Virtual private networks and antivirus software are very different: the former protects your privacy online, and the latter defends and cures your device of viruses or other malware. Both of them are necessary to ensure your digital safety. 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 such cybercrimes as 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 why are antivirus apps not the only online security barrier we erect on our devices? VPNs are among the other layers of defense. 

    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 virtual private network operation – 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, 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 and not your own. You’ll disguise the fact that you were on the website (unless you log in with your real account/name/just post incriminating information about yourself). 

    What does a VPN NOT do?

    What a VPN can’t really protect you from is viruses and similar cyberthreats. Usually, you let those infections into your device yourself by downloading shady email attachments, downloading software illegally, and so on. 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 you need a VPN if you have an antivirus. Each of them is a tool for a different task. Here’s a short explanation: 

    Identifying active intrusions by viruses and other malware
    Keeping your browsing data private
    Bypassing blocks and censorship
    Removing existing viruses and other malware
    Hiding your identity online
    Combating phishing
    Combating phishing

    So you see, there’s very little overlap between a VPN and antivirus software. They are both necessary to have a complete and competent online security suite. 

    In conclusion: you need a VPN and an antivirus

    Digital security is a field beyond the scope of any one app. To have full protection against the threats facing you daily, you need quite a few 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 in Surfshark One. 

    Get a VPN and an antivirus in one go

    Surfshark One includes Surfshark VPN and Surfshark Antivirus

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    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.