What is a VPN? – An Introductory Guide

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Until a few years ago, people were not quite familiar with VPN services. This situation has changed now and users have developed greater familiarity with VPNs through continued usage. With various parts of the world and their governments introducing stricter laws impinging on online freedom of citizens, people have resorted to VPNs in an attempt to maintain their security and privacy on the web.

Nonetheless, VPN services have become more sophisticated and feature new technologies that many might not be familiar with.

So, in this blog, I am going to do my best and explain what is a VPN as well as put forward some recommendations for some of the VPNs available today.

Let’s dive right down to it.

What is a VPN and how does it work?

VPN is short for Virtual Private Network (which, I assume you are already well-aware).

When you are connected to your VPN, all the traffic leaving and entering your computer or device moves through an encrypted tunnel that the outside world cannot see. This is what the “Private Network” in the name VPN refers to.

Every VPN service has a network of servers that users can connect to. These are located in various parts of the world, so it appears to an outside party that you are located in a different country than your actual one when connected to one of these.

what-is-a-VPN

These servers are much more secure compared to the regular servers of your ISP. The website or app you are accessing through a VPN cannot see your real location, IP address, or the device you are using. It can only see the VPN server that you are connected to.

All this has the effect of increasing your security and even protecting you from data thefts on the increasingly vulnerable web space.

So, VPN serves as an effective tool for making the Internet more secure for users to access, especially when sensitive tasks such as online banking and e-commerce are involved.

My blog on the best VPN services rates top 15 VPN providers. Check it out to inform yourself regarding the overall quality and performance of each.

How Does a VPN Benefit the Average Netizen?

The security and location-changing features of a VPN lead to several valuable benefits for personal as well as professional use.

Some of these benefits include:

  • Cloaking your identity online: Every individual has the right to keep their online activities private and hidden from the view of anyone else. A VPN allows you to pretend you are located in another part of world, giving you a fictitious IP address as it is visible to others.
  • Circumventing censorship: If your state is given to censorship of online content, your Internet experience can be severely limited. What’s more many services such as streaming apps are bound by geo-restrictions, so will be barred from accessing these services unless you are located in the right region. A VPN obliterates geographical boundaries, turning the Internet free from needless obstacles.
  • Preventing ISP throttling: ISPs throttle Internet connection when users try to access certain streaming service or website. Since a VPN hides your identity, your ISP won’t be able to see your activities and thus won’t have any reason throttle your connection.
  • Enhancing privacy: Governmental intrusions into privacy is a rising concern all over the world. The Five Eyes, for instance, is an alliance of five countries collaborating to rummage through citizens’ data to thwart acts of terrorism. This is a blatant breach of the right to privacy of individuals. VPNs with a strong privacy policy can enhance your privacy and keep agencies at bay.
  • Protecting on public Wi-Fi: Every hacker lovers public Wi-Fi because it has only basic protection. The poor security of public Wi-Fi means that any data you transfer through it is vulnerable to interception by hackers. If you must use public hotspots, only do so with a VPN running the background to encrypt your communications.

Can A VPN turn me Anonymous Online?

You might have heard that perfect anonymity doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, this is true. While VPN services can make it exceedingly difficult for any agency to trace out your real identity, it is far from impossible.

anony

To answer the question, a VPN can make you somewhat anonymous on the web, but don’t expect complete anonymity no matter how much a provider markets themselves as such.

The level of anonymity you can expect from a given VPN depends on the following considerations:

  • Logging policy of the provider
  • The location where the provider is based
  • The level of encryption it uses

There are differences among VPN providers in the policies they follow and the type of encryption they apply. These differences must always be considered when picking out a VPN for use.

Which VPN providers are the top rated?

Compare VPN service providers carefully before you subscribe to any of them. There are multiple factors that you should consider. These include (but are not limited to) compatibility, customer support, free trial, log and VPN privacy policy, payment methods, plans and pricing, protocols and encryption, servers, tutorials provided and additional services.

Look up individual and corporate pricing plans. Compare reviews of pricing plans and see if the VPN service provider frequently offers discounts. Check to see if there is a free trial available and look up the VPN service provider’s refund policy while you’re at it.

While checking the pricing plans, also take a look at the supported protocols and identify the protocols offered in different pricing plans. Poke around to check if the VPN service is providing adequate VPN encryption.

Don’t get caught up in any additional services provided by the VPN provider if they don’t contribute/influence the VPN service directly. Add-ons, if provided, are a different thing but you might have to read a few detailed VPN reviews before you manage to get your hands on such inside information.

