The Ultimate Beginners Guide To VPNs
Want to keep your information private? Looking for some extra security when browsing the internet?
You may think you’re one of a million people on the internet, so why would anyone want to steal your data?
There are many reasons why you should protect your personal data and privacy. A VPN is one of the best ways to do so.
In this article, we explain what a VPN is, the pros and cons of using one and how you can get the most out of your VPN.
Table of contents
- What Is a VPN?
- Why Do You Need a VPN?
- Who Can Benefit?
- How Does It Work?
- Consequences and Disadvantages
- Types of VPNs
- What’s the Difference Between Commercial and Corporate VPNs?
- Are VPNs Legal?
- What Makes a Good VPN? (Choosing a VPN)
- Free VPN vs Subscription VPN
- Which VPNS Are the Best?
- Does a VPN Make Me Anonymous?
- What Does “No Logs” Mean?
- Am I Safe if I Use a VPN?
- Can I Torrent Safely Using a VPN?
- Do VPNs Work on Mobile Devices?
- What Is a VPN Router?
- What a Virtual Private Network Does Not Do
- Wrapping Things Up
What Is a VPN?
A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is a secure connection over a public network such as the internet or a privately-owned network. A VPN adds an extra layer of privacy to your online activity.
A VPN will encrypt your device’s internet connection, and allow you to use the internet privately without worrying about attacks from online hackers.
Virtual Private Network technology arose when large corporations, government agencies and educational institutions were looking to reduce the cost of secure communications between their networks.
Dedicated private lines between business networks are expensive. VPNs allowed businesses to take advantage of the internet to carry data securely between their networks at a significantly reduced cost.
Individuals can also use a VPN to access the internet when they are not physically on the same Local Area Network (LAN) or as a way to secure and encrypt their communications when using the internet or other public networks.
To gain access to a Virtual Private Network, a user must be authorized, using a unique identification username and a password.
Why Do You Need a VPN?
VPNs allow you to connect to the internet via a service run by a VPN provider. All of your data is securely encrypted as it travels to and from your computer, tablet or phone via the VPN server. As a result, a VPN can:
- Maintain your privacy by hiding any internet activity from your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or government.
- Help you evade censorship by either your government, ISP, school or work.
- Allow you to access services denied to you based on your geographical location.
- Help protect you against hackers and people trying to steal your personal information, particularly when using a public WiFi hotspot.
- Allow you to safely download via Peer-to-Peer (P2P) file sharing networks.
Who Can Benefit?
The advantages of a VPN can vary from person to person. A Virtual Private Network can increase your security and help you access resources on a network you may not be physically connected to.
However, what you choose to do with this functionality is completely up to you. VPN users’ requirements can vary. Here are the most common ways different people often use a VPN.
Are You a Student or Worker?
Do you need to access resources on your school or company network? You may have a VPN provided to you if you need to access a specific network when at home or traveling.
If you already have a VPN available to you, there is no need to shop around. If you are at an airport or using a cafe’s WiFi, you can fire up your VPN so no-one can snoop on your connection.
Do You Regularly Download?
Do you have torrenting software on your computer? Whether you are downloading legally or illegally, you likely don’t want angry companies knocking on your door.
A VPN allows you to stay safe when using torrenting programs. It’s better to spend a few dollars on a VPN than try to pay a huge fine or cover the costs of defending yourself in court.
Are Privacy and Security Important to You?
Are you conscious that someone can potentially read everything you say online? Are you worried about your online privacy and security? A VPN can keep all your communications secure and encrypted.
Are You a Frequent Traveler?
Do you find yourself constantly in a different country? If you want to watch your favorite TV shows as they air, instead of waiting for them to come to the country you are currently in, a Virtual Private Networka can help.
If you have limited access to online services because of the country you currently reside in, then a VPN can allow you to digitally show up in a different geographical location to where you actually are.
Odds are your situation is a mix of the above. Whether or not these profiles fit you, you can still benefit from a VPN to stay safe online.
If you find yourself traveling, or using an untrusted network such as a cafe’s WiFi, you could be at risk from hackers or people looking to steal your information. For $5-$10 a month, a Virtual Private Network can protect you from unwanted online intruders.
How Does It Work?
Normally, when you connect to the internet, you will first connect to your ISP. Your ISP will then connect you to any website you want to view. All of your internet traffic will pass through your ISP’s servers, and can even be viewed by your ISP.
A VPN will allow you to connect to a server run by your provider via an encrypted connection. All of your data traveling from your computer and the VPN server is encrypted so that only you and your VPN server can “see” it.
A Virtual Private Network doesn’t replace your ISP. It is still your ISP that provides your internet connection. Your VPN ensures that your data is delivered privately across a public space by incorporating two features: encryption and tunneling.
