What Is a VPN? Everything You Need To Know About Online Privacy

A VPN client creates a private network between the user and the internet. Learn more about how VPNs work, their benefits, and how to choose the best one for you.

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Updated:

July 08,2022

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If you’re concerned about your online privacy or just looking for a way to browse the internet anonymously, chances are you’ve already heard the term VPN. But what is a VPN, and how does it help you?

VPN stands for a virtual private network, a service that encrypts your internet traffic and routes it through a server in a different location. A VPN client makes it appear as if you’re browsing from another location by creating a point-to-point tunnel between your computer and a VPN server. This tunnel hides your traffic from outsiders and conceals your real IP address. A VPN can help you access geo-blocked content, and it’s an excellent tool for protecting your online identity. 

There are many factors to consider when choosing the right VPN. This article will help you understand how VPN clients work and what to look for when choosing one for yourself.

Hide Your Tracks

Whenever we go online, we leave a digital trail behind. Data compiled is called a digital footprint, and it poses a significant danger to our online security. 

From the moment we try and connect to a website, our internet service provider receives the request and redirects us to the destination. When using a VPN protection, our request is rerouted, so it goes through a VPN server first. Once you establish the connection, your real IP address is replaced with the VPN’s IP address. 

All the data passing through an established VPN connection is encoded and appears as gibberish to any entity that tries to monitor it. Companies and websites have a harder time tracking your online activities and can’t access any of your relevant information. 

VPNs can be useful for hiding your activity from curious eyes or when accessing content that is blocked in your location. Even ISPs cannot track your activity; they can see that you're using a VPN, but not the content of your network connection. In essence, VPN stands for near-complete anonymity.

Most VPN services use a 256-bit advanced encryption standard, the same encryption that was originally developed for the needs of the US government. It is the most secure encryption there is, making it extremely unlikely for anyone to hack your connection. 256-bit encryption is also less prone to hacking by brute force compared to other key ciphers.

A VPN is also commonly used to bypass internet censorship and restrictions. The encrypted connection allows you access to websites and content that might otherwise be blocked from your geolocation. 

Apart from keeping your information safe, avoiding online restrictions is one of the primary reasons people use a network connection with a VPN. Most VPNs are easy to set up and use and don’t require extensive technological knowledge. Once you have it installed on your device, using a VPN can be as simple as turning it on and off.

Inner Workings of a VPN

Not all VPNs are created equal, and there are many elements to consider before purchasing the perfect one for yourself. With such a diversity of choices, it could be overwhelming to make the decision. Let’s look at some differences among VPNs and what they mean.

Encryption Protocols

VPNs use a variety of security protocols to ensure that data is securely transmitted between the VPN client and a server. The term encryption protocol refers to the way data is packaged and sent online. 

Let’s say you decide to go skydiving. Regardless of your previous experience, you will still wear a jumpsuit, goggles, and a helmet to ensure your safety. The better the protective equipment quality, the better the protection itself. A VPN technology uses an encryption protocol that works similarly to protective equipment. It puts a fictitious helmet on the information you’re sending online and, in doing so, keeps it safe. Once encrypted, no one can snoop around and collect information about your activities. 

There are different types of VPN encryption protocols that are often in use. Some common ones are:

  • IP Security (IPSec): This is a set of protocols that provide data confidentiality, integrity, and authentication, thus increasing the VPN protection. 
  • Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP): It’s often used with IPSec to add an extra layer of security. It can also be used on its own to create a VPN connection.
  • OpenVPN: This open-source software uses SSL/TLS protocols to create a secure VPN connection. OpenVPN operates over a dependable transport layer.
  • Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP): This is an older VPN protection protocol that is not as secure as other options, but it is fast and easy to set up. PPTP offers a lot of computable power, making it a good choice for older devices or audio and video streaming.
  • WireGuard: This new, open-source VPN protocol promises to be faster and more secure than other options.

Types of VPNs

There are different VPNs, each with its own set of features and benefits. We’ll look into some commonly used types and briefly discuss their pros and cons.

Remote-access VPNs allow individuals to connect to a corporate network from a remote location. They are perfect for employees who need to work from home or on the go. Remote-access VPNs allow you to connect to your company’s network and access resources that might be unavailable when you're away from the office. 

Site-to-site VPNs will let users connect two or more office locations together, allowing employees to share data and resources with the help of a VPN internet connection. This can be useful for companies with multiple offices or for contractors who need to access files and applications from their home office while away. A site-to-site VPN is set up in much the same way as a remote-access VPN. 

