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VPN explained: How does it work? Why would you use it?

Last edited: December 3, 2019
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What is a VPN: a short summary

A VPN creates a secure connection between you and the internet. When you connect to the internet through a VPN, all your data traffic is sent through an encrypted virtual tunnel. This has multiple advantages:

  • You’ll be more anonymous on the internet: your IP address and location won’t be visible to just anyone anymore.
  • You’ll be safer on the internet: the encrypted tunnel will keep away hackers and cybercriminals and your device won’t be as vulnerable to attacks.
  • You’ll be more free on the internet: by using different IP addresses, you’ll be able to access websites and online services that would otherwise be blocked.

Do you want to start using a VPN? We recommend ExpressVPN. This VPN has a lot of options, offers strong security, and has performed well in our tests. It even managed to take the number one spot!

You can find out how to set up a VPN connection and what a VPN can do for you in the full article below.

An increasing number of people use a VPN while browsing the internet. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It’s an easy and efficient solution which offers you three essential things when you go online: more security, privacy, and freedom. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a VPN, it can seem quite daunting. No worries! This page will explain exactly how a VPN works and why people use it.

Getting started with a VPN in 3 simple steps

If you want to start using a VPN, but don’t quite know where to begin, you’re in the right place. Getting started with a VPN is very easy and takes only five minutes. We’ll walk you through the three easy steps to get you started:

Step 1. Subscribe to a trustworthy VPN provider

For beginners we highly recommend using ExpressVPN or NordVPN. We tested these providers extensively and found them to be very suitable for beginners, as they are easy to understand and set up, while also being very fast. Moreover, these two VPN providers allow you to secure multiple devices with a single subscription and offer a 30-day money-back guarantee. This way you can try them for a month without being stuck to a long term subscription. Furthermore, using the links and buttons on our website will get you a discount with these providers. You can check out our extensive reviews on our review page. We’ve also reviewed quite a lot of other VPN-providers. Some other impressive VPNs are CyberGhost, PIA, SurfShark, and ProtonVPN.

Still, ExpressVPN is one of the best VPNs in the world today. It has several thousand servers and works with Netflix, so you can be protected even while watching your favorite show. Click on the button below to get this VPN for a special price.

ExpressVPN
Our pick
Our pick
Deal:
3 months for free with a one-year subscription
9.5
  • Super fast and simple VPN
  • Perfect for anonymous browsing, downloading and streaming (i.a. Netflix)
  • 3000+ servers in 94 countries
Visit ExpressVPN

NordVPN, too, is among the very best VPN providers of this moment. It has great encryption and its software looks sleek while also being easy to use. Make sure to check out the discount you get, using the links on our website or by clicking the button below.

NordVPN
Deal:
Only $3,49 a month for a 3-year subscription
9.1
  • Excellent protection and a large network of servers
  • Nice and pleasing application
  • No logs
Visit NordVPN

Once you’ve chosen your VPN provider, you’ll have to subscribe to them. Create an account and make sure you have your log-in info at hand. You’ll need it in the following steps.

Step 2. Download the VPN app

Now that you’ve signed up to your preferred VPN provider, you simply need to download the VPN apps of this provider on your smartphone, tablet or computer. Visit the website of your VPN provider to find the necessary software. Do not try to download from a different source as these can often add bloat or malware. Once you’ve successfully installed the software, you’ll be able to log in.

Step 3. Activate the VPN app and start browsing the internet safely and freely

When the VPN app is turned on (usually by pressing a single button), the VPN connection will be established. Generally, you won’t even notice it’s activated, since it runs in the background of your device. While it’s enabled, you’ll browse the web far more securely, privately and freely.

And that’s all there is to it! If you go through these steps, you’ll be protected by a VPN. If you want to know exactly how a VPN works, keep on reading. We’ll explain that and more below.

How a VPN offers online security

VPN connection InternetA VPN offers security because it heavily encrypts all your internet traffic, even before it reaches the VPN’s server. It also guides your data traffic through a much safer “VPN-tunnel”. This makes it much harder for others, such as governments and hackers, to intercept and view your data. It is therefore highly recommended to use a VPN when using (dangerous) public WiFi-networks. Though it can also be very important to have this extra layer of security at home or at work. Providers like NordVPN or ExpressVPN offer top of the line, AES 256 levels of encryption.

Google recently achieved a milestone in quantum computing so its system can outperform classical supercomputers. These new supercomputers can perform so many calculations at once that cryptographic techniques are less safe. However, experts were quick to ensure that “breaking encryption…remains a distant hope. That’s still many years out”.  It also does not mean that encryption and VPNs are now worthless. There is only one corporation in the world that has this technology, it is incredibly expensive and resource-heavy. Google will want to make this technology profitable for them. Cracking VPN encryption is not a logical or profitable use for such a quantum computer. Moreover, Google was able to crack one specific problem in one specific session, and it was built to solve this one, specific, convoluted problem. This does not mean all forms of encryption are now vulnerable to this computer. Finally, the coming of quantum computers will likely also pave the way for quantum encryption.

