What is a VPN? Virtual Private Networks Simplified

What is a VPN?

A VPN or Virtual Private Network is a secure tunnel that encrypts your private data, protecting you from hackers, spies, and censorship. VPNs ensure your online security and anonymity by creating a private internet connection that hides your real IP location and encrypts your data traffic; this guarantees your internet activity is untraceable.

Installing and using a VPN is one of the easiest ways to ensure your safety and anonymity online. When you connect to a VPN, your private internet traffic passes through an encrypted tunnel of servers that no one, including cyber-criminals, government spies, or your ISP (Internet Service Provider), has access to.

Using a VPN will change your IP address, which is the unique number that identifies your specific location. With a different IP address, you can use the internet as if you were located in another country across the globe. Altering your IP address will protect your identity from anyone trying to access it. A good-quality VPN will prevent your ISP, websites, apps, and services, from viewing, tracking, and storing your private online activity.

A VPN will also protect you from a range of online security threats such as unsecured Wi-Fi networks, malicious advertising, and identity theft. If you travel for business, you likely use unsecured public Wi-Fi hotspots in cafes, hotels, or public transport, which puts your confidential information at risk.

Many internet users also utilize a VPN to secure their browsing activity and access otherwise restricted websites, apps, or services. VPNs serve to provide access to restricted content on websites and streaming services such as Netflix. Setting up a VPN will give you more freedom online, enabling you to bypass firewalls, internet censorship, blocked websites, and geo-restrictions.

What is a VPN (Virtual Private Network), and How Does it Work?

What is a VPN and, more importantly, what is a VPN used for? When you visit a website without a VPN or Virtual Private Network, your internet connection to that site runs through your ISP. The ISP allocates you a special IP address that can be used to identify you and your specific location. Your ISP manages all of your network traffic and is thus able to view your activity as well as the websites you visit. Your browsing activity can also be linked to you through your unique IP address.

When you access the internet with a Virtual Private Network activated, the provider creates a safe internet connection through a VPN server. Your network traffic will continue to run through your ISP, but your ISP will no longer view your activity or the websites you access. The websites or apps you visit cannot see your actual IP address but just the VPN server address, which countless other users use.

What is a VPN Protocol?

A VPN protocol combines encryption and transmission techniques to ensure a secure connection between your device and the internet. VPN protocols such as PP2P, IKEv2, Lightway, OpenVPN, WireGuard, L2TP/IPsec, and SSTP work to connect your device to the VPN server. VPN providers typically offer a range of protocols.

OpenVPN is one of the best protocols available, and it is also one of the most popular. The protocol uses the highest quality encryption standard utilized by all of the best secure VPN providers. OpenVPN is extremely configurable and provides an excellent combination of speed and security. It can be used on both UDP and TCP ports. The UDP port offers a faster option, and many streamers and gamers use it for its seamless in-gameplay experience. The TCP port, however, is a more secure and safe option.

IKEv2, which stands for “Internet Key Exchange version 2,” is a tunneling protocol often used in combination with IPSec and offers first-rate encryption. IKEv2 offers a range of benefits, including the potential to re-establish a secure connection if the VPN service fails. This protocol is also highly adaptable and can easily alter between networks. This makes it a popular choice for mobile users who constantly change between their home Wi-Fi connection and mobile hotspots. However, the disadvantage is that this protocol is not yet common despite its high quality.

Do I Need a VPN?

If you are concerned about your security and privacy online, you should install a VPN and use it whenever you connect to the internet. A good VPN should not affect or slow down your normal browsing activity, as it runs in your device’s background. Using a VPN will ensure your identity and privacy are protected.

The VPN server functions as a stand-in for your browsing activity. Rather than your actual IP address and location, the websites and apps you visit can only view the VPN server’s address and location. When you use a VPN service, your internet data is sent through a tunnel of servers. The information within the tunnel is also encrypted so that it cannot be decrypted. This ensures that your browsing activity remains completely secure and private so that even your ISP can’t view it.

Browsing the internet or completing online banking transactions can place your private data and activity at risk of hacking and other cyber threats. Thus, a VPN is essential for any internet user concerned about their online privacy and security.

