What is A VPN? A Simple Guide For Beginners…



The subject of VPNs can be confusing, especially if you’re a beginner. In this guide, we’ll explain exactly what a VPN is and how it works…


If you’ve been online at all during the past several years, you will almost have certainly heard about VPNs.

As one of the most lucrative technology niches on planet earth, VPN companies make A LOT of money and most of them don’t mind spending it on marketing and adverts.

Most mainstream podcasts and YouTube channels these days are sponsored by VPN providers for instance.

You’ll find VPN adverts on most websites. And most major tech sites and, increasingly, mainstream news outlets cover VPNs as a topic.

VPNs are big business these days, generating billions of dollars for a handful of the industry’s biggest players.

  • But is a VPN essential? Is it worth buying one?
  • What does a VPN even do?
  • And will it make your computer and/or phone more secure?

This post is designed to answer all of your VPN questions.

By the end, you’ll basically be an expert in all things VPN-related…

What is A VPN?

VPN stands for virtual private network. But that doesn’t really help that much, does it? It still sounds fairly technical and exotic.

But fear not, by the end of this section, you’ll know exactly what it all means. Let’s delve into what a VPN actually does without getting too bogged down in technical jargon.

When you connect to the internet, you usually do it through your home network (WiFi) or mobile data (4G or 5G) on your phone. Both of these types of “connections” are owned and controlled by a business, either a carrier and/or phone network or an ISP, Internet Service Provider.

what is a vpn
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Your connection can be tracked and monitored by either your carrier or your ISP. This is why both can easily block certain sites, crack down on things like torrenting and P2P file-sharing, and even pass on customers’ information to the authorities if you’ve been doing something illegal. They’re able to do this because your IP address is like your internet ID card. It contains reams of information about you.

Similarly, when you connect to a site on the internet, your device, either your phone, computer, or tablet, connects to the server that particular site is hosted on. From here, the site’s admins can view certain aspects of your data – things like your location, type of device, and even your gender and age. Meta loves this kind of data; it’s what Facebook was built to harness (and then sell on to advertisers).

And if all that sounds a little creepy, well… that’s because it is. But that is, sadly, how the internet works. But if you want to take control of your data and who can see it, a VPN is the quickest and easiest way to do that.

When you run a VPN on your phone or your computer at home, your IP address is effectively scrambled which makes it impossible for your carrier or ISP to track what you’re doing.

A VPN also makes your exact location and its associated data impossible for website owners and ISPs to accurately track too. You might be in Croydon, England but, according to their data logs, your exact location could be in LA or New York, or Brisbane. This is the power of a VPN; it creates a proxy of your online identity by masking your true location, identity, and associated data.


What Does A VPN Do?

Most people use VPNs to access different versions of Netflix or Amazon Prime Video. This is how VPNs first became really popular; the US version of Netflix has always been better than the UK version, so UK customers used VPNs to access the American version instead.

Netflix has clamped down on this A LOT in recent years, but there are some VPNs that can still access different versions of Netflix.

Media is just the tip of the iceberg, though, when it comes to VPNs. The main reason you SHOULD use one is to protect yourself online. What are the other benefits of using a VPN? Here’s a bunch:

  • Security For Remote Work
  • Bypass Geo-Locked Content
  • Remain 100% Anonymous Online
  • Prevents Data Throttling
  • Avoid Bandwidth Throttling
  • Bypass Workplace, School & College Internet Filters

Once you’ve downloaded a VPN provider, these are our current favorites right now (based on speed, security, and overall performance), you’re free to go pretty much anywhere on the internet you like. Geo-locked websites will be open to you, you’ll be able to access US versions of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ in the UK, for instance, as well as sign-up for US-only streaming sites like HULU.

But the main thing is security and privacy. You will be untrackable online, your ISP will not be able to restrict what you look at online, and your connection will be encrypted by the same technology used by the US military which effectively makes your unhackable and keeps all your data and information extremely safe, even on public WiFi networks.

In addition to this, you will be able to freely download torrents and engage in P2P file-sharing if you so wish. Normally, these types of sites and activities are automatically blocked by carriers and ISPs. But with a VPN installed, you simply bypass these blocks. As always, you should ALWAYS keep your online activities legal – this kind of goes without saying.

Best VPN For Speed, Netflix & No Logging (Our #1 Picks)

We tested over 30 VPNs in 2021/22. Inside the guide below, you'll find the best VPNs for speed, security, features, and for unlocking streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+

Pros:
  • All VPNs Fully Tested & Vetted By Our Team
  • All Run Multi-Platform
  • All Included VPNs Are 100% No-Logs
  • Options For All Budgets
  • Our Top Picks Are Updated Constantly
THE BEST VPN RIGHT NOW

VPN Connections – All The Different Types

As with most forms of encryption technology, there is a raft of different types of connections your VPN can use, and certain VPN providers use a range of different technologies to run their respective platforms.