How a VPN offers online anonymity and privacy

A VPN offers you more online anonymity because you will not be surfing the web with your IP address publicly available. Your personal IP address will be hidden (it will change to the VPN Server’s IP) for everyone else as soon as you connect with the VPN server. Normally, others can link your online actions to your identity and your location based on your IP address. For instance, your internet service provider, the websites you visit and many governments can generally see everything you do online. However, when you use a VPN, your online actions can only be traced to the VPN server, but no longer to you (unles, of course, you’re logged in to a certain website). Many VPN providers won’t disclose or even monitor what you do via their servers. You’ve thus become much more anonymous on the internet since you can’t be identified or traced through your IP address.

How a VPN offers online freedom

A VPN can offer you more freedom online. It allows you to connect to servers all over the world. When you connect to a VPN server in a certain country, you will be able to access the internet as if you were physically in that country. This can be useful because the internet isn’t freely accessible everywhere. Some countries censor part of the internet or impose restrictions on social media sites or online streaming services. If you are on holiday or have migrated, you will sometimes be unable to view streaming services of your home country. A VPN will enable you to connect to the internet via servers in your home country. This usually makes it possible for you to watch your favorite show or access your favorite website. It also works the other way around. If you want to gain access to websites or streaming services from a different country, you can do so via a VPN connection.

If you would like to try out a VPN immediately you can use our overview of the best VPN providers to make your choice:

View Best VPN Providers

How does a VPN work technically?

When you have found a reliable VPN provider you can download and install their software. Then you select your preferred security settings and set up a safe connection with your desired VPN server. When the connection has been established, the following will happen to your data traffic:

  1. The VPN software on your computer encrypts your data traffic and sends it to the VPN server through a secure connection.
  2. The encrypted data from your computer is decrypted by the VPN server.
  3. The VPN server will go on the internet with the decrypted data and will receive all traffic sent back, which is meant for the user.
  4. The traffic is then sent back to you (the user) after the VPN server encrypts it.

How Does a VPN Work Illustration

The VPN connection will encrypt your data traffic, making it much more difficult for hackers or governments to intercept and view it. The secure connection also provides the user with anonymity because your internet traffic is rerouted through an external VPN server. Because you are surfing the web via the IP address of the VPN server your own IP address will stay hidden. Normally your location and even your identity could be revealed through your IP address because it is unique to your internet connection. By using a different IP (the one assigned to the VPN server) none of your actions online are traceable to you using your IP address and you can now cruise the web more anonymously.

The VPN application will run in the background of your computer, tablet, or smartphone. You can access the internet as you normally do and you won’t notice anything different.

How to set up your own VPN in a few simple steps

Setting up your own VPN connection is simpler than it might seem. Your VPN provider will do most of the work for you. First, you will need to find a VPN provider that you like (on our site you can find reviews of the different providers as well as recommendations). When you find one that fits your needs, you subscribe to their service and download and install the software they provide. It will only take a couple of minutes before you can go online via the VPN’s servers. Now you can connect to the internet in a safe and anonymous manner, free from any restrictions or censorship that your geographical location might impose!

Encrypted VPN Tunnel protecting you from various groups

Most VPN providers offer software for all types of devices and operating systems (Windows, Mac, iPhone, Android).

Why would you use a VPN?

There are many reasons why people use a VPN, some of the most common are as follows:

