What is a VPN?
Online privacy has a become a big topic these days. Facebook, Google, data brokers, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and even the government are tracking what you do online.
Many internet users are sick of being spied on. They simply want to browse, download and search the web in peace and anonymity. Luckily, there is a simple solution: VPN software.
But what is a VPN and how does it work?
- VPN is short for Virtual Private Network. It’s a software tool that encrypts your internet connection and hides your IP address.
- In doing so, it makes sure that the websites you visit and the apps that you use, have a hard time knowing who you are.
- In short, it restores your anonymity online. Popular examples of VPN services include CyberGhost, NordVPN, and Surfshark.
What is a VPN?
VPN is short for Virtual Private Network, and it allows users to create a fully protected network connection. Public and other non-private networks are known to be less protective of your personal data, and everyone with admin access to that network can see the things you search for online or your personal information.
But a VPN service provider will encrypt that internet traffic and mask your online footprint. A hacker or a third-party organization will find it much harder to track your activities and potentially steal your information. This powerful encryption system is becoming more important in modern-day internet surfing where identity theft is more common than ever.
How Does a VPN Work?
In simple terms, a VPN service provider creates an encrypted tunnel for the data you generate online.
But what is this tunnel about? you may wonder.
Let’s start by explaining the word “encryption.”
Encryption is a method for converting information into secret codes that hide the true meaning of that information.
For example, we could encrypt the sentence “How are you doing today?” into “haydt,” which is the combination of the first letters of each word in a sentence. This is a rather simple example of encryption.
In the computer world, and more precisely in VPN technology, encryption is far more complex. By creating an encrypted tunnel, a VPN service provider will lock all information that comes from your computer before it exits your network and send it to its final destination in the encrypted form. Only when it reaches the final destination will the files be unlocked in order to be used.
The data in the tunnel will resemble gibberish composed of number combinations that literally could take millions of years to decipher.
This encrypted tunnel is hidden away from hackers, governments, and even your internet service provider. When you connect to a VPN, no one can see the websites you visit and the data you send or receive on the web.
One of the most important things a VPN does is change your IP address. An IP address is a unique combination of numbers that serves to identify users online. You can think of your IP address as your digital footprint. Whatever website you visit or data you enter or generate, trackers can see that it was you who sent it thanks to your IP address.
But a VPN does the important job of hiding that address by assigning you a random one from another country or from inside your own country. Most VPN providers will allow you to choose a particular location and the IP address.
For example, if you’re located in Chicago, USA, you can connect to a location in Canada, Germany, China, or any other country, as long as your VPN service has available servers in that location.
There are plenty of different VPN types. However, you only need to know about the three most common ones:,
- SSL VPN
- Site to Site VPN
- Client to Server VPN
Let’s explore what each of them is about and what their differences are.
SSL VPN (Remote Access VPN)
SSL VPN stands for Secure Sockets Layer VPN, and it lets individuals gain access to their company’s or organization’s remote network while working from home. For this reason, it’s also known as remote access virtual private network.
The access includes all applications on the company’s server, internal network features, and all the necessary directories, without having to use specialized software.
The remote access VPN also uses an encrypted connection for the endeavor, whether the user accesses the network using a public or private network.
The traffic generated between web browsers and SSL VPN devices can be encrypted using the transport layer security protocols, or the SSL protocols. As an individual user, you don’t have to choose between the two protocols. The VPN will do the job for you by going for the most recently updated and secure protocol your browser has.
There are two types of SSL services.
SSL Portal VPN
With the SSL Portal VPN service, users enter websites and credentials in order to start a secure connection. This service only allows for one SSL connection to a particular website. The user may also have access to a range of private network services and applications set up by the organization.
Users can access this type of VPN from their web browser. They only have to enter their username and password given to them by the VPN gateway service.
SSL Tunnel VPN
An SSL Tunnel VPN lets a web browser access multiple networks that aren’t necessarily web-based. This can be corporate use software or proprietary networks that can’t be accessed online.
If there’s a need to use this type of VPN, the organization’s IT team should educate the employees on the new applications or downloads they should get, to make sure the system works fine.
Site to Site VPN
A Site to site VPN service is a private network connection that aims to hide private intranets and let the users of one network access the resources of another.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term “intranet,” this is a special computer network made for easier communication and information sharing inside an organization.
These VPN services are convenient for companies that have multiple locations where each has its designated LAN (Local Area Network) connected to a WAN (Wide Area Network). Also, this VPN can be used for sending files between two intranets without having to access the other intranet.
