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What Is a VPN?

Simon Migliano

Simon Migliano 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 and more.

VPN stands for “Virtual Private Network”. VPN software is designed to protect your privacy, security, and freedom online. It establishes an encrypted tunnel between your device and a remote VPN server, creating a private network inside a public internet connection.

Two examples of popular VPNs, ExpressVPN and Private Internet Access

Two examples of popular VPN services, ExpressVPN and Private Internet Access.

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It’s a type of software that achieves three key benefits when you connect to the internet: stronger security, improved privacy, and greater freedom.

When you connect to the internet using a virtual private network, the software creates an encrypted connection between your device and a remote VPN server.

A personal VPN service (not to be confused with a business/corporate VPN) encrypts your internet data transfers and changes your public IP address to the one assigned by the remote server.

As a result, personal VPNs let you access free public WiFi securely and mask your internet traffic by hiding your IP address. The best ones can even unblock geo-restricted websites and applications.

The three key advantages of using a VPN are:

  1. Masking your IP address to hide or change your location from the websites you visit.
  2. Encrypting your web traffic to protect your data transfers on insecure WiFi networks.
  3. Preventing your ISP and other third-parties from monitoring your internet activity.

VPN services aren’t just for computers or laptops. You can also install a VPN application on your mobile phone and tablet. The best VPNs even work on smart TVs, games consoles, and routers, too.

In this beginner’s guide to virtual private networks, we explain in detail what a VPN is, how it works, and why you need one.

We’ll also cover 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 created a short video explaining what a VPN is and how it works:

If you’re still unsure about how a VPN works after watching the video above, keep reading this guide or ask us a question in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

Why Do You Need a VPN?

Man hiding his IP address.

A good-quality VPN has many purposes related to internet 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 to:

  1. Protect privacy on public WiFi networks (51%)
  2. Browse the web anonymously (44%)
  3. Communicate more securely (37%)
  4. Access restricted streaming/file-sharing/torrent sites (23%)
  5. Access international entertainment content (22%)

These are the most popular uses, but there are also other reasons for using a virtual private network.

How Does A VPN Work?

A VPN works by creating an encrypted connection between your device and a private VPN server.

This secure connection is known as the VPN tunnel, and a VPN uses a range of VPN protocols to transfer the data.

How a VPN works

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

By encrypting your data and transferring it through a tunnel, the VPN prevents internet service providers (ISPs), governments, and hackers from spying on your web 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 is being relayed from the VPN server’s location, and not your location.

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

To learn about this process in more detail, read our full explanation of how VPN services work.

What Does A VPN Hide?

A VPN hides your IP address and online activity from your ISP, the Government, and the websites you visit. It does this by encrypting your data and routing your web traffic through a remote VPN server.

Connecting to a VPN can hide:

  • Your public IP address
  • Your geographic location
  • Your browsing activity
  • Your personal information
  • Your torrenting & P2P activity
  • That a VPN is in use

However, a VPN’s ability to conceal your personal data is dependent on who you’re trying to hide it from. Different entities have different levels of access to your information.

For example, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) assigns and administers your real IP address, which means you can’t hide it from them. You can, however, conceal your browsing activity from your ISP.

Similarly, the websites you visit will still be able to see your browsing activity. However, you can hide your real IP address from them. They’ll be able to see what you do, but not who you are.

What Are the Different Types of VPN?

There are four main types of VPN software: personal VPN services, remote access VPNs, mobile VPNs, and site-to-site VPNs.

Personal VPN services are the most common type of VPN software for users at home, and they’re also the type of VPN software that we review at Top10VPN.com.

These VPNs use technologies like OpenVPN or WireGuard to create encrypted connections to remote servers, helping users to obfuscate their IP address and evade censorship or geographic restrictions.

Where we describe the features of VPNs in this article, we’re referring to personal VPN services exclusively.

By comparison, remote access VPNs are typically used by employees to access their company’s files when traveling or working from home. In the absence of a stable internet connection, a mobile VPN may also be used instead.

Finally, site-to-site VPNs are most commonly used when there are multiple companies trying to connect to a single network simultaneously.

Mobile VPNs

VPN applications are available on desktops, smartphones, and many more devices. When you use a VPN service on your mobile device, it’s sometimes referred to as a mobile VPN.

