What is a VPN?

Last updated: September 20, 2021

Protecting your privacy is as important online as it is in the real world.

Companies may collect your personal data to create better browsing experiences. For example, Netflix suggests videos based on what you’ve already watched.

But others use your data to target you with intrusive ads across the web. Then there are entities whose sole purpose revolves around collecting and selling your data to third parties.

So how can you protect your privacy online and retain more control over your data?

Using a virtual private network or VPN is a good place to start. 

Here we’ve put together this in-depth guide to VPNs, including what they are, how they work, and different use cases. We’ll also look at some of our top picks that you can get started with.

What is a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network or VPN is software that creates a secure connection between your device and the internet.

We all have things we’d rather not share — contact information, medical history, bank records, etc. Keeping these things private isn’t easy when so much of what we do is online.

A VPN adds a layer of security and privacy to your connection. This “layer” disguises and keeps your online activities completely hidden.

VPNs come in different shapes and sizes, but here are the two main types.

Remote access VPN

A remote access VPN is the most popular. It’s more of a consumer VPN. This software allows you to route your internet traffic through a secure remote server and access its resources remotely.

Remote access VPNs are more accessible to newcomers. Premium VPN providers like ExpressVPN offer native apps for major platforms, allowing you to connect to its private network with minimal configuration.

With remote work on the rise, companies may also deploy a remote access VPN for remote employees to access the internal network securely.

Site-to-site VPN

A site-to-site VPN is more common in larger organizations. It creates a secure VPN tunnel between multiple locations and allows them to share resources.

Site-to-site VPNs are more difficult to configure and require specialized equipment. But they allow locations to securely share resources.

Now let’s look at how VPNs protect your privacy and personal information online.

How do VPNs work?

Websites can track you through your IP address — a string of numbers that identifies your device on the network.

An IP address by itself doesn’t contain sensitive information. But hackers can use it as a starting point to track down your location and even hack your device through more sophisticated means.

VPNs are barriers that keep your activities online private. They do this by routing your internet traffic through a private server, which hides your real IP address in the process.

VPNs also use encryption to secure your internet traffic, making it virtually impossible for websites, hackers, and your internet service provider (ISP) to get their hands on your data.

Encryption is the process of scrambling your data into “gibberish.”

Unscrambling or decrypting the data requires a key.

Premium VPNs like ExpressVPN and NordVPN use Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) 256-bit, which refers to the size of the encryption key.

Attempting to break the key through brute force (trying every combination) isn’t feasible, as it would take even a supercomputer millions of years. Cybersecurity experts and government agencies use this level of encryption worldwide to secure sensitive data.

Encryption protocols are the technology that VPN providers use to create an encrypted tunnel between your device and its services. Each VPN protocol uses different encryption standards and authentication methods, resulting in varying levels of performance and security.

These are the most common encryption protocols:

  • OpenVPN: OpenVPN is the most popular VPN protocol. Its popularity can be attributed to its use of AES-256 bit encryption and open-source code.
  • Wireguard: Wireguard is a new VPN that’s designed for speed and performance. It’s much faster than other protocols, but it’s still considered experimental.
  • L2TP: The Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) is a network protocol to establish VPN connections. However, it doesn’t provide encryption, so it’s often used in conjunction with Internet Protocol Security (IPsec).
  • IPsec/IKEv2: Internet Key Exchange version 2 (IKEv2) is a secure protocol that uses the Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) suite to encrypt your data. This VPN protocol is fast and extremely safe, but it’s not compatible with as many systems.
  • SSTP: Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) is a relatively safe protocol that uses 256-bit SSL keys for encryption. One drawback is that SSTP is a Microsoft-proprietary protocol, meaning the code isn’t available to developers for security testing.
  • PPTP: Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) is one of the oldest VPN protocols, but it has many known security vulnerabilities. Some VPN providers like NordVPN don’t even support PPTP due to security concerns.

Each VPN protocol has its advantages and disadvantages. Which one you use will largely depend on what you’re doing.

The good news is VPN providers like ExpressVPN take the guesswork out of protocols by automatically selecting and configuring the right protocol based on your connection.

VPN use cases

VPNs protect your privacy online by encrypting and anonymizing your traffic. But use cases for these incredibly versatile tools go beyond security.

Here are just some of the different ways you can use VPNs.

Prevent your ISP from tracking your activities

If you’re browsing HTTP websites, your ISP (and anyone snooping on your connection) can see details like the exact pages you visit and any sensitive data you enter into a text field.

