VPN explained: How does it work? Why is it important?

VPN Explained - All Things VPN

VPNs create a secure connection between you and the internet. When you connect to the internet via VPN, all your data traffic is sent through an encrypted virtual tunnel. These are the advantages:

  • You will be more anonymous on the internet: your IP address and your location will not be visible to anyone.
  • You will be safer on the internet: the encrypted tunnel will keep hackers and cyber criminals away, and your device will not be as susceptible to attacks.
  • You will be freer on the internet: by using different IP addresses, you will be able to access websites and online services that would normally be blocked.

Do you want to start using a VPN? We recommend ExpressVPN. This VPN has a lot of features, offers great security, and has achieved an excellent grade in our tests. It even managed to take first place!

You can find out how to set up a VPN connection and what a VPN can do for you in the full article below.

More and more people use VPNs to browse the internet. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It is an easy and efficient tool that offers three essential features for you to browse online: more security, online privacy and freedom. If you’re not used to the concept of a VPN, it can be a little scary.

This page will explain exactly how a VPN works and why people use it. We will tell you everything you need to know about the advantages and possibilities of VPNs. We’ll also talk about some great VPN providers you might want to try.

What is a VPN?

When you are using the internet, there is a constant process of exchanging data from your device with other parties on the web. A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, creates a secure tunnel between your device (e.g. smartphone or laptop) and the Internet. VPN allows you to send your data over a secure, encrypted connection to an external server: the VPN server. From there, your data will be forwarded to its destination on the internet.

Forming a secure connection to an external server does three things. First, it helps to hide your real IP address. Second, it protects your data. And third, it allows you to use the Internet more freely. We will explain all this in more detail below.

Explainer Video: What is a VPN?

For the visually oriented, we’ve made a short video to explain what exactly a VPN is and how it works. Enjoy! The article continues below the video.

VIDEO

Why do I need a VPN?

You may be wondering if using a virtual private network is really necessary. An increasing part of our lives takes place online. We do our banking, keep in touch with friends, check our medical records and work online. It’s important that all this information about you doesn’t get exposed out there. 

After all, you don’t just leave your bank statements lying around everywhere. If you don’t secure your Internet connection, you risk hackers, governments, your ISP, websites, your employer, and others finding out more about you than you’d like. A VPN protects your data from all these groups.

What is a VPN for? There are many different reasons for people to start using a VPN. The largest can be summarized as follows:

  1. Offer more security online.
  2. Increase your online privacy.
  3. They allow you to browse more freely (bypassing restrictions and online censorship).
  4. Makes public Wi-Fi more secure.

We’ll explain exactly what this means next.

How a VPN Provides Online Security

A VPN offers security because it strongly encrypts all your internet traffic, even before it reaches VPN servers, guiding your data traffic through a much more secure “VPN tunnel”. This makes it very difficult for other people such as governments and hackers to intercept and view your data. For this reason, it is highly recommended using a VPN when using (dangerous) public Wi-Fi networks.

Whether at work or at home, using a good VPN is equally important. Providers like NordVPN or ExpressVPN offer state-of-the-art, 246-level AES encryption. With this kind of protection, you won’t have to worry about anyone getting their hands on your data and using it against you.

How a VPN Offers Online Privacy and Anonymity

A VPN offers more anonymity online as you will not be surfing the internet with your IP address publicly exposed. A VPN allows you to keep the websites you visit confidential. Your personal IP address will be hidden once you connect to the VPN server. Generally, other people can relate your online activities to your identity and your location, based on your IP address. For example, your ISP, the websites you visit, and authorities can often see everything you do online.

When you use a VPN, your online activities can only be traced back to the VPN server, not you (unless you are connected to certain sites like YouTube and Google). Many VPN providers will not disclose or monitor what you do through their servers. Thus, you will be able to browse the internet anonymously, as you cannot be identified or tracked by your IP address.