Encryption is the process of converting your information and data into another form, called ciphertext, in such a way that only an authorized person can view it. It doesn’t stop people from accessing the code; it is just unreadable to people who don’t have authorization.
Also known as encapsulation or port forwarding, tunneling allows one network to send its data via another network’s connection. This works by encapsulating a network protocol within the packs carried by the second network.
In the case of a Virtual Private Network, the VPN provider will embed its own network protocol within the TCP/IP packets that are carried by the internet. This allows for the secure movement of data from one network to another.
Here is a detailed video that goes into further detail on how a Virtual Private Network works:
Consequences and Disadvantages
When data traveling between your computer and a VPN server is encrypted, there can be some consequences. We’re going to look at this in more detail below.
Your ISP Does Not Know What You Are Doing
While this may not be a disadvantage, it is an important to know the impact a VPN can have. Because your data is encrypted, your ISP cannot see what you are doing on the internet. It can only see that you are online and connected.
You Appear to Access the Internet From the IP Address of the VPN Server
Again, this can be seen as an advantage, particularly if you want to access content that is only available to people in a particular location.
Any website tracking your internet activity will only be able to trace it to the VPN server’s location. Unless the VPN provider hands over your location, your real IP address is hidden.
It Is Safe to Use Public WiFi
The internet connection between your device and the VPN server is encrypted. Even if someone manages to access your data as it travels over the WiFi, your data is safe because it is encrypted.
Your VPN Provider Can See What You Do on the Internet
When you use a VPN, you are shifting your privacy away from your ISP (which frankly has no interest in or commitment to protecting it) to your VPN provider.
The main difference is your VPN provider is committed to protecting your privacy. If you are still conscious of your privacy, there are further measures you can take to ensure they know as little as possible about you.
Low-Quality VPNs Can Cause Data Loss and Performance Issues
The general lack of Quality of Service (QoS) management over the internet can result in data loss and other performance issues.
Adverse network conditions that occur outside of the private network is often beyond the control of the VPN administrator. For this reason, many large companies will pay for a VPN that uses a private network to guarantee QoS.
Your Internet Will Slow Down
The encryption and decryption of your data takes processing power and time. In most cases, the stronger your encryption, the slower your internet access. However, given the power of most modern computers, this time delay is relatively minor.
The main time issue is the extra distance your data will need to travel. By using a Virtual Private Network, you add an extra leg to the journey that your data needs to travel. It will have to pass through the VPN server before reaching its intended location.
To mitigate this time lapse, you can connect to a VPN server located geographically close to where you are and a server closest to the website or service you wish to use.
If you connect to a server that is on the opposite side of the world, then you should expect your internet connection to slow down to allow time for your data to travel.
For example, if you were in the U.K. and wanted to access your favorite TV show which was only being streamed in the U.S., then you would want to find a VPN that had a server close to you in the U.K. as well as a server in the U.S., ideally on the East Coast.
By choosing your server locations wisely, you can reduce the distance your data has to travel, saving you time and speeding up your connection.
The speed of the VPN is also dependent on the provider itself. Available bandwidth, server processing power and how many others are using the server at the same time, can all impact on speed. You can see our VPN speed tests here.
Types of VPNs
VPNs will often use sophisticated encryption to ensure that your data is secure and to prevent any unwanted interception between private sites. All traffic is encrypted using a variety of algorithms to ensure data integrity and privacy.
Transport Layer Security (TLS) and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) Protocols
These types of VPNs use cryptography (a type of encryption) to secure your data as it travels over a computer network.
Each protocol uses a “handshake” method of authentication to define how the client and server establish a connection, including the network parameters used.
To successfully establish a connection, a certificate is used to authenticate. A certificate is a cryptographic key stored on both your computer and the VPN server.
Point To Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP)
This tunneling protocol allows a connection between a private server and a remote client over the internet. PPTP is the most common protocol that VPN providers use. It is straightforward and easy to use and maintain.
It is also included in the Windows operating system. This protocol often provides a means of authenticating both you and the VPN server through a username and password combination.
IP Security (IPSec)
IPSec is also used to secure your data over the internet. It uses either tunneling or transport mode to encrypt your data in the VPN.
The difference between the two is that transport mode only encrypts the message within the data packet, while tunneling will encrypt the entire packet. When people mention a “security overlay” for protocols, they are often referring to IPSec.
Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP)
This is a protocol used to tunnel data traffic between two websites. Often it uses IPSec (usually shown as L2TP/IPSec) as a security layer to ensure the secure transfer of L2TP data packets over the web. L2TP differs from PPTP because it requires the use of certificates or a shared key.
