What is a VPN? The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

VPN on router

As our everyday lives get more and more intertwined with the internet, we are spending more time online.

As inconceivable as it would have seemed just 20 years ago, nowadays we can do pretty much everything online, from shopping and banking, buying houses and cars, socialising, entertainment, and everything in between.

As technology advances the term “VPN” is often mentioned, but you're probably wondering, what exactly a VPN is?

In this guide we're going to teach you about VPNs so you know exactly what one is and ultimately help you make a decision if you really need one.

So, here we go…

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and whilst that sounds complicated, it is actually pretty straightforward.

When you connect to the internet, your computer or mobile device sends data down your internet connection to the websites and services you are using.

It is while this data is travelling between the two locations that it is most vulnerable to hackers and surveillance operatives. This is where a VPN protects your data.

A VPN is really just a private ‘server'.

Server: A name given to a powerful computer that usually automates processes.

Most VPNs operate numerous servers around the world and when you choose a server from their selection, the VPN will establish an encrypted connection between your device and that server.

Encryption: To mix up all of your data and make it unreadable.

Once your data reaches the server it is then sent on to the site you are trying to connect with.

Because your data is encrypted when travelling between your device and the server, it is impossible for hackers, surveillance organisations, or your ISP to see what you are dong online.

How a VPN works

All they can see is that there is data travelling from your device to the server, but not what that data is or where it is eventually going.

Your online data is therefore both secure and private whilst travelling to the VPN server.

Once your data leaves the VPN server it is also impossible to trace it back to you and your internet connection. This is because the server stamps that data with its own IP Address (a bit like an online identity tag) rather than your one. This means that the data can be traced to the server, but not beyond.

This allows you to be semi-anonymous online and also make it appear you are in a different country too.

This allows you to access geo-restricted content no matter where you are and also get around any online censorship you may face in your home country.

How a VPN can protect your IP address and privacy

A VPN works by creating a secure data tunnel that connects your device with a server located somewhere else. That could be five miles down the road or halfway around the world.

This makes it appear as if you are connecting to the internet from where this server is rather than your home or wherever you are connecting from.

The advantage of this is that it can enable you to hide your true location from the websites you visit. It also lets you access apps and websites that are blocked in your country but not in others.

When your data passes down that tunnel it is scrambled using something called encryption. This jumbles up your data into unreadable content and it cannot be unscrambled until it reaches the VPN server at the other end of the tunnel.

Why does this matter?

Without encryption, it is relatively easy for hackers to access your internet data to harvest your personal information or simply spy on what you are doing online.

Encryption makes this impossible because the encryption used by most VPNs is so strong that it is impossible for hackers to crack.

It also stops your Internet Service Provider (ISP) from being able to log everything you do when online. In countries like the UK, they are obliged to do this by law.

But if you use a VPN, they cannot see the encrypted data and they can only track it as far as the VPN server. This means they have no way of seeing and logging what websites you are visiting or what you are doing on them.

How to choose a VPN

To be sure you are choosing the right VPN, there are a few key questions you need to be asking yourself about a potential provider:

Will they protect your privacy online?

If a VPN is worth using, it will be able to guarantee your online privacy.

That means it will have a no logs policy that guarantees it doesn’t keep a record of what you do online. Some will even get this confirmed by a third-party auditor.

Do they have data limits?

If you are going to do anything more than browse the web and read a few emails, you will be running a lot of data through your VPN.

This means you need a VPN which doesn’t have any bandwidth limitations. Most premium VPNs don’t, but quite a few free VPNs still do.

Do they use a secure protocol?

Most premium VPNs these days will use OpenVPN by default (except possibly on their iOS apps).

This provides stronger security than other protocols like PPTP. Keep an eye out for WireGuard too which already promises to be the next generation of VPN protocol.

Can you use your VPN on all your devices?

Most people go online with between 3-5 devices and you should really protect all of them with a VPN.

This means you need to make sure your VPN offers enough simultaneous connections for all your devices and has apps for all the devices you want to use it on.

Where are the servers located?

Think about which countries you need to be able to access servers for.

There might only be one country, but you might need more. Check that the provider you like offers servers in all of these countries. The more servers they have where you need them, the better their service will be for your needs.

How much will it cost?

If you are on a tight budget, you might be tempted to opt for a free VPN. But be aware that you will pay in other ways for these services.

They could pose a security threat to you, inject malware or adware onto your devices or worse. Their service is almost certain to be substandard.

A premium VPN will only cost you a few pounds or dollars a month but it will deliver a high-quality service that is also secure and private.

Uses of VPN

VPNs can be used for a lot more than just keeping your data private and secure online.

Other popular uses include:

Access business networks when travelling

If you are travelling overseas for work and need to be able to access your business network securely, a VPN can help.

