VPN 101

As millions of users around the globe realized that it was easy for third parties to identify and track them online, the idea of masking your identity online was – and still is – an enticing one. 

Today, we’re diving into everything you need to know about VPNs. So, if you’ve ever wondered “what is a VPN?” or “how do I set up a VPN?”, this article will tell you everything you need to know. 

What is a VPN?

what is a vpn

A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is a network of private servers that encrypt your traffic and data as you use the Internet. 

Normally, when you connect to the Internet, the data request from your Internet-connected device – whether that’s your smartphone, computer, game console, or even a smart home device – travels through your router and directly to the server you’re requesting data from. 

This data isn’t normally encrypted, meaning that anyone can see what you’re doing if they know how to intercept that traffic from your router. So, if you’re connecting to a public WiFi network, or you live in a country where third parties are known to routinely intercept and store your data, it’s easy for your identity to be found and compromised. 

However, if you use a VPN, your data request is sent from your router to one or more intermediary servers owned by the VPN provider. Your data will then be encrypted on these servers and will be forwarded to its destination, albeit under an IP address that can’t be traced back to you. 

Helicopters and Tunnels

If you’re still confused, the best way to explain it is with the classic helicopter analogy. 

Imagine you’re driving on the freeway. You’re minding your own business when, suddenly, you notice a helicopter is following you, no matter how many turns and diversions you take. The helicopter is packed with people trying to track your movements, like people who want to try and compromise your identity, people who want to sell your information, and hackers trying to find a weakness to exploit. If you visit somewhere, you also don’t have a choice if they find out your identity, because you’ll be driving down a road marked with your home location. 

This is what happens when you normally connect to the Internet. 

Now, imagine you’re driving on the freeway, but this time, you drive into a tunnel. That same helicopter can’t follow you into the tunnel, so regardless of where you go, the people tracking you have no idea where you are. Not only that but when you visit a place in that tunnel, you can effectively choose which road you take to that location. So, instead of giving away your home location, you can choose to drive down a road that says you’re coming from the USA, Canada, or wherever else you’d like. 

This is how a VPN masks your identity. 

What Does a VPN Do?

In short, a VPN obscures your identity while you’re online. As we mentioned earlier, it’s relatively easy for third parties to see what you’re doing online and to link that back to your IP address, which is unique to you. 


Whenever you visit any website or use any software that requires an Internet connection, your IP address will be attached to that data request. So, not only can third parties intercept this data on route, but the place that you’re requesting data from will be able to identify you, too.

However, when you connect to a VPN and route your data through their servers, that data request is then attached with the IP address of the VPN server, a random IP address, or a dedicated IP address. When third parties look at your traffic, instead of seeing an IP address that shows your true location as, for example, London, they’ll instead see an IP address linked to some other location. 

This offers a wide range of benefits, which we’ll cover in more detail later on. But masking your IP in this way means that not only is it harder for third parties to discern your identity, but you may also be able to access geo-blocked content, avoid censorship, or even bypass China’s Great Firewall

How Does a VPN Work?

A VPN is surprisingly simple at the heart of it. A VPN is a collection of servers located around the world, run by a single company that either purchase and maintains those servers, or rents them as a whitelisted product from another VPN provider. When you purchase a plan with a VPN provider, this gives you the ability to route your data through any of their servers. 

All you need to do is install the available app for your device, connect it to the VPN, choose a server, and your device and their servers handle the encryption for you. 

Let’s take a deeper look at common VPN features and how they work to protect your identity online. 

Encryption

Every VPN provider offers some level of data encryption, which is the process of taking your data and scrambling it so it can’t be read. To un-scramble the data, the device receiving your data needs an encryption key. Most high-end VPN providers offer what’s known as zero-access encryption, in which they don’t hold a copy of your encryption key, so they can’t access your data. 