Mobile VPNs work on both WiFi and cellular data (e.g. 4G and 5G), 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 to a VPN server, all your phone’s internet activity is encrypted and routed through the VPN server. Your IP address also changes.

Two things to be aware of with mobile VPNs are:

  1. VPNs only protect data sent over the internet. Standard voice calls and SMS text messages are not encrypted. Use WiFi-based calling and messaging services, such as WhatsApp or iMessage, to secure your communications.
  2. Mobile VPNs use data. Reports claiming a mobile VPN bypasses your phone contract’s data limit are wrong. Our research on VPN data use shows that a VPN uses 4-20% more data than not using a VPN, so you’ll reach your data limit sooner.

Are VPNs Safe?

Fixing a leaking VPN server

With data theft, mass surveillance, and internet censorship on the rise globally, a virtual private network has become a very important cybersecurity tool.

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

While there are many legitimate and safe VPN services, there are also a large number of dangerous VPN products you must avoid.

Downloading an insecure VPN puts you at risk of malware, hacking, identity theft, legal action and more.

Free VPNs are the most common offenders. Our free VPN safety research has exposed dangerous free VPN apps that steal users’ personal data and sell their internet activity.

Even paid-for VPNs can be unsafe to use, if you’re not aware of a few important concepts:

VPN Logging Policies: If your VPN service keeps a record of your originating IP address, when you connect to its servers, and which websites you visit, it is a threat to your privacy. This information could leak, or governments could force the VPN company to hand it over. For maximum security, you must check a VPN’s logging policy, and use a verified no-logs VPN service.

VPN Leaks: The purpose of a VPN is to hide your IP address and keep your internet activity private and secure. A VPN that leaks your IP and DNS credentials is not doing its job, and you shouldn’t use it. Use our VPN leak test tool to see if your service is leaking, and our kill switch tool to test if your real IP address isn’t exposed following a VPN disconnection. You can also test your DNS servers directly.

VPN Laws: VPNs are legal in most countries. However, in some countries – including China, Turkey and Russia – using a VPN is either illegal or severely restricted.

VPN Jurisdictions: Different countries have varying legislation surrounding the privacy of their citizens’ data. For instance, governments in the Five Eyes alliance, impose strict data retention laws and regularly force companies to hand over records of user web activity. Your safest option is to use a VPN based in a privacy-friendly jurisdiction.

Virtual Server Locations: The location of the VPN server you connect to can be important for privacy and security. Many VPN services use virtual server locations, where the advertised IP address doesn’t match the server’s physical location. This approach is often used to assign VPN IP addresses for countries where placing physical VPN servers is problematic.

How Much Do VPNs Cost?

A secure premium VPN costs on average $3.94 per month on a yearly or multi-year subscription. However, the average VPN price increases to $11.34 on a pay monthly basis.

The price of a VPN depends on a number of factors, including:

  • Which VPN service you choose
  • Length of subscription plan
  • Number of devices covered
  • Number of servers
  • Streaming (Netflix) support
  • Additional features

Typically, you’ll have to pay for the entire VPN subscription up front.

Surfshark pricing plans

Surfshark is one of the best cheap VPNs we’ve reviewed.

A higher price doesn’t always indicate better quality, though. Do your research to find the best VPN for your needs (e.g. streaming, torrenting, private browsing, etc.) at a price that fits your budget.

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 your online privacy and security issues.

Below is a summary list of the main disadvantages and limitations of VPNs:

  • A VPN won’t keep you completely anonymous.
  • A secure, top-rated VPN costs you money.
  • VPNs almost always slow your internet speed.
  • Using a VPN on mobile increases your data usage.
  • Some online services try to ban customers using VPNs.
  • Most VPNs won’t protect you from malware or phishing attacks.
  • Many VPNs can’t bypass strict web blocks in highly-censored nations.

We always recommend using a VPN in conjunction with antivirus software and a password manager for improved security.

What Is the Best VPN?

Since 2016, we’ve tested and reviewed many VPN applications, and currently the best VPN service is ExpressVPN.

Every time we test and review ExpressVPN we verify that it’s still very fast, secure and works well for streaming, torrenting and gaming.

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

While ExpressVPN is our highest-rated VPN, it may 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?