What’s the Difference Between Commercial and Corporate VPNs?
Originally, VPN technology was created for companies to allow remote workers to securely connect to their corporate networks and access resources when away from the office.
Some VPNs still do this; however, they are more commonly known as private Corporate VPNs. Commercial VPNs are VPN services that allow everyday customers to access the internet privately through their servers.
While there are many similarities between each type of VPN, there are some major differences that are beyond the scope of this guide.
Are VPNs Legal?
In most countries, privacy is a legal right to a majority of citizens. At the time of writing this article, using a VPN is legal in almost all countries.
As a result, many of these countries ban VPN services from operating. They often try to block people from accessing overseas VPN services; however, many of these blocks are only partially successful.
What Makes a Good VPN? (Choosing a VPN)
Unfortunately, not all VPNs are created equal. The first thing you should do is consider what you plan to use the VPN for.
Some of the best VPNs offer a wide variety of locations, features and prices. Some are excellent for the casual user; others are aimed at people who want to do a lot of downloading and searching privately.
Here is a list of attributes you should look at when deciding on the right VPN for you:
- Price: There are some big differences between free and paid VPNs, so make sure to do your research. Surprising, for paid VPNs there is not much correlation between how much you pay and the service you receive.
- Speed: VPNs will always result in a loss of speed. However, VPN speeds can vary from provider to provider. Remember to compare and choose which one suits you.
- Privacy: All VPNs promise privacy; however, the depth of privacy can vary. See below for more details.
- Protocol: Each VPN protocol has its advantages and disadvantages. Most average users will not need to be too concerned about this.
- Security: Find out what measures have been taken by the provider to prevent unwanted access to your data. Make sure you are using HTTPS whenever possible and be careful with what you download. Some VPN providers offer Anti-Malware and Anti-Spyware features.
- Available on Different Devices: If you plan to spend money on a VPN provider, make sure you get a consistent quality experience across multiple devices. Most providers offer desktop and mobile solutions.
- The Number of Services and Locations: If you need to connect to services in different countries, then the number of services that a Virtual Private Network has will be important. Also known as corporate and exit locations, they can help you bypass location-based restrictions.
- The Number of Simultaneous Connections: Want to connect more than one device? Some providers will limit how many devices they will service at a time, while others will allow you to connect almost any number of devices.
- Customer Support: If you are new to VPNs or can’t figure out a specific feature, then solid customer support can be invaluable.
- Free Trials and Money-Back Guarantees: Allows you to try before you buy.
- Software: Look for a platform that is easy to use. Some VPN software packages can have a lot of extra features including DNS leak protection and VPN kill switches.
- Cross-Platform Support: Check that a VPN will run on your devices. Most VPNs will support Windows, Android, Mac OSX and other iOS platforms. Support for Windows Mobile devices and Blackberry OS can be a little more difficult.
- Logging: Does the VPN provider log your data? Make sure you know your provider’s logging policies before signing up. More on this below.
There are many other bells and whistles on offer from VPN providers; however, the above attributes are the most important to consider before you sign up to anything.
Free VPN vs Subscription VPN
Free VPNs should be approached with caution. It costs a lot of money to run a VPN service, so you should consider how they get the money to run the service if you are not paying a subscription.
Some free VPNs have been known to sell their users’ data or sell contextual ads while you are connected. Some may offer great features, however, if privacy is important to you, then you will want to avoid them.
Saying that, there are reputable free VPN services. While they are limited, it can be enough for the casual user and they are often funded through a premium offer.
Subscription VPN providers take privacy and performance a lot more seriously. They will rarely show ads, however, whether they log your information can vary from company to company. Many subscription VPNs start at a monthly fee of $5-$10.
Whether you chose to pay for a subscription VPN or try out a free VPN service, make sure you do your research before signing up.
Which VPNS Are the Best?
There are a wide variety of Virtual Private Networks available. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. It all depends on what you want to do with your VPN service.
We have researched and tested some of the top VPNs currently available.
Does A VPN Make Me Anonymous?
Unfortunately, a VPN does not make you anonymous. Usually, your VPN knows who you are and what activities you get up to online. VPNs that offer privacy-orientated services will go to great lengths to protect your privacy.
If you are looking to use a Virtual Private Network for privacy reasons, then you will want a “no logs” service provider. Some providers will keep logs of your activity in real-time. Most “no logs” providers promise not to monitor you unless it is necessary for technical reasons.
However, in many countries, authorities can legally demand a company to keep logs of specific individuals. They can also implement a gag order so the company cannot alert their customers to the fact they’re being monitored.
This only happens when specifically demanded. Most providers will be more than happy to cooperate when it comes to catching criminals. It is specific individuals who are already on the authorities’ radar that need be concerned.
