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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 virtual private network (VPN) is a type of software that protects your privacy, security, and freedom online. It establishes a secure tunnel between your device and a remote VPN server, creating a private network inside a public connection.

ExpressVPN application

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It’s a simple type of software that achieves three main things when you connect to the internet: stronger security, better privacy, and more freedom.

When you connect to the internet using a VPN, the VPN software creates a secure connection between your device and a remote VPN server.

This encrypts your browsing data and hides your public IP address, allowing you to use public WiFi securely, unblock region-restricted websites, and hide your web traffic from your Internet Service Provider (ISP).

The three main advantages to using a VPN are:

  1. Mask your IP address so your identity is hidden from the websites you visit.
  2. Encrypt your web traffic to hide your activity from anyone attempting to monitor you.
  3. Spoof your location to unblock content that is restricted in your location.

VPNs aren’t just for computers or laptops, either — you can download and install a VPN application on your smartphone, tablet, smart TV and router, too.

This beginner’s guide to virtual private networks will explain exactly what a VPN is, how it works, and why you need one. We’ll explain the advantages and disadvantages of VPNs, how much they cost, and what you need to look out for when choosing a safe VPN service.

What Is A VPN: Video Explainer

To help you understand the basics of VPN software, we’ve created a short video explaining exactly what a VPN is and how it works:

If you’re still unsure of anything after this video, keep reading or let us know in the comments below. We’re happy to help.

Why Do You Need a VPN?

illustration of a man hiding his IP address.

A good-quality VPN has many purposes related to online privacy, security, safety, anonymity, and freedom.

In 2020, we collaborated with GlobalWebIndex to interview VPN users around the world and find out why they used a VPN. The common reasons to use a VPN are:

  1. To protect privacy on public WiFi networks (51%)
  2. To browse the web anonymously (44%)
  3. To communicate more securely (37%)
  4. To access restricted download/stream/torrent sites (23%)
  5. To access better entertainment content (22%)

These are the most popular, but they are certainly not the only reasons you need to be using a virtual private network.

LEARN MORE: For an in-depth look at everything you can do with a VPN, read our ‘What Is a VPN Used For?’ guide.

How Do VPNs Work?

A VPN works by creating an encrypted connection between your device and a private VPN server. This connection is known as the VPN tunnel.

How VPNs Work Diagram

VPNs create an encrypted tunnel between your device and a remote server.

By encrypting your data and sending it through a tunnel, the VPN prevents internet service providers (ISPs), governments, and hackers from spying on your online activity.

Once your traffic reaches the VPN server, it is decrypted and sent on to the website or app you’re using. This has the effect of hiding your IP address because the connection looks like it’s coming from the VPN server’s location, and not your location.

In short, a VPN encrypts your traffic data and replaces your IP address with the IP address of the server you’re connected to.

LEARN MORE: For a more technical look at VPNs, read our full guide to how VPNs work or take an in-depth look at the different VPN protocols.

Mobile VPNs

VPN apps are available on desktops, smartphones, and basically any device you can think of.

Mobile VPNs work on both WiFi and cellular data (e.g. 4G), but you will need an existing internet connection for the service to connect. (In other words, you can’t use a VPN without the internet.)

Once connected, all of your phone’s internet activity will be encrypted and routed through the VPN server. Your IP address will also be protected.

Two things to be aware of with mobile VPNs are:

  1. VPNs only protect data sent over the internet. This means that standard voice calls and SMS text messages are not encrypted. Use WiFi-based calling and messaging services, such as WhatsApp or iMessage, to keep your communications secure.
  2. Mobile VPNs use data. It’s sometimes reported that using a mobile VPN will let you bypass your phone contract’s data limit. This is not true. In fact, our research has shown that a VPN uses 4-20% more data than not using a VPN, so you’ll reach your data limit sooner. Read more about this in our guide to VPN data use.

Are VPNs Safe?

fixing a leaking VPN server

A virtual private network is an essential cybersecurity tool in 2021, with data theft, mass surveillance, and internet censorship on the rise globally.

But is a VPN always safe to use? The short answer is no.

