The Ultimate Beginners Guide To VPNs
Most people go about their business online without giving thought to how much personal info is being shared. If you take a step back and really look at your activity – the sites you visit, what you post on social media, the files you download, the information you provide through forms – it paints a picture of just how much you’re exposing yourself online.
And that might not be such an issue if it weren’t for the fact that most of that data and activity is sent through unsecured and unencrypted connections. Anyone with the means to do so could intercept your data.
In some cases, people suffer censorship where their data is intercepted, and content is blocked.
Thankfully, there’s a solution. A VPN allows you to secure that data and protect your online activity from prying eyes. In this guide, we’ll help you understand the purpose of VPNs, how they work, the benefits, choosing the right VPN provider, and red flags to help you identify VPNs you should avoid.
What is a VPN?
A VPN or Virtual Private Network is a form of technology that allows you to access the internet privately, away from the prying eyes of your Internet Service Provider, the government, and potential hackers. It does this by acting like a tunnel that routes your connection directly to the web, meaning no one else can steal your private or sensitive data.
A VPN adds an essential extra layer of privacy to your online activity, by encrypting your data (turning information into special code) so your private searches, passwords, and other sensitive material cannot be read by others.
A VPN also enables its users to pretend that they’re in a different country, which means you can access content that might not have been available otherwise.
Learn about how a Virtual Private Network works in this video:
How Do VPNs Work?
While there’s a lot of complex software and hardware behind the scenes, the way a VPN works for the user (you) is quite simple:
- Normally, when you connect to the internet your traffic is routed directly to a host, like the server hosting a website. When you connect to the internet with a VPN service activated your traffic makes its first stop at the VPN service’s servers.
- Once connected to the VPN servers your IP address (a unique block of numbers that identifies your device) is switched out and the VPN provides its own IP address attached to your traffic.
- From that point, all traffic passing through the VPN server is encrypted. This process converts all the data into a code that prevents unauthorized access. Even if someone intercepted your traffic, they wouldn’t be able to decipher it.
A simpler way to understand how a VPN works is to imagine you’re driving down the highway in a convertible with the top down. Above you is a satellite capable of seeing everything you do – that satellite represents not only your internet service provider but also the websites and servers you connect to and anyone else who wants to monitor your unencrypted traffic.
The best way to stop them from seeing what you’re doing in your car, and where you’re going, is to drive into a tunnel. When you use a VPN, they have no idea where the tunnel exit is.
Every time you type in a web address (the domain name) there’s a resolution step that happens almost instantaneously. The DNS (domain name system) is like a phone book, matching text-based website addresses with the IP address tied to a website’s server. If someone wanted track your activity, they could monitor DNS requests to see what you’re up to online.
But a VPN thwarts that. Most VPN services also include their own DNS resolution system so the DNS request (when you type in a website address) looks like it’s coming from the VPN service instead of you.
It isn’t just hackers that can steal your private information. Large corporations also take your private data and sell it on to advertising companies so they can use your information without you even knowing.
Basically, every single thing you do online can be accessed by your ISP (Internet Service Provider) and the only way to stop this is to use a secure, encrypted connection through a VPN.
Why Use a VPN – The Real Benefits
The first VPN was established by Microsoft in the 90’s to allow employees to remotely connect to the office systems with a secure connection. The ability to work remotely caught on fast and led to widespread business adoption.
And while VPNs are now commonly used in enterprise to connect remote offices and work-at-home employees to headquarters, the applications for VPN go far beyond business.
Here are some other common uses for a VPN:
Bypassing region restrictions with a VPN
Got a favorite show you love to binge on Netflix, Hulu, or another platform? You might be surprised to learn that same show may not be available in another country. Due to licensing agreements content is frequently region-locked.
If Netflix licenses a show in the U.S. and also wants to stream that content in Europe, but Amazon already has a license agreement for the European region, then that show wouldn’t be available to Netflix users in Europe.