Site to site VPNs are usually used to enhance workflows in large companies and corporations. They are pretty hard to implement, and offer less flexibility compared to the SSL VPNs. Still, they are the best way to ensure effective communication between large departments.
Client to Server VPN
A client to server VPN works by connecting a person’s home PC to their company’s network using a secure connection. The result is as if the worker was sitting in the office. But to make this connection type possible, a person needs to install and configure a VPN client on their computer.
To do so, a user must not be connected to the internet with their own internet provider but establish a connection through a VPN service. This is a popular type of VPN because it’s particularly beneficial for WLAN network providers, especially known for being insecure.
Third parties are prevented from gaining access and compromising the network. Plus, the internet service providers can’t access any of the data that’s generated. As a result, a person has universal access to their company’s resources without the risk of compromising data.
In the case where there’s a telephone network, employees can connect to the system using a headset and essentially pretend they are at their company’s workplace. The clients of the company won’t be able to tell whether they’re talking to a remote worker or someone sitting in an office.
Virtual private networks use different protocols to determine how data gets routed in a connection. Every VPN protocol has its own specifications based on consumer needs. Some VPN protocols make data speed their priority, while others focus on data encryption.
Here’s an overview of the five most common VPN protocols and their basic characteristics.
- PPTP (point to point tunneling protocol) – fast speed, security issues, wide support
- L2TP/IPSec (layer 2 tunneling protocol) – wide usage, fair speed
- OpenVPN (open source protocol) – best encryption, slower speed, open source
- SSTP (secure socket tunneling protocol) – excellent support, hard to detect, good security
- IKEv2 (Internet Key Exchange Version 2) – mobile-friendly, open source option, good support, fast speeds
Why Use a VPN?
There are numerous benefits to using a VPN.
Secure Connection to the Internet
The data you generate online while using a VPN is virtually impossible to unlock. Imagine looking for a key for a lock containing thousands of different up and down combinations – that could take years. Even more importantly, your connection will be secure when you log in to public networks that are known to be more sensitive to data breaches or lack proper data security systems.
Disguising Your Location
You can think of a VPN as your personal internet proxy. No one can determine your exact location because this software assigns you a connection from a different server. As you may know, data about demographic location comes from the servers. Most VPN providers will remove your online behavior history so not even they can track the changes in server locations.
Access Restricted Content
More and more services online are starting to restrict their content to only selected geographic areas. Netflix is known for making some TV shows available only in certain countries and locking access to the series in another location. Even though major service providers like the broadcasting giant have dedicated systems that bypass the VPN servers, there are selected VPN providers that still don’t get noticed by major companies.
With a proper VPN service, you can be located in your US home and read news from content-restricted news providers in China, Europe, and most any other place in the world.
Secure Data Transfer
Over the past few years, we have seen an increase in remote workers across the globe. This means there’s a higher need for remote information access. Accessing important company files from their own network comes with important security risks, both for the employee and the company. That’s why a VPN connection is often a must.
Prevent Data Throttling
Data throttling occurs when users consume a specific amount of their available data. An internet service provider can slow the service down after the user reaches a specific cap. But with a VPN, the ISP can’t see how much data is used. This is a great way to have longer access to fast internet without paying more.
Despite being excellent for online security, VPNs aren’t perfect software. Although minor, there are some disadvantages that can come with their use.
Low Internet Speed
Sometimes, using a VPN can take a toll on your overall internet speed. Having a VPN secure your data can take time, which can affect your online experience. This issue can easily be avoided if you opt for VPN providers known for offering fast internet speeds.
This disadvantage is mostly true for people who need VPNs to connect to advanced network systems. The terminology and function of VPN technology can take time to understand.
The good part is that there are tons of tutorials online that can help out. Also, for corporate use, most businesses will have an IT team that educates the users on how to install, log in, and use the VPN with ease.
As you can see, the disadvantages of virtual private network software are very limited, and the advantages far outweigh the negatives.
What to Look for in a VPN
Not all VPN providers are the same. The best VPN is the one that offers a range of services so you can rely on it for more than one task.
Here’s an overview of important features to look for in a VPN.
IP Address Encryption
Any VPN should be able to hide your IP address, as this is its primary purpose. This is the only way you can receive information without having anyone except you (and sometimes the VPN provider) see it.