Payment methods need to be secure and reliable. In this regard, it usually helps if the payment method offered is from a reliable third party. You will see that almost all VPN service providers offer PayPal and accept Credit Cards.

Make sure that the operating system you are using on your machine is supported and that there is a client available for your smart-phone platform as well. It will help you get the most from your VPN subscription. This is the point where you will need to check if your VPN would work for devices as well.

For instance: will you use it on your router? Will you use it on your phone? Will you use it on your Xbox? Once you have decided the scope of your VPN use, look for the VPN service provider’s device/platform compatibility. Compatibility is a critical factor but make sure you give consideration to the software support provided by the VPN service provider. Check if tutorials are provided for each of the supported device/platform.

Explore the VPN service provider’s website to see what customer support methods are offered. Email and support ticket features are pretty common, but consider Live Chat a bonus if it is available 24/7 because not a lot of VPN service providers have the infrastructural strength to be available round-the-clock. Lastly, go through the VPN service provider’s ‘Privacy Policy’. Not a lot of people do that, but believe me when I say that you will be amazed at the difference you find between the ways each VPN service provider deals with user privacy.

RankProvidersPrice ($)DiscountMore Info
1
PureVPN
Editor's Choice
 $10.95 
$2.95Per Month
73% Off
Exclusive Discount 73% Off
2
NordVPN
 $11.95 
$2.99Per Month
75% Off
3 Years Plan
3
Surfshark
 $11.95 
$1.99Per Month
83% Off
2 Years Deal
4
CyberGhost
 $11.99 
$3.50Per Month
73% Off
6 months Free
5
ExpressVPN
$6.67Per Month
35% OFF
No Exclusive Offer

PureVPN

purevpn

PureVPN is a Hong Kong based VPN provider offering its services in all the major countries of the world. Through its 2000+ servers feature, you can regain your online freedom from anywhere in no time. Likewise, you can experience tons of interesting benefits on your devices hassle-free, as we highlighted in our PureVPN review.

Pros

  • 2000+ servers in 140+ countries
  • Offers 256-bit military grade encryption
  • Provides a generous 31 days money back guarantee

Cons

  • Does not have free trial feature

NordVPN

NordVPN

NordVPN is another VPN service delivering a list of eye-catching benefits to users from all around the world. In addition, it offers 5,100+ servers in 60+ countries globally that allow you to secure your privacy straightaway. This is why it received so much praise in our NordVPN review.

Pros

  • Provides 24/7 customer support throughout the year
  • Offers an impressive list of tunneling protocols
  • Has dedicated apps for different platforms and devices

Cons

  • Does not offer server in Philippines

Surfshark

Surfshark

Surfshark is quite a decent VPN service that offers a complete package of good security and privacy. It can unblock any website or streaming service and do so while protecting your identity online. You can learn more about this service in our Surfshark review.

Pros

  • Unlimited simultaneous connections
  • 30-day refund period
  • Strong security

Cons

  • Does not offer dedicated app for Mac

CyberGhost

CyberGhost

CyberGhost is a Romanian VPN service that is quite popular in the market. The Romanian jurisdiction favors the user, since the country is privacy-friendly. The service boasts a strong server network having more than 3,000 servers. The details about this VPN are explored in more detail in our CyberGhost review.

Pros

  • 3,000+ servers in 60+ countries
  • Allows up to 7 simultaneous connections
  • Decent security

Cons

  • Average speeds

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is one of those VPN services that do not log their users’ information.  Furthermore, you can avail its 30 days money back guarantee that helps you to check the performance of the service on your desired devices, as you can also learn from our review of ExpressVPN.

Pros

  • Based in British Virgin Islands
  • Offers an excellent customer support benefit to users
  • Provides multi-login feature to subscribers

Cons

  • Offers an expensive monthly pricing plan

Things to Consider when Choosing a VPN

In order to make an informed decision when you are out to buy a VPN service, make sure you keep in mind the following factors:

  • Speed: VPNs that perform faster than others are obviously better in terms of performance, since online experience is all about speed.
  • Security and privacy: Strong encryption and tunnelling protocols are important to obtain robust security for your online traffic. AES 256 encryption and OpenVPN protocol offer the best combination for security you can have. If these features are coupled with a no logging policy, you shouldn’t look any further for a VPN.
  • Price: This is one is obvious. Price should be one of your main consideration along with the features of a VPN when you are buying one.
  • Server network: A large server network signifies that a VPN actually invests money in its technological infrastructure. Thus, you can use server size as a benchmark for estimating the performance and quality of a VPN.
  • Multi-login: Some VPN services allow you to connect multiple devices at the same time. This feature offers great value for money and can help you make a deal if you are confused between two equally capable providers.