Because it encrypts all of your data and hides your real location, you can access all the online resources you need to safely and securely from anywhere in the world.

Access home networks when travelling

You can also use a VPN to remotely access your home network securely.

This means you can remotely access your Windows Remote Desktop, share files on the local network, and even plan games online just as if you were still at home.

Use public Wi-Fi securely

When you use a public Wi-Fi network, your online data and personal information is easily accessible by almost anyone nearby. But when you connect to a VPN, everything is secure and private meaning you can use public Wi-Fi with confidence.

Hide your internet activity from your ISP

Internet Service providers (ISPs) in the UK and many other countries are legally required to keep a log of all their user’s internet activity.

In the UK, they must keep this information for 12 months. But if you are connected to a VPN, your ISP will be unable to see anything other than the VPN server you connect to. And because your data is encrypted too, they cannot keep any meaningful records of what you are doing online.

Access Geo-Blocked Websites

Lots of websites restrict access to users outside a certain geographic location.

This stops people outside that region from visiting them.

The most common example is American Netflix, which offers far more content than its other national services but is blocked outside the USA.

With a VPN, you can connect to a server inside that region and fool these sites into thinking you should be allowed access. So, connect to a US server, and you can watch US Netflix from anywhere in the world.

VPN Protocols

There are quite a few VPN protocols and the number is growing all the time. If you are not technically-minded, choosing the right VPN protocol can be very difficult or confusing.

To help, here is a brief summary of the most common VPN protocols:

OpenVPN

OpenVPN is the default VPN protocol used by most VPNs at the moment.

It is an open-source and freely available protocol that can run on a single UDP or TCP port, making it extremely flexible.

OpenVPN can be used on most devices and operating systems and has for a long time offered the best combination of speed, usability, and security.

If you're unsure of which protocol to be using, OpenVPN is the best bet.

WireGuard

WireGuard is a relatively new VPN protocol that many have predicted will power the next generation of VPNs.

It is a slimline protocol that still offers the best possible security protections while maximising potential speeds. A number of premium VPNs have already begun integrating WireGuard into their offering and we expect to more to follow.

IKEv2

IKEv2 is a VPN protocol that is based on IPSec. Its design makes it ideal for mobile devices as it copes well when devices switch between Wi-Fi and mobile data networks regularly.

This tends to be the protocol many VPNs use by default in their iOS apps.

PPTP

PPTP is a vintage VPN protocol and is simple to set up on most Operating Systems. But its security has been questioned repeatedly in recent years and it is best avoided these days.

L2TP/IPsec

L2TP over IPsec is more secure and comes with more features than PPTP.

L2TP/Ipsec actually implements two protocols together. The L2TP protocol creates the tunnel and IPsec provides the secure channel. It is a decent enough protocol but there are better and more modern protocols available these days.

What to consider when choosing a VPN

Choosing a VPN is hard because there are so many on the market.

On our site, you can read our expert reviews of all the top VPNs on the market right now and see the pros and cons of each. Doing research is crucial to making the right choice for you and we have all the information you need on this site.

We do strongly advise you not to use free VPNs.

There are numerous problems with free providers including:

  • Weak security: Most free VPNs offer lax security and use weaker VPN protocols like PPTP. Some have been found to not actually encrypt your data at all.
  • Fewer servers: Free VPNs tend to have fewer servers. When these get busy, connection speeds for everyone slow to a crawl making your internet almost unusable.
  • Annoying ads: A lot of free VPNs will rely on advertising to make money and so you will find yourself inundated with adverts and pop-ups. Often these are injected into your browser and other apps too.
  • Download limits: A lot of free VPNs limit the amount of data you can use each month. For most internet users, this limit will be well below what you actually use.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Using a VPN Legal?

People often ask whether VPNs are legal.

There is a perception that because they offer privacy and security that can be useful for hackers and online criminals, VPNs must be illegal too.

The opposite is true. A VPN is a tool that protects your online freedom and security, something that is actively encouraged in most countries.

Using a VPN is completely legal in much of the world. But conducting illegal activity such as hacking, sharing illegal content, or pirating movies and music is not.

UK Police Facebook posting about VPN

The UK's Police forces recommend VPN use.

There are a few countries where VPNs are illegal or disallowed.

These tend to be countries like China, Iran, and Russia which are controlled by authoritarian regimes that want to know what all the people they control are doing online.

These tend to be the places you need a VPN most. But if you do live in a country like this, it is advisable to check the local law and make sure you are comfortable before signing up for one.

How many devices can connect to the VPN at once?

You probably use several devices to go online; a laptop, a smartphone, a tablet, a smart TV, a smart speaker.

