What is a VPN?
Whether you’re trying to keep your online activity private and secure, bypass geo-restrictions, or just do peer-to-peer file sharing, you’re going to need a VPN. Many people wonder, “what is a VPN?” If you’ve never used one before, you might have a lot of questions: do VPNs really work? Is a VPN necessary? Luckily, we’re here to help—here’s everything you should know about virtual private networks.
A virtual private network, or VPN, is a connection method that will mask your IP address and establish an encrypted connection. The private network of a VPN is much more secure than a WiFi hotspot and makes it incredibly difficult for prying eyes to track your online activity. But what is VPN protection?
All VPNs do more than just mask your IP address—they give you a new one. You might be surfing the web from the United States, but your VPN can route your connection to a proxy server in Europe. Most websites that you visit will assume you’re located in Europe, not the United States.
The level of encryption that VPNs offer can also protect sensitive information. If you need to check your bank account or send an email on a public WiFi network, using a VPN can keep anyone else from eavesdropping.
What Does a VPN Do?
So, you understand the VPN meaning and how it can keep your online activity anonymous, but why do so many people use them on a daily basis? Well, the benefits and usage of an online VPN can vary, but there are a couple of key reasons why they’re so popular.
- Secure Browsing
The most obvious reason is privacy and security. Even if you only use the internet to check social media or send a few emails, your personal information is still at risk. VPNs keep you from leaving any trace of your online presence behind, and their encryption makes it that much harder for intruders to find and use your data.
If you have plans for P2P file-sharing or torrenting, that’s data you’d want to protect from prying eyes.
- Geo-Restrictions and Streaming
Besides extra security, plenty of people use VPNs to bypass geographical restrictions. ISPs in some countries may restrict access to social media sites and streaming services. When you try to access one of these blocked sites, your IP address gives your location away.
With a VPN, however, you can use a proxy server, which makes it seem like you’re somewhere you’re not. You might be at a home country, but a VPN can trick firewalls into thinking you’re halfway around the world. In fact, one 2018 survey found that 100 million people in China use VPNs regularly to get around those internet restrictions.
Even if the country you live in doesn’t restrict access, your work or school WiFi network may block certain sites—and many VPNs can get around those restrictions too.
- Are VPNs Legal?
Given that you can use VPNs for downloading media content or to access blocked sites, you might question whether these networks are even legal. The answer is yes—VPNs are legal to use in most countries, including the US. Some places with heavy censorship do place heavy restrictions on VPN use.
Keep in mind that VPNs don’t absolve you from breaking the law. If you do something illegal while you’ve got a VPN, obviously it’s still illegal. So, installing a VPN is perfectly legal; users just have to be responsible about how they use them.
Common VPN Encryption and Protocols
You’ll see the word “encryption” pop up a lot with VPNs, but not all providers use the same type of encryption. You can think of encryption like a lock. Some providers use a padlock to keep you safe, but others use a deadbolt. Knowing the type of encryption and protocol that your VPN uses can better help you understand how the VPN service is protecting you.
It’s very rare to see a VPN provider that doesn’t use OpenVPN software, and many people consider it to be the industry standard now. OpenVPN is an open-source technology that relies on either TCP (transmission control protocol) or UDP (user datagram protocol) to deal with your data.
Both TCP and UDP are transport protocols, but TCP is generally the more reliable protocol since it comes with error correction. However, with UDP, OpenVPN tends to be faster. The encryption for OpenVPN is also fairly great, and it typically uses 256-bit encryption.
That’s a lot of technical lingo, but what you should know is that OpenVPN is one of the safest, if not the safest, VPN protocols that you can use. Since it’s not owned by any particular company, third-party services can continually update and improve the software too. While it’s worth checking out the other protocols, you can’t go wrong with OpenVPN.
This protocol offers a similar level of security that you’d get with OpenVPN, but it’s not open-source technology. This protocol is currently owned by Microsoft, which can raise concerns for some users about how private their data really is.
SSTP uses TCP like OpenVPN, but it does have one caveat: it’s only available for Windows, Android, and Linux. If your VPN provider primarily uses SSTP and you don’t own a Windows or Linux computer, you might be out of luck.
