What does a VPN do?
A VPN is an online service that allows you to:
- Hide what you get up to on the internet from others.
- Get around blocks and other forms of censorship.
- Appear to be in another country to access services such as US Netflix and BBC iPlayer.
- Download and file share safely.
- Use public WiFi hotspots safely and securely.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and much as its name suggests, it is a technology that provides privacy on the internet. Almost as a side-benefit of the way it works, but one which many users find its most useful benefit, is that VPNs allow you pretend to be in a different county.
How does a VPN work?
To use a VPN you need to sign up for a VPN service. These typically operate VPN servers located in various locations around the world. You will also need to download special software known as a VPN client or VPN app.
The VPN app connects your device (such as a PC, laptop, or smartphone) to a server run by the VPN provider. All data that travels between your device and the VPN server is encrypted to ensure that no-one else can see it.
The VPN server acts as a gateway to the internet, and all your internet data is routed through it.
And that’s basically it! This simple-sounding setup, though, is great for lots of cool things! So let’s look at the benefits of using a VPN in a little more detail…
Why do I want a VPN?
A VPN provides privacy on the internet in three ways:
1) Your internet provider (ISP) cannot see your data because it is concealed using encryption. This means that your data is scrambled using highly complex math so that only you and the VPN server can read it.
2) Your ISP also cannot see which websites you visit on the internet. This is because the VPN server sits between you and the internet. All your ISP can see is that you have connected to the VPN server. After that is has no way of knowing what you do on the internet.
Most mass surveillance systems simply rely on ISPs to hand over your data to government agencies (such as the NSA or FBI). VPNs are therefore very effective at stopping blanket mass surveillance by governments.
In the United States, ISPs can now sell customers’ data to their advertising partners, but a VPN will prevent them from being able to collect any useful data about you.
3) Similarly, websites that you visit can normally see your real IP address, a unique number assigned to you by your ISP. But if you are using a VPN then this is hidden. All the website sees is the IP address of the VPN server you are using. A VPN therefore helps to hide your real identity from websites you visit.
To defeat censorship
VPNs are great for accessing content blocked by your college or workplace, or censored by your government. Most VPN services run VPN servers in various locations around the world. So to access a blocked website, just connect to a VPN server located somewhere the website is not blocked and.. ta da!
To watch cool stuff
BBC iPlayer is a free TV streaming and catch-up service that is world-renown for the high quality of its programming. But it is only available to viewers in the UK. Netflix is now available almost everywhere, but despite paying around the same price as everyone else, customers in the US enjoy a library twice the size or more of customers elsewhere.
A VPN lets you access services like these as if you were in the relevant country – no matter where you are really located. Just connect to a VPN server in the country, and as far as the internet is concerned, you are there!
Do please check out the FAQ later in this guide, however, for some additional words on this.
A VPN provides privacy while filesharing because the VPN server shields your real IP address from peers downloading the same torrents. It also hides the content of what you download from your ISP and is handy for accessing blocked websites. For more information please see our Best VPNs for Torrents guide.
To protect yourself on public WiFi
How do you know the WiFi at your local coffee shop is secure? Answer… you don’t. And using insecure WiFi is an open invitation for criminal hackers to steal your sensitive data.
How you know you know “Free Airport WiFi” available in the departure lounge is genuine? Again, you don’t. Evil twin hotspots are a popular tactic used by hackers to prey on trusting internet users.
Similarly, how you know the owner of the public WiFi can be trusted? Airbnb hosts have been caught filming guests, so why would you trust their WiFi?! And the kind of public WiFi that asks you to sign-in with your real email address is a business that profits from selling your data to advertising partners.
A VPN will protect you when using all forms of public WiFi because your data is securely encrypted.
Does a VPN make me anonymous?
No matter how a service advertises itself, VPNs provide privacy, not anonymity. This is mainly because the VPN server can see everything that your ISP normally can.
Unlike most ISPs, good VPNs do not log this information and therefore provide much higher levels of privacy than you normally have when surfing the internet. Even these, however, will start to log information if subpoenaed or issued a binding court order.
No VPN staff are going to risk jail for you! Does this mean VPNs are useless for privacy? Not at all. Such legal moves are highly targeted against individuals of interest, so are not a threat to the privacy of most ordinary VPN users.
The Edward Snowden’s of this world, however, who require very high levels of true anonymity, should use the Tor Network rather than VPNs to protect their identity. For a detailed discussion on what VPNs know about you, please see No Log VPN guide.
