What Is A VPN?

A virtual private network (VPN) encrypts and masks your device’s IP address, protecting you against hackers. It encrypts and routes your information through secure networks to servers in distant states or even other countries, thus hiding your online identity. As a result, you can use the internet without publicly showing your real identity and IP adress. Want to know more about this? Then read our in-depth guide explaining everything about this topic.

Ben Grindlow

Ben Grindlow is the founder of ProXPN, a company that provides reviews about VPN products and services. Ben's interest in cybersecurity and privacy led him to start ProXPN, which has become one of the most well-respected VPN providers in the world. Ben is passionate about his work, and he is constantly exploring new ways to improve ProXPN's in-depth guides.

Last updated: 10:10AM 7/5/2022

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Let’s be real: we all occasionally Google something that we’d rather not have directly associated with our name. Do you know that feeling?

Also, most of us have experienced the frustration of an internet page that is not available for our location. You may be saying to the screen, “take my money!” in hopes of making a purchase, while the site is telling you, “nope, you can’t buy anything from us.”

These are just two of many reasons to use a VPN connection. So, what is a VPN (virtual private network), exactly, and how does a VPN connection work? Read on to find out!

What is a VPN server?

VPN stands for virtual private network. A VPN allows you to make a more secure connection to another network when you are on the internet. Using a virtual private network gives you access to regionally restricted websites, protects your browsing activity from prying eyes on a public Wi Fi network, and much more.

To simplify things a bit, a VPN connects your PC, smartphone or tablet to another computer called a server somewhere out there on the internet. This allows you to do anonymous surfing through that server’s internet connection.

If that server is located in a different country, the sites you visit will see you as being from that country. This gives you access to content that you would not normally see on your regular internet connection.

Virtual private networks are therefore very popular these days. Believe it or not, a VPN provider was originally only a way to securely connect business networks via the Internet or to give you access to a business network from home. Normally VPNs will not be provided directly by your internet service provider, so you will need to use a VPN service that filters internet traffic.

VPN servers and VPN protocols have come a long way since those days.

Common scenarios for using VPN connections

Once you set up a VPN, you could use your VPN connection to:

  • Bypass geographical restrictions on websites by seeming to change your IP address
  • View content on streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu
  • Protect yourself from malicious parties on untrustworthy Wi-Fi hotspots
  • Achieve some online anonymity by hiding your true location through a VPN server
  • Protect yourself from being identified through data recording while downloading a torrent
  • Remotely access corporate networks, as mentioned above

A VPN protects you by forwarding all your network traffic to the network where the benefits you want – such as remote access to local network resources and a lack of internet censorship – are available on a secure connection. Most operating systems now have integrated VPN support.

How does a VPN server work?

A VPN works by sending your device’s internet connection through your chosen VPN’s private server rather than through your internet service provider. When your data is sent to the internet over a VPN connection, it looks like it is coming from the VPN instead of from your computer.

More privacy than you get with an internet service provider alone

The VPN acts like a middleman when you connect to the internet, hiding your IP address and protecting your identity. In addition, if your data is somehow intercepted, it will be unreadable until it reaches its final destination. A VPN thus creates a ‘secure tunnel’ from your device to the data’s final destination, hiding your vital data in it. data. This is done via encryption.

What is encryption?

Encryption is the term used to describe how your data is kept private when using a virtual private network. Encryption hides information – by basically turning it into illegible electronic garbage – that can only be read after entering a very strong password. This password is called a key. The key breaks the complicated code for your converted data and makes the data readable.

Only your computer and the VPN server know this key, so anyone else who intercepts your data will not be able to make sense of it. Using the key is called decryption, which means converting encrypted information back into a legible form. An everyday example of encryption is online shopping: when you enter your credit card information on a shopping website, your card’s information is encrypted until it reaches its final destination, and then it is decrypted for use.