A VPN is especially beneficial if you frequently travel for business or leisure. Being away from home doesn’t mean that you have to use the internet differently. A VPN will allow you to use the internet as you would at home and to continue to stream your favorite shows.

If you often connect to unsecured public Wi-Fi networks in cafes, bars, or hotels, your confidential data could be exposed. Activating a secure VPN on your device will ensure your information is encrypted and protected. Consider all of the times you read your emails on the bus or check your bank account while at a cafe. If you were not connected to a secure, password-protected network, any information transmitted during such browsing sessions could be at risk to anyone connected to the same Wi-Fi network.

A secure VPN provides encryption to ensure your online activities are protected and anonymous when sending confidential emails, checking your online bank account, or shopping online.

Using a VPN will also provide access to various streaming sites and libraries such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, and HBO. It will also offer access to content that would not otherwise be available in your region, meaning that you can watch movies before they are released in your country or catch coverage of an overseas sports event.

Gamers will benefit from installing and using a VPN on their gaming rig too. A VPN will unlock games, updates, maps, skins, and add-ons that may not otherwise be available in your country. It will also protect you from threats such as DDoS attacks. A good quality VPN may even reduce ping and latency, improving your overall gameplay experience.

Many VPNs also support torrenting and P2P file sharing. Without a secure VPN, while P2P sharing, anyone could potentially view your IP location and monitor your downloads. A VPN will ensure your IP address is hidden, allowing you to torrent safely and anonymously.

How Does a VPN Protect My Privacy?

A VPN creates a secure, encrypted tunnel between your IP network server and a server in an alternate location. The VPN server could be located across the globe, making it appear as if you connect to the internet from a different country. This increases your freedom and privacy online, enabling you to access a host of apps, websites, and television shows that may not have otherwise been available in your country.

Secure VPN connections utilize encryption to make your private data unreadable and undecipherable. Internet privacy is even more important when connected to an unsecured public Wi-Fi network, as it ensures that no one else on the same internet connection can access your private data or monitor your activity.

Moreover, if you do not use a VPN, your ISP can view your browsing activity and search history. A VPN will ensure that your browsing history remains hidden. Your online activity will be connected to the VPN server’s address with a VPN rather than your own unique IP address. VPN providers offer large networks of servers across the globe, meaning that your browsing activity could seem to be coming from any one of these server locations.

A VPN can protect all of your devices such as your mobile phone, tablet, desktop computer, laptop, smart TV, gaming console, and even your internet router from your ISP, spies, hackers, or malicious advertisers.

Does a VPN Hide My Browsing History?

Much of your browsing activity is tracked and monitored by your ISP, websites, apps, and even the government. Many of the websites that you visit will store information about your activity. Internet browsers can also monitor your internet history and link that data to your IP address.

Perhaps you recently searched the internet for a particular product or service, and you noticed that you have started receiving target advertisements about those products or services. If you do not use a VPN connection, the information you shared may have been stored by your internet browser or the websites you visited.

It is also often the case that shopping sites display higher prices when they know that you are looking for a particular item or service based on previous searches.

Your Internet Service Provider may even store and sell your private browsing activity to third parties for profit, resulting in targeted advertisements and higher prices when shopping online.

If you are worried about your browsing activity’s privacy, a VPN is an essential addition to your devices. A VPN connection will offer a private network to ensure that your browsing activity remains completely private and your Internet Service Provider or the websites you visit cannot view or monitor your activity.

Does a VPN Hide My IP Address?

Anyone who has access to your IP address and location will have access to your browsing activity history as well as your precise location. Your IP address can be used to link all of your browsing history and online activity to you and your device.

A VPN utilizes an IP address that is different from your own unique IP server, meaning that your search activity is private and anonymous. This also ensures that your browsing history cannot be stored, viewed, or misused.

You may have subscriptions to several streaming services that allow you to watch a range of television shows, movies, and sports coverage. However, if you travel outside of your home country, you may not be able to continue to access your favorite streaming content. A VPN connection will enable you to choose an IP location in your home country, granting access to your home Netflix library or coverage of domestic sports events. A VPN may even offer lower speeds and enable you to avoid Internet Service Provider speed throttling.

