What Is a VPN? Beginner’s Guide, Explained by Experts (2020)

Chase Williams Last Updated by Chase Williams on October 06, 2020

Short for Virtual Private Network, a VPN creates a secure connection between you and the internet. It provides you with an extra layer of privacy and anonymity, so you can:

  • Hide your internet activity and location to avoid being tracked (especially on public WiFi networks)
  • Overcome online censorship and freely browse the internet
  • Torrent safely and anonymously with no speed throttling
  • Unblock streaming platforms like Netflix, Disney+, and more

You don’t need to be a technical expert to use a VPN either. I tested 157 VPN services and there are plenty of beginner-friendly VPNs for any device. The best option is NordVPN as it’s packed with 1-click features in an easy-to-use app (try it risk-free for 30 days!).

Read more to find out how VPNs really work. Plus I’ll share my tips and tricks for getting the most out of your VPN.

Try NordVPN today!

1-Minute Video: What Is a VPN and How Does It Work?

A VPN is an essential security tool for protecting your online privacy. Without a VPN, your internet activity can be easily intercepted and viewed by other people. This includes your browsing history, downloaded files, online banking details, and passwords.

Even worse, everything can be traced back to your device through your Internet Protocol (IP) address. Your IP address reveals your physical location and can be used to track you down in real-life. It’s like sending postcards through the mail — anyone can read the message and see your name and address.

But when you’re connected to a VPN, your internet activity is encrypted and your real IP address is masked. No one can see who you are or what you’re doing, not even Internet Service Providers (ISPs), governments, or hackers.

Instead of postcards, you’re now sending an ultra-secure private message that only the intended recipient can read. There’s no sender address or name. If someone else tries to peek, they’ll just see a jumble of encrypted information.

graphics of how a vpn works
This is how a VPN encrypts your internet connection to maximize your online privacy

What Does a VPN Hide?

Using a VPN hides your real IP address and encrypts your internet connection. But what does that look like in real life?

  • Your browsing history is private — A VPN hides your browsing and search history from your Internet Service Provider (ISP). The only thing the ISP can see is your encrypted traffic traveling to the VPN server.
  • You can change your online location — Your IP address gives away your physical location. With a VPN, you can connect to a server in a different country and access the local content (like US Netflix, online news, and torrent sites).
  • Your internet activities are anonymous — A no-logs VPN ensures that no one knows what you’re doing on the web. This is ideal for fans of torrenting and Peer-to-Peer (P2P) networks.

VPN Pros: Benefits of Using a VPN

Now that you know what a VPN does and how it works, let’s take a look at why people use VPNs:

infographic on top reasons why people use a vpn

1. Unblock Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, and More!

Don’t miss out on the best TV shows and movies just because you’re not in the right country. Streaming services like Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ will restrict its content to certain countries. For example, you can only watch Netflix US if you’re in the US.

A VPN can bypass geographic restrictions and get you access to any streaming service around the world — so if you’re living in or traveling to a country outside the US, you can still stream Netflix US with a VPN.

But not every VPN can do this. Popular streaming services, like Netflix and Disney+, can detect VPNs and will block you from viewing its content. That’s why you need to choose a quality VPN that can outsmart the blocks.

Watch Netflix, Disney+ and more with a VPN!

2. Play Region-Blocked Games From Anywhere

Have you ever wanted to play an online game but found that it’s blocked in your country? You’re not alone. This frustrating issue is faced by many gamers worldwide.

With a VPN, you can change your location and access any online game — no matter what country you’re in!

3. Torrent Files Safely and Anonymously

Torrenting is always risky. You can never be sure if your downloaded files are 100% safe. Plus you risk getting in trouble with authorities if you torrent something you shouldn’t.

A VPN will keep you safe while torrenting with a suite of security and privacy features. Your online identity will remain anonymous so your Internet Service Provider (ISP) won’t notice what you’re doing.

Some VPNs, such as NordVPN and CyberGhost, even offer dedicated torrenting features to keep your download speeds fast and protect you from malware.

Torrent safely with NordVPN today!

4. Secure Your Online Privacy

Have you sent your bank details to friends online? Do you ever use public WiFi networks? If so, you’ve just risked exposing your personal information to hackers (especially if you were using a public WiFi hotspot!).

