What is a VPN connection, what does it do, and how do you set one up?

Published by on June 14, 2018 in VPN & Privacy

What is a VPN connection.

You may have heard the term VPN used more and more frequently in recent years. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, a VPN serves several purposes, including making online activities more secure. For that reason alone, we recommend that everyone use a VPN.

Aside from improved security, a VPN has other benefits too, including enabling users to unblock geo-restricted content and circumvent government censorship. If you want to find out more about VPNs, you’ve come to the right place. We continuously review and test the best VPNs on the market (and some not-so-great ones, too), so we can tell you everything you need to know.

In this post, we’ll delve into more detail about what VPNs are, how they work and what you can do with one. We’ll also provide some pointers for choosing the right VPN service, and tell you about some of the top-rated VPN providers. Let’s jump in!

What is a VPN connection and how does it work?

A typical VPN consists of a network of servers, typically dotted all over the globe, run by a VPN provider. When a user signs up for and connects a device to a VPN service, two major things happen:

  • All traffic going to and from the connected device is encrypted.
  • The encrypted traffic goes through an intermediary server, the location of which is chosen by the user.

Let’s look at both of these features separately and explain the benefits.

A VPN encrypts all internet traffic

Having all your traffic encrypted means that your online activity can’t be monitored and all of your information is secure. Anyone intercepting your traffic won’t be able to decipher it. Without a VPN, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can see everything you do online, including the sites you visit, applications you use, and files you download. They can’t do this when you’re using a VPN.

This also means that others who may be monitoring the network can’t see your activity. This could be a network administrator (for example, in a school or office), a government agency, or a hacker. The lattermost might be a particular threat if you tend to travel a lot and frequent public wifi hotspots. Hackers are known to lie in wait on unsecured networks waiting to steal your information. To stay safe, you should use a VPN every time you connect to an open wifi network.

With a VPN, you can carry out your normal online activities without worrying about prying eyes. This includes browsing, streaming, torrenting, gaming—anything you do that involves an internet connection. Many businesses use VPNs as a means of securing communications and processes, ensuring sensitive information isn’t leaked and reducing vulnerability to hackers.

You might be wondering if a VPN is legal. Indeed, it’s perfectly legal to use VPN in almost every country.

A VPN masks your IP address

So what about the intermediary server part? Well, this is where things get fun.

Every piece of hardware within a network has a unique identifier called an Internet Protocol address (IP address). This is assigned by your ISP and can reveal your general location to the websites you visit.

We mentioned earlier that VPN users can choose the location of the server they connect to. All providers allow you to select a server based on the country where it’s located. Some providers let you get more specific and give you the option to choose the location according to city.

Either way, once you’re connected, your existing IP address will be completely masked and replaced with one from the location you’ve chosen. IP addresses are used by websites to detect your device’s location. Many sites block access to content based on IP addresses alone.

So if you’re able to replace your IP address, you spoof your location, making it appear you’re somewhere you’re not.

Cyberghost surfing info.

This has a few major benefits:

Access geo-restricted content

It enables you to access geo-restricted websites, including:

Type of siteExamples
Popular streaming sitesNetflix, Hulu, HBO, Amazon Prime Video, and BBC iPlayer
Dedicated sports streaming websitesbeIN sports, ESPN, BT Sport, and Eurosport
Niche streaming sitesScreambox, Twitch, and Hotstar
Betting and gaming websitesBet365 and Betfair

You can enjoy your desired content simply by connecting to a VPN server in the region where the streaming source allows access.

Evade government censorship

A VPN enables you to access sites that might be blocked in your country. For example, some countries block Facebook, Google, YouTube, Skype, WhatsApp, and more. When you access these sites through a VPN, your traffic is tunneled through the intermediary VPN server. Since the VPN server isn’t on the censored list, then the traffic won’t be blocked, and you can access the otherwise censored content without issue.

