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

Last edited: February 26, 2020
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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. But no worries! This page will explain exactly how a VPN works and why people use it. We’ll tell you everything you need to know about the advantages and possibilities of VPNs. We’ll also tell you about a couple of excellent VPN providers you might want to try out yourself.

What is a VPN?

VPN Internet NorwegianA VPN creates a secure connection between your device (for example your computer or smartphone) and the internet. When going online, we all have a unique IP address. You could compare this address to a phone number or home address, but for your computer or smartphone: your IP address is a personal identification code for your internet connection. It reveals your location and is tied to the person paying your internet provider. With your IP address, you’re recognizable and traceable online, no matter what you’re doing. That is, unless you use a VPN. A VPN won’t always be able to cover your tracks: there are other methods that could result in uncovering your online identity. Techniques that use WebRTC leaks and browser fingerprinting could still collect data about you. Even so, a VPN will protect you very well in most cases.

As mentioned before, VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. This private network allows you to send your data traffic via an encrypted, secure connection to an external server. From there, the traffic will be sent on to the internet. Because of this, the IP address shown to the internet will be changed.

If you want to get started straight away, you can find a short step-by-step guide right here. We’ve also compiled a list of the best VPNs out there for you to try. Would you rather use a different VPN? You can find more providers on our review page. Press the button below to see our overview of VPNs:

Compare all VPNs

Why would you use a VPN?

There are many different reasons for people to start using a VPN. The biggest ones can be summarised as follows: it increases your online privacy, provides you with more online security, and allows you to browse the internet with more freedom (as it gets you around online restrictions and censorship). We’ll explain exactly what this means in the following sections.

How a VPN offers online security

A VPN offers security because it heavily encrypts all your internet traffic, even before it reaches the VPN 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. Therefore, it’s especially important to use a VPN when using (dangerous) public WiFi-networks. At home or at work it can be equally helpful to use a VPN. Providers like NordVPN or ExpressVPN offer top of the line, AES 256 levels of encryption. With that kind of protect, you won’t have to worry about anyone gathering your data and using it against you.

Encrypted VPN Tunnel protecting you from various groups

How a VPN offers online anonymity and privacy

A VPN offers you more online anonymity because you won’t be surfing the web with your IP address publicly available. Your personal IP address will be hidden as soon as you connect with the VPN server, as it will change to the VPN Server’s IP. 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 back to the VPN server, but no longer to you (unless, of course, you’re logged into a certain website such as YouTube or Google). 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’ll be able to access the internet as if you were physically in that country. This is 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 might be unable to view your usual streams. A VPN will enable you to connect to the internet via servers in your home country. This usually enables you to watch your favorite show or access your favorite website again. It also works the other way around: if you want to gain access to websites or streaming services from a different country (for example to watch a different version of Netflix), you can do so with a VPN.

If you would like to try out a VPN right away but aren’t sure which provider to pick, you can consult our top 5 of the best VPN providers:

View Best VPN Providers

How does a VPN work?

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 send your data on to the internet and receive a reply, which is meant for you, the user.
  4. The traffic is then encrypted again by the VPN-server and is sent back to you.
  5. The VPN-software on your device will decrypt the data so you can actually understand and use it.

How Does a VPN Work Illustration

The VPN connection will encrypt your data traffic, making it much more difficult for hackers and other parties to intercept and view it. The secure connection also provides the user with increased anonymity, because the internet traffic is rerouted through an external VPN server. Since you’re surfing the web via the IP address of the VPN server, your own IP address will remain hidden. Normally, your location and even your identity could be revealed through your IP address, because it’s 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, allowing you to surf the web more anonymously.

The VPN application runs in the background of your computer, tablet, or smartphone. You can access the internet as you normally would and won’t notice anything different – save for the fact that you’ll be able to get around online restrictions.

Three of the best VPN providers

We have tested most major VPN providers. You can find an extended review of the best ones on our list of the top 5 VPN providers. If you would like to get started with a simple, user-friendly, and trustworthy VPN, we recommend ExpressVPN, NordVPN or Surfshark.

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is one of the best VPN providers that we have tested thus far. They offer several thousand fast and stable servers, nice applications for all devices, and great customer service. It also works with Netflix, so you can be protected even while watching your favorite show. ExpressVPN has a 30-day money-back guarantee, so you can try it out before getting a lengthier subscription.

ExpressVPN aims to offer you the best quality, and that comes with a price tag. They aren’t the cheapest VPN provider around, but with our special discount offer, you can get a subscription for $6,67 a month. This subscription allows you to protect five of your devices with ExpressVPN. You can read more about this provider in our full review of ExpressVPN. Click on the button below to check out ExpressVPN’s special deal.

