The Essentials

What is a VPN (Virtual Private Network)?

Callum Tennent
Callum TennentUpdated

VPNs (or Virtual Private Networks) may seem complicated, but they are a very simple software that anybody can use.

In this guide you will learn what a VPN is and how it works, why you need one, if they are safe, if they are legal, if they keep you 100% anonymous, and much more.

What is a VPN and why do I need it?

A virtual private network, or VPN for short, is a clever piece of software that keeps your internet activity private and secure. It stops ISPs and authorities from tracking what you do online, while protecting you from hackers looking to intercept your traffic.

No matter your web browsing habits, or where you’re using the internet from, a VPN is an essential tool for anyone keen to stay private and secure online.

There are four main reasons to use a VPN:

1Keep your online activity private

Everyone has the right to use the internet in private, and a VPN is a crucial tool for helping you do just that.

Whether it’s your school, workplace, ISP, or government monitoring you, a VPN works to keep your web activity private and increase your anonymity. It also safeguards your personal data to prevent it being sold to advertisers.

2Protect yourself from hackers on public WiFi

You take a huge gamble every time you connect to public WiFi unprotected. Their open nature allows hackers to easily conduct ‘man-in-the-middle’ attacks, which can involve eavesdropping, intercepting your private data, or phishing.

A VPN is one of the only ways to use public WiFi hotspots safely and prevent these hacks. It shields you from all the hackers and snoopers, allowing you to use the internet without worry of being spied upon or having your details stolen.

3Bypassing censorship by your school, workplace, ISP, or government

Even in places like the US, the UK, or Australia, the internet isn’t as free as you might think. At the very least your ISP is monitoring everything you do online, while the government has the power to demand logs of your online activity, including all the websites you’ve visited.

If you’re in China, Turkey, or a number of other highly-censored countries then the situation is much worse. Censorship at the highest level can prevent you from accessing essential sites like Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia.

A good VPN creates a private connection between you and the VPN server to direct web traffic around those web blocks. The best VPN services are very reliable, safe and practically undetectable – we recommend VyprVPN and Astrill as two effective anti-censorship VPNs in particular.

4Unlock online content that is geo-restricted

There’s also a wealth of online content, including entire websites and apps, that are geo-blocked. This means that you may not be able to access them based on where you’re located.

When you connect to a server in a VPN network it doesn’t just encrypt your traffic, but it also makes it look like you’re connecting from the location of the VPN server. That means that websites and apps think you’re actually based there, rather than where you physically are in reality.

How exactly does that work? The explanation is surprisingly simple.Your IP address is replaced with that of your chosen VPN location, and now the online content you were trying to access is unlocked. The more servers your VPN offers, the more countries you can connect to. For example HideMyAss! has servers in over 190 countries – the most we’ve ever seen.

How does a VPN work?

A VPN is a piece of software you can install on your computer, laptop, smartphone, tablet, or any number of devices. Once the VPN is running it creates a private and secure internet connection between that device and the website or app you’re attempting to reach.

Rather than travelling in a straight line like your usual internet connection, when using a VPN your web traffic is first routed to your VPN service’s private servers, then on to the website, service or app you want to access. This private connection is like a secret tunnel, hiding your web traffic from snoopers and hackers.

Your ISP can no longer see what you’re doing, and your connection is far more secure. Your IP address changes and your browsing data can’t be linked to your real location, making everything you do online much more private.

You can choose from loads of VPN server locations around the world – that means your VPN can trick websites, apps and services that you’re browsing the internet in a different city or country, giving you access to content that was previously blocked.

If you choose a good VPN provider you’ll likely get a choice of protocols and encryption to use.

You should always choose the strongest VPN encryption possible (currently AES-256) as it’s guaranteed to safeguard your data, even if it may slow down your internet speeds a little.

Your choice of protocol is a little less black-and-white. A VPN protocol is essentially the set of rules and processes that a VPN app follows when connecting to a VPN server. These are the most common VPN protocols:

  • IKEv2/IPSec
  • IPSec
  • L2TP/IPSec
  • OpenVPN
  • PPTP
  • SoftEther
  • SSTP
  • Wireguard

When testing a VPN we always try to use OpenVPN where possible. We find it to be the best balance of speed and security. IKEv2 is also very popular, while we would recommend that you never use the outdated and insecure PPTP.

To find out more take a look at our guide to VPN encryption.

How do I get a VPN?

Getting a VPN is simple, even for those with no technical know-how. We recommend that you subscribe to a VPN from a trusty service provider of your choice (or opt for their free version). You should take a look at all your options before buying.

