With the growing interest in online privacy, security, and unblocking restricted content, many people are wondering: What is a VPN and why are so many people using one?
A VPN is short for virtual private network, which is a secure, encrypted tunnel between your device and a VPN server.
The growing popularity of VPN services has been fueled by many different trends, such as:
- ISP spying – Internet service providers in the US, UK, Australia, and many other countries are recording user browsing history and handing this information over to third parties.
- Content restrictions – The internet is becoming less free every day as websites, social media, and news/opinion sources are increasingly blocked and censored around the world. And no, we’re not just talking about China, but also many Western countries such as the UK, Australia, Germany, Canada, and even the United States (where free speech is supposedly guaranteed).
- Surveillance – In the past 10 years we have seen a frightening expansion of both government surveillance and corporate surveillance (Facebook, Google, etc.). Your data is being harvested every second you are online by corporate and government entities – for various purposes.
Luckily, there is a simple solution to these problems. Enter the VPN. A VPN is a digital Swiss Army knife that allows you to encrypt and anonymize your online activity, hide your IP address and location, and easily get around content restrictions and blocks.
But before we discuss the solutions to these problems, let’s cover some basics.
How a VPN works
A VPN works by creating an encrypted connection between your computer/device and a VPN server. Think of this encrypted connection as a protected “tunnel” through which you can access everything online, while appearing to be in the location of the server you are connected to. This gives you a high level online anonymity, provides you with added security, and allows you to access the entire internet without blocks or restrictions.
Here is a visual that shows how a VPN works, from ExpressVPN:
Without a VPN, everything you do online is easily traceable to your physical location and the device you’re using via the device’s IP address. Every device that connects to the internet has a unique IP address – from your computer to your phone and tablet. By using a VPN, you will hide your true location and replace your computer’s IP address with the VPN server’s IP address.
Good VPN services typically maintain servers all around the world. This gives you lots of connection possibilities and access to worldwide content.
After purchasing a VPN subscription and downloading the software for your device, you can instantly connect to any of these worldwide servers.
Now that you know how a VPN works, let’s cover the reasons for using one.
Why a VPN is used
So why is a VPN used?
It really depends on your situation, but there are many different reasons for using a VPN service.
Here is a brief list highlighting some of the reasons why a VPN is used by people all over the world:
- Surf the internet without revealing your real IP address and geo-location (online anonymity).
- Add an extra level of security by encrypting your internet connection.
- Prevent your Internet Service Provider (ISP), third parties, and governments from spying on your online activities (thanks to encryption).
- Unblock websites and access content that is restricted to certain geographic locations.
- P2P download and stream media (such as Kodi) in safety.
- Bypass censorship by easily getting around regional restrictions.
- Save money on flights and other online purchases by changing your IP address (geographic location).
- Protect yourself from hackers anywhere you go – especially while using public WiFi connections in cafés, hotels, and airports.
- Protect your private data, such as bank passwords, credit cards, photos, and other personal information when online.
- Surf the internet with peace of mind.
Now we’ve covered why a VPN is used, we’ll move onto another question that many people have about VPNs.
Are VPNs safe?
Using a good, high-quality VPN is generally considered safe.
However, there are a number of VPNs with known problems that you may want to avoid. This is usually due to leaks, which will expose your identity. One interesting study found that 84% of free Android VPN apps leak user data.
There are also a number of different VPN scams to watch out for. In general, if you see a “deal” that appears to be too good to be true, then it probably is. This applies to all the various lifetime VPN subscriptions.
And as a final warning, you may want to avoid free VPNs like the plague. Free VPNs are generally data collection tools that will sell your private information to the highest bidder. Here are the seven hidden risks of free VPNs:
- embedded malware (quite common with free VPN apps)
- hidden tracking (many popular VPN providers hide tracking in the apps to collect your data)
- third party access to your data
- stolen bandwidth
- browser hijacking
- traffic leaks (IP address leaks, DNS leaks)
- fraud (identity theft and financial fraud)
These are just a few of the risks with free VPN services.
As the saying goes, when something is free, then you are the product.
Sounds good, but you might be wondering…
Are VPNs legal?
In short, the answer is yes, VPNs are absolutely legal.
With very few exceptions, such as in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), VPNs are completely legal to use. Some Middle Eastern countries, such as the UAE and Iran, frown on the use of VPNs because the government works so hard censor the internet and social media. Naturally, they don’t like anything that lets people get around this censorship.
But even still, with laws in these countries, the VPN itself is not illegal. It is only when a VPN is used to get around government restrictions that it becomes illegal.
This is also the case in China, where the government has been fortifying its “Great Firewall” to prevent VPN access. Russia has also attempted to “ban” some VPNs – but these measures often fail, simply because VPN traffic can be hidden to look like regular HTTPS traffic. There are a few VPN providers that do quite well in obfuscating VPN traffic with their apps. These include ExpressVPN, VPN.ac, and VyprVPN.
Important note: VPNs are routinely used by businesses around the world for network security. Therefore you will likely never see an outright “ban” on VPNs, because they are absolutely necessary for both businesses and individuals for security and online privacy.
