What is a VPN? VPNs may seem complicated at first, but they are literally easy to use.
Let’s demystify them, what they will do for you, why you should use them, and how they all work under the hood.
Also, we will offer you some recommendations along with thanks for helping you choose the simplest VPN for your needs.
What is a VPN?
A VPN (a virtual private network) can be a service that allows you to access the Internet safely and privately by routing your connection through a server and hiding your actions online.
But how exactly does it work?
How Does a VPN Work?
This is how a VPN works for you, the user. Start your VPN service’s VPN client (software). This software encrypts your data, even before your Internet service provider or cafeteria WiFi provider sees it. The information then goes to the VPN and from the VPN server to its destination online. From your bank’s website to a video sharing website or query engine. the web destination considers your data to come from the VPN server and its location, and not from your computer and its location.
When you go online without a VPN, this is what your connection looks like:
Although it is the quality, this type of connection has some flaws. All of your data is available out in the open, and any interested party can take a look at what you are submitting.
The Internet can be a collection of servers responsible for storing websites and serving them to anyone who wants to view them. Those servers communicate with each other all the time. Which includes sharing your data with each other to finally allow you to navigate a page. Great for being ready to surf, but not great for privacy.
Connecting to the Internet is like taking a flight from an airline with a billboard. Your reservations clerk, baggage handlers, security personnel, and flight attendants need the knowledge to encourage you to go between cities. an identical exchange of data occurs online.
If what you’re looking at is a fun website, don’t worry. It makes no difference if anyone sees your details. But whether it’s online banking, business email, or anything a little more sensitive, it’s a special story.
Now, this is what an equivalent connection looks like with a VPN enabled:
When you use a VPN service, your data is encrypted (because you are using their app), it goes in encrypted form to your ISP and then to the VPN server. The VPN server is the third party that connects to the Internet on your behalf. This solves our privacy and security problem in several ways:
- The destination site sees the VPN server because of the origin of the traffic, not you.
- No one can (easily) identify you or your computer because of the source of the information, or what you are doing. (what websites you are visiting, what data you are transferring, etc.).
- Your data is encrypted, so even if someone checks what you are sending, they will only see encrypted information and not data.
As you can imagine, this scenario is much more secure than connecting to the Internet in the usual way. But how safe is it exactly? Let’s find out:
How Secure is a VPN?
VPN security sparks debate among IT professionals and others. within the industry, and no two services are identical in their offerings or security. There are two main factors:
- The limitations of the type of VPN technology employed by a provider.
- Legal and political limitations affect what often ends up with that technology. The laws of the country where the server is located, and therefore the company providing the VPN, and the policies of the company itself affect how the company implements this technology in its service.
Let’s take a better look at these factors.
VPN protocols specify how a provider performs data transfer over a virtual private network. PPTP, L2TP, SSTP, IKEV2, and OpenVPN are the most commonly used protocols. Here’s a short rundown:
- PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol). This is generally one of the most widely used protocols, having been created by Microsoft. Advantages: It works on older computers, it can be part of the Windows operating system, and it is easy to align. Cons: By today’s standards, it’s barely safe. Avoid a provider if this is often the only protocol offered.
- L2TP / IPsec (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol). this is usually a mix of PPTP and the Cisco L2F protocol. The concept of this protocol is robust: it uses keys to determine a secure connection at each end of its data tunnel, but the execution is not very secure. The addition of the IPsec protocol improves security somewhat, but there are reports of the NSA’s alleged ability to disrupt this protocol. See what is being transmitted. Regardless of whether they are literally true, the mere fact that there is even the slightest bit of debate is probably enough to avoid it as well.
- SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol). this is usually another protocol created by Microsoft. SSL / TLS encryption is used to create the link (the de facto standard for web encryption these days). The strength of SSL and TLS is based on symmetric-key cryptography; a configuration during which only the 2 parties involved in the transfer can decode the information contained. In general, SSTP can be a very secure solution.
- IKEv2 (Internet Key Exchange, Version 2). Oftentimes, this is one more protocol created by Microsoft. It is an iteration of previous Microsoft protocols and it is also much more secure. Provides you with a series of the simplest security.