There’s no one-stop shop for VPNs – you’ll need to head to the website of the one you want to purchase and download it from there. Alternatively, head to the app store of whatever mobile device you’re using.

Once you’ve bought your VPN you then need to install it. If you’re using a Windows PC or an Apple Mac you’ll usually be able to simply download an installer and set it up just like any other computer program.

If you’re using a smartphone then just search for the VPN on the app store and download the relevant app. iPhone and Android handsets are usually all covered.

If you want to protect other devices, like your Amazon Fire TV device, Apple TV, Microsoft Xbox One, or Sony PlayStation 4 then you should follow the setup guide in the support section of your VPN provider’s website. You can also install your VPN at router level, covering everything that connects to it.

Finally, there’s the option to set up a VPN server of your own. We don’t recommend this, as it takes a lot of time and technical knowhow and, once completed, isn’t actually all that secure.

Can I use a VPN for free?

You absolutely can use a VPN for free – but many often come with a catch. Look out for:

  • Monthly data caps
  • Limited server choice
  • Slow speeds
  • Abuse of your personal data
  • No technology to bypass censorship
  • No servers to unlock streaming services like Netflix or BBC iPlayer
  • Annoying ads that slow down the app

Whatever the drawbacks, free VPNs are often nowhere near as good as the top premium options.

Not all free VPNs are bad though – some popular VPN services provide free versions of their high-quality paid-for VPNs. While they may be lighter in terms of features, they’re still a great choice if you want to get to grips with a VPN before signing up for the full package.

If you want a free VPN you can trust, we’ve rounded up the best free VPNs here.

Can you be tracked if you use a VPN?

Illustration showing a padlock on a laptop screen

A VPN makes you much, much more private online compared to surfing the web without one. That said, it doesn’t make you 100% anonymous.

If someone really wants to track you down online, be it a committed individual, law enforcement, or even a government, then they may still be able to do so.

There’s also services like Facebook, Apple and Google – if you’re signed in to these while you surf the web then a VPN won’t stop them from potentially monitoring you.

A bad VPN may leak your IP address or your DNS requests, potentially exposing your identity or your internet history. Make sure that your VPN has a kill switch to prevent leaving yourself exposed if the connection drops.

Here are some common beginner mistakes that can give your identity away online:

  • Browsing while signed into a social media, Google, or Microsoft account
  • Forgetting to turn on your VPN
  • Using an app that isn’t protected by your VPN (some apps travel outside of the VPN’s encrypted tunnel)
  • Forgetting to turn on your VPN’s kill switch, which can lead to your IP being exposed if the VPN connection drops for even a second
  • Allowing an app to use your smartphone’s GPS location data (which always shows your true location)
  • Not clearing your browser’s cookies and cache before using your VPN

If you keep in mind all of the above, a good VPN will make you significantly harder to track versus your online footprint without one. Your ISP in particular will find it very difficult to find out what websites you’ve visited.

Do yourself a favor and consider some of these important factors when looking for a private VPN:

  • Where is it based? A safe jurisdiction will work harder to protect your data
  • What is its logging policy? The less data stored the safer you are
  • Does it accept cryptocurrency as payment? This keeps the paper trail minimal

Are VPNs safe?

Illustration of hackers trying to gain access to an insecure computerVPNs are absolutely safe – but that’s only if the VPN is of good quality and from a reputable VPN provider.

The best VPN services have a proven track record of not recording any activity logs, maintaining their servers, and putting their users’ privacy and security first and foremost. Some have even been audited by independent, external cybersecurity firms to prove that the VPN companies are as trustworthy as they claim.

It’s vital that any VPN you choose has a clear, detailed logging policy. You need to know that you can trust your VPN with your data, and that it isn’t recording anything it shouldn’t.

Almost all VPN providers log some sort of data – even if it’s just login credentials and the number of users on one server at any given time. A ‘no logs’ VPN will avoid recording anything to do with how you use the service, including the sites you visit and when you visit them.

The technologies used by the VPN are important, too. Your VPN needs to have the latest and most secure levels of encryption, plus a good choice of strong protocols (like OpenVPN and IKEv2).

Downloading a suspicious VPN from an unfamiliar source can be considerably more dangerous than not using one at all. The wrong VPN could log your data, sell it on to third parties, or turn it over to any government that comes knocking. We’ve even seen viruses posing as VPNs.

Are VPNs legal?

With very few exceptions, yes, VPNs are legal.

We looked over all 195 countries in the world and could only find four where VPNs are completely illegal:

  • Belarus
  • Iraq
  • North Korea
  • Turkmenistan

There are also seven countries where VPNs are highly regulated or restricted:

  • China
  • Iran
  • Oman
  • Russia
  • Turkey
  • UAE (United Arab Emirates)

So long as you do not live in any of these countries then you have nothing to worry about when using a VPN.