For example, Netflix is licensed to stream Star Trek: Discovery in other countries, but in the U.S. you would have to pay for CBS’ All Access service to watch the show.
By using a VPN, you can connect to a VPN server in the same region as the available content. So, to the content service, it appears as though you live in the region where the content is allowed. In the above example, a Netflix customer in Germany could use a VPN to give the appearance of connecting from the U.S. in order to watch a specific series that’s not available locally.
Accessing blocked sites with a VPN
It’s common for network administrators and organizations to block specific websites when they don’t want the users of their network accessing a certain type of content. This is commonly seen with schools, hotels, and corporations who block sites that involve gaming, streaming media, adult content, and even social media sites.
A VPN is a simple solution to bypass these site blocks. Since it encrypts your connection and hides the domain name request, the network filters are unable to capture the request and block it before the connect is made.
Accessing censored sites and content with a VPN
Going a step beyond blocking individual websites, some places around the world (and some businesses) take an extreme approach to censorship where the available content is extremely limited. Dozens of countries around the world censor content online in some form, and some are stricter than others. North Korea, for example, has built its own intranet. Citizens are forbidden and unable to access the internet as we know it.
But even the strictest of content blocks and censorship can’t stop a good VPN services from helping you tunnel out and access content freely. Because some countries block social media, educational sites, and even news sites, a VPN is sometimes the only way people around the world can stay connected like the rest of us.
Surfing from unrestricted networks
Public Wi-Fi is becoming more readily available, which is a welcome change compared to a few years ago where an open, public, free internet connection was like a rare oasis in an expansive wasteland.
People often use these connections without giving much thought to privacy or security, and that puts you and your data at risk.
Anyone can freely access those public wireless networks, and all your activity online is unsecured and unencrypted when using public wireless. That means anyone with access and the means to do so could see what you’re doing, view your data, swipe personal information, steal financial info, etc.
VPN changes that and encrypts everything you do, even on public Wi-Fi.
Preventing price discrimination
Dynamic pricing is a practice that companies have been using for years, and while it’s not illegal it’s certainly shady.
When you shop online, retailers typically collect a variety of information from you (as well as from your IP address.) This includes the type of browser and device you’re using, where you’re connecting from, and even other more private data.
Some brands use that information to change prices.
For example, if your location is in a more affluent area where statistics show a higher than average income, the store might raise the price of the product you’re viewing.
Some airlines and hotels even adjust airfare and rates using this method.
A VPN service gives you the ability to choose different locations when making a purchase. So, you could test to see if dynamic pricing is taking place and then choose to connect through a location that offers the lowest price.
Peer-to-peer file sharing
Users who share files and participate in torrenting often want to do so anonymously while ensuring their activity is encrypted and secured. Those who torrent files and use peer-to-peer file sharing services frequently use VPN services to keep their activity private.
Is VPN Really Private and Totally Safe?
Ideally, we’d be able to say that a VPN is the safest way to protect your anonymity and privacy while keeping your data encrypted and secure.
But privacy and security are tied directly to the individual VPN service. With the right commercial VPN, you can get the safety and privacy you expect.
Keep an eye out for these items as you review VPN services:
The best VPN services use AES 256-bit encryption. This is the same level of encryption used to secure government and military data.
Shared IP addresses
A shared IP means the VPN service has multiple users sharing the same IP address making it impossible to pinpoint traffic to any single user.
Look for a VPN service with a no-logging policy. They keep no records of your activity, and no one would be able to track, trace, or look into what you accessed online.
Run a trial of the VPN service you’re interested in. Once connected, visit IPLeak to see what information is visible. If it shows your true location (or the true location of your ISP) then you’ll want to find a more secure VPN service.
When you find a VPN with the best encryption, shared IPs, a no-logging policy, and free of IP leaks then you’ve found a VPN service that’s trustworthy and worth the investment.
Different Types of VPNs – Which VPN is Best For You?
The main purpose of a VPN is to keep your data totally secure and the way in which it does this is via a complex set of algorithms which encrypt your data. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages with regards to security, speed, and ease of configuration.
