What is a VPN & how does it work?

VPN stands for virtual private network. As the name suggests, it’s a technology that creates a virtual, private network within a more extensive network, the internet. Often compared to a tunnel, it secures internet browsing and enhances the confidentiality of users’ data and online activity.

How does a VPN work?

A VPN creates a secure connection between the user’s device and the internet via a remote server operated by the VPN provider. When users connect to a VPN, their internet traffic is routed through this encrypted connection, protecting it from many potential cyber threats. 

To understand how a VPN service works, it’s essential to understand its main components. The main elements all VPNs rely on are servers, encryption, protocols, and tunneling.

What is a VPN: how does vpn work
Image credit: Surfshark

How does a VPN server work?

VPN servers operate as secure portals between the VPN user, also called the VPN client, and the internet. Once connected to a VPN server, all incoming and outgoing traffic is redirected through an encrypted tunnel. Each VPN web server is tied to an IP different from the user’s IP address and a specific geographical location.

Related read: What can people do with your IP?

How does encryption work?

Data encryption is a security method that converts plain text into ciphertext or code. To do this, it uses digital keys and complex mathematical algorithms. A VPN encrypts all data traveling through the secure VPN tunnel making your data unreadable to anyone who intercepts it. Once arrived at the VPN server, the data is decrypted. 

What is a VPN: how encryption works
Illustration of encryption. Image credit: pandasecurity.com

What is VPN tunneling?

VPN tunneling is the process of creating a secure and encrypted pathway, known as a tunnel, for data to travel between a user’s device and a VPN server. Tunneling can be achieved using another vital element—VPN protocols.

What are VPN protocols?

A VPN protocol is a set of rules that define how data travels through a VPN tunnel. There are various VPN protocols available, such as OpenVPN, IPSec (Internet Protocol Security), SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol), L2TP (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol), and WireGuard. VPN services usually offer a range of protocols to choose from, each with pros and cons.

What types of VPNs are there?

There are three main types of VPN services, each serving a different purpose.

Remote access VPN

A remote access VPN allows users to securely connect to a network from any remote location as if they were physically present there. This type of VPN provides a convenient and secure way for employees to remotely access company resources, files, and systems while maintaining the confidentiality and integrity of the data.

Site-to-site VPN

Site-to-site VPNs, also known as network-to-network VPNs, enable secure connectivity between multiple networks at different physical locations. In a site-to-site VPN setup, individual networks at various sites are connected to establish a secure and encrypted connection. This allows for seamless and secure communication between the networks, regardless of their physical distance. Businesses commonly use site-to-site VPNs to connect remote offices or branch locations to the main corporate network.

Private VPN

A private VPN, also called a personal VPN or consumer VPN service, is used by individuals to access the internet more securely. Although they do not guarantee online safety, they protect against many cybercriminals and ensure greater anonymity and privacy.

What does a virtual private network do?

Although VPNs come in many flavors, they all fulfill two main functions: enabling a secure connection and concealing the user’s IP address. Some VPNs provide additional features such as ad blockers, kill switches or network blocks, split tunneling, and malware protection.

Ensuring a secure data transfer thanks to encryption

One of the key features of a VPN is its ability to create a secure connection. By encrypting the user’s internet traffic, a VPN ensures that sensitive information such as passwords, financial data, and personal details are protected from potential hackers, governmental institutions, internet service providers, and businesses. 

Swapping an IP address for another one

Another feature of a VPN is its ability to hide the user’s IP address. When connected to a VPN, the user appears to be using the IP address of the selected VPN server. It is then much harder for online trackers to determine the user’s location or identify them through their IP address. 

VPN providers typically offer a myriad of IP addresses on servers all over the world to choose from.

What is a VPN: choose IP address
Image: choosing an IP location from a list

What are the benefits of using a VPN?

This solution offers many benefits, which is why the popularity of VPN services is on the rise.

Securing your connection on public Wi-Fi

Working from a café or connecting to a public Wi-Fi network at the airport is convenient but risky. Most Wi-Fi networks are unsecured, and as such, they’re a hacker’s dream come true. Turning on your VPN and encrypting your internet connection solves the problem, as VPN tunneling makes your data unreadable to others.

A VPN keeps your browsing more private

One of the significant advantages of using a VPN is its ability to improve online privacy. By creating a secure tunnel within which internet data can travel, a VPN hides it from online snoopers, advertisers, and, most notably, your Internet Service Provider (ISP). In other words, VPN software ensures better protection of the user’s online identity. It does not, however, ensure complete anonymity.

Access regional content

A standout advantage of using a VPN is its ability to grant access to regionally restricted content. With a VPN, internet users can gain access to websites, entertainment platforms, and online services that might be limited based on their geographical location. A VPN can effectively bypass content restrictions by connecting to a server in a different region and showing a different IP address.

