be able to intercept and read your data.
- Your VPN will also hide your original IP address and assign you a new one based in the same location as the server you join. As a result, the sites you visit will think you’re in that same place, and you’ll be able to bypass geo-restrictions!
Why should a student use a VPN?
VPNs were once used primarily by remote workers to connect to a corporate network. Nowadays, tons of individuals use personal VPNs to safeguard their digital privacy.
You might also be aware that VPNs are used by some folks for shady purposes (like torrenting) and decide to steer well clear. That’s understandable, but VPNs don’t deserve their murky reputation—they can actually be used legally in most parts of the world!
Below, we’ve outlined some of the ways that students can use a VPN to support their studies.
Your IP address is an incredibly valuable bit of information—and ISPs, sites, and even the government use it to dictate what you can and can’t access. However, a VPN cloaks your IP address and assigns you a new one based in the location of your choice.
This comes in handy when you need access to geo-restricted materials. For example, some books, essays, or reports may only be available in the United States—which is no good to students overseas. If you have a VPN, you can connect to a US server to get a US IP address. The site will believe you’re really in the States and grant you access to the materials you need without a fuss.
Masking your IP address also prevents search engines from personalising results based on your location. So, you won’t miss out on potentially valuable research materials simply because they’ve been authored elsewhere in the world!
Site blockers can be the bane of a student’s digital existence. Typically, they affect obvious offenders like The Pirate Bay and other torrent repositories, but social media platforms can get caught in the crossfire, too.
Colleges and universities apply these restrictions with your best interests at heart (usually), in the hopes that you’ll stay focused on your work and not your timeline. However, thanks to dedicated micro-communities, socials are a fantastic place to find academic resources. A VPN allows you to bypass blocks and access your accounts on any device—so you can cite Tweets from artists and industry experts, bookmark threads, and keep in touch with friends and family whilst you’re on campus.
A VPN is a cyber-essential when it comes to vacations. They’ll help keep your data and sensitive personal information secure whilst you’re relying on public Wi-Fi hotspots (more on this later) and ensure that you still have access to important sites, like your student email and hub, regardless of whether the country you’re visiting has enforced restrictions or bans.
Some VPNs can also be used to connect to other devices. If you have an internet connection, you’ll be able to access the files on your home PC from anywhere! This comes in especially handy if you need to adjust an essay on the fly or share documents with classmates.
A VPN’s primary purpose is to secure your internet connection—and with more and more students learning from home, and using personal devices to do so, digital privacy has never been more important.
We all leave an identifiable trail across the web—and this data (including our browsing history and approximate location) is as valuable to cybercriminals as it is to advertisers. Fortunately, VPN encryption puts a stop to this snooping. By encrypting your internet connection, you’ll prevent your ISP from keeping tabs on everything you do online and passing that information on to the highest bidder. Sites won’t be able to abuse your location data, either, and hackers will be unable to read your data even if they somehow intercept it.
Free Wi-Fi is often hard to resist—especially if you’re running low on mobile data. However, the public hotspots you find in cafes, libraries, and campuses are notoriously dangerous.
They typically lack the encryption necessary to secure your sensitive information. A cybercriminal connected to the same unsecure hotspot could intercept your login details and financial information, or even create their own fake hotspots that are difficult to distinguish from the real thing. By installing a VPN on your mobile device, you’ll ensure that your data is encrypted, even if you connect to a dodgy public network, and avoid falling prey to data hijackers.
How to pick a good VPN
There are hundreds of VPNs on the market—but they’re not all worth your time or money. Some are far too expensive for students on a budget, others lack useful features, and some are downright dangerous and designed to log your personal information.
The best (and most trustworthy) VPNs all pack the following features:
- Servers in a wide selection of countries
- Apps for all of your devices
- Strong encryption (look for the OpenVPN and WireGuard protocols)
- An easy-to-use interface
- Zero-logs policy
Still curious about VPNs and how they work? We’ve covered some of the most frequently asked questions below.
Are VPNs legal?
In most places, yes! Some countries have restricted their use or banned them altogether, however, so it’s worth double checking where your local government stands on the issue.
Can my university tell that I’m using a VPN?
Most universities can tell if you’re using a VPN, but they’ll be unable to see which sites and services you visit whilst connected to it.
Can my university block VPNs?
This varies from institution to institution—so it’s a good idea to check! Some universities could ban VPNs along with torrenting clients and illegal streaming sites.
Should I use a free VPN?
Could you? Yes. Should you? Probably not.
Free VPNs come with serious limitations—expect a smaller selection of servers and monthly data caps. The VPN enforces these in the hopes that you’ll upgrade to a premium plan for the full, unfettered experience, which can be frustrating if you’re trying to trial certain features before commiting to a long-term subscription.
Other free VPNs are totally malicious. Their only purpose is to collect your data, sell it to a dodgy third party, and make a profit. This is exactly the opposite of what you want from a good VPN, and why we recommend avoiding free VPNs that sound too good to be true.