What is a VPN and How Does it Work – The Layman’s Guide

The power of the internet in bringing the world much closer is undeniably true. It holds a lot of information on almost anything under the sun. It also has evolved the dimensions of entertainment and e-commerce to a whole new level. Therefore, it is safe to say that the Internet is a lifesaver that has saved a number of people all over the world.

what is a vpn

However, the Internet is not also a safe haven, as there are multiple security threats lurking behind it. That’s is why the emergence of VPN or Virtual Private Network keeps internet users safe from online vulnerabilities from the Internet. This article is a guide for all Internet users on what is VPN and how to start using it.

What is a VPN?

As a beginner, you must first understand that Virtual Private Network or VPN is a service that allows you to access the web privately and safely by directing your connection via a server to hide all your online actions. In layman’s terms, this allows you to access the internet by using another computer’s internet connection instead of your own. Rather than using your own leased line, a “virtual” connection is made over a shared or public network. Plus, it lets you encrypt the data you send, making it secure.

Who Needs a VPN?

Corporate organizations were the first ones to use a VPN connection to keep their business communication secured and employee productivity enhanced. However, because of the growing privacy concerns and the need to consume digital data all over the world, it has developed and grown for personal use as well. Thus, VPN is for all Internet users around the globe.

How does a VPN work?

how does a vpn work

Here is how a VPN works. When you run a VPN app, it links to a VPN server through a VPN provider. All data going in and out of your mobile phones or laptop is encrypted and directed through the VPN tunnel. The VPN server acts as an entry point between the user and the internet. The server prevents your Internet Service Provider or ISP from seeing what you retrieve on the internet and inhibits websites from knowing who you are. This is how your ISP would see your data.

Your ISP is still required to be able to connect to the VPN server. Nonetheless, because all data passing by the tunnel to the server is encrypted, ISP cannot see what you access on the internet.

How difficult is it to use a VPN for the first time?

It is not really difficult to use a VPN, even for first-timers. Almost all providers have extensive guides and tutorials from installation up to its usage on multiple devices.

How to use a VPN?

Using the VPN is quite simple. It doesn’t matter what platform you use; VPN generally goes something like this:

  1. Sign-up for a VPN provider, whether it is a free or paid plan.
  2. Download and install the software. For desktop or laptops, this is called a VPN client while for mobile devices the software is referred to as a VPN app. These two terms are interchangeable the same.
  3. Run the app.
  4. Log in to the app using the details you used when accessing the software.
  5. Then, simply connect or tap the “connect” button to start connecting to a VPN server. You also have the option to choose a server from a different country by clicking on the map of the country you want to connect. If your VPN provider doesn’t have this feature, then click the menu button and a list of VPN servers

What are the Benefits of using a VPN?

Now that we know that VPN is our best buddy that protects us from the vulnerabilities of the internet. Let’s get to know what are the benefits you get to enjoy when you use a VPN.

1. Prevents your ISP from seeing what you access on the Internet

Trusted and well-known VPN services do not keep records of the information you access on the internet, thus making it a good deal for your privacy and security.

Plus, VPN is also helpful if you wish to avoid the blanket government surveillance of your country.

2. Prevents websites from getting your real IP address

Your IP Address or Internet Protocol address is used to identify you online. The IP address websites will see is that of the VPN server, which is normally shared among other VPN users to protect other internet users as well. Also, it makes it hard for advertisers to direct you with bothersome advertisements.

3. Allows you to open streaming services

VPN allows you to open streaming services that are barred from your country. You just have to connect to a VPN server from another country where those streaming services are allowed, and you can get access.

4. Defeat Censorship

VPN allows you to evade censorship be it from college, office, or other establishments WiFi administrators. Through VPN, you can now access barred websites by connecting to a server where the content is not blocked.

5. Safeguards you when torrenting

When using a VPN for torrenting, your true IP address is blocked from other internet users downloading the same torrents. Plus, it also conceals the content of your download.

6. Protects you from hackers

Especially if you are using a public Wi-Fi or computer, you are not sure if the connection is totally safe or secure. By using it, you are exposing yourself from criminal hackers that might steal your confidential information. With the help of a VPN. You are protected from these hackers as your data is encrypted securely.

How Secure is a VPN?

The security of VPN is causing debate among IT professionals and other experts in the industry. There are two main factors that determine the security VPN provides:

  1. The drawbacks of the type of VPN technology utilized by the provider.
  2. Policy and legal limitations that affect what can be performed with that technology. The company’s policies and the laws governing the country where the company and server are located affect how the company carries out VPN in their service.

Let us dig deeper into these factors.

VPN Protocols

These protocols identify how the service manages data transmission over a VPN. The most common VPN protocols are L2TP, IKEV2, SSTP, PPTP, and OpenVPN. Let us get to know each other better.

