Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) help you stay anonymous online by masking your identity and origin with a web of secure servers. They also allow you greater freedom on the Internet by helping you bypass geo-locked content and stopping people from tracking what you do.
This comprehensive guide for beginners is intended to introduce the basics of what VPNs are and how they work.
- What is a VPN?
- What is a VPN Used For?
- Why Do I Need a VPN?
- How Does a VPN Work?
- Understanding VPN Logging Policies
- How Does a VPN Protect You?
- How a VPN Affects Your Internet Speed
- Are VPNs Legal?
- What Devices Can You Run a VPN on?
- Conclusion: Do You Need a VPN?
For those who are concerned about security, privacy and anonymity, the term Virtual Private Network, or VPN, will have shown up on your radar at some point or other. A VPN offers users the unique chance to stay safe on the Internet through the combination of encryption and a network of servers.
Thanks to the state of cybersecurity today, we as end users find ourselves besieged from all sides on the Internet. Governments are spying on their own people while companies are harvesting data to sell more advertisements and cybercriminals are trying to steal whatever they can.
Yet a VPN just like any other service costs money, so how do you know if you really need it, or even how much to expect it to cost? This Comprehensive VPN Guide aims to address this and more. In fact, we will explore everything from all the technologies involved to choosing the right VPN service.
What is a VPN?
VPN have traditionally been used to allow secure connections through a series of remote servers. Using a combination of encryption and connection protocols, your data is secured and the source kept hidden. When using a VPN, your original IP address is masked by the connection since you are being routed through the VPN servers.
Consumer VPN connections today are sold as individual services. This helps everyone have the chance to protect their privacy and increase their online security at a small cost. Depending on where the VPN service providers has its servers, your IP address can be changed to that of one virtually anywhere around the world.
What is a VPN Used For?
In theory VPNs offer a very simplistic service. They economy connections from your computer to the VPN server and then routes any information through those servers. The results have the potential to be much more interesting that the theory.
Staying Anonymous: Since you are taking on the IP address of the VPN server your real IP won’t be shown no matter what sites you connect to. This means that anyone accessing that kind of data won’t be able to find your point of origin.
Mask Your Activities: Normally, all your data requests and the like go through your ISP before being routed to where they need to go. By using a VPN, you are routing that information through the VPN’s secure servers instead. This way even your ISP will have no idea what you are accessing on the Internet.
Be Safe on Public WiFi: because of the encryption used by VPN services you are adding an additional layer of security to any of your connections. This can be especially important if you access the web on public WiFi, which is usually unencrypted and open to man-in-the-middle attacks.
Bypass Geo-Blocks: Some websites or online services restrict accessibility or certain content based on where the visitor is coming from. As a case example, some video streaming providers like Netflix has different content for different regions. Using a VPN can allow you to bypass such geo-blocks and access any content you like.
Bypass Internet Censorship: Many governments impose some level of Internet censorship on their people. For example, India carries out Internet censorship and using a VPN is one way to work around this.
P2P or File Sharing: Some ISPs frown on file sharing since it takes up a lot of bandwidth. By using a VPN to torrent, your ISP won’t know that you are using P2P programs and won’t throttle or cut your connection when it occurs.
Why Do I Need a VPN?
Normally I would say that considering increased government surveillance and the low cost of VPN services today, everyone should be using VPNs. However, when it comes to spending money this statement alone might not be enough of a motivating factor.
Security experts around the globe have long tried to warn us about the dangers of using insecure connections for our devices. The recent deluge of data breaches and leaks have obviously shown this to be accurate.
The recent WeWork data leak is a prime example of how serious the situation has become. If we cannot rely of companies we interact with to keep our data safe – we can at least increase security on our own sides and be more cautious about who we share what with.
According to Tony Jarvis, Chief Technology Officer, APAC, Check Point Software Technologies, “Insecure wifi networks present a significant security concern: they can reveal the data flowing from a user's mobile device to others. This creates not only a privacy risk, but also the very real danger that others may misuse this information to commit offences such as identity fraud or siphoning funds out of individuals' bank accounts”.