The most commonly used encryption protocol is AES-256 or Advanced Encryption Standard 256-bit. This means that your data is scrambled with a 256-bit cipher, which is the largest size of cipher that’s currently available to consumers. A larger cipher means that third parties are less likely to be able to guess the combination that unlocks the encryption, and 256-bit ciphers have more combination possibilities than there are stars in the universe. 

That’s why AES-256 is typically referred to as military-grade or enterprise-grade encryption, as even with using the most powerful computer known to man, it would take billions of years to try enough combinations before the correct one was found. 

Encryption is fundamental to how VPNs operate, as it protects your data between your router and the destination server. So, even if your data is intercepted between those two places, all that third-parties will see is a garbled stream of data with no useable information. 

IP Addresses

Your IP address is a unique string of numbers that tells the server you’ve sent a data request to what device you’re using, and where the response should be sent to. However, your IP address is also linked to your ISP, or Internet Service Provider, as well as the country you’re in. That’s why, if you look up your IP address, you’ll often see an approximation of your location. 

When you route your data request through a VPN, then the destination server will see the IP address associated with that VPN server, and not the original device. So, you can appear as if you’re based somewhere like New York, Toronto, or Helsinki, when you’re connecting from a small town in Texas. 

Unfortunately, the static IP of VPN servers has led to the rise of VPN-blocking technologies, many of which actively block traffic if it comes from an IP address linked to a VPN server. This is why many VPN providers will rotate server IP addresses, offer users a dedicated IP address for their personal use, or assign them a random IP address from a pool when they connect. 

VPN Protocols

Every time you connect to the Internet, you do so using a protocol, which simply refers to how two devices create a secure connection. HTTP is perhaps the most recognizable protocol as it’s at the start of every website address, and it tells the destination server that the data request you’re transmitting is responded to with the necessary data to render a website. 

VPN protocols work similarly to this, in which they communicate to the server how data should be routed through that connection. There are multiple protocols available, with many VPN providers offering users the choice between different ones. 

PPTP

PPTP, or Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol, was developed in the mid-90s and is one of the oldest VPN protocols still in use. However, as it was designed for dial-up connections, this meant that as technology advanced, its encryption was quickly cracked. While it has major security issues, one of the reasons why it’s still in use is because it’s widely supported and remains one of the fastest protocols available. 

OpenVPN

OpenVPN is the most commonly used VPN protocol, and because the underlying code is open-source, any bugs or security issues are quickly highlighted and fixed by the development community. It offers the strongest level of security, using AES-256 encryption, and it’s highly configurable. In general, it offers a decent balance between speed and security, but it’s not the fastest protocol available. 

IKEv2/IPsec

IKEv2, or Internet Key Exchange version 2, is a secure key exchange protocol that’s normally paired with IPsec’s encryption. It’s the most mobile-friendly VPN protocol currently available because it can switch between WiFi and cellular networks quickly and without user intervention. The biggest downside is that this protocol isn’t commonly used yet, but along with WireGuard, it’s becoming widely requested by VPN users. 

WireGuard

WireGuard is another open-source VPN protocol, but it’s not yet commonly used among most VPN providers because it’s still considered a work in progress. With that being said, it’s significantly lighter than most other VPN protocols in terms of its codebase, giving it faster speeds. Plus, WireGuard uses more up-to-date encryption methods when compared to some other protocols, making it a potentially great alternative to OpenVPN. 

No-Logging Policies

Whenever you do anything online, it creates a record of where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and how long you were there. Without a VPN, your ISP receives these records and keeps a log of them. In many cases, this is because the country they’re operating in has mandatory data recording laws, in which ISPs legally have to maintain user records for a certain period. 

In a modern age where cybercrime is increasingly common, ISPs are legally mandated to keep these logs so that, if law enforcement needs to investigate a user, they have months or years’ worth of activity records. However, the issue lies in that law enforcement, in many countries, doesn’t need to ask for your consent to use these records in their investigations. 

But, when you use a VPN, what happens to those logs?

