What is a VPN? A Beginner's Guide

Callum Tennent
By Callum TennentUpdated
An illustration of how a Virtual Private Network (VPN) works

VPNs (or Virtual Private Networks) may seem complicated but they are very simple pieces of software that anybody can use.

In this guide we will tell you what a VPN is and how it works, why you should use one, which ones to avoid, and much more.

What is a VPN?

A VPN is a piece of software that, once installed and running, creates a secure and private connection between two or more devices.

A standard internet connection typically routes traffic from your device, through your internet service provider (ISP), and on to the website or app that you’re accessing.

Instead, a VPN uses your ISP’s connection to route traffic to a server in a location of your choice, and then on to your desired website or app.

The result is that your ISP can no longer see and monitor your internet activity, and your connection is far more secure. When you run a VPN your IP address changes, so that your internet browsing cannot be linked to your real IP address and location.

A good VPN service will therefore:

  1. Keep your online activity private
  2. Unblock restricted websites and apps
  3. Encrypt your connection for safer data transfers

You can read more about the benefits of using a VPN in the section below

A VPN does not replace your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and you will need an internet connection in order to use one.

You can use a VPN on any network, such as your home, school or work network, or public WiFi. They work with all popular devices as well as streaming devices, games consoles like the Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One.

Don’t confuse consumer VPNs with business/enterprise VPN solutions, which allow employees remote access to a company’s files and services.

If you’ve read enough and want to see the highest-scoring VPN providers, take a look at our best VPNs of 2019.

Why Do I Need a VPN?

A VPN keeps your internet activity private and secure. It stops ISPs and authorities from tracking what you do online. A VPN allows you to use public WiFi networks securely, safe from hackers. It will also unlock restricted websites/apps by making you appear in another country.

There are four big reasons to use a VPN:

  1. Keep your internet activity private from your ISP, the authorities and any other snoopers

It’s not just repressive regimes like China and Russia that strictly monitor their citizens online.

The UK, US and Australia have some of the most aggressive mass surveillance laws in the world, forcing ISPs to track customers’ every move and hand over all data.

Sensitive personal data can also be sold to advertisers without your explicit consent. The only way to stop this is by using a VPN.

When you connect via a VPN server, your ISP is unable to see your data – as it’s encrypted. Nor can it track your onward journey past that initial connection, keeping your internet activity private.

If your ISP can’t log your activity then there’s nothing to snoop through beyond the fact that you connected to various VPN servers, even that minimal information can be limited by choosing a VPN provider with a strict no-logs policy.

    1. Unlock online content that is restricted where you are

Not all websites and apps will be open to you from your current location. If this frustrates you then a VPN is exactly what you need.

When you use a VPN, your real IP address is replaced with the IP address of the VPN server, which can be located anywhere in the world. To the websites and apps you are visiting, you are just another visitor from that same country.

The best VPN providers will have servers in many locations around the world, so you can appear to be in any country you choose at the click of a button.

      1. Protect yourself from hackers on public WiFi

Public WiFi networks are convenient, but they are highly vulnerable to hackers sniffing out personal information to use in fraud. WiFi in restaurants, coffee shops, department stores and on public transport are all very risky.

A VPN encrypts your connection, making it impossible for anyone to intercept your data or as it’s transmitted over the network.

If you’re connected to a VPN, it’s much harder for a hacker to carry out a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack on your device.

        1. Evading censorship by the government, your ISP, your workplace or school

Online censorship works by the owner of the network blocking specific websites and apps. This can be at the very top level by governments forcing the the hand of ISPs or on local closed networks like schools or workplaces.

A VPN is an effective way around these blocks.

This is because your VPN connection is directing you to the censored site, rather than your internet provider.

If your are looking for a VPN that can get around government censors, we recommend using either ExpressVPN or VyprVPN.

How Does a VPN Work?

Illustration showing how a VPN works

A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between an internet-connected device, such as a laptop, and a remote VPN server.

Data is encoded at one end and decoded at the other, appearing safely as gibberish in between.

Onward traffic from the VPN server also assumes its IP address, replacing its original identification.

The VPN Basics: Software and Servers

A VPN has two parts: the software on your device and the remote VPN server, which is part of a global network.

The software creates an encrypted ‘tunnel’ between your device and your chosen VPN server, which then routes you on to whatever website or app you are trying to access.

You effectively take a detour via the VPN server on the way to your destination, but from your perspective there’s basically zero difference to how you would normally browse the web.

Your ISP can only follow you as far as the VPN server. It’s unable to track your onward journey, meaning your internet activity remains private.

The more distant the VPN server from your physical location, the slower the speed of your connection, as your data has further to travel. Connecting to the nearest possible server will usually give you the best fastest speeds.

Encryption

Why do you need an encrypted connection?

This is best explained by looking at what happens when you go online without a VPN:

  • Your ISP logs every website you visit and app you use
  • For websites without HTTPS implemented – a surprising number of popular sites – the risk of handing over your data to unknown parties is heightened.
  • On a public network, it’s also easy for a hacker to do the same thing or trick you into exposing sensitive personal data.

