obrBy Fergus O'Sullivan — Last Updated: 29 Mar'18 2017-12-01T01:01:12+00:00

Beginners Guide: What is a VPN?

You can’t help but feel that privacy is under attack. At time of writing, net neutrality may soon be a thing of the past, U.S. ISPs will soon be allowed to sell their customers’ data to third parties and we’ve all been under some kind of surveillance for years now. If you don’t have one yet, now is the time to be thinking about getting a VPN.

In this article, we’ll be helping the uninitiated get a grasp of what a virtual private network is, how it’s the cornerstone of any privacy strategy and how it works. If you’d like to delve more into the nitty gritty of encryption and all that, we recommend you give our guide on VPN security a read, while our online privacy guide will give you a general overview on how to stay safe on the Internet.

Once you’re all studied up on VPNs, you can move up to our guide on picking the best VPN for you or check out any of our VPN reviews with your new-found knowledge. If you’d like to skip all the technobabble and just get started with the best all-round provider out there, you can never go wrong with ExpressVPN.

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With introductions out of the way, let’s meet the stars of the show.

What Is a VPN?

As we mentioned earlier, VPN stands for virtual private network. As with many of these things, the explanation is right there in the name, all you need is a bit of context.

VPNs evolved from the need of companies to have people access a computer system remotely, but with the same credentials as someone who was logging in from the home network. This isn’t normally possible — well, not without a ton of cabling and some serious know-how — but by setting up a special program, a VPN client, you can fool the computer you’re talking to that you’re a member of the same network.

In essence, you’re creating a network in — ugh on this term — cyberspace, which means it’s virtual, not physically connected to each other. As it’s password protected, it’s also private, so there you go, a virtual private network. A VPN is essentially a space online that you can use without other people having access, it’s like having a private little mini-Internet all your own.

What Are VPNs Used For?

The thing is, this little mini-Internet isn’t very interesting all by itself, unless you’re able to fill it up with stuff. This is what many companies do, as well as academic institutions such as Fordham University. Employees and students can use a VPN client to log into the local server as if they were sitting at the mainframe and access it freely. Researchers especially make a lot of use of this, as often the price of joining a university library for a year is a mere fraction of a percentage of what it costs to sign up to academic journals.

However, the main use for VPNs isn’t the little network they create for themselves, but rather using the network to access the Internet. The reason for this is quite simple: when you’re using a VPN, you don’t show up as “you” on the Internet, but as the network, instead. This means that you’re essentially hiding your identity behind that of the network, making it impossible to trace you.

This is the great strength of VPNs and why they are the number one tool when it comes to protecting your identity online. If you use a VPN to access a dodgy website, for instance, and they try and trace you back, all they will find is the network you gained access through.

This anonymity extends to your Internet service provider, too: all they can see is the connection you made to the VPN, nothing else. This works out great for people worried about ISPs selling on their data or people who want to simply browse porn in peace.

Besides these first-world concerns, people who live in countries that censor the Internet are pretty happy about VPNs, too, as using one allows them to access the “real” Internet rather than the dog-and-pony show their country has put up. That said, with the strange ideas coming out of politicians in both the U.S. and Europe, parts of the more developed world may be going the way of China soon.

How Does a VPN Work?

So far, so good: VPNs seem almost magical, don’t they? They grant anonymity and allow you to browse without worry that anyone is looking with you (unless they’re looking over your shoulder, like, nothing helps with that).

VPNs do this by replacing your IP address (IP stands for Internet Protocol, which is the web equivalent of your street address) with that of the VPN. Now, if that’s all a VPN did, it would technically be a proxy, a service that simply reroutes traffic, which are inherently insecure (for more on the differences, check out our VPN vs proxy vs TOR article).

This insecurity lies in the fact that whatever you send over an IPv4 or IPv6 connection (the standard way in which the bits and bytes that make up data are transferred), a third party can simply look at it and then read it for themselves. Internet traffic is inherently unsafe, unless you encrypt that traffic.

This encryption is what sets VPNs apart from proxies. A VPN creates a so-called secure tunnel between your computer to the VPN server. All your traffic is routed through this tunnel and no one can check what’s going on there because of one, or sometimes even several, layers of encryption (read our NordVPN review for one service that takes encryption particularly seriously).

Note that this means that the VPN service itself does know what you’re up to, unless they have a “no logs” policy in place. Most decent services will not keep your logs (except maybe for some basic information, known as metadata), though sorrowfully enough there are plenty of unscrupulous services out there, too.

Good VPNs vs Bad Ones

Not all VPNs are created equal. In fact, there are so many untrustworthy services out there that we decided to do an article on the five worst free VPN providers. The main offences of these are that they may not even encrypt your traffic at all (imagine that happening to you in, say, China) or do encrypt it, but then sell your data on to marketers.

Generally speaking, the best VPN services are paid ones, though there are a few exceptions like we describe in our best free VPN article. Though there are plenty of differences between even the very best services, all of them have a few things in common.

First off, they offer advanced encryption. This should go without saying. The problem is, though, that advanced encryption will slow down your connection a little, on top of the slowdown you’re already experiencing by sending your signal through another location.

The fastest VPN services may only see a drop of 10 percent of so, while some may slow to an absolute crawl. Another trick is to select a VPN provider with a lot of servers scattered across the globe, making it easier to find one that offers you a decent speed.

There are several types of encryption available for VPNs, called protocols, with each their up- and downsides. There are a few too many to list here, but we have an article on the merits of the two most used ones, PPTP vs OpenVPN. Other protocols include L2TP/IPSec and SSL/TLS.

User friendliness is another core requirement, especially if you’re not the biggest geek around. Generally speaking, you want to be looking for a provider with a clear interface and not too many obscure buttons; read our PIA review for one example of a good service.

Other considerations may vary a bit from person to person, but can include things like whether a service has a killswitch (which stops the connection if your VPN stops working), if it gets you past the Netflix VPN ban and whether it will work on mobile or not. In each case, though, always make sure to check whether you’re dealing with a bona fide service or a few coding cowboys ready to make a few bucks off a proxy they label a VPN.

Final Thoughts

As DIY security measures go, VPNs are the very first line of defense against people trying to spy on your data and online behavior; we hope that this article has cleared up a few questions you may have had and brought you closer to start protecting your privacy by using one.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article as much as we enjoyed writing it; please let us know your thoughts in the comments below. Thank you for reading.

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