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Understanding and Using VPNs: A Complete Guide [2023]

Curious about VPNs? In this guide, we’ll explain in simple terms why VPNs are perfectly safe, legal, and 100% worth using in 2021…


Key Takeaways

  • What is a VPN?: A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a secure connection that encrypts data sent between networked computers, ensuring privacy and security. It is particularly useful when using public Wi-Fi networks.
  • Are VPNs Safe?: VPNs are safe and recommended for use, especially on public Wi-Fi networks. However, free VPNs should be avoided as they often share user data with third parties. Reputable, paid VPNs like ExpressVPN or NordVPN are recommended.
  • Are VPNs Legal?: VPNs are legal in most countries. They hide your internet IP, making it difficult for ISPs, the government, and hackers to access your data or see your online activities. However, illegal activities remain illegal even when using a VPN.
  • Is it Worth Using a VPN?: Using a VPN has several benefits, including circumventing throttling on public Wi-Fi networks, accessing the entire web without regional restrictions, and protecting against snooping from the government and ISPs. They are also essential for safe torrenting and P2P activities.
  • Recommended VPN: NordVPN is recommended for its speed, ease of use, and no-logs policy, ensuring that the company does not store any data about user activities.

VPNs (Virtual Private Network) have become increasingly popular over the past several years. Previously used by businesses for secure, remote access, VPNs are now popular with consumers.

And the reason?

Simple: VPNs make your internet connection, whether on WiFi at home or on mobile data when you’re out and about, more secure by anonymizing and encrypting your connection.

This ensures all your data and personal details are protectedeven on public WiFi networks like those found in airports and coffee shops.

Understanding VPNs

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What is a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is a service that creates a secure, encrypted connection between your device and the internet. Think of it as a secure tunnel through which your online activity can pass, hidden from prying eyes. It allows you to browse the web anonymously, protecting your data and identity from potential threats.

Additional Resources:

How does a VPN work?

When you connect to a VPN, it masks your IP address, which is the unique identifier for your device on the internet. Your connection is rerouted through a VPN server, which could be located anywhere in the world. This process not only hides your IP address but also makes it appear as if you’re browsing from the location of the VPN server.

The data you send and receive is encrypted, meaning it’s turned into a code that can’t be understood without the correct decryption key. This ensures that even if someone were to intercept your data, they wouldn’t be able to understand it.

Why is a VPN important for privacy and security?

A VPN is a powerful tool for maintaining your online privacy and security. Here’s why:

  1. Anonymity: By masking your IP address, a VPN ensures your online actions can’t be traced back to you.
  2. Security: The encryption provided by a VPN protects your data from being intercepted and read by unauthorized individuals.
  3. Access: A VPN can bypass geographic restrictions on websites or streaming audio and video. This means you can view content that is blocked in your region.
  4. Safe Public Wi-Fi Use: Using public Wi-Fi can expose your data to potential threats. A VPN secures your connection, making it safe to use public Wi-Fi.

Types of VPNs

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There are several types of VPNs, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Here are a few of the most common types of VPN you’ll come across:

  1. Remote Access VPN: This type of VPN allows users to connect to a private network remotely, often used by corporate employees to access their company’s network from home or while traveling.
  2. Site-to-Site VPN: Also known as a Router-to-Router VPN, this is used by businesses to connect the networks of multiple offices in different locations.
  3. OpenVPN: An open-source VPN protocol, known for its flexibility and security. It can be used for either site-to-site or point-to-point connections.
  4. IPsec VPN: Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) VPNs secure internet communication across an IP network. They are commonly used for creating a secure tunnel for transferring data between two networks.
  5. SSL VPN: Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) VPNs create a secure and encrypted connection over a less-secure network, like the internet. They are often used to provide remote access to web applications.
  6. Mobile VPN: Designed for the challenges that come with wireless communication, it maintains and optimizes the VPN connection as the user changes locations or switches between networks.

1. Remote Access VPN

A Remote Access VPN allows users to connect to a private network and access its services and resources remotely. The connection between the user and the private network happens over the internet through a VPN server.

Remote Access VPNs are used extensively by corporate employees to access their company’s network securely from home or while traveling.