Torrent anonymously

Most VPN providers use shared IP addresses. This means that when you’re assigned an IP address, other users will use the same one. This makes it virtually impossible to track activities like torrenting to a single user. Because the traffic is encrypted, snoopers such as your ISP won’t be able to see what is being downloaded anyway. On the other hand, if the snooper is connected to the torrenting network, they’ll be able to see what’s being downloaded, as is the case with copyright trolls. However, with the VPN connection, they won’t be able to see who you are.

How to set up a VPN

Once you decide on a VPN provider, using the service is typically straightforward. Although there may be some variation between providers, the basic steps are as follows:

  1. Choose a reputable provider that’s able to meet your needs.
  2. Sign up for a trial or paid plan. This is usually through the provider’s website but some enable you to sign up through the relevant app (common for mobile devices).
  3. Note your VPN credentials, often provided via email.
  4. Download and install the relevant app for your operating system. Most of the top providers have desktop clients for Windows and MacOS as well as mobile apps for Android and iOS. Some can be manually configured with other operating systems and devices.
  5. Launch the app and sign in using your credentials.
  6. Adjust settings and preferences if needed.
  7. Select a server location and wait for the app to confirm a connection.
  8. Use the internet and any other applications as you would normally.

If you have any issues with any of these steps, you can contact your VPN provider’s customer support team to help out.

How to choose a VPN

When choosing a VPN, there are various factors to look out for. Here’s a quick checklist, but we’ll delve into each in a bit more detail below:

  • Access to geo-restricted content
  • Fast speeds
  • Strong encryption and additional security features
  • Minimal logging
  • Multi-platform support
  • Value for money
  • Excellent customer support

Access to geo-restricted content

One of the biggest reasons people employ a VPN is to access geo-restricted sites like Netflix, Hulu , BBC iPlayer, and more. Many of these websites crack down on VPN usage. They devote resources to finding out which IP addresses come from VPNs and actively block them. This means that even if you’re connected to a VPN server within the country you’re actually in, you could still end up seeing a proxy error.

Netflix proxy error.

Thankfully, some VPN providers are able to stay a step ahead and users can still enjoy access to this content. But because this takes up resources, not all providers are still in the game. If access to restricted content is a priority for you, you’ll need to ensure your chosen provider makes this a priority.

Fast speeds

Because traffic is routed through an intermediary server, using a VPN will make your internet speed slightly slower. Some VPN services have a much larger impact on speeds than others. Sometimes it’s enough to have a noticeable effect on browsing, while in other cases, the effect is only felt when doing things like downloading or uploading large files.

When we review VPN services, we pay close attention to speeds and factor them into our ranking. We regularly test the top VPNs for speed performance and you can view up-to-date results in the chart below.

Strong encryption and additional security features

Practicality aside, you need to know that your data is secure. This means you should expect a VPN service to provide strong encryption. 128-bit and 256-bit AES encryption are commonly used and are considered very secure.

In your research, you’ll no doubt also come across mention of protocols. This is the format in which the VPN transmits data. Different protocols provide varying levels of security and speed. We usually recommend the OpenVPN protocol which is open source and subject to public audit. Other popular protocols include L2TP/IPSec, SSTP, IKEv2, and PPTP. The lattermost is the least secure and should only be considered as a last resort.

The top VPNs also come with additional features such as:

  • DNS leak protection: Prevent DNS requests from being sent outside of the encrypted VPN tunnel.
  • A kill switch: Kills the internet connection if the VPN connection drops.
  • Automatic wifi protection: Starts the VPN connection every time you connect to a wifi hotspot.
  • Anti-DDoS servers: Specialized servers to protect against DDoS attacks.
NordVPN VPN server locations.
Some of NordVPN’s server locations are marked as having anti-DDoS capability.

The most crucial additional security features are DNS leak protection and a kill switch, but others may be important for your specific needs.