A good VPN will also help you cover your tracks, such as internet history, cookies, search history, and the like. Cookie encryption is crucial because it keeps third parties from accessing your personal information, like financial data, credentials, personal interests, and similar content you leave on websites.
A secure VPN will use plenty of authentication methods to make sure only the people who own the account have access to it. If you try to log in from a tablet or mobile device while having a VPN installed on your computer, the software may ask you for two-factor authentication that includes scanning a fingerprint, entering a security key, or sending a photo. That way, third parties will not be able to access your connection.
A VPN connection isn’t 100% guaranteed. You might lose the internet connection provided by your ISP, which will, in turn, interrupt your VPN connection. There can also be an issue with the VPN server that can result in losing a secure connection.
Reliable VPNs will recognize this issue and end all programs that ran during the downtime. This will reduce the chance of your data being compromised.
Installing a VPN on Your Computer
After reading about all the benefits of a VPN, you may want to install one and secure your network traffic. Before you do so, you should understand the different installation options.
For standalone VPN clients, you must install software on your computer. This software will meet the endpoint requirements in order for the VPN to be executed properly and create a well-established encryption tunnel.
You can also add a VPN to your browser as an extension. In fact, popular browsers like Opera already have a preinstalled VPN extension. Browser extensions are the fastest way to gain access to a VPN, but they only hide the information shared on that specific browser. If you use another browser that doesn’t have that VPN extension, your data won’t be protected.
Router VPNs are great for multiple devices that are connected to a single internet connection. When you integrate a VPN with your router, which is the source of your internet connection, you can protect all devices and secure them with a trustworthy network. You can watch geographically restricted content on your TV, tablet, or computer without having to install a VPN on each device separately.
Router VPNs are simple to install but can be tricky to manage on routers that lack their own user interface. Some incoming connections can be blocked as a result.
Company VPNs consist of personalized setups and technical support inside a company. The IT team of a (usually large) company will create the VPN specifically for the company’s needs. The users don’t have any administrative abilities, and all their activities or data transfers are logged by the company.
This is a great solution for a company to minimize the risk of data leakage. Corporate VPNs offer a fully secure connection to the company’s servers and intranet, even for workers who aren’t located in the company and log in from their own internet connection.
Using VPNs on Smartphones
At this point, you may wonder whether it’s possible to use a VPN on mobile devices. The answer is yes, of course!
There are plenty of VPN providers that offer mobile experiences. You can download a VPN app from your store, register for an account, and use the benefits much like you would on your computer.
The process for installing a VPN on your mobile device is super simple.
- Navigate to your phone’s store (Google Play or Apple Store).
- Search for the desired VPN provider in the search box (see some examples in the “VPN Examples” section below).
- Download the software on your phone.
- Register with a new account.
- Turn the VPN on when you want to secure your connection.
- Switch the server if you want to connect to a particular location other than the one provided by the VPN by default.
How Secure Are VPNs?
It’s important to understand the scope of VPN services in order to answer this question. VPNs aren’t made as a replacement for antivirus software. They can hide your IP and encrypt your online activities, internet history, and similar data, but they still can’t offer protection from outside intrusion.
If a virus enters your computer, it can steal or damage your data regardless of your VPN status.
If you want to protect your computer from viruses, malware, and similar malicious threats, you should invest in antivirus or anti-malware protection. These are different from VPN services.
For the best protection, you can use a combination of robust VPN software and an antivirus program.
Once you download a VPN and create an account, you can start browsing the internet more securely. Here’s an overview of the steps you’ll have to perform in order to activate the program.
- Connect to the internet and start the VPN.
- Choose the preferred location for your VPN address.
- Surf the internet with peace of mind.
Once you open a VPN service, all you have to do is select the desired location, and you’re good to go. Most VPN providers will automatically connect you to the fastest server to make sure you get the most out of the private surfing experience. But if you’d like to change that to any specific location available by the provider, you’ll have to do that manually.
As you can see, using a VPN is super simple, and anyone can do it. Now that you’ve got a good grasp of what a VPN is and how it works, we can explore some of the best VPN providers out there.
If you’re looking for a personal VPN, the options below are worth exploring.
ExpressVPN is arguably the most popular VPN provider on the market, and it’s not for just any reason. It’s one of the few virtual private networks that have blazing speeds on more than 30,000 IP addresses, 3,000 servers, and 160 locations around the world.
With this VPN, you can have a total of 5 connections at the same time, meaning you can stay connected to a VPN server from your phone, tablet, or PC whenever you want.
