What Is a VPN?

Simon Migliano Head of Research at Top10VPN

Simon is a recognized world expert in VPNs. He's tested hundreds of VPN services and his research has featured on the BBC, The New York Times, CNet and more. Read full bio

A VPN, or virtual private network, is an application that creates a secure connection between your device and the internet. A good VPN will encrypt your web traffic, hide your IP address, and protect your privacy and security online.

With data theft, geo-blocking, and internet censorship on the rise globally, more and more people are using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to protect themselves.

A VPN allows you to hide your IP address, stay safe on public WiFi networks, and access region-restricted websites.

Unfortunately, not every VPN is trustworthy or effective. You need to ensure the service you use does not leak your IP address, log your data, or put you at risk in any way. Using a bad VPN is often worse than using no VPN at all.

This detailed beginner’s guide will tell you everything you need to know about VPNs. You’ll find out:

What Is a VPN?

Short for virtual private network, a VPN is a privacy tool that secures your internet connection in order to protect your privacy, anonymity, and freedom online.

Microsoft engineer Gurdeep Singh-Pall originally invented the technology in 1996 when he created the first VPN protocol, Point-to-Point Tunneling (PPTP).

Singh-Pall’s original idea was to create a service that “allowed people to work effectively and securely from home”.

VPNs are now used for much more than just remote working. Almost a third of internet users worldwide now use a VPN to secure a range of online activities, such as streaming, torrenting, and internet shopping.

But what is a VPN and what does it do? Simply put, a VPN performs two main functions:

1. Encrypts the data that travels to and from your device

VPN services use encryption to generate a secure tunnel between your device (e.g. smartphone or laptop) and a remote VPN server. Your data travels through this tunnel and is then forwarded onto your requested website or application.

The encrypted tunnel prevents internet service providers (ISPs), governments, and attackers from spying on your online activity. Any third party trying to monitor your connection will see nothing more than a sequence of unintelligible letters and numbers.

Skip to our How Does a VPN Work? section below for more on encryption.

2. Connects to a VPN server and hides your IP address

An IP (Internet Protocol) address is the unique identifying number given to every individual internet connection. Your physical location and everything you do online is linked to it.

With a VPN, you can hide your IP address from the websites you visit. Instead of seeing your true IP address, websites see the IP address of the VPN server that your connection is being routed through.

By masking your IP address, you can keep your physical location hidden as you browse the web. This helps to prevent advertisers from tracking and targeting you, and governments from surveilling you.

Using a VPN also lets you spoof your location. VPN providers offer servers located all around the world. The server location you connect to determines where websites and applications perceive your physical location to be.

Screenshot of Cyberghost VPN's server locations.

Screenshot of CyberGhost server locations in the Windows app.

You can trick websites into thinking you’re browsing, streaming, or torrenting from a particular city or country by selecting a server based in that location. This can be useful when it comes to bypassing internet censorship or unblocking geo-restricted content, such as another country’s Netflix library.

Using a VPN is crucial for online privacy and freedom, but it won’t protect you against all forms of tracking. For additional protection, you might consider changing to a private browser or using the Tor network.

The next section will briefly summarize our results from years of testing and reviewing VPN products. Alternatively, you can skip to our section on why you need a VPN or learn about how they actually work.


A VPN is a simple service that improves your privacy, security, and anonymity online by encrypting your internet traffic, routing it through a secure tunnel, and hiding your true IP address.

Why Do I Need a VPN?

A VPN allows you to protect your privacy, browse safely on public WiFi, access blocked content, and hide your online activity from onlookers. This graph lists the most common reasons people give for using a VPN:

Here are the five most important reasons why you need a VPN:

1. Avoid Global Mass Surveillance

Without a VPN, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can see all of the websites you visit and will almost certainly be recording that information.

In some countries, authorities pressure ISPs to collect and store user data for long periods of time. Governments can then access that information whenever they like. This is the case in the US, UK, Australia, and much of Europe.

Often, these countries are also members of secret, international intelligence-sharing alliances, known as Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and Fourteen Eyes. The Snowden revelations showed that the countries in these alliances work together to collect mass surveillance data and share it among themselves.

With a VPN, your internet traffic is encrypted as it travels from your device to the private server. This makes it much harder for governments, intelligence agencies, and ISPs to spy on your online activity. Unless they know how to decrypt it, the data they collect on you will be very difficult to interpret.

2. Bypass Internet Censorship

National authorities around the world censor online activity by preventing citizens from accessing certain websites. A 2019 Freedom House report found that global internet freedom had declined for the ninth consecutive year.

Using a VPN can help citizens (and tourists) evade censorship in order to access global media and communicate freely. For journalists, activists, and whistleblowers, VPNs are a vital resource for safely speaking out against governments that limit freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

By encrypting your traffic and masking your IP address, a good VPN for censorship will hide your true identity and true location from systems like the Great Firewall of China. You can then bypass website blocks and access content that is censored in your region.

3. Stay Safe on Public WiFi

Exploiting public WiFi networks to gather data is simple and incredibly cheap. Criminals can take advantage of open and unencrypted networks to steal important data like your bank details, credit cards, photos, and other personal information.

When you use the public WiFi connection in a café, hotel, or airport you are putting your sensitive data at risk.

Hackers are increasingly targeting hotels and shopping malls in pursuit of high-value targets.

This is made easier with tools like the popular ‘WiFi Pineapple’, which gives almost anyone the ability to take advantage of public WiFi networks for under $99.

A VPN can be used to protect yourself from this kind of threat. It will encrypt your internet traffic and make it much harder for hackers to intercept and steal your data. For this reason, a reliable VPN is invaluable if you travel frequently and regularly use open WiFi networks. For more details, read our public WiFi security guide.

Similarly, unprotected WiFi networks at home are also a risk. With much of the world in lockdown due to COVID-19 and many people working from home, criminals may turn their attention toward vulnerable home networks – a practice known as wardriving.

To learn more about this and how to protect yourself, check out our tips on staying secure when working remotely.

4. Unblock and Stream Geo-Blocked Content

Often, streaming services like Netflix or BBC iPlayer have different content libraries depending on your physical location. If you access Netflix from the US, for example, you’ll get the US Netflix library, which has way more content than any other country.

This can be annoying if you’re traveling or want to stream something that is only available overseas.

That’s where a VPN comes in.

Streaming services use your IP address to determine your physical location. With a VPN, your true IP address is masked by a VPN server in a location of your choosing. If you select a server in India, the streaming site will think you are located in India.

Using a VPN is therefore a reliable way to bypass geographical restrictions and unblock ‘hidden’ content from overseas. Unfortunately, not all VPNs work effectively for streaming. To find one that is suitable, skip to our streaming section below.

5. Stop ISP Throttling and Torrent Securely

Your ISP almost certainly monitors your online activity. If you live in a country without strong net neutrality laws, your ISP can even deliberately slow down your connection. This is called bandwidth throttling.

Typically, ISPs will throttle your connection when you perform bandwidth-heavy activities like downloading a large file or torrenting. However, some ISPs have also been accused of throttling connection speeds purely for their own business interests.

VPN encryption can stop ISPs from throttling your connection because it prevents them from seeing what you’re doing. Without access to your activity, it’s harder for them to know when to slow down your connection. This means you can enjoy fast speeds for downloading, torrenting, gaming, and streaming.

It also means you can torrent files more securely. Torrenting without a VPN can be risky: not only is your IP address visible to peers, but your ISP can also see that you are accessing torrenting sites and apps, too.

We don’t condone downloading copyrighted material – if you’re partaking in legal file sharing then a VPN is essential to keep your P2P activities private. Some VPN services are tailored to torrenting more than others, though – you can find an updated list of good VPNs for torrenting here.

How Does a VPN Work?

A VPN works by creating an encrypted internet connection between your device and a private server. This means your data is protected from your ISP and any other third parties that try to view it. They might see that data is being transferred, but not what the data is.

The private server then sends your traffic onto the website or service you want to access, making the request look like it came from the VPN server’s location and not your device’s location.

Diagram showing how a VPN works.