While PPTP is significantly faster than OpenVPN or SSTP, it do less when it comes to encryption. It only uses 128-bit encryption, and it’s often easier for firewalls to block it.
Unsurprisingly, most VPN providers don’t rely on this protocol anymore, so you’re unlikely to see it pop up unless you specifically search for it.
IPSec is another common protocol you’ll see, and it’s often paired with L2TP and IKEv2. It comes with decent security, but setting it up can be tricky if you’re not tech-savvy. If IPSec isn’t configured correctly, it could compromise your security and render the VPN useless.
However, the positive is that IPSec is available on a lot of different platforms, so you may not even need to manually configure it.
What is a No-Log Policy?
Talk to someone about VPNs, and they’ll probably tell you that you should only use providers that have a no-log policy—and they’re right. No-log policies mean that your VPN provider won’t “log” any of your online activity while you’re using the VPN. This means that passwords, personal information, and whatever you download stays completely confidential—even from the provider.
If a VPN logs your activity, they probably intend to sell it to a third party, like advertisers or other 3rd parties. Regardless of what you do with your VPN, using a no-log VPN is always the more secure option.
How to Tell if a VPN Has a No-Log Policy
No-Log Policies and Third-Party Audits
If you’re truly interested in knowing whether your VPN provider lives up to their privacy claims, you can check to see if they’ve passed a third-party audit. These audits can expose issues with security or let you know how much of your information the provider keeps. Not all VPNs have undergone third-party audits, but many companies actually pay for independent audits so that they seem more trustworthy to their users.
How VPN Jurisdiction Can Affect Your Privacy
When it comes to picking out a VPN, you’ll want to pay close attention to the company’s jurisdiction. Jurisdiction refers to the country or region that the company’s from, and data retention laws can vary from place to place. Some jurisdictions may force providers to log or share your online activity.
For instance, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the UK privacy laws regarding user data are less strict. These countries all have the same agreements, and any VPN provider within these jurisdictions may have to hand over your data to a 3rd party.
If you’re still searching for a VPN to use, you probably want your VPN to be in privacy-friendly jurisdiction.
Are There Free VPNs?
You’ll find that many companies offer free versions of their VPNs, which a lot of users take advantage of if they’re just trying out the service. Free VPNs can come in handy if you’re just doing a little bit of quick browsing or need to secure your online activity in a pinch.
However, most free versions come with a lot of limitations—such as how much data you use and which features you can use. You’ll probably also find that free versions are slower than paid versions, which can be detrimental if you plan to download or stream anything. They also generally don’t allow you to connect tons of devices to the same network. You may only be able to use the VPN on a single device.
For casual use, a free VPN might save you a few bucks, but you probably don’t want to rely on them as a long-term solution.
The Benefits of Using a Paid VPN
The downsides of a free VPN are the same benefits of VPN with a paid plan:
- A faster connection for streaming and downloads
- Better security with OpenVPN
- Connections for multiple devices on the same network or account
- Unblocking Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu
- Hundreds or thousands of servers across the world
- A new personalized IP address that only you have
- Browser extensions for your laptop or desktop
- Compatibility with different types of devices
- Better customer support
Keep in mind that the VPN benefits can vary depending on the provider you end up going with. If you’ve got your eye on a specific company, you can check out their specific features, and what you’ll get with your paid plan.
Some paid plans might be specific to your needs. For instance, there may be plans that work best for torrenting, or plans that help you bypass geo-restrictions.
How Much Do VPNs Cost?
Cost is another factor that can vary from company to company. Most providers offer monthly plans, but you can usually pay annually if you want. Across the board, most VPNs cost around $5 to $10 a month with some exceptions.
If you’re paying more than $10 for your VPN, you’re usually paying for top-of-the-line security and extremely advanced features. Plans that cost $5 or less will probably be more basic and leave out those advanced features. For more details, you’ll need to look at the company’s pricing page to see what they specifically offer.
Don’t forget that most paid VPNs come with at least a free trial. If you’re not totally convinced that you want the service, you can always try the VPN free for a couple of weeks, and then make a decision.
What are VPN Advanced Features?