First of all, using a VPN means that your ISP doesn’t gain any information about what you’re doing online. All they can see is that you’re connected to an IP address associated with a VPN and that you’re sending encrypted data – which, as we mentioned earlier, they can’t decrypt.

The destination server may still keep logs about your visit to that location, particularly if you log in to that website, as they’ll be able to associate your activity with your account. However, if you don’t log in, all they’ll be able to see is the VPN’s IP address. 

However, because you’re still sending data through a VPN’s server, this means that a log is still created. The difference here is that, if your VPN provider is reputable, this log won’t be stored. So, not even the VPN provider knows your online activity. And, even if they’re mandated to by law, most VPNs will have next to no information to hand over to law enforcement. 

Other VPN providers take this one step further by incorporating in countries that don’t have mandatory data retention laws, such as Panama, the British Virgin Islands, or Switzerland. While they’ll still have to store some information for logistical purposes – like your email address and payment method – this gives you additional reassurance that they’re not storing your logs behind your back, as with the IPVanish scandal in 2016. 

Why Use a VPN

It’s scary how much information you give away on the Internet without realizing it. 

As an Internet user, you should already know how important it is to keep login information secure, particularly for services like online banking. All of these services should already use secure encryption and hashing – or garbling your details with nonsense – to make it near-impossible for attackers to get your details. 

However, that’s only a tiny fraction of how your data is used online. From cookies to your browser history, your IP address to unsecured email accounts, it’s easy for any third party to not only gain access to your data but to use it for their own profit. 

Here are the key reasons why you should use a VPN. 

Your Home Network Isn’t Always Safe

Many of us often assume that our home network is the safest way for us to connect to the Internet because it’s password-protected and we think we know who’s logged in at all times. However, it’s impossible to know if anyone’s cracked the password to your router, and unfortunately, some routers are notoriously easy to hack.

Not only that, but having a secure home network relies on all of your devices being equally secure and, if you have devices that can connect to the Internet of Things, the chances are that this isn’t the case. Any unsecured device offers an entry point for hackers to enter your system and intercept your traffic. 

Even if you’ve taken steps to secure every device in your home, the data that’s sent from your router isn’t automatically encrypted. While some services will use protocols that offer encryption, such as HTTPS, others won’t. So, the vast majority of the information you send and receive while you’re online isn’t only easy to intercept but to read and store by third parties. 

The security of the data sent from your home network will also often depend on the country you’re in. Certain countries, like the USA and the UK, mandate ISPs to log your data, and it’s even legal in the USA for ISPs to sell your browsing history without needing your consent. And, thanks to all the investigations, we also know that it’s easy for third parties to intercept your data without you even knowing. 

By using a VPN, your data is fully encrypted before it ever leaves your device, so all your ISP and third parties can see is that you’re sending and receiving encrypted data. By using state-of-the-art encryption, third parties won’t be able to intercept your data, giving you peace of mind that your online business remains yours alone. 

Public WiFi Also Isn’t Safe

If you’re on the go and you run out of data on your smartphone, or you’re working in a coffee shop to get out of the house, you might not think twice about connecting to public WiFi. Public WiFi is often one of the most lucrative choices for hackers looking to intercept personal data, particularly because these networks are rarely secure and it’s relatively easy to get access to someone’s personal information. 

A VPN gives you a lot more control when you need to use public WiFi, as it means that all of your traffic will be encrypted on your device before it’s sent. So, if anyone is snooping on your public WiFi connection, all they’ll be able to do is access encrypted data that they’ve got no chance of reading. 

That’s not to say that, even with a VPN, you should necessarily trust public WiFi. However, using a VPN makes it significantly safer. 

Unblocking Streaming Services

One of the lesser-known aspects of streaming is that when content comes to a platform, that’s because the streaming service has a license to stream it to that specific country. This is why there are major differences between Netflix’s USA library and, for example, the library in the UK or elsewhere in Europe. 

Because of this, streaming services will have geo-blocking technology built into their systems that identifies a user’s location and serves them the correct library for their country. If they try to access a variant URL for that streaming service, either they’ll redirect the user automatically or tell them that they can’t access that version of the website. 