The program comes with a three-month free trial for users who opt for a one-year plan. At the time of writing, their best plans costs around $7 per month for an annual package.
ExpressVPN has a zero-log policy, meaning they don’t keep logs of your online activity. There’s also a kill-switch feature, as well as bitcoin payment support.
You can use this VPN on just about any operating system, including Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, or routers.
NordVPN is another leading provider of VPN services, with more than 5,200 servers and IP addresses in 62 countries around the world. You can connect up to six devices to this VPN and enjoy a private connection on all of them.
The software has a dedicated IP option as well as a kill-switch feature. They also offer a double VPN option for adding another layer of encryption for extra security. You can use their private DNS servers to avoid DNS filtering, blocking, and hijacking.
Other notable features of this VPN include malware, ad tracker, and web tracker protection, dark web monitoring for notifications if one of your accounts is compromised, as well as an obfuscated server for hiding from your ISP that you use a VPN.
NordVPN offers business plans for organization resource remote access. Whether you’re looking for personal VPN or business VPN services, you’re sure to find a plan for every need with NordVPN.
ProtonVPN is among the best free VPNs you can find. Its free version offers access to servers in the U.S., Japan, and the Netherlands. The premium option lets you connect to an additional 1,700 servers in 63 more countries.
If you appreciate fast VPN connections, you’ll be happy to learn that this software won’t slow down your internet traffic nearly as much as the competitors, whether you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network or use your mobile data.
Since there are not that many high-quality, free VPNs available, this one has certainly won the race in the free option category. The best features of this VPN include a no-log policy, open source apps, up to 10 Gbps (super fast) server speeds, and a built-in ad blocker. The software uses special technology to accelerate your VPN speed by overcoming hardware limitations.
Surfshark is a powerful VPN provider with more than 3,200 servers in 65 different locations. It’s much smaller than the competitors, but it offers unlimited device support, which is a rarity.
Another great feature is that Surfshark includes anti-malware, tracker blocking, and ad blocking services as part of the software. You can use this software on both your computer and mobile devices, as well as routers.
You can also benefit from Surfshark’s Camouflage Mode, which masks VPN activity so the internet service provider doesn’t even know users are using a VPN.
IPVanish is a beast of a VPN provider with a whopping 40,000 IP addresses and over 1,600 servers in 75 different locations. A great thing about it is that you can connect an unlimited number of computer and mobile devices in a relatively affordable yearly plan.
This is one of the rare Netflix-friendly VPNs. The software has a connection kill switch, amazing speeds, and an excellent interface that promotes learning more about how VPNs work.
Private Internet Access
Private Internet Access is a robust, all-around VPN that comes with a great price plan, works with more than 10,000 servers in 84 countries, and allows ten same-time connections.
This is one of the few VPNs that offers outstanding features with a low price point, making them perfect for users concerned about their privacy who are on a budget. This software works on all operating systems, including Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, and Linux.
The app’s Chrome extension stands out as the most widely used product that can block cookies. Unless users require heavy internet usage for gaming, they can experience fast internet speeds for most applications.
Understanding the Power of VPN
VPN protection is necessary for all internet users whether they need to connect to a secure remote server, ensure secure communication, or simply keep their browsing history away from marketers.
VPN access today is easier than ever, as there are many VPN providers offering free VPNs. If you’re up for more comprehensive protection, you can always go for a premium version.
How to stay safe online:
- Practice Strong Password Hygiene: Use a unique and complex password for each account. A password manager can help generate and store them. In addition, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever available.
- Invest in Your Safety: Buying the best antivirus for Windows 11 is key for your online security. A high-quality antivirus like Norton, McAfee, or Bitdefender will safeguard your PC from various online threats, including malware, ransomware, and spyware.
- Be Wary of Phishing Attempts: Be cautious when receiving suspicious communications that ask for personal information. Legitimate businesses will never ask for sensitive details via email or text. Before clicking on any links, ensure the sender's authenticity.
- Stay Informed. We cover a wide range of cybersecurity topics on our blog. And there are several credible sources offering threat reports and recommendations, such as NIST, CISA, FBI, ENISA, Symantec, Verizon, Cisco, Crowdstrike, and many more.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are the most frequently asked questions.
What is a VPN in simple terms?
Is a VPN free?
Do I really need a VPN at home?
A VPN is highly recommended for daily internet usage, even at home. This is especially true if you want to protect your online data from hackers and trackers who can use your information for marketing or malicious purposes.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab