The key difference between a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and an antivirus is that a VPN encrypts your internet connection to protect your privacy online, while an antivirus protects your devices from malware and other cyberattacks.
There’s your answer in short, but seeing how I’ve written an entire article about this subject, please continue reading to explore the difference between VPN and antivirus in more detail.
Table of contents
What is an antivirus?
Antivirus software defends your device against malware — all sorts of software designed to steal your data, invade your privacy, or simply mess up your systems. Since hackers keep creating new types of malware or iterating on the old ones, security researchers are constantly working to discover, identify, and neutralize new viruses.
This vicious cycle of new threats and hunts for cures makes antivirus software reliant on constant, rapidly-applied updates (although you should always update all of your apps). While installing updates on other apps may merely improve functionality, for antivirus apps, updates are vital in order to detect and destroy new viruses.
How does an antivirus work?
An antivirus app doesn’t know how to detect new viruses itself. That’s why security researchers have to hunt them down first for analysis. Malware is analyzed in various ways. The threat is so advanced these days that antiviruses have gone from merely analyzing the code for suspicious bits to monitoring suspect files for known risky behaviors.
With real-time scans analyzing what is happening on your device, antivirus protection can intercept a virus, a trojan, or a worm before they do any harm. Also, having a large database of identified threats allows antivirus protection to scan your system for existing infections.
What does an antivirus NOT do?
The downside of antivirus is that basic antivirus programs only protect you from the cyberthreats targeting your device. It does nothing for your privacy online and can help very little against cybercrimes like phishing.
Antivirus programs aren’t meant to protect your data that is collected in legal, if still annoying, ways, like an ISP (Internet Service Provider) storing and selling your browsing history. Lastly, it can’t do anything if your data is hijacked from internet traffic transmitted over insecure Wi-Fi and such.
But that’s why antivirus apps are not the only online security barrier we erect on our devices. VPNs are among the other layers of defense.
What are the pros of an antivirus?
The benefits of antivirus use are strong:
- Dedicated protection from malware: ever tried eating soup with a fork? A spoon is much better as it’s made specifically for the task — the same goes for beating antiviruses and malware;
- Real-time shield: when you try to launch a new game on Steam and the antivirus suddenly goes mad, it’s because it’s monitoring your device in real-time and looking to catch threats when they arise (even if it results in false positives, like with Steam video games);
- Active scans: sometimes, you need to move a couple of closets to reveal a whole tapestry of mold on your wall — an antivirus can do the same thing for your device, but a lot faster.
What are the cons of an antivirus?
The drawbacks of antivirus are mostly unavoidable things:
- Takes up processing resources: even picking up a spoon off the floor expends like a calorie. Similarly, having an antivirus running takes up some of your device’s processing power;
- May not catch the latest threats: as we all recently learned, medical doctors aren’t great at curing diseases they didn’t have time and funding to research. So, too, can antiviruses be blindsided by the newest threats;
- Can’t save you from you: you can put up all the safety warnings you want in the workplace, and still, an enterprising idiot will find a way to get their hand mangled. An antivirus knows that feeling because it can’t detect whether you’re deactivating it for a legitimate reason or to open a file that you really shouldn’t;
- Free antivirus may be suspicious: we’re all afraid of getting scammed at the garage and overpaying for car repairs. It can be even worse with free antiviruses, which may be scams reliant on our lack of technical literacy.
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for “Virtual Private Network,” a mode of communication where your data isn’t sent directly from your device to the intended online destination. Instead, a VPN encrypts internet traffic and routes it via a VPN server, which decrypts the data before forwarding it.
How does a VPN work?
These are the basics of what VPNs do — they underlie all the cool stuff that a secure VPN service does. A secure VPN protects you by encrypting your data, thus making it unreadable to anyone who’d eavesdrop on it. So if internet service providers want to see what you’re doing online or a hacker has compromised your Wi-Fi hotspot, all they’ll get is encrypted gibberish.
And since your data will be traveling to a VPN server instead of wherever you want it to go, local firewalls won’t be able to block it. So if your workplace firewall doesn’t allow you to go to somethingawful.com, you can still access it when using a VPN, as the firewall will only see you connecting to the VPN server.
This works the other way around as well: any online destination will believe that you’re connecting from the location of the VPN server. For one, it hides your browsing data: if you’re in Belgium and you connect through a VPN server in Sweden, the internet will consider you to be from Sweden. This will also allow you to bypass all sorts of geographic blockages, from those that don’t allow access to users from Belgium to those that only allow users from Sweden.
Finally, the footprint you automatically leave online will have the VPN server’s IP (Internet Protocol) address, not your own. You’ll disguise the fact that you were on the website (unless you log in with your real account/name/post personally identifiable information about yourself).
What are the benefits of a VPN?
Let’s see the pros of using a VPN in short:
- Encrypts your data: a VPN encrypting the data that goes between your device and the VPN server is like transporting your mail package from the post to your home in a tank — no porch pirate is going to make off with it;
- Hides your IP: your IP is essentially your home address online. Do you plaster your actual address everywhere you go? No? Having a VPN gives you that level of privacy online as well;
- Overcomes blocks: firewalls, whether workplace or government, are pretty dumb — they mainly check whether you’re going to one of the websites on their ban list. With a VPN on, it’s like successfully lying to your parents that you’re going to the library and not to the woods to share a stolen beer and PlayBoy with your friends.
And those are just a few of the Surfshark VPN features.
What are the cons of a VPN?