Using a VPN is the best way to get around this geo-blocking technology as it allows you to connect to a server in the same country as the streaming library you want to unblock. This gives you a local IP address, leading the streaming service to think you’re accessing the platform from inside the country.

It’s worth noting that almost every streaming service knows that users will try to use a VPN for streaming. However, that’s not to say that VPNs for streaming don’t work. 

Streaming services are beginning to use anti-VPN technologies that either block traffic coming from a known VPN IP address, block ports commonly used by VPN users, or inspect your traffic to determine if you’re using a VPN. But, VPN providers are fighting back by rotating their server IP addresses, using obfuscated servers that disguise your traffic as regular HTTP traffic, or even giving users a dedicated IP address. Some even have a pool of IP addresses that are randomly assigned to users, with IP addresses taken out of rotation once they’re blocked. 

Protecting Your Identity While Torrenting 

While almost everyone who file-shares over a P2P network realizes there is a degree of risk, such as unintentionally downloading pirated content, or content that’s seeded with malware, few consider the dangers torrenting poses to a user’s privacy. 

When you connect to a P2P network, it’s easy for other users to see your online activity, meaning that anything you do while you’re torrenting can quickly become common knowledge to everyone connected to that network. And, because there’s no way of knowing who’s also connected to that network, particularly if they’re also using a VPN, you’re opening your data and identity to the potential of fraud, blackmail, or worse. 

That’s why it’s vitally important for you to use a VPN when you’re torrenting, as it provides an invaluable safeguard for your data. Instead of everyone connected to that network seeing everything you’re doing, instead, all they’ll be able to intercept is encrypted data they’ve got no chance of reading. 

Not only that but by using a VPN, you can connect to a server that’s miles away from your home location to give you an anonymous IP address, effectively obscuring your identity. 

Plus, some top-of-the-line VPNs come with antivirus software and other malware detection features, which gives you an extra level of protection against malicious files or code included with the files you’re torrenting.  

How to Get a VPN

Thankfully, getting a VPN is remarkably easy these days because they’re so in demand. There’s an extremely wide range of VPN services available on the market, so you’ll find a VPN that fits your needs. 

The top VPN providers that are usually discussed include NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and Surfshark, because these have a wide range of features that makes them great options for almost every VPN user. There are more options available on the market, but we recommend starting your search with these three providers.

Step 1: Read Reviews

Before you get a VPN, we recommend that you do your research and read reviews to make sure that the VPN you want delivers the service it promises. It’s not unheard of for VPN providers to promise the world, but it’s only when you start using them that you find their speeds are poor, their service is buggy, or even that they store logs when they say they don’t. 

Some even don’t disclose that they are a whitelisted version of another VPN provider, and it’s only through reviews that this has been revealed. 

With that in mind, make sure you do your due diligence and read multiple reviews before you choose a VPN. You should also make sure that you read the Privacy Policy of the VPNs you’re interested in yourself, as what they say – or don’t say – can be very enlightening. 

Reading reviews will also help you to get the information you need about a VPN service quickly, and will help you to determine whether that VPN service is a good fit for what you need. Make sure you consider how many devices you need to cover, what devices you use, and what you’re going to be using a VPN for when you read VPN reviews. 

Step 2: Choose Your Payment Plan

Once you’ve done this, and you’re confident that the VPN you’ve chosen is the right choice for you, then simply head to their website and choose the deal that you want. Almost every VPN provider will offer you the choice between a monthly subscription, or a longer plan that you pay for up-front. 

If you want to try out a VPN service before you purchase a longer plan, then some VPN providers offer a free trial. However, this is less common than a money-back guarantee, so if the VPN provider you’ve chosen has a money-back guarantee but no free trial, then we recommend paying for a monthly subscription first until you’re sure you’re happy. That way, you can try out the service without paying a fortune upfront.

