VPN vs. Antivirus: Do You Need Both? What’s the Difference?

VPN shield icon and Antivirus shield icon on a scale, one against the other
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Quick Guide: VPN vs. Antivirus: Do You Need Both? What's the Difference?

As cyber threats have become more prominent in recent years, VPNs and antivirus software have emerged as two key tools to secure devices and ensure users’ online privacy. But what exactly is the difference between the two?

In short:

  1. A VPN’s all about privacy protection: Premium VPNs protect you from hackers, government authorities, and any other nosey third parties that might be interested in your browsing activity. While these could be websites you visit and files you’ve downloaded, malicious actors can also intercept your private messages, emails, photos, logins, and passwords. VPNs create a secure, encrypted tunnel for you to access the internet — which makes your data unreadable. They also assign you an anonymous IP address from their private, secured servers.
  2. Good antivirus software protects your device from viruses and malware: This could be ransomware, Trojans, computer worms, or viruses. Premium packages offer real-time protection and block suspicious and malicious sites that could inject such malware into your device. Phishing emails, suspicious messages, and other threats will also be flagged. If malware somehow gets on your device, you can run a scan to detect it, quarantine it and remove it from your device.

VPNs and antivirus complement each other and work together to keep your data and device secure. You’ll need both to provide you with the safest online experience possible. Need a couple of picks?

Our highest-ranked VPN is ExpressVPN. Couple that with our top-ranked antivirus software Kaspersky, and you’ve got optimum protection as you venture out into the online world.

Want to learn more about VPNs and antivirus software? Need more recommendations? We’ve got you covered in the full article below.

Cyber threats iconLet’s face it, cyber threats are more rampant than ever. There are hackers huddled in corners of cafes looking to skim your private info off public Wi-Fi, while scammers are constantly at work trying to clean out your bank, PayPal, or crypto accounts. One wrong click and your PC, laptop, or mobile device can be crippled by malware in a matter of seconds.

When it comes to personal cybersecurity, there are two main lines of defense — antivirus software and VPNs. While they’re both essential in protecting you online, they both do so in vastly different ways.

In a nutshell, a VPN protects your privacy and personal data. Virtual private networks (VPNs) create an anonymous, encrypted internet connection and keep your activity and private data safe from would-be hackers or any other online lurkers. A good antivirus program protects your device from malware injections like viruses, Trojans, ransomware, and computer worms.

VPNs effectively protect your data from prying eyes. Antivirus software, on the other hand, protects your file system from getting infected with viruses or harmful scripts that you might have downloaded off the web.

So, what exactly is the difference between a VPN and antivirus software? If you want maximum protection, you need both. If you’re ready for the full rundown, check out our guide for antivirus vs. VPN below.

Do I Need Antivirus Software?

Laptop with a bug shielded icon and blob backgroundMany VPNOverview readers ask us: “Do I still need antivirus these days?” The answer is, yes, now more than ever. Malware is getting more and more sophisticated. Malicious software can delete your files and slow your computer’s performance to a snail’s crawl. But it can also self-replicate or spread to your professional network, friends, or family by compromising your emails and messages.

Cybercriminals have taken down massive corporate networks by injecting ransomware into entire systems, encrypting files, and then demanding multimillion-dollar payouts for their return.

A lot of these breaches start with one individual through phishing attacks or social engineering ploys. If their device isn’t properly protected or they’re not trained on how to deal with cybersecurity threats, the results could be disastrous.

What does antivirus software do?

What does antivirus software do iconYou can think of antivirus protection as a bulletproof vest for your device. A premium antivirus program protects PCs, laptops, and mobile devices — and subsequently entire networks — from malware like ransomware, keyloggers, Trojans, computer worms, and other harmful software.

These antivirus programs have what’s called a blacklist. This is a regularly updated list of recognized suspicious code that corresponds to various online threats. During these scans, the antivirus scans your device’s files and checks them against these malicious threats. The database is constantly updated as new viruses or malicious code is recognized, so you can expect the very best in terms of protection.

A solid antivirus program will provide two essential features:

  • Real-time scanning and protection: Once you’ve downloaded it to your device, good antivirus software continuously scans for online threats in real-time. This means that whenever you download something, antivirus programs scan those files to determine if they’re suspicious or infected. The program gives you warnings on whether or not you’d like to proceed with clicking, downloading, or logging on to suspicious websites. If a website is known for malware injections, your antivirus will warn you.
  • Quick scans and deep system scans: Every good piece of antivirus has a scanner that will check files on your device for viruses and other malware. Usually, the “quick scan” option gets the job done considering these real-time scans are done on a regular basis. But it’s usually a good idea to run a deep system scan when you first install a new antivirus program. These scans can take a good bit of time, but it gives the program an opportunity to do a deep dive into not just the file system, but any registry edits or suspicious commands. Ideally, you should run a deep system scan at least once a week.