  • Anonymity on the internet: A VPN connection hides your real IP address and location. With a VPN connection, you use the IP address that belongs to the VPN server you’re connected to. This way your own IP address stays hidden. Websites and other parties won’t be able to trace your online actions back to your location and identity, based on your IP address (provided your provider has an adequate no-logging policy). All they will see, when you are using a VPN, is a strange IP address that has nothing to do with you. With a VPN you can browse the internet anonymously.
  • Protection against hackers and governments: People are becoming more and more aware of their vulnerability on the internet. Without a secure VPN connection, it is much more easy for others to intercept, view and steal the data that you, often unknowingly, spread when you browse the web. Without knowing it, others could tap your devices and use your personal information. You can prevent this with a VPN because it encrypts all your internet traffic.
  • Secure internet access on public networks: Using a public network can be very risky. Other users on the same network can easily tap into your data and personal information. Since you don’t want others to have access to, for instance, your email login or credit card information it might be wise to use a VPN connection. The VPN encrypts all of your internet traffic. A hacker will only see encrypted matter and won’t be able to see or use your personal information.
  • Bypassing censorship and geographical restrictions: For a normal internet user, there can be many restrictions as to what they can and cannot access online. For instance, you cannot watch all the content available on BBC iPlayer if you are not accessing the internet via a British IP address. Also, some streaming services like Netflix offer different content in different geographical zones. Some governments (e.g. China, Turkey, and Egypt) block access to certain internet services, such as WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook or Twitter. By changing your geographical location with a VPN, you can bypass these different restrictions.
  • Downloading and uploading anonymously: Downloading certain Torrents is illegal in some countries and more than ever before downloaders are tracked down and sometimes even prosecuted. Of course, we are not advocating any illegal actions. However, we do understand people want privacy and anonymity, not just when browsing the internet, but also when uploading and downloading files. To make sure nobody knows what you are downloading or uploading you can use a VPN connection. Because of the encrypted traffic and the rerouted IP address you can download anonymously with a VPN.
  • Prevent companies from building a file on you: Advertising networks such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter are constantly collecting information about you through your online traffic. With this information they can show you tailored adds but more importantly, they are free to sell this information to a third party. By encrypting your data using a VPN these networks won’t be able to collect information on you and they will have less influence on what you see online.
  • Access to your company’s network: More and more companies are giving people the possibility of working from home, or abroad for instance. Some people use a VPN connection to access the company network at home. This enables people to efficiently work from home.

To read more about the different reasons why people use a VPN please read our article on the subject: What are the advantages of a VPN?

Using a VPN connection

If you want to use a VPN connection on your computer you will need a VPN account. Most quality VPN providers offer accounts that will not cost you more than a couple of dollars a month. After signing up for an account with one of the VPN providers, they will give you login information for their VPN servers. You can then use this login information to set up a connection with one, or sometimes more (usually two), of the servers your provider offers. Most providers offer software that makes it very easy to set up the connection. After that, you can pick the protocol that suits your needs and choose a server located in a specific country or city.

Two of the best VPN providers

We have tested most major VPN providers. You can find an extended review of the big providers on our list of the best VPN providers. If you would like to get started with a simple, user-friendly, and trustworthy VPN we recommend ExpressVPN or NordVPN.

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is one of the best VPN providers that we have tested thus far. They offer fast and stable servers, nice applications for all devices, and great customer service. ExpressVPN aims to offer you the best quality but you also pay for that. They are not the cheapest VPN provider but with our special discount offer, you can already get a subscription for $6,67 a month. This subscription allows you to protect five of your devices with ExpressVPN. Read more about this provider in our full review of ExpressVPN.

ExpressVPN has a 30-days money-back guarantee.

ExpressVPN
Our pick
Our pick
Deal:
3 months for free with a one-year subscription
9.5
  • Super fast and simple VPN
  • Perfect for anonymous browsing, downloading and streaming (i.a. Netflix)
  • 3000+ servers in 94 countries
Visit ExpressVPN

NordVPN

NordVPN offers a good and trustworthy VPN service. It offers very high levels of security. This high-level security causes NordVPN to be slower than ExpressVPN but it is still a very good choice. For the quality they offer, they are very affordable. Moreover, the applications are user-friendly and well-structured. Read more about them in our full review of NordVPN.

NordVPN has a 30-days money-back guarantee. They also have very affordable deals, especially if you commit to a subscription for a longer period of time.

NordVPN
Deal:
Only $3,49 a month for a 3-year subscription
9.1
  • Excellent protection and a large network of servers
  • Nice and pleasing application
  • No logs
Visit NordVPN

Extra advice: Some routers allow you to install a VPN connection. This way you can use the VPN connection for all of your devices at home. Installing this can be a challenge for some. We advise you to use DD-WRT router software. If  you need help installing a VPN on your router, feel free to have a look at our article on this topic. An alternative would be to choose a VPN which allows for a large number of connections with just one subscription. In this case, Surfshark will be your best pick. This relatively new but very effective VPN provider allows you to use its servers on as many devices as you want, for less than $2 a month!

Surfshark
Deal:
Safe and anonymous internet for only $1.99 a month
8.8
  • Very user-friendly and works with Netflix and torrents
  • 30 days money back guarantee. No questions asked!
  • Cheap with many extra options
Visit Surfshark

What different VPN protocols are there?