Once you have chosen and connected to a VPN server, the software works as follows:

  1. The VPN client on your device looks up the IP address of your chosen VPN server and initiates a connection.
  2. Your device and the server exchange data, such as your login credentials, and use encryption technologies to establish a secure VPN tunnel.
  3. Your internet traffic is sent through the encrypted tunnel to the VPN server.
  4. The server decrypts your traffic and forwards it onto your desired website or service.
  5. When the website sends information back to your device, it is again routed via the VPN server. At the server it is encrypted, sent through the VPN tunnel, and decrypted by the software on your device.

VPN Encryption

How your VPN tunnel is constructed and how secure it is depends on the type of encryption protocol being used.

Encryption is the process of turning a string of plain-text data into an unintelligible code so that only individuals with the correct decryption ‘key’ can understand it. Strong and up-to-date VPN encryption is essential to shield your data from onlookers and improve your online privacy. What’s more, a VPN is only as secure as the encryption it uses.

Two fundamental features of VPN encryption are VPN protocols and encryption ciphers. We’ll summarise each of these here – for a full explanation of these concepts, you should read our guide to VPN encryption where we cover additional features like handshakes, hash authentications, and perfect forward secrecy.

VPN Protocols

VPN protocols are the rules and processes that a VPN client follows in order to establish a secure connection between your device and the VPN server. The VPN protocol determines how your secure tunnel is actually formed.

Depending on the protocol in use, a VPN might have different speeds, capabilities, or even vulnerabilities. Most service providers will let you choose which protocol you’d like to use.

There are several VPN protocols available, but not all of them are safe to use. We recommend using a service with OpenVPN whenever possible.

The most common VPN protocols are:

  • OpenVPN: This is the recommended VPN protocol. It’s open-source, very secure, and compatible with almost all VPN-capable devices.
  • IKEv2/IPsec: Used alongside IPsec, IKEv2 is a newer, closed-source VPN protocol. It is secure, very quick, and handles network changes with ease. This makes it the ideal protocol for mobile devices that often switch between WiFi and mobile data.

  • WireGuard: The newest VPN protocol to date, WireGuard aims to be fast, secure, and more easily implemented than other protocols by using far fewer lines of code. While it is still in its early stages, it is being supported by an increasing number of VPN providers.

  • SoftEther: SoftEther is another relatively new VPN protocol. It delivers very fast connection speeds and good security. Unfortunately, it’s held back by some configuration vulnerabilities and is only compatible with a small number of VPN providers.

  • L2TP/IPsec: This protocol is fairly outdated and comes with some security flaws. There have been some suggestions that the protocol has been compromised by the NSA.

  • SSTP: SSTP is another closed-source VPN protocol. It’s owned by Microsoft and based on SSL 3.0, which is vulnerable to a specific MITM attack called Poodle. It hasn’t been confirmed whether SSTP is affected by this attack, but it’s probably not worth the risk.

  • PPTP: You should avoid PPTP if you can. This outdated protocol is not safe to use and can be hacked in a matter of minutes.

Here’s a diagram comparing the security of the most common VPN protocols:

Table of VPN encryption protocols and their security risks.

Encryption Ciphers

A cipher is an algorithm that encrypts and decrypts data. While a VPN protocol creates the VPN tunnel, a cipher is what encrypts your data before it flows through the tunnel.

When talking about encryption, we usually refer to a mixture of cipher type and key length. Generally speaking, the shorter the key length the less secure the encryption is. For example, AES-128 is a less secure cipher than AES-256.

AES-256 is the current gold standard for VPN encryption protocols. AES is the cipher, and 256 is the key length

As is the case with VPN protocols, there are several different ciphers available to providers. The most popular ciphers used in VPN software today are:

  • Advanced Encryption Standard (AES): AES is the VPN industry’s leading cipher. It provides ‘military-grade’ encryption and is used by the US government for confidential data. You’ll commonly find two key lengths: AES-128 and AES-256. Both are considered to be extremely secure.
  • Blowfish: Blowfish was once the default cipher used in OpenVPN, but it has mainly been replaced by AES now. Blowfish isn’t as secure as AES, and is vulnerable to ‘birthday attacks’.

