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What Is a VPN (Virtual Private Network)?

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.

Fact-checked by JP Jones

In this complete beginner's guide to VPN services, we'll explain exactly what a VPN is. You'll learn how VPN software works, what it's used for, and how you can use a VPN safely.

ExpressVPN vs PIA side by side

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

What Is a VPN (Virtual Private Network)?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It’s a type of software that creates a secure, encrypted connection between your device and a remote VPN server. This prevents third parties from snooping on your browsing activity, and hides your public IP address from the websites you visit.

As a result, personal VPNs let you use free public WiFi securely and improve your online privacy.

By connecting to VPN servers in different countries, you can even unblock geo-restricted websites and applications. This allows you to watch Netflix content from different global regions, and helps users in highly-censored countries access restricted information.

In summary, VPN software achieves three key benefits when you connect to the internet: stronger security, improved privacy, and greater online freedom.

The three key advantages of using a VPN are:

  1. Spoofing 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 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.

We’ve summarised everything you might need to know about VPN services in this article. If you want to learn more about a particular topic, follow the links in each section for a more detailed explanation.

How Does a VPN Work?

VPN software establishes an encrypted connection between your device and a remote server. Once connected, all of the data leaving your device is routed through the encrypted tunnel to the VPN server, before reaching its final destination.

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.

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

What Are VPNs Used for?

Man hiding his IP address.

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

Firstly, a VPN helps to stop Internet Service Providers (ISPs), governments, and websites from monitoring your browsing activity.

By encrypting the data between your device and the VPN server, these entities are no longer be able to record the websites you visit or the files you download. This encryption also prevents criminals identifying and stealing your personal information on public WiFi networks.

VPN services also let you connect to servers in different countries, temporarily replacing your IP address in the process. In doing so, you can spoof your geographic location and unblock restricted content from all over the world, including dozens of streaming libraries.

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.

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 $4.75 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.

Are VPNs Worth It?

Using a VPN clearly has its limitations, which means it might not always be worth investing in a premium subscription.

While VPN software can be essential in certain circumstances, it won’t protect you from everything. For example, a VPN can’t prevent data breaches, online trackers, or malware, and it can’t speed up your internet connection in most cases.

If you’re looking for a tool to help solve these issues, then using a VPN might not be the right option for you.

However, if you want to stream geo-restricted content, hide your IP address, or encrypt your web traffic, then a good VPN may well be a worthy investment.

Though it won’t achieve complete anonymity by itself, for most people, a high-quality VPN service is worthwhile as part of a wider toolkit of privacy and security software.

To help you figure out if a VPN is really worth getting, you can read our full and honest take on whether a VPN is worth it or not.

How to Set Up & Use a VPN

Setting up a VPN is simple and won’t take more than 10 minutes from start to finish. The only requirement is that you have a compatible device. You can easily download a VPN app onto Windows, Mac, iPhone, Android, and Fire TV.

Summary: How to Set Up & Use a VPN Service

  1. Choose a VPN Service: Our top recommendation is ExpressVPN because of its easy-to-use interface and excellent speed performance.
  2. Register for a VPN: Select a payment plan from the VPN service’s website. Choose a long-term subscription for the best price.
  3. Download the VPN Application: On a PC, click the download link from the VPN service’s website. On mobile, install it through the app store.
  4. Check the VPN’s settings: Make sure the kill switch is enabled and a safe protocol, like WireGuard, is selected.
  5. Start using the VPN application: Press the large ‘Connect’ button to automatically connect to the fastest server.

In the video below, we demonstrate how to set up and use a VPN from start to finish. We’ve used ExpressVPN on macOS as an example, but the process is almost identical for other VPN services and platforms.

How to set up and use a VPN from start to finish.

In the rest of this section, we’ll show you exactly how to sign up for a VPN service and what to do to get the cheapest price. We’ll also show you how to customize the app’s settings for the best performance, and detail how to connect and change server location.