But can’t people use VPNs to do bad things?
Of course, but you should think of VPNs like steel. Steel can be used for good purposes, such as bridges, buildings, and transportation. But it can also be used to build bombs, guns, and tanks, which harm people. Completely banning steel because it is sometimes used for bad purposes would be insane and stupid.
The same is true for encryption and VPNs. Banks, businesses, and any website that deals with sensitive data must use encryption technology every day. VPNs and encryption are necessary tools that we all need to be using, even if a few people misuse this technology for their own reasons.
Online privacy and security – the details
A good VPN can provide you with both online privacy and security.
Without a VPN, your internet service provider (ISP) can easily see and record everything you do: sites you visit, comments you make, social media interactions, and everything else. As noted above, many countries require ISPs to log user data and browsing activities.
But when using a VPN, your ISP can only see that you’re online and connected to a VPN server. That’s it. Your information is encrypted and secured, which makes it completely unreadable to third parties.
With a VPN, public WiFi hot spots are once again safe to use, thanks to secure encryption that protects your data. Using public WiFi without a VPN is risky because hackers can exploit public wireless to steal your identity, credit cards, bank accounts, and private data. A VPN will encrypt and protect this data from third parties and hackers.
While it’s very difficult to be 100% anonymous online, here are a few things you can do to achieve a high level of online anonymity:
- Use a good VPN that passes all leak tests.
- Use a secure, privacy-focused browser (see the Firefox privacy guide for further tips).
- Practice good privacy precautions (to get started check out the Simple Online Privacy Guide).
Now let’s take a look at VPN protocols and encryption.
Which VPN protocol to use?
A VPN protocol is basically a method by which a device creates a secured connection to a VPN server. So which VPN protocol is best to use?
As a brief overview, there are four common VPN protocols in use today:
- PPTP – Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol is a basic, older VPN protocol with known security vulnerabilities. While it does provide good speed, it should probably be avoided due to security concerns.
- IPSec / L2TP – Internet Protocol Security with Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol. This protocol is more secure than PPTP, but it does not always have the best speeds. It is commonly used with mobile devices.
- IPSec / IKEv2 – Internet Protocol Security with Internet Key Exchange version 2 is a fast and secure VPN protocol. It is automatically pre-configured in many operating systems, such as Windows, Mac OS, and iOS. It works very well for re-establishing a connection, especially with mobile devices. The one downside is that IKEv2 was developed by Microsoft and is not an open-source project, like OpenVPN.
- OpenVPN – Is an open-source project developed for multiple types of authentication methods. This is generally considered the most secure protocol with solid speeds. In many cases, this is the best VPN protocol to be using with a VPN service. (Most VPN providers will make this the default protocol, but double check when you’re connected to a VPN.)
Each VPN protocol has its own pros and cons. OpenVPN is the most popular and widely-recommended, because it is secure, open-source, and also offers good performance. But it also requires the use of third-party apps. L2TP / IKEv2 is also a secure protocol with excellent performance and it can be used natively without VPN apps. However, it relies on proprietary software.
VPN logs – different types
When it comes to privacy, it’s good to pay attention to logs and logging policies.
Here are the different types of VPN logs:
- Usage (browsing) logs – These logs basically include everything you do online: browsing history, times, IP addresses, metadata, etc. From a privacy standpoint, you should avoid any VPN that collects usage data.
- No logs – There are very few VPNs that truly meet the “no logs” criteria. Having a 100% no logs policy is very difficult to implement. This is especially the case when VPNs need to enforce restrictions such as bandwidth or the number of devices being used with the subscription.
Most VPNs will need to keep some form of logs if they’re enforcing any kind of limitations, such as device/connection limits or bandwidth limits (further explained here). Minimal connection logs that are secured and regularly deleted are not very concerning – but it all depends on the user.
VPN performance and speed
When you’re using a VPN, a lot is going on behind the scenes. Your computer is encrypting and decrypting packets of data, which is being routed through a remote VPN server. All of this takes more time and energy, which will ultimately affect your internet speed.
To ensure the fastest speed while using a VPN, it’s best to connect to the closest VPN server that fits your needs. For example, if you’re in the UK and want to watch blocked videos that are available to people in the United States, choosing a VPN server in New York is a good idea (rather than Los Angeles).
A good VPN service should not affect your internet speed considerably. On the other hand, some of the lower-quality VPN services may significantly decrease your internet speed. This is often the case when their servers are overloaded with users.
Tip: See if you can find a server status page for your VPN provider. This will give you an idea of network congestion and subsequent performance.
For testing VPN speed and more of a discussion on all the different variables, check out the VPN test guide.
VPNs for streaming
Aside from online privacy and security, VPNs are also used by thousands of people around the world for streaming.
Why is that?
A VPN will unlock content that is geoblocked, censored, or restricted to certain geographic areas. Because a VPN gives you the ability to “tunnel” into any VPN server location, it remains the ultimate tool for online streaming. Here are a few popular streaming uses for VPNs:
- Streaming Kodi through a VPN – see the Kodi VPN guide for additional information and tips.