73.1% of all websites use HTTPS by default — the protocol used to secure communications between your browser and a server.

However, not every website uses HTTPS.

VPNs encrypt your internet traffic, which prevents your ISP from tracking your online activities and selling that information to third parties.

Browse securely on public Wi-Fi networks

While public Wi-Fi is certainly convenient, connecting to them is risky.

Even a password-protected public network isn’t safe. Security researchers have discovered a major vulnerability in Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2) — a protocol used to secure wireless networks.

Hackers can use a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack to intercept any information between you and the websites you visit. This includes your login credentials, credit card information, and more.

A VPN encrypts all your internet traffic, which secures connections on public Wi-Fi networks. All anyone would see is scrambled data.

Bypass internet restrictions when traveling

Not everyone lives in a country that lets its citizens freely access the web. If you live or plan to travel in a country with heavy internet censorship, you won’t be able to access certain websites.

For example, sites like Facebook and YouTube are blocked in China. Attempting to load these websites or apps will simply return an error.

VPNs can help you bypass censorship. If you’re traveling to China, you can simply connect to a server in a country that doesn’t have such restrictions.

Stream movies and TV shows

Netflix offers a massive library of movies and shows. But you may not be able to watch certain content if you travel due to copyright agreements.

Streaming sites restrict what you can and can’t access based on your IP address. A VPN lets you spoof your location and bypass these restrictions.

Not all VPNs unblock streaming services, so you’ll want to use a premium VPN like ExpressVPN if this is important for you.

Torrent files through peer to peer (P2P) networks

Torrenting is safe as long as you download legal materials like open-source software and non-copyrighted resources. But it’s best to err on the side of caution.

When you torrent, peers that you connect to on the network can view your IP address.

Torrenting files reveals IP addresses

If you accidentally download copyrighted materials (if something wasn’t named properly), you could face legal action or have to pay huge fines.

Using a VPN hides your IP address and prevents your ISP from seeing what you’re doing.

Avoid data throttling

One year-long study found that four major ISPs in the U.S. (AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile) throttle download speeds from a variety of streaming services.

The researchers found that AT&T throttled Netflix 70% of the time, while T-Mobile throttled Amazon Prime video in 51% of the tests.

A VPN can help you avoid data throttling by encrypting your traffic. Your ISP will only be able to see how much bandwidth you’re using, but they can’t throttle your connection based on what you’re doing.

Gaming and cryptocurrency

Some gamers may attempt to launch denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks to knock their rivals offline when the stakes are high. These attacks disrupt the traffic of a server, which could very well make players lose a game.

Using a VPN protects against such attacks by masking your IP address. You can also spoof your location and unblock games that may be censored in your country.

Countries like Algeria, Egypt, Nepal, and Morocco have taken a strong stance against cryptocurrency by making it illegal to buy or sell.

If you live or plan to travel to a country that doesn’t take too kindly to cryptocurrency, you can use a VPN to change your location to a region where you can safely buy it.

Are VPNs safe?

Using a VPN is a safe way to browse the web. But not all VPNs are created equal — some are better at protecting your privacy than others.

Look for a VPN with the following features to ensure complete anonymity.

Strong encryption

Strong encryption is a must to protect and secure your internet traffic. Look for a VPN service that offers AES 256-bit encryption and support for modern protocols like OpenVPN.

No logging

VPN logs are records that providers store about how you use their service. Data like your IP address, timestamps, and bandwidth usage can be tied back to you.

Choose a VPN provider that doesn’t keep any logs. We recommend ExpressVPN, as PwC has conducted an independent audit to verify its privacy policy.

Kill switch

A kill switch is like a security button — it instantly turns off your internet connection if your VPN suddenly disconnects. This prevents your IP address from leaking.

A VPN connection can drop for a number of reasons. Look for a VPN service that offers a built-in kill switch.

Private DNS servers

Private DNS servers ensure that any DNS requests you make as you browse the web are handled directly by the VPN provider and not a third party.

You’ll want to choose a VPN that protects and encrypts all DNS requests to protect your privacy online.

Privacy-friendly location

Another important consideration is where a VPN is headquartered.

It’s best to avoid VPNs that are based in the Five Eyes jurisdiction — an information-sharing alliance between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S.

These countries have strict data retention laws, meaning companies in these countries are required to hand over any data by law if compelled by the authorities.