1. PPTP or Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol

One of the first protocols in use designed by Microsoft. The good thing about this is that it works on old computers, it’s easy to install, and is already a component of the Windows Operating System. However, this protocol, in today’s standard, doesn’t give optimal security. As much as possible, avoid a VPN provider that only offers this protocol.

2. L2TP/IPsec or Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol

A combination of Cisco’s L2F protocol and Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP). The Cisco L2F protocol uses keys to form a secure connection of the data tunnel, however, the execution is not very safe at all. By adding the IPsec protocol, security is improved a bit. However, there are hearsays that NSA can break this protocol and view the data transmitted. Whether it is true or not, it is better to be safe than sorry. So, better to avoid this protocol as well.

3. SSTP or Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol

Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol or SSTP is another protocol built by Microsoft. The connection is built with some TLS/SSL encryption which is the existing standard of web encryption today. TLS’s and SSL’s strength is established on symmetric-key cryptography wherein the two participants involved in the transfer of data can decode the information within. This is a very secure solution for internet security threats.

4. IKEV2 or Internet Key Exchange Version 2

Another Microsoft-built protocol, this is a duplication of the previous protocol made by Microsoft. However, this one is much more secure than the previous one. This protocol provides some of the best privacy and security for the internet users.

5. OpenVPN

This gathers all the advantages of all the aforementioned protocols and dismisses most of their flaws. It is an open-source project based on TLS/SSL, meaning it is constantly improved by developers. Out of the bunch, the OpenVPN is the most secure and versatile protocol out there.

In general, most VPN allows its users to select the protocol to use. By choosing and connecting with the most secure protocol like IKEv2 and OpenVPN, the more secure your internet connection will be.

Sadly, some devices will not allow you to utilize all these protocols. Since most of these protocols were made by Microsoft, you will get to use them on all PCs supported by Microsoft. However, for Apple devices, you can still come across some of these protocols with limitations.

Encryption Basics

Encryption operates by:

  1. Beginning with plain data
  2. Applying a secret code or key to transform the data
  3. Finishing with encrypted data.

The encrypted data can only be read by someone who has the original key or secret code used to encrypt the data.

The recent encryption algorithms operate on this principle, with the application of the key or secret code being very complex and intricate. You need to if your data is encrypted with the AES algorithm at least 128 bits. Most top VPN like NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and Surfshark, offer a step above with an AES- 256 encryption. Your Virtual Private network can offer the best security, but it all boils down to the protocol used to manage your information.

Company Vision and Legal Constraints

All decent VPN companies will do what it takes to keep your data, privacy, and overall security of the web protected at all costs. However, you must also remember that these companies are still subject to the jurisdiction of the law they are in. Thus, this can greatly affect how they serve you.

The VPN company may be obliged by the court of law to share any records they have involving your activity, depending on the decree or directive of the country where the VPN originated. There can also be agreements between countries to divulge information in such cases. Therefore, you must do careful research to look for a VPN based in a country without any international agreements with your country.

Thus, in the end, you are surely secure with a VPN not only because they are technically capable and willing to keep your confidential data private and secure, but also because they are legally allowed to do it as well.

Is it Legal to Use a VPN?

Many have been wondering if is it really legal to use VPN. For a starter’s guide, yes, VPN is legal. However, that is not always the case.

First and foremost, VPN, as a notion, is still new in the legal aspect; thus, not all jurisdictions are able to carry on. This means that the regulations and guidelines of VPN are unclear and have the tendency to be misinterpreted.

In general, the use of a VPN is accepted in most countries Canada, the USA, and the UK and other Western European Countries. In China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Oman, Belarus, Turkmenistan, and United Arab Emirates VPN are generally not allowed.

To know more about the legality of the use of VPN in your country, try to look for the laws of your local government and review if VPN is indeed legal in your country.

Does VPN really make an Internet User fully anonymous online?

For starters, VPN doesn’t make you truly anonymous. However, the extent that it covers is still truly remarkable.

If you are not using VPN, your connection is widely open, and the public Wi-Fi router, your ISP, any server in the way, or a person with all the right tools and knowledge can dig dipper into your data. With the use of a VPN, it solves many problems that threaten your privacy and security. This is done so by encrypting your transmission while making it look like it is the server and not you who is making the connection.

So, if you want to know up to what extent you can truly be anonymous, then you have to investigate the following:

  • Does the service keep a record of my data?
  • The country under which the VPN company is based or established. There are some instances wherein these companies may be legally obliged to keep logs. What will happen when the government keeps asking questions?
  • Is the connection protocol used secure? Is there sufficient encryption on my data?
  • Does the VPN company keep payment logs? Do they include confidential and identifying information?