A virtual private dial-up network (VPDN) is a type of VPN that uses a public network to provide individuals with secure access to a private network through a VPN. VPNs are often used by companies that employ remote workers. They can also be used to connect branch offices to a company’s main network

open laptop

Benefits and User Privacy

VPNs are becoming increasingly necessary for keeping your online presence private. This is especially important when using a public WiFi network, as these networks can be a hotbed for hackers looking to steal personal information. 

Public WiFi connections are almost impossible to avoid as we spend so much time online. The purpose of a VPN is to make our virtual worlds safe, and choosing the right VPN client helps by hiding the connection data from any surveillance attempts.

The work of a VPN provider doesn’t stop there. A good VPN will help unblock geo-restricted content such as streaming services and websites. Large companies usually carve up access to their licensed content into geographic regions, making watching a show in one country easy while impossible in another. 

With VPN clients, users can connect to a server in another country, bypass restrictions, and access the content freely. Let’s say you want to watch the latest adventures in Supernatural on Netflix. If you live in the US, you can do so effortlessly. However, users from any other region won’t have access to this TV show without a computer VPN. 

Apart from entertainment, a VPN service offers privacy that the average person probably doesn’t think twice about. Our virtual world with all its searches, downloaded files, and emails is out in the open, available for our internet service provider to peruse. 

An ISP can collect this information, sell it to third parties, or use it for targeted advertising. ISP services also have to comply with requests from government agencies and deliver data on users’ activity. A VPN protects your data by encrypting all internet traffic, ensuring that your ISP can’t see what you’re doing online, so many use VPN for internet privacy. It means your ISP can’t sell your data to advertisers. 

The virtual private network can prevent identity theft by encrypting your personal information such as your name, address, and credit card number. 

Additionally, a VPN can help prevent price discrimination, a system by which companies charge different prices to different users, usually based on users’ location or browsing habits. By hiding your location and IP address, a VPN’s purpose is to help prevent higher charges for the same product or service. It’s another helpful VPN client application that users often forget about. 

VPN Drawbacks

There are some drawbacks to using a VPN too. As all the data must be encrypted and routed through the VPN server, you’re likely to experience some slowdown compared to an unfiltered connection. This slowdown will largely depend on the VPN protocol you use; as a rule, the more protection a protocol provides, the heavier the toll on the bandwidth will be. It’s best to try and define which VPN protocol doesn’t put too much strain on your connection before the purchase.

Some countries block or somehow regulate VPNs, making it impossible or unlawful to connect to a server in that country. When you visit a site via the VPN server, the site regulators and agencies can’t see your IP address, but they can quickly check if you’re using a VPN and prevent internet access. 

Restrictions may apply for different reasons, depending on the country. VPNs are commonly restricted to censor media, respect copyright laws, or limit inappropriate content. 

VPNs can’t always provide complete anonymity as they still have to route traffic through an intermediary server. This server can keep logs of user activity through a VPN connection, meaning that your data wouldn’t be completely private. However, most VPN providers employ a no-logs policy, a written promise that any data gathered on their servers is immediately deleted.

Site cookies are also a potential issue, as they can track you across the internet. While some VPN providers promise to block cookies by encrypting them, this is not always effective. And despite being mostly harmless, cookies can take away the vestige of users’ anonymity.

Another thing worth noting is that VPNs cannot protect internet users from targeted virus or malware attacks. While VPN technology will encrypt and reroute traffic, it can’t protect you from malicious software installed on your device. It is best to use a dedicated online security app and a VPN tunnel connection, like antivirus, anti-malware, or anti-ransomware apps.

A VPN is a great tool that betters online access and privacy, but it’s not a magical solution. This is why it’s important to understand the limitations of a VPN before using one. However, it is still the best tool we have to stay safe online.

woman frowning at a laptop

Choosing the Right VPN

For internet users who might still wonder, “what is a VPN?” selecting one to use can be challenging. With so many good VPN providers available, getting overwhelmed is easy. Here’s our rundown of vital information to consider when choosing a provider for yourself. 

Trustworthy Client and Company

First, make sure that the VPN client is reputable and has a good track record. There are a lot of fly-by-night operations out there, and you don’t want to end up on the wrong side of the law. 

Start by checking the reviews of a specific VPN client from reliable sources. Sites like Trustpilot are a good starting point to see the consensus on VPN service privacy. Checking the company’s previous business practices via the Better Business Bureau and LinkedIn should be your next step.

