The world of VPNs is a multi-billion dollar industry that seems to have no end in sight in terms of growth. The industry is projected to increase by more than 100% in size by 2022 compared to 2016.
The immense growth of the industry notwithstanding, VPN services still remain under a shroud of mystery. Many users still don’t understand the essential functions, features, and benefits of a VPN.
So, my aim in writing this guide is to explain as simply as possible what a VPN actually is and why you should be using one in 2019.
What is a VPN?
Short for Virtual Private Network, a VPN forms a secure and encrypted connection between your computer/device and a server which acts a middleman between you and the website/service you want to reach.
This means that all the information you exchange on the Internet (your online browsing and all activities) will actually be performed by the VPN server on your behalf.
No third-party will have any idea who the real person is behind these activities.
VPNs can be broadly categorized into types: site-to-site VPN and remote access VPNs. These concepts are explained in more detail in our article on VPN types.
Although the whole idea of a VPN is pretty simple, the benefits it provides to your online security and privacy are remarkably valuable and relevant to our time.
How VPNs Work?
VPNs implement different communication protocols (more on this later) to securely transfer your data to the destination and back to you.
To achieve such level of security, VPNs use what is commonly known as “tunneling”. A tunnel is an internet infrastructure used to carry out data transmissions over networks.
The very presence of a tunnel causes data to be encrypted using cryptography. This means that data does not travel through a tunnel in its original form, but is changed into an encrypted message that is indecipherable to an individual who might intercept your data.
Once the encrypted data packets have reached the destined end-point tunnel, they are decrypted, returning to their original form.
From this point, the user will virtually attain the IP address of the VPN server they are communicating to the web (the IP is your unique digital identity that can be used to uncover a lot of information about you).
The outside world will now only see the remote VPN server acting on your behalf, rendering you virtually invisible on the web.
But without the security of a VPN tunnel and changed IP address it provides, all your data will transmit openly via the web and will only be dependent on the strength of security of the website you are communicating to.
It is this exposed environment of the regular web that VPN technology shields with its network of tunnels, thus boosting security for the user.
What Makes a VPN Secure?
The security of a VPN is a factor that depends on 3 main factors:
- Tunneling protocols
- Encryption standards
- Protection from IP/DNS leaks
I strongly believe that all VPN users should have at least a basic familiarity with the above mentioned factors. How else can you decide which VPN you should get if you can’t evaluate their capabilities?
So, let’s explore some basic concepts in more detail.
VPN Tunneling Protocols
You can think of tunneling protocols as an agreed upon standard that devices distributed over the web to communicate with each other. In general, the older a protocol, more security flaws it will have.
Here’s a brief description of popular protocols, but I will suggest you to consult this VPN protocol guide for a deeper examination.
Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP): PPTP is one of the oldest protocols in existence, but not very secure if you compare it with other succeeding protocols. Thus, for any sensitive activity where security is paramount, PPPT must be avoided at all costs.
Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol/ IPSec (L2TP): L2TP is used in combination with IPSec, the latter of which only adds encryption, because L2TP does not possess any encryption by default. Although it is an improved version over PPTP and generally secure, it has been superseded by more modern and secure protocols.
Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP): The SSTP protocol is essentially a combination of HTTP and SSL (HTTP over SSL). It was developed by Microsoft and is a much more secure protocol than the other two above.
OpenVPN: This open-source protocol is recognized as the most secure out of all presently available options. It achieves the perfect balance between speed and security.
Internet Key Exchange version 2 (IKEv2): IKEv2 is a far superior protocol both in terms of security and speed. Users that need security can easily take advantage of it. It is especially suited for smartphones.
Most VPN providers today use OpenVPN or IKEv2 by default. But you should always check the settings of your VPN just in case and make sure they are configured to use one of these two protocols for the best security of your online activities.
Encryption is one of the key functions that a VPN performs. There is a lot of mathematical mumbo-jumbo that goes behind encryption standards, but in layman’s terms, encryption simply turns the content of your data packets into unintelligible gibberish.
What’s the point of that, you ask?
Well, suppose a third-party intercepted some of your data packets you were communicating over the web to a website, service, or your friend through chat.
But thanks to the power of encryption, all they will see in your data packets is nonsense symbols that mean nothing, keeping the privacy of your data protected from the eye of unwanted outsiders.
Only the intended recipient of your message will be able to decode the gibberish content back to its actual, intelligible meaning.
There are a variety of encryption standards in use, but the AES-128 and AES-256 standards are usually applied by leading VPN brands today. AES is an unbreakably strong form of encryption.
You wouldn’t need any type of encryption better than that.
If you’re a curious one, this VPN encryption guide discusses different standards of encryption and explains some of the technicalities behind the concept.
IP and DNS leak protection
The IP-changing functionality of a VPN is extremely important from the security standpoint, because it isolates the user from the larger web environment where all the threats are roaming about.