A quality VPN will use the most advanced encryption to secure your data. It’ll also ensure that any websites receiving your private data can’t trace your device, which keeps you as anonymous as possible.

5. Bypass Censorship and Firewalls

Many countries around the world censor the internet because certain content doesn’t align with political or religious beliefs.

If you’re living in or traveling to a country with internet restrictions, you’ll need a VPN to freely and securely browse online — especially in heavily-censored countries like China. With a VPN, simple tasks like Googling or updating your status on Facebook are impossible.

A VPN helps you unblock these sites and keeps your online activity safe from any prying eyes, including the government. You can even use a VPN to get around firewalls in office or school networks.

6. Improve Your Internet Connection and Speeds

At times, your ISP may deliberately slow down your Internet connection. Why? It could be because it detects that you’re torrenting, or because you’ve gone over a certain data limit. Some ISPs even use this strategy to try to get you to upgrade your connection. The practice is known as “throttling.”

With a VPN, your activity remains private, and not even your ISP can see it. That means it can’t throttle your bandwidth, so you may actually see an increase in speeds.

7. Save Money

Savvy online shoppers know that e-commerce platforms and online shops show different prices to people based on their location. This applies for booking flights, finding accommodation, shopping for clothes, and even getting a streaming service subscription.

Everyone loves a bargain — and a VPN can help you find the best deals online. With a VPN, you can pretend you’re in a country where the prices are cheaper.

For example, if Netflix US subscription prices seem too expensive, you can change your online location to Turkey and pay a lower price. You can still access Netflix’s entire global catalog — but at a significantly cheaper rate.

Try a top-rated VPN for free!

VPN Cons: Disadvantages of Using a VPN

  • Your internet connection might slow down. Your data has to be encrypted and routed through a VPN server, which could be a long way from your actual location. This inevitably slows things down, but you can significantly reduce these drops in speed by choosing an ultrafast service like ExpressVPN.
  • Not every VPN will work. Certain sites (like Netflix) have gotten really good at detecting when you’re using a VPN and blocking you. However, the best VPNs on the market quickly replace any blocked servers, making it hard for these sites to keep up.
  • The best VPNs cost money. Free VPNs do exist, but they tend to have limited features and security risks.
  • Free or cheap VPNs might log your personal data. Since your data is going through the VPN provider’s servers, there’s always a risk they could be storing it. To minimize this risk, make sure your provider has a no-logs policy, and check it isn’t based in a country where it’s required to share data with the authorities. Always read the privacy policy to see how your data will be handled.
  • VPNs are illegal in some countries. You could risk getting in trouble with the authorities if you use a VPN in a country where it’s illegal to do so. These countries include China, Turkey, and Iraq.
  • Low-quality VPNs have limited servers and IP addresses. There are multiple VPN users connected to each server, so your IP address will appear to be the same as other people’s. This could be a problem if someone behaves inappropriately while using the VPN, as it could lead to that IP address being blacklisted by certain sites. Effectively, you could be punished for someone else’s bad behavior. You can avoid this by choosing a VPN that offers dedicated IP addresses.
  • You can’t download a VPN on every device. It may be difficult to find apps for older devices or those using more obscure operating systems.

Essential Features Every VPN Should Have

It’s not always obvious which VPN features are marketing fluff and which are truly useful. As I’ve been using VPNs for nearly a decade, I’ve compiled a list of the critical features that you should keep in mind when selecting a VPN.

1. Fast Speeds

Using a VPN can slow down your connection, as your data is being encrypted and routed through another server. With some VPNs, the difference is barely noticeable, whereas others can cause a considerable slowdown. Your VPN won’t be much use if it slows your connection speed to a crawl, so make sure you pick a service with unlimited bandwidth and plenty of fast servers.

Download a fast VPN now!

2. Strong Encryption and High-Quality Security Protocols

One of the main reasons for using a VPN is to make your connection as secure as possible, so don’t skimp when it comes to security. Look for a service with 256-bit AES encryption — the industry standard — and ultra-secure protocols like OpenVPN and IKEv2.

3. Trustworthy Privacy Policies

It’s really important to choose a provider with a strict no-logs policy. Otherwise, the company is storing your data and could potentially share it with third parties like governments. Make sure the provider is based outside the 5/9/14 Eyes alliances too (these are groups of countries which share surveillance data). If you’re not sure where a provider stands, read the privacy policy.