Mandatory Data Retention
When choosing a privacy-orientated VPN service, be aware of where it is based. Many countries, including those in Europe, require any communications companies (including VPN providers) to keep logs for a certain period.
Countries such as Romania, Sweden, the Netherlands and Luxembourg are not required to keep logs. If a VPN provider is located in a country that requires it to keep logs, then it will do so, despite what impression they might give you.
Paying For Your VPN Anonymously
If you want extra privacy, many VPN companies allow you to pay anonymously for their services. Many companies will accept anonymously purchased store cards. Some will even accept cash sent by post!
Because the VPN company does not know your name, address or banking details, this adds an extra layer of privacy. However, they will still know your real IP address.
What Does “No Logs” Mean?
While many providers might claim that they don’t keep logs, what they really mean is they don’t keep ”usage logs”. Many do keep “connection logs”. Read on to learn the difference between these two types of logs.
Usage logs are records of the activity you undertake on the internet, including which websites you visit. They are considered the most significant, and conceivably damaging, logs.
These logs store metadata about your connection, but not your usage. What data is recorded differs between providers; however, it can often include the time you were connected, for how long and how often.
Most people aren’t too worried about the information stored in these logs, however, for the ultra-privacy conscious, such logs can be used to identify somebody with known internet usage patterns.
Some providers claim to keep absolutely no logs (known as “no log providers”) and these are the best if you want complete privacy protection. Always do your research before signing up.
Am I Safe if I Use a VPN?
A good VPN service will give you a high degree of privacy. You will be protected against general government surveillance, stop your ISP from knowing what you do online and prevent tracking from copyright owners if you illegally download media.
However, be warned, a VPN will not protect you if the police, government or other authorities specifically take an interest in you and your internet activities.
Can I Torrent Safely Using a VPN?
If your provider permits it, then torrenting (P2P downloading) should be fine. However, not all VPN companies allow this, so make sure to check before signing up.
When you are torrenting, everyone who is downloading that file can easily identify the IP address of everyone else who is downloading the same file. When you use a VPN, the IP of your VPN will show up instead of your real IP address.
VPN providers regularly receive copyright infringement notices due to their customers’ activities. Many will cooperate and potentially hand over the names of infringing customers. Others will just issue warnings and disconnect repeat offenders.
There are some companies that are happy to let you torrent and will keep your identity private. A VPN that keeps no logs is always good if you plan to download via P2P.
Do VPNs Work On Mobile Devices?
Yes, VPNs do work on mobile devices, and other Android and iOS platforms. Just like on your computer, your VPN will encrypt your data and hide your IP address for all internet connections.
However, if you are using a VPN to hide your identity and maintain privacy, be aware that mobile apps have other ways to see what you are doing online. Apps can access your GPS data, Apple and Android ID’s, contact lists and more.
To maintain privacy, instead of using an app to access a company’s services, access their website directly using your browser.
Just be aware that smartphones are notoriously unsecured. Even if you have a VPN, there is little you can do to make your smartphone 100 percent secure.
What Is A VPN Router?
The way most people run their VPN service is to install the software on each device they wish to connect to the VPN. An alternative is to set up your router so it is connected to your VPN service.
The main advantages of doing it this way are:
- Every device is automatically protected by the VPN when connected through the router.
- Many devices, such as smart TVs and gaming consoles, can’t run VPN software. By connecting them to the protected router, you can make full use of the VPN.
- The router is considered to be one VPN connection. This means that you can have an unlimited amount of devices connected to the VPN via the router.
The main disadvantage of installing the software on your router is the amount of processing power required. Encrypting and decrypting data is hard on your processor and most standard routers can’t handle it.
If you do 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.
What A Virtual Private Network Does Not Do…
While a VPN will significantly improve your online security and privacy, it is important to remember that there are limits to this protection.
As mentioned previously, a VPN will not provide full anonymity. If the authorities specifically target you, a Virtual Private Network will be of little help. Be wary if a VPN offers complete anonymity.
A VPN does not prevent websites from tracking you. Using a Virtual Private Network to hide your IP address helps, but the majority of tracking performed by websites and analytics is done using tracking technology such as cookies and browser fingerprinting.
A Virtual Private Network can’t stop websites from tracking you this way. The best way to defend yourself against tracking is through various browser tweaks and plugins.
Wrapping Things Up…
As you can see, a VPN is an incredibly useful tool if you want to make sure your personal data remains private and secure. For only a few dollars a month, it can significantly decrease the chance that you get hacked and stop others from knowing what you do online.
Hopefully, this guide has provided an excellent overview of VPNs, what they offer and how you can use them to your advantage. If you have any questions, list them below, and we will be very happy to answer them for you.