Just like any product or service, though, you still have to follow all local laws when using your VPN.

For information on the few countries where VPNs are regulated or outlawed, read our dedicated guide: Are VPNs Legal?

Does a VPN change your IP?

An illustration showing a smartphone changing IP address

Yes. When you pick a VPN server to connect to, you are assigned a new IP address.

This IP address is only in effect for the duration of your time connected, and does not permanently replace your device’s IP.

Different VPN providers offer different numbers of IP addresses per server. On popular servers there’s a good chance you may share an assigned IP with another user. This shouldn’t affect you in any way – apart from the occasional bit of slowdown during times of extreme congestion on the server.

Some VPNs offer static IP addresses, which guarantee you always get the same one whenever you connect. This can be useful for reducing the number of Captchas you see around the web, and also allows you to tell software or devices to trust certain IP addresses.

We also occasionally see VPN providers offering dedicated IPs: addresses given to you and you alone. While these are great for geo-spoofing websites and streaming services, they’re a poor choice for privacy as logs kept or activity monitored on it can be traced directly back to you.

Does VPN slow down internet?

Yes. The very best VPNs will have very little impact on your internet speed, but they will all slow it to some extent.

Fundamentally, a VPN works by diverting your web traffic through its own servers. That means that rather than traveling in a straight line, it instead takes a diversion. Just like any journey, diversions slow it down – and that’s just what happens to your internet speeds when using a VPN.

Encryption can also add to the time taken to load sites or download files, too. The higher the encryption, the longer the delay.

The closer the VPN server you choose to connect to, the less it will affect your internet speed. This is why it’s important to check the full list of server locations provided by a VPN provider before you sign up.

Can I use a VPN for torrenting?

An illustration of legal torrenting

Yes – but only if the VPN allows P2P and torrenting traffic.

A VPN is a great way to keep yourself protected and anonymous while torrenting, but not every VPN allows its users to torrent.

Make sure that the VPN you choose either allows torrenting on all of its servers or has servers optimized for P2P traffic.

It’s also important that you’re kept protected and private while torrenting. The best VPNs for torrenting will have:

  • A kill switch – to automatically cut your connection if the VPN falters
  • A no-logs policy – so that no one can see what you’ve been using the VPN for
  • Won’t leak your DNS or IP address – meaning your privacy is preserved

We’ve compiled a list of the best VPNs for torrenting to make picking one as simple as possible.

Can I use a VPN to watch Netflix?

Sick of firing up Netflix, only to be greeted by the infamous Netflix proxy error screen?

You’re not alone – fortunately there’s a whole selection of quality VPNs that bypass the block and unlock Netflix, allowing you to watch content from libraries all around the world.

Netflix deploys software designed to block viewers using a VPN service. This can mean that even if you are connected to a server in your own country Netflix can block you until you disconnect it.

You can’t use just any VPN, though. Here are three VPNs that currently work with Netflix:

Be sure that your next VPN works with Netflix – you can see the highest recommended options in our selection of the best VPNs for Netflix.

Do I need a VPN on my phone?

Yes – a VPN on your smartphone is essential. Connecting to public WiFi without first protecting your device is one of the most unsafe things you can do online.

A VPN on your phone protects you when you use unfamiliar WiFi connections, ensuring you can use social media, send emails, and bank online without having to worry about someone eavesdropping and intercepting your data.

Not only that, but we do everything on our smartphones. From banking to messaging to online shopping, your entire digital life is handled through your mobile device. Protecting it is just as important at protecting your desktop computer.

That said, beware that it’s very difficult to make your smartphone anonymous: you’re likely always signed in to your Apple or Google account while using it, which provides a concrete connection to you when you use apps and services.

Whatever handset you use, our guides to the best VPNs for iPhone and the best VPNs for Android have you covered.

Can I use a VPN without WiFi?

Yes – you can connect to a VPN even if you’re just on a 3G or 4G connection.

From a security perspective, the need to do so is not as great, but you can never be too secure. It will also still allow you to spoof your location and hide your online activity from your mobile carrier.

What about using a proxy?

Proxies are very different to VPNs, and should not be confused.

A proxy is only good for geospoofing. A proxy will make it look as if you are connecting to the internet from a different country, but that is all it will do. It provides no protection or encryption.

In order to actually protect and encrypt yourself while online, you need to be using a VPN. A VPN will assign you a new IP address in a region of your choosing, all while applying complex encryption and security protocols to ensure you’re as protected as possible.

You can learn more in our guide: VPN vs Proxy – What’s the Difference?