How a VPN Offers Online Freedom

VPNs can give you a lot more freedom online. It allows you to connect to servers spread all over the world. When you connect to a VPN server in a country, you will be able to access the internet as if you were physically in that country. This can be very helpful as the internet is not freely accessible in all countries. Some countries censor part of the internet or place restrictions on social media sites and online streaming services.

If you are on vacation or have moved to a foreign country, you may not be able to access some streaming services from your home country. A VPN will also allow you to connect to the internet through servers in your home country. This usually allows you to watch your favourite show or go to your favourite website. This also works backwards. If you want access to websites or streaming services available in other countries (watch a different version of Netflix, for example), you can do this with a VPN connection.

If you’d like to try a secure VPN now but don’t know which provider to choose, check out our Top 5 Best VPN Services.

A VPN protects you on a public Wi-Fi network

If you are using a public Wi-Fi network, you will be an easy target for hackers. A public Wi-Fi network is less secure than your private network. You don’t know who else is connecting to the network and who has configured it. Hackers take advantage of the lack of security on public Wi-Fi and can steal your personal and private information. We always recommend using a VPN on free Wi-Fi hotspots.

A VPN sends its traffic through an encrypted tunnel. Encrypting your data makes it nearly impossible for anyone to see your data. This makes it very difficult for hackers, governments and your ISP to gain access to your private information.

How does a VPN work?

Once you subscribe to a VPN provider, you can download and install an easy app on your smartphone, tablet, computer or smart TV. With a few clicks, you select your preferred security settings and set up a secure connection to the VPN server you want. Connecting to a VPN is usually straightforward. Once the connection is established, the following will happen to your data:

  1. The VPN software on your computer encrypts your data traffic and sends it (through your ISP) to the VPN server over a secure connection.
  2. Your computer’s encrypted data is decrypted by the VPN server.
  3. The VPN server will send your data over the internet and receive all the traffic sent back, with the user being the final recipient.
  4. The traffic is then re-encrypted by the VPN server and sent back to you.
  5. The VPN software on your device will decrypt the data, so you can understand and use it.

The VPN connection will encrypt your data traffic, making life very difficult for hackers and authorities who try to see or intercept your personal information. The secure connection also provides users with greater anonymity as their internet traffic is routed through an external VPN server. As you are browsing the internet with the VPN server’s IP address, your real IP address will remain hidden.

Generally, your location and identity can be revealed through your IP address, as it is unique to your internet connection. By using a different IP (the one assigned to you by the VPN server), none of your online activities can be traced back to you using your IP address, and you will be able to browse the internet anonymously.

The VPN app will run in the background on your computer, tablet or smartphone. You’ll be able to access the internet as you always do, and you won’t notice any difference other than the fact that you can bypass geographic restrictions.

Is a VPN secure?

You might be wondering if your data is safe with a VPN provider. Your internet traffic is redirected and passes through the VPN provider’s servers. The provider sees everything you do if you want it. Therefore, you must trust your VPN service. Most VPN services do not store any data and record what you do.

However, there are some VPN services that abuse the data travelling through their servers and sell your data to advertisers, for example. This is usually the case with free VPN providers. Before using a VPN, you must do some thorough research. Later in this article, we will recommend good and safe VPN services to you.

Does a VPN slow down your internet connection?

Some people doubt whether to use a virtual private network because they’ve heard that it can slow down your internet connection. It is true that some VPNs have this effect. After all, a VPN redirects your connection through a remote server. This takes longer, so your internet connection may be slow. However, this is not always the case.

There are many VPNs that do everything in their power to make your internet connection as fast as possible (and sometimes even faster than you’re used to). If you want to make sure you get a fast VPN, check out our survey of the fastest VPNs right now. All the VPNs we recommend there have been proven to work flawlessly and cause little to no lag. Streaming, gaming and browsing will take place with normal speed, but with greater freedom, security and privacy.

If your internet speed is artificially throttled by your ISP or another third party, a VPN can make your connection faster. The VPN makes sure that this limit no longer applies to you, so you can use your connection to its full potential.

Is it legally permissible to use a VPN?

Some people wonder if using VPNs is legal. After all, the service allows you to be much more anonymous online, which can be very useful for hackers and cyber criminals. If these people can’t be tracked online, it becomes much harder to punish them for their crimes. Still, that doesn’t mean VPNs are necessarily illegal.

On the contrary: many companies use VPNs and recommend their use. The European Union also supports internet freedom, which a VPN can offer you.

Several countries consider the use of VPNs to be completely legal. But engaging in illegal activities while using a VPN remains illegal. So, it’s okay to use VPNs for common purposes like browsing, playing games, watching Netflix or YouTube. 

If you use a VPN to download illegal files, such as unofficial copies of movies and music, for example, it is likely that you are breaking local laws in your country. While VPNs offer greater anonymity online and make it much more difficult for authorities to track them, the download itself is still illegal.

There are some countries that consider using a VPN illegal. If you want to know more about these countries and the legal and illegal use of VPNs in general, you can read this article. Using a VPN in most parts of the (western) world will not cause any problems. On the contrary: we recommend it.

How many VPN protocols are there?

VPN connections use an encrypted connection, also called a tunnel. There are several ways (protocols) to configure these VPN connections. These protocols ensure that your data remains secure and cannot be read by anyone. The main VPN protocols are as follows:

  • OpenVPN : OpenVPN is one of the most used VPN protocols. It is an open-source protocol, which uses encryption based on the OpenSSL and SSLv3/TLSv1 protocols. Most VPN services support OpenVPN, and it is available on multiple platforms (Windows, Mac, (OSx), Android, iOS, Linux, routers). Most people consider OpenVPN to be the best option. The only downside is that it doesn’t work on macOS and iOS, so you need to use a different protocol for that (like IKEv2/IPsec).
  • IPSec/L2TP : This protocol combines IPSec for data encryption with L2TP to establish a secure connection. Most operating systems have IPSec/L2TP, which is a great option if OpenVPN is not available.
  • IKEv2/IPsec : IKEv2 is a protocol based on IPSec. This protocol can quickly connect and switch networks. This makes it ideal for smartphones, as these devices tend to switch between Wi-Fi and public Wi-Fi networks all the time. According to some sources, IKEv2 is faster than OpenVPN. However, OpenVPN is considered a better protocol.
  • PPTP : PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunnelling Protocol) was one of the first widely used protocols. However, this protocol has some (potential) flaws. Therefore, its use is only recommended if speed is more important to you than security. This can be the case when you want to bypass geo-restrictions to access streaming services.
  • Softether : Softether, unlike the other VPN protocols mentioned above, is not a single protocol, it is an open-source application that operates on different platforms and supports VPN protocols such as SSL VPN, L2TP/IPSec, OpenVPN and the Microsoft Secure Socket Tunnelling Protocol.
  • WireGuard: WireGuard is a relatively new protocol that is gaining in popularity. It runs on Linux kernel and aims to achieve even better performance than OpenVPN and IPSec. It is still under development, so it’s best to use OpenVPN for now.

If you want to know more about the different VPN protocols and how they work, check out our full review here.

How to configure your VPN

Setting up your VPN connection is easier than it sounds. Your VPN provider will do most of the work for you. First, you need to choose your VPN service (on our website you will find our review of various providers, as well as recommendations of what to look for in a VPN).

When you find a VPN that suits your needs, purchase their services, download and install the software provided by the provider. Most providers offer software for all types of devices and operating systems. You can download a VPN client for WindowsMaciPhoneAndroid and sometimes Linux. In the software, you can choose which protocols you want to use and which VPN server you want to connect to. With just a few clicks, you will be connected to a server.

Now you can use the internet safely and anonymously, free from any restrictions or censorship that your geographic location may offer! Installing a VPN is very easy. Below, we will show you how to carry out this process in three steps.

Getting Started with VPN in 3 Simple Steps

If you want to start using a VPN but don’t know where to start, you’re in the right place. We’ll walk you through these three steps to get you started with your VPN:

Step 1: Sign up for a trusted VPN provider

For beginners, we recommend SurfShark or NordVPN. We have tested these providers extensively and believe they are a great choice for beginners as they are very intuitive and easy to set up, as well as being very fast. These two VPN providers also allow you to offer security to multiple devices with just one subscription, and they also offer a 30-day money-back guarantee. 

This way you can test for at least a month without any risk. Also, by using the links or clicking the buttons on our website, you will get a super discount with these providers.

You can check out our full reviews on the reviews page. Of course, we also review other VPN providers. Some other very interesting VPN providers are PIA,  Cyberghost, and ProtonVPN, the latter of which also offers one of the best free subscriptions.

Many free VPNs are not secure and work with data or speed limits, but ProtonVPN does not. We researched many VPNs to look for free providers that are reliable and safe to use. You can read all about it in our article on free VPN providers.

When choosing your VPN service, you will have to subscribe to it. Create an account and make sure you have your login information ready. You will need this information in the following steps. As mentioned earlier in this article, both CyberGhost and NordVPN have a money-back guarantee, so you can try them out and request a refund if you don’t like the service.

Step 2: Download the VPN App

Now that you’ve completed your subscription with your preferred provider, you just need to download the VPN app on your Android smartphoneiPhone, tablet or computer. Going straight to the VPN provider’s official page is the best way to find the right software. Do not try to download from other sources as the files may contain malware. When the software installation process is finished, you will be able to login.

Step 3: Activate the VPN app and start browsing the internet safely and freely

Activate the VPN by clicking the connect button and the VPN connection will be established. You often don’t even realize it’s on as it runs in the background on your device.

And that’s all! When VPN is enabled, you can browse the internet much safer, free and anonymous. The image below shows the summary of the steps you will need to follow to install a VPN on your computer.

If you want to find out how to install VPN on a specific device, such as smartphones and smart TVs, check out our “VPN Setup” section. Installation may vary depending on your device and operating system. If you want to know exactly how a VPN operates, keep reading. We will explain in more detail below.

Three Great VPN Providers for Beginners

If you want to start using a VPN, it is best to choose a reliable provider and access the internet through their servers. We have tested top VPN providers for quality and usability. Most good VPN providers offer trials, so you can check out their free service. If you want to start with a simple but great VPN, we recommend ExpressVPN, NordVPN or Surfshark.

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is one of the best VPN providers tested so far. It offers stable and fast servers, good apps for all devices, and great customer service. This VPN also works with Netflix, so you can unblock all your favourite series. ExpressVPN has a 30-day money-back guarantee, so you can try before committing to a longer subscription.

ExpressVPN focuses on offering the best quality, but of course, everything has its price. They are not the cheapest VPN provider, but with our special discounted offer, you will be able to subscribe for as little as $6.67 per month. This subscription allows you to secure up to three devices with ExpressVPN. Learn all about this provider with our full ExpressVPN review. Click the button below and check out the ExpressVPN website.

NordVPN

The second VPN we recommend is NordVPN. In addition to being a good and reliable VPN, it also offers top-notch security. The software, in addition to being easy to use, has an elegant look. This top-notch security makes NordVPN slower than ExpressVPN, but it’s still a great option. For the quality offered, the price is very affordable. In addition, the apps are very intuitive and well-structured. Learn all about this provider in our full NordVPN review.

NordVPN also offers other advanced features, which are great when you are already familiar with VPNs and need the help of specific features. NordVPN offers dedicated IP addresses and hidden servers, for example, that make it easy to bypass geo-restrictions imposed by services like Netflix. In addition, NordVPN also offers dual VPN connections to optimize your security and privacy.

NordVPN has a 30-day money-back guarantee. They also have very affordable plans, especially on long-term subscriptions. If interested, check out the discounts by clicking the button below.

Surfshark

Surfshark earned a third place in our top 5. The biggest difference between Surfshark and many other VPN services like ExpressVPN is that Surfshark is much cheaper. The VPN software that Surfshark offers is very user-friendly. With just a few clicks, you will have it installed and connected to the VPN server perfectly. 

Then you’ll be able to use the VPN to browse using a different IP address, so you can watch one of Netflix’s many local libraries, for example. You might want to watch one of the countless American Netflix movies and series. With Surfshark, that’s easy.

In addition to its standard VPN service, Surfshark offers many additional features. If you want an overview of all the extra options this provider offers, take a look at our full review here

To give you a brief summary: Surfshark is a fantastic VPN for all novice VPN users, but it is also suitable for the more experienced user who wants to have a wide range of possibilities at their disposal. Would you like to try Surfshark? Click the button in the box below to visit the site.

Extra tip : If you want to protect all your online devices with a VPN at once, you can try setting up a VPN connection directly on your router. Installation can be quite complex for some people. We recommend that you use DD-WRT router software.

Why should you use a VPN?

There are several reasons why people should connect to a VPN. Some of the most common are below:

Anonymity and privacy:

  • Internet Anonymity : A VPN connection hides your real IP address and location. With a VPN connection, you use the IP address of the VPN server you are connected to. In this way, your IP address remains hidden. Websites and other entities will not be able to track your online activities back to you, or even discover your location and identity based on your IP address (as long as your VPN provider has an anti-logging policy). All they will see when you are using the VPN is a different IP address that has nothing to do with you. With a VPN, you can browse the internet anonymously.
  • Anonymous downloading and uploading : Downloading some types of torrents is illegal in most countries. More and more people who download these torrents are tracked and sometimes even prosecuted. Of course, we are not advocating any illegal practices. However, we understand that people want online privacy and anonymity, not only when browsing the internet, but also when downloading and uploading files. To ensure that no one knows what you are uploading and downloading from the internet, use a VPN connection. Due to the encryption of the traffic and the redirected IP address, you can download it anonymously with a VPN.
  • Prevent companies from creating a profile about you : Ad networks like Facebook, Google and Twitter are constantly collecting information about you through your online traffic. With this information, they can show you personalized ads and even worse, sell this information to third parties. By encrypting your online traffic using a VPN, these networks will not be able to collect information about you, thus having less influence on what you see online.

Web Security:

  • Protection from hackers and government authorities : People are increasingly aware about their vulnerability on the internet. Without a secure VPN connection, anyone can easily intercept, view, and steal your data, often without you realizing it. Without realizing it, other people can “tamper” your devices and use your personal information. You can avoid situations like this with a VPN, as it encrypts all your internet traffic.
  • Secure Internet Access on Public Wi-Fi Networks: Using public Wi-Fi networks can be very risky. Other users on the same network can easily gain access to your personal data and information. Since you don’t want other people spying on your information, such as your email address or credit card information, we recommend using a VPN connection. VPN encrypts all your internet traffic. Hackers will only be able to see encrypted data and will not have access to your personal information.

Remote access, bypassing internet censorship and geoblocks:

  • Bypass censorship and geo-restrictions : For the average internet user there can be many restrictions on what they can and cannot access online. For example, you will not be able to see all the content available on BBC iPlayer if you are not accessing the internet with a UK IP address. In addition, some streaming services, such as Netflix, offer different content based on your geographic area. Some governments (such as China, Turkey and Egypt, for example) block access to certain internet services such as WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook and Twitter. By changing your geographic location with a VPN, you can bypass these restrictions. You may also gain access to blocked websites.
  • Access to your company’s network : More and more companies are allowing their employees to work from home or even from other countries. Some people connect to the Internet via VPN to access the company’s network from home. This allows people to effectively work from home.

What are the limitations of VPNs?

A VPN has a lot to offer when it comes to privacy and security. However, that’s all when we talk about cybersecurity and privacy. To browse the web safely and anonymously, you will need to observe some extra privacy measures in addition to using a VPN connection. For example, you will still have to clear your cookies regularly. In addition, there are also things that a VPN simply cannot do. 

For example, let’s say you are logged into your Google account and reading about all the flavours of ice cream out there. In that case, Google can still identify you as an ice cream aficionado, with or without a VPN. After all, they will simply correlate your search history with your account information, whether you change your IP address or not.