Does a VPN Prevent Identity Theft?

Identity theft happens when cybercriminals steal your personal data and commit crimes using your identity, such as opening bank accounts or buying items. A VPN can make sure your identity is protected online by passing your confidential data through a tunnel of secure servers.

If your mobile phone’s Wi-Fi is constantly activated, you could be putting your confidential information at risk when online banking, shopping, or browsing. Using a VPN can offer an additional layer of protection for the information you access when you connect to the internet. It is especially vital if you frequently connect to unsecured public Wi-Fi hotspots. A cybercriminal connected to the same network as you could potentially access your usernames, passwords, and banking details.

No service can offer complete protection against identity theft, as some aspects are not in your control. However, a VPN provider can ensure the information you share and receive on your device is securely protected.

Does a VPN Prevent Tracking?

A VPN provides a new IP address that is different from your normal IP when you connect to the internet. It also creates an encrypted tunnel between your device and the internet, meaning nobody can view the information you share or receive.

However, there are alternate ways that a cybercriminal could track your browsing activity. Hackers may install malware such as spyware on your device. Alternatively, if you frequently share files online or use the same username for each of your accounts, your activity and identity could be tracked by anyone.

Although a VPN does not provide complete protection against tracking, it offers a vital additional layer that ensures your private internet activity is secure.

In most countries, VPNs are legal. However, some countries such as China, Russia, and North Korea have banned or strongly restrict the use of VPNs.

A VPN connection makes it possible to overcome state censorship and access the internet in such countries. However, it likely not worth it considering the consequences should you be caught.

Is There a VPN Alternative?

A range of software provides similar features to a VPN; however, no product will give the level of security and privacy that a VPN offers. A Smart DNS will enable access to blocked websites and overcome internet censorship but will not encrypt your internet activity. Likewise, if you utilize Tor, it will secure your identity, but many sites will consequently block your access to them.

A VPN is the only software that will protect your privacy online, grant you a new IP address, and encrypt your online data.

Are VPNs Safe?

Premium VPNs are trustworthy and completely safe to use. However, it is necessary to be aware that some malicious VPNs cause harm to the users they claim to protect. It is essential to remain cautious if you are considering a free VPN. Even free VPNs need to make money somehow, and some such providers may track your internet activity, the websites you visit, and the content you watch and sell this information to third parties.

Free VPNs will likely also provide a lower standard of protection when compared to a premium option. A free version may offer lower-quality encryption protocols, lower speeds and may not protect against DNS leaks. Thus, it is usually a good idea to opt for a paid VPN subscription plan.

When Do I Need to Use My VPN?

We would recommend that you leave your VPN on all of the time, in most cases. A VPN is the only way to ensure that your real IP location is hidden, your online data is encrypted, and your internet history is private.

If you want to keep your activity and identity safe from hackers, spies, malicious advertisers, or your ISP, it is necessary to keep your VPN activated constantly. Most good VPN products will run in the background, meaning that they will not affect your device’s performance or the apps you are using.

A VPN protects and masks your real location by creating a connection to a remote server location, ensuring no one can view what content you are accessing and where you are accessing it from. Most good-quality VPN providers will also offer features such as a kill-switch for an additional layer of online protection. A kill-switch will work to cut the transfer of data in the case that your internet connection fails. This ensures that no unencrypted data is ever exposed.

If you frequently use public Wi-Fi hotspots, it is necessary to activate your VPN if you want to protect your online data. Most public Wi-Fi networks are unsecured and easy targets for hackers and cybercriminals because of their low-security level. Some cybercriminals even set up fake connection points to prey on vulnerable users. A VPN will encrypt your data and ensure it is protected from criminals or malicious users.

It is also a good idea to activate your VPN connection if you are sharing confidential or sensitive information online or performing a financial transaction. Without a VPN, hackers or cybercriminals may be able to intercept the connection and steal this information. However, a VPN protects your data, ensuring no one will be able to view your activity.

Many ISPs participate in bandwidth throttling and slow down user connections intentionally. They may do so if their servers are overwhelmed by streaming and gaming, and they cannot keep up with the demand for their resources. Often, ISPs target specific users based on their activity and the amount of data they consume.

