What is a VPN? Explaining the Basics in 2023

Key Takeaways: Virtual Private Networks

  • VPN stands for virtual private network.
  • VPNs work by replacing your IP address with that of the VPN and adding encryption to your connection.
  • You can use VPNs for extra security and privacy online, for example when using free WiFi, as well as for accessing streaming services in other regions.

You can’t help but feel that privacy is under attack. At time of writing, net neutrality is a thing of the past, U.S. ISPs will soon be allowed to sell their customers’ data to third parties and we’ve all been under some kind of surveillance for years now. If you don’t have one yet, now is the time to be thinking about getting a VPN.

In this article, we’ll be helping the uninitiated get a grasp of what a virtual private network is, how it’s the cornerstone of any privacy strategy and explain how VPNs really work. If you’d like to delve more into the nitty gritty of encryption and all that, we recommend you give our guide on VPN security a read, while our online privacy guide will give you a general overview on how to stay safe on the internet.

Once you’re all studied up on VPNs, you can move up to our guide on picking the best VPN for you with your new-found knowledge. If you’d like to skip all the technobabble and just get started with the best all-round provider out there, check out our ExpressVPN review.

What Is a VPN?

As we mentioned earlier, VPN stands for virtual private network. As with many of these things, the explanation is right there in the name, all you need is a bit of context.

VPNs evolved from the need of companies to have people access a computer system remotely, but with the same credentials as somebody who was logging in from the home network. This isn’t normally possible — well, not without a ton of cabling and some serious know-how — but by setting up a special program, a VPN client, you can fool the computer you’re talking to that you’re a member of the same network.

In essence, you’re creating a network in — and we do hate this term — cyberspace, which means it’s virtual, not physically connected to each other. As it’s password protected, it’s also private, so there you go, a virtual private network. A VPN is essentially a space online that you can use without other people having access, it’s like having a private little mini-internet all your own.

What Are VPNs Used For?

The thing is, this little mini-internet isn’t very interesting all by itself, unless you’re able to fill it up with stuff. This is what many companies do, as well as academic institutions such as Fordham University. Employees and students can use a VPN client to log into the local server as if they were sitting at the mainframe and access it freely. Researchers especially make a lot of use of this, as often the price of joining a university library for a year is a mere fraction of a percentage of what it costs to sign up to academic journals.

However, the main use for VPNs isn’t the little network they create for themselves, but rather using the network to access the internet. The reason for this is quite simple: when you’re using a VPN, you don’t show up as “you” on the internet, but as the network, instead. This means that you’re essentially hiding your identity behind that of the network, making it impossible to trace you.

how vpns work

This is the great strength of VPNs and why they are the number one tool when it comes to protecting your identity online. If you use a VPN to access a dodgy website, for instance, and they try and trace you back, all they will find is the network you gained access through.

This anonymity extends to your internet service provider, too: all they can see is the VPN connection you made, nothing else. This works out great for people worried about ISPs selling on their data or people who want to simply browse porn in peace.

Besides these first-world concerns, people who live in countries that censor the internet are pretty happy about VPNs, too, as using one allows them to access the “real” internet rather than the dog-and-pony show their country has put up. That said, with the strange ideas coming out of politicians in both the U.S. and Europe, parts of the more developed world may be going the way of China soon.

How Does a VPN Work?

So far, so good: VPNs seem almost magical, don’t they? They grant anonymity and allow you to browse without worry that anyone is looking with you (unless they’re looking over your shoulder, like, nothing helps with that).

VPNs do this by replacing your IP address (IP stands for internet Protocol, which is the web equivalent of your street address) with that of the VPN. Now, if that’s all a VPN did, it would technically be a proxy, a service that simply reroutes traffic, which are inherently insecure. For more on the differences, check out our VPN vs proxy vs Tor article. Our best free proxy article gives you a list of a few that aren’t too bad.

This insecurity lies in the fact that whatever you send over an IPv4 or IPv6 internet connection (the standard way in which the bits and bytes that make up data are transferred), a third party can simply look at it and then read it for themselves. Internet traffic is inherently unsafe, unless you encrypt that traffic.

This encryption is what sets VPNs apart from proxies. A VPN creates a so-called secure tunnel between your computer to the VPN server. All your traffic is routed through this tunnel and no one can check what’s going on there because of one, or sometimes even several, layers of encryption (read our NordVPN review for one service that takes encryption particularly seriously).

Note that this means that the VPN service itself does know what you’re up to, unless they have a “no logs” policy in place. Most decent services will not keep your logs (except maybe for some basic information, known as metadata), though sorrowfully enough there are plenty of unscrupulous services out there, too.

Good VPNs vs Bad Ones

Not all VPN services are created equal, which makes you wonder how secure VPNs are. In fact, there are so many untrustworthy services out there that we decided to do an article on the five worst free VPN providers. The main offences of these are that they may not even encrypt your traffic at all (imagine that happening to you in, say, China) or do encrypt it, but then sell your data on to marketers.

Generally speaking, the best VPN services are paid ones, though there are a few exceptions like we describe in our best free VPN article. Though there are plenty of differences between even the very best services, all of them have a few things in common.

First off, they offer advanced encryption. This should go without saying. The problem is, though, that advanced encryption will slow down your internet connection a little, on top of the slowdown you’re already experiencing by sending your signal through another location.