- OpenVPN. This takes the best within the above protocols and eliminates most of the problems. It supports SSL / TLS and is an open-source project, which suggests that many developers are constantly improving it. It secures the link by employing keys that are only recognized by the two parties involved at either end of the transmission. In general, it is the most adaptable and stable protocol available.
Generally speaking, most VPNs allow you to choose the protocol you use. The more secure the protocol through which you connect (OpenVPN, IKEv2), the more secure your entire session will be.
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to use these protocols on all computers. Since most of them were created by Microsoft, you will be ready to use them on all Windows PCs. For Apple devices, you will find some limitations. L2TP / IPsec, for example, is the iPhone’s default protocol. And Android … well, Android has some problems of its own, which we will see later.
In short, encryption works by:
- Starting with simple data
- Apply a key (secret code) to rework the information
- Ending with encrypted data
The encrypted data is simply readable by someone with the first key that usually encrypts the information.
Modern encryption algorithms are based on this theory, with the second stage being highly complex and deserving of doctoral study. What you would like to look for is that your data is encrypted with the AES algorithm of a minimum of 128 bits. Many of the highest VPNs out there go a step above that and offer AES-256 encryption, including NordVPN (review), Surfshark (review), and ExpressVPN (review).
Your VPN is often super secure, but it all comes down to the connection protocol that the encryption mechanism uses to handle your information.
Legal Constraints and Company Vision
(Note: None of this is typically legal advice. Please read for entertainment purposes only).
All good VPN companies will do their best to protect your data, your privacy, and your overall online security. Please note that they are still subject to the law within the jurisdiction in which they are located, which may affect your service.
Depending on the local law of the country where the VPN was established, the company could also be obliged in writing to share the records they need regarding their activity. There are often international agreements between countries to share information in these cases. If you are doing enough research, you will find a VPN established in a country that does not have such on-site agreements alongside your country.
So in the end, you’ll only be safe with a VPN if you’re not only willing and technically capable of keeping your information safe and personal, but also if you’re legally allowed to try. Let’s tackle this topic more broadly and specialize in answering the general question:
Is it Legal to Use a VPN?
In a word, yes. But not always.
First of all, VPN as an idea is something new in the “legal years” so not all jurisdictions have managed to keep up. this suggests that the principles are murky and can be interpreted in some way.
In general, it seems that VPNs can be used in most countries, especially the US, Canada, the UK, and the rest of Western Europe. (Important! When using a VPN, your physical location is important.)
In general, VPNs are often not good in China, Turkey, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Belarus, Oman, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Turkmenistan.
To learn more about the legality of VPNs in your country, look up the laws of your government and review this in-depth resource of ours to answer whether a VPN is legal in your country. We scan over 190 countries and let you know what’s going on.
Is a VPN Enough to Keep Me Anonymous Online?
In a word, no. But the extent to which it does so is still impressive.
Without a VPN, your connection is completely open and your ISP, the cafe’s WiFi router, any server along the way, or a person with the right tools can verify your data. Using a VPN solves many of these problems by encrypting your transmission and making it appear that the server is making the connection and not you.
Please research the following to help determine the extent of your anonymity.
- Does the service keep records?
- The jurisdiction under which the VPN is established. In some cases, they may be legally required to keep records. What happens when a government comes to ask questions?
- Does the service keep payment records? Do these records include identifying information?
- Are encryption and a stable link protocol sufficient?
Not all VPNs will protect you equivalently. By creating your choice wisely, you will address the concerns described above.
VPN Logging Policies
The logs that a VPN maintains significantly affect the degree of anonymity and privacy you have with their service. Records that a provider may keep include:
- user activity
- IP addresses
- connect / disconnect timestamps
- devices used
- payment records
Any of these logs makes you a little less anonymous, as your IP is often connected to a certain browsing session that you just had. Of course, linking this to you personally is extremely difficult, but still quite doable if some agency is deliberate enough.
In general, the fewer logs your provider keeps, the higher the “no logs” level, perfect.
We have done the research for you. Here’s our great rundown of 100+ VPNs and their logging policy. Check it out when choosing your service.
