What is a VPN: Your Definitive Guide

Andy Michael

Andy Michael

Privacy fanatic. Tester. User.
Andy Michael

Latest posts by Andy Michael (see all)

Many people are concerned