The fastest VPN services may only see a drop of 10 percent of so, while some may slow to an absolute crawl. Another trick is to select a VPN provider with a lot of servers scattered across the globe, making it easier to find one that offers you a decent speed.

There are several types of encryption available for VPNs, called protocols, with each their up- and downsides. There are a few too many to list here, but the best and most used is OpenVPN. Other protocols include PPTP, L2TP/IPSec and SSL/TLS. Read our full VPN protocol breakdown to see the difference between all these.

User friendliness is another core requirement, especially if you’re not the biggest geek around. Generally speaking, you want to be looking for a provider with a clear interface and not too many obscure buttons; read our PIA review for one example of a good service.

Other considerations may vary a bit from person to person, but can include things like whether a service has a kill switch (which severs your VPN connection if your VPN server stops responding), if it gets you past the Netflix VPN ban and whether it will work on mobile or not.

In each case, though, always make sure to check whether you’re dealing with a bona fide service or a few coding cowboys ready to make a few bucks off a proxy they’ve labelled a VPN. You can read our VPN features guide to get an idea of what to expect, as well as our VPN test guide to make sure your VPN is working.

What to Expect From a VPN

At the same time, don’t expect too much from even the best VPN services. Though VPNs are a great way to protect yourself online, there are, quite simply, limits. After all, you’re pretty much just exchanging the logs your ISP keeps with ones kept by the VPN provider. Almost every single service out there claims to keep no logs and checking those assertions is, well, kind of impossible.

At Cloudwards.net we recommend a VPN when we have no indications that a service keeps logs. While this can seem like haphazard way of selecting something, it’s also the most honest. We recommend ExpressVPN and CyberGhost, for example, because we have no credible reports that either keeps logs, while we recommend people stay away from another service in our PureVPN review because it cooperated with law enforcement in the past.

In the end, there’s no single way of sealing your online identity tight. If total anonymity is your goal, you’ll need to cut yourself off from social media completely, use a different VPN service for each different activity, disable several standard browser features and pretty much gimp your entire surfing experience.  As we doubt that most reasonable people would do so, we also recommend that our readers keep their expectations of VPNs reasonable, too.

The upshot? Expect a good VPN to keep you reasonably safe, most of the time, and also to help you stream shows from abroad. The VPN should also help with internet speeds in case of ISP throttling or poor peering agreements. If evading the worst of government surveillance while also topping up your entertainment options is your goal, most VPNs we recommend will be fine.

If you want to truly go dark, maybe going the dark web route is more your thing, and we have a dedicated guide to the best VPN for the dark web.

Final Thoughts

As DIY security measures go, a virtual private network is the very first line of defense against people trying to spy on your data and online behavior, even if they’re not perfect. We hope that this article has cleared up a few questions you may have had and brought you closer to start protecting your security and privacy by using one.

If you’re getting started we recommend using one of the best VPNs for beginners. We also have a comprehensive remote access VPN guide, in case you want to secure access to company resources. You can also check our VPN articles archive, to find a VPN for online banking, streaming, gaming, torrenting and more.

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Frequently Asked Questions About VPNs

In this final section, we’ve put together some of the questions we’ve been asked the most here at Cloudwards.net. Feel free to suggest a few of your own in the comments below.

What Is a VPN and How Does It Work?

A virtual private network encrypts your traffic and reroutes it, making you invisible while browsing and making it near-impossible for anybody to spy on you. As a bonus, a good VPN will also let you access geoblocked services like Netflix.

Do I Need a VPN at Home?

Depends on what you’re doing, but we recommend you use a VPN at home. Even if you surf the most innocent sites on the web, marketers can still hoover up that information and sell it on. Using a VPN will prevent that from happening.

How Do I Get a VPN?

Almost all VPNs will require you to pay a small fee to get started, but also have a refund policy in place in case you don’t like it.

Can I Use a VPN for Free?

There are plenty of free VPNs out there, but most are complete crap and will sell your data even harder than your ISP will. There are a few exceptions, of course, our favorite being Windscribe. Read our Windscribe review for more on this VPN service.

Do VPNs Really Work?

Yes, absolutely. Some or better than others, but any of the VPNs we’ve recommended so far are guaranteed to keep your security and privacy intact while browsing.

Can You Be Tracked if You Use a VPN?

No, if the VPN you’re using has good enough security, you should be fine. Definitely do your due diligence, however, and read a few reviews online before signing up for a service, some are better than others.

Is Using a VPN Really Necessary?

If you would like to keep your personal data off the open market, then yes. If you believe you have nothing to hide, we recommend buying some Facebook stock and watch the money roll in. Also, if you’re in a public space, like a library or coffee shop, you definitely need to use one.

Do I Need a VPN on My Phone?

Yes, you do. Smartphones are more and more becoming the way in which we interact with the web, and thus they store more information than ever. Using a VPN on your phone is very important.

Is It Illegal to Use a VPN?

Not in most countries. Exceptions are China and Russia, though even there these VPN bans are rarely enforced.

Does Netflix Work With a VPN?

Depends on the VPN. NordVPN, ExpressVPN and CyberGhost have a great track record getting past Netflix’s VPN block, so make sure to check them out.

Is It Illegal to Use a VPN With Netflix?

Not at all. When Netflix does catch you using a VPN, all you need to do is disconnect and reconnect and you’ll be streaming as you were before. We’ve been doing it for years and never had any trouble.

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