Not all VPN will give the same amount of protection. Thus, you have to make a wise decision so that you can address the concerns stated above.

VPN Logging Policies

The logs or records a VPN company keeps considerably affects the privacy and level of anonymity you have. The provider may keep logs that include:

  • Internet Protocol Addresses or IP Addresses
  • Devices used
  • User activity
  • Connection or disconnection timestamps
  • Payment logs

These logs make you a bit less anonymous because your IP address can be connected to a browsing session that you once had. Sure enough, attaching this to you is very difficult. However, it is still doable if the VPN company is deliberate enough or committed to protect you legally at all cost.

In general, the fewer records your VPN provider keeps, the better. With “no logs” being the ideal one. Recently one of the leading providers came under the scanner for retaining logs but it later came clean. So it’s recommended that you pay attention to who you are signing up with.

Before you choose a VPN provider you must first make sure to read their privacy policy. Some services may claim that your privacy is well secured and protected in their company. However, you need to make sure by digging into their privacy policy and see what data they can actually keep. Some may even state that their based country does not force them into data retention, yet, it is not reflected in their data retention policy.

What is the Difference between Free VPN versus Paid VPN?

Running and managing a notable VPN service requires a lot of money for robust servers, infrastructure, data transfer, employees, and so much more. If the VPN service is free, then expect that there are limitations in the service or compromises you have to make. Are they keeping a record of activity for their own reasons? Is your data sold to another party? Are they displaying their ads?

Paying for a good VPN is not really something to be bothered about. Some VPN providers only charge at least $3 to $5 monthly, yet the security and peace of mind you get is more than you have paid for.

How much do you have to pay for a VPN?

The average cost of a VPN is charged at $4.99 a month, which gives you an idea about the expense this typically is. VPNs that charged more than $10 are not common, and there is really not enough difference from the affordable VPNs, so there is no enough reason to buy them.

Some VPN providers offer big discounts if you are eager to subscribe for more than two years upfront, rather than constantly renewing your subscription every month. For instance, NordVPN—a very notable VPN provider we enjoy very much— costs around $11.95 if paid every month. However, if you take advantage of NordVPN 3-year plan, you can have it for just $3.49 per month, that’s 70% off.

Can I use VPN for Torrenting?

Generally, you can use VPN for torrenting. However, this depends on the service you are using and the things you are torrenting.

Torrenting is a general term for a specific protocol utilized to transfer files and data over the web. Although this is often seen in a bad perspective, it is legal and perfectly okay if you are using it to transfer data that you have permission to. Piracy, in all aspects, is completely illegal, in spite of the tools that you use.

VPN provider also has its own policy with regard to torrenting and how it is managed. Most, if not all, quality VPN solutions allow torrenting. As per our research, you can torrent with top VPN’s like ExpressVPN, PureVPN, PIA, Surfshark, and NordVPN.

When it talks about the security aspect of torrenting, it all boils down to the policies set by the VPN provider regarding logging and sharing your personal information. Generally, if a VPN does not keep records, they also do not keep logs of your torrent activity.

Another important aspect you have to consider when you choose a VPN provider for torrenting is the speeds the service can offer. Needless to say, this sort of information is hard to come by; usually, you only find out after you have subscribed to the VPN provider. Based on our experience and research, we have noted that NordVPN, VyprVPN, ExpressVPN, and Pia has good download speeds.

Can I use VPN for streaming sites?

Yes, you can use VPN for streaming sites like Hulu and Netflix. But, like most things on the list, it still depends on the specific VPN that you use.

Even though Netflix is widely available over 130 countries, the shows are not distributed equally among those countries. And because of the complicated licensing agreement of Netflix even before its big international rollout, some TV stations still have the right to some of Netflix’s shows, making it unavailable on their platform.

This is how a VPN can help in this complicated legal stuff.  Hulu and Netflix block some of their shows in other countries according to location filters. This means that if you are residing in a country where a specific show is banned, then you are also banned.

VPNs give a quick solution to this. Since you can choose the server or country you want to connect with, then all you have to do is connect to a country or server where that show is accessible.

Does a VPN work on IOS or Android?

Yes, VPN can work for both Android and IOS.

Many of the reputable VPN provider allows you to download mobile apps for either IOS or Android.

For Android phone users ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and Surfshark are some of the best VPNs to use. For both IOS and Android platforms, they have a pretty simple VPN connection set up. Like for iPhone, you can simply tap on settings, then go to General Settings and look for a VPN.