If you stream and game a significant amount of content, your ISP may be slowing down your connection. However, if you use a VPN, your ISP won’t be able to access your activity and will thus be less likely to target you and reduce your connection speeds.

If you want a VPN for the sole purpose of accessing a greater range of streaming content, it may not be necessary to have your VPN on all of the time. If you want to access a television show that is not available in your region, all you need to do is choose a VPN server in the same country as the content you want to access.

Do I Need to Use a VPN at Home?

Your home internet network contains all of your personal files, photos, bank details, usernames, and passwords. Thus, it is important to protect it. Without a VPN, your online data at home is unprotected. Despite that you may not need it all of the time, it is a good idea to use a VPN connection even when you are at home.

A VPN will ensure that all of your browsing activity remains hidden and secure. Without one, websites, apps, and even your ISP have access to everything you do online. With an active VPN, your data is passed through an encrypted server tunnel of servers, meaning no one has access to it.

If you choose a VPN server in a location that is close to your physical location, you will experience faster connections. When connected to the VPN server, all of your internet data will be encrypted before it reaches its endpoint.

But why do you need to use a VPN at home? Utilizing a VPN connection at home is as necessary as installing antivirus protection on your device. A VPN offers online security and privacy; however, there is a range of additional benefits to using a VPN at home.

VPNs enable you to access geo-restricted streaming content. If you choose a VPN server located in the United Kingdom, for example, your IP address will match that of the server located in that country. Thus, it will be easier to watch content that is only available in the United Kingdom.

A VPN will also add an additional layer of protection for your camera and all of your other devices. If you do not use a VPN, your camera may be unprotected, leaving your photos and videos exposed to hackers or cybercriminals. This is also a concern for other devices such as digital doorbells or baby monitors, which can be vulnerable without VPN protection.

If you want to enjoy the protection of a VPN on all of the devices in your home, you can choose the connect the VPN to your internet router. Setting up the VPN directly onto your router is simple and ensures every device connected to the router is always protected. It is a good idea to leave the VPN on all of the time so that your private information and online activity are always protected.

How Do I Use a VPN?

Whether you want to ensure you are protected when using public Wi-Fi networks, or you want to encrypt your online activity when at home, a VPN is a great addition to your devices. Installing and using a VPN is simple.

Once you have researched and chosen your VPN provider, all you need to do is sign up for your desired subscription plan and download the app. Most of the best VPN providers will offer apps and clients that are easy to use. This means that you do not have to be a VPN expert to use them.

Simply install the app, and enter your username and password. Then, you can go to the VPN settings to activate additional features such as a kill-switch and change to your desired protocol.

Connecting to a VPN server is easy with the best VPN providers. Most premium services will offer a simple to use “Quick Connect” feature, enabling you to connect to the best server available in a single click. There will likely also be an extensive list of servers from which you can choose to connect to a particular country or server.

What is a VPN used for?

A VPN gives you more privacy and security on the Internet because it encrypts your data. If you use a public Wi-Fi connection, for example at an airport or cafe, anyone else using that same network can see what you’re browsing online. Hackers could potentially steal your personal information as well as bank details just by sitting in the corner of that coffee shop!

Your internet service provider (ISP) could also log every website you visit without permission – this is called ‘data retention.’ Using a VPN prevents this from happening. You can read more about what a VPN is in this simplified guide.

The ISP will only be able to view that you are connected to a VPN server but won’t get any further information about which websites or services are being accessed through it. This means they have no record of your internet activity. The same goes for other third parties online such as trackers which build a data profile of your online activity.

VPNs are Used to Unblock Geo-Restricted Content

Some countries have banned certain websites and services, either due to censorship rules or because of regional broadcasting rights.

It’s also often the case that some content is only available in specific regions – for example, BBC iPlayer will only let you watch videos if you are located within the UK.

Geo-restriction can sometimes be bypassed using a VPN however it depends on where you are trying to access your chosen service from as well as who provides it. For instance, Netflix now actively blocks many VPN providers so they cannot unblock its geo-restricted content anymore! A good thing about this though is that most providers have found ways around this by creating new IP addresses which allow users to connect without any issues at all.