What a VPN Won’t Do

Unfortunately, websites can trace your online surfing activities through cookies. Thus, you may avail an ad blocker that helps you to overcome website-tracking issues hassle-free. Unfortunately, VPN services do not block malware sometimes. Hence, you need to attain standalone antivirus software.

Similarly, you cannot use a VPN for cracking purpose. This is because the sole objective of a VPN is to provide online freedom and anonymity to users.

Proxy vs VPN, What is the Difference?

A proxy helps you to secure your web browser only. On the other hand, a VPN provides next level security and anonymity to its users. It encrypts all your traffic through tunneling protocols and routes your traffic with

Logging Policies of VPN Services

The logging policy that a VPN provider follows is the greatest factor that determines the extent of anonymity you can expect from the VPN.  A VPN can keep logs on various pieces of information such as:

  • IP address
  • Browsing information
  • Location
  • Connection and disconnection timestamps
  • User details (account information)

These bits of information can be used to destroy your anonymity completely. Aim for a VPN that keeps minimal logs for attaining the highest level of privacy.

I understand that no one wants to read privacy policy pages, I would suggest that you do so. VPN providers almost always market themselves with the “no logging” tag, but only a few services actually follow this.

You can only be sure after reading the privacy policy for yourself. Some VPNs with the best privacy policy that I have personally encountered are NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and Surfshark.

Are VPN services legal?

In most parts of the world, the usage of VPNs is legally permissible. The legal problems associated with VPNs usually arise not due to VPN usage, but because individuals sometimes use VPNs to break other laws such as copyrights.

legal

However, you should be extremely wary when using VPNs in certain countries with a restricted Internet. I’m talking about countries like China, UAE, Iraq, North Korea, and Russia. These countries usually allow only government-approved VPNs that conform to the online laws of the country.

Generally speaking, you should be okay using a VPN in your country. But if you are in the countries mentioned above, you should exercise some caution.

VPN and Torrenting

Most of the leading VPN service providers allow users to unblock torrent websites safely. There are some providers though that discourage the use of their services for downloading torrents, because the legality of torrents is another complicated matter.

The policy with regard to torrenting varies for each VPN, so you should first check with the provider you are interested in whether they allow torrenting.

Apart from that, it is also important that your VPN provider has a good privacy policy and security. You don’t want to be torrenting on a VPN that suffers from problems like IP and DNS leaks, as this could easily destroy your cover.

Download speed is another factor you need to take into account when choosing a VPN for the purpose of downloading torrents. You can consult my VPN speed test guide to discover the fastest VPNs in the market.

Some VPNs that support torrenting include NordVPN, ExpressVPN, CyberGhost, and PureVPN.

Will a VPN allow me to Watch Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and BBC iPlayer?

The short answer: yes!

But first, allow me to explain why you need a VPN in the first place to access streaming services like Netflix, which is available in almost every country in the world.

Hint: licensing and distribution rights have something to do with it.

The fact is, in spite of the almost global availability of Netflix, its library of TV shows and movies varies in each region. If you are outside USA, you can only access a fraction of the complete library of Netflix, which is only accessible to users based in the US.

Netflix

This means that unless you have an IP address from the US, you’ll have to make to do with whatever you get in your county.

Getting a US IP address is a matter of only a single click with a VPN. As soon as you are connected to the US server through your VPN, you can access US Netflix and enjoy the largest streaming library online.

But here’s the kicker:

Netflix has banned some VPNs. Users can no longer change Netflix regions through these blocked VPNs.

You can read our blog Netflix VPNs are still working to get past the detection radars of the streaming giant.

Using VPN on Kodi/Roku/SmartTVs

Streaming media devices and clients are the craze these days. Kodi is a free media player that literally has thousands of channels from all over the world that you can watch for free. Roku is streaming device you can hook up with your TV or monitor to watch hundreds of channels through streaming.

The major problem with these services is that of geo-restrictions: most channels are only viewable in the country of origin of the channel itself.

Using a VPN, you can bypass the geo-restrictions and get view any channel of your choice.