4. Ability to Access Global Content

A big plus of VPNs is that they allow you to bypass censorship and geo-restrictions. But not all VPNs are created equal in this regard. If you want to use your VPN to access a specific site like Netflix, or use it to unblock a certain country’s firewall, do your research and make sure the provider supports it before you buy. You can also make use of free trials and money-back guarantees to test out VPNs.

5. Multiple Device and Cross-Platform Compatibility

You’ll want all your devices to be protected, so look for a provider that allows several simultaneous connections. And remember to check that the VPN is compatible with all your devices too.

6. Great User Experience

Don’t waste money on a service that’s slow, unreliable, or has a clunky user interface. Do your research and make sure the provider is highly-rated before committing. Reading reviews is a great way to do this.

7. Reliable Customer Support

If something goes wrong, you need to be confident that it will be sorted quickly. Look for a provider with 24/7 live chat support available, as well as email support. It’s a bonus if you can phone in when there’s a problem.

8. Value for Money

When you’re paying for a service, you need to be confident you’re getting your money’s worth. That doesn’t mean choosing the cheapest available option. Instead, look for a service with all the features mentioned above at a reasonable price.

Not sure which VPN to choose? All this information may seem overwhelming, but don’t panic! I’ve tested and reviewed leading VPN providers like NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and Surfshark to help you make your decision.

Get NordVPN for free for 30 days!

How to Choose the Best VPN — Tips for Beginners

So how do you choose the best VPN? Well, that depends on what you need a VPN for. Take a look at the scenarios below and see which one most closely matches what you’re looking for, and I’ll share tips on finding the best VPN for it:

If you want to find out whether a VPN has a specific feature (like a kill switch or an app for your smart TV), check the provider’s website. There’s usually a section listing all the features, and another listing all the apps which are available.

For Unblocking Global Content

A VPN lets you change your virtual location and access content that isn’t available in your country. This includes restricted sites like Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, and more. Make sure to download a VPN with:

  • The ability to unblock global content — Not every VPN can unblock restricted websites and apps. Netflix is especially tricky for VPNs to access, so make sure you look for a VPN that’s been proven to work with Netflix.
  • Fast speeds — You need at least 5 Mbps for HD quality and 25 Mbps for Ultra HD quality. Any lower than 5 Mbps will result in buffering and lag.
  • Global network of servers — Get a VPN with servers in all your desired locations. For example, you’ll need a VPN with servers in the US if you want to watch US Netflix, Hulu, or HBO Max.
  • Dedicated apps for multiple devices — Look for a VPN that works across all your streaming devices, whether it’s a laptop, smart TV, or Amazon Fire Stick.

Screenshot of NordVPN streaming Stranger Things on Netflix
Screenshot of NordVPN streaming Stranger Things on Netflix

NordVPN is one of the few VPNs that easily unblocks Netflix worldwide

Tip: The best way to know if a VPN is best for you is to simply try it out. You can sign up for free trials to test out a VPN and see if it has the features you want, and how well they work. Reviews are great — but nothing beats testing the product out for yourself!

For Privacy and Anonymity (Especially on Public Networks)

A secure VPN will keep your personal data private. This is especially important if you often use public WiFi networks, which are prime targets for hackers. Look for a VPN with:

  • Military-grade encryption — Also known as 256-bit AES encryption, this encryption level is currently unbreakable.
  • Multiple protocols — WireGuard, OpenVPN or IKEv2 offer the best combination of speed and security.
  • Kill switch — This feature blocks all internet traffic if the VPN connection unexpectedly drops or if you’re switching between servers. It ensures that your data is never exposed.
  • Leak protection — Your IP address could become visible through DNS leaks, even when you’re using a VPN. This is easily preventable if the VPN has in-built leak protection.

For Torrenting Safely

Torrenting can be risky. You’re potentially exposing your device to malware, and could run into trouble with the authorities if you download something you shouldn’t. A good VPN will protect you from both.

infographic on how to choose a vpn for torrenting
  • Ultra-secure encryption: You need a VPN with military-grade 256-bit AES encryption if you want your activity to stay as private as possible.
  • Speed: A fast connection is important when torrenting, so make sure the provider lists “Unlimited bandwidth” on its website and check reviews to see how fast its servers are.
  • P2P support: Some providers throttle your bandwidth if they detect that you’re torrenting, so check their websites to see if they support P2P. Other providers, like NordVPN, are torrenting-friendly and even offer dedicated P2P servers.
  • Protection from malware: Certain VPNs offer extra features which protect you from malware, like NordVPN’s CyberSec and Surfshark’s CleanWeb.
  • Secure protocols: As above, make sure the VPN uses either OpenVPN or IKEv2. That way, no-one else will know what you’re torrenting.
  • Kill switch feature: This feature disconnects you from the Internet if the VPN connection fails, so your activity is never exposed. If you’re worried about getting into trouble with the authorities, it’s a must.