Premium features of antivirus software

Many antivirus programs have free versions that provide essential malware scans and critical digital security. These free programs — like Avira, Bitdefender, or AVG — provide fundamental protection and offer premium upgrades for deeper protection.

Usually, antivirus packages will have paid “Basic,” “Pro,” or “Advanced” security tiers that you can choose from. Here are a few main features you can get with premium antivirus packages:

Infographic showing premium features of antivirus software

  • Password managers: It’s estimated that the average user has about 100 passwords to remember. And they’d better not be the same across accounts. Password management can generate, store and automatically pull up strong passwords so you don’t have to.
  • Firewall: Based on a set of security protocols, a firewall monitors and decides to block or allow incoming and outgoing network traffic. This more or less serves as an extra shield to block potential cyberattacks or malware that may be out there online.
  • Adblockers: From YouTube to pop-up ads on unsecured sites (malvertising), a good adblocker stops annoying ads from being displayed on your screen. There are some good free ones out there, but premium packages often offer them.
  • Safe online banking: When you navigate to your online banking site, many premium programs will provide the option of opening the session in a new secured browser. This will protect any sensitive banking information you enter.
  • Webcam protection: It’s actually surprisingly easy to hack a device and take over a user’s camera. This could mean your video is constantly running, waiting to catch you in an embarrassing act, or could just snap pictures at intervals. Webcam protection can automatically kill your camera if it’s been turned on without your knowledge.
  • Phishing protection: Sneaky phishing emails can slip past even the most well-protected spam filters. Anti-phishing protection is another layer that will warn you if an email that’s made its way to your inbox is suspicious and may be carrying stealthy malware.

Do I Need a VPN (Virtual Private Network)?

The next big question we get from readers is: “Why do I need a VPN?” VPNs are loaded with all kinds of benefits, but we’ll stick to cybersecurity-connected ones for the moment.

If antivirus software is a bulletproof vest, you can think of your VPN as a cloaking device. For example, when you connect directly to public Wi-Fi in a cafe, airport, or hotel, your data can be lifted by hackers or anyone else that’s interested in reading it. This could be private messages, photos, or other correspondence.

In a man-in-the-middle attack, a hacker hijacks or creates a Wi-Fi network and can intercept and steal bank account information, passwords, and login credentials to empty accounts or commit identity theft. It’s just one example of the many threats you face online.

What does a VPN do?

Infographic showing what does VPN do

While antivirus software can be passive, VPNs are a highly proactive form of online protection. Whether you’re on public Wi-Fi or your home’s personal router, the second you switch on a high-quality VPN, three things happen:

  • You connect to a VPN’s private server: Instead of connecting to the internet directly through public Wi-Fi or your Internet Service Provider (ISP), your internet traffic is rerouted through a VPN server. A secure VPN protects your privacy by having a strict no-logs policy, as well. So, there’s no way that any websites you visit, messages you send, or anything you download will be tracked back to you.
  • You’re assigned an anonymous IP address: With a VPN’s vast network of global servers, it will appear that you’re logging in from a location different than where you’re actually located. If you’re in Atlanta, Georgia, you can make it seem as if you’re logging in for a session from California, Switzerland, or even Tokyo, Japan. Your locations are limited to the VPN service’s server locations.
  • Your online activity is encrypted: When you connect to a VPN’s secure private server, the VPN encrypts all your traffic and activity at military-grade levels. A good VPN creates a secure browsing tunnel between you and the internet. Whatever sites you visit, the information you enter, or the data you transmit is protected with military-grade encryption. This means that even if a hacker or some other third-party snoop intercepts your online activity, it’ll be so scrambled they won’t be able to read it.

VPN and Antivirus Software: Do I Need Both?

It’s not really a choice between the two. A VPN compliments antivirus software and vice versa. Together, they provide two very different and important aspects of online protection that you’ll need if you’re concerned about your online safety and privacy.

Here’s a quick breakdown of when you should use antivirus and when you should use a VPN.

Features of antivirus and VPNs

Security FeatureVPNAntivirus
Real-time protection from viruses, spyware, and ransomwareNoYes
DNS leak protectionYesNo
Cleaning out malware from an infected deviceNoYes
Protection from phishing emailsNoYes
Permanent deleting of internet sessionsYesNo
Access restricted or banned foreign websites or contentYesNo
Browse online anonymouslyYesNo
Protection from hackers and data readersYesNo
Secure connection for public Wi-FiYesNo
Internet data encryptionYesNo
Real-time notifications about malicious threatsNoYes
Password managementNoYes
Firewall protectionNoYes

What Are Some VPN Benefits?