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, too, is among the very best VPN providers of this moment. This good and trustworthy VPN service offers very high levels of security. Its software looks sleek while also being easy to use. The high-level security causes NordVPN to be slower than ExpressVPN, but it is still a very good choice. For the quality they offer, they’re very affordable. Moreover, the applications are user-friendly and well-structured. Read more about them in our full NordVPN review.

NordVPN has a 30-day money-back guarantee, just like ExpressVPN. They also have very affordable deals, especially if you commit to a subscription for a longer period of time. Make sure to check out the discount you get when 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

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.

Surfshark

Surfshark is a relatively new but very effective VPN provider that has grown substantially over the last year. Surfshark’s biggest advantage is that it allows you to use its servers on as many devices as you want. If you want to protect all devices used in your entire family, or you simply have a lot of devices yourself, Surfshark is a great solution. Aside from that, this provider is incredibly cheap as well: you already have a subscription 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

Which 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 VPN-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.

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 some 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!

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

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 other VPN-providers of course. Some other impressive VPNs are CyberGhost, PIA, SurfShark, and ProtonVPN. The latter also happens to offer one of the best free VPN subscriptions, which you can read all about in our article: Top 5 Free VPN Providers of 2020.

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. As we’ve mentioned earlier in the article, ExpressVPN and NordVPN both have a 30-day money-back-guarantee, no questions asked. So you can always try them out and get a refund if a VPN is not for you.

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 Android smartphone, iPhone, 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 downloads often contain bloat or even malware. Once you’ve successfully downloaded and 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.

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, images/files 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 high-quality VPN providers offer subscriptions 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 on different devices. After that, you can pick the protocol that suits your needs and choose a server located in a specific country or city.

View Best VPNs
Tech journalist
Tove has been working for VPNoverview since 2017 as a journalist covering cybersecurity and privacy developments. Since 2019 she is VPNoverview.com's cybersecurity news coordinator.

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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.

      • Great article, thanks. I do have something I don’t understand. If I install vpn app on iPhone or iPad that are accessing internet through cell data, is this vpn protected or only when they are hooked up to wifi?

        • The VPN will protect both your iPhone and iPad no matter how you go online. It works both when you’re using cell data and when you’re using Wi-Fi, as long as you’ve got the VPN switched on.

  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!

      • I would like to improve my overall streaming speed.
        Just curious, will a VPN improve my streaming speed? Or would I have to buy a wifi booster? Also how do I connect a VPN to my current router? Would I need special equipment?

        • A VPN could potentially increase your internet speed, if this speed is being throttled by your ISP or purposefully restricted in another way. If this isn’t the case, however, a VPN will not increase your speed and could even slow it down somewhat. But don’t worry: if you pick a good, fast VPN (for example ExpressVPN), the chances of your streaming speed dropping dramatically are slim. To connect a VPN to your router, you’ll need DD-WRT. You can read all about this here: Installing a VPN on Your Router – a Simple Guide for DD-WRT.

  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.

  8. Can I use email (gmail) anonymously with a VPN?

    • Using a VPN while emailing won’t make you anonymous. After all, you’ll be logging into your Gmail-account, which is likely connected to your name and other personal information. However, a VPN can still be useful during emailing. Some countries won’t give you access to Gmail. Using a VPN in those countries will allow you to log in to Gmail, even when your access should be blocked. If you want to email anonymously, it’s best to create a new, anonymous email address that can’t be traced back to you. A good email provider to use for this purpose is ProtonMail.

  9. How useful is VPN if you are traveling to Ethiopia?

    • We would definitely advise you to use a VPN. Ethiopia is known to block internet access as well as access to specific apps (WhatsApp, Telegram) at times. Therefore, a VPN might be useful when travelling to Ethiopia. It might help you unblock certain web pages and social media. Even if there isn’t any (relevant) internet censorship at the time of your trip, a VPN will still help you protect your online identity and privacy.

  10. If I understand correctly, my communication with the VPN server is encrypted. But the communication is decrypted by the VPN server before being sent to the target website, minus of course my IP address. That means that the communication can’t be directly attributed to my machine. However, anyone intercepting the decrypted communication might be able to deduce who I am and what some of the information is, I think. Is correcting the vulnerability of decrypted communication from user machine to website the role of the https protocol?

    Do I understand correctly?

    • This is quite right. A VPN protects you by hiding your IP address and encrypting your data between your computer and the VPN server. However, if you, for example, log in on a website that doesn’t use a secure HTTPS connection, your login details could still be vulnerable. A VPN secures your internet connection and make it anonymous, but that stops when you willingly send personal information, such as login details or an email address onto the internet. This is why it’s so hard to stay completely anonymous online while using platforms such as email and social media. However, if you use a VPN, make sure the websites you visit are valid, and don’t give out personal information on any page that doesn’t use HTTPS, you should at least be secure and safe from many prying eyes.

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