So even if you are based in a country with heavy online censorship, you can use a VPN to unblock your favorite sites from anywhere in the world.

VPNs are Used at School and Work

Many schools and workplaces use firewalls to block certain types of websites or use a VPN to hide your IP or similar information.

A firewall is a network security system that controls the incoming and outgoing traffic through your internet connection, only allowing it in when required by an application such as a web browser or BitTorrent client.

This can be highly restrictive especially if you rely on using these programs for work purposes, so another solution would be to use a VPN service. You will need to look out for ones with ‘ VPN split tunneling’ features though – this allows you to pick which data goes through the encrypted part of your connection at work.

VPNs are Used to Access Remote Networks

Using a VPN to access remote networks is often called ‘remote-access’ or ‘road warrior’ mode. This allows employees working from home, coffee shops, and airports to securely connect to their office network using an encrypted connection back to a central server.

A VPN enables users to change their IP address so that they can securely gain access to important documents and files on networks that are based far away.

Gamers Use VPNs for Gaming Protection

Online gamers often use a VPN to protect their connection while playing games online. A VPN provides an extra layer of security by encrypting your data which prevents hackers from stealing any personal details if you get hacked. VPNs also protect from DDOS attacks when gaming online!

What is Tor?

Tor (also known as The Onion Router) comprises a free network of “nodes” or servers that route web traffic between one another at random, serving to obfuscate the data’s origin. Utilizing Tor can greatly increase your privacy and anonymity online, and using Tor in combination with a good-quality VPN will offer optimal security protection.

However, the main disadvantage of using Tor is reduced connection speeds. Your internet traffic is re-routed several times, making it less effective for streaming or downloading when compared to a typical VPN connection.

Can I Use a VPN on All of My Devices?

Look for a VPN service provider that offers a VPN client that is compatible with all of your devices to ensure your computer, laptop, mobile phone, tablet, gaming console, and Smart TV are always protected. Most premium VPN service providers will offer a VPN client that is compatible with all major operating systems, ensuring privacy and secure web activity on all of your devices.

Major VPNs, including PureVPN, IPVanish VPN, Cyberghost VPN, Hotspot Shield VPN, Private Internet Access, SurfShark VPN, NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and TunnelBear VPN, are all compatible with Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, and Linux, to make sure that you have a secure connection on all of your devices.

Many VPNs offer a mobile client, ensuring privacy and a secure connection when you are on the go or browsing the internet in your local coffee shop. PureVPN, IPVanishVPN, CyberghostVPN, HotspotShield VPN, Private Internet Access, SurfShark VPN, NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and TunnelBearVPN, all offer user-friendly mobile apps that are compatible with Android and iOS.

What Are VPN Servers?

When choosing a VPN, it is necessary to consider the number of servers available. Largely, the higher number of servers offered by a provider, the better. Often, a VPN provider that offers a low number of servers will be fraught with low connection speeds, rendering them useless for streaming, gaming, and torrenting.

Slow connection speeds will mean you cannot watch your favorite shows in high definition and may even cause simple internet browsing tasks to become tiresome. If a provider has a small number of servers, one or all of its servers will likely become congested or overwhelmed if too many users are on the same server at once. If everyone on the server is trying to stream or game, you will likely notice prolonged connection speeds.

Typically, if a provider offers less than 1,000 server locations, you will likely be met with buffering and slow speeds. Thus, it is important to choose a provider that offers over 1,000 servers, especially if you intend to stream or game through your VPN connection.

  • IPVanish VPN: over 1,500 servers
  • CyberGhost: over 6,600 servers
  • HotspotShield: over 3,200 servers
  • VyprVPN: over 700 servers
  • Private Internet Access: over 12,011 servers
  • SurfShark VPN: over 1,700 servers
  • NordVPN: 5,465 servers
  • ExpressVPN: over 3,000 servers
  • TunnelBear: around 1,800 servers

It is also useful to note that premium VPN providers will offer servers in an extensive range of locations worldwide. This is important as having access to servers in a range of countries will ensure more choice, flexibility, and often higher speeds.

