What is a VPN? A Non-Technical Beginner's Guide to Virtual Private Networks

A VPN is a vital privacy, security, and anti-censorship tool. This beginner's guide aims to explain what a VPN is, and what you can do with one, in easy-to-understand terms that everyone can understand.

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and is a technology that:

  • Prevents your internet provider (ISP) from seeing what you get up to on the internet. This also makes it very good at preventing blanket government surveillance of kind performed by the NSA.
  • Prevents websites from seeing your unique internet address (known as your IP address or just “IP”). This goes a long way towards protecting your privacy when surfing the web.
  • Defeats censorship, be it by a repressive regime, or your college or office WiFi administrators.
  • Allows you “spoof” your location so you can watch streaming services such as Netflix as if you were in another country.
  • Protects you from both hackers and untrustworthy router hosts when using public WiFi hotspots.
  • Protects you when P2P torrenting.

How does a VPN work?

When you install and run a VPN app, it connects to a VPN server run by a VPN provider. All data into and out of your device is securely encrypted and routed through this “VPN tunnel”.

How a VPN works

The VPN server, therefore, acts as a gateway between you and the internet. It prevents your ISP from seeing what you get up to on the internet, and it prevents websites on the internet from seeing who you are.

Your ISP is still needed to connect you to the VPN server, but because all data passing through the VPN tunnel to the VPN server is encrypted, it cannot see the contents of your data.

This deceptively simple setup provides lots of advantages…

What does a VPN do?

A VPN protects your privacy

When you use a VPN, hackers, your ISP cannot see your data or what you get up to online. If your ISP doesn’t know what you get up to on the internet, then your government probably won’t either.

In addition to this, websites cannot see either your real IP address or who your ISP is. All they can see is the IP address of the VPN server, which is usually shared among many VPN users to further protect each individual user.

It is worth noting that your VPN provider can see everything your ISP can no longer see. This includes which websites you visit on the internet, and can include the contents of your data (although sensitive data such as bank details are always protected by HTTPS, and is therefore not a concern).

Unlike ISPs, though, reputable VPN services do not keep logs of this information for later retrieval. Indeed, a good deal of privacy-focused VPN services go further, and also make of point of deleting all metadata connection logs which might be able to indirectly tie customers to their activity on the internet.

Helps you defeat censorship

If a website or internet service is blocked by your government, ISP, or network administrator (often the case in offices, schools etc.), then you can access it simply by connecting to a VPN server located somewhere where the content is not censored.

Lets you watch cool stuff

Most VPN providers run servers located in various countries around the world. By connecting to a server in another country you appear to be in that country as far as websites you visit are concerned.

For example, by connecting to a VPN server in the United States you can access the US Netflix catalog, which has thousands more TV shows and movies than any other countries Netflix catalog.

If you connect to a VPN server in the UK, you can watch BBC iPlayer outside of the UK for free.

A VPN lets you access services like these as if you were in the relevant country - no matter where you are really located. Just connect to a VPN server in the country, and as far as the internet is concerned, you are there!

Keeps you secure when file sharing (Torrenting)

When you use a VPN for torrenting your real IP address is shielded from peers downloading the same torrents. It also hides the content of what you download from your ISP and is handy for accessing blocked websites.

Protect yourself on public WiFi

How do you know the WiFi at your local coffee shop is secure? Answer... you don’t. This goes for free public WiFi everywhere.  And using insecure WiFi is an open invitation for criminal hackers to steal your sensitive data.

A VPN will protect you when using all forms of public WiFi because your data is securely encrypted.

How to use a VPN

The mechanics of using a VPN are simple, and no matter which platform you use should go something like this:

  1. Sign-up for a VPN plan.
  2. Download and install the software. VPN software on desktop computers is often referred to as a VPN client while software for mobile devices is called a VPN app. In reality, they are the same thing and we treat the terms interchangeably.
  3. Run the client or app.
  4. Sign into the client or App with the login details you used when you purchased the subscription. 
  5. Many VPN apps feature a big friendly “Connect” button. Simply click on or tap it to connect to a nearby VPN server selected by your VPN provider. This will almost certainly provide the fastest VPN connection available. If you want to use a server in a different country, some VPNs have a map so you can simply click the country to want to connect to on the map. If your VPN doesn't have this, click the menu button and this will show you the list of VPN servers the VPN has. 

Things you need to know about VPNs

Does a VPN make me anonymous?

No matter how a service advertises itself, VPNs provide privacy, not anonymity. This is mainly because the VPN server can see everything that your ISP normally can.

However, unlike your ISP, good VPNs do not log this information and therefore provide much higher levels of privacy than you normally have when surfing the internet. Even these, however, will start to log information if subpoenaed or issued a binding court order.

No VPN staff are going to risk jail for you! Does this mean VPNs are useless for privacy? Not at all. Such legal moves are highly targeted against individuals of interest, so are not a threat to the privacy of most ordinary VPN users.

The Edward Snowden’s of this world, however, who require very high levels of true anonymity, should use the Tor Network rather than VPNs to protect their identity.

How to configure your VPN?

VPN software is designed to be easy to use, and should “just work” without the need for any additional configuration. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. This is especially true if you have an IPv6 internet connection as many VPN apps struggle to handle the new internet standard correctly. It is therefore always a good idea to check that your VPN is correctly configured to protect you as it is supposed to.

What is a kill switch?