  • Camellia: Though Camellia is very similar to AES in terms of security and speed, it suffers from not being certified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). It is rarely used in VPN software and hasn’t been as thoroughly tested as AES.

How to Choose a VPN

Remember that the right VPN for one person may not be the right VPN for you.

If you’re looking to travel to China, for example, you will need a VPN with strong encryption and advanced features like obfuscation. If you’re concerned primarily with streaming Netflix or torrenting files, you’ll want one with fast speeds and reliable connections. If you’re looking for a VPN that performs well overall, read our updated VPN recommendations for 2021.

When choosing a VPN, it’s important to ask yourself:

In this chapter, we’ll walk through each of the above questions one-by-one so that you can learn how to choose a VPN.

If you’ve already chosen a provider, you can skip to our next section on how to set up a VPN.

Illustration showing the features of a good VPN.

How Much Does a VPN Cost?

A high-quality VPN service will typically cost around $10 per month if you pay on a monthly basis. But this can drop considerably if you’re happy to pay up front. FastestVPN, for instance, can cost as little as $0.83 per month if you sign up for a five-year plan. Read our introduction to VPN prices to get a overall understanding of how much VPNs cost.

VPN subscriptions vary in price considerably, and a service’s cost doesn’t necessarily match its level of quality. You shouldn’t need to spend beyond your means to get a good-quality service.

There’s also the option of free VPNs. These can be appealing but be aware that while they won’t cost you any money, you’ll often end up paying for a free VPN with your privacy and security.

Not only could they put you at risk, but free VPNs also tend to be quite limited in the service they provide. You’ll need to look out for:

  • Monthly data caps
  • Slow speeds
  • Inability to bypass censorship
  • Limited server locations
  • Collection and sale of your personal data
  • No servers to unlock streaming services

If you do need to use a free VPN, be sure to read our list of the safest free VPN services in 2021. Or for more information on the dangers of free VPNs, check out our Free VPN App Investigation or Free VPN Risk Index.

Are VPNs Legal In Your Country?

Map showing where VPNs are illegal or restricted

Before using a VPN, you should be aware of whether virtual private networks are legal in your country of residence. We researched the laws of over 190 countries and found that:

  • VPNs are illegal in Belarus, Iraq, North Korea, and Turkmenistan.
  • VPN use is heavily restricted in China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In every other country around the world using a VPN is perfectly legal, including in the US, UK, Australia, and Canada.

It’s important to note, however, that illegal activity is still illegal whether you’re using a VPN or not.

How Safe Is the VPN?

Unfortunately, not all VPNs are safe to use. Many popular services are poorly-made, unreliable, and even dangerous.

An unsafe VPN can:

  • Log your browsing activity
  • Share your data with authorities
  • Fail to encrypt your traffic
  • Leak your identifying information
  • Infect your device with malware
  • Track your activity

To determine whether a particular VPN service is safe to use, there are a number of important topics to consider and questions to ask:

1Logging Policy: Does the VPN Keep Logs?

An illustration of a hand stealing files from a laptop

When you use a VPN you are trusting the provider with all of your internet traffic — that includes your IP address, all of the websites you visit, the messages you send, and all of your personal data.

A safe VPN will not log any data that could link you to your online activity, and will make this explicit in its logging policy. Be sure to read your provider’s privacy policy before trusting it with your personal data.

If you find that the VPN records your personal IP address or any activity data, avoid it at all costs.

The best VPNs have a zero-logs policy, meaning they don’t log:

  1. DNS requests or websites visited
  2. Your originating IP address
  3. VPN server IP address
  4. Connection timestamps
  5. Individual bandwidth usage

This screenshot from Hola VPN’s privacy policy provides a good example of what to avoid:

Screenshot from Hola VPN’s privacy policy

Screenshot from Hola VPN’s privacy policy.

In our recent investigation into 90 of the most popular VPN services’ logging policies, we found that a shocking 26% log your originating IP address.

For details of this investigation, as well as more information about logging policies, what to look out for, and which VPNs to avoid, check out our guide to VPN logging policies.

2VPN Jurisdiction: Where Is the VPN Based?

Where a VPN company is based — otherwise known as its jurisdiction — can have a huge impact on the privacy of your personal data.