This and other reasons are solid motivating factors for individuals to invest small monthly fees to keep their data transfers secure and encrypted. If you would like to learn the true value of a VPN service to you then it might help if you first understand the way you use the Internet daily.
For example, do you only use it rarely to do some research or check your email, or are you glued to the net and use it for everything from work to entertainment?
Understanding how you use the Internet can lend a great deal more weight to helping you decide as to whether you need to use a VPN or not. Let’s consider a few cases;
The Occasional User – Will often find the Internet more of something he/she merely tolerates and uses it only when there is no other choice. Access to email and quick research may be the only things this profile of person does. In this scenario, a VPN would be less suitable for their needs.
The Student – Younger people are generally heavy Internet users and tend to play games as well. They thrive off everything ranging from social media to online gaming and use a wide variety of devices to do so. VPN can not only help them stay safe online, but also bypass geo-restricted games and can be installed on a wide variety of devices.
The Frequent Traveller – Whether moving from place to place for work or otherwise, frequent travellers will often find themselves using public Internet connections which are insecure. There is a high risk of communications interceptions which may result in login credentials being stolen, including even for access to online banking portals. VPN are vital in this case.
These are just some of the use cases where a VPON might or might not be necessary. As you can see, the key differentiating factor is mainly is how much you use the Internet. The more you use it, the more likely your needs for a VPN service increase.
How Does a VPN Work?
VPNs work by passing your connection through a secure server before accessing the sites you want on the Internet. Normally, when you type the URL of a website you want to visit into your browser address bar, you will be connected to that site directly. The process is a little more involved when using a VPN.
To use a VPN service usually you have to install and launch an application. This application connects you to a VPN server. Anything that passes along the connection between your device and the VPN server is encrypted.
When you type a URL in your browser address bar, the request will be routed through the VPN server. The VPN server you connect to acts as the ‘public face’ of your connection. Anything that passes between your computer and the VPN server is safe and hidden from prying eyes.
For example, if you connect to a US-based VPN server, any other site or service you connect to will assume that you are physically in the United States. You can choose to connect through any country in the world as long as your VPN service provider has a server in that location.
Understanding VPN Logging Policies
Many VPN service providers will tell you that they do not keep logs. Logs are information files that contain information about your connection and activities. It is important to note that there are various types of logs which might be kept.
Connection logs might contain things such as your IP address, time stamps of when you started or disconnected to the service, and how much information was transferred during the connection.
Usage Logs contain other information like what sites you may have visited during a connection, what you've downloaded, what protocols the various applications you use are engaging in, and more.
As you can see from the information contained in these logs, they can ultimately be used to not just identify you, but also everything you've done and everywhere you've gone on the Internet.
Most good VPN service providers will therefore do their best to assure customers that they do not keep this information. unfortunately, there is no way you can normally know if they are telling the truth.
ExpressVPN though recently went to the expense and effort of getting audited by a third-party which managed to verify that the company's no-logging policy was legit.
How Does a VPN Protect You?
There are two main components of a VPN connection, the connection and the encryption. The connection protocol helps determine how two systems (in this case, your computer or device and the VPN server) communicate.
The encryption protocol determines what type and level of encryption is applied to any data that is travelling along the tunnel established by the communication protocol. The higher the encryption the safer your data will be.
There have mostly been five main protocols which VPN services use;
OpenVPN – Is an open source protocol which is very popular today. It can be used by almost any platforms on most devices and is able to support high levels of encryption. Although in the past criticized for being quite slow, updates to the protocol have made it much more viable than ever.
L2TP/IPSec – Layer 2 Tunnel Protocol is the protocol which replaced PPTP. There is no native encryption in this protocol which is where IPSec comes in. IPSec offers extremely high levels of encryption and the combination of L2TP/IPSec is both fast and potent.