Generally, there are two methods you can use to connect your VPN to your SmartTV or streaming device:

  • Install the VPN directly on your device
  • Install it on your router and connect your device to the router’s Wi-Fi

Some devices have no native support for VPNs, so you can only use the second option for these. You can read my guide on DDWRT Router VPN setup to configure one on your router.

How to Install VPN on Router

The guide I linked above uses PureVPN to demonstrate the router setup for a typical DDWRT router. The method for installing VPN on a router varies across router manufacturers as well as VPN providers.

The good thing is most premium provider have installation guides on their websites that detail the steps you need to follow to setup their VPN on your particular router.

The installation process generally involves opening the user interface of your router and filling out information in text fields as instructed by your VPN provider.

Advanced Security Features of Premium VPNs

When VPN services were new, they only offered basic security and unblocking power. The situation has drastically changed today as many VPNs, especially the leading providers, now offer advanced features for added security of users such as:

IP and DNS Leak Protection

The IP address is your digital identity on the Internet. The bits in an IP address reveals your location, ISP, and even your real identity. Similarly, the DNS address contains information about your location.

A substandard VPN can leak your DNS and IP information, which is a serious security risk if you are using the VPN to access torrents in a country with strict anti-piracy laws.

A strong VPN that uses good encryption can prevent these leaks. In fact, some leading providers offer a dedicated feature for IP and DNS leak protection. It would be wise to get these VPNs and benefit from the watertight security they are offering.

Kill Switch

The kill switch feature is another mechanism built for protecting your privacy and anonymity on the web should you disconnect from the VPN and potentially leave your online activities exposed through your regular Internet connection.

It is basically a failsafe that makes sure your privacy and security is always maintained and no accidental spills take place. Some of the best VPN services that offer Kill Switch are Ivacy, ExpressVPN, and PureVPN.

anonymous VPN server.

What are Virtual Private Network Protocols?

Virtual Private Network (VPN) protocols are the means by which you can route your data between your system and VPN server. There are different types of protocols that offer various features to VPNs users in terms of online protection and anonymity. Here is the list of tunneling protocols that includes:

Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol

The first protocol you will come across when you start looking up protocols is the PPTP protocol. The PPTP protocol was designed by Microsoft and uses Point to Point Protocol for authentication. The VPN encryption takes place through ECP and Generic Routing Encapsulation packets are used for multiprotocol encapsulation. The resultant tunnel created becomes virtually invisible to applications.

The Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) is the most commonly used protocol because the VPN speed is much better when it’s connected on PPTP. It is one of the oldest protocols but not very secure if you compare it with other VPNs to its succeeding protocols. These characteristics make it ideal for regular internet activity.

The protocol is extremely device friendly and therefore frequently available for use on a large number of devices. PPTP uses IP datagrams to encapsulate PPP data frames and ensures tunnel management via the establishment of a TCP connection. Data is tunneled by using a modified version of Generic Routing Encapsulation, resulting in the following PPTP packet data form:

PPTP

Layer Two Tunneling Protocol/ IPsec

The second most popular protocol is the Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP). The L2TP VPN protocol is multiprotocol in the fact that it enables PPP tunneling to be carried out over a variety of packed network types.

Unlike the PPTP protocol, the L2TP not only carries out user authentication, but also tunnel authentication. The fact that L2TP is run over UDP/IP allows L2TP tunnels to get through firewalls but becomes vulnerable to attacks unless combined with IPSec.

Using IPSec adds an element of security at the network connection’s IP layer, which is why you will often see VPN service providers provide L2TP/IPSec instead of offering L2TP alone. The Layer Two Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) is a security intensive protocol and is relatively slower than the PPTP protocol for the same reason. It encapsulates data packets twice, making your data transmission virtually impossible to break-into. However, the added data encapsulation makes the protocol somewhat slow and therefore not ideally suited for data-intensive internet sessions (like streaming or gaming). The increased security makes the protocol great for internet sessions involving transactions.

Remember that L2TP and L2TP/IPSec is the same thing. IPSec is merely the VPN encryption service that the L2TP protocol uses.

L2TP

Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol

PPTP and L2TP protocols are known to conflict with firewall, web-proxies and NATs unless firewalls are specifically configured to avoid losing data packets during data transmission.

The solution to the limitations in PPTP and L2TP protocols can be found in the SSTP protocol. The SSTP protocol is essentially a combination of HTTP and SSL (HTTP over SSL). What makes SSTP appealing is that it has extensive built-in support in Windows Server 2008 and Windows Vista Service Pack 1.

