What is a VPN? A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a tool that helps enhance your online privacy and security. A VPN allows you to create a secure connection to another network over the Internet. VPNs are used to access region-restricted websites, download torrent files anonymously, mask your internet usage from your ISP and prevent prying eyes from listening in on your activity on public Wi-Fi. VPNs are also used extensively in the corporate world for connecting securely to remote networks.
In these days of growing online crime and government surveillance, using a VPN is becoming more and more important for protecting your online activity from criminals and other prying eyes. This Ultimate Beginner's Guide is packed with all the information you need to get started with a VPN. We have included all of the basics to help you understand how VPNs work and what they can do for you.
This guide is the ultimate beginner's guide to VPN. If you have ever asked yourself “what is a VPN”, then question no more dear internet friend!
We have slaved away to put together over 4,500 words and illustrations covering everything VPN. To make digesting it all easy, use the links below to jump to the sections that interest you.
By the end of this guide, you will go from a mere VPN beginner to rivalling Neo from the Matrix when it comes to your understanding of virtual private networks.
To make digesting it all easy, use the links below to jump to the sections that interest you.
- What is a VPN?
- How does a VPN work?
- How do I use a VPN?
- What are the typical advantages of a VPN?
- What are the typical disadvantages of a VPN?
- What are the common uses for a VPN?
- Does a VPN make me anonymous?
- Is using a VPN legal?
- Can I use a VPN for torrenting and Tor?
- What is the best VPN service?
- What is a good free VPN service?
- What is the difference between a proxy and a VPN?
- Can I use a VPN with mobile devices?
- What does a VPN not do?
This is a long guide, so strap yourself in. Once you get through it, you will be ready to use your VPN like a pro, safe in the knowledge that your internet use is protected.
What is a VPN?
As we said before, a VPN is essentially an encrypted tunnel that helps to make your web traffic private and secure. They were initially developed for business applications, but as the costs have come down, we are seeing them become more common in everyday use.
A VPN keeps your traffic encrypted between your device and the server, meaning that your ISP and other prying eyes cannot see what you are up to online. VPNs are useful for boosting your security, particularly when using public Wi-Fi. They can also add to your anonymity and allow you to bypass various kinds of censorship.
How does a VPN work?
When a VPN is turned on, your web traffic goes through a client that has been installed on your device. The client encrypts the traffic through one of several different protocols, generally either IPsec, PPTP or SSL/TLS. OpenVPN over SSL/TLS is considered the most secure option for normal use. The other protocols are older and may be vulnerable to state agencies.
The encrypted traffic then travels through your ISP's servers, which means that your ISP can only see that you are using a VPN. They can no longer see exactly what you are doing. The traffic goes to the VPN server where it is decrypted before it heads off to its destination.
How Do I Use a VPN?
Using a VPN is a relatively straightforward process. For basic security and privacy needs, you don't need to be a technological genius. The first step is to choose a VPN that you think will be suitable for your uses.
You can look at our VPN reviews for a quick breakdown on some of the best options. Many VPNs even allow you to test their services before you make a long-term financial commitment.
Once you have decided which one is right for you, you will need to subscribe to the service and download their client. Your provider's website will have information on how to set it up. Once you have installed it, open up the client and make sure that it is configured appropriately for your usage. Once it is set up, all you have to do is turn it on and you are ready to browse safely and securely.
What Are the Advantages?
The main advantages of using a VPN are in providing better security and privacy. The data is encrypted as it travels between the client and your VPN provider's servers. This means that outsiders cannot observe your activities and that it is much more difficult to track your internet usage.
A VPN can help to stop the government from snooping on your activity and also prevent your personal data from being stolen by hackers. VPNs are especially useful for staying protected on public Wi-Fi. They can also be used to bypass filters and even to change your IP address, enabling you to access content that people in your country are normally restricted from.
For an example of this in practice, here's a video of us using a VPN to sneak in to the US Netflix library of content as covered in this guide.
What Are the Disadvantages?
Nothing is perfect, and even VPNs come with their downsides. One of the main disadvantages of using a VPN is that they will slow down your network connection. This is because it takes extra bandwidth to encrypt your traffic. This may not be a huge problem if you have a fast connection, but those who live in areas with poor internet may find that VPNs have a negative impact on their online experience. If this is the case, you will have to weigh up whether or not using a VPN is worthwhile in your situation.