For Bypassing Censorship

A VPN can help you bypass censorship at work, at university, or even in countries where Internet access is heavily restricted. Using a VPN is illegal in some countries, so be aware of the risks and don’t compromise on security.

infographic on how to choose a vpn for bypassing censorship
  • Ultra-secure encryption: Your VPN should have military-grade 256-bit AES encryption. This is particularly important if you’re in a country where VPNs are illegal, as you want to make sure you don’t get caught.
  • Ability to bypass censorship: Most services should have no trouble getting past the Internet restrictions at your workplace, but overcoming the Great Firewall of China may be a different matter. If you plan to travel to a censored country, choose a service like ExpressVPN which is proven to work there.
  • Secure protocols: Make sure the VPN uses either OpenVPN or IKEv2. Again, this is most relevant in countries where you could get in trouble for using a VPN.

Quick Guide: 5 Best VPNs for Beginners (Updated October 2020)

While VPNs might sound complicated, the best VPNs are extremely user-friendly. I’ve thoroughly tested each of the VPNs below on Android, iPhone, Windows, Mac, and more — you won’t need any technical knowledge to get started.

  1. NordVPN — #1 VPN for beginners with fast speeds and simple setup. Offers easy-to-use apps for Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, Linux, Amazon Fire TV, and Amazon Fire Stick.
  2. ExpressVPN — User-friendly VPN with quick 1-click connection to thousands of high-speed servers, but more expensive than NordVPN.
  3. CyberGhost — Easily torrent and stream in HD by connecting to dedicated servers, but expect slower speeds when servers get overcrowded.
  4. Surfshark — Most affordable VPN with a clean user interface, but less server options than the top VPNs on this list.
  5. PrivateVPN — Simple app for Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android devices, but speeds are inconsistent due to a tiny network of 150+ servers.

Try NordVPN risk-free today!

Free VPNs vs. Paid VPNs: Do You Need to Spend the Money?

There are various free VPNs out there, and you may be tempted to use one if you’re on a budget. However, only some free VPNs are secure enough to protect your privacy.

Be careful! You get what you pay for with free VPNs. 

This includes slow speeds and data caps as low as 500MB per month — you won’t be able to download files or stream videos.

Many free VPNs even use weak protocols (like PPTP), which expose your device to malware and other security risks. Even worse, you won’t have access to customer support if things go wrong.

That’s not all. Some free VPNs may use shady practices to fund their services, whether that’s spamming you with annoying popup ads, tricking you into downloading malware, or even collecting and selling your data.

infographic on the disadvantages and dangers of free vpns

To guarantee your online privacy and safety, I recommend getting a reliable VPN with a good reputation. You don’t have to spend a fortune either. Top VPNs cost as little as $2 per month (and you can save money by checking for hidden deals and discounts!).

Even better, most quality VPNs have a money-back guarantee so you can test it out risk-free before deciding to purchase. For instance, you can try NordVPN with its 30-day money-back guarantee and get a full refund if you’re not satisfied. I even did it myself — and it works! I requested a refund over 24/7 live chat and I easily got my money back.

It’s easy to get a refund if you don’t like NordVPN (just use the 30-day money-back guarantee)

Try NordVPN for free for 30 days!

5 Best VPNs for First-Time Users in 2020

1. NordVPN — Easiest to Use for Beginners and #1 All-Round VPN

A great all-round service. NordVPN has very respectable speeds, super-strong encryption, and lots of extra features like a kill switch and a malware blocker — all for a very reasonable price. When I tested it, it only took a few minutes to install and set up. And its super-simple user interface allows you to connect to the best available server with just one click. It offers a 30-day money-back guarantee too.

Try NordVPN for free for 30 days!