While antivirus solutions are strictly used for protection against malicious software, VPNs also offer plenty of other perks in addition to their security features. While online security is crucial, a good VPN provider opens the door to internet freedom.

Here are a few other benefits of a VPN:

Infographic showing VPN benefits

Bypassing geo-blocks

When a VPN changes your IP address, it allows you to browse foreign websites and unblock content from around the globe. VPN users can circumnavigate oppressive government censorship and access sites banned in their country. Or someone on vacation can simply unblock the American version of Netflix while in Europe. A VPN like ExpressVPN or NordVPN can provide that free-roaming online experience.

Download files safely and anonymously

When your IP address is hidden and your data is encrypted, third parties won’t know your online identity or activity. No one will be able to figure out what you’re searching online, sites you’re visiting, where you’re visiting them from, or attachments you’re downloading. This covers everyone: from remote workers protecting their sensitive company information while working from home to users downloading torrents.

Use multiple servers on multiple devices, with just one account

The best VPNs let you use multiple connections on multiple devices. This means that your laptop, smartphone, and tablet can all be secured. For households, you can even set up a premium VPN on your router. This can help you protect your children online while you reap all the benefits of a VPN.

Stops your ISP from slowing your service down

When servers get overloaded with users and usage, internet service providers sometimes do what’s called bandwidth throttling. Though not all ISPs do this, it slows your connection down and encourages you to use less bandwidth and data. Let’s say that you’re downloading tons of data and hogging bandwidth. They can limit your bandwidth and slow down your service which might make you stop, or upgrade to a more expensive package. Your VPN service hides your internet traffic, so your ISP won’t know what you’re doing, or how much data you’re transmitting.

Save money

From airport tickets to Netflix, pay-per-view sporting events and even YouTube Premium, VPNs can change your virtual location and save you a ton of money on different services. Companies can charge vastly different prices depending on the market, and with a VPN you can access those prices. Or get the same content for free! Did you know an airline ticket and YouTube Premium is much cheaper in India and Argentina than in the United States and EU? Give it a try.

What Are the Best VPNs and Antivirus Software?

Sometimes an antivirus package will come with its own VPN, but our top recommended VPNs — like ExpressVPN, NordVPN or CyberGhost — are standalone software products. They don’t have their own antivirus counterparts.

But you can mix and match any antivirus with a VPN and they’ll work together like magic. Here are a few winning one-two combinations from our recommendations:

Our top-rated VPN + antivirus combo: ExpressVPN + Kaspersky

Screenshot of ExpressVPN provider website homepage

If you check out our VPN reviews and antivirus reviews, ExpressVPN and Kaspersky top both lists. With ExpressVPN, you’re getting military-grade encryption, countless highly secured VPN servers strewn across the globe and incredibly fast speeds available. Here are some key features of ExpressVPN:

  • No logging policy
  • Kill switch
  • 3000+ servers
  • Fantastic customer support
  • Split tunneling feature
Stay Safe Online with ExpressVPN

Kaspersky is a top-tier program that provides maximum security, great real-time protection, and deep-digging virus scans. It’s also got a great password manager, firewall, phishing, and ransomware protection.

Screenshot of Kaspersky website homepage with logo in the corner

It’s light on the system, too, and will run in the background without slowing down your device’s performance.

Protect Your Device with Kasperksy

Security-minded combo: NordVPN + Avira

Screenshot of NordVPN provider website homepage

NordVPN is another VPN that comes in at the top of our recommendations. It topped the list of our best no-logs VPNs, and has the highest levels of security and privacy protocols of any VPN out there. Here are some key features of NordVPN:

  • AES-256 military-grade encryption
  • DNS leak protection
  • Automatic kill switch
  • Onion over VPN
Stay Safe Online with NordVPN

Avira antivirus is our second highest-ranked antivirus. Unlike Kaspersky, Avira has a solid free version you can try out, though it won’t offer maximum protection. With Avira Antivirus Pro, you’ll get full protection for your devices.

Screenshot of Avira Antivirus website page with logo in the corner

Avira Internet Security adds a password manager and a software updater. If you bump up your subscription, you get even more features, including a program that cleans your computer makes your browser history anonymous.

Protect Your Device with Avira

Online protection on a budget: Surfshark + Avast Free Antivirus

Surfshark VPN homepage horizontal screenshot with logo

Surfshark has been one of our favorite VPNs for a while. It’s where high-performance meets an incredible price. If you sign up for a two-year plan, you can get Surfshark for the price of a cup of coffee every month. Surfshark has all the features you need in a good VPN, such as:

  • A NoBorders mode
  • Private DNS & leak protection
  • Quickly switch your IP
  • Military-grade encryption
Stay Safe Online with Surfshark

Avast Free antivirus is our top pick if you’re looking for a free antivirus. It’s got a top-notch scanner that reportedly catches 99.7% of all malware threats, has network threat prevention, web attack prevention, and even comes with a free password manager.