Pros:

  • Provides secure access to resources from any location.
  • Ideal for individual users and employees who need to access corporate resources remotely.
  • Can provide a high level of security if properly configured.

Cons:

  • Can be vulnerable to attacks if not properly secured.
  • The quality of the connection can depend on the user’s local internet connection.

2. Site-to-Site VPN

Also known as a Router-to-Router VPN, this type of VPN is used by businesses to connect the networks of multiple offices in different locations.

In a site-to-site VPN, hosts do not have VPN client software; they send and receive normal TCP/IP traffic through a VPN gateway.

Pros:

  • Ideal for connecting networks between different offices.
  • Allows all networked devices to communicate with each other via a secure connection.
  • No need to install VPN client software on each device.

Cons:

  • Can be complex to set up and manage.
  • Requires a dedicated VPN gateway at each location.

3. OpenVPN

OpenVPN is an open-source VPN protocol, known for its flexibility and security. It uses a custom security protocol that utilizes SSL/TLS for key exchange and can be used for either site-to-site or point-to-point connections.

Pros:

  • Highly secure and reliable.
  • Works on a wide range of operating systems.
  • Can bypass most firewalls and internet censorship.

Cons:

  • Can be difficult to set up for beginners.
  • Requires third-party software.

4. IPsec VPN

Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) VPNs secure internet communication across an IP network. They are commonly used for creating a secure tunnel for transferring data between two networks.

Pros:

  • Provides robust security features.
  • Widely supported on various platforms.

Cons:

  • Can be complex to set up.
  • May not work well with NAT (Network Address Translation) devices.

5. SSL VPN

Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) VPNs create a secure and encrypted connection over a less-secure network, like the internet. They are often used to provide remote access to web applications.

Pros:

  • Provides access through a web browser, eliminating the need for special software.
  • Offers granular access control.

Cons:

  • Not suitable for connecting entire networks – more suited for individual services.
  • May require additional hardware or software.

6. Mobile VPN

A Mobile VPN is designed for the challenges that come with wireless communication. It maintains and optimizes the VPN connection as the user changes locations or switches between networks.

Pros:

  • Provides secure access for mobile devices.
  • Maintains a consistent connection as the user changes locations.

Cons:

  • Can be more complex to set up.
  • May use more battery power on mobile devices.

Use Cases for VPNs

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VPNs are versatile tools that can be used in a variety of scenarios. Here are some of the most common use cases:

1. Secure Browsing on Public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi networks, like those in coffee shops or airports, are often unsecured, making them prime targets for cybercriminals. When you connect to a public Wi-Fi network, a VPN can encrypt your connection and protect your data from potential eavesdroppers.

2. Streaming Geo-Restricted Content

Many streaming services, like Netflix or Hulu, restrict their content based on your geographical location. A VPN can mask your IP address and make it appear as if you’re browsing from a different location, allowing you to access content that would otherwise be unavailable in your region.

3. Enhancing Online Privacy

Even when browsing from the safety of your home, your internet service provider (ISP) can see and log your online activity. A VPN can encrypt your data and hide your online activity from your ISP, enhancing your privacy.

4. Safe Remote Work

For businesses with remote employees, VPNs are essential for protecting sensitive data. When an employee connects to the company network through a VPN, their connection is secured, ensuring that sensitive company data remains safe.

5. Bypassing Internet Censorship

In some countries, the government imposes strict internet censorship. A VPN can help bypass these restrictions, allowing you to access blocked websites and services.

6. Online Gaming

VPNs can also be useful for online gaming. They can help reduce lag and ping times by connecting to servers closer to the game server, and they can also help bypass geo-restrictions on certain games or DLCs.

7. Secure File Sharing

If you’re sharing sensitive files or documents over the internet, a VPN can provide an extra layer of security. This is particularly useful for businesses that need to share large amounts of data between different locations.

How to Choose a VPN

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Choosing the right VPN can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some key factors to consider before choosing the best VPN for your exact needs:

Security Features

The primary purpose of a VPN is to secure your online activity, so robust security features are crucial. Look for VPNs that offer strong encryption, a no-logs policy, and a kill switch feature, which disconnects you from the internet if the VPN connection drops to prevent data leaks.