Another possible disadvantage of VPNs is that some may be blocked by certain sites. If the admin of a site knows that the web traffic is coming from a VPN, they may want to block it for various reasons. Because of this, some VPNs may not be able to access certain sites. If you want to use your VPN for something specific, it may be best to go with an option that has a free trial so that you can see if it works before you make a commitment.
VPNs can also attract unwanted attention to your activity. As we all know, many people use VPNs for illegal activity. If you ran a law enforcement agency, don't you think it would be a good idea to keep an eye on VPN servers? Surely there is a higher rate of illegal activity going through them than the rest of the internet.
If you are doing something illegal on the internet without a VPN, it may get lost amongst the noise and go on undetected. However, if you do the same thing through a server that the authorities are already monitoring, they might take a special interest in your activity.
What Are the Common Uses?
The two main uses are for the increased privacy and better security. VPNs also enable you to get around restrictions, allowing you to access blocked sites in your school or workplace, or even geo-restricted content such as another country's Netflix.
VPNs can also be used to get around country-wide website bans, such as those in China or Iran. They can provide additional protection to activists and journalists in oppressive states as well. VPNs can hide your activity from your ISP, which also allows you to torrent files without having to worry about potential punishments.
As far as security is concerned, VPNs are particularly useful when you are logging into public Wi-Fi. One of the biggest threats in these situations is a man-in-the-middle attack. This is when a hacker hosts a seemingly legitimate source of public Wi-Fi.
When you connect to the Wi-Fi, the hacker is able to access your data. This can include your logins and passwords to your email, social media and even your banking. They can use this information to commit fraud against you.
If you were using a VPN when you connected to the hacker's public Wi-Fi, they would not be able to access your private data. This is because the encryption would scramble everything that they can access. All they will see is a jumble of letters and numbers, meaning that you and your data will stay safe.
Does a VPN Make Me Anonymous?
Unfortunately, true anonymity on the internet is essentially impossible. Given enough money and time, authorities can always find a way to figure out who you are. Because of this, you should aim to make it impractical and prohibitively expensive for them to discover you instead.
This all depends on what you plan to use your VPN for. If you only plan to use it for torrenting or to access geo-restricted content, most reputable VPNs should be enough to make you essentially anonymous.
While it may still be possible to track you down on an average VPN, it is unlikely that any government would send out a crack team of investigators to hunt you down for illegally downloading Babe: Pig in the City. It just wouldn't make financial sense for the authorities to allocate that much manpower to such a minor crime.
You really need to consider your level of risk when choosing your VPN setup and how much it will take for you to be ‘anonymous'. In the case above, you only need a low level of protection to consider yourself essentially anonymous.
On the other hand, if you are Julian Assange, you might have to try a little harder. Assange has made enemies with governments across the world, so he can be sure that they will put a lot more effort into tracking him than they would into tracking the Babe: Pig in the City thief.
While it may be impossible for him to be 100% anonymous, he can still take steps to make it impractical and expensive to track his activity. This can include things such as using a highly trustworthy VPN that is based in a country with better privacy laws and combining it with TOR.
Is Using a VPN legal?
In most countries, VPNs are completely legal to use. They are legitimate tools that help to boost the privacy and security of their users. Just like a hammer, they are completely legal to have and to use, as long as what you are doing with them is legal. You can use the hammer to build a house, but you can also use it to beat someone up, which obviously is against the law.
In the same way, you can use a VPN to boost your security when you access public Wi-Fi, or you can use it for something illegal, like torrenting all the straight-to-DVD Disney movies. Using a VPN isn't illegal, however, you can still be charged if you do something illegal through your VPN.
Things are a little bit more complicated if you live in or travel to a country with a more authoritarian and oppressive regime. In countries like China, North Korea and Iran, VPNs can be illegal. If you are a citizen or you are travelling to these places, you need to be aware of the individual laws regarding VPNs and act accordingly.
Can I Use a VPN for Torrenting & Tor?
You sure can. Using a good VPN when you torrent is one of the best ways to stay anonymous. The legal treatment for those who pirate content is constantly in flux because lobby groups for the producers are trying to force governments to chase down those who share files illegally.
The lobby groups have put pressure on ISPs, trying to make them hunt down torrenters that use their service. They have been instrumental in getting letters sent out to those who download files illegally. Due to mounting pressure, the Federal Court even ruled that torrenting sites such as The Pirate Bay and Isohunt needed to be blocked by ISPs.