Screenshot of Avast Antivirus website homepage screenshot with logo in the corner

If you’re on a budget, this winning combo’s a good way to go.

Protect Your Device with Avast

What Are the Best Antivirus Programs with a VPN?

If you’re looking for an antivirus suite that has its own VPN, there are also a few options. Just remember you’ll likely end up paying an extra subscription fee for the VPN regardless. You’ll usually do better price and performance-wise with our picks.

Though these VPNs aren’t as highly rated as those we mentioned above, they still provide solid encryption and online privacy protection. If you’re looking to get your antivirus and VPN in a single package, check out these options:

Bitdefender + Bitdefender VPN

Screenshot of Bitdefender antivirus website homepage with logo in the corner

Bitdefender is a top-tier antivirus provider and one of our favorite picks. Its premium package offers Safepay for online banking, a fantastic password manager, and excellent real-time malware protection and scans.

When you sign up for Bitdefender, you’ll get free access to their VPN too. It’s got great speeds and offers solid protection, but don’t expect it to last for too long. They’ll give you a daily limit of 200MB of data that runs out pretty quickly. If you start using the VPN for online browsing, it may run out of data in an hour. If you’re trying to access geo-restricted content and are streaming video, it’ll run out far less than that.

With an antivirus subscription, Bitdefender VPN will run you about $50 a year, though they usually offer promotional deals you can take advantage of.

Check out Bitdefender's Antivirus and VPN

Malwarebytes + Malwarebytes Privacy VPN

malwarebytes website screenshot

Released in 2008, Malwarebytes began as a tool to remove stubborn device infections traditional antivirus couldn’t root out. Since its launch, Malwarebytes has evolved into a complete antivirus software package. They’ve got a proven track record with rock-solid antivirus protection. Malwarebytes has a top-rated virus scanner and exceptional real-time protection.

Malwarebytes Privacy VPN has a very beginner-friendly interface and can be connected right away. It provides the necessary features you want in a VPN — 256-bit encryption, over 400 server locations across 30 countries, an automatic kill switch, split tunneling and the incredibly fast WireGuard protocol.

There are only annual plans available for Malwarebytes Privacy VPN. So, you’ll have to pay $40 per year for unlimited data for one device. If you want Malwarebytes for up to five devices, it will run you $60.

Get Malwarebytes + Malwarebytes Privacy VPN

Avira + Avira VPN

Homepage screenshot of Avira with logo

In addition to its premium antivirus features, Avira also offers its own VPN. The VPN is available even with its free plan, though you’ll only get 200GB of data — which won’t last long. If you want to upgrade your VPN plan, it’ll run you about $40 a year. Like the other antivirus + VPN combos we mentioned, we recommend going for a better VPN that won’t cost you as much.

As for its antivirus, Avira’s aces all the way. It provides excellent virus scans, strong real-time protection, and a great password manager. They’ve also got a safe online shopping feature in their premium plans.

Check out Avira's Antivirus and VPN

More on Antivirus Software and VPNs

Want to learn more about antivirus software and VPNs? Want to brush up on reviews of specific packages, programs, and providers? We’ve got plenty of articles that you can browse through in our antivirus section. Check out a few of our favorites here:

VPN vs. Antivirus: Do You Need Both? What's the Difference? | FAQs

Got some questions about the differences between VPNs and antivirus software? Click any of our frequently asked questions below for answers.

While VPNs protect your privacy and sensitive data from hackers and other malicious actors, it doesn’t protect you from viruses, ransomware, computer worms and other malware. For that kind of protection, you’ll need antivirus software.

Norton 360 provides a decent VPN with its antivirus software package, as does Bitdefender. But you can match any premium VPN — ExpressVPN, NordVPN, or Surfshark — with any antivirus programs. Check out our full article for more recommendations.

While a VPN encrypts and cloaks your data from hackers and malicious actors, it doesn’t provide any protection from viruses and malware. To scan, detect and remove viruses and malware, you’ll need a premium antivirus program. Check out our full article for recommendations.

Tech journalist
Taylor is a tech writer and online journalist with a special interest in cybersecurity and online privacy. He’s covered everything from sports and crime, to explosive startups, AI, cybercrime, FinTech, and cryptocurrency. For VPNOverview.com he follows news and developments in online privacy, cybersecurity, and internet freedom.