Server Locations

The number and location of servers can impact your VPN experience. More servers generally mean better speed and reliability. Additionally, if you plan to use your VPN to access geo-restricted content, ensure the service has servers in the necessary locations.

Speed

While a VPN can secure your internet connection, it can also slow it down. Look for a VPN that offers fast and stable connections. Many VPN providers offer free trials or money-back guarantees, so you can test the speed before committing.

Price

While there are free VPNs available, they often come with limitations and may not be as secure. Paid VPNs offer better features and security. When considering the price, think about your needs and how much you’re willing to pay for these features.

User Experience

A user-friendly interface can make your VPN experience much smoother. Look for a VPN that’s easy to set up and use, especially if you’re a beginner.

Customer Support

Good customer support can be invaluable if you run into any issues. Look for a VPN provider that offers 24/7 support and has a reputation for responding quickly and helpfully.

A Comparison of Popular VPN Services

  • ExpressVPN: Known for its high speed, robust security, and ease of use. It’s slightly more expensive than some competitors, but its features and reliability justify the price.
  • NordVPN: Offers a large number of servers worldwide and strong security features. It also provides a user-friendly interface and competitive pricing.
  • CyberGhost: A great choice for beginners with its easy-to-use interface. It offers a good balance of speed, security, and price.
  • Surfshark: Known for its unlimited device policy, meaning you can connect as many devices as you want. It offers a good mix of speed, security, and affordability.
  • Private Internet Access (PIA): Offers a high level of customization, allowing you to tweak the security settings to your liking. It has a large number of servers but may not be as fast as some competitors.

How to Set Up a VPN

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Setting up a VPN can vary slightly depending on the device and the VPN provider, but the general steps are as follows:

On a PC:

  1. Choose a VPN provider: Research and select a VPN provider that fits your needs. Some popular choices include ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and CyberGhost.
  2. Sign up: Visit the VPN provider’s website and sign up for a plan that suits you.
  3. Download and Install: Download the VPN application from the provider’s website or the appropriate app store. Follow the installation instructions.
  4. Set Up: Open the VPN application, log in with your account details, and follow any on-screen setup instructions.
  5. Connect: Choose a server location and click ‘Connect’. You’re now using a VPN!

On a Smartphone:

  1. Choose a VPN provider: As with a PC, the first step is to choose a VPN provider.
  2. Sign up: Sign up for a plan on the provider’s website.
  3. Download and Install: Download the VPN app from the App Store (for iOS devices) or Google Play Store (for Android devices).
  4. Set Up: Open the app, log in, and follow the setup instructions.
  5. Connect: Choose a server and connect. Your smartphone is now secured with a VPN!

On a Router:

Setting up a VPN on a router can be a bit more complex and may not be supported by all VPNs or routers.

  1. Choose a VPN provider: Ensure the provider supports router installation.
  2. Sign up: Sign up for a plan on the provider’s website.
  3. Router Configuration: Log into your router’s admin page and configure the VPN settings. This usually involves entering the VPN server details and your login credentials. The exact steps can vary depending on the router and VPN, so it’s best to follow the specific guide provided by the VPN provider.
  4. Connect: Once set up, all devices connected to the router will be protected by the VPN.

Because VPNs are like every other tech product, you can – and potentially will – run into problems when running one. There are usually a few common culprits, however, when it comes to VPN issues and problems. 

I’ve outlined a few of the most common issues VPN users run into, as well as how to fix them, below. 

Tips for Troubleshooting Common VPN Setup Issues:

  1. Connection Issues: If you’re having trouble connecting, try switching to a different server or checking your internet connection.
  2. Slow Speeds: VPNs can slow down your internet speed. If it’s significantly slower, try switching servers or contacting the VPN’s customer support.
  3. Installation Problems: If you’re having trouble installing the VPN software, ensure your device meets the software’s requirements and that you have sufficient storage space.
  4. Cannot Access Certain Websites: Some websites block traffic from known VPN servers. If you can’t access a site while connected to a VPN, try disconnecting or switching servers.