You may notice that a lot of VPNs include a range of advanced features, which may come with your paid plan or that you can add on. Without all the technical terminology, here’s what these features entail:
- Double VPN
As the name suggests, a double VPN feature gives you twice the security. When you turn the feature on, the provider will route your traffic through servers instead of one. You’ll get an extra layer of encryption with this tool.
While casual users might not need the extra privacy of a double VPN, it can be useful for political activists or journalists that need to stay away from surveillance or censorship.
- Kill Switch
If you’re in the middle of a private transaction and your VPN connection suddenly goes out, it can leave your information at risk until the VPN is back online. This is where a kill switch can come in handy.
If the connection drops, a kill switch will detect it and automatically disconnect your device from the internet so that your data isn’t vulnerable. You probably won’t need a kill switch often, but it is another layer of protection. The kill switch isn’t usually an automatic feature, so you may need to turn it on once you’ve got your VPN installed.
- Custom VPN Protocols
We’ve already discussed the different types of VPN protocols, but some companies may create their own custom VPN protocols. These custom protocols may boost your security, and many providers use them in addition to OpenVPN or other encryptions.
Which Devices Support VPN Software?
Luckily, you can use a VPN with most devices—whether it’s a smartphone or a desktop. For computers, systems like Windows, Chromebook, and MacOS should all support VPNs. VPN software can also support Linux systems, but it’s not as common as Windows or Mac.
On a laptop or desktop, many companies offer browser extensions, which are easy to install and keep track of. Most of the time, it only takes a couple of clicks to turn your VPN on if you’re using a browser extension.
For mobile devices, iOS users trying to get support for their iPhone or iPad should have very little trouble finding a VPN. If you already have a VPN provider, but they don’t support iOS (which is pretty uncommon), there are plenty of free or paid VPN apps that you can download for your phone.
Androids should be just as easy to support as iOS devices, and you may even be able to set up a VPN on a newer game console (like PlayStation 4 or Xbox One). Of course, VPN support depends on the provider. Before you buy, you’ll want to make sure that they support the device(s) you want to use.
How Fast are VPNs?
One of the most important factors to consider with VPNs are their speed. A lot of people use VPNs for downloads and streaming, but it’s hard to watch your favorite shows if they’re constantly buffering.
Most VPNs measure their speed in Mbps, or megabits per second. 100 Mbps is generally a fast internet connection, but that’s without a VPN. Even paid VPNs are going to slow your browser speed down a little bit—but anything around 80 Mbps is fairly fast for a VPN.
Not to mention, server location can also affect speed. The closer the server is, the faster your connection will probably be. However, if you need to connect to a server that’s halfway across the world, you should probably expect a little bit of delay.
So, we’ve given you a general overview of what a VPN is and how you can use them, you might be wondering, “How do I get a VPN?” With endless options, it can be challenging to tell a mediocre VPN from a high-quality one. Fortunately, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best VPNs that we recommend below:
- NordVPN – NordVPN remains one of the most popular providers around, and there’s a reason for that. They include a no-log policy and report download speeds of 115 Mbps. Another perk is that NordVPN is capable of unblocking all popular streaming services, so you can stream shows from anywhere in the world.
- IvacyVPN – Ivacy also helps unblock popular streaming services, has a no-log policy, and impressive 256-bit encryption.
- Windscribe – Along with plenty of security, Windscribe also offers a wide range of advanced features you may want to take advantage of.
- ProtonVPN – This provider works out of privacy-friendly countries like Iceland and Switzerland, so you don’t have to worry about your data falling into the wrong hands.
- SurfsharkVPN – With plenty of affordable paid plans, Surfshark allows you to connect an unlimited number of devices to the same VPN.
With VPNs, there’s a lot of information to unpack. These services provide a lot of benefits—from helping you unblock streaming sites like Netflix or Hulu to keeping your private data secure. However, navigating through all the technical jargon can be intimidating, especially if you’re looking for a VPN.
When it comes to picking out a VPN provider, it’s crucial to consider how these companies treat your privacy. They may claim to give you security, but if they log your activity, that could be an empty promise. Besides no-log policies, you don’t want to forget about speed, what advanced features you need, and what jurisdiction the company falls under.