But if a VPN leaks your IP address, then there’s no point in using one at all, because this represents a failure to hide your identity online.
Therefore, it is important to subscribe to only those VPNs which have proven their ability to keep your IP and DNS protected. Curious to find out if your VPN is suffering from leaks? Make sure you read the complete how to test VPN connection for leaks guide.
Top-of-the-line VPN services are generally equipped with dedicated features that prevent your IP from leaking.
So, VPN protocols, encryption, and IP/DNS protection are the three components that determine how secure you are when on a VPN.
For best security, never compromise on these factors.
VPNs and Privacy
Security is all about ensuring the integrity of your data and preventing breach attempts. Privacy, on the other hand, refers to how well a service respects the confidentiality of your data and prevents other agencies from gaining a hold of your private information.
In fact, privacy is a problem that falls right in the territory of VPN providers, because hiding a user’s activities is the core benefit of this technology.
Considering the fact that online privacy laws in many parts of the world give too much power to the government and agencies to snoop on citizens, the need for a privacy-enhancing solution is higher today than ever before.
For instance, US government demanded DreamHost, a web-hosting company, for a list revealing all visitors to anti-Donald Trump websites.
The NSA even has its own spy search engine containing email, phone calls, and online chat records of more than 850 billion people in America.
Needless to say, attaining privacy from authorities and governments is continuously gaining increasing importance with more and more cases of state surveillance turning up everywhere in the world.
So, there is ample reason for users to turn to VPNs as their answer to our dwindling online privacy.
There are three main factors that affect a VPN’s ability to maintain your privacy:
- Logging policy
Every country has its own laws pertaining to the Internet and digital media in general. These law determine whether ISPs in a country are legally obliged to retain every single piece of user data that passes through their servers and the degree of power that authorities have to access user information without their consent.
This is why your online privacy will always be under threat if your VPN provider is operating in the jurisdiction where government surveillance is a norm or data retention laws are in place.
The Five Eyes member states, for instance, are all red flags for any VPN to be under the jurisdiction of, because of how shamelessly these agencies in these countries eavesdrop on their citizens.
VPNs located in one of these countries will have no choice but to hand over their customer’s data to authorities if they come asking for it, because the law grants them that power.
Therefore, you should never overlook the jurisdiction of a VPN before you decide to purchase one.
The data logs that a VPN keeps record of is a paramount consideration from the privacy standpoint.
If a VPN truly keeps zero logs, it wouldn’t even matter if they are located in the Five Eyes or any other country where authorities are above the law when it comes to violating citizen privacy.
Because even if a VPN complies with the demands of agencies to provide them details of their customers for any reason, the provider would have nothing to hand over if they keep no logs in the first place.
Although every VPN keeps some logs, what really matters is the type of user-related information that is actually being logged. For instance, IP address, DNS, timestamp, and traffic logs can reveal pretty much everything about a user, from their identity to their physical location.
On the other hand, bandwidth logging won’t be that big of a deal in most cases, provided no other type of data that might be correlated with bandwidth to enable analysis of user behavior or identity is stored.
For a quick reference, my VPN comparison chart mentions the types of logs prominent VPNs maintain.
Transparency is one factor where 99% of the VPN providers are equally floundering. Hardly any VPN honors the tradition of publishing annual transparency reports or getting themselves audited by a reputed third-party.
For instance, Surfshark has a warrant canary page, which allows us to see if the company has received any gag orders or demands the release of customer information by authorities.
On the other hand, most VPNs don’t bother making any effort to demonstrate their transparency.
Although no VPN is 100% transparent, the small steps that the likes of NordVPN, Surfshark, ExpressVPN, and CyberGhost have taken in the line attaining better transparency automatically makes them more trustworthy than their competitors, especially in present times where trusting tech companies with our privacy is generally a bad idea (Facebook privacy scandals, anyone?)
So, when you’re in the process of searching for the right VPN service you can trust, do take out some time to research their transparency factor.
Can A VPN Make Me Anonymous Online?
You might have heard that perfect anonymity doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, it is true.
While VPN services can make it exceedingly difficult for any agency to trace out your real identity, it is far from impossible.
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.
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.
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.
These differences must always be considered when picking out a VPN for use.
Free VPNs or Paid VPNs?
The industry has VPNs available in all price brackets, from absolutely free services to quite expensive ones.
The choice between free and paid services, and in fact, any VPN comes down to the factor of trust. Free products must always be taken with a grain of salt, as you never know what kind of tactics they are resorting to behind the scenes to make a profit.
I mean there’s no reason why anyone would invest in a business without any intentions of profiting from it. Common sense suggests that products with a “free” tag make money in ways that are hurtful to the customer.
In the case of VPNs, this is unfortunately true. Research which tested more than 300 free VPN apps available on Google Play Store discovered that almost 40% were injecting adware in user’s phones.
So they were probably making money by selling user information to ad companies as well as bombarding their phones with ads.