Tips for Using a VPN

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Using a VPN can greatly enhance your online privacy and security, but to get the most out of it, consider these best practices:

  1. Always Keep Your VPN On: Whenever you’re online, keep your VPN connected to ensure your data is always encrypted. This is especially important when using public Wi-Fi networks.
  2. Choose the Right Server: If you’re looking to bypass geo-restrictions, make sure to connect to a server in the country where the content is accessible. If you’re just browsing, a server close to your actual location can provide faster speeds.
  3. Use a Kill Switch: A kill switch disconnects your device from the internet if your VPN connection drops, preventing data leaks. Ensure your VPN has a kill switch and that it’s enabled.
  4. Stay Updated: Keep your VPN software up to date to benefit from the latest features and security improvements.

Potential Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

While VPNs are generally safe to use, there are potential pitfalls to be aware of and, depending on where you live, using VPNs can get you into trouble with the law.

  1. Free VPNs: While tempting, free VPNs often have limitations and may not provide adequate security. They may also sell your data to third parties. It’s usually worth investing in a reputable paid VPN.
  2. Legal and Policy Considerations: Some countries have restrictions on VPN use. Make sure you’re aware of the laws in your country or any country you’re traveling to. Also, remember that using a VPN doesn’t exempt you from following the terms of service of the websites you visit.
  3. Slow Speeds: VPNs can slow down your internet speed. If you’re experiencing significant slowdown, try switching servers or contacting your VPN’s customer support.

Future of VPNs

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As we navigate through the digital age, the role of VPNs is becoming increasingly important. Let’s explore what the future might hold for VPN technology:

Future Trends in VPN Technology

  1. Increased Speed and Performance: As technology advances, we can expect VPNs to become faster and more efficient. This will be driven by improvements in encryption algorithms and the growth of server networks.
  2. More User-Friendly Interfaces: As VPN usage becomes more widespread, providers will likely focus on making their services more accessible and easier to use for the average person.
  3. Integration with Other Technologies: We may see VPNs becoming more integrated with other technologies. For instance, VPN functionality could become a standard feature in internet browsers, operating systems, or IoT devices.
  4. AI and Machine Learning: These technologies could be used to enhance VPN performance, for example, by automatically selecting the best server based on the user’s location and network conditions.

Importance of VPNs in the Evolving Digital Landscape

In the evolving digital landscape, VPNs play a crucial role. How so? As you can see below, there is WAY more to VPNs than simply unlocking services like Netflix in different regions. VPN technology is crucial to many users, both professional and casual, and here’s just a few reasons why people use them:

  1. Increasing Privacy Concerns: As more of our lives move online, maintaining privacy is becoming increasingly important. VPNs provide a way for individuals to protect their personal information from prying eyes.
  2. Remote Work: The shift towards remote work has made VPNs more important than ever. They allow employees to securely access company resources from anywhere in the world.
  3. Cybersecurity Threats: The increasing sophistication of cyber threats means that basic internet security is no longer enough. VPNs add an extra layer of security that can help protect against these threats.
  4. Internet Censorship: In places where internet access is restricted or censored, VPNs provide a way for people to freely access the internet.

VPN FAQs and Commonly Asked Questions

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#1 – Are VPNs Safe To Use?

VPNs are 100% safe to use.

In fact, if you care about your privacy and ensuring your data is protected, it is recommended that you use a VPN, especially on public WiFi networks.

The only caveat you need to consider is the type of VPN you use; free VPNs are NOT advisable as they often share your data with third parties (like advertisers) in order to make money and that goes against the entire point of using a VPN.

For this reason, you should ONLY ever use reputable, top-rated VPN services.

Reputable VPNs, like ExpressVPN or NordVPN, are not free.

But the fees for running them are minuscule; you’re talking about a few dollars a month for complete, unlimited coverage.

If you only take away one thing from this post, make it this – DO NOT USE FREE VPNs.

Curious about who the top VPNs are? We have a dedicated post all about this which details our #1 top-rated VPN providers.

We vetted and tested them all over the course of the past 18 months.

Prices vary between providers, but the main differentiator is speed – some VPNs are faster than others.

#2 – Are VPNs Legal?

VPNs are perfectly legal to use in the US, UK, and nearly every other country around the globe.

