What is a VPN?

What is a VPN?
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

In recent years the privacy software business has taken off in earnest, and no longer do the best VPN services seem like they're just for geeks in V for Vendetta masks lurking on the darkweb. Now, you'll find them on tens, if not hundreds of millions of devices worldwide. But what is a VPN to begin with?

In essence, a virtual private network (VPN for short) allows remote users to securely connect to a private server from any location. That often includes employees on the road or working from home, who can use VPNs to securely connect to the office network from their laptops. Large companies with offices spanning multiple locations also use VPNs to ensure a secure and universal network for all office sites.

However, it's not just businesses that use VPNs. Consumer VPN services like ExpressVPN and NordVPN have boomed in the last decade, and their ability to unblock restricted streaming content, anonymize your online activity, and spoof your virtual location mean that there are countless VPN uses you may never have considered.

ExpressVPN is the best VPN on the marketthree free months

ExpressVPN is the best VPN on the market
If what you want is quick, reliable cover plus excellent connection speeds, torrenting and streaming support, and unrivalled customer support, ExpressVPN is the provider for you. And now, Tom's Guide readers can claim three free months on a year-long plan.

The purpose of VPNs

It's worth considering which kind of VPN you're interested in before considering the purpose. A business VPN like the one you may use at work (or when working from home) is an essential tool for connecting disparate users to a single Intranet and accessing restricted files. It will have specialized tools to allow teams to work well together like dedicated IPs and a central management system, but you won't want to use it for more recreational reasons.

A consumer VPN – the ones you'll likely see advertised in YouTube videos and on TV – are optimized for personal use. That means while you won't be able to connect to particular restricted Intranets, you probably won't be wanting to, either.

The purpose of a consumer VPN is primarily to provide the user with privacy and security online, allow access to sites that are blocked by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or government, and change region on Netflix to watch exclusive content for free. 

This is done by rerouting your Internet connection away from your ISP's servers and through the VPN's own servers. There are multiple benefits to this, but the three most important reasons are to hide your activity from your ISP (which is likely to log any suspicious activity), change your IP address so that your activity can't be linked back to you by other websites, and to change your apparent location.

In short, a VPN can make you appear to be a totally different person online. That helps to avoid ad trackers, access different content that may be blocked by your ISP, and ensure all your browsing can't be linked back to you.

What is a VPN: VPN protocols

Due to the secure nature of VPNs, they use a number of protocols that encrypt data traffic. This is especially important because data is being transmitted over a public network between two remote locations.

Protocols used by VPNs include IP Security (IPSec), Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), Transport Layer Security (TLS), Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP), OpenVPN, Internet Key Exchange (IKEv1 and IKEv2) and WireGuard.

In modern VPN services, you'll primarily be using OpenVPN and WireGuard, with the latter becoming more popular by the minute thanks to its excellent speeds and great security. Mobile VPN services will also often use IKEv2 thanks to the fact it copes with unstable connections more effectively.

In all protocols, both endpoints — your computer, smartphone or router, and the VPN server — use a "handshake" method of authentication. To successfully initiate this connection, the connecting computer must share a key that matches the required parameters for the receiving location.

What is a VPN?

The advantages of VPN

Consumer VPNs have a huge amount of advantages. You'll be able to access sites like torrent repositories that may be blocked by your ISP. If you're in a country like China or the UAE, you'll be able to sidestep government restrictions. You'll be able to watch shows on Netflix that aren't available in your country, and even access country-specific services you pay for like Hulu and HBO Max if you're out of your home country.

What's more, if you take the right precautions alongside using the VPN (for example, browsing in Incognito mode and not entering personal data), you can also avoid linking yourself to any activity you'd prefer to keep totally private.

The disadvantages of VPN

It's well-known that many VPNs do have an impact on performance. That's almost inevitable thanks to the fact that you're essentially making your connection travel further. However, if you pick a fast VPN you won't notice much of a difference at all.

If you choose to try out a free VPN, you'll also be subjected to certain limitations. For example, you may have a data limit, and almost invariably you won't be able to access streaming site – plus, free services often aren't as secure as paid ones.

It's also worth noting that on rare occasions you may be faced with CAPTCHA tests on some sites when using a VPN. This is because a VPN's IP addresses are shared between users, and some sites may detect 'unusual' activity. In our experience, however, this is fairly unobtrusive and is preferable to the unprotected alternative.

Finally, it's essential you make sure to sign up for a reputable VPN provider – taking your pick from any of our guides is a good place to start. If you choose to go with a lesser service (especially, for example, a free Android VPN) you may be putting yourself in danger of having your data stolen and leaked.

Is a VPN enough?

For many people, a VPN will offer enough functionality to get more out of the web and stay safe online. It'll get access to more streaming content, stop ad trackers collecting your data, and keep you safer by encrypting your traffic on public Wi-Fi.

However, if you're looking for true web privacy, there are a number of other steps you should take to ensure you're staying anonymous.

First of all, use Incognito or private browsing mode. That means your history will not be saved, and, depending on your settings, cookies will be disabled. Plus, you won't be automatically signed into websites, which is an easy way of linking your fresh IP straight back to you.

Beyond that, using Tor Browser is even more secure, and for ultimate untraceability you may want to consider using the Tails OS. With each step you'll find usage becomes more and more inconvenient, so it's worth considering just how private you need to be.

As always, though, you – the user – are the weakest link. If you're not careful about inputting personal information, no matter how well-protected your connection is you can be discovered. That won't be a huge issue for most, but no matter what precautions you take to secure your connection, you need to match that with your own diligence and common sense.

In a nutshell – what is a VPN?

If you're an individual looking for anonymity and freedom online, a VPN is an excellent addition to your toolbox. While it can't provide absolutely everything in terms of online security, it's a great starting point and, realistically, is all most people need.

Plus, added bonuses like accessing restricted Netflix content and spoofing your location can be super useful and just plain fun to play about with – so for just about anyone who regularly goes online, we highly recommend picking one up.

Which VPN do we recommend?

Our top-rated VPN today is ExpressVPNthree months absolutely FREE

Our top-rated VPN today is ExpressVPN. With over 3,000 servers worldwide and excellent speeds on just about all of them, it's a versatile, secure solution. You can test it out risk-free for 30 days and claim your money back, and now Tom's Guide readers can get three months absolutely FREE. What more could you ask for?