All of these devices are vulnerable and should really be protected by a VPN. That’s why users should prioritise two things that are often overlooked.

Make sure the VPN you are using works on all of the devices you access the internet with.

Ideally, they will have dedicated apps, but if not, look on their website for a manual installation guide.

Also, be sure you can use all of your devices online at the same time. Most VPNs offer multiple concurrent connections but while some allow as many as 10 or 12, others can be as low as 3. Make sure your VPN has enough to suit your needs.

Top Tip

Services like IPVanish offer twelve concurrent connections, ExpressVPN just five and some like Surfshark an unlimited number.

Will a VPN affect my internet speeds?

By rerouting your online traffic through a VPN server you are making the journey your data is taking longer and this can impact on speeds. The process of encrypting your data also makes it a little slower.

How noticeable this impact will be depends on which VPN provider you opt for and which of their servers you connect to.

Download Speed

Choosing a server closer to your actual connection will generally make the connection faster, but with a top of the range VPN provider like ExpressVPN or NordVPN, the performance should be unaffected regardless of which server you choose.

Does the VPN block ads?

No-one likes pop-up ads. They are annoying, slow down your internet, and can be dangerous too as hackers often use them to deliver malware to your device.

An ad-blocker can keep these type of ads off your device. A lot of VPNs will come bundled together with an ad-blocker tool.

Plenty of users appreciate this feature, so check to see if your chosen VPN offers one.

But do remember, you can download better ad-blockers from other sources too, so we wouldn’t advise you to make this a deal-breaker.

Does the VPN have a kill switch?

Any user who is serious about their online privacy should be on the lookout for a provider that offers a kill switch feature as standard.

A kill switch is a feature that cuts your internet connection if your VPN link drops out. When this happens, your device will usually revert back to your normal IP address which would reveal this information to anyone watching.

Some kill switches just cut everything until your VPN connection drops out. Others can be tailored to just cut certain apps and leave other less sensitive content connected.

All VPNs drop out occasionally, so if privacy is important, make sure your VPN has a kill switch and that it is set up properly.

Does the VPN log user data?

Most premium VPNs will offer a no user logs guarantee to all users. A lot of free VPNs make no such promise.

A no user logs guarantee means they promise not to keep any records of what you do online. Usually, this will also include details like your original IP address.

This is important because if your VPN does hold this information, it is possible that they could end up revealing it to hackers or government agencies.

Some no user logs guarantees are a lot more comprehensive than others which is why it is important to find out more about your chosen provider before signing up.

The best will have permitted an independent audit to prove their no user logs claim stands up to scrutiny. But some may still harvest information while claiming to anonymise it.

Should I use a VPN all the time?

To be on the safe side, our advice for this would always be, yes.

If you want to be sure your online activity is secure and private, using a VPN is the best guarantee.

But if that doesn’t seem practical, there are times when you could get away without one. For example, more and more sites these days are using the HTTPS protocol (the letters at the start of a web address). This means traffic to and from the site is automatically encrypted. But that doesn’t stop your ISP seeing what websites you're visiting.

But if you are using a public Wi-Fi connection, imputing personal information, or using sites which require you to evade their inbuilt geo-restriction or government censorship efforts, a VPN is vital.

And the practical reality is that it is much easier just to find a reliable and fast VPN and then leave it on rather than switching it on and off when you see fit.

If you're a little forgetful or don't want the hassle of enabling and disabling an app all the time then considering a VPN router like the Invizbox 2 which secures every device connected to your internet connection may be the way to go.

Better to be safe than sorry!

Do I even need a VPN?

In the UK alone we spent an estimated £96 billion online in 2018. Seven out of ten people in the UK now use online banking as of 2018. At the same time, around 67% of British internet users make use of social media.

With the advent of new technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT) which looks likely to connect up pretty much every device we use in our homes this tidal wave shows no sign of letting up.

But at the same time, the threats posed to us from the internet also continue to grow. Hackers grow increasingly adept at compromising our data, with ransomware the latest technique to hit the headlines.

At the same time Government’s, especially the British one, are taking advantage of security challenges to intrude ever further into the online activities of innocent citizens.

It should, therefore, be little wonder that a growing number of people are concerned about internet security and online privacy.

Many will have seen mention of VPNs as a popular tool to counter these two big online treats. But with plenty of content already online, it can be hard to find a simple guide to what a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, actually is.

We hope you've found this guide useful and have a better understanding of how a VPN can increase your online security.

David Spencer

Author: David Spencer

David is VPNCompare's News Editor. Anything going on in the privacy world and he's got his eye on it. He's also interested in unblocking sports allowing him to watch his favourite football team wherever he is in the world.

Away from writing, he enjoys reading and politics. He is currently learning Mandarin too... slowly.

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