If you are frustrated by the blockade, or just want to ensure that your torrenting is done anonymously, a VPN is the perfect solution. With a VPN, you can easily get around the blocked websites. A VPN can also help to make sure that your ISP doesn't know what you are downloading, just in case there are any future witchhunts against torrenters.
You need to be aware that not all VPNs allow torrenting on their network, so it is important to choose one that doesn't mind P2P filesharing. We even have an article about the best VPNs for torrenting to help you decide.
Combining TOR with a VPN is one of the best methods for maintaining your privacy. TOR, or The Onion Router, is an open source project that allows users to communicate anonymously. It encrypts your web traffic and bounces it through thousands of relays across the world. Using TOR can conceal your location as well as your online activity.
There are many advantages to using TOR with a VPN. While there are certainly legitimate reasons to use TOR, governments tend to look at it suspiciously. If the courts ever subpoena your ISP for your records and they discover that you are using TOR, the may look more closely at your online activity.
By combining TOR with a VPN, your ISP's records will only show that you have been using a VPN and not that you have accessed TOR. This creates an extra layer of security between your internet usage and the authorities.
Another benefit of combining a VPN with TOR is that this setup ensures that your VPN provider can't see the specifics of what you are doing online. All that they will be able to see is the encrypted data that you are sending through your connection to the TOR nodes.
This is advantageous if the authorities are cracking down on you. If they ask your VPN provider for details on your web traffic, your provider can't give them anything specific because the information is encrypted.
TOR and a VPN is a great combination for those who have serious privacy concerns. You can read more about how to set them up in our article on using TOR and a VPN together.
What Is the Best VPN Service?
No option is best for everyone. This is because VPNs have a range of different features and each user has very different needs. Someone who just wants to access US Netflix will want different features to a political activist who is trying to keep their communications out of the government's hands.
Some users will happy with a VPN that is straightforward and simple to use. Not everyone is a computer genius, nor do they have the time to figure out something complex. For these kinds of users, one of the more popular VPNs such as HideMyAss may be best.
If you are a bit more of a geek and want to set up your VPN in a specific way, something such as AirVPN might be the best choice. AirVPN is highly customisable and has advanced settings that may be useful for some users. The biggest issue with AirVPN is that it can be very complex and time-consuming to set up. This is why it is only a good choice for more advanced users or for those who are highly literate in technology.
You will also need to consider the legal situation of your VPN provider alongside how you plan to use your VPN. VPNs that are based in the US may be pressured by the government to hand over their user records. If you are doing something that is highly illegal, you might be better off looking at choices based elsewhere.
Some VPNs take logs and keep more user information than others. This may be a concern if you are worried about the authorities. It is best to research your VPN thoroughly beforehand if you are worried about legal matters. Our top 10 list is a great resource for more information.
Overall, we think that ExpressVPN is one of the better all-round options. It offers a good combination of ease-of-use, flexibility, security and privacy. Because of this, it is suitable for a broad range of users. If you are looking for something more specific, you may want to look at some of the other options on our site.
What Is A Good Free VPN?
A good free VPN is kind of an oxymoron. Why, you ask? Well, most people use a VPN for the enhanced privacy and security that they offer. If you are browsing with a free VPN, you have to wonder how they are getting the money?
The answer may be a little unsettling, however it is the same for many free online services. A general principle is that if you are using something online for free, you are probably the product, not the customer. Just like other free services such as Google and Facebook, most free VPNs make their money by gathering data on you and selling it.
If a VPN provider isn't getting any money from you, they don't have much of an incentive to keep your information safe and private. Their loyalties will lie with the third parties that buy the data from them. Because of this, you shouldn't use a free VPN if you want your online activity to be secure and private.
Another downside of free VPNs is that they are often packed with ads, giving you a poor browsing experience. They may also have data caps, or they will throttle the bandwidth once you use a certain amount of data. You can find out more information on our best free VPN page. This goes into the pitfalls in more detail. If you insist on using a free VPN, it also lists the better options on the market.
What Is the Difference Between a Proxy and a VPN?
To understand the difference between the two, we need to go back to what a VPN actually is. A VPN places an encrypted tunnel between the client on your device and the VPN server.