If you’re confident that this is the VPN for you, then paying for a long-term plan upfront can save you a significant amount over the monthly subscription. With some VPN providers, the relative cost-per-month difference between the monthly subscription and the longer plans can be as much as $10, and that’s before you consider seasonal promotions. 

You might even find that some review websites offer affiliate deals with certain VPN providers, which usually take the form of introductory offers if you sign up through their unique link. This doesn’t cost you anything, and can even save you money when you’re signing up for a VPN for the first time, so it’s worth looking out for those deals. 

Step 3: Consider Your Personal Details

The route you take in this step will depend on how much personal information you’re willing to give a VPN provider. It’s worth considering this now, because all VPN providers will keep, at minimum, your email address, password, and payment information on file for administration purposes. 

Most of the top-end VPN providers are aware their customers may not want to give away any personal information that can be traced back to them, which is why they allow users to pay with cryptocurrency. 

Step 4: Sign Up

When you’re happy with the VPN you’ve chosen, all you need to do is hit the ‘sign up’ button and start downloading the relevant applications for the devices you want to use your VPN on. Congratulations, you’re now one of the many Internet users who’s taking control of your data back from third parties!

How to Use a VPN

Using a VPN is remarkably easy, as the top names in the VPN world have developed their apps to be beginner-friendly and intuitive. Many apps even offer a ‘quick connect’ feature, which will find the best available server and automatically connect you to that. Here’s how to use a VPN, step by step.

Step 1: Download and Install VPN Applications

Once your account is set up, download and install the apps you need on your devices. Almost every desktop or laptop can be covered by a VPN application, and almost every good VPN provider has an app for Android and iOS. If there are other devices you want to protect with a VPN, but the service doesn’t have a native app for them – such as gaming consoles or IoT devices – you should also consider installing the VPN on your router. 

Step 2: Configure VPN Applications

When your apps are downloaded, you’ll have to sign in to your VPN account on those apps before you can start using them. Once you’ve done this, we recommend going through your app settings to make sure that you’re happy with how it’s set up. If you’re new to VPNs, then the default settings will be fine for you, but if you want more customization, here are some key settings you’ll want to consider using. 

VPN Protocols

As we discussed earlier, it’s always best to check what VPN protocols your apps are using. In your settings, you should be able to switch between protocols. If you’re not sure which protocol you want to use, then make sure you go over the earlier section where we talk about protocols. But, in short, we recommend using IKEv2 or WireGuard if they’re available, depending on the device you’re using. 

Kill Switch

A kill switch will cut off your Internet connection if you lose connection to your chosen VPN server. While this might sound drastic, this is a great way to make sure that none of your data leaks in case of a server outage. 

Autoconnect

If you’re worried about forgetting to turn your VPN on, then some VPN providers have auto-connect or always-on settings. This means that either when your device boots up, or you try to connect to the Internet, your VPN app will automatically connect to a server to keep you protected. 

Step 3: Connect to a Server

The last step is to connect to a VPN server, and then you’re ready to go. 

Many apps have quick-connect features, which will automatically find the best available server with space for you. This is a great option if you’re new to VPNs or just want to get going with minimal fuss, but it’s worth noting that this feature won’t always find the optimum server if you’re looking to do things like stream or torrent. 

If you want more control, then you can browse the available servers and pick a location, server type, and ping that suits your needs. Most good VPN apps will help you by showing a server’s ping and estimated traffic load, so it’ll be easy to find a server that works for you. 

Is a VPN Worth It?

We recommend using a VPN whenever you use the Internet. While it does come at an additional cost, we believe that it’s entirely worth it for the peace of mind you get while you’re online. 

Even aside from the privacy aspect, there are so many benefits you get from using a VPN. From the ability to stream content from overseas streaming libraries to even avoiding price discrimination based on your location, you could find that your VPN ends up paying for itself. 

However, that’s not to say that every VPN is equal. Free VPNs, as we’ll discuss shortly, don’t offer the same level of security or privacy as paid VPNs, and we don’t recommend them because some can be notoriously insecure. 