How to configure your VPN?
A properly configured VPN makes it impossible for any website you visit to see your real IP address or one belonging to your ISP (which could be used to trace you). Unfortunately, VPN connections are not always properly configured.
You should therefore check every now and again that your VPN is protecting you as it should. Please see A Complete Guide to IP Leaks for how to do this.
What is a kill switch?
Even the best VPN services will sometimes drop the VPN connection for one reason or another. This leaves you unprotected by the VPN. A kill switch prevents this by either stopping your internet connection when the VPN software detects a VPN drop-out or by ensuring that no internet connections are possible that are nor routed through the VPN.
Are VPNs legal?
VPNs are legal almost everywhere, and their use is not in any way considered “suspicious”. Indeed, many businesses rely on VPN technology to permit remote workers to securely access company resources.
Countries such as China, Iran, and Egypt have “banned” VPNs, but this just amounts to attempting to block VPNs rather than actually criminalizing VPN users. Although China is most infamous for doing this, VPN blocks seem to be particularly effective in Egypt because the Egyptian government does not scruple at crippling the internet for everyone in order to enforce them.
How to Bypass VPN Blocks discusses various tactics that can be tried to overcome VPN blocks.
The only country we are aware of to actually criminalize VPN use is the UAE. But even there, it is not clear whether the law criminalizes all VPN users or just those who use a VPN for criminal purposes.
It is also worth noting that offices, schools, college dorms, etc., sometimes block VPNs. Evading these blocks is not a criminal offense, but might get you in trouble with your boss or administrator if you get caught!
See our country guides below for more details:
Will a VPN slow down my internet?
Yes, but hopefully not by too much. Not only does your data have to travel extra leg on its journey as it routes via the VPN server, but encrypting and decrypting your data takes processing power – and therefore time.
Also, if you connect to a VPN server on the other side of the world, then it takes time for your data to get there. Blame physics! If you connect to a nearby VPN server, however, you should only lose about 10% of your speed if using a fast VPN service.
Do I need an ISP if I use a VPN?
A VPN does not remove or replace the need for an Internet Service Provider (ISP) or mobile internet provider. It is, after all, your ISP that connects you to the internet in the first place.
What about encryption?
When it comes to privacy, the logs a VPN keeps matters much more than how strong the encryption it uses is. That said, use of good encryption is the mark of a good VPN.
Can I use a VPN on all my devices?
Most VPN providers allow you run a VPN on multiple devices at once using the same account. This often referred to as “simultaneous connections”. In the past it was common to allow, on average, three simultaneous connections, but more and more providers now allow five.
Can I get a free VPN?
Free VPNs exist, but consider this – setting up and maintaining a VPN server network costs money, and running even a small VPN company is a fulltime job for a number of people. So how can the VPN be free?
Honest free VPN services offer a very limited free product in the hope that you will pay to upgrade to a much more useful premium service once you have given it a whirl. They are basically just free trials.
Dishonest VPNs (and there are many of these) offer a free service so they can spy on your data in order to sell it to advertisers and/or sell steal and sell your bandwidth.
The simple truth is that something for nothing does not (indeed, can not) exist in the VPN world. But you can get a decent VPN pretty darn cheap… See our cheap VPN service guide for more information.
Netflix is blocking my VPN!
Unfortunately, many streaming services now try to block VPN users. There is nothing very clever about how they do this – they just collect IP addresses known to belong to VPNs and block them.
Many VPNs have found ways around these blocks, but it is a cat-and-mouse game and can never be guaranteed. If you are thinking of signing up for a VPN you should therefore take advantage of any free trials and/or money back guarantees to ensure the VPN works for the services you want to access.
If you are already signed-up for a VPN it worth is contacting its support over the issue. Many VPNs ensure that at least one of their servers always work with popular streaming services such as US Netflix and BBC iPlayer, but prefer not to advertise this widely in order to prevent that server becoming blocked as well!
Does a VPN make me “safe?”
A VPN is a vital tool in your privacy and securely toolkit, but it cannot do everything. It will hide your IP address from websites, for example, but IP addresses are not the only way websites can identify and track you.
VPNs are the Swiss army knife of internet tools and really should be part of your toolkit. VPNs dramatically improve your privacy on the internet, and also help improve your security. They are also vital anti-censorship tools.
But that’s just the boring stuff! VPNs also make the internet more fun by allowing you to do more. For example, torrenting safely and watching streaming services based in other countries.