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What Is a VPN (Virtual Private Network)?

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Simon Migliano Head of Research at Top10VPN
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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 a simple piece of software 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.

When you use a good VPN service, you can:

  • Hide your true IP address from websites and apps you use
  • Access geographically-restricted web/video content
  • Torrent files anonymously and securely
  • Encrypt your data transfers on insecure WiFi networks

Sadly, not every VPN is trustworthy or effective. We recommend using a reliable VPN that doesn’t leak your IP address, log your data, or put you at risk in any way.

Keep reading to see which safe VPNs we recommend using.

What Is a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a piece of software used to keep your internet activity private and secure.

The VPN creates a secure tunnel between your device and a private VPN server before forwarding your traffic on to the website or application you’re visiting.

This stops Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and authorities from tracking what you do online. It also protects you from hackers looking to intercept your traffic.

A VPN keeps your browsing activity private by encrypting your internet traffic, routing it through a secure tunnel, and masking your true IP address.

This means you can trick websites into thinking you’re browsing, streaming, or torrenting from a specific city or country.

Top VPN Services

Our expert reviewers regularly test over 69 VPN services on criteria such as speed, security, privacy, streaming ability, torrenting performance, customer support, and bypassing censorship.

Here are three of the best-performing VPNs in June 2021:

1. ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is currently the best VPN there is.

It’s very fast, uses highly-secure AES-256 encryption and OpenVPN protocol, and is excellent for streaming, torrenting and bypassing censorship.

ExpressVPN streams over 19 Netflix libraries, Disney+, BBC iPlayer, HBO, Hulu, and many more.

Also, the VPN service has a verified no-logging policy and is based in a privacy haven (British Virgin islands) so you know you can trust it with your data.

The service offers 3,000 servers in 94 countries around the world, and its apps are user-friendly and compatible with all major devices and platforms.

Try ExpressVPN Risk-Free for 30 Days.

2. Private Internet Access

Private Internet Access is also a very good VPN service.

PIA VPN delivers strong security, privacy and speed for a budget-friendly price.

The VPN lets users watch US Netflix from anywhere in the world, and permits P2P traffic on much of its 35,900 servers.

Try PIA VPN Risk-Free for 30 Days.

3. CyberGhost

CyberGhost is a very good all-round VPN.

CyberGhost is another budget VPN that lets you stream US Netflix, Disney+ and most other streaming platforms from abroad.

It delivers fast connection speeds and protects your data using the strongest encryption protocols.

CyberGhost won’t work in highly-censored countries like China. But the service supports safe torrenting, has very easy-to-use apps, and even offers a generous 45-day money-back guarantee.

Try CyberGhost Risk-Free for 45 Days.

Best VPN by Category

Each user differs in terms of what exactly they’re looking for from a VPN. There may be a particular VPN service that is optimal for you based on the devices you own, the amount you’re willing to spend, and what you plan on using it for.

Here is a quick overview of our VPN recommendations in a range of categories:

Category Our Recommendation
Best Overall VPN ExpressVPN
Best Cheap VPN PIA VPN
Best VPN for Netflix ExpressVPN
Best VPN for Torrenting ExpressVPN
Best VPN for Kodi & Firestick IPVanish
Best VPN for Gaming ExpressVPN
Best VPN for Windows ExpressVPN
Best VPN for Mac ExpressVPN
Best VPN for Android ExpressVPN
Best VPN for iPhone ExpressVPN

Why You Should Use a VPN

A VPN can be relied upon to stay anonymous online, maintain your privacy, access blocked content, or hide your activity. Here are the most common reasons for using a VPN:

1Hide your online activity from your government or ISP.

Illustration showing a blurred man hidden behind a magnifying glass.

Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can see all of the websites you visit and will almost certainly be recording that information.

In some countries, ISPs are required to collect and store user data for long periods of time and the government is able to access, store, and search that information.

This is the case in the US, UK, Australia, and much of Europe — just to name a few.

Because VPNs encrypt the internet traffic from your device to the VPN server, your ISP or any other third party won’t be able to spy on your online activity.

2Hide your IP address from the websites you visit.