This is a disadvantage at the same time since other platforms have not yet integrated support for SSTP. Since SSTP uses the SSL channel, IP datagrams are used to encapsulate PPP frames and tunnel management is carried out via a TCP connection. The SSTP data frame exists in the following form:

Secure-Socket-Tunneling-Protocol

OpenVPN

OpenVPN is the maverick of the VPN protocol world. This means that while PPTP, L2TP and SSTP are essentially managed by a regulatory authority, OpenVPN remains unleashed. The advantage is that it can be used on just about any device and platform, but the disadvantage is that it tends to come with a “some assembly required” tag.

Unlike other protocols, OpenVPN utilizes the packet data approach in an unorthodox way by splitting packets into two parts. The first part contains the packet header while the second part contains the data payload header. As a result, the OpenVPN packet structure looks somewhat like this:

OpenVPN

IKEv2

Internet Key Exchange version 2 is another VPN protocol that offers a secure key exchange advantage to subscribers. Still, it depends on IPsec when it comes to encryption and authentication purposes. It is compatible with famous platforms like Windows, Mac, and Android.

IKEV2

Tunneling

A tunnel is an internet infrastructure used to carry out data sending/receiving over the network. The very presence of a tunnel causes data to be encapsulated under a header. This means that data does not travel through a tunnel in its original form. Once the encapsulated data packets have reached the destined end-point tunnel, they are de-capsulated.

Tunneling

In order for a tunneling connection to take place, the client and server must be in agreement over the kind of tunneling protocol to be used. PPTP uses Layer 2 tunneling protocol on the data-link layer. Data is transmitted in the form of frames and encapsulation is carried out in PPP frames. This is how a PPTP packet containing user data is arranged.

PPP Frame

On its own, L2TP functions on the same tunneling protocol as PPTP. However, when combined with IPSec, L2TP functions on Layer 3 tunneling protocol and takes effect on the Network layer. This is how a L2TP packet containing user data is arranged when used with IPSec.

L2TP

FAQs

This depends on the VPN you are using. If the provider truly follows a zero-logging policy, then the government won’t be able to track your activities, unless you have done something to draw so much suspicion that they have actually bugged your computers/devices to monitor your activities.
A VPN will encrypt your traffic before it reaches your ISP. So, your ISP can only see meaningless gibberish thanks to the encryption rather than your naked data.
Unfortunately, yes. Government authorities and online services can block VPNs if they so desire. The strongest of the VPNs, however, are sufficiently persistent and powerful to resist blocking. You might find some VPNs better for accessing certain sites, while other VPNs would do a better job for other purposes.

It all depends on what you are trying to access and which VPN you are using for the job.

Your browsing history is recorded by your browser first before anyone else. A VPN cannot hide this history in your browser. What it can do is that it hides your browsing activities from your ISP and the government.

But this depends on the VPN you are using. If it is some substandard service with poor privacy policy and encryption, then your browsing is probably being tracked.

Yes.

Since a VPN introduces additional pathways that your digital traffic has to travel through, it has a negative effect on your Internet speed. That is the necessary price you have to pay in exchange for robust security and privacy.

But, the extent to which a VPN drops your speed depends on the quality of the VPN. So choose wisely.

This is a tricky question. There are, in fact, a few VPN providers offer great service for free such as ProtonVPN, Windscribe, Speedify, and TunnelBear.

However, always research to assess its reliability before you opt to use.

All the time!

No, really. There’s no such thing as being “too secure” on the Internet. You should deploy any tool you can get that has the power to increase your security on the web. I recommend that you keep your VPN on whenever you are performing online activities.

Considering that you can get good VPN services in the 3-7$/month range, I say a VPN that promises the protection of your privacy and security is an investment worth making.
A VPN is used for attaining greater security and “tunnelling” your data through a private network, invisible to external parties.

Finishing Up

I hope the discussion above answered your query “what is a VPN?” Equipped with better knowledge about what VPNs are and how they operate, I hope you will now be able to make an informed decision when picking a VPN for your needs.

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Osama Tahir

Osama Tahir

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Osama Tahir's Biography :


Osama is a staunch believer in the inalienable right of every citizen to freedom of expression. Writing about online privacy and security without regard to political correctness is his answer to the powers that be threatening our freedom. Deeply curious about Nature and the Universe, he is fascinated by science, intrigued by mathematics, and wishes to play guitar like Buckethead in some alternate version of reality.


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