Certain countries are more likely than others to force VPN companies to log private information or censor content.

Intelligence agencies in the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes countries have the power to compel organizations to store user information, which they then share among themselves.

These logging requests may also be accompanied by a gag order which makes it illegal for the provider to publicly disclose what they’re being compelled to do. In terms of privacy, these countries are the worst places to base a VPN company.

Map of intelligence alliances and VPN jurisdictions.

Heavily-censored countries, like China, Russia or Turkey, are also unsafe jurisdictions for a VPN. These countries are more inclined to force service providers to log or censor user activity.

Ideally, a VPN should be based in a country with strong privacy and net neutrality laws. The jurisdiction should have no ties to international surveillance regimes and no history of prosecuting citizens based on the contents of their browsing history.

Some of the best VPN jurisdictions include the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Panama, and Seychelles.

If you want to learn more about Five Eyes countries, VPN jurisdictions, and which providers to avoid, read our dedicated guide to VPN jurisdictions.

3Encryption Strength: How Good Is the VPN’s Technical Security?

A good VPN service needs to offer the latest and most secure levels of encryption in order to protect its users’ privacy and security. If a provider isn’t willing to disclose what encryption the software uses, then it’s not a safe VPN.

We recommend looking out for OpenVPN as it is the safest VPN protocol around. If a VPN only offers PPTP then don’t use it.

For encryption strength, you shouldn’t accept anything less than AES-256. It is the industry gold standard and is widely used by VPN providers.

Your chosen service should also offer a range of advanced security features such as kill switches, split tunneling, and obfuscation.

4IP, DNS & WebRTC Leaks: Does the VPN Leak Your Data?

illustration of two characters fixing a leaking server

Low-quality VPN services can leak your personal information to third parties without you even knowing. This could include your location, your IP address, the websites you visit, and more.

Needless to say, it’s unsafe to use a VPN that leaks your personal data. Even if the provider has a zero-logs policy, anyone viewing your connection will be able to see your identity or activity — making the VPN useless as a privacy tool.

There are four types of leak to be aware of:

  • IP Leaks: This happens when your VPN fails to mask your IP address with one of its own. This is a significant privacy risk; your ISP and any websites you visit will be able to link your online activity to your true identity.

  • DNS Leaks: A VPN is supposed to route your DNS requests to its own DNS servers. If instead it routes your DNS requests outside of the encrypted VPN tunnel, it’s called a DNS leak. This exposes your browsing activity and any websites you’ve visited to your ISP or any other eavesdroppers.

  • WebRTC Leaks: WebRTC is a browser-based technology that allows audio and video communications to work inside web pages. WebRTC has clever ways of discovering your true IP address even if a VPN is on. The best VPNs block WebRTC requests. Alternatively, you can disable WebRTC completely at the browser level.

  • IPv6 Leaks: IPv6 is a new format of IP addresses, but not many VPNs currently support it. Unless VPNs support or actively block IPv6, your personal IPv6 address can be exposed. This is called an IPv6 leak.

Our comprehensive guide to VPN leaks will teach you more about the different types of leak, how to test for a VPN leak yourself, and which leaky VPNs you should avoid.

5Malware and Tracking: Does the VPN Contain Malware or Tracking Tools?

Some of the most popular VPN services on the market are infected with malware that can do irreversible harm to your device.

Malware — short for ‘malicious software’ — is code designed to damage a computer or server and steal data from it. Attackers use malware to:

  • Hack into your online accounts
  • Steal your money
  • Steal any goods you own online
  • Lock you out of your devices until payment is received

Free VPNs offered by obscure companies are the most common offenders when it comes to hosting malware.

We tested the 150 most popular free VPN Android apps and found that 18% of them contained some form of virus or malware. Similarly, a 2016 academic report found malware in 38% of the 283 Android VPN apps tested.

In short, you have to be careful. The popularity of a VPN app in the Apple or Google Play Store does not guarantee its safety.

Instead, a good practice is to look for a VPN provider that has been independently audited, such as TunnelBear or VyprVPN. These services have been thoroughly tested for security vulnerabilities by independent experts, so you can trust that they are safe to use.

