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What is a VPN? A Non-Technical Beginner's Guide to Virtual Private Networks

In this VPN beginners guide, we explain what a VPN is, how it works and above all why you should be using one. It is a tech term that is becoming more and more popular around the world and we will show you just how easy they are to use.

what is vpn

What is a VPN?

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a technology that enables you to access the internet safely and privately by routing your connection through a server and hiding your online actions from prying eyes. In other words, think of it as a secure tunnel between you and the internet, in which no one else can enter to see or steal your data. A side-benefit, but one which many users find the most useful, is that they allow you to pretend to be in a different country enabling you to access content you may otherwise be unable to access.

There are many benefits to using a VPN such as:

  • Get around blocks and other forms of censorship.
  • Hide what you get up to on the internet from others.
  • 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.

Here is our list of the best vpn services available.

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.
how a vpn works

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 need a VPN?

For privacy

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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

For filesharing

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 VPN for Torrenting 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?

Does a VPN make me anonymousNo 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.

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.
If you are interested in the subject please check out VPN Encryption: The Complete Guide.

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?

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 guide for more information, or take a look at our VPN deals page.

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.

The best defense against other forms of website tracking is to harden Firefox or use another privacy browser.


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.

Written by: Douglas Crawford

With over five years’ experience at the sharp end of the VPN industry, Douglas is a recognized cyber-privacy expert. His articles have been published by numerous technology outlets, and he has been quoted by the likes of The Independent, Ars Technica, CNET and the Daily Mail Online.


  1. Bob Beisang
    on November 27, 2018

    I am confused still. What’s the deal with VPN Router hardware and a VPN service? Am I required to have BOTH? I thought if I bought a VPN Router that ALL devices on my home WiFi network would access the internet through MY VPN ....is that wrong? I see VPN routers priced from $80-$400. If I bought a moderately priced VON router do I ALSO have to contract with a service? It’s very confusing.

    1. douglas replied to Bob Beisang
      on November 28, 2018

      Hi Bob, You can run a VPN either: 1. Run VPN software on each device you own. The maximum number of devices you can use for the same account at the same time depends on how many simultaneous connections your service allows (5 is average these days). OR... 2. You can configure your router to act as a VPN gateway (if it offers this feature). All devices that connect to the internet via the router will benefit from the VPN. If using a mix of software/apps and a VPN router, the router counts as just one simultaneous connection no matter how many devices connect to the VPN service through it (the router is counted one device). A "VPN router" is simply a router that has a VPN client as part of its firmware. You still need to pay for a VPN service to connect to (unless you set up your own VPN server).

  2. Oty Emmanuel
    on November 17, 2018

    This is the best VPN guide I've read so far. But I have a question. Can Google track what you do like the ads you click via adsenset if you are on a VPN.

    1. douglas replied to Oty Emmanuel
      on November 19, 2018

      Hi Oty, Thanks! Google doesn't know your real IP because it is hidden by the VPN, but it uses cookies, browser fingerprinting, canvas fingerprinting, and other methods to track you across the internet. This best defense against such tracking is to use anti-tracking browser add-ons (https://www.bestvpn.com/guides/firefox-privacy-security-guide/).

  3. Rachid
    on November 12, 2018

    Hi all , I have just bought an online English courses, but i could not download videos, and when i wrote them ,they said i had to use VPN connection. Any help / information regarding the suitable VPN i have to use. I am living in Indonesia. Thanks

    1. douglas replied to Rachid
      on November 13, 2018

      Hi Rachid, I have never heard of such a thing, but can only presume that the course is only available to users in certain counties. If you paid for it, but it is not available in Indonesia, I think you should demand your money back. That said, using any VPN service that runs servers in a supported country might work. Just connect to a VPN server in that country.

  4. Richard Dreyfuss
    on November 11, 2018

    1. Can 1 VPN be used by more than one browser? I have 3 or 4 browsers, do I need to have separate VPN for each or 1 for my Computer? 2. I am a simpleton when it comes to Computer tech; if I have a VPN service already but its probably something I downloaded as Free, can I find a paid VPN and just install it(HA- I will probably burst into tears 12 times before anything I do on a computer is working) or do I hav e to in some way get rid of the freeVPN first?

    1. douglas replied to Richard Dreyfuss
      on November 12, 2018

      Hi Richard, 1. When using a VPN _all_ internet connections are routed through the VPN interface. So you need just one VPN per computer (unless you are using a VPN router, in which case you can connect as many computers as you want to it). Most VPN services allow multiple simultaneous connections (typically 5), which means you can run the same VPN account on multiple computers at the same time - just install the app/client on each computer you want to run the VPN on). 2. Yes, although it's probably best to uninstall the other VPN software first. In Windows 10, go to Start -> Settings -> Apps -> find the old VPN -> Uninstall. You may also find our How to Completely Delete a VPN From Your Device guide useful (https://www.bestvpn.com/guides/completely-delete-vpn-device/).

      1. steno Dell replied to douglas
        on December 6, 2018

        Thank you douglas for reply.Very nice quastion asked you. If you have interested in Wireless technology visit my Blog

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