The encryption process

Different VPN providers use different types of encryption processes. In simplified terms, a VPN’s encryption process generally works a bit like this:

  • When you connect to a VPN, the VPN server sends it through a secure ‘tunnel’ where your data is encrypted. Thus, your data is converted into an unreadable code while it travels between your device and the VPN server, and it becomes more secure during that travel.
  • Your device will now be seen by the internet as a device on the same local network as your VPN. Your IP address, as far as the service you are using can tell, looks the same as the IP address of the VPN server you are connected to.
  • Now you can surf the web freely, knowing that the VPN server creates a barrier and protects your personal information.

VPN protocols

How effective this data encryption is depends on the encryption protocol your VPN connection uses. Your VPN provider uses the VPN protocol technology to make sure you get the fastest and most secure connection to the internet. A VPN protocol, which uses both encryption standards and transfer protocols, determines the exact manner in which your data is transferred between your device and the VPN server.

The main VPN protocols in use today are:

Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP)

This VPN protocol was developed by Microsoft and is one of the oldest protocols still used on the Internet. Therefore, it is only useful if you use an older Windows operating system for your internet connection. We don’t recommend VPN software that only offers this service.

Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP/IPSec)

This VPN protocol is a combination of PPTP (described above) and the L2F protocol created by Cisco Systems, a network hardware company. The L2F protocol creates a more secure data tunnel than PPTP but cannot do encryption or protect your privacy. That is why L2F is often sold along with IPSec, a security protocol.

Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP)

This protocol, also one that Microsoft developed, is the VPN equivalent of the protocols that websites use to perform encryption. Only the two parties involved in the data transfer can decrypt the data, making it an extremely secure protocol.

Internet Key Exchange, version 2 (IKEv2)

IKEv2 is a newer, more secure version of L2TP. It is a product of some teamwork done by Microsoft and Cisco. Like its older version, it is often bundled with IPSec, and for similar reasons. The IKEv2 protocol work especially well in securing mobile devices.

OpenVPN

Many people think that OpenVPN is the best of the existing open-source VPN technology. ‘Open source’ means that all developers are free to improve the technology at any time and that anyone, whether an unaffiliated individual or a company, can use the VPN and its code to suit their needs.

Its effectiveness has been proven over time through high-profile audits. OpenVPN is a highly popular protocol and is considered by many to be the most secure. OpenVPN offers the same protection as the protocols listed above but goes above and beyond in doing so.

Virtual private network types

Many VPNs work directly with the settings of an operating system (e.g., Windows, MacOS, iOS or Android) so that any app that connects to the Internet from that operating system enjoys protection.

Standalone VPN providers

This is the VPN most commonly used by individuals and small businesses. The VPN user opens an application in order to make an encrypted connection to the private network.

This connection can then be used to connect to the internet as needed, perhaps via a browser, perhaps using an app, and so on. As long as this application is running, any future connections that are made also use the VPN connection.

Browser add-ons or extensions

Some VPNs work as browser add-ons. Lots of VPN connections can be installed in browsers like Google Chrome or Firefox. Opera is an except, because it comes with a built-in VPN. The downside of browser add-ons is that your data is only protected if you use that specific browser, so your other apps are not protected. Additionally, browser VPNs can be vulnerable and prone to IP leaks. If you decide to use a browser add-on or extension, you should get one from a reputable company that also offers other VPN services. Beware of the many shady browser add-ons out there! Always read the reviews first to prevent scamming data harvesters from getting their hands on your data. Carefully read the fine print in the terms of service to prevent this.

A router VPN

Another way to implement a VPN is through a VPN-enabled router. This is a good choice if you have multiple devices that you want to keep safe, as it protects all devices connecting to the router. This means that you do not have to install the VPN individually, and you only need to sign up once. Then your router is always connected to your VPN.

Connecting your router to a VPN is not as difficult as you may think. Start by signing up for service with one of the VPN providers. Then you need to purchase a router.

