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

What is a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is a piece of software that changes your IP address and encrypts all of your internet traffic. This improves online privacy, security, and helps users to bypass online censorship imposed by the government, ISPs or any other organization or person blocking websites.

Benefits of using a VPN

Using a VPN service will give users several benefits. These are as follows:

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.

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.

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 link customers to their activity on the internet.

Prevents websites from seeing your IP address

Your Internet Protocol Address or IP Address is how you are identified online. when Using a VPN this is replaced with the IP address of your VPN provider, making it more difficult for websites to identify you.

This goes a long way towards protecting your privacy when surfing the web. And it also makes it more difficult for advertisers to target you with adverts.

Defeat censorship

A VPN lets you bypass censorship, be it by a repressive regime, or your college or office Wi-Fi administrators.

By connecting to a VPN, you can access blocked websites, simply by connecting to a VPN server located somewhere where the content is not censored.

Allows you to access streaming services such as Netflix

A VPN lets you access foreign streaming services that are blocked in your 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!

For example, by connecting to a VPN server in the United States you can unblock US Netflix content. The American version of the service has more TV shows and movies than any other countries Netflix catalog. This is why it has become more popular for people to use a VPN with Netflix.

If you want to find out if another country's version of Netflix has a show you are looking for, check out StreamCatcher tool. As well as streaming Netflix content not available in your location, you can also use a VPN to unblock YouTube videos. This works by enabling you to get around regional restrictions by pretending to be in a country the video is available in.

Or, if you connect to a VPN server in the UK, you can watch BBC iPlayer abroad for free.

Protects you from hackers

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

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

Protects you when P2P 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.

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.

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 app or client and sign in with the login details you used when you purchased the subscription. 
  4. 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.

Need more control?

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.


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...


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?


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 up to five simultaneous connections, although this number can vary considerably.

The majority of VPN services offer iOS VPN apps as well as VPNs for Android users, however, it may be difficult to find support for less popular mobile operating systems. When it comes to computer clients, most VPN services support Windows and Mac users, but Linux VPN clients can be more difficult to find.

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. We have found that cheap VPN services are among the best on the market. VPNs with the most sought after features can be found for less than $2 a month.

Does a VPN make me safe?

In short, Yes.

A VPN will make you safe from:

Looking for the best VPNs?

Here's a quick summary of our top picks for VPN services:

  1. ExpressVPN - Fast connections | Apps for all platforms | 24/7 live chat support
  2. NordVPN - No logs | Budget-friendly | Advanced features
  3. CyberGhost VPN - Easy to use | Great for streaming| Strong encryption
  4. Private Internet Access - Based in the USA | Lots of customization | Robust and secure
  5. Surfshark - Fast speeds for streaming | Apps for all platforms | 24/7 live chat support

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.


on May 28, 2021
My biggest issue is more & more sites are blocking my VPN(Proxy). I use Proton, I'm wondering if other VPNs are blocked? I would guess they are. It's almost to the point that I may not use one anymore.
Ray Walsh replied to Joe
on June 30, 2021
Some VPNs suffer from blocks more than others, and if you are using the free ProtonVPN plan then this is infinitely more likely to be blocked by online services. Check out our best 5 guides to find VPNs that are most effective at bypassing blocks and providing access to the services you are interested in. Some VPNs work hard to keep unblocking content and to stay one step ahead of VPN blocks.
on June 10, 2020
Hi Doug, this is the best article in explaining VPNs, also great website. I subscribe to a VPN service and connect each day when I turn on the computer. I noticed in history in either MS Edge or Google Chrome all the websites I've visited are listed. Does that mean Google and Windows read and retain my browsing activity, even if it's deleted? Sometimes there's an error message where a site will not open because of the VPN so I have to close it to go into the site, usually password protected sites. I tried to add my VPN to MS Edge proxy for privacy, however it is greyed out and will not allow the VPN to be added. Only Windows 10 shows. Is there a way to manually add the VPN to MS Edge or does it matter if I'm still directly connecting the VPN. Still feeling my way in this area. Thank you.
Ray Walsh replied to betsb
on July 9, 2020
Your history is local and so should not be affecting your privacy. However, it is potentially possible that Chrome is doing nefarious things and tracking your web visits so we would recommend that you stick to Firefox just in case, and if you want to be sure that you aren't creating a history use incognito mode as well as the VPN. Contact your VPN for help resolving your other issue, they will be able to help you directly.
orizu chibuike
on April 30, 2020
Hello Douglas is g USA VPN safe to download
Douglas Crawford replied to orizu chibuike
on May 1, 2020
Hi orizu. Are you talking about p2p downloading (torrenting)? If so, then yes - if the VPN allows torrenting. Many do allow torrenting, but not on US servers. If you mean more generally, then it depends on your threat model. If NSA=style blanket surveillance worries you then a US VPN service is probably not the best choice.
Mike Harper
on April 28, 2020
Hi. Do I just leave my VPN on all the time?
Douglas Crawford replied to Mike Harper
on April 28, 2020
Hi Mike. I do, to help prevent general website tracking and improve my day-to-day privacy on the web. Some people prefer to only enable the VPN when they feel they need it.
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