VPN Server’s Coverage and Speed

An excellent VPN provider usually has robust network settings, decent speed, and a user-friendly interface. 

It’s best if the VPN service provider has servers in multiple regions, as this makes it easier for you to always find a fast and reliable connection. When selecting a VPN server close to your location, you can expect the highest speeds, which is something to pay attention to when choosing a VPN for home. That bandwidth performance will deteriorate as you connect to a more remote VPN server.

The number of offered servers also significantly impacts the internet connection quality. VPN providers with few servers will experience speed bottlenecks when too many users try to connect. As a result, everyone will have a much slower internet connection. When choosing a service, seek out clients that have over 1,000 VPN servers for the fastest browsing.

Geo-blocking is also directly dependent on the number of available servers. A specific VPN server can get blacklisted by the streaming site, which is a common practice Netflix employs to prevent VPN usage. Users who connect to the blocked server won’t be able to access the geo-blocked sites and content. 

User Experience

After searching high and low for a suitable VPN solution, the last thing you’d want is to end up frustrated by an overly complicated interface. It is paramount to find a VPN client that is easy to use. Popular VPN services understand the importance of offering a streamlined and intuitive user interface that allows IT beginners and professionals alike to quickly locate the VPN features they need.

No-Logs Policy

A reliable VPN provider should always respect your privacy. That is why you need to ensure that the company has a strict no-logs policy regarding VPN privacy. This entails that the VPN client shouldn’t keep any logs of user activity that may include web browsing history, metadata, and traffic destination. 

Some data is collected for essential purposes, like billing information and server performance monitoring, and it goes against the purpose of VPN. Even so, this type of data is not connected to your identity or activities. A VPN service without a no-logs policy could gather a considerable amount of data on its servers until it gets a request from government agencies.

System Compatibility 

Most people use their VPN on a desktop computer, so it’s essential to check if the provider has a client for Windows or Mac and choose accordingly. Depending on your surfing habits, you might want to consider installing a VPN on your mobile phone. You never know when you’ll need to connect to a public WiFi network while on the go, so look into providers that also support iOS and Android.

14 Eyes Surveillance

The true meaning of VPN protection is often blurred by government surveillance. Where your VPN provider of choice comes from could affect the level of anonymity you’ll enjoy. 

Consider checking whether your VPN client originates from one of the 14 Eyes countries. This group of governments has extensive information-sharing agreements, allowing each nation to track its citizens, even when they are using a VPN.

Data surveillance can be considered a matter of national security, so collecting information on citizens is often done without any legal repercussions. VPN clients from these countries collect users’ browsing history and distribute it to government agencies of their user’s country of origin upon request. You must admit that these arrangements collide with the purpose of VPN.

Even if the VPN client doesn’t belong to one of the signatory countries, one or more of their physical VPN servers might, thus still allowing agencies to request the extradition of server data. 

If you are looking for more serious VPN protection, it’s best to steer clear of a VPN service located in one of the 14 Eyes countries, then check with the customer support team on the location of its servers.

Pricing

The price of a VPN service shouldn’t be your only consideration when choosing a provider. Still, the cost of a subscription can be a deciding factor for many users. Some companies offer free VPNs, but they tend to provide a subpar service that might make you wonder if you should use a VPN in the first place.

For example, they might throttle your internet speed or put a data limit on your usage. Most free VPN services have a limited number of servers dedicated to free users. These servers are often over-cramped, which leads to slower connections. Others might sell your data to third-party advertisers or insert intrusive ads into your web browser.

If you’d like to try out VPN provider options before committing to one, look for clients who offer free trials. Software with trial versions offers a full VPN service with all the functionality of a paid version, but for a limited time. Free trials can last anywhere between seven and 30 days. After that period ends, you’ll automatically get billed a fee for the VPN access, meaning that you need to be mindful and cancel your trial period before it expires to avoid automatic payments.

It’s best to avoid free VPNs and instead go with a reliable and affordable premium provider that offers an extensive list of servers, features, and protocols. Like many other services, VPN clients tend to be cheaper when purchased for an entire year.

The number of devices you need a VPN for also affects the price. A subscription for one device is cheaper than for ten; however, subscriptions for multiple devices may be more affordable in the long run. ​​

Kill Switch

When your VPN client loses connection to the server, your actual IP address becomes exposed. This usually happens when the WiFi connection cuts off, or you’re traveling outside of the VPN’s country jurisdiction. 