Here’s a quick overview from Geeks For Geeks of all the different types of VPN connections you might come across when using a VPN service:

  • Internet Protocol Security (IPSec): This is used to secure Internet communication across an IP network. IPSec secures Internet Protocol communication by verifying the session and encrypting each data packet during the connection. IPSec runs in 2 modes: (i) Transport mode; and (ii) Tunneling mode
  • Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP): L2TP or Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol is a tunneling protocol that is often combined with another VPN security protocol like IPSec to establish a highly secure VPN connection. L2TP generates a tunnel between two L2TP connection points and IPSec protocol encrypts the data and maintains secure communication between the tunnel.
  • Point–to–Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP): PPTP or Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol generates a tunnel and confines the data packet. Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) is used to encrypt the data between the connection. PPTP is one of the most widely used VPN protocols and has been in use since the early release of Windows. PPTP is also used on Mac and Linux apart from Windows.
  • SSL and TLS: SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) and TLS (Transport Layer Security) generate a VPN connection where the web browser acts as the client and user access is prohibited to specific applications instead of the entire network. Online shopping websites commonly use SSL and TLS protocols. It is easy to switch to SSL by web browsers and with almost no action required from the user as web browsers come integrated with SSL and TLS. SSL connections have “https” in the initial of the URL instead of “http”.
  • OpenVPN: OpenVPN is an open-source VPN that is commonly used for creating Point-to-Point and Site-to-Site connections. It uses a traditional security protocol based on SSL and TLS protocols.
  • Secure Shell (SSH): Secure Shell or SSH generates the VPN tunnel through which the data transfer occurs and also ensures that the tunnel is encrypted. SSH connections are generated by an SSH client and data is transferred from a local port to the remote server through the encrypted tunnel.

VPN For iPhone, Android, Mac & PC

If you do a Google search for a specific VPN for a specific device, you’ll find A LOT of results. But you needn’t bother with any of them – nearly all modern VPN services will work across an entire range of devices. If you go with any of our top recommended VPNs, you’ll be able to run your VPN on all of your devices.

iPhone VPN vs Third-Party VPN

Apple likes to be on the cutting edge, so when it introduced Private Relay back in 2021, many assumed this was Apple’s way of cutting out third-party VPNs on its devices. But Private Relay, while useful for certain things, is no way near as feature-rich as a third-party VPN which is a nice way of saying it is incredibly limited in its scope.

How do you get Private Relay on your iPhone? The software isn’t free. In order to get Private Relay on your iPhone (or any other Apple device), you will need an iCloud+ account. A lot of people already pay for additional iCloud storage, so if you’re one of those people you do have access to Apple’s Private Relay.

What does Private Relay do? It is kind of a VPN but not really. With Private Relay up and running, Apple users can conceal their IP addresses as you do with third-party VPNs. Apple does this by running your connection through two random servers which prevent your digital path from being tied to you or your device. But that’s ALL it does.

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Private Relay will only work in Apple’s Safari browser too and apps that use insecure connections (HTTP instead of HTTPS, but those types of apps are few and far between these days). Private Relay does not work in the Chrome browser or any other third-party browser. For that, you’ll need a third-party VPN.

Does Private Relay allow you to access geo-locked content? Because of the way Apple’s Private Relay is designed, and also because Apple does not want to anger Netflix or its content partners with Apple TV+, the software feature does not allow users to manipulate their location which, again, is another reason why you’d want to use a third-party VPN over Apple’s Private Relay.

For this reason, if you want to protect your data, access the web in full, and stream TV shows and media from different regions, your only option is a third-party VPN like the ones listed inside our Best VPN Guide.

Best VPN For Speed, Netflix & No Logging (Our #1 Picks)

We tested over 30 VPNs in 2021/22. Inside the guide below, you'll find the best VPNs for speed, security, features, and for unlocking streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+

Pros:
  • All VPNs Fully Tested & Vetted By Our Team
  • All Run Multi-Platform
  • All Included VPNs Are 100% No-Logs
  • Options For All Budgets
  • Our Top Picks Are Updated Constantly
THE BEST VPN RIGHT NOW

Google VPN For Android

Unlike Apple, Google does have its own VPN app. Called Google One VPN, this service comes with your Google One account membership. In this respect, it is kind of a paid-for VPN because, in order to access it, you’ll need to subscribe to a paid Google One account.

The Google One VPN is simple to use, really simple in fact. But it is a bare-bones VPN service – all it does is mask your IP, add in some additional security, and that’s about it. You cannot change your IP address location with the Google One VPN, so, like Apple’s Private Relay, it is not designed for accessing geo-locked content which, unsurprisingly, is the most common reason people use VPNs.

Google says its Google One VPN is a no-logs VPN, meaning Google does not track your activity online while using the VPN, but because Google is based in the USA it can be forced by the authorities to hand over data. With a third-party VPN, most of the businesses are based outside the US, usually in Panama or the British Virgin Islands, so they’re not obliged to hand over data to the feds and/or government.