While there are many legitimate and safe VPN services around, there are also a large number of dangerous VPN products that you need to avoid. Downloading an unsafe VPN can put you at risk of malware, hacking, identity theft, legal action and more.

The most common offenders are free VPNs. Our free VPN safety investigations have found that some shady companies create dangerous free VPN apps as a way to steal users’ personal information and monitor their online activity.

Even premium VPNs can be unsafe to use if you’re not aware of a few important concepts:

VPN Logging Policies: If your VPN provider keeps a record of who you are, when you connect to its servers, and which websites you visit, it is a threat to your privacy. This information could be exposed or governments could force the VPN to hand it over. For maximum safety, you need to use a verified, no-logs VPN service. You can read more about logging policies in our VPN logs guide.

VPN Leaks: The purpose of a VPN is to hide your IP address and keep your online activity private and secure. A VPN app that leaks your IP and DNS information is not doing its job, and you shouldn’t use it. Use our VPN leak test tool to check whether your service is leaking, or check out the findings from our research into which VPNs leak.

VPN Laws: VPNs aren’t legal to use everywhere in the world. In some countries – including China, Belarus and Russia – using a VPN is either illegal or severely restricted. For a complete overview of VPN laws around the world, read our report on where VPNs are legal and illegal.

VPN Jurisdictions: Different countries have different approaches when it comes to the privacy of their citizens’ data. Governments in the Five Eyes alliance, for example, impose strict data retention laws and regularly force companies to hand over records of user activity. Your safest option is to use a VPN that is based in a privacy-friendly country. To learn more about the Five Eyes alliance and privacy-friendly countries, read our VPN jurisdictions guide.

Virtual Server Locations: The location of the VPN server you connect to can also be important for privacy and safety. Many VPN providers use ‘virtual server locations’, where the advertised IP address doesn’t match the server’s physical location. Our VPN server security guide covers everything you need to know about virtual server locations, rented VPN servers, and more.

How Much Do VPNs Cost?

A safe, premium VPN can cost anywhere from around $2 a month to $12 a month.

The price of a VPN depends on a number of factors, including which VPN provider you choose and how long you’re willing to subscribe for. You usually have to pay for the entire subscription up front.

screenshot of Surfshark's pricing options

Surfshark is one of the best value for money VPNs, at just $2.49 a month.

It isn’t the case that more expensive VPNs are always better, either. You’ll have to do your research to find the best VPN for your needs (e.g. streaming, torrenting, traveling etc.) at a price that fits your budget.

Our VPN Cost guide is a good place to start. It features a large VPN price comparison table, so you can get a quick overview of how much VPNs cost and which are the best value for money.

Are There Disadvantages to Using a VPN?

The main disadvantages of using a VPN come from not understanding its limitations.

A VPN isn’t a catch-all solution for all of your online privacy and security issues: it can’t guarantee you absolute anonymity, most VPNs won’t protect you against malware, and many will struggle to unblock the streaming service or censored website you’re trying to access.

Using a VPN will almost always slow down your internet speeds and increase your data consumption, too.

LEARN MORE: It’s important to understand what your VPN service cannot do so you’re not left exposed or unprotected online. Read our full VPN disadvantages guide for an overview of VPN software’s ten most important limitations.

What Is the Best VPN?

We’ve tested and reviewed hundreds of VPN apps over the years, and currently our top-rated service is ExpressVPN.

It’s very fast, works well for streaming, torrenting and gaming, and is leading the industry when it comes to security standards and finding innovative ways to safeguard user privacy.

To learn more, read our ExpressVPN review or check out our other VPN reviews.

The simple truth, however, is that there is no definitive ‘best’ VPN.

ExpressVPN is our highest-scoring VPN overall, but it might not be the right VPN for you. That depends entirely on what you want a VPN for. For example:

  • Are you trying to stream foreign Netflix libraries?
  • Do you want to stay safe on public WiFi networks?
  • What device will you be using the VPN on?

LEARN MORE: Every VPN comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. For an overview of which services we recommend in each category, check out the top VPNs of 2021.

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