However, you must also be wary and cautious regarding free VPN apps for iOS or Android. A team of specialists, from the University of New South Wales, CSIRO’s Data61, the University of California Berkeley, and the International Computer Science Institute, have tested around 280 free VPN apps. It was revealed later on that around 84 percent of the apps have leak users’ traffic, 75 percent use tracking libraries, and 38 percent have malware included. So, instead of using a VPN to keep you safe, you are instead of putting your important information at risk. Thus, you have to be extra careful with these apps.

Can a VPN work on SmartTV or Kodi?

Your Kodi boxes or smart TVs also require a good internet connection to be able to enjoy its perks. So, like any other device that needs internet hookup, you can also enjoy streaming in private through VPN so that you can keep your streaming activities private and hidden.

You can enjoy a VPN connection to your smart TV in two ways. First, you can set it up on your router. When you configure it in your router, you can effectively safeguard your entire home network and including all the devices connected to it.

The other way you can connect a VPN is by configuring it directly on your Smart TV. There are already many quality VPNs that allow you to configure them straight to your smart TV or Kodi boxes. Nord VPN, for example, has detailed instructions for Kodi and Apple TV. It also comes with an application for Android TV. Other VPN providers that support Kodi boxes or Smart TV devices are Surfshark and ExpressVPN.

How to Install a VPN on a router?

As aforementioned, installing a VPN directly on the router safeguards the whole network connection along with all the devices connected to it. This is a sure way to guarantee that everything connected to your router is safe from all vulnerabilities of the internet through a reliable VPN connection. This will also save you from all the hassles of installing individual apps on your laptops, tablets, smart TVs, mobile devices or any other device that uses your home network.

To install a VPN on your router, you need to follow these simple steps:

  1. Ensure that your router and VPN of your choice is compatible with each other. This can be checked on the website of the manufacturer of your router. Usually, Tomato-boosted FlashRouters and DD-WRT work well with VPNs. NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and PIA include a demonstration on how to check if it is indeed compatible with your router.
  2. The next step is the installation process. You just need to simply log in to your router and fill out standard forms that you can handle pretty well.
  3. Then, you can now enjoy a VPN connection to your home network and all the devices connected to it.

How to Use VPN and Tor Together?

Although VPN and Tor are basically different, they can be used together to provide maximum online privacy and data security. Tor allows you to access the web through routing several random nodes while encrypting the connection at every stage.  VPN, on the other hand, allows you to access only one server at a time.

How they work fundamentally is different from each other; thus, it is hard to pinpoint which is better than the other. However, one good thing about Tor is that it can be used 100% free without any built-in limitations. All you have to do is download the official web browser of Tor. Once you have installed it, you just simply have to fire it up like the standard browsers such as Firefox and Chrome. Then, click the connect button, and you are good to go.

To enjoy the maximum protection that both VPN and Tor can offer, you just need to combine the two. To combine them, you just follow these steps:

  1. First, you need to ensure that your VPN connection is enabled. From this point, every communication on your web is secured with the VPN.
  2. Open and connect using your Tor browser.

At this point, you have both the VPN connection and the Tor web browser running simultaneously at the same time. The main drawback of this set-up is that it tends to be slower than your usual VPN-only connection. Using Tor already slows down your experience, and when it is combined with a VPN, it can even slow down dramatically. However, on the good side, you can also enjoy a very safe and private connection. So, you just have to weigh your options here; either you get a fast and private connection or get a much slower experience but also gives you utmost data privacy and protection.

Kills Switches

Kill switch is a feature in a VPN that automatically disconnects your internet connection if the safe and encrypted access drops. If there is any sort of connectivity issue, it will trigger the kill switch and prevent all activity until security is restored.

You must ensure that your VPN connection has a kill switch feature in it. When connectivity issues arise, your device might restore its standard, unprotected connection if the VPN you are using doesn’t have a kill switch in it. Your internet activity and data might be exposed from then on. ExpressVPN, NordVPN, PIA, and Surfshark all have kill switch feature in them.

IP leaks

IP leaks are not entirely a VPN problem. It is already a known weakness with some formats people use on the internet. With VPN, it happens when your VPN provider fails to safeguard your actual IP address. The most reliable VPN providers have some smart scripts encoded into their apps to reduce this risk. IP leaks may not always be entirely caused by your VPN. Sometimes the apps within or configuration of your computer are to blame. Even some web browsers and add-ons installed can cause IP leaks.

Should You Get a VPN?

Virtual Private Networks or VPNs are incredibly helpful in keeping your internet activity and data private and secure. With all the vulnerabilities and security threats on the internet nowadays, it is better to be safe than sorry with a reliable VPN to safeguard all your information and data securely. The main downside with VPN is that it tends to slow down your internet connection. However, with all security and privacy it brings, it is just a mere downside you can just shrug off. Are you already convinced with the perks that VPN offers? Then, have a safe and secure web browsing activity with a reliable and trusted VPN provider.

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