To avoid copycat applications you should also always download your VPN software from your chosen provider’s official website or app store page where possible.

Which Devices Does the VPN Support?

Now that you know which VPNs are safe and within your price range, you’ll want to find a service that is compatible with all of the devices you need to protect.

Do you have a Windows or Mac computer? An Android or iPhone? Will you want to use the VPN on specific streaming devices or games consoles?

Not every VPN will work on every device, so it’s important to do your research to find the right VPN for you.

You should also consider how many devices you want to use. The majority of services place a limit on the number of devices that can connect to the VPN simultaneously.

If you want to protect any devices over-and-above this limit, you’ll have to install your VPN at router level. This will encrypt the internet traffic from any devices that connect to it.

How Fast Is the VPN?

Connection speed is always important to consider, especially if you’ll be using the VPN to stream, torrent, or game.

Though a VPN will slow down your normal internet speeds somewhat, the best services are so fast that you won’t even notice.

Our VPN Speed Test Tool lets you test how fast a VPN is before you buy. You can compare up to five VPNs to see which one will give you the fastest and the most reliable connection speeds in your location.

VPN Speed Performance Comparison Chart

How Big Is the VPN Server Network?

Different VPN providers choose to implement their server networks in different ways. A lot of the time this isn’t something you need to worry about, but there are certain aspects of a server network that might be important:

  • Server Locations: If you’re looking to bypass censorship or access specific region-restricted content, you’ll need to make sure your VPN has servers located in the countries you need. For example, to access US-only news content, you’ll need a VPN with servers in the US.

  • Number of Servers: VPN providers vary dramatically in how many servers they offer. A larger network size can reduce the amount of server congestion and increase the likelihood of connecting to a server close to your physical location, both of which improve connection speeds.

To find out about your chosen VPN provider’s server network, check out its website or take a look at our reviews.

You should also consider the dangers posed by rented servers and virtual server locations. Our complete guide to VPN servers explores these issues in detail and explains what you can do to protect yourself.

Does the VPN Work with Streaming and Torrenting Services?

A man breaking through a wall with a hammer to reveal the Netflix logo

If you plan to use your VPN for streaming or torrenting services, you’ll need one that reliably works for each service.

When it comes to streaming, many VPN services are unable to unlock the ‘hidden’ content. And not every VPN that works with Netflix also works with Hulu or BBC iPlayer, for example.

You should consider which streaming sites you’ll want to access and find a VPN that is known to work with those services. If you have a region-specific content library in mind (e.g. Australian Netflix), you should ensure that your VPN unlocks it, as a VPN might unlock some Netflix libraries but not others.

When we review a VPN, we thoroughly test whether it works with multiple Netflix libraries, BBC iPlayer, Disney+, Hulu, HBO, Amazon Prime Video, and many more streaming services. For more, check out our best VPN recommendations for BBC iPlayer, Netflix, and Overall Streaming.

If you’re looking to torrent, you should also be careful about which VPN service you choose. As we mentioned, torrenting without a VPN can be dangerous so you can and should use a VPN if possible.

That said, some service providers don’t permit P2P traffic, while others restrict it to particular servers. Here are the best VPNs for torrenting in 2021.

If you want to watch Kodi, we’ve put together recommendations for the Best VPN for Kodi, as well as a guide to installing a VPN on Kodi.

Does the VPN Work in High-Censorship Countries?

If you live in or travel regularly to highly-censored countries that actively block VPN traffic, it is important to choose a service that uses special techniques to bypass the censors.

These special techniques are known as obfuscation tools — or, sometimes, ‘stealth’ protocols. They work to scramble VPN traffic so that it looks like normal HTTPS traffic. This makes it harder for the censorship system to detect.

If a VPN doesn’t come with obfuscation tools it’s unlikely to work in China, and it shouldn’t be your first choice for other high-censorship countries like Iran or the UAE.

If you’re looking for a service that utilizes obfuscation tools, ExpressVPN, StrongVPN, and VyprVPN are all good options.

How to Set Up a VPN

There are lots of different ways to set up a VPN on your device, and the process will differ depending on the type of device in question. By far the easiest and most common method is to download a custom app directly from your chosen service provider.