All a VPN does is encrypt and hide your internet IP, so that ISPs, the government, and hackers cannot access your data or see what you’re doing while you’re online.

This is the #1 reason why people use VPNs – privacy.

No one wants to be spied on, and using a VPN ensures that no one – including the government and your internet service provider – can see what you’re doing while you’re connected to the web via a VPN.

However, this does not mean you can go and do illegal things online while using a VPN.

If you’re downloading illegal content or pirated material from torrent sites, what you’re doing is still against law, even if a VPN will make it harder for the authorities to find out.

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As with most things in life, a VPN can be abused and used for doing nefarious things online.

And because VPNs use military-grade encryption, it is nigh-on impossible for the authorities to do anything about it this type of usage which is why VPNs are popular with P2P and torrent fans.

You can also use VPNs to access content outside your regional location as well.

A good example is Netflix.

If you’re in the UK, you can, with a good VPN like ExpressVPN, access US Netflix.

However, Netflix now blocks many VPNs.

And if you’re caught using a VPN to access Disney+, you can have your account terminated.

Therefore, proceed with caution.

Again, this type of behavior is NOT illegal but it does go against the T&Cs of Netflix and Disney+, for instance, so please ensure that you’re aware of this before doing anything.

#3 – Is It Worth Using A VPN?

Yes, it is 100% worth using a VPN. A VPN will make your internet connection more secure, it will protect you from hackers, and it will block the government and ISPs from spying on what you’re doing online.

Other benefits of using a VPN include:

  • Get Around Throttling – Public WiFi networks, like the ones you access at your college or in the airport, often throttle upload and download speeds and this leads to poor speed performance. With a VPN, you can circumvent this throttling and get a faster internet connection which means you can work faster and download content quicker.
  • Access Public WiFi Safely – On the subject of public WiFi networks, they’re basically very unsafe from a data perspective. Hackers use public WiFi networks to intercept your connection and access your data. This is a common occurrence all around the world. With a VPN, you can safely use public WiFi networks and not have to worry about this because all your data and IP is encrypted by the VPN.
  • Access The Entire Web – Ever since GDPR happened in the UK, plenty of sites overseas have started blocking European traffic, which sucks. With a VPN, you can set your location to the USA and access ALL the content you want because the site you’re trying to access thinks you’re in the USA, even if you’re not. This also applies to VOD services like Netflix, HULU, and Disney+.
  • Protection For Snooping – Both the government and your internet service provider, as well as your mobile network, are very interested in what you do online. They keep logs, they monitor what you do, and they like to limit and block what you can and cannot do online. If you want to search the web unhindered by this type of thing, a VPN is just what you need. With a VPN installed on your phone or PC, no one – including the government and your ISP – will be able to see what you’re doing. It’ll also unblock ALL sites like PirateBay too.
  • Torrenting & P2P – If you use torrents or P2P networks to download and share content online and you’re not using a VPN, you are putting yourself at risk in a major way. P2P and torrent sites are packed full of dodgy characters that are looking for easy ways to access your data. Accessing a torrent site with a VPN is like having unprotected sex with a complete stranger; you can do it, sure, but there might be some pretty serious consequences further down the line. Moral of the story? If you use torrenting sites, make sure you use a VPN.

What’s The Best VPN Right Now?

I use NordVPN; it’s fast, simple to use, and it is 100% no-logs which means the company that operates the VPN does not store any data about you or your activities while you’re accessing the web via its network.

Not all VPNs are no-logs, either, so make sure whichever one you go for is – this is very important!

Top-Rated VPNs Right Now

NAMERATINGBest For…BEST DEAL
NordVPN★★★★★Netflix, Torrents, Security, SpeedVIEW PLANS
ExpressVPN★★★★Streaming, Fast Downloads, Ease of Use, P2P, NetflixVIEW PLANS
PureVPN★★★★Value For MoneyVIEW PLANS
SurfShark★★★P2P & Low Monthly FeeVIEW PLANS
Richard Goodwin

Richard Goodwin is a leading UK technology journalist with a focus on consumer tech trends and data security. Renowned for his insightful analysis, Richard has contributed to Sky News, BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 2, and CNBC, making complex tech issues accessible to a broad audience.

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