2. ExpressVPN — Simple VPN With User-Friendly Apps for Any Device

A premium service with superfast speeds. ExpressVPN can unblock almost anything, and it can even bypass censorship in China. You can set it up in just a few simple steps, and if you need help getting started, you can get instant support via its live chat service. The company also takes security very seriously. It uses the strongest available encryption, and none of your data is ever saved to a hard drive. The only minor drawback I could find was that it only allows 5 simultaneous connections — which is slightly less than what some of its rivals offer. Like NordVPN, it offers a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Get ExpressVPN for free for a month!

October 2020 Update: ExpressVPN has dropped prices so you can save up to 49%! This is a limited offer so be sure to grab it now before it's gone. See more deal information here.

3. CyberGhost — Great for Easy Streaming and Torrenting on Desktop

Whilst not the fastest VPN on the market, CyberGhost has over 5900 servers meaning you’ll still get decent speeds. It has a strict no-logs policy, a kill switch feature, and even some self-managed servers based outside the 14-eyes countries. Some of its servers are optimized for various streaming services, so you can unblock Netflix and more with one click. The service is very affordable and allows you to connect up to 7 devices at a time. It has a 45-day money-back guarantee available, one of the most generous of any VPN provider. You can also try it out free — with no credit card required — for 24 hours.

Download CyberGhost for 30 days for free!

CyberGhost's Latest Deal October 2020: Get an 18-month subscription for the price of the 12-month plan — which means you get 6 months completely free! Prices start at only $2.75/month. See more information on this offer here.

4. Surfshark — Affordable VPN With Quick and Simple Setup

A newer company, Surfshark has quickly made a name for itself with its excellent security features and low prices. Its low server count may result in some limitations but from my experience testing this VPN, its speeds are consistent on servers worldwide and it has no problem unblocking content.

With a Surfshark subscription, you can use the VPN on an unlimited number of devices at once. If you’re having trouble, you can use the live chat feature to talk to an expert. It also has a built-in malware blocker, and even the option to route your traffic via multiple servers for extra privacy. There’s a 30-day money-back guarantee available too.

Try Surfshark for free!

5. PrivateVPN — Basic VPN With Helpful 24/7 Live Chat Support

Screenshot of PrivateVPN vendor user interface on smartphone, tablet, and desktop

Private VPN is a good basic VPN to start out with for protecting your activities online. It offers extra-secure 2048-bit encryption and unlimited bandwidth. It’s also extremely easy to use, with a one-click setup process which allows you to protect your devices in under a minute. With only 150+ servers, my tests confirm that PrivateVPN falls short in unblocking global content (specifically, Netflix). Its customer service is excellent, putting you directly in touch with the developers to solve your issue. There’s also a 30-day money-back guarantee available so you can test it out risk-free.

Get PrivateVPN for free!

Getting Started: How to Set Up a VPN on Different Devices (Step-by-Step Guides)

VPN providers generally make it very easy to get started, so don’t worry about the installation process being too complicated! I’ve put together some simple step-by-step guides to get you all set up on your favorite devices.

Bear in mind that the steps involved may vary depending on which VPN and operating system you’re using. If you’re having problems, you can check out the guides on your VPN provider’s website.

3 Easy Steps: Install a VPN on Windows, Mac, or Linux

Many VPNs offer native apps for Windows, macOS, and even Linux. The installation process is similar across all operating systems:

  1. Download and install a VPN. I like NordVPN as it’s simple to use, fast, and you can try it with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
  2. Launch the VPN and connect to a server. You can choose from 5,300+ servers in 59 countries with NordVPN.
  3. Now you’re connected to your VPN! Enjoy freely and safely browsing the internet.

Quick Guide: Get a VPN on an Android Phone or iPhone

Nearly every VPN offers dedicated apps for Android and iOS devices. Here’s how you install a VPN on your phone:

  1. Download a VPN from the app store. I recommend NordVPN as the mobile app is fast and easy to use. Test it for 30 days on your phone!
  2. Open the VPN app, log in, and tap on a server location to connect.
  3. You’re done! Your smartphone is now protected by a VPN.

Smart TVs

Most smart TVs on the market don’t have native VPN apps available. If you want to use a VPN with them, you have to first install the VPN on your router (see instructions on how to do this below). Then, connect your smart TV to your router and it will automatically connect to the remote VPN server.

If you have a smart TV running on Android OS, ExpressVPN has a native Android TV app that might save you the hassle of connecting through a router.