Minimal logging

Most providers keep logs of some kind, but there are different kinds of logs to consider. First, you have traffic logs which include things like the websites you visit and files you download. No respectable VPN provider should be keeping traffic logs of any kind. Claims such as “no logs” or “zero logging” usually refer to these types of logs.

On the other hand, many providers do keep connection logs. These are usually in the form of metadata, such as bandwidth used and connection times and duration. If kept, these are often used for things like troubleshooting or ensuring users don’t go over data caps. The key is you don’t want your provider to record any personally identifiable information, including your IP address.

If you want to stay even more anonymous online, then you might look for a VPN that requires as few details as possible upon signup. Many providers give the option to pay using bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, and some have a .onion version of their site so you can access it through the Tor browser. For example, ExpressVPN accepts bitcoin and has a .onion site, so if you use a burner email address, you could sign up almost anonymously (nothing is ever completely anonymous).

Multi-platform support

You’ll need to ensure the VPN has apps for all your devices. While manual configuration is often possible, it’s always nicer to have a user-friendly app. Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android are commonly covered, but some providers are missing apps for one or more of these.

Download buttons for various platforms.

If you’re a Linux user, not many providers make a dedicated app, although plenty will offer support for the OS. And if you’re looking to protect your traffic at the router level, then most VPNs can help there, too. Many can be configured with certain routers and some even sell routers already configured with the VPN. In fact, ExpressVPN makes its own router firmware.

Value for money

As with most things you shop for, you’re going to want value for money from your chosen VPN. We’ll talk about the dangers of free VPNs later, but there is a wide range of prices when it comes to paid options. You’ll want to take all of the items in this list into consideration when thinking about value for money, but there are a few more factors.

One is the number of simultaneous connections offered. Ideally, you’ll want to protect all your devices under one plan, so you don’t have to pay for another. The industry standard is five simultaneous connections, but some offer fewer while others offer more.

Another important factor is whether or not there’s a bandwidth cap.

Keenow pricing table.
Keenow’s free plan has a cap of 512MB per day.

While this might not matter much for general browsing, it could limit streaming and torrenting ability. Most paid VPNs offer unlimited bandwidth but some have lower tier packages that cap it.

Excellent customer support

When using a VPN, chances are you’ll need help at some point. Whether you’re having trouble with setup or can’t access your desired content, customer support might be required.

Most VPN providers offer online support sections with things like setup guides, troubleshooting tips, and FAQ answers.

PureVPN's support center.
PureVPN offers a pretty comprehensive support center.

Most also offer the option to submit a ticket via email if you need real human help. This is great, but responses can take anywhere from hours to days, even weeks in some cases. This isn’t ideal if you need a quick fix.

Thankfully, many providers offer live chat customer support so you can get on-the-spot help. This type of service is usually outsourced so may not be ideal for privacy-conscious users. This also means you may not get the most knowledgeable response, and you might be asked to submit a ticket for more technical issues. Nonetheless, 24/7 live chat is always a nice bonus and something to look out for.

Top-rated VPN providers

Now that you know why you need a VPN and what factors to consider in choosing one, you may be ready to go ahead and sign up for a package. We’ve tested services from many providers and have come up with a list of our top picks:

  1. ExpressVPN
  2. NordVPN
  3. IPVanish
  4. CyberGhost
  5. PrivateVPN

Let’s look at these in a bit more detail, so you know what to expect.

1. ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN pricing

This VPN provider is a top-notch all-rounder. Its server network spans 94 countries giving you a huge choice of locations. ExpressVPN uses strong encryption and has additional security features such as a kill switch. It has fast speeds and is capable of unlocking popular streaming services. Three simultaneous connections are allowed and apps are available for major operating systems, including Linux.

RISK-FREE DEAL: Our readers can get three months free. Plans come with a 30-day money-back guarantee so it’s risk-free.

See our in-depth review of ExpressVPN.

