What is a VPN?

The popularity of Virtual Private Network (VPN) software has increased tenfold in the last several years as data retention laws restrict our freedom and privacy online. You may have heard of VPNs but are unsure of exactly how they work and what benefits they can bring to your life.

We recommend that you start using a VPN immediately to improve your internet privacy and allow you to surf the web with fewer restrictions. To help you learn all about VPNs and how they can improve your internet experience, here is our comprehensive guide on all things to do with Virtual Private Network technology.

What is a VPN, and Why Do I Need it?

So what is a VPN? A Virtual Private Network is not an incredibly complicated piece of software. It has a few main functions to improve your internet experience. Let’s look at why you need VPN software.

1. A VPN encrypts your internet activity

A VPN encrypts internet traffic, which means that no one can see what websites you visit. This stops your Internet Service Provider (ISP) from watching and logging your online activity. A VPN will also prevent bandwidth throttling from your Internet Service Provider since your ISP won’t be able to see what you’re doing online and slow down your connection.

Without a VPN, your Internet Service Provider can sell your data to companies and share it with third parties. What’s more, the government can see what you do online. Government surveillance is rife worldwide, and countries like the USA collect and share citizen data regularly.

You need a secure VPN connection to protect your privacy from hackers. Nowadays, we all use our cell phones and computers in public places, connecting to public wi-fi networks. However, this is unsafe to do so without using a VPN. Public wi-fi networks are hotspots for hackers, who can get into the network and steal information from other users. Details such as your credit card information and sensitive passwords can be stolen within a matter of minutes. A VPN is the only way to prevent this from happening.

2. A VPN bypasses internet censorship

When you use a VPN, you change your IP address, which changes your virtual location. There is a lot of internet censorship online, with geo-restrictions preventing users from viewing content in other regions. A VPN helps you circumvent digital restrictions and unblocks many websites by changing your IP address. A good VPN provider will have thousands of IP addresses available, meaning if you want to access a large number of foreign streaming services and blocked websites, you can do so.

3. Extra protection from malware

Good VPN providers usually include in-built malware protection to protect you from common internet threats. A good VPN will block you from accessing malicious websites that contain trackers and viruses, and will stop adware.

How Does a VPN Work?

So, how does a VPN work? As mentioned above, a VPN encrypts your internet traffic and changes your IP address. When you use a VPN, you’ll connect to a VPN server. All of your data will be sent through an encrypted tunnel to the VPN server. The VPN server transmits your data to the internet and then sends back an encrypted response that you see on your computer.

Since you connect to websites through a VPN server, the sites will see the server’s IP address and not your real one. This means that you can unblock content in other countries or carry out tasks in the knowledge that they aren’t being linked back to you. A VPN is great for torrenting or any other online activities where you want complete anonymity.

The constant layer of encryption that a VPN provides to your data also means that no one will be able to see what you’re getting up to online. This is why a VPN is great for carrying out personal tasks, such as online banking, sending confidential emails, or securely access your work’s local network resources from remote locations. Connecting to a VPN server will guarantee you have privacy and security.

What are VPN protocols?

VPN protocols are an integral aspect of VPN software since protocols dictate how your data is routed through the VPN connection. When your data is going through the encrypted VPN tunnel to reach the server, it is transmitted through a VPN protocol.

Providers usually offer users many different options when it comes to tunneling protocols. Depending on whether speed or security is more important to you, you can customize which protocol your connection runs on. Here are some of the most popular VPN protocols:

1. OpenVPN

OpenVPN is an open-source protocol generally considered one of the best, thanks to its high level of encryption. It is the most popular encryption standard, and OpenVPN runs best when used over the UDP protocol, but many providers give you a choice to run it over TCP.

2. IKEv2

IKEv2 is based on IPSec but is more advanced in terms of security. This protocol establishes a secure communication channel between two parties (the VPN client on your device and the VPN server). This means all of your data is securely encrypted.

3. L2TP/IPSec

IPSec is responsible for securing mutually agreed keys between your device and the VPN server. This enables it to establish a secure connection. It is commonly used alongside L2TP, which provides fast speeds, meaning your data requests are transmitted quickly.

4. PPTP

The oldest protocol is PPTP. It is known for its fast speeds but is now a little outdated due to the many security issues it has. However, some VPN providers still offer this protocol as an option.

Is a VPN the same as Antivirus?