The Google One VPN is useful if all you want to do is mask your IP address, avoid network throttling, and access torrenting and P2P sites. But it is very basic, almost too basic right now to recommend. It also only works on Android phones – there is no desktop, TV, or tablet support. For this reason, again, you’re going to be much better off going with a proper third-party VPN.

Do VPN Apps Run On Desktop Too?

In our guide to the best VPNs, one of the key factors we used when testing and accessing each VPN was whether or not it was available on a cross-platform basis. After all, what would be the point of buying a VPN that you could ONLY use on your phone?

Most good, modern VPNs will run on ALL your devices, including your TV, phone, tablet, laptop, and computer. All you need to do is sign in with your account’s login details and the VPN, as well as your custom settings, will be applied to whatever device you’re using.

All of the VPNs inside our best VPN guide support anywhere between 4 to 6 supported devices, meaning you can run the VPN on anywhere from four to six devices in total. My advice? Go with the VPN that offers the most installs – currently, six active installs – as this means you can get your family up and running too.

Best VPN For Speed, Netflix & No Logging (Our #1 Picks)

We tested over 30 VPNs in 2021/22. Inside the guide below, you'll find the best VPNs for speed, security, features, and for unlocking streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+

Pros:
  • All VPNs Fully Tested & Vetted By Our Team
  • All Run Multi-Platform
  • All Included VPNs Are 100% No-Logs
  • Options For All Budgets
  • Our Top Picks Are Updated Constantly
THE BEST VPN RIGHT NOW

Why People Use VPNs

Security. Unlocking content and applications from different countries. Online privacy. Ensuring data is safe when using free public WiFi networks. There are a million and one reasons why people use VPNs but the most common reasons relate to unlocking geo-locked content, so, things like Netflix and Amazon Prime in different regions, and security – a VPN will keep you safe from hackers and ISP snooping.

Do VPNs Affect Internet Speed?

Any encryption software no matter how sophisticated it is will always impact internet speeds slightly. With VPNs, some services are a lot better than others. If you go with a free VPN, you will experience terrible performance – both from a security and speed perspective.

Premium – or paid-for – VPNs are the way to go if you don’t want your internet speeds affected by running a VPN. Again, there are plenty of options in this niche but there is one VPN that is way faster than pretty much every other VPN on the market right now. You can check that VPN out here – it is our current #1 pick for the fastest VPN.

In our guide to the best VPNs right now, we highlight which provider currently offers the fastest VPN on the market, so if speed is important that is the one to go for. On top of this, we have options for the best VPN for streaming, the best VPN for value for money, and, of course, the best VPN overall.

Countries Where VPNs Are Banned

VPNs are legal in most places. If you live in a country that operates a Western-style democracy, downloading, installing, and using a VPN is simple to do and perfectly within the confines of the law. There are a few countries that do not allow their citizens to use VPNs, however, and these countries, as you’d expect, tend to be ones with more, let’s say… authoritarian governments.

Here’s a breakdown of all the countries where VPNs are prohibited:

  • China
  • Russia
  • Belarus
  • North Korea
  • Turkmenistan
  • Uganda
  • Iraq
  • Turkey
  • UAE
  • Oman

Why Are VPNs Banned in Certain Countries?

The main reason a country, say, China, would ban a VPN is simple. They do it because they like to censor the information their citizens have access to. You cannot lie to your population and make those lies stick if the population has access to third-party news that offers a different, broader perspective.

Take the current Ukraine war. No one in Russia is seeing what we’re seeing on the news. And a carpet ban on VPNs ensures that even when Russian or Chinese people go online, they’re still blocked from accessing news sources outside of Russia.

China and Russia, though China more so, have long been advocates of censoring not only the internet but also all forms of media. And the reason they do this is to ensure their respective citizens do not question the authority and/or decisions of the state.

Best VPN For Speed, Netflix & No Logging (Our #1 Picks)

We tested over 30 VPNs in 2021/22. Inside the guide below, you'll find the best VPNs for speed, security, features, and for unlocking streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+

Pros:
  • All VPNs Fully Tested & Vetted By Our Team
  • All Run Multi-Platform
  • All Included VPNs Are 100% No-Logs
  • Options For All Budgets
  • Our Top Picks Are Updated Constantly
THE BEST VPN RIGHT NOW

So, the next time you think we have it bad in the UK, US, or Europe, give a thought to the people, guys and gals just you like and me, that live inside countries where ACTUAL, active censorship is part and parcel of the state’s apparatus. No one country is perfect, of course, but not allowing your citizens free, unrestricted access to news and media online feels, frankly, medieval in this day and age. Sadly, them’s the breaks. And with the current Ukraine war, things are only going to get worse in places like Russia.

For everybody else, if you want unrestricted access to the internet with increased security and privacy while you’re on there, a VPN is a must-have piece of tech in your digital stack. And right now, these are the best VPNs on the market bar none.

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Richard Goodwin

Richard Goodwin has been working as a tech journalist for over 10 years. He is the editor and owner of KnowYourMobile.

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