2. NordVPN

NordVPN 2 year deal prices

NordVPN is another solid option and has a huge network of more than 4,000 servers. Many of these are specialized for things like streaming, double VPN, Tor over VPN and anti-DDoS. This VPN service has your back when it comes to security and privacy. It keeps no logs and has built-in automatic wifi protection. Apps can be downloaded for Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android and six devices can be covered at a given time.

DISCOUNTED OFFER: Purchase a two-year plan and save 66%. This means you only pay $3.99 per month.

Read our full review of NordVPN.

3. IPVanish

IPVanish discounted plans

IPVanish is a very popular VPN service for Kodi users and torrenters, but it’s great for streaming, too. It has blazing fast speeds and recently upped its number of simultaneous connections to ten per plan. Security-conscious users will be happy with strong encryption and additional features, such as a kill switch. Apps are available for the most popular operating systems.

READER SPECIAL: Our readers get 60% off IPVanish plans, which include a seven-day money-back guarantee.

Check out our IPVanish review.

4. CyberGhost

CyberGhost operates a growing network and combines strong security with fast speeds, making it another solid all-rounder. If you like to stream, you can simply select your streaming source from within the CyberGhost client and it will automatically connect you to the appropriate server. This low-cost provider keeps no logs, so your data stays safe. It allows five connections at a time and has apps for desktop and mobile devices.

SAVE OVER 70%: Opt for a two-year CyberGhost subscription to enjoy big savings.

See our full CyberGhost review.

5. PrivateVPN

privateVPN prices

A newer and smaller provider than many of its competitors, PrivateVPN has plenty to offer. It is known for its fast speeds and ability to unblock many popular streaming sites. Plus it’s secure and won’t log your data. With decent prices, six simultaneous connections, and apps for all the major operating systems, it’s definitely worth a second look.

READER DEAL: Not only do our readers get over 70% off a PrivateVPN annual plan, but you also get an extra five months free.

Read our in-depth PrivateVPN review.

A warning about free VPNs

Once you start researching the various VPN services available, you’ll no doubt come across a ton of free offerings. Obviously paying nothing for this type of service sounds very attractive. But there are some things you should know about free services before you start running their applications.

They often lack security and privacy

On the security and privacy side of things, free VPNs can actually do more harm than good. Just because these businesses don’t charge you directly, this doesn’t mean they’re not profiting off you somehow. Many track user activity and even build profiles to sell to advertisers. Others exaggerate how secure they are and some VPN apps even carry malware.

They may offer a poor user experience

Of course, security and privacy are of utmost importance, but there are issues with the practical side of free VPNs too. We mentioned selling your profile to advertisers. Well, some services simply inject ads and cookies into the sites you visit while browsing or place them within the VPN client themselves.

But there’s more. Free VPN services typically have a very high number of users, all of whom are sharing a small number of servers with limited capacity. This leads to queueing systems with potentially long wait times. And once you do get connected, chances are you’ll experience a slow, unreliable connection and won’t be able to access the sites you want.

Given all of these different factors, we generally recommend steering clear of free VPN services unless you’re really in a pinch.

What about using a proxy?

If you’re primarily looking to stream content, you might have come across DNS proxy providers that claim to be up to the job. However, it’s very easy for Netflix to block these services. Indeed, with its crackdown on the use of a proxy to access its services, you may not have much luck.

What’s more, DNS proxies are a bit like free VPNs in that they typically don’t have a very large selection of locations. One proxy that doesn’t have this issue and works reliably with streaming services is the ExpressVPN MediaStreamer DNS service. This comes with every subscription and can be used with the VPN service or separately.

The major difference between a VPN and a DNS proxy is encryption. The latter does not encrypt your traffic, so your activity is exposed. This means an ISP, network administrator, hacker, or any other snooper can see what you’re doing online.

One more thing to note about these services is that they often use similar tactics to free VPNs, including selling your information, injecting ads, and other shady business practices.

Image credit: “VPN” by Gino Crescoli licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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