Since paid VPNs directly charge you money, they have no incentive to employ cheap background schemes to make a profit and are therefore easier to trust.
However, there are some VPNs working on the “freemium” business model where the company offers a limited version of the service for free, but users will have to pay to unlock the complete features.
This is a much more logical approach and one that naturally inspires more trust.
So, if you are totally averse to spending some money to purchase a premium VPN, here is a list of free VPN services which was compiled on the criteria of trust.
Learn also: How much is a VPN?
Torrenting with a VPN
Around 45+ leading VPN service providers allow users to unblock torrent websites safely out of the 124+ providers reviewed on VPNRanks.com.
The limited number of providers allowing the use of P2P shows that majority services discourage the use of their services for downloading torrents because the legality of torrents is another confusing matter.
Note: We do not encourage copyright infringement through the download of torrents or any other way.
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.
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
VPNs that allow torrenting discusses the implications of surveillance and tests various providers for their suitability for P2P networking.
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 the USA, you can only access a fraction of the complete library of Netflix, which is only accessible to users based in the US.
Therefore, 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.
VPNs for Android and iOS
Smartphones enable us to stay connected to the web 24/7. The constant connectivity allows for instant communication and access to information but also increases your exposure time if you are connected without additional protection.
However, you must be extremely careful when choosing a VPN for your smartphones, especially on Android.
This is because a lot of apps on the Play Store are made by small developers which you shouldn’t trust. Make sure you do your research or go through this article on VPN apps for Android to discover trusted services working on modern Android phones.
iOS VPN apps tend to be safer, because of the stricter guidelines of the App Store. But these 10 VPNs for iPhone have the best user ratings and also fit all criteria of security and privacy which should go in the selection process.
Using VPN on Kodi/Roku/Firestick/Smart TVs
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 a streaming device you can hook up with your TV or monitor to watch hundreds of channels through streaming.
The Firestick is a USB device manufactured by Amazon which you can insert in your TV and stream content.
However, one common problem affects all these devices: 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. But every VPN isn’t suitable for all devices and the methods for their installation also vary.
Generally, there are two methods you can use to connect your VPN to your Smart TV 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 find setup instructions for each device in the pages linked above.
How to Install VPN on 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 (here is PureVPN’s installation guide)
But I personally prefer pre-configured VPN routers which you can simply plug in to enjoy the privacy, security, and geo-unblocking capabilities of the VPN installed within your router.
Proxy vs VPN – What is the Difference?
Proxy services are similar to VPN software, but there are important differences.
A proxy simply changes your IP address, but doesn’t tunnel or encrypt your entire traffic for added security like a VPN does.
Moreover, proxy services can never guarantee that they won’t log your data.
For more information, our complete comparison page explains the difference between proxy and VPNs.
VPN vs Tor
Tor is a browser that routes your traffic through multiple nodes that are voluntarily operated by individual users on the network.
It generally works very well for anonymity, but doesn’t have the tunneling feature of VPNs that boosts security and overall privacy as well.
If you want to examine differences between Tor and VPNs in more detail, our detailed guide discusses its advantages and disadvantages side by side.
What a VPN doesn’t do?
For starters, a VPN is not a malware removal solution. Although it can help users avoid becoming the victim of a targeted malware attack, it doesn’t work as an antivirus tool.
There are a few other misconceptions which I have addressed in this page about common VPN myths. Make sure you don’t hold any false beliefs about the capabilities of a VPN.
Common Use Cases of a VPN
The privacy, security, and anonymity features of a VPN enable users to deploy this technology for a variety of applications.
The most prominent of these include:
- Cloaking your identity online: 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. A VPN obliterates geographical boundaries, turning the Internet free from needless obstacles.
- Access geo-restricted content: Many streaming websites like Netflix have regional variations in the content you can access. VPNs enable you to overcome geo-restrictions and unlock full access to websites and services.
- 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.
- Protecting on public Wi-Fi: 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.
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.
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.
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.
Key Takeaways: A VPN Checklist
The dwindling online privacy of citizens, courtesy of government surveillance and online censorship is unlikely to improve anytime soon.
The demand for VPN services will therefore remain high in the foreseeable future. This is why users should invest in a service that doesn’t compromise on your privacy.
So, when you’re ready to get a VPN, wait for a second and ask yourself the following questions:
- Is it located in the Five Eyes or China or any other country with heavy surveillance and censorship?
- Does it log IP address, DNS, timestamps, traffic, and/or browsing activities?
- Does it use modern VPN protocols and encryption standards like OpenVPN, IKEv2, and AES?
- Has the provider taken any effort towards demonstrating their transparency?
- Does it have a large server network?
- Is the VPN known for delivering fast speeds?
- Does it have good compatibility for the device(s) you want to use it on?
- Is the quality and accessibility of customer support very good?
If the answer to all of these questions is a yes, then you have successfully singled out the best VPN service for your needs.