The best kind router is one that is designed to directly support a VPN connection, meaning that you only have to enter the VPN details without doing any technical work. They may cost you a bit more than regular routers, but you’ll be happy that you made the investment in your convenience.

Business VPN

Many organizations use a VPN that offers remote access to allow employees who work remotely to connect to the services that normally use while in the office. Rather than solely using their own internet service provider, the employees get secure access through the VPN company’s private intranet, often using a password and an app. This is a custom solution that requires personalized development and heavy IT resources, so it may not be the best choice for small businesses.

Are all VPN services essentially the same?

They certainly are not. For best results, we recommend you select a reliable VPN. Be especially careful with free VPNs. Unless your budget is very tight, free VPNs should be avoided, as they are less efficient in a number of ways (outlined below).

Check out NordVPN, our favorite VPN service →

Free VPN vs. paid VPN

Whether you should sign up with a free VPN or paid VPN depends entirely on your needs. How much value do you attach to the x number of euros that a paid VPN costs you each month? How much value do you place on actual privacy for your private data? Let’s talk about a few ways that free and paid VPNs differ from each other.

Price

A free VPN is free. That must be better than paying for a VPN service, right? Not necessarily: you get what you pay for. A free VPN service makes back its money by keeping logs, monitoring your activity and selling your browsing activity and data to third parties for marketing purposes. When you use a free VPN, you are the product to be bought and sold. A reputable paid VPN does not keep any logs, monitor your activity, or sell your browsing activity and data to third parties.

Anonymity

The one attraction of a free VPN is that you don’t have to sign up or choose a form of payment. Even if a free VPN asks you for details, you can usually use fake information. But, as mentioned above, you become the product. Many paid VPN providers make you use your real information to sign up and then you have to provide a form of payment traceable to you, such as a credit card. Fortunately, some paid VPN services allow you to use anonymous payment methods like gift cards and cryptocurrencies. If this is an important feature to you, ask your VPN provider in advance about these features.

Privacy

The last thing you want is for a free VPN service to log your browsing activity, but that’s what free VPNs do. They keep track of what you do online. The free VPN provider keeps records of the sites you visit, the things you search, the apps you use, and other browsing data in order to sell them. In addition, if you run into legal trouble, you can expect a free VPN service to hand over your information to the authority requesting it.

Oops! That pretty much defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? So free VPNs may not be for you.

Most paid VPN services do not monitor or log user activity. You pay for their services, so there is no reason for them to resell your information. That’s the main advantage they have over free VPNs.

Protocols

Most free VPNs only use PPTP. Reputable paid VPN services usually give you the option to choose between PPTP, L2TP/IPSec, SSTP and OpenVPN protocols on their VPN server. (Read our explanation of protocols again if you don’t remember what these abbreviations mean.)

Speed

A free VPN service can also slow down your connection speed in several ways:

  • Overpopulation (too much internet traffic)
  • Lack of bandwidth (also too much internet traffic)
  • Establishing connections that aren’t stable
  • Adding software to your computer that shows you ads

All of these factors cause your internet connection speed to slow down. Paid VPN services invest in lots of servers and ample bandwidth in order to fight against overcrowding and lack of bandwidth. Also, a paid VPN service should not force ads on you by putting advertising programs on your computer.

Support

When you pay for a VPN service, you can expect someone to answer your questions or comments and emails and pick up the phone when you call. The same cannot be said of a free VPN service.

In short: a free VPN will work for your internet connection but has a number of important disadvantages that you have to take into account in your decision.

TOR

You may have heard of TOR, too. TOR stands for ‘The Onion Router’. The TOR was designed by the United States Naval Research Laboratory to protect secret services in online environments.

TOR is a separate browser that goes the extra mile when it comes to privacy. It includes both a software package and an internet network protocol. The protocol is designed to completely anonymize the private data traveling through the network.