Most commercial VPNs come with custom apps for Windows, MacOS, Android, and iOS, but some also provide native apps for routers and streaming devices like Amazon Fire TV Stick too.

To install a VPN using a custom app:

  1. Purchase a VPN subscription from your provider’s website and verify your account by email. We’ll use NordVPN as an example.
    Screenshot of NordVPN subscription options.
  2. Download the VPN software from your provider’s website or click through to the Google Play Store or Apple App Store for Android and iOS devices. Click through the installation prompts and agree to the Terms of Service.
    Screenshot of NordVPN's download screen.
  3. Log into the VPN app using your account credentials.
    Screenshot of NordVPN's login screen.
  4. Go into the settings menu and enable the kill switch and leak blocking if available. Select the VPN protocol of your choice. We prefer OpenVPN.
    Screenshot of NordVPN's settings menu.
  5. Go back to the app’s main screen and select a VPN server location from the locations list.
    Screenshot of NordVPN's server list.
  6. Click the connect button. You will now be connected to a VPN server in your chosen location.
    Screenshot of NordVPN connected.

It’s important to note that not all VPN services come with custom apps for every device. However, you may still be able to use your VPN on a different device if it supports manual configuration.

Manual configuration can be a complicated process, but if you follow the instructions provided on the provider’s website you shouldn’t have a problem.

Most devices have integrated VPN support, which means that all you need to do is upload the VPN service’s configuration files to the built-in client. You can usually find the client within network settings.

If you’d like to use OpenVPN, you’ll have to download a third-party app — like OpenVPN’s client software — and then upload the VPN service’s configuration files.

We’ve produced detailed guides for how to install a VPN on a range of platforms and devices. You can access these here.

You can also set up your own VPN server at home, but it’s a complicated process with a lot of room for error. Home-made VPN servers aren’t ideal for accessing restricted content or for your online privacy as your ISP can still log your online activities.

If you’d like to know how to build your own VPN server at home, check out our guide to setting up your own VPN server.

What Does a VPN Do?

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) creates a secure connection between your device and the internet. The service encrypts your data and sends it through a remote, private server before passing it onto your requested website or application.

When you use a VPN, it masks your IP address and allows you to:

    • Protect yourself against government and ISP surveillance
    • Prevent attackers from spying on your personal information
    • Hide your identity and activity from advertisers
    • Bypass internet censorship and IP blocks
    • Stay safe on public WiFi networks
    • Stop ISP throttling
    • Torrent securely
    • Access region-restricted streaming sites and unlock Netflix libraries

Using a VPN is one of the best ways to ensure your privacy, security and freedom online.

Are Free VPNs Safe?

There are lots of free VPNs on the market, but most of them are limited at best and dangerous at worst.

Without an income from subscription fees, free VPNs are far more likely to offer insecure, slow, or ineffective services and monetize their users by tracking, storing, or selling your personal information and online activity.

Here at Top10VPN.com we’ve conducted a number of investigations into free VPN products and our findings have often been disturbing:

Clearly, using a free VPN can sometimes be worse than using no VPN at all.

It’s not all bad news, though. There are some free VPN services that we consider safe to use. They might not unblock Netflix reliably or work for torrenting, but they’ll hide your IP address, secure your data without leaks, and give you good connection speeds.

There are also ‘freemium’ VPN services, where providers offer users a free trial or restricted version of their paid product.

Freemium VPNs are more trustworthy than free VPNs. They make money from subscriptions, so are less inclined to monetize their users.

VPN providers that offer ‘freemium’ services include Windscribe, ProtonVPN, and TunnelBear. Alternatively, you can read our recommendations for the best VPN free trials.

Do VPNs Slow Down Your Internet?

All VPNs will slow down your internet speeds to some degree. With the very best VPNs, however, the impact is negligible.

Fundamentally, a VPN works by diverting your web traffic through its own servers. As with any diversion, this adds distance to the connection’s journey and reduces its speed.

Encryption can also add to the time taken to load sites or download files. Loosely speaking, the stronger the encryption, the longer the delay.