Plus, while most VPNs hover around the same price point, not every VPN comes with the same features. So, if you compare the number of features that you get access to, you could end up paying more per feature with some VPN providers than others. That’s why we recommend reading plenty of reviews before you choose a supplier that works for you. 

How to Check if VPN is Working

While your VPN app dashboard will tell you if you’re connected to the VPN or not, unfortunately, you can’t take this as gospel truth that your VPN is working. 

Thanks to the nature of VPNs, it’s simple to check if your VPN is working by using the Internet. These basic tests can help you to identify if your VPN is as secure as it claims to be, giving you peace of mind that your data is safe. 

The key things you need to look out for are:

  • DNS leaks
  • IP address leaks (also known as IPV4/IPV6 leaks)
  • WebRTC leaks

The first thing we want to mention is that these basic tests do rely on using third-party websites, so they’re not 100% accurate. However, they’re the quickest way to identify if your VPN is leaking your data. 

To make sure your VPN is working, we recommend using ipleak.net or ipx.ac, as these cover all three of the key leaks above, as well as the other personal information the website can discern about you from the data request you send. ExpressVPN also has a suite of leak detecting tools. 

Simply navigate to one of the websites above, and it will show you what information you’re leaking. We recommend doing this test twice, once without your VPN connection, and the second one with a connection. That way, you’ll be able to notice what details are being leaked (if any), and what details are effectively obscured. 

What is the Best VPN?

In our experience, the best VPNs currently available are ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and Surfshark. All three of these providers offer a fantastic service, whether you need a VPN for regular browsing, streaming, torrenting, or even protecting your smart home. 

While other providers promise to unblock streaming services across the world, these providers allow you to access libraries not only in the USA but in the UK and across Europe. They also offer a P2P friendly network, so you’re free to torrent on any of their servers. 

These VPN providers aren’t the cheapest on the market, but they offer fantastic value for money when you compare the number of features you get to some other VPN services. Not only that, but with their user-friendly, intuitive apps, rapid customer service, and impressive server speeds, they’re easily the best choice regardless of what you’re planning on using your VPN for. 

What is the Best Free VPN?

We find that ProtonVPN, Windscribe, and Hotspot Shield 11 are all great free VPNs. When you don’t have the budget to pay for a big-name VPN, and free is the only option you have available, then these three providers offer a decent level of security and features compared to the other free VPNs available. 

However, it’s worth noting that because these VPNs are free, their service is lacking compared to the paid versions. Hotspot Shield 11, for instance, only has one server in their network, and ProtonVPN only lets you connect one device per account. Saying that, they’re not a bad option if you want to make sure a VPN is right for you before you spend any money. 

The Issue with Free VPNs

We don’t generally recommend using a free VPN if you have any other choice, because free VPNs are often not secure and don’t offer a full VPN experience. Most will limit how much data you can use either daily or in a month, so if you’re a regular Internet user, you’ll probably find yourself hitting that limit quickly. 

Every VPN provider needs to make a profit to continue doing business, which is why we urge you to be cautious about free VPNs and to look at how they’re earning revenue. While most will be doing this by putting ads in their apps, others may be selling your data to third parties to make a profit. 

How to Get Around VPN Block

This depends on what kind of VPN block you’re facing.

IP Block

Problem: The service has blocked you because it’s identified the IP address you’re using is associated with a VPN server. 

Solution: Switch to another server and try again. Alternatively, look for a service that assigns you a random IP address, or one that offers a dedicated IP address for each user. 

Port Block

Problem: The service has blocked you because you’re using a port commonly associated with VPNs.

Solution: Connect to that VPN server with a different port and try again. 

Deep Packet Inspection (DPI)

Problem: The service has blocked you before it’s identified that you’re using a VPN through the data request, or packet, that you sent. 

Solution: Connect to an obfuscated server that disguises your traffic as regular HTTP packets. Alternatively, use a service that offers Shadowsocks.

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