If you use a desktop computer, then you probably have antivirus software installed on it. Some people believe that they don’t require a Virtual Private Network because they have a good antivirus program. However, the two are not the same as each other. While Antivirus protects your device from malware, it cannot give you the same level of internet privacy a VPN provides.

Many antivirus providers offer a VPN with their services, such as Norton, McAfee, and Avast. These providers offer good VPN services that will add an extra layer of security to your web browsing.

Since VPNs usually only offer minimal virus protection, we recommend that you use them alongside antivirus software to protect you from all threats online. Using a VPN without antivirus and vice versa isn’t going to give you complete digital security.

How Does a VPN Give Me Privacy?

VPNs encrypt your data and mask your real IP address, but how do they guarantee this? As with any digital software, there needs to be extra security features in place to ensure that your privacy is never compromised. When choosing a VPN provider, you may see some of the following features below advertised. These are integral to ensuring your online privacy, and we always recommend going with a VPN service that offers the following things:

1. No logs policy

Firstly, a decent VPN provider should have a strict no-logs policy. Even though your data is hidden from spies and your ISP when you’re using a VPN, your VPN provider handles all of your browsing activity. This means it is privy to what you get up to online and could potentially do with this information what it wants to do. It’s therefore essential that your VPN doesn’t store your network traffic or real IP address.

While most VPN providers store payment or basic account information, this is usually not enough to link you to any activity while using a VPN connection. However, there are ways around giving too many details, such as using a different email address or paying by cryptocurrency if this is an option.

2. DNS leakproof

Many VPN providers offer DNS leak protection. DNS requests occur whenever you visit a website, and these usually go through your ISP’s DNS server, which ultimately reveals your browsing activity. By using a VPN, all the requests will be sent to your VPN’s server instead.

Even with a secure connection, these DNS requests can occasionally slip through and be sent to your ISP, which is why it is essential to look for a VPN that doesn’t suffer from leaks.

3. IPv6 leak protection

IPv6 leaks can reveal your true IP address, and therefore location, to websites you visit. Moreover, if your VPN only uses an IPv4 address and doesn’t offer leak protection, your traffic will go through your ISP when you visit a site. This will reveal your online activity to your ISP. It’s important to ensure that your VPN has IPv6 protection to avoid all of the above occurring.

4. WebRTC leak protection

Another way in which a VPN guarantees your privacy is through WebRTC leak protection. Browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox use WebRTC and require a user’s real IP address. A great VPN will have in-built WebRTC leak protection to make sure that your IP address isn’t revealed.

If you’re hesitant about using a VPN service because you’re unsure whether they are legal or not, you don’t need to worry. VPNs are legal in most parts of the world apart from places such as North Korea. There are some countries where the use of VPNs is restricted, such as China and Russia, and internet users can only use an approved VPN service.

Fortunately, in the USA, VPNs are legal. However, this doesn’t mean that you should carry out illegal activities whilst under the protection of a secure VPN connection. While a VPN protects your privacy and gives you anonymity, this doesn’t make it legal to download copyrighted material or visit the Dark Web to carry out illicit activities.

When you use a VPN, you need to make sure that you don’t abuse the privilege of having more privacy online. Illegal activities are still illegal, with or without VPN encryption, and on the off chance you are caught doing something untoward on the web, you can face fines or imprisonment.

Can You Be Tracked if You Use a VPN?

If you use a VPN, you shouldn’t be tracked by your ISP, the websites you visit, or the government. This is because secure VPN encryption will ensure that your network traffic is never exposed under a layer of encryption.

To ensure anything you do online isn’t traced back to you, you need a VPN that offers AES-256 bit encryption and doesn’t log your activity. DNS, IPv6, and WebRTC leak protection are also important to ensure your real IP address and location aren’t revealed.

By using a VPN, you’ll have access to thousands of shared IP addresses. When using a shared IP, any web activity can’t be directly traced back to you, assuming that you’re using a secure connection and using a provider that won’t store your data.

Even if spyware were accidentally downloaded onto your computer, a VPN would mask your IP address and activity, meaning that you can protect yourself from cookies and adware that gather information about your online activity. However, more advanced spyware, which tracks your activity to get sensitive information like passwords and banking details, can get past a VPN. This is why it’s a good idea to choose a VPN provider with in-built malware protection.

Finally, it’s important to remember that your VPN provider will have to follow its jurisdiction’s laws. This means that if it was legally forced to hand over server data or user information, your internet privacy could be compromised. However, by going with a VPN that doesn’t log data in the first place, it’s less likely that the provider would have any information to hand over.

Are all VPNs Safe?

VPNs manage a lot of sensitive information of many users at a given time. Since the use of VPNs has increased drastically, the number of attacks on VPN server networks has too. If hackers gain access to VPN servers, they would be privy to a lot of sensitive data.

Fortunately, most VPNs employ a good standard of encryption, which prevents attacks on their server networks. What’s more, a large number of VPNs are moving over to or now solely use RAM on their servers. This is better than using hard-drive memory, as RAM servers are automatically wiped when switched off.

Free VPNs aren’t always the safest when it comes to your security and privacy. While free VPNs can give you access to blocked content on the internet and often provide fast VPN connections, these services come at a price.

More often than not, free VPNs will have a limit on bandwidth, which can restrict your internet access and mean that you can’t spend a lot of time online with encryption. As well as this, free VPN services often contain a lot of adware. Finally, your online privacy may not be completely secure with a free VPN since free service providers often log and sell user data to third parties to make money. This completely defeats the point of using a VPN, and it’s, therefore, worth avoiding unpaid services unless you know they come from a reputable company.

Are There Different Types of VPNs?

Most VPN companies offer personal VPNs, but a few offer corporate VPN services as well. A personal or consumer VPN is what regular users will download and use on their devices to use the internet with an extra layer of protection. These VPNs are what you can buy online and are usually compatible with all operating systems. This means you can access the VPN services across all of your devices, and always safely connect to the internet.

A corporate or business VPN offers the same encryption level as a personal VPN, except that it caters to a business environment. This means that it offers extra services to suit a large scale company’s needs and will give employees the ability to access network resources remotely via the business VPN encryption. Moreover, a lot of providers offer dedicated support for business subscription users.

How Do You Get a VPN?

So, if you’re certain that you want a VPN to give you a more secure internet connection and access to blocked websites, you’ll need to choose a good provider. There are many different VPN providers, and once you’ve chosen yours and paid for the subscription, you’ll download and install the VPN client or app onto the device you’re using. From here, you can connect to a VPN server and start browsing the internet with complete privacy and freedom.

Most VPNs offer several simultaneous device connections, meaning you can get a VPN on your desktop computer, cell phone, tablet, and even Smart TV and gaming console. It’s important to check that your VPN provider supports various operating systems to ensure that it is compatible with your chosen devices.

There is also the option of setting up a VPN connection on your router, which bypasses any device connection limits and ensures that every operating system connected to the local network is protected. Most VPN companies offer detailed guides on how to do this on their websites.

What Should I Look For in a VPN?

To make sure that you get the best VPN service possible, you can check out our ‘Best VPN’ guides to find out which providers we recommend. Alternatively, use the following features as a checklist when choosing a provider. If the VPN company you choose doesn’t have the features below, then your internet connection may not be as secure and as private as you hope for.

1. Military-grade encryption

The best providers use AES-256 bit encryption. This standard of encryption is employed by militaries and governments around the world and is incredibly hard to decrypt. 256 refers to the number of combinations it would take to decipher the encryption code. With 256 bit encryption, you’ll be able to use the internet on public wi-fi networks and not worry about hackers viewing your data.

2. No-logs policy

A great VPN should have a zero logs policy. This assures users that their browsing activity, IP address, and any other personal data that could link them to the VPN use will never be stored nor shared. It’s worth reading your VPN’s privacy policy before purchasing a subscription, as some companies do log certain information.

3. A large server network

A large server network is a must-have. The bigger a network, the more IP address options you’ll have, and the more access to blocked content you’ll get. Moreover, a bigger server network means that users can enjoy lower server loads and faster speeds.

4. Speed

VPNs can often slow down your internet connection, which is why you must choose a super-fast provider like ExpressVPN or NordVPN. Ensure that your VPN provides the option to choose your tunneling protocols, as being able to change these may give you a faster connection.

5. Customer support

Good customer service features will help you if you ever run into an issue. Look for a 24/7 live chat option, an email address, or telephone number you can use to speak to a customer service representative. Also, ensure that your provider has detailed guides on making the most of your VPN.

6. Extra features

VPNs can improve your internet experience. Check whether your provider offers split tunneling, which sends some of your data through the encryption tunnel and the rest of it through your local network. A kill switch is a good feature as this cuts off your internet access if your VPN server goes down, making it essential for public wi-fi users.