Antivirus and VPN are both types of security software but they work in completely different ways and do different jobs. For some people, a VPN has nothing to do with security and everything to do with unblocking Netflix or another streaming service.
Here we’ll explain what you need to know about each, demystify the jargon, help you understand the differences between VPNs and antivirus and why you might want both on your laptop, phone and other devices.
What does a VPN do?
Almost everyone knows what antivirus software is: it helps your computer and phone to block dangerous apps and other threats that might get downloaded while you browse the web, or that you might download and install by accident believing it to be completely safe.
VPNs are still a mystery to most people. You might know that it stands for Virtual Private Network but even that might be news.
Where antivirus runs constantly, watching out for any bad stuff, a VPN provides security by encrypting your internet connection. If you already know how Wi-Fi works, you’re aware that any password-protected Wi-Fi network already gives you an encrypted connection. But this is only between your computer (or phone) and whatever is providing that Wi-Fi – usually the router in your home.
A VPN goes beyond that, encrypting the data travelling between your device and a server on the internet (run by the VPN company) which could be located anywhere in the world.
Privacy & security
The benefit of this is that no-one can see which websites you’re visiting,
In addition to the encryption, sending your data via that server means your IP address is replaced by one from the VPN provider. An IP address is a unique number identifying a device connected to the internet. It’s a bit like a car’s license plate which can be used to find out about both the car it’s owner (or driver).
In a similar way, your IP address can be used to record which websites you visit, plus other online activity.
So, when you use a VPN you get privacy. Websites can’t track you as you go from site to site, your internet service provider can’t see what you’re searching for or which sites you actually visit or which files you download.
The encryption also helps protect and any personal or financial information passing along that connection. That could be in an email or it could be a password you’ve entered into a website. In both cases, the data might be sent as plain text which is easy to intercept – but almost impossible when it’s encrypted.
The other thing that your IP address reveals is your location, even if only a general one. But it’s enough to tell Netflix, for example, that you’re in a certain country. And that means you can see only the videos available in that country.
When you connect to a VPN and choose a server in a country that’s different to the one you’re really in, any website (or Netflix) will think you’re located where the VPN server is, and that’s how a VPN can be used to let you watch videos that are blocked in your country.
A lot of people use a VPN to watch shows on BBC iPlayer (a streaming service in the UK) from abroad.
Jim Martin / Foundry
VPNs also allow you to access other blocked online resources. Some US websites, for example, block all EU traffic because of GDPR laws. Instead of putting into place measures to comply with data protection, the lazy option is to detect when there’s a visitor from Europe and simply prevent them from using the site.
You can also use a VPN to get around some blocks on your school or work network to listen to Spotify or access other blocked sites and services.
The VPN service we recommend is called NordVPN. You’ll find it at the top our roundup of the best VPN services. We’ve also put together a guide which shows you how to use a VPN.
NordVPN on an iPhone
Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry
Is a VPN better than antivirus?
Hopefully you can see by now that a VPN is quite different from antivirus software. Both offer a very different kind of security.
A VPN is not “better”: it is another tool in your toolbox which can give you more privacy and security alongside antivirus software. But you may want to use a VPN simply to watch blocked videos.
Importantly, a VPN is not a replacement for antivirus.
Antivirus software is still a necessity and should be a top priority if you have a Windows laptop or PC. It’s also a good idea to run it on your Android phone as there are lots of nasty viruses in Android apps. Viruses can even be in apps you get from the Google Play Store.
Viruses and other kinds of “malware” can take many forms from irritating pop-up messages through to ransomware which encrypts your files so you can’t access them unless you pay the ransom. You should never pay the ransom as there’s no guarantee you’ll get the ‘key’ to decrypt your files. But if you run top-rated antivirus software, you won’t have to worry about that.
Chris Merriman / Foundry
Antivirus is only one part of a modern security suite. The best security apps can alert you if an unauthorised app attempts to access your device’s camera or microphone, will warn you before you click (or tap) on a dangerous link and can alert you if your email address or other personal information is ever leaked online.
Some also include a password manager which will remember your login details for hundreds of websites, as well as parental controls so you can lock down your kids’ devices.
Should I buy antivirus with VPN?
A trend we’re seeing more and more is that antivirus companies are starting to include a VPN service in their app, and some VPN companies are adding antivirus.
So far, we’ve yet to see a single service that offers a truly excellent version of both, so we still recommend you subscribe to them separately.
And if you don’t currently have antivirus, then we recommend Norton 360 Deluxe. You’ll find more alternatives in our guide to the best antivirus software.
The bottom line is that antivirus is an absolute necessity, a full security suite is a nice-to-have if you’ll benefit from the extra features on offer and a VPN is essential if you ever connect to public Wi-Fi or want to access blocked websites and services.