Try ExpressVPN risk-free today

Routers

Most people use VPNs on individual devices such as laptops and smart TVs, but you can also install one on your router to protect any device that’s connected to your Wi-Fi network. Once you’ve done this, you won’t need to install a VPN on your individual devices unless you plan on using them outside your home.

Before buying a VPN subscription, make sure it’s compatible with your router by visiting the manufacturer’s website.

The installation process depends on the model of your router and which VPN you’re using, but it typically looks something like this:

  1. Get a quality VPN.
  2. Assemble and connect your router.
  3. Connect your router to a computer.
  4. Access the router dashboard.
  5. Create a username and password.
  6. Click the Upgrade Firmware tab.
  7. Upload the firmware you just downloaded for your VPN.
  8. Enter the activation code from your VPN’s setup page.
  9. Click Activate.

Since methods can vary, it’s best to check the steps outlined on your VPN provider’s website.

Quick and Easy Setup Guides for Your VPN

Here are some quick download guides (for a variety of devices) to help you set up your VPN.

FAQs on VPNs

😇 Are VPNs legal?

VPNs are completely legal in most cases, as long as you’re not using it for illegal activities. However, some heavily censored countries (like China, Russia, and Iraq) do ban them. The penalty if caught can be significant, so bear this in mind if you’re traveling.

😅 Are VPNs really secure?

It’s hard to give a straight yes or no answer because no two services are identical in their security features. The security of a VPN depends on the technology and protocols the provider uses. Look for a provider with 256-bit AES encryption, use of OpenVPN or IKEv2 protocols, and extra features like DNS leak protection and a kill switch to maximize security.

The VPN provider’s location and privacy policy will also affect its security. If you want to choose the most secure VPN, check that the provider isn’t located in the 5/9/14 Eyes security alliances.

🤩 Can I watch Netflix with a VPN?

Yes, you can use a VPN to watch Netflix. But you need to be careful which provider you choose. Only the best VPNs can help you avoid the infamous proxy error message and get you access to any Netflix library. This is because Netflix actively cracks down on people using VPNs, and is constantly flagging and blocking VPN servers.

Based on my tests, I recommend NordVPN or ExpressVPN for Netflix. Both have excellent speeds for HD and Ultra HD streaming quality, and can reliably unblock Netflix from anywhere in the world. Even if a server gets blacklisted, I find NordVPN and ExpressVPN are quick to replace it with a working server.

🤓 Do VPNs work on Android?

Yes, assuming your provider has a dedicated Android application. All the major providers, like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and CyberGhost, have Android apps available. Be wary of free Android VPN services, as research suggests that many of these applications leak user information or include malware.

😎 Do VPNs work on iOS?

Yes, all the major VPN providers offer iOS apps. I find NordVPN is the best for iPhone and iPad with its user-friendly app, blazing-fast speeds and premium security features — and all for a cheap monthly price!

🙂 Do VPNs work on Kodi?

Yes, a VPN can help you add a layer of privacy when streaming on Kodi. It can also help you access content that you wouldn’t normally be able to because of your location, and safely stream from add-ons without having to worry about hackers and other third parties.

For best results, choose a VPN with P2P support, like ExpressVPN or CyberGhost. Also, make sure the provider has apps for all the devices you want to use Kodi on.

Do VPNs work on smart TVs?

Yes. When choosing a VPN for your smart TV, make sure you go for one that has an application for your device. ExpressVPN has apps for almost all smart TVs, and NordVPN has one for AndroidTV. If you can’t find an app that works, some VPN providers offer detailed instructions on how to set up the VPN manually on your smart TV.

How do I use TOR with my VPN?

Using your VPN with the Tor network is the key to complete anonymity. All you have to do is:

  1. Enable your VPN connection.
  2. Open your Tor browser.

While you will have an additional layer of privacy with this setup, it may also make your Internet connection slower. If you’re planning on downloading large files, you may have some trouble so this is only good for secure browsing, streaming, and gaming.

When should I use a VPN?

Use a VPN whenever you need an extra layer of privacy, anonymity, and security online. Some of the key reasons for using a VPN include:

When shouldn’t I use a VPN?

There’s no reason why you shouldn’t use a VPN at all times. It will keep you safe from governments, your ISP, advertisers, and even hackers.