Typically, a server near your actual location will offer higher speeds compared to a long-distance connection. Thus, it makes sense to consider a provider that offers VPN server locations in your country or region.

There will likely also be occasions when you want to connect to a server outside of your home country. Perhaps you want to access geo-restricted content or television shows that have not yet been released in your region. Connecting to a VPN server in the same country as the content you are trying to access will make it appear as if you are located in that same country.

When you connect to a server in another country, your actual IP address will be hidden. This ensures greater freedom online, and access to a host of content that would not otherwise have been available to you.

When choosing a VPN, there is no set number of countries or server locations that a provider should offer. However, the higher the number of server locations, the more choice and flexibility you will have for streaming geo-restricted content.

  • PureVPN: Over 140 countries, across more than 180 worldwide locations
  • IPVanish: Over 75 worldwide locations
  • Cyberghost: 90 countries across 111 worldwide locations
  • HotspotShield: Over 80 countries
  • VyprVPN: Over 70 countries
  • Private Internet Access: 74countries
  • SurfShark VPN: 63 countries
  • NordVPN: 59 countries
  • ExpressVPN: 94 countries across 160 worldwide locations
  • TunnelBear VPN: Over 23 locations

How to Choose a VPN

There is an extensive array of VPNs available on the market, making it difficult to choose the right one for you. It is necessary to consider a range of factors when shopping for a VPN provider. If you want to browse the internet privately while hiding your IP address, you may require different features than someone looking for a VPN to access streaming content.

Here are some things to look for when choosing a VPN:

No-logs policy: If you are looking for a VPN to protect your security and anonymity online, it makes sense to choose a provider that will protect your privacy too. The VPN that you choose should offer a strict no-logging policy that ensures they will never monitor, misuse, or sell your online activity data.

Protocols: When choosing a VPN, look for a provider that offers high-quality protocols such as OpenVPN, rather than outdated, less secure protocols such as PPTP. OpenVPN is an open-source protocol that is compatible with most devices and operating systems.

Bandwidth: If you are looking for a VPN for streaming, gaming, or torrenting purposes, it will be necessary to opt for a provider that offers unlimited bandwidth. This will allow you to stream or game as much as you want without you needing to worry about a data usage limit.

Server locations: Consider what server locations you require. If you want to access a specific Netflix library, it will be necessary to choose a provider that offers a server location in that region.

Simultaneous device connections: If you want to protect all of your devices, you will need to choose a VPN provider that offers a decent number of simultaneous device connections. This will allow you to use the VPN service on all of your devices at the same time.

Cost: If affordability is one of your priorities, you may be considering a free VPN service. However, all free VPNs come at a cost. Some offer lower data usage limits, while others offer a lower standard of protection when compared to premium products. Free VPNs also need to make a profit somehow, and many do so by selling user data for profit. Thus, it is important to remain cautious if choosing a free VPN.

There is a range of factors to consider when choosing a VPN, and it is necessary to take the time to research some providers before settling on the right one for you.

What VPN Should You Choose?

Depending on the VPN features that you require, whether you want to stream or torrent content or simply protect your devices, there is a range of VPNs available. Most VPN providers will offer simple apps and clients that are easy to install and simple to operate on all devices, including Windows, Mac, PC, Android, iOS, gaming consoles, and even routers.

  • ExpressVPN: ExpressVPN is a premium provider that combines sophisticated features with a highly functional client. If you want the highest standard protocols and secure encryption, ExpressVPN is a good choice. It also comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee, giving you time to try the product risk-free.
  • SurfShark VPN: Surfshark is another top-rated VPN provider that offers a high-quality experience at an affordable price. If you want all of the features of a premium VPN at a slightly lower cost, SurfShark is one of the best on the market.
  • TunnelBear VPN: TunnelBear VPN is a cheaper option than many of its competitors, but it does offer an extremely secure service. However, this may not be the best option if you look for fast-speed connections for streaming and torrenting.
Author Cliff Durward

Hi, I'm Cliff. I'm based in Cleveland, Ohio, with my wife and two kids. I have a keen interest in cybersecurity and have been writing about it for around a decade now. Due to my background in computer science, I am familiar ...
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