- Streaming sports with a VPN – for example, check out the World Cup 2018 live streams guide.
- Streaming Netflix through a VPN – using a Netflix VPN is a great idea no matter where you live. For specific guides, check out the ExpressVPN Netflix and NordVPN Netflix test reports.
VPNs are also popular for torrenting, whereby VPNs protect people while they torrent various forms of media. See the best VPN for torrenting guide for additional information.
VPNs on phones and tablets
While VPNs have improved significantly on iOS and Android devices, they still don’t work quite as well as they would on a computer. The main reason for this is that using a VPN is a bit more complicated than typical applications, requiring connection to external servers, encryption, and decryption. Naturally, this is a bit more challenging on a phone which may go in and out of connectivity.
The good news is that mobile device VPN applications are quickly improving, as is the processing power of phones and tablets. These developments are good for people who spend lots of time connected to a mobile device.
One word of caution: avoid cheap or free VPN mobile apps. These apps are usually very “buggy” and will often be clogged up with advertisements, malware, or trackers, which further compromise privacy and security. Fake apps with ransomware are also becoming increasingly common. Just because an app is listed in the Google Play or Apple stores does not mean it’s safe.
VPN on a router
VPNs can also be installed on a router. A VPN router offers the following advantages:
- extends the benefits of a VPN to all your devices without installing software
- protects you against mass surveillance and internet service provider (ISP) spying
- secures your home network against attacks, hacking, and spying
The trick to getting this setup correctly is first choosing a good VPN service and then selecting the right router – the rest is easy.
The VPN Router guide covers all the important aspect of VPN routers, including setup, tips, and the best models.
What about Tor?
Tor, which stands for The Onion Router, is both a browser and a network that utilizes multiple “hops” to protect user privacy. Tor was created by the US government in 2002 and is still largely dependent on US agencies for funding. Aside from this troubling fact, there are a few other concerns:
- Some state that the Tor network has been compromised
- Microsoft’s DRM can easily expose Windows-on-Tor users
- Viewing PDF documents while using Tor can also leak your identity
- Tor users are vulnerable to end-to-end timing attacks
- Tor is too slow for everyday use (especially video streaming)
For many people, the biggest red flag with Tor is that it was a US government project and is still financed by the US government today. Ironically, the people behind the Tor project brand it as a privacy tool to protect people from government surveillance, despite the project’s troubling background and current financial connections.
The VPN checklist
Choosing a good VPN is all about your individual needs. Here are just a few considerations when looking to purchase a top-tier VPN service:
Server network – One of the biggest factors separating VPNs is server quality. Good servers are expensive and important for speed, reliability, and also security. See if you can find a server status page that shows you real-time bandwidth stats.
Logs – Don’t trust “no logs” marketing claims on the homepage without digging deeper. Carefully read the fine print. (See this guide on logs for more info.)
VPN protocols – Which VPN protocols does the VPN offer? OpenVPN is considered one of the most secure protocols with solid speed and performance. IKEv2 is also very good. Try to avoid using the PPTP protocol, which has known security risks.
Multiple devices and compatibility – Check to see how many devices are supported with the VPN plan. Can you connect your computer, phone, and tablet all at the same time? Most VPNs offer 3-5 connections per subscription (but some offer an unlimited number of connections). Does the VPN software work on all the devices you want to use (Windows/Mac/Android/iOS/Linux/routers)?
Support – What kind of support comes with the VPN? Access to live chat support is helpful if you run into problems or need tips on optimizing the VPN performance. But 24/7 ticket-based support also works well if the support team is responsive.
Price – The price with VPN services can really vary depending on the features, connection limits, and a number of other factors. Yearly subscriptions are usually much cheaper than paying month to month. Most VPNs also provide a cancellation/money-back guarantee within a certain time window if you aren’t satisfied. There are also a few free trial VPN services worth considering.
Security – Protecting your privacy and security is one of the main reasons people us a VPN. You can test out any VPN for IPv4 and IPv6 leaks, DNS leaks, and WebRTC leaks using the methods and resources in the VPN test guide. The services listed on the best VPN test report all did well in testing.
Ease of use – Some VPN services are very well-designed and user-friendly – see ExpressVPN or NordVPN for examples. Other VPNs may be more complex to setup and use with all of the different features – see Perfect Privacy and VPN.ac for examples.
Right now governments everywhere are spying on their own citizens, enforcing harsh censorship laws, and enacting Orwellian (thought police) regulations.
Big tech companies (Facebook, Google, Microsoft) are harvesting as much of your data as possible and making billions selling it to third parties. Even worse, these companies are also working closely with the governments to carry out mass surveillance – see the PRISM program.
And this is all happening without your consent – there is no way to opt out.
So naturally, it’s easy to get discouraged with the direction things are heading.
But there is good news.
Using a VPN will restore your privacy and also give you much-needed security whenever you go online. A VPN can also help you break free from censorship, spying, and all the other annoying restrictions put in place by online gatekeepers.
In short, VPNs are a tremendous resource to keep your internet experience safe, private, secure, and free.
If you are ready to get started, you can check out the best VPN guide for additional information.