VPN connections use an encrypted connection also called a tunnel. There are several different ways (protocols) in which such a VPN connection can be set up. The most common protocols are:

  • OpenVPN: OpenVPN is one of the most used protocols. It is an open-source protocol that uses encryption based on the OpenSSl and SSLv3/TLSv1 protocols. Most VPN providers support OpenVPN and it is available for a lot of different platforms (e.g. Windows, Mac (OSx), Android, iOS, Linux, routers). Most consider OpenVPN to be the best choice.
  • IPSec/L2TP: this protocol combines IPsec for the encryption of data with L2TP for the secure connection. Most operating systems include IPsec/L2TP and these are a good choice if OpenVPN is not available.
  • PPTP: PPTP (Point to Point Tunneling Protocol) is one of the first protocols that became available. This protocol does contain a few (potential) leaks. For this reason, the use of this protocol is only advisable if speed is more important than safety. This could be the case if you want to bypass restrictions set up by streaming services.
  • Softether: Softether, unlike the others mentioned, is not a stand-alone protocol but an open-source application that works across different platforms and offers support to VPN protocols such as, SSL VPN, L2TP/IPsec, OpenVPN, and Microsoft Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol. Softether supplies you with one VPN server.
  • WireGuard: WireGuard is a relatively new protocol that has been getting more and more attention lately. It runs on a Linux kernel and is aimed at achieving even better performances than OpenVPN and IPsec. For more information, you can visit their website.
View Best VPNs
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  1. Thanks, informative but still I’m not that savvy. Will ask nerdy friend for more explanation !!

    • Wow what a great lesson this has been.
      Thank you

      • I am using ExpressVPN.
        When I connect uploading and downloading is showing on the app.
        Does it upload my personal image and videos too?

        • No, these mentions of uploading and downloading simply mean that ExpressVPN is sending your data onto the internet through a secure connection and receiving data it can show you. This is how you get a functioning and safe internet connection. Unless you choose to upload a personal picture of video of yourself onto the internet, ExpressVPN won’t touch any of that information, so you don’t need to worry.

  2. thank you did not know what a VPN was. Is the one that windows has built in good for a free one

    • The built-in VPN that Windows offers via PPTP can help you up to a point, but is not as safe and secure as a normal, premium VPN. That’s why we generally advise to use a VPN from a third party, for example ExpressVPN or Surfshark. With these VPNs, you can be absolutely sure that the service you’re getting is decent, secure, and makes you anonymous. If you want to have a look at the free options, you can check out our article on the best free VPNs of this moment.

      • I’m traveling to China on Monday and have Express VPN. Currently I’m connected in the US but when I’m in China do I stay connected to US or connect to Hong Kong or Japan? I’m not clear as to how that works

        • You can do either. If you stay connected to a US server when you’re in China, you’ll have access to the same websites and services as you usually would. A server in Hong Kong or Japan could give you a quicker connection (since the distance between China and these servers is smaller than that between China and the US), but might not give you the same access. However, the most important thing to realise is that China can clamp down hard on VPN connections. If your VPN doesn’t seem to work while you’re there, you can try using different servers and different VPN protocols. Also make sure your ExpressVPN software is updated before you go, so you have the latest technologies to help you. Good luck!

  3. My brother got a vpn and was kind of making fun out of me that I didn’t know what it was and why it was needed, I thought that I should read about this matter a bit more so that next time I reply something with expertise and take him by surprise. This was the first website that I stumbled upon and it had great explanations (many thank you’s to the author)! Thanks, for the insights they were great, I might get a vpn myself (or just use my brothers Surfshark account)!

    • We’re glad we could help! Good luck with your VPN!

  4. What about using the VPN provided by Lts say Bitdefender or Webroot, Does it do the same job as explained above.

    • Yes, the VPNs by Bitdefender and Webroot both work in the same way as explained in this article. Each VPN has its own strengths and weaknesses, even though they all try to do the same thing, namely making your internet experience safer, more anonymous and more free. This means that some VPNs could be better for you to use than others. In order to help you figure out the difference, we review VPNs on our platform. You can have a look at the different reviews we’ve done so far on this page.

  5. why isnt there a mention of pure? you guys should check out their halloween deal, its as good as those mentioned above

  6. My husband has jst left to work in China can he set up a vpn acc whilst there? Sorry, a not v tech savvy wife 😕

    • Sadly, it’s going to be quite hard for your husband to set up a VPN account once he’s already in China. The Chinese government blocks most VPN websites, making it almost impossible to get a VPN if you don’t already have a VPN account to get around those restrictions. If he already has a VPN, however, he can likely use that to easily get around any censorship. IF you want some more information about online restrictions in China, you can read this article. Hopefully this helps!

  7. Hi, nice share, how do you think for this vpn product: VPNGO, is it also working in China?

    • We have not (yet) tested out VPNGO for ourselves. Seeing as it’s a VPN that comes with a free version, we expect there to be quite a few limitations. Looking at their privacy policy, it appears they make their money from (third party) advertisements, which is something to be wary of. Their official website also doesn’t appear to work for us. If you’re looking for a good VPN to use in China, we’ve got an article written about exactly that topic. NordVPN, for example, is quite cheap and has obfuscated servers that can help you get around China’s firewall.

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