What’s the difference between VPNs and proxy servers?

A proxy simply masks your IP address, whereas a VPN also encrypts your data. It’s best to use a VPN as it’s much more secure.

Which VPN protocol should I use?

OpenVPN has traditionally been the most popular option, although many people are now switching to the new WireGuard protocol. Ultimately, the VPN protocol depends on how much security and speed you need, as well as your device.

Below are the most common VPN protocols.

  • OpenVPN: Popular open-source protocol that’s supported by nearly all VPNs. It’s the most secure protocol available with no known weaknesses.
  • WireGuard: Open-source protocol with excellent speeds and strong security. Predicted to overtake OpenVPN in popularity but is still relatively new, so there could be undiscovered vulnerabilities.
  • IKEv2: Fast, secure, and popular with mobile users. The biggest drawback is that it’s not open-source and can’t be audited.
  • SSTP: Less popular protocol that works mostly on Windows. Good for bypassing firewalls but speeds are average.
  • L2TP/IPSec: Mostly used on iPhones, although it’s outdated so you should avoid it where possible.
  • PPTP: PPTP isn’t secure and has been previously cracked by the NSA in the US.

Do VPNs make you anonymous online?

While many VPNs claim to offer complete anonymity when browsing the internet, the truth is that a VPN provides privacy (not anonymity). A VPN will assign you a new IP address from a server in a different location, but the VPN provider can still see your browsing data.

No VPN can operate without seeing your online activity, otherwise it can’t address DNS requests or troubleshoot connections. However, you can increase your anonymity by choosing a VPN that keeps minimal and non-identifying logs. You can also sign up for a VPN that only requires an email address (not your full name and address), meaning you can use a throwaway account. Some VPNs even offer anonymous payment options, like cryptocurrencies, Mint, and gift cards.

Using a VPN is still the best way to hide your online activity from governments, Internet Service Providers (ISP), and hackers. Your online traffic is encrypted with military-grade standards, which is impossible to crack. You’ll also be protected by a number of privacy safeguards, like a kill switch and leak protection.

Will a VPN slow down my internet?

A VPN may slow down your Internet connection because your data has to travel via the VPN server. Not only that, the VPN is encrypting and decrypting your data, which takes longer.

However, different VPNs experience different speed reductions, so it’s important to make comparisons. Despite slight drops in speed, ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and CyberGhost were consistently able to stream, torrent, game, and browse without delays.

Your Internet speed will vary depending on the server you choose. Generally, the further away the server is, the slower your Internet because it will take longer for your data to get there. If you connect to a server nearby, you’ll barely notice a difference in Internet speed.

Do I need an ISP to use a VPN?

Your VPN won’t replace the need for an ISP. Your ISP allows you to connect to the Internet, while your VPN simply protects your data as you carry out web-based activities.

Can I use a VPN on more than one device?

Yes. Most VPN providers have dedicated applications for several types of device and operating systems.

If you want to use your VPN on more than one device, make sure the provider you choose allows simultaneous connections and has applications for all your preferred devices.

Which devices do VPNs work on?

It depends on the provider. Most premium VPNs work on Apple, Windows, and Android devices. Some even work on Linux, Kodi, smart TVs, and even routers.

Usually, free VPN services only work on specific devices. Make sure you check with your provider before signing up or buying a subscription to avoid any disappointments.

Do VPNs keep logs?

Yes, most VPNs do keep logs. Even if a VPN claims to keep “no logs”, you need to read the fine print in the privacy policy. You’ll most likely find that most VPNs will record your IP address, bandwidth usage, payment details, and connection timestamps. However, the best VPNs won’t log any identifying data. This means none of your online activity while connected to the VPN is linked to your personal information.

Are VPNs useful for torrenting? How so?

P2P sharing is best done with a VPN because you never know what these files contain or who they’re coming from. Also, if you’re sharing files you shouldn’t be, your ISP won’t be able to find out. This could allow you to avoid a warning, a fine, or even prison time.

But while the big names like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and CyberGhost support P2P sharing, others don’t. When choosing a VPN for torrenting, check that it has a no-logs policy and offers unlimited bandwidth, as well as fast download speeds.

Can I be tracked with a VPN?