SSTP – This is another strongly encrypted protocol that comes along as an option on many VPN services today. Unfortunately, it is proprietary to Microsoft and as such has not been audited for security by external parties.
IKEv2 – Owned by Microsoft and Cisco, Internet Key Exchange version 2 is also usually combined with IPSec for better security. It is highly popular in mobile usage because of its strong capabilities in handling reconnects such as during the period of travel between coverage of cell phone base units.
PPTP – One of the oldest connection protocols around, Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol is one of the oldest VPN protocols. It is still in use in some places, but the majority of services have long upgraded to faster and more secure protocols.
PPTP was introduced way back in 1995. It was actually integrated with Windows 95, designed to work with dial-up connections. At the time, it was extremely useful.
But the VPN technology has progressed, and PPTP is no longer secure. Governments and criminals cracked PPTP encryption long ago, making any data sent using the protocol unsecure.
However, it isn’t quite dead… yet. You see, some people find PPTP gives the best connection speeds, precisely due to the lack of security features (when compared to modern protocols). As such, it still sees use for users simply wanting to watch Netflix from a different location.
We’ve looked at the five major VPN protocols. Let’s quickly summarize their pros and cons.
- OpenVPN: Open source, offers strongest encryption, suitable for all activities, if a little slow at times
- L2TP/IPSec: Widely used protocol, good speeds, but easily blocked due to reliance on single port
- SSTP: Good security, difficult to block and detect
- IKEv2: Fast, mobile friendly, with several open source implementations (potentially undermined by NSA)
- PPTP: Fast, widely supported, but full of security holes, only use for streaming and basic web browsing
But now, it doesn’t end there. A new protocol has emerged, and while it’s not officially released—WireGuard is the future of VPN technology. There are currently only a handful of VPN service providers which offer either full or partial implementations of WireGuard such as NordVPN and TorGuard.
How a VPN Affects Your Internet Speed
When you connect to VPN, and your online traffic is routed through a secure encrypted tunnel, you may experience slight changes in the Internet speed, and this is absolutely normal.
There are many moving parts involved in how fast your connection can be when using a VPN. Let’s take a closer look at what determines Internet performance when you access the web privately and securely instead of the regular, unprotected way.
Note: There have been misconceptions that using a VPN can increase your Internet speed but this is untrue. Your speed will always be equal to or less than the subscribed speed you have with your Internet Service Provider.
Distance to a server
The distance between your physical location and a VPN server is one of the key factors determining the Internet speed. For example, if you’re in the UK and you’re connecting to a VPN server in Australia, your data need to be moved that actual distance. The nearer a server is located, the faster your Internet speed will be.
Unless you need to connect to a server in specific location, it is better to choose VPN servers located in nearby countries, including where you are. To squeeze out the maximum, search for a high speed VPN service provider with broad country coverage and a large number of servers, such as NordVPN that has more than 5,000 servers in over 60 countries.
To see how Internet speed differs when connected to servers in different locations, run a speed test (Speedtest.net is a good choice) and take a look at the ping time. It shows how long is a delay in the connection between your device and the server it’s communicating with.
If you'd like to try this for yourself you can do a comparison easily. For instance, when connecting from the UK, choose an Australian server and run a speed test, then run it once again when connected to a server in France.
Compare the ping times and you will likely find that the delay is shorter when you're connected to the French server as it’s way closer than the Australian one. So, shorter ping times is what you should always look for.
However, to determine the actual speed, interlinking between different ISPs must be taken into account. That means that the same speed test server must be used in both cases: when connected and when disconnected from VPN.
Let’s say you live in the UK and you want to test the speed of your VPN when connected to a server in Germany. All you need to do is to connect to a German server and run a speed test. However, after you disconnect from VPN to run another speed test, you must choose the same speed test server in Germany you used in a test before.
When there are many users connected to one server, the connection speed drops. Such overload is a typical problem with free and slow VPN service providers that offer a poor number of servers and have many users lured by the option of using VPN at no cost.