There are some downsides to using a VPN:
- Bandwidth limitations: every eBay seller knows — wrapping a package to arrive safely will increase the weight and the volume, which may increase the shipping price. The same thing applies to VPNs: encryption does make your data secure in transit, but it will take up some of your internet bandwidth;
- Not free: you’re not getting a smartphone for free; at best, it will be tied to enough contractual obligations to make the Devil blush. At worst, it’s going to be stolen and bugged. It is kind of the same thing with VPNs — premium versions are the most trustworthy;
- Not foolproof: much like an antivirus, a VPN cannot physically stop you from disconnecting from the VPN server and then roaming around the internet unprotected.
What does a VPN NOT do?
What a VPN can’t protect you from are viruses and similar cyberthreats. Usually, you let those infections into your device by downloading shady email attachments, downloading software illegally, and so on. A VPN provides some protection against some types of malware, but it’s a far cry from being complete.
So, to answer another question you may have…
Do you need an antivirus if you have a VPN?
Yes, you need antivirus software if you have a VPN and a VPN if you have an antivirus. Each of them is a tool for a different task. Here’s a short explanation:
- Comprehensive security coverage: I have tried in vain to come up with a metaphor to explain this better, but couldn’t. But trust me, VPN protects you from just spreading your data online willy-nilly, while the antivirus is there to protect your device from viruses getting in and messing stuff up.
- Non-overlapping fields: a VPN will not stop you from downloading a virus — but an antivirus app can catch it as it starts working. An antivirus won’t help you defeat a school firewall to play Minecraft — but a VPN will.
- Two different aspects of being private: with a VPN, you can hide your real IP and appear to be connecting from anywhere in the world. An antivirus won’t do that, but it will keep the data you keep on your device from leaking and spreading all over the internet.
So you see, there’s very little overlap between a VPN and antivirus software. To get the best level of protection, you need to use an antivirus and a VPN at the same time.
How to choose a VPN and an antivirus
I hate buying new things for subjects I don’t know well. How would I know which impact drill isn’t just an injection-molded shell around a scam? You probably feel the same now that you found out that you need both a VPN and an antivirus. Here are some tips:
How to choose a VPN
Supported VPN protocols
Not keeping connection logs is an important feature to look out for when getting a VPN. After all, a VPN provider is uniquely positioned to see where you go online and when, and that’s valuable data.
WireGuard, IKEv2, and OpenVPN — those are the fastest, most secure protocols to use. Beware of VPNs that use PPTP or L2TP.
This is part of the VPN protocol question. More robust encryption makes any data snoopers may steal harder to decipher. AES-256, used as a standard nowadays, is not crackable within a human lifetime.
How fast your VPN connection is will depend on several factors: VPN server location (closer to you is better), server ports (Surfshark mostly uses 10Gpbs), server congestion, and protocols in use. Find the best combination.
Server and server location count
The more server locations the VPN provider has, the more likely you are to find the one that suits you. The more servers there are, the less likely you will run into speed-dropping server congestion.
Do you want to pay an additional subscription fee for every device you want to protect with a VPN? No? Then you should probably investigate how many simultaneous connections a VPN can support.
Multiple payment methods
A confident business always has a generous money-back guarantee. This is great for prospective clients since they can try out the VPN app without fear that they’ll lose money on a product they don’t need. For example, Surfshark offers a 30-day money-back guarantee.
You want a VPN service provider that accepts as many forms of payment as possible — after all, it’s convenient! And if privacy is paramount, check if they offer the capability to pay with cryptocurrency — that way, not even the payment will be tracked back to you.
Effective customer support
Even the biggest tech nerd can run into some app issues they can’t fix. For the regular consumer, having that professional help is even more important. A good VPN provider will have 24/7 customer support.
If you want to get more bang for your buck, that’s understandable. As such, you want a VPN with a Kill Switch, a Bypasser mode, and more!
How does a VPN provider build credibility? First, by having a good track record without leaks or other issues. Then, by carrying out independent audits, they will let the customer know that they are making good on their promises.
Your VPN provider should be established in a country that respects data privacy principles and has strong protections. Places that are known to spy on citizens routinely are plain out.
How to choose an antivirus
A trustworthy antivirus app will have a good reputation. Check the provider’s Wikipedia page or search Google for mentions of the antivirus app on the news.
A premium antivirus app that is too cheap is suspicious; one that’s expensive might lead to overpaying. You need to check the prices to find whichever is best for you.
Multiple device protection
Consider the free version
Buying an antivirus once is already spendy; will you do it again for all the other devices you need to secure? As such, you may want to choose a trustworthy antivirus that gives you protection for all the devices you own.
A lot of big-name antivirus apps come with a free version. While its goal is to rope you in to buy the premium version, all of them have the same level of security you’d expect from any modern antivirus — but fewer features.
Speaking of features, everyone is bundling everything with additional features these days. See if the antivirus you’re buying comes with a password vault or something.
In conclusion: you need a VPN and an antivirus
Digital security is a field beyond the scope of any one app. To be fully protected against daily threats, you need several different apps. VPNs and antiviruses are just some of the main ones, and you need both. And hey, maybe you can get them in a single package, like Surfshark One.
Do VPNs protect you from viruses?
A VPN may stop malware from successfully executing its task and hamper adware from spreading malware. For more information, check out our article on whether VPNs protect you from viruses.
Does a VPN remove viruses?
No. A VPN does not remove viruses — only antivirus programs do that.
Do I really need antivirus software?
Yes, you need antivirus software on your computer and other devices that support them. Malware threats are evolving and getting more dangerous all the time, so without an antivirus, you can only rely on luck.
Is a VPN better than an antivirus?
A VPN is not better than an antivirus; an antivirus is not better than a VPN. They are two different things that are created to accomplish two different tasks.
Should I leave a VPN on all the time?
If you’re using a VPN for privacy and security, then yes, you should leave it on all the time.