When you use a VPN, all of that becomes impossible. Here’s why:

  • Your data is broken down and each part, or ‘packet’, is hidden inside another packet, keeping it private from prying eyes.
  • These packets are then encrypted so that only your VPN software and the VPN server you are connected to can read the data, as only they have the key needed to decode its encryption.
  • Even if the data is intercepted, it will simply look like gibberish.

VPN Protocols

Illustration of a woman sat on top of a padlock, shield and secured laptop
There are several different methods of encrypting and transmitting data in this way, collectively known as VPN protocols.

These include, but are not limited to:

  • OpenVPN
  • LT2P/IPSec
  • IKEv2
  • PPTP
  • SSTP
  • WireGuard

You typically choose which VPN protocol to use in the settings of your VPN software, or just set it to auto and forget about it (if the app has an auto setting).

While it’s not necessary to understand each protocol in detail in order to use a VPN, just be aware that some are more secure than others.

OpenVPN is the best option for most people as it not only has the best balance of performance and security, but it’s also open source, meaning that it’s transparent and trustworthy.

To learn more, read our VPN encryption and protocols guide.

Preventing DNS Leaks

There are also other factors involved in effectively hiding your IP address when you connect to a VPN, such as preventing DNS leaks.

When you click a link or type in a URL, your browser’s request for the website you want to visit is made to a DNS server.

Every ISP has its own DNS servers, which act like an internet telephone directory, matching the user-friendly names with the actual IP addresses your browser needs to connect.

Problems arise when your browser’s DNS requests are made directly to the ISP’s servers, exposing your activity.

An effective VPN will prevent this by operating its own DNS servers and forcing all traffic through them.

If you’re concerned that your VPN is or will leak your true IP, follow our guide to check for any possible leaks.

Logging

It’s important to understand that by using a VPN you are shifting visibility of your internet activity from your ISP, who is not privacy-focused, to your VPN provider, which at the very least claims to be.

That’s why you should always pick a VPN provider that takes every precaution to ensure that it logs the tiniest possible amount of information about your connection, or better, nothing at all.

No respectable VPN will directly log any of your activity, but it may well collect general metadata about your connection, like when you logged on and off, and which server you connected to, for example.

Collection of these usage stats allows a VPN provider to keep its server network running as effectively as possible.

For more information take a look at our comprehensive guide to VPN logging.

How Do I Get a VPN?

Illustration showing a padlock on a laptop screen

  1. Decide your budget and make a list of your requirements
  2. Use a VPN review site (like ours) to compare providers
  3. Choose a VPN, pick a plan then start the checkout process
  4. Make your payment then click the link on the confirmation email
  5. Download and install the VPN app or VPN software
  6. Paste in the activation code from your email when prompted
  7. Click the big connect button to switch on your VPN

Before you decide upon a VPN, think about the following factors:

  1. What’s your budget?
  2. Will you need access to big streaming services like Netflix or BBC iPlayer via your VPN connection?
  3. What’s more important to you – performance or privacy?
  4. What server locations will you need?
  5. Which devices will you be using with the VPN?

Once you have a clear idea of what you need, use a VPN comparison service (like our ourselves) to find a VPN that meets your criteria. It’s worth taking the time to read reviews to ensure you get a VPN service that’s easy to use as well as being fast and private.

Most VPN services let you connect to multiple devices simultaneously, but there will usually be a limit on the number of connections at any one time.

You can use a VPN on all popular devices including iPhones, iPads, Android smartphones, PCs, Macs, Firesticks, consoles and more. It usually only takes a few minutes download and install your new VPN.

Follow these installation guides to set up a VPN on your preferred device(s):

  1. PC (Desktop/Laptop)
  2. Mac (Macbook/iMac)
  3. iPhone
  4. iPad
  5. Android smartphone
  6. TV
  7. Router
  8. Firestick
  9. Apple TV
  10. Chrome
  11. Firefox
  12. PlayStation

When you want to connect, simply decide which VPN location you would like to connect to and then click the big button – it’s as easy as that.

Are VPNs Legal?

VPNs are completely legal in the vast majority of countries. That said, a handful of countries have imposed different degrees of restrictions on VPNs.

The short answer is yes – they are 100% legal and fine to use in almost every country.

There are however a handful of places where VPNs are currently banned. These are: Belarus, Iraq, Turkmenistan and North Korea.

There are six more countries where you may only use ‘government approved’ VPN providers: China, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Using a non-authorized VPN in these nations is at your own risk.

You can read more about which countries have banned or restricted VPNs by heading to our guide to Are VPNs Legal?

Are VPNs Safe?

Illustration of hackers trying to gain access to an insecure computer

When you use a VPN, you’re placing trust in the VPN provider to protect your privacy and keep you secure. Independent expert advice, like the kind you’ll find on this website, is invaluable – and VPN user reviews from verified customers can be a big help, too.

It’s important to make sure your VPN provider is trustworthy. Remember, every time you connect to one of its servers, you are trusting them with data that you aren’t comfortable sharing with your ISP.