Free VPN versus Paid VPN
Running an honest VPN service costs a lot of money – robust servers, data transfer, infrastructure, employees, etc. If the service can be obtained for free, consider what compromises can be made. Are they recording activity for their own reasons? Are they showing their own ads? Is your data sold to a third party?
Paying for a VPN is not a great investment. We’ve tried some great solutions for as little as $ 3-5 per month, which doesn’t seem like a ton in exchange for peace of mind and improved online privacy.
How Much Does a VPN Cost?
The average of 70 popular VPNs is $ 4.99 a month, which tells you a lot about what kind of spend it usually is. VPNs that cost quite a bit $ 10 are rare. There aren’t many reasons to buy them, as there are cheaper solutions.
Most services offer deep discounts if you are willing to subscribe 2-3 years in advance, rather than renewing your subscription monthly. For example, NordVPN, a VPN that we greatly enjoy, costs $ 11.95 if paid monthly, but you will get their 3-year plan for only $ 3.49 / month (that’s a 70% discount).
Can I Use a VPN for Torrenting?
Then there is the VPN’s own policy regarding torrents and the way it is handled. Most standard VPN solutions on the market will allow torrenting. Based on our research, you will download torrents with all popular VPNs: NordVPN, ExpressVPN, Surfshark, VyprVPN, and PIA.
When it comes to torrenting protection, it all boils down to the VPN’s policies on things like logging and sharing user data. In general, if a VPN does not keep logs in general, it will not keep logs for your torrenting operation.
Another aspect worth considering when choosing a VPN for torrenting is the download speed that the service offers. Of course, this type of data is often difficult to obtain; Most of the time, you just determine it after you buy the VPN. We did some testing on our own and we support it, we will recommend these VPNs for their good download speeds: NordVPN, ExpressVPN, VyprVPN, and PIA.
May I Stream Netflix and Hulu with a VPN?
Yes. But as with most things on this list, it all comes down to the precise VPN you just use.
The problem with Netflix, in general, is that although it is now available in more than 130 countries, not all shows are distributed equally.
Due to the complicated licensing agreements that were in place before Netflix’s big international launch, various television stations retain the rights to even several Netflix-owned shows, effectively preventing Netflix from making those shows legally available on its platform.
Complicated legal matters, but VPNs can help here.
The way Netflix and Hulu block a quantity of their content in parts of the world is based on location filters. This means that if you are in a country that is prohibited, you are prohibited.
VPNs make repair easy. Since you will be selecting the server that you simply want to connect to, all you would like to try to unblock certain Connecting to a Netflix server in a country where the show is available is the only way to watch it. That is all. We have a full post on how to watch Netflix over a VPN + the simplest VPNs that let you give it a try.
Does a VPN Work on Android and iOS?
Again, that’s a yes.
Many of the highest VPN services out there also allow you to download mobile apps for Android or iOS.
These are our best VPNs for Android: NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and Surfshark.
Both platforms allow you to discover a VPN connection quite easily. for example, on iPhone, you will do it in Settings → General → VPN.
All that said, be careful if you are tempted by any of the free VPN apps for Android or iOS. There is research conducted by a team of specialists (from CSIRO’s Data61, the University of latter South Wales, the International Institute of Computing, and therefore the University of California Berkeley), exploring 280 free Android applications that use Android VPN permissions. According to research, 38% of these applications contain malware, 84 percent filter user traffic, and 75% use tracking libraries. And there you have it. This is where we checked our VPN permissions.
Does a VPN Work on Kodi/SmartTV?
Your smart TVs and Kodi boxes are even more things that need a live internet connection to provide you with your goodies. And then a VPN can help you keep those streams private so only you, and therefore the service, know what you’re watching.
There are two ways that you will enable a VPN connection on your smart TV:
- configure it on the device itself,
- set it up correctly on your router – effectively protect your entire home network and everything connected to it (we’ll cover this in the next section below).
Let’s specialize in the above here. In general, many of the standard VPNs come with the power to configure them correctly on your smart TV. One of our suggested VPNs, NordVPN, for example, comes with an Android TV app as well as comprehensive instructions for Kodi / OpenELEC and Apple TV. Similar features are available with other VPNs on the market.