Using TOR’s software makes it difficult, if not impossible, for third parties to see your email, search history, social media posts, or other online activities. The snoops also cannot see which country you are in by analyzing your IP address. This feature is a valuable one for journalists, activists, businesspeople and many others.

When using TOR, online data collectors such as Google Ads and the little-known but powerful aggregator Acxiom are unable to perform analyses of internet traffic and collect data about how you use your internet connection. In principle, even intelligence services such as the AIVD should not be able to watch what you do.

How does TOR work?

Normally when you visit a website, your computer connects directly to that website’s server. Anyone monitoring your activity can see from your connection which site you are on, how long you have been online, which IP address you are visiting from, and more.

  1. When browsing via TOR, your computer will never connect directly to the server on the site you are visiting. Instead, it creates a twisting path that sends your data through multiple TOR nodes before it reaches the website. This winding path is called a circuit.
  2. The nodes mentioned above are actually other TOR users connected to the TOR network. The number of nodes you pass through determines how often TOR encrypts your traffic. If you ask Netflix to show you Arrested Development and it goes through three nodes before reaching you, the program will use AES to encrypt your data three times.
  3. TOR handles the encryption as it moves from node to node. Each node knows which key it needs to remove this layer of encryption, but the node has no idea how many layers of encryption come after. There might anything from five to three hundred nodes in between.
  4. Only the last node, which removes the last layer of encryption, knows exactly what kind of request you sent, but it cannot see which IP address sent the request, because the request has already traveled through multiple nodes (and thus multiple IP addresses).

As if by magic, Facebook doesn’t know you’ve watched Arrested Development. The whole journey through various nodes also takes place when the data comes back to. Unfortunately, this process is dreadfully slow.

You should also be aware that your own router is used as a node when you use TOR. Why? It’s an extra node, and TOR becomes more anonymous with the more nodes used.

How is TOR different from a VPN?

For one thing, a VPN is faster. A VPN forwards all your traffic to its final destination via a server. A VPN also encrypts your traffic immediately; all your internet provider sees is encrypted data going from your PC to the VPN server.

Such a service protects you against your internet provider and other curious onlookers, but not against itself. The VPN provider still knows who you are and who you communicate with online. The VPN provider may also decrypt your data at when it arrives at its end point.

The essential point is that have no choice but to trust a VPN, but TOR makes sure that it can’t compromise your identity. TOR protects you from cybercriminals who may be on a node along the path your data takes. If that node is someone who uses TOR for malicious reasons and wants a peek at what you are doing, TOR makes sure that this person can view either your real IP address or your data, but never both. There is an extra element or privacy when you use TOR.

VPN protection in sum

All in all, a virtual private network is ideally suited to securely and anonymously mask your internet activity. VPN protection lets you access content that might not be available to you on a regular internet connection. Are you ready to turn your computer into a VPN client? Let me know what you think.

Frequently asked questions

The primary goal of a virtual private network is to conceal your online activities. VPNs are frequently used to defend against hackers and sniffers on public networks, but they’re also useful for concealing your IP address, surfing habits, and personal information on any Wi-Fi network — even at home.

Why should you use a VPN? When browsing the web or conducting financial transactions on an unsecured Wi-Fi connection, you risk disclosing your personal information and surfing habits. As a result, any individual concerned about their online privacy and security should absolutely use a VPN.

There are three primary types of virtual private networks: remote access, intranet-based site-to-site, and extranet-based site-to-site. Individual users will most likely encounter remote access VPNs, whereas large enterprises generally use site-to-site VPNs for business purposes.

A virtual private network (VPN) generates the appearance that you’ve connected to the internet from a different place: instead of your real location. This is only one of several reasons for VPN usage.

Is a VPN Safe? Using a trustworthy virtual private network (VPN) to surf the web is a secure approach. IP and data encryption as well as government surveillance are both being thwarted by VPNs. However, in some situations, VPNs will not protect you.

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