It depends on the VPN, which is why it’s crucial to learn how to identify a quality VPN provider. If you download a VPN with poor privacy practices, it’s possible to get caught even if you’re connected through Tor or using advanced features (like multi-hop or obfuscation). You can’t always trust the VPN’s marketing claims either — many “no-logs” VPNs have been proven to be the opposite.

As a result, I recommend choosing a VPN with a proven no-logs policy and a strong privacy track record. For instance, ExpressVPN is one of the safest options available. In 2017, the Turkish government demanded user logs from ExpressVPN as part of a domestic investigation. ExpressVPN was under no legal obligation to comply as it’s not subject to Turkish law (the company is based in the British Virgin Islands). Furthermore, it’s strict no-logs policy meant there was zero information to actually share. This was proven to be true when the Turkish authorities physically seized a server — no identifying logs or customer data was found.

Is a VPN safe for online banking?

Yes, a VPN adds an extra layer of security for online banking. It’s especially useful if you need to perform banking transactions while traveling or using public WiFi at a cafe, hotel, or library. This is because a VPN encrypts your traffic and hides your IP address before it reaches the bank, so your personal financial details are protected from any spying third-parties (especially hackers).

How much does a VPN cost?

You can easily get a VPN for as little as $2 per month when you invest in a long-term subscription (2 years or more). A monthly plan costs around $10 and a 1-year plan is usually $6 per month. However, price shouldn’t be the only factor in your decision — you want to look at the quality of VPN and its features too.

Should I use a VPN on my phone?

Yes, it’s best practice to set up a VPN on your smartphone if you value your online privacy. Just like your desktop and laptop, your phone is vulnerable to third-party snooping and data leaks. Unfortunately, there are plenty of apps packed with malware and trackers that specifically target Android and iPhone users.

With a VPN, you can keep your personal data safe and encrypted. You can also unblock restricted sites (if you live in a country with online censorship) and streaming platforms from around the world, like Netflix and Disney+.

Glossary of Common VPN Terms

  • 5/9/14 Eyes Alliance: International security alliances that work together to collect and share mass surveillance data. Any provider based in a country that’s part of one of these alliances could record and pass on your online activities. Here are the countries in each alliance:
5 Eyes 9 Eyes 14 Eyes
  • United States
  • Canada
  • New Zealand
  • United Kingdom
  • Australia
  • Norway
  • Denmark
  • France
  • The Netherlands
  • Plus members of 5 Eyes Alliance
  • Italy
  • Spain
  • Belgium
  • Germany
  • Sweden
  • Plus members of 9 Eyes Alliance
  • Encryption: Scrambling data with a code so it can be transmitted safely.
  • Global Content: Content which is blocked in some countries but can be accessed with a VPN.
  • IP Leaks: When your VPN fails to hide your IP address.
  • ISP: Stands for Internet Service Provider. Your ISP is the company you pay to provide you with Internet access.
  • Kill Switch: A VPN feature which automatically kills your Internet connection if it isn’t secure. This makes sure your data is always encrypted and helps you avoid IP leaks.
  • Logs: Data your VPN provider keeps about you and your online activities.
  • Multi-Hop: A VPN feature that routes your internet connection through 2 VPN servers (instead of 1), making it even more difficult to trace your device.
  • Proxy Server: A server which acts as an intermediary between your device and the rest of the Internet. This increases your privacy as you aren’t directly communicating with other servers, meaning your IP address isn’t visible.
  • Router: A device that sends data between computer networks. Your ISP usually provides you with one to allow you to access the Internet.
  • TOR: A piece of software which allows you to communicate anonymously online. It sends your data through a volunteer-run worldwide network to make it very difficult for anyone to find out where it came from.
  • VPN Client: A program you install on your device which allows you to connect to a VPN server.
  • VPN Protocol: The set of processes used by VPN clients and servers to communicate securely with each other. Some protocols are more secure than others.
  • VPN Server: A computer managed by your VPN provider which you can connect to using your VPN client. Your data is routed through the server, hiding your true location and IP address.
  • VPN Service: A service that increases your security by encrypting your Internet traffic and masking your IP address. It also allows you to bypass censorship by appearing to be in a different location.

infographic on what is a vpn

Did you like this article? Rate it!
I hated it I don't really like it It was ok Pretty good! Loved it!
4.55 Voted by 4 Users
Title
Comment
Thanks for your feedback
Chase Williams
Chase is an experienced web security expert. He has researched and written extensively on a variety of online security topics