Illustration of a door being closed.

One of the most common reasons for using a VPN is to mask your true IP address.

Your IP address is a unique numerical address assigned by your ISP. Everything you do online is linked to your IP address, so it can be used to match you to your online activities. Most websites record the IP address of their visitors.

Advertisers can also use your IP address to serve you targeted adverts based on your identity and browsing history.

When you connect to a VPN server, you will take on the IP address of that VPN server. Any websites you visit will see the IP address of the VPN server rather than your own.

You’ll be able to bypass IP address blocks and browse websites without your activity being traced back to you as an individual.

3Unlock websites and bypass geo-restrictions.

Illustration of a woman browsing across the world.

Certain services — like Netflix or Disney+ — alter their libraries depending on the country you’re visiting from.

Your IP address links you to your physical location. Using a VPN to change your visible IP address is the only reliable way to bypass these geographical restrictions and unlock the ‘hidden’ content.

VPNs can also help you evade censorship by encrypting your traffic and masking your true IP address. If you want to view content that is locked to another country or censored in your region, you can use a VPN to bypass these restrictions.

Using a VPN can help citizens bypass website blocks to access global media and communicate freely. In countries that limit freedom of speech and freedom of the press, a VPN can help individuals speak out against the government safely and privately.

4Protect your data on public WiFi networks.

Illustration of a man connected to public wifi while traveling.

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.

You can protect your device by using a VPN, which will encrypt your internet traffic and make it much, much harder for hackers to intercept and steal your data.

5Stop ISP throttling and torrent safely.

Illustration of a man speeding up his connection

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 when you carry out bandwidth-heavy activities like downloading a large file or torrenting. This is called bandwidth throttling.

VPN encryption can help to prevent ISP throttling, meaning that you can enjoy the best speeds for downloading, torrenting, gaming, and streaming — all the while unlocking content from all over the world.

Torrenting without a VPN is also pretty risky. Not only is your IP address visible to peers, your ISP can also see that you are accessing torrenting sites and apps, too.

How Does a VPN Work?

A VPN creates a private and encrypted internet connection between your device and a private server.

This means your data can’t be read or understood by your ISP or any other third-parties. The private server then sends your traffic onto the website or service you want to access.

Diagram showing how a VPN works.

Here’s how a VPN works:

  1. You sign up to your chosen VPN service.
  2. Install the VPN software on your device. This software is called a VPN client or application.
  3. Sign in to your VPN with your account details and choose the location of a VPN server you want to connect to.
  4. When you click ‘connect’ on the VPN app, the VPN client will look up the IP address of your chosen VPN server.
  5. The VPN client initiates a connection with the VPN server. They then establish an encrypted VPN tunnel. The VPN tunnel is a secure link between your device and the VPN server.
  6. Your device’s internet traffic is sent through the encrypted VPN tunnel to the VPN server.
  7. The VPN server then forwards the internet traffic onto the website or service you are trying to access. If the VPN is working as it should, the website will only see the IP address of the VPN server, not your originating IP address.

Every VPN service comes with a list of server locations, and the best VPNs will allow you to choose from a range of countries and cities around the world.

Screenshot of Cyberghost VPN's server locations.

Screenshot of CyberGhost VPN server locations in the Windows app.

Avoid Free VPNs if Possible

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

Here are the main issues with free VPNs:

  • Monthly data caps.
  • Limited server choice.
  • Slow speeds.
  • Abuse of your personal data.
  • No technology to bypass censorship.
  • No servers to unlock streaming services.

The True Cost of Free VPNs

VPN services can monetise your data in unexpected ways. It’s expensive to develop and operate a reliable VPN, and many low-cost or free services choose to subsidise the price of subscription with income from other channels.

If you’re not paying for your VPN service at all, it’s likely that some form of data collection, sharing, or sale is occurring in order to cover the cost of the product.

Many of these free services also rely heavily on advertising, which is less than ideal for privacy.

Our investigations have revealed that some of the most popular free VPNs on the market have secret links to mainland China, while 85% of the most popular free Android VPN apps feature excessive permissions with the potential for privacy abuses.

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