Users of advanced VPNs with extensive servers’ lists shouldn’t face this issue. In NordVPN, the Quick Connect functionality comes in handy – it automatically picks one of our dedicated servers for the best speed VPN performance.
Quality of encryption
Encryption is the key feature of virtual private networks. It makes your online traffic inaccessible to hackers and snoopers so that you can browse in ultimate privacy. However, the way encryption is handled depends on a VPN service provider. It can vary in terms of quality and reliability.
Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) is the block cipher algorithm used as the current encryption standard. It may come in different levels of strength, such as 128-bit, 192-bit and 256-bit encryption. The higher the encryption level, the more reliable the protection of your data is.
Before becoming the most frequently used algorithm in ciphering data, AES with 256-bit keys was used by the U.S. government to secure classified information and by the NSA to protect national security data. Even a supercomputer can’t crack 256-bit encryption, so the strongest type of AES is what you should be looking for in a VPN service.
However, there is a small tradeoff you have to make: security and privacy supported by the strongest available encryption come with a slight loss in the Internet speed. So it’s a matter of your preferences: whether you need maximum speed or your sensitive data being protected against snoopers of any kind.
Speaking of NordVPN, military-grade AES-256 encryption implemented into the IKEv2/IPsec and OpenVPN security protocols is used to provide users with the ultimate data protection.
Internet speed offered by ISP
If your Internet speed is low to begin with the VPN shouldn’t be the only factor to blame for your online traffic running slow. Sometimes, Internet service providers (ISPs) throttle bandwidth on purpose.
Users might experience this by their Internet speed slowing down for specific websites or at certain times. For you as a user it usually means that you won’t be able to stream videos or download content as fast as you normally could.
In this situation, VPN comes as a true lifesaver – by routing your Internet traffic through a virtual private network, you can bypass the speed limitations imposed by your ISP.
Note: There is myth that using a VPN can increase your Internet speed. This is not true and you should not subscribe to a VPN service if that is what you're hoping for!
Are VPNs Legal?
It’s perfectly legal to use a VPN in most countries, including the U.S. This comes with a few important caveats, however:
- You can use VPNs in the U.S. – Running a VPN in the U.S. is legal, but anything that’s illegal without a VPN remains illegal when using one (eg torrenting copyrighted material)
- VPNs are banned by a few countries – Some countries, including China, Russia, Iraq and North Korea, restrict or ban the use of VPNs
- Law enforcement can demand information – Though most VPNs promise to keep no logs, there is precedent for VPN providers sharing user information with the authorities when requested
There are currently no laws prohibiting or restricting the use of VPNs in the U.S. and Canada. It’s also legal to use VPNs in many other countries around the world, including the UK, Australia and Europe.
Although VPNs have suffered from a poor reputation in the past due to being used for dubious activities, there are a host of valid reasons why people would choose to use a VPN, from accessing content on streaming services not available in their region, to protecting themselves when using public Wi-Fi.
It’s worth remembering that VPNs aren’t legal everywhere. They’re are banned in certain countries, particularly those with a more restrictive reputation.
What Devices Can You Run a VPN on?
The exact devices that VPNs can run on depend on the individual service providers. Most top of the line VPN service providers can run on almost any device and in fact usually allow you to use your service on multiple devices simultaneously.
Take for example if you were to subscribe to Surfshark (They are currently offering a great deal – only $1.99 per month for a two-year subscription!). They allow you to connect an unlimited number of devices at the same time.
In any case, aside from the usual devices such as your PC, Mac, smartphone or tablet, there are many more platforms you can install most VPNs on. These include FireTV, many popular routers, or even your normal smart TVs.
Conclusion: Do You Need a VPN?
VPN services are simply one of those things that you might never think you need until one day you do – and then it's too late. At point of purchase, some may balk at paying prices ranging between $50 to $100+ but in all honesty, those are for subscriptions of between one to three years.
That works out to a few dollars a month. How much do you value your safety and privacy?
Take a look at three of the best VPN services on the market;