There are other ways online entities can determine your identity that a VPN does not protect you from. When using Google Maps, for example, it is often necessary to turn on the GPS. That means Google Maps can see exactly where you are. There are also more advanced ways that are used to identify Internet users, such as browser fingerprints. This method uses your browser and device settings to distinguish you from other Internet users.

In other words, a VPN significantly improves your online privacy and security and is a vital part of your privacy and security precautions. However, it is important to be aware of the limitations that VPNs have, and the additional measures needed to compensate for these limitations. Fortunately, we have an article that highlights these measures and helps you to be anonymous online.

What is a VPN – Summary

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a secure connection between you and the internet. It offers more privacy, security and freedom to its users. There are several ways to set up a VPN connection, but most private users subscribe to a VPN service.

Here are the main reasons why people might want to use a VPN:

  • You will be more anonymous online.
  • You will be safer online and your data will be more secure.
  • You will be able to bypass censorship and geo-blocks.

There are several quality VPN providers that offer access to servers all over the world and they won’t cost you more than a few bucks a month. These providers are constantly working to ensure the security and speed of their servers. After extensively testing the providers, we selected the best VPN providers for you.

A VPN will not always be able to cover all your online tracks: there are other methods that can result in your online identity being discovered. Techniques that use WebRTC leaks and browser fingerprints may still collect data about you. Even so, a VPN will protect your online privacy very well in most cases. It can, for example, make it look like the device you’re using to connect to the internet is in New York, while you might actually be somewhere in Europe – or the other way around.

VPNs and Their Use: Frequently Asked Questions

If you have an urgent question, we can help. Click on one of the questions below to read the answer. If you have any other questions, and you didn’t find the answer here, ask your question in the form of a comment at the end of this article, and we will answer as soon as possible!

How much does a VPN cost?

There is a big difference in price between VPN providers. This makes it difficult to answer this question objectively. So looking at the best VPN providers, most VPNs will cost you between $2 and $7 a month if you subscribe for an extended period of time. If you choose to subscribe for a shorter period, you have more control over unsubscribing, but you will generally pay around $12 a month for the most popular VPN providers.

There are also free VPNs. Of course, you don’t pay for them, but data and/or speed limits may occur. There are also many free VPN providers that take advantage of your data or resell it to third parties. Always read VPN reviews to see if they are right for you.

Should I use a free VPN?

There are many free VPNs available on the internet. However, not all are reliable. Some free apps don’t protect your connection very well, while others even install malware on your device. 

Always choose VPNs that offer a reliable free service like Hide.me and ProtonVPN. Unfortunately, even the best free VPNs have data and speed limits.

How do I activate my VPN connection?

If you want to get started with a VPN, you first need a VPN account. Choose a reliable VPN service and subscribe. Install the program on your device and activate VPN. Usually, just clicking the big “Power” button displayed in the app or on the dashboard will start the VPN connection.

What is a VPN?

VPNs are secure connections between you and the internet. This connection is sent through an external VPN server, ensuring that your IP address, location and data traffic remain hidden. 

In addition, you can also choose servers from different locations, to access websites and services as if you were in the same location/country as the chosen server. Thus, VPNs offer much more privacysecurity and freedom online, opening up a wide variety of new possibilities.

How do VPNs work?

VPNs create an encrypted VPN tunnel between your device and the internet. All your online traffic passes through this tunnel, preventing anyone outside it from accessing your online activities. VPNs also swap your IP address for that of the VPN server you are connected to. 

Therefore, your location will no longer be available to anyone on the internet. The encrypted VPN tunnel manages to keep your data safe because it uses high-level encryption protocols.

Can I use VPN to watch Netflix?

A good VPN will allow you to watch series and movies that would normally only be available in other countries. The American version of Netflix, for example, has a much larger collection than versions in most countries, including Spain, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. 

With the American server and the right VPN, like ExpressVPN, you will have access to hundreds of series and movies on Netflix.