What is a VPN: YT geoblocking

Avoid censorship

Content restrictions are usually related to distribution rights. However, they can also be part of a government-imposed censorship program. In places where freedom of speech is restricted and some information is considered unsafe for citizens to view, a VPN can help access blocked websites by providing a wide range of IP addresses to mask the actual one. 

Avoid price discrimination 

Price discrimination happens when the exact same product comes with a different price tag depending on factors such as age or employment status. When it comes to online pricing, these factors can be users’ browsing history and the location from which they connect. Geo-pricing or dynamic pricing is common when shopping in online stores, booking flights, or holiday accommodation. Connecting to a VPN network with a different IP address may help you access better deals and save money.

What does VPN protect you from?

A virtual private network is a great tool to connect to the internet and improve online privacy and security. A VPN protects online traffic from various vulnerabilities and risks thanks to its two main functions: VPN encryption and IP change. A VPN can prevent data interception by cybercriminals, monitoring by ISPs, and man-in-the-middle attacks when connected to public Wi-Fi networks. 

What are the disadvantages of using a VPN?

VPN usage brings an extra layer of protection for your online presence. However, some VPN users complain about the following drawbacks:

Slower internet speeds

Using a virtual private network may slow down your internet connection. A VPN connection involves encrypting and rerouting data through remote servers, which can slightly lag your browsing experience. While reputable VPN providers strive to minimize this impact, it’s important to keep it in mind.

Increased data usage

Due to the encryption process and the rerouting of data through VPN servers, your data consumption might be slightly higher compared to regular browsing. While the difference is usually marginal, it’s something to consider, especially if you have a limited data plan with your internet service provider. 

Illegal in some countries

VPN usage is illegal in North Korea, Belarus, Iran, Iraq, Turkmenistan, and Myanmar. There are also countries where VPN services are legal but heavily restricted or regulated, like China, Russia, and Pakistan. Some VPNs, such as Surfshark, make your encrypted internet traffic look like a regular internet connection, so governments or ISPs will be none the wiser. 

It does not protect you from all cyber threats 

While a VPN is a great way to secure network traffic, it is not a silver bullet against all internet threats. A VPN app will not protect you from social engineering attacks and malware infections. If you willingly click a corrupted link or download a compromised file, a VPN won’t help. 

How to choose a VPN service

There are several things to consider when choosing a VPN app. Below are the most important ones:

VPN protocols

It’s crucial to opt for a VPN provider offering several robust encryption protocols. There is no single best VPN protocol that fits all needs. Here are the most commonly used VPN protocols today:


OpenVPN is one of the most popular and highly regarded protocols. It offers a strong balance between security and performance, supporting both UDP and TCP connections. It’s open-source, which contributes to its transparency and auditability.


This protocol is known for its stability and ability to quickly reconnect when the connection drops. It’s commonly used on mobile devices and is considered secure, making it a good choice for users seeking a robust connection on the go.


Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP), combined with IPSec, offers excellent security but can be slower due to its double encapsulation process. It’s recommended in situations where security is a top priority.


Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) is a protocol developed by Microsoft. It’s handy for Windows users as it’s integrated into the operating system. SSTP uses SSL/TLS for encryption and is known for bypassing firewalls.


WireGuard is a relatively new protocol that has gained attention for its simplicity and efficiency. Its design makes it lightweight without compromising on the strength of the security it offers.

VPN servers

More servers usually make for a smoother and faster connection as the server load can be more evenly distributed. If there is an IP address of a specific country you are looking for, it’s good to check in advance if the provider offers VPN IP addresses in this very location. Most of the leading VPN apps provide hundreds, if not thousands, of VPN servers to choose from.

No-logs policy audit

Check if the virtual private network you’re considering keeps any logs of its users’ activity. Many VPN providers are proud of their no-logs policy, meaning no information about their users is ever registered, so they couldn’t provide it even if requested. The best VPNs on the market can guarantee this is true by regularly publishing the results of recent no-logs audits.

Free VPN vs paid VPN

While free VPNs seem appealing, their funding models often compromise users’ data privacy. It’s best to opt for a paid VPN service that guarantees that your browsing data is not logged and stored in any way, as “free” services often use users’ data as the basis of their monetization model. A paid subscription offers superior features, reliable customer support, and a commitment to safeguarding your digital footprint.

How much does a VPN cost?

Most VPNs offer periodically renewable subscriptions, with longer plans being the most cost-efficient options. Among top VPNs, monthly prices oscillate around $13 without tax, with more significant variation for yearly and biannual subscriptions ranging from $2.19 to $8.32 monthly.

What are the VPN service providers?

Due to the growing demand for online privacy and security solutions, recent years have seen the emergence of many VPN service providers. The leading solution on the market is Nord VPN, followed by Surfshark and Express VPN. Other popular VPN providers are CyberGhost, Private Internet Access, IP Vanish, and Tunnel Bear, to name just a few.

What features should a good VPN have?