Some of the networks that support smart TV boxes and devices: NordVPN, Surfshark, ExpressVPN.
NordVPN presents a great blog post on how to watch movies on Kodi.
How Do I Install a VPN on My Router?
It is best thanks to confirming that everything that is connected to the router is placed through a secure VPN connection. In that scenario, you don’t have to install individual apps on your mobile devices, laptops, smart TVs, or anything with web access.
First, confirm that your router supports VPN. this will be done on the website of the manufacturer that produced the router. Oftentimes, most FlashRouters powered by DD-WRT and Tomato are VPN compatible.
For example, this is the way to do it if you are with NordVPN, and here is ExpressVPN and PIA. We even have an example demo of how it’s done on most DD-WRT routers on this page (near the bottom).
Installation is straightforward and involves you logging in to your router and then filling out some common forms – nothing you’re not ready to handle.
VPN & Tor — How to Use Them Together
Although Tor and VPN are fundamentally different, they will continue to be used together for maximum online security and privacy.
- Tor gives you the power to go online by routing your connection through a variety of random nodes, while also encrypting that connection at each stage.
- VPN gives you access to at least one server at a time.
Nature is a bit different in theory, so we can’t say things like “Tor or VPN are better than the opposite”. We already talked intimately about the differences between Tor and VPN on this site, be happy to go to that post to urge the full picture.
One of the great things about Tor is that you can simply use it 100% free and there are no limitations built into the free version. All you would like to try is grab the official Tor browser. Once you have it, you just have to launch it like your standard Chrome or Firefox browser, click the connect button, and you are up and running.
How to combine your VPN and Tor:
- Enable your VPN connection normally. From now on, everything that involves communicating online goes through your VPN.
- Link to Tor using your Tor browser.
At this stage, you have the VPN connection and therefore the Tor browser running at the same time. The biggest downside to this setup is that it is getting much slower than the standard VPN-only connection. Tor alone noticeably slows down your experience, and when combined with a VPN the results are often even more dramatic. On the plus side, it gives you a lot of privacy, which can be a huge plus.
IP Leaks and Kill Switches
A kill switch can be a feature that automatically kills your internet access if your secure, encrypted connection ever goes down. If there is even the slightest connectivity problem, the kill switch will trip and block all activity until the secure connection returns.
If your VPN doesn’t have a kill switch and a connectivity issue arises, your device is likely planning to restore the quality unprotected connection, thus exposing what you’ve been doing up to that point.
NordVPN, Surfshark, ExpressVPN, and PIA all have a kill button, according to our testing.
IP leaks are a known vulnerability with some settings that people use to access the Internet. It is not entirely a VPN problem at its core.
IP leaks can happen when your VPN doesn’t cover your real IP while browsing online. For example, you would like to access a geo-restricted show on Netflix, so you change the server to an approved country and reload the page. Then you realize that the content remains blocked. this suggests that your actual IP may need to be filtered.
All the best VPNs have some smart scripts written into their apps to mitigate this risk. As I mentioned, your IP leak is not always the fault of the VPN. Sometimes your computer settings and therefore the many applications it contains are responsible. Even the browser you use and therefore the plugins installed on it can cause IP leaks.
When to Use a VPN
There are a variety of great reasons to use a VPN:
- Encrypts your online activity.
- Hide its activity from anyone who might be curious about it.
- It hides your location, allowing you to access geo-blocked content (for example, on Netflix and other sites).
- It makes you more anonymous online.
- Helps you keep your connection protected when using a public WiFi hotspot.
In general, use a VPN if your privacy, security, and web anonymity are important to you. About $ 3-5 a month can be a small price to buy all of that.
When Not to Use a VPN
As predictable as it sounds, we actually don’t see a good reason not to use a VPN if you’re taking your online security and privacy seriously.
VPNs are incredibly useful as another layer of security in addition to SSL protocols on websites, having an honest antivirus program. Not downloading suspicious software, not sharing an excessive amount of private information on social media, etc. In general, they are the next step to use the Internet more consciously and with the necessary precautions.
They don’t have many downsides. Perhaps the only one is that your connection can sometimes get in the way. After all, you are routing your data through an additional server.
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