1. Choose a VPN Service

We’ve tested and compared 65 VPNs, each with its own set of features and price points. As it stands, our top-rated option is ExpressVPN because of its fast speeds and easy-to-use software. However, the right VPN for you will ultimately depend on your personal needs and what you can afford.

Only use a VPN that doesn’t log any identifying user data and that securely encrypts web traffic. In particular, you should choose one that’s based in a privacy-friendly jurisdiction and uses secure protocols and encryption ciphers, like WireGuard and AES-256. We explain these concepts in more detail below.

If you’re using a VPN to bypass geo-blocks on streaming websites, pick one that has fast speeds on international servers so you can always stream in HD. To hide torrenting activity from your ISP, make sure to choose a VPN with a kill switch feature as this will prevent IP leaks.

Although it might be tempting, we don’t recommend opting for a free VPN unless you’re only using it for a short period. Most free VPNs are slow, insecure, and don’t work with streaming sites. Some will even sell your activity data to advertisers.

2. Register & Pay for a VPN Subscription

Most VPN services offer different prices depending on whether you pay monthly or upfront for a long-term subscription. To get the best discounts, we recommend signing up for the longest plan you can afford. For example, you’ll save over 80% if you subscribe to PIA’s 2-year plan compared to its monthly option.

To sign up, simply go to your chosen VPN’s website and click the Get button on the home page. Then, create an account and choose the subscription plan.

You can pay using most popular payment methods, including credit cards and PayPal. But we recommend using cash or cryptocurrency if you can. These are anonymous as they don’t require any personal information.

VPN Payment Methods

You can subscribe to a VPN using a range of different payment methods.

Alternatively, you can register for the VPN through your mobile device’s app store. Some premium VPNs, like IPVanish, even offer exclusive free trials when you sign up this way.

3. Download the VPN Application

To install the VPN app on Windows, Mac, and Linux, simply download it from the VPN service’s website. You might need to sign in to your account and navigate to a dedicated downloads page.

On iPhone, Android, and Fire TV, search for the VPN’s name in your device’s app store. Then, download it like any other application. On Android, avoid downloading the APK version of the app from a third-party website, as these aren’t scanned for viruses and malware.

VPN Device Compatbility

Most VPN services offer native applications for Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS.

To use the VPN on devices that don’t support VPN apps, like Roku, you’ll need to install the VPN onto your router. Your ISP-supplied router won’t work, though, so you’ll need to purchase a compatible one. The set-up process is also complicated, so make sure to follow the step-by-step instructions on the VPN’s support page.

You can see our VPN setup articles for more detailed advice about how to set up a VPN on different devices.

4. Check the VPN’s Settings

Before using the VPN, make sure it’s tuned for the best performance. You can make changes in the app’s settings, typically by clicking a cog or three horizontal lines.

Here’s a quick checklist of what to configure in your VPN app:

  • Enable the kill switch to prevent IP address leaks if your connection drops. Doing so is essential if you want to hide activity from your ISP, like for Kodi streaming.
  • Use OpenVPN, WireGuard, or the VPN’s proprietary protocol to provide the best speed performance. This is especially important if you’re using your VPN for data-intensive activities, like streaming.
  • Select the AES-256 or ChaCha20 encryption ciphers to secure web traffic. Strong encryption is essential if you want to stay safe on public WiFi.

5. Start Using the VPN Application

To start using the VPN right away, connect to a server using the app’s ‘Quick Connect’ or similar feature. This will automatically connect you to the fastest server based on your location and network.

ExpressVPN's Windows and Mac app side-by-side

To start using your VPN, simply select a VPN server and click ‘connect’.

To circumvent geo-blocks, you’ll have to get an IP address from a different country. Type the name of the country in the search box or find it from the list of locations. Then, tap its flag icon to connect to the server.

To disconnect from the VPN, press the On symbol on the app’s home screen. If you encounter any software errors, contact your VPN’s customer support team. They can check to see if there’s a problem with your internet connection, or troubleshoot any issues with the VPN.

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?