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The What is a VPN? – Beginners Guide to VPNs

By December 8, 2019 April 20th, 2020 No Comments
VPN Tunnel

The internet might seem like a ground-breaking tool for individuals and businesses alike – but when you factor in online threats, the game changes.

Luckily, VPNs offer a quick and easy solution; helping you protect your online privacy while keeping your personal data safe.

However, if you’re not familiar with VPNs, they might seem confusing. For this reason, we’re going to decipher the VPN “code” and its usage in this beginner’s guide.

VPN Tunnel

What is a VPN?

A VPN – or Virtual Private Network – is a tool that provides private and secure internet access. In short, a VPN masks your IP address by connecting you to a server in a different location/country.

For example, if you’re in the UAE and you connect to a VPN server in the US, your IP address will appear as a US IP. This lets you hide your online activities from prying eyes.

Why Should I Use a VPN?

There are a variety of reasons to use a VPN:

Hide From Your ISP & Government

When you connect to a VPN server, your ISP can no longer log your online activities/data and sell it. Likewise, the government can no longer use the UKUSA Agreement to spy on you.

The trick here is finding a reputable VPN company with a strict no logs policy. Without a no logs policy and depending on the VPN provider’s location, authorities can otherwise demand a VPN company’s user data.

But if that VPN company doesn’t log user data – well, they won’t have anything to hand over.

Tracking

If you use the internet without a VPN, websites and advertisers can easily track your online activities. However, because a VPN changes your IP address, it’s more difficult for them to identify and track you. Some VPNs even offer built-in ad-blockers.

Censorship & Geo-Restricted Content

Because you can connect to a server outside your local area (and in another country), using a VPN helps you access censored content, especially in countries with restrictive internet policy laws.

Depending on the VPN, you’re also able to get around geo-location blocks of online streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.

Hackers

It’s safe to assume public WiFi isn’t secure, because it rarely is. This makes it easy for hackers to steal your information, like your login details, unless you use a VPN to encrypt your data.

Torrenting

When torrenting, you use a Peer-to-Peer (P2P) connection. This can be dangerous if you’re using your own IP address. For example, without a VPN, others on the same connection can see your IP address and use it to hack you or install malicious software.

However, with a VPN, you can torrent in a safe and secure online environment.

How Do I Use a VPN?

Using a VPN is simple. While the process might be different for different VPN providers, the general how-to is:

  1. Choose a provider (see our guide on The Best Overall VPNs)
  2. Sign-up by purchasing a subscription plan
  3. Follow the provider’s software installation instructions
  4. Open the VPN client and sign-in using your login details
  5. Connect to a server

Some VPNs have automatic connection options that choose a server for you depending on your activity, but you can also pick one from their list of server locations.

Are VPNs 100% Anonymous?

No, VPNs are not 100% anonymous. In fact, it’s impossible to be 100% anonymous online.

However, a reliable VPN will get you as close to 100% anonymity as possible, especially if you also implement additional security measures on both your OS and browser (or just use the Tor Network).

What About Security?

This is where VPNs excel, though not all VPNs are created equal.

Trustworthy VPNs use the best protocol and encryption: OpenVPN and military-grade 256-bit AES-CBC or AES-GCM encryption.

They also offer DNS Leak Protection and an Automatic Network Kill Switch to keep you safe if your VPN connection is interrupted.

Are VPNs Legal?

Yes – but some countries have very restrictive VPN laws.

However, even if it’s legal to use a VPN in your country, illegal activities done with a VPN are still illegal. (We shouldn’t have to tell you this, but alas…)

What are VPN Logging Policies?

A logging policy tells you what a VPN is keeping records of. These records might include your original IP address, what websites you’re connecting to, what times you’re connected, etc.

This is why it’s important to choose a VPN with a strict no-logs policy. If you don’t – it’s like you’re replacing your nosy ISP with another nosy ISP. Try looking for VPN providers who had independent audits to prove they don’t keep logs.

Can I Use a Free VPN?

Technically yes, but it’s not recommended.

Running a trustworthy VPN is an expensive business. Free VPNs cut corners by compromising on security. Some will even sell your user activity data to advertisers or more malicious entities.

Can I Torrent With a VPN?

Yes, but this heavily depends on the VPN you’re using.

While torrenting itself is legal, torrenting content that is copyright protected is not (in most countries). For this reason, you need to pay special mind to the security measures and logging policies of the VPN provider you choose.

The best torrenting VPNs will also have servers specially optimized for P2P connections.

Can I Use a VPN to Watch Netflix?

Yes.

Netflix blacklists VPN IP addresses to stop subscribers from watching content restricted to specific regions. To access this hidden world of geo-restricted content, you need a VPN that can unblock Netflix.

See our guide on the Best Netflix VPNs.

netflix vpn

What Devices Can I Use a VPN With?

This also depends on what VPN provider you choose. That said, all of the best providers will allow you to connect on just about every type of device, including:

  • Computers running on Windows, macOS, and Linux
  • Android devices
  • iOS devices
  • Routers
  • Smart TVs
  • Amazon Fire TV
  • Gaming consoles

What Should I Look for in a VPN?

Your VPN should meet the following criteria (or just about):

  • Ideally not located in a 5 Eyes, 9 Eyes, or 14 Eyes jurisdiction
  • Strict no-logs policy
  • 256-bit encryption
  • Automatic kill switch
  • DNS leak protection
  • High-speed connection
  • Unlimited bandwidth
  • Lots of servers
  • P2P (Tor) connections supported
  • Able to access streaming services
  • OpenVPN protocol
  • User-friendly
  • 24/7 customer support (live chat preferred)
  • Affordable

Are There Any Drawbacks to Using a VPN?

Depending on how far you are from the VPN server (and how many people are connected to it), your internet connection might slow down.

This is why you want a VPN provider with a lot of servers – to avoid network overload.

If you choose the wrong VPN, there are plenty of other drawbacks. For example, there are dozens of fake VPNs on the market. You should also never trust any app-only VPNs for Android or Apple – they’re typically ineffective and dangerous.

Mandee Rose

Mandee Rose

Mandee Rose is the editor and lead writer & researcher at TheVPNShop. A technical writer and blogger with 6+ years of experience in the cybersecurity sector. During her college years, she chased the dual-major of Cyber Security and Journalism while simultaneously offering freelance services online. As a result, Mandee was able to combine both of her passions by writing for companies like LatestHackingNews, BestVPN, Tactical Engine, Hoxhunt, AI Jobs (Medium Blog), and more. Today, she continues sharing her technical knowledge via investigative writing on topics like VPNs, programming, data breaches, artificial intelligence, and other infosec concepts.

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