You need to use VPNs with customer-focused logging policies that put YOUR privacy first. While every provider will claim to have your best interests at heart, the detail of their terms of service, privacy and logging policy will prove whether that’s actually the case.

In every single one of our VPN reviews we help you make sense of a VPN service’s logging policies and how it responds to data/information requests from authorities. We also let you know whether a VPN has been found to be lying.

Am I Fully Anonymous with a VPN?

If the police want to find you, they probably will. Law enforcement can often cross-reference data from multiple sources, including basic VPN usage stats, to help prove serious crimes. For the average person protecting their privacy, using a VPN makes you much harder to trace.

A VPN does not make you fully anonymous, but it does keep you VERY private online.

However, the degree of privacy depends on a VPN provider’s logging policy.

When you visit websites on a VPN connection, those sites will log the IP address of the VPN server along with the time and date for each page you visit.

Depending on its logging policy, your VPN provider may log your IP address plus the time and date you connect and disconnect from a VPN server, along with its IP address.

Anyone able to get hold of both sets of data and cross-reference them could prove that you visited that website.

If you’re looking for a VPN that gives you the highest level of privacy, consider these four factors:

  1. What does its Privacy Policy say?
  2. What is its Logging Policy?
  3. Where is it based (what jurisdiction is it governed by)?
  4. Does it accept cryptocurrencies?

Many VPN services will not co-operate with data requests from authorities. The safest ones will be the ones that collect zero identifiable data, and are based in countries not subject to intrusive laws.

Here are other ways you can inadvertently expose yourself when using a VPN:

  1. DNS, IP and other leaks (hint: change VPN if yours is leaking)
  2. Location services enabled on mobile devices
  3. If you’re logged into a website/app (e.g. gmail)
  4. If you haven’t cleared the cookies in your browser

It’s also vital to choose a VPN with a kill switch, which will completely disconnect you from the internet should your VPN connection fail for any reason.

If you really need true anonymity, then using the special Tor browser is more appropriate. You can even use a VPN and Tor together for the most sensitive internet activity.

Are Free VPNs Any Good (and Safe)?

A free VPN always comes with a catch. At best, this might be very limited bandwidth, slow speeds or few server locations. At worst, a free VPN could be selling your data or spying on you. A paid VPN is almost always better.

Most free VPNs only offer tiny usage data allowances, limited server locations, slow speeds.

There are also dangerous risks with using a free VPN, as we discovered in our analysis of the 150 most popular free Android VPNs.

Worse, some free VPN providers may try to profit from your data. There have been reports of selling usage history to advertisers, secretly redirecting users via sponsored links to earn commissions, and even adding devices to a massive botnet.

Sometimes you just don’t know who’s operating a VPN and collecting data on you. We dive deeper into this in our free app investigation.

There are some good free VPNs, though. They won’t be as good as good paid VPN services but they will work for non-data heavy activity and will you give you taste of how VPNs work. If you want to try one out, we recommend these free VPNs.

Will a VPN Slow Down My Internet Speed?

A VPN will slow down your Internet speed, but by how much depends on the VPN that you’re using.

Why does a VPN slow down an Internet connection?

  1. A VPN encrypts the data your’re transferring through the VPN tunnel, and the higher the encryption the slower the connection (as the CPU needs to work harder). The type of security protocol your app is using will therefore affect your speed.
  2. The data then needs to be decrypted on the receiving (server) side.
  3. Data has extra headers and as such more meta data is added. That means your data packets become bigger.
  4. If you’re trying to connect to a server far away – for example from Australia to the UK – the latency and the path length to send the data increase.

Don’t be alarmed though, the best, fastest VPNs will barely affect your Internet speed and you won’t notice any difference.

Do I Need a VPN at Home?

You should use a VPN everywhere, even at home.

If you don’t use a VPN at home, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) will see everything that you do online. All the websites that you visit, all your browsing history, will be stored and will be open for misuse.

There are also many websites that are unsecure (don’t use HTTPS). Accessing HTTP-only websites without a VPN is risky, as these websites are easier to hack and your IP and location is therefore exposed to hackers.

Some websites and apps, whether partially or entirely, may be blocked where you live. If you want to unlock those sites/apps, you will need a VPN.

Sometimes you will only see a local version of a website (e.g. only the UK website, and not the US). By connecting to the appropriate country, you will be able to see the website version you’re after.

Can I Use a VPN for Torrenting?

You should always use a VPN when torrenting. If you don’t use a VPN, you may not to be able to access certain file-sharing websites that are blocked by your ISP. Also, your ISP will see your torrenting activity.

Not all VPN services allow torrenting/P2P traffic, though. Some only allow it on certain servers. To make sure you pick the right VPN, read through our best VPN for torrenting recommendations.

Can I Use a VPN with Netflix?

Yes, a VPN can be used to access Netflix, but not all VPN services work to get round the infamous Netflix proxy error.

These VPNs work with Netflix very well and do a great job at protecting your online privacy. They will:

  1. Allow you to encrypt all your Internet traffic, and still be able to stream Netflix from any device
  2. Allow you to access your favorite shows on Netflix, that may not be available where you are (if you’re on holiday abroad for example)

 

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