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

Last edited: October 10, 2019
Reading time: 13 minutes, 27 seconds

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

Getting started with a VPN is very easy and takes only five minutes. We’ll walk you through three easy steps to get you started:

Step 1. Subscribe to a trustworthy VPN provider

For beginners we highly recommend ExpressVPN and NordVPN. We tested these providers extensively and found them to be very suitable for beginners, easy to comprehend and set up, and fast. These two VPN providers also 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 at least a full month without any risk. Furthermore, using the links and buttons on our website will get you an interesting discount with these providers. You can check out the extensive tests we did on our review page.

ExpressVPN is one of the best VPNs in the world today. It has several thousands of 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 work with. Make sure to check out the discount you can get through our website 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 to 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. Once you’ve successfully installed the software, you’ll be able to login.

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

When the VPN app is enabled (usually by the press of a single button), the VPN connection will be established. Generally you won’t even notice it’s running, since it will do its job in the background of your device. While it’s enabled, you’ll be browsing 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

A VPN offers security because it heavily encrypts all your internet traffic, even before it reaches the VPN’s server, and 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. Even with the fastest super computer on earth, it would literally take tens of thousands of years to crack the heavy 256-bit encryption many VPN providers offer these days. This is the reason it is highly recommended to use a VPN when using (dangerous) public WiFi-networks. But also at work or at home this extra layer of security can be very important.

How a VPN offers online anonymity and privacy

With a VPN you can browse the internet anonymously because 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. 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 in all countries. 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 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, that 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 it 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 and recommendations on what to look for). 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 easy for others to intercept, view and steal the data that you, often unknowingly, spread when you are online. 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 most 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 create a VPN connection on your computer you will need a VPN account. Most accounts 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 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 which server in what country or city you want to connect to.


Two of the best VPN providers

VPN connectionWe 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 severs, 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 three 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 contract 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.


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 which 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, DD-WRT 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 is a good choice if OpenVPN is not available.
  • PPTP: PPTP (Point to Point Tunnelling Protocol) is one of the fist 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 Tunnelling Protocol. Softether supplies you with one VPN server.
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

  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.

  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.

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