Thanks to the vagaries of the internet, VPN connections sometimes fail. In the normal course of events when this happens you will remain connected to the internet but without the protection of the VPN.

A kill switch protects you against this by preventing connections into and out of your device unless the VPN connection is active.

Will a VPN slow down my internet?

A VPN routes your data an extra leg to a VPN server, which must then spend processing power encrypting and decrypting the data. It is therefore inevitable that using a VPN will slow down your internet connection at least a little.

The two biggest factors at play are the distance to the VPN server and how loaded the VPN server is. If you connect to a server near to you which is not overloaded, then you can expect to lose around 10 percent of your base internet speed. However, the Fastest VPNs invest heavily in high-speed servers so you don't have to deal with a slow internet connection.

Do I need an ISP if I use a VPN?

Yes. 

An ISP, or Internet Service Provider, supplies your internet connection and is required to connect you to the VPN server.

Can I use a VPN on all my devices?

Every VPN provider allows you to install its software on as many devices as you like. Most, however, limit how many devices you can use at the same time with a single account. We refer to the number of devices a VPN allows you to use at once as the number of “simultaneous connections” it permits. 

VPNs typically allow around three to five simultaneous connections although this number can vary considerably.

Can I get a free VPN?

For a long time, it was something of a truism that “if you don’t pay for a product then you are the product.” At best you could use a very limited free service that was little more than a taster for a paid-for service that might actually want to use.

This situation has changed over the last couple of years, and there are now at least a couple of free VPN services out there which are actually quite good. Even these are limited in various ways, though, compared to more premium services.

Does a VPN make me safe?

In short, Yes.

A VPN will make you safe from:

  • Public WiFi hackers
  • Your ISP
  • Mass government surveillance 
  • Commercial WiFi operators who sell your browsing habits for profit
  • Copyright holders
  • Advertising and analytics companies who store your data to target you with Ads (if used in combination with anti-tracker browser add-ons).

Written by: Douglas Crawford

Has worked for almost six years as senior staff writer and resident tech and VPN industry expert at ProPrivacy.com. Widely quoted on issues relating cybersecurity and digital privacy in the UK national press (The Independent & Daily Mail Online) and international technology publications such as Ars Technica.

355 Comments

  1. Sean

    on March 31, 2019
    Reply

    Hi All, Could you recommend the best VPN for providing access to ITV Hub and BBC Player in Rep of Ireland. One which will not compromise the quality of channels which I already have access to. Thanks & Regards. Sean

  2. reid

    on February 2, 2019
    Reply

    Questions about VPN implementation I have a home Ethernet network with 2 W10 Pro PCs and a Synology 213+ NAS (and occasionally visiting PCs). My router links to the network via a Netgear Gigabit switch. Both PCs are running the same VPN and I’ve set their Ethernet and VPN network typest to private. The problem I have had is to access the local devices by device name when connected by the VPN to the internet (I can if I use the device’s IP address). The network diagnostic states 'Security or firewall setting might be blocking the connection’ and the network diagnostic lists Openvpn. (I’ve closed the firewall – it makes no difference.) The VPN provider recommended that in the router I set fixed IP addresses for the PCs and the NAS and use Route to make persistent routes for the NAS and the two PC's IP addresses – which I’ve done. It didn’t fix the problem. I did some searching and found that I need a VPN with split-tunnelling to solve the problem – is this correct? – if so it would be helpful in your reviews to state whether or not a VPN provides this. But another source said that the VPN needs port-forwarding to solve this problem. It would also be helpful to have some advice on Private or Public setting for the VPN and the local network, and anything else you think will help. All the best and thanks for any help

    1. Steven Keefe replied to reid

      on February 21, 2019
      Reply

      Should agree with you.

  3. Bob Beisang

    on November 27, 2018
    Reply

    I am confused still. What’s the deal with VPN Router hardware and a VPN service? Am I required to have BOTH? I thought if I bought a VPN Router that ALL devices on my home WiFi network would access the internet through MY VPN ....is that wrong? I see VPN routers priced from $80-$400. If I bought a moderately priced VON router do I ALSO have to contract with a service? It’s very confusing.

    1. douglas replied to Bob Beisang

      on November 28, 2018
      Reply

      Hi Bob, You can run a VPN either: 1. Run VPN software on each device you own. The maximum number of devices you can use for the same account at the same time depends on how many simultaneous connections your service allows (5 is average these days). OR... 2. You can configure your router to act as a VPN gateway (if it offers this feature). All devices that connect to the internet via the router will benefit from the VPN. If using a mix of software/apps and a VPN router, the router counts as just one simultaneous connection no matter how many devices connect to the VPN service through it (the router is counted one device). A "VPN router" is simply a router that has a VPN client as part of its firmware. You still need to pay for a VPN service to connect to (unless you set up your own VPN server).

  4. Oty Emmanuel

    on November 17, 2018
    Reply

    This is the best VPN guide I've read so far. But I have a question. Can Google track what you do like the ads you click via adsenset if you are on a VPN.

    1. douglas replied to Oty Emmanuel

      on November 19, 2018
      Reply

      Hi Oty, Thanks! Google doesn't know your real IP because it is hidden by the VPN, but it uses cookies, browser fingerprinting, canvas fingerprinting, and other methods to track you across the internet. This best defense against such tracking is to use anti-tracking browser add-ons (https://proprivacy.com/guides/firefox-privacy-security-guide/).

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