With a good VPN provider, all your ISP or anyone else can see is the encrypted traffic going to your VPN. They will know that you are using a VPN, but they cannot see exactly what you are doing. One of the main benefits of a VPN is that it cloaks all of your web traffic, whether it is browsing, streaming, downloading or uploading.
In contrast, a proxy only works through your web browser. Browsing through a proxy server can enhance your security and anonymity, as well as helping you to get around any site restrictions in schools or workplaces. A proxy server sits between your computer and the rest of the internet, disguising the nature of your traffic.
One of the main benefits of a proxy over a VPN is that they aren't as resource heavy, meaning that using one won't slow down your internet as much as a VPN would. This may not be much of a concern when you have a fast connection, but a VPN can certainly hamper your activity in locations where the internet is bad.
The main disadvantage of a proxy is that they do not encrypt all of your web traffic, only your browsing. You can find out more information about the differences and their uses on our proxies vs VPNs page.
Can I Use a VPN on Mobile?
You definitely can. Some VPN providers even allow you to connect to multiple devices simultaneously. The easiest way to use a VPN on your device is if your VPN provider offers an app for your operating system. There are also ways to use a VPN without a third party app, however, they are a little more complex.
If you are new to VPNs, it is probably best to choose a provider that has a simple to use app for your device. Many VPNs offer options for both Android and Apple. Download the app from your chosen provider, install it and then open it.
Depending on the provider, there may be some interim steps before you get it up and running. It is also best to take a look at the settings to make sure that everything is configured properly. Most VPN providers will have information on their websites for different configurations.
What Does a VPN Not Do?
Unfortunately, VPNs aren't miracle workers. Just because you have one doesn't mean that you are automatically invisible and invincible on the internet. You still need to be careful with how you set up your VPN and how you use it.
If you jump straight in and try to hack the Pentagon or set up the next Silk Road with a free VPN, don't be surprised if you get caught. Before you do anything, you need to consider what you will be using your VPN for.
This has huge ramifications for which provider you choose and how you use it. Free providers can't be relied on, while big name paid VPNs such as HideMyAss have previously given away user logs to the authorities.
If you will be engaging in highly illegal activities, or you are a political activist whose anonymity is crucial, you need to be very selective when choosing and setting up your VPN. Those who only want to access geo-restricted content don't need to be as careful – it's unlikely that the CIA will allocate too much of their budget to stop your illegal Hulu usage.
If you will be engaging in any high stakes activities, you need to compare each VPN carefully. Look at which country it is based in and reflect on the local laws. VPNs based in the US and the UK may be more likely to be forced by their governments to give up their user data and should be avoided.
You also have to consider your payment method when signing up. Credit cards are linked to your identity, so these are often a bad choice if you are trying to stay anonymous. Bitcoin is certainly a better payment method, but even that can be traced if you aren't careful to use tumblers. Newer payment methods such as Zcash can be even better.
Even if you have set up your VPN appropriately, there are still other limitations to your security and privacy. For one, VPNs can cut out and reveal your internet activity to your ISP. This is why it is best to choose a client that has a killswitch to automatically turn off your internet when your VPN cuts out.
You can also be identified through other means – if you search for personal things (such as your address) while using your VPN, it can give the authorities clues to your identity. They can also analyse your text or web usage patterns to try to find out who you are.
If you are doing something illegal, using a VPN doesn't suddenly make it okay in the eyes of the law. It just makes it more difficult to get caught. You need to be aware that VPNs aren't foolproof and your provider can always hand over your data to the authorities if they are threatened. In saying that, using a VPN is still better for your privacy than not using anything at all.
Is a VPN the Solution You've Been Looking For?
VPNs are versatile tools that can be used in many different ways. Whether you want to increase your security or shield yourself away from governments spies, a VPN can help to protect you. They are also useful for accessing blocked websites and geo-restricted content.
Despite the many uses of VPNs, you need to be aware of their limitations. They can't provide you with 100% security or anonymity, but they certainly make you much safer than using the internet without one.
One of the biggest problems with the VPN industry is that there are many dodgy providers with aggressive marketing campaigns that crowd the market. This can make it difficult for consumers to find an option that suits them best.
At VPNs ‘r Us, we find that ExpressVPN offers a good overall service that combines a range of features. Despite its versatility, it certainly isn't the best option for all situations. If you would like more information on the VPNs on the market, check out our top ten list. It can give you a great starting point to check out some of the most reputable VPNs.