Here are the most commonly-used VPN protocols:
TLS & SSL
TLS is a new version of SSL which is the method used to secure HTTPS sites. TLS is generally said to be better than SSL as it provides better protection against cyber attacks.
Point-to-Point Tunnelling is the original VPN protocol which was developed for dial-up networks for Microsoft. It’s faster than newer additions as it’s less advanced but is considered to be one of the lesser secure VPN protocols.
This is a highly secure and moderately fast protocol developed by Cisco and Microsoft in the 90s. It’s built into most computers and mobile phones today.
One of the newer protocols. This is widely recognized as the safest and is very difficult to block.
Is a VPN Easy to Set Up?
Setting up secure access with a VPN is incredibly simple with most commercial VPN providers. While each will have their own process, many commercial VPN services use an application. So, the setup process can be as simple as:
- Downloading the VPN provider’s app
- Providing your authentication or account information
- Connecting/Logging in
You can also manually setup a VPN connection if you have all the server and connection information.
Here’s to do it in Windows 10:
Step 1: Click on the Cortana search field by the windows icon on your taskbar and type “vpn”
Step 2: The search results will show “Change virtual private networks” which you’ll click on
Step 3: In the VPN settings screen click on “Add a VPN connection”
Step 4: In the screen that appears, enter all the connection data for your VPN including the connection and server info along with your username and password for the VPN service. Once all the information is entered, click “Save” and close the Settings window
Step 5: With everything configured, click on the Wi-Fi icon in your system tray within the taskbar, then select your new VPN connection. Once you click, it should automatically begin the connection process.
If you have any difficulty with setting up your VPN connection, most VPN services provide a knowledge base and support to help walk you through troubleshooting and getting connected.
Which Devices Can Use a VPN?
According to data gathered by Statista in 2018, there are some 3.7 billion unique mobile users worldwide with mobile devices accounting for 48.2% of all internet traffic.
Because of the rapid and continued adoption of mobile for online activity, VPN providers have made it a point to ensure their services are available for smartphones and other mobile devices. In fact, when choosing a VPN provider, it’s a good idea to make sure that you choose a service with multi-device support. That way no matter how you prefer to get online you gain the benefits of using a VPN.
One thing to keep in mind – certain devices can’t connect directly to a VPN service.
While you can configure an app to work on your computer and most mobile devices, most smart devices can’t connect on their own because of built in software limitations. When we say “smart devices”, think IoT (internet of things) devices that have limited, pre-programmed connectivity. This would include devices like:
- Video game consoles
- Smart tv’s
- Smart appliances (like a connected Samsung refrigerator)
- Amazon’s Alexa/Echo devices
If you have a number of these devices you can still secure their connections through a VPN, but it’s not done at the individual device. Instead, you configure your router to connect to the VPN. This way, any device sharing your home’s internet will automatically route through the VPN connection.
Are VPNs Legal?
In most countries around the world, VPNs are completely legal and there won’t be a problem downloading the software onto your device.
What is a VPN Router?
The usual way to use a VPN is to install the software onto each device you wish to connect. There is an alternative method however, and this is to set up your router so it’s connected to your VPN service. The obvious benefits of this include: having all your devices protected through the router and being able to connect smart TVs and gaming consoles which otherwise wouldn’t be able to run VPN software. Lastly, as the router is considered to be one connection it means you can have unlimited devices using your VPN router.
The disadvantage of using a VPN router is the amount of processing power required. Most standard routers can’t handle the amount of processing power involved with encrypting and decrypting data. If you choose to run VPN software on a router, make sure the router has the hardware required so it doesn’t slow down your internet connection.
Can You Use A VPN in all Countries?
There are a number of countries that try and block VPN use as they do not allow unrestricted access to the internet. In Iran, China, Russia, and Oman, VPN use is only with government-approved VPNs. In North Korea, Iraq, Turkmenistan, and Belarus, VPN use is completely banned.