To maximize your VPN speeds, you can choose a VPN server closer to your physical location or change the VPN protocol. Faster protocols include IKEv2 or WireGuard.

In some circumstances, a VPN might actually improve your connection speeds. If you’re experiencing ISP throttling on your normal internet connection, using a VPN can stop your connection being throttled and therefore increase your internet speed.

Can You Be Tracked If You Use a VPN?

Yes, you can still be tracked when using a VPN.

With a VPN, your online activity will be much more private compared to surfing the web without one. However, a VPN will not make you completely anonymous.

If someone was serious about trying to track your activity, your IP address is just one approach they could use to try and identify you.

Other methods they could use include:

  • Cookies and Trackers: Cookies and web trackers are tools used by websites and advertisers to customize their services for specific users. They store information — such as your name, gender, location, and sometimes browsing habits — which can be used to identify you even when you use a VPN.

  • Browser Fingerprinting: Your device provides websites you visit with detailed information about your operating system, browser, and hardware. The sum of this information forms a unique ‘fingerprint’, which attackers might use to track and identify you.

  • IP, DNS and WebRTC Leaks: A poor-quality VPN can expose your identity by leaking information like your true IP address or DNS requests. To avoid tracking, it’s crucial to use a trusted VPN service.

  • Traffic Fingerprinting: When you use a VPN, your ISP can still see that data is being passed between your device and a VPN server — it just can’t see any details about that data (e.g. its content or destination). However, it’s sometimes possible to determine the kind of traffic being transmitted (i.e. web pages, streaming, P2P etc.) through a sophisticated analysis of timings and density, known as Traffic Fingerprinting.

  • Browsing Behavior: If you’re signed into web accounts such as Facebook and Google while browsing the internet, it won’t matter that your traffic is encrypted. These companies will be able to monitor your activity and link it to your VPN IP address.

Our guide to private browsing explores a number of ways you can keep your activity private and free from tracking, which extend beyond using a VPN.

If you’re after maximum anonymity, you might consider using the Tor browser. Tor differs from a VPN in a number of important ways. You can learn about these in our comprehensive Tor vs. VPN guide.

Are There Any Downsides to Using a VPN?

Though a good VPN is an essential tool for every internet user, it can’t do everything. It is important to be aware of what a VPN won’t do, as well as some of the dangers associated with using a VPN:

  1. Slower Connection Speeds

    As mentioned, using a VPN will almost always result in some degree of speed loss. Encrypting your data and routing it via an external server will inevitably add delays to the connection. With a good-quality VPN, however, the speed loss is so small you won’t even notice it.

  2. You’re Not Fully Anonymous with a VPN

    Though a VPN will hide your identity from the websites you visit and prevent third parties from monitoring your activity, it will not provide you with complete anonymity. The VPN provider itself still has the capacity to see what you’re doing.

    This is why it is crucial to use a trustworthy VPN service with a verified no-logs policy. Often poor-quality services, including most free VPNs, will exploit their privileged position in order to collect and sell your personal information.

  3. Websites That Block VPNs

    Websites and services, such as Netflix, are getting better at blocking VPN users from accessing their content. They do this by figuring out which IP addresses belong to VPN servers and banning those addresses from entering the site. If you plan to use a VPN to access streaming content, make sure you find a service that is known to unlock your preferred platform.

  4. Your Online Accounts May Become Temporarily Suspended

    When browsing with a foreign IP address, online accounts such as internet banking may register a security breach and temporarily suspend your account as a safety precaution. This is only a small annoyance though as these suspensions are temporary and can be easily removed.

Is a VPN Worth It?

Absolutely. A good VPN is as a worthy investment into your security, privacy, and freedom. It prevents costly data loss, opens up your browsing capabilities, and protects your right to privacy.

We thoroughly test each VPN reviewed on our website and make sure to keep our recommendations up-to-date so that you can make an informed decision. You can read all about our review process here.

About the Author

  • Simon Migliano Head of Research at Top10VPN

    Simon Migliano

    Simon is a recognized world expert in VPNs. He's tested hundreds of VPN services and his research has featured on the BBC, The New York Times, CNet and more. Read full bio