A good VPN comes with a multitude of extra features. In addition to an array of protocols and servers, some leading providers also offer:

  • ad blockers,
  • cookie pop-up blockers,
  • unlimited devices,
  • dedicated apps for all devices on the market,
  • multiple VPN connections at once,
  • IP address rotation,
  • the option to bypass the VPN on pages on which you want to use your real IP (location or banking services).

Are VPNs legal?

If you’re worried whether VPNs are legal, the answer is: it depends on where you are. In the vast majority of jurisdictions, VPNs are legal. However, you may face prison if you use a VPN in Belarus, Iran, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Myanmar, or North Korea. VPN usage is restricted in China, Russia, and Pakistan.

How to set up a VPN connection 

Setting up a VPN connection is relatively easy with today’s VPN solutions. After purchase, users are asked to create an account with their email address. They can then download the application for their specific device or devices. Most VPNs offer extensions for popular browsers and applications for most operating systems and can even be installed directly on your router.

How to install a VPN on a computer

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to install a VPN on your desktop device.

  1. Go to the website of the VPN service.
  2. Sign up if you are a new user, or log in.
  3. Choose the subscription that suits your needs and pay.
  4. Once your payment is processed, download the right software for your operating system (Windows, macOS, Linux).
  5. Install the software by locating the installer file and clicking “run.” Follow the installation instructions on the screen.
  6. Once installed, launch the VPN software. You may need to log in.
  7. After logging in, select a VPN server and click “connect.
  8. Once connected, the software will display your connection status and IP address.
  9. Explore the settings to enable extra features or choose a protocol.
  10. Use a VPN every time you’re online. Click “disconnect” to turn the VPN off or connect to another server.

How to install a VPN on a smartphone

Follow these steps to install a VPN on a mobile device.

  1. Open your device’s app store (Apple Apps Store for iOS, Google Play Store for Android).
  2. Search for the VPN app you want to install.
  3. Tap the VPN app in the search results and tap “download” or “install.”
  4. Once the app is installed, tap “open” to open it.
  5. Log in or sign in if you are a new user.
  6. Select the subscription plan that suits your needs and pay.
  7. The app may ask you to grant access to some features on your device; review this step.
  8. Select a VPN server by scrolling through the list of locations, and click “connect.”
  9. Customize your app by adjusting settings and extra features.

How to install a VPN on a router

Installing a VPN on a router provides privacy and security for all devices connected to the router. Installing a VPN on the router is slightly more complex than installing it on a device. Here is a general guideline; however, you may need to refer to the specific VPN service guidelines for more details. 

  1. Access router settings. Open a web browser on a device connected to your router. Type your router’s IP address into the browser’s address bar and press “enter.”
  2. Log in to the router. Enter your router’s admin credentials to access its settings.
  3. Find the VPN section. Look for VPN settings under “VPN” or “network.
  4. Choose the VPN protocol. Select the protocol you want to use. Check the VPN service’s website for further instructions on recommended settings.
  5. Obtain configuration details. You will find configuration details under your VPN service account. These include VPN server addresses, authentication settings, and encryption information.
  6. Enter the configuration details you have gathered and save.
  7. Run a test connection to check if the VPN connection is active.
  8. All devices connected to the router will now use the VPN by default.
  9. If in doubt, contact the VPN service’s customer support for assistance.


Should my VPN be on or off?

Your VPN should be on to secure your internet connection and protect your privacy. It’s best to use a VPN during all online activity, especially when connecting to a public Wi-Fi network. 

Where is the VPN on my phone?

To find VPN settings on your phone, go to the “settings” app. Select “network & internet” if you use an Android device. Look for “VPN” there. Go to “general” on iPhones and tap “VPN.”

How do I know if I have a VPN?

To check if you have a VPN installed, go to settings on your device. Look for “network & internet” or “general” settings. You will know you have a VPN if you see a VPN option. Check the taskbar or system tray for a VPN icon for desktop users.

Do I need a VPN on my iPhone?

Using a VPN on your iPhone is a good idea as it provides enhanced security and privacy. iPhones do not come with built-in VPNs. There is a VPN option in settings which allows you to configure a VPN, but you still need a third-party VPN provider to connect to a virtual private network.

Can I leave my VPN on all the time?

While it’s generally a good idea to keep your VPN on for enhanced security and privacy, certain apps, like navigation or banking apps, may require your actual location. In such cases, you may need to disable the VPN temporarily.

Are VPNs free?

VPN services can be free or paid. Free VPNs often have limitations or may collect and sell users’ data. It’s essential to research and choose a VPN provider with a certified no-logs policy and solid encryption protocols to prevent leaks. 

Will a VPN hide my browsing from the internet service provider?

Yes, a VPN will stop your internet service provider from seeing which pages you visited, even though it will still know when you are connected. A good VPN network will also hide the fact that you are connected to a VPN from your ISP.

Updated on: September 25, 2023

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