Choose a VPN that’s based in a more privacy-friendly location like Panama or the British Virgin Islands.

What about free VPNs?

Choosing a free VPN isn’t a good idea for several reasons — they might inject ads into your browser, use weak encryption protocols, sell your data to third parties, limit your bandwidth usage, or contain malware.

Here are the best VPNs we recommend.

1. ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN homepage

ExpressVPN is a well-established VPN and one of the best providers on the market.

It offers a huge network of servers with excellent performance. An intuitive interface combined with multiplatform support makes it an apt choice for newcomers and professionals alike.

ExpressVPN encrypts your traffic with AES 256-bit encryption and operates its own private DNS servers, making your connections even safer.

While ExpressVPN comes in at a slightly higher price than other providers, the value it delivers more than justifies the cost.

ExpressVPN Features:ExpressVPN Pricing:
160 server locations$12.95 per month for one month
Network kill switch$9.99 per month for six months
VPN split tunneling$8.32 per month for 12 months
Unblocks streaming services
Unlimited bandwidth

ExpressVPN pricing

Click here to secure your data online with ExpressVPN

2. NordVPN

NordVPN homepage

NordVPN is another top contender for the best VPN service.

It offers all the security and privacy features you’d want from a VPN — strong encryption, support for modern protocols, split tunneling, no-logs policy, and more.

Other features include unlimited bandwidth and native apps for all major platforms. NordVPN also includes its CyberSec technology, which offers malware and phishing protection.

Its massive network of 5,000+ servers in 59 countries is more than capable of unblocking your favorite streaming sites and protecting your privacy online.

NordVPN Features:NordVPN Pricing:
DNS leak protection$11.95 per month for one month
Double VPN$4.92 per month for one year
Onion Over VPN$3.71 per month for two years
Browser extensions
24/7 live chat support

NordVPN pricing

Read our NordVPN review to see how it performed in extensive tests.

Click here to encrypt your traffic with NordVPN

3. Surfshark

Surfshark homepage

Surfshark is an easy-to-use VPN with an impressive set of privacy features.

It encrypts your traffic with AES 256-bit encryption but doesn’t stop there. This VPN service also offers DNS leak protection, a built-in kill switch, and MultiHop — a feature that lets you route your connection through two VPN servers.

Surfshark maintains a strict no-logs policy, which security testers have verified. On a single subscription, Surfshark lets you connect and protect as many devices as you want.

Surfshark Features:Surfshark Pricing:
OpenVPN support$12.95 per month for one month
Malware and phishing protection$6.49 per month for six months
Built-in ad blocker$2.49 per month for two years
Torrenting support
24/7 live chat

Surfshark pricing

Check out our Surfshark review to help you decide if this VPN provider is right for you.

Click here to securely browse the web with Surfshark

VPN FAQs

Is using a VPN difficult?

VPNs are incredibly easy to use. Start by choosing a VPN provider (we recommend ExpressVPN). Then download a VPN client to your device and connect to a server to establish a secure connection.

Can you be tracked if you use a VPN?

A VPN encrypts your traffic and masks your IP address. This makes it virtually impossible for anyone to track you online. Some websites and ISPs can determine if you’re using a VPN, but they can’t see what you’re doing.

How much does a VPN cost?

VPN services tend to cost around $10 to $12 per month if you’re paying on a month-to-month basis. But you can save more by subscribing to a longer plan. A yearly plan for ExpressVPN comes out to $6.67 per month.

How do you know a VPN is working?

Use a lookup tool to note your IP address. Then, connect to a VPN server and refresh the page. You’ll know that the VPN is working when it shows a different IP address.

What are the disadvantages of a VPN?

Disadvantages of a VPN include slower connection speeds, dropped connections, complicated setup, and even privacy issues. However, these issues are greatly mitigated when you opt for a premium VPN service.

Should I use a VPN all the time?

If you’re concerned about your privacy online, then you should keep your VPN on at all times. This will allow you to securely and anonymously browse the web from any device.

Conclusion

Everything you do online creates a digital trail.

Anyone following this trail can collect and use your data in ways you might not be comfortable with. Companies may target you with intrusive ads, and others may share or sell your data without your consent.

VPNs establish an encrypted connection between your device and the internet. This allows you to securely and anonymously browse the web.

To help you make an informed decision, be sure to check out our in-depth VPN reviews for a comprehensive look at the top VPNs on the market.

Published on: August 26, 2021