Most quality VPN providers offer a so-called kill switch in their desktop and mobile apps to prevent this. This fail-safe mechanism immediately disconnects your device from the internet once the VPN protection drops, so your actual IP address is never exposed, not even for a split second.

Not all VPNs offer a kill switch feature, so check before you subscribe. When it comes to detailing how a VPN protects you, a kill switch is another great feature that improves VPN protection, keeps your actual IP address obfuscated, and provides a more secure connection.

Ad-Blocking

Ads are annoying and can also be used to track your online behavior. Fortunately, some VPN providers offer an integrated ad-blocker in their apps. This feature is usually available for both desktop and mobile devices.

The adblocker prevents intrusive ads, pop-ups, and banners from loading. It also stops websites from tracking your online activity and loading malicious scripts that could infect your device with malware.

An ad-blocker is a valuable addition to any VPN service, especially considering the VPN’s purpose is to provide online privacy and security. 

Two-Factor Authentication

Two-factor authentication (2FA) is an extra layer of security that can be added to your VPN account. It usually takes the form of a code that is sent to your phone or email address whenever you try to log in. 

To gain access to your account, someone would need both your password and the code. 2FA is not a common feature among VPN providers, but it will improve the security of your VPN service credentials.

P2P Support

If you’re looking to torrent files or use file-sharing services, you’ll need a VPN that supports peer-to-peer traffic. Not all VPN providers allow P2P activity on their servers, so it’s important to check this before buying a subscription.

When P2P is supported, it allows you to download and share files without restrictions. This is a valuable feature for people who want to torrent movies, music, and software.

Keep in mind that some VPN providers stifle P2P traffic to reduce server load. Others offer a limited number of servers with P2P support in the VPN. The full meaning of throttled service comes down to slow download speeds and interrupted connections. 

If torrenting is important to you, contact your service provider’s customer support to check if it supports torrenting and what availability of P2P servers it offers.

Customer Support

Even the best VPN providers occasionally experience issues. That’s why it’s important to have access to quality customer support.

Ideally, a VPN network provider should offer 24/7 live chat support. This way, you can get help with any issues you might be having, regardless of the time of day or your location.

Some VPNs offer ticket support, which can sometimes take a few hours before you hear back. Other providers offer support only via email, which can take even longer. 

When choosing a VPN provider, check what kind of customer support is available. This valuable service can help you solve problems more efficiently and get the most out of your VPN.

The History of VPN Technology

The development of VPNs can be traced back to the early days of the internet. In 1996, a Microsoft employee developed PPTP, the first version of its VPN software. It was designed to allow employees to securely connect to their corporate network from anywhere in the world. PPTP quickly became the most popular VPN protocol and is still used today, especially by users who need a reliable VPN for home devices.

This protocol kickstarted the development of a virtual private network and all other encryption protocols. Today, 31% of all internet users employ a VPN connection, which is still too low if we want to have newer generations that will know how to protect their online identity.

Conclusion

VPN has become an essential tool for online privacy and security. The primary purpose of a VPN, by definition, is to provide a private network connection. However, when choosing a VPN provider, there are more features to pay attention to. A VPN is only as good as its encryption protocol, so select a VPN client that uses the most up-to-date and secure protocols. 

FAQ
What is a VPN, and why do I need it?

VPN stands for “Virtual Private Network” and allows you to browse the internet anonymously and securely. When you connect to a VPN, all of your internet traffic is routed through an encrypted VPN tunnel so that no one can see what you're doing online, which is the main purpose behind VPN protection.

How do I get a VPN?

There are many different VPNs available. Do your research and choose a reputable provider with a good reputation. If possible, always choose a paid VPN to avoid speed reductions.

Does VPN work on Netflix?

Several VPNs can bypass Netflix’s geo-restrictions. However, Netflix is constantly trying to block VPNs, so choosing a provider with servers known to work with Netflix is essential.

What do VPNs actually do?

VPNs encrypt your internet traffic and route it through a secure VPN tunnel. This way, no one can see what you're doing online. This is how a VPN protects you and your information. VPNs also allow you to bypass geo-restrictions to access websites and content that are not available in your country.

Can you be hacked while using a VPN?

VPNs are designed to be secure and prevent anyone from hacking into your internet traffic. However, no security measure is entirely foolproof, and a determined hacker may find a way to hack into your VPN connection regardless. 

Which free VPN is best?

There are many free VPNs available. Most free options often have speed or data limitations. If you are still unsure: “what is a VPN?” we recommend trying out some providers first. Depending on your budget, looking into a paid VPN might be better. 

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