Make sure you’re up-to-date with VPN laws before visiting a new country.
Is Subscription VPN Better Than Free VPN?
One of the hardest decisions when choosing a VPN can be whether to opt for a free VPN download or paid premium VPN download. There’s a noticeable difference with free VPNs vs paid VPNs.
Firstly, free VPN services need to get their money from somewhere and so you should exercise caution when taking this option as some free VPN providers have been known to sell their user’s data while they are connected. Some of the free VPNs do offer a good range of features though, so if privacy isn’t your main concern then this option might be good for you.
Paid VPNs can be expensive, but most offer a free 30-day trial or a money-back guarantee so you can test the goods before you commit to a subscription. Generally, subscription VPN providers take privacy, performance, and customer care a lot more seriously, and they also rarely show ads which is always a bonus.
Whether you choose a paid subscription VPN or free VPN download, make sure you properly do your research before signing up.
Red Flags When Choosing a VPN
While privacy and security are often the largest focus when choosing a VPN, there are other factors to consider. Depending on what kind of activity you’re doing and how many people are connected you should evaluate the full scope of a VPN’s offering.
Here are some red flags to watch for:
- Bandwidth limitations, including throttling speeds or downgrading bandwidth for specific types of traffic (or slow speeds in general)
- Data caps, where a limit is placed on how much data you can use during a billing cycle
- Limited customer support or no contact method to reach a support team if there’s an issue
- The inclusion of ads or popups
- Any kind of data logging – be especially mindful of free VPN services that log and sell or share your browsing data to third-party companies
- Server limitations such as a VPN service that doesn’t have a lot of servers and/or won’t let you choose different servers/regions to connect through
The Disadvantages of Using a VPN
You might be wondering if using a VPN is safe to use or if it provides the perfect solution. But all we can say is that it doesn’t matter whether you are looking for the best VPN on the market, free VPN or premium VPN…no VPN is without its disadvantages, no matter how small.
Premium VPNs are rarely free
The VPN market is highly competitive and most premium services including VPN services require a paid subscription.
While there are free VPN downloads available, you definitely get what you pay for in this market and we recommend trying a free 30-day VPN trial on a subscribed service before you buy.
There are plenty of VPN reviews out there which offer advice as to which VPN software is best to buy
Using a VPN can be tricky
Using a VPN easily can depend on your technical know-how. Most are pretty easy to install and use but if you do find it tricky then rest-assured that most VPN software also comes with great customer service, which can help you with the set-up
VPN regulations are changing
Some countries such as Iran and China are cracking down on VPN use and so it’s vital you keep up-to-date on VPN laws and regulations to check that you’re using the software correctly
Your VPN provider can see what you’re doing online
When you use a VPN your online activity bypasses your Internet Service Provider but goes directly through your VPN provider.
The difference here is that your VPN service provider is fully committed to protecting your privacy. There are also further measures you can take in order to remain anonymous to the company
Data loss and performance
If you sign up to use a low-quality VPN then chances are you might encounter data loss and performance issues. Network issues that occur outside of the private network is often beyond the control of the VPN administrator
It takes processing power for your VPN to encrypt and decrypt your information and this can slow down the service. You’re adding another element to your web processing by using a VPN as your data will need to travel a little further
With censorship growing along with the number of data breaches and identity theft incidents, security and privacy are more important than ever before. We’ve come to a point where a VPN should be considered a necessary part of protecting yourself on the web while preventing others from controlling what you view and how you view it. Hopefully, this guide lights the path making it easier for you to understand how VPN works, what to look for in a VPN provider, and how to weed out the VPN services that don’t meet your needs.
Very useful and informative. A good place to start regarding setting up a VPN. Thank you.
Thanks! We’re happy to hear that we could help you out.
Can you use a vpn for calls, FaceTime and Skype conversations?
Yes. But you have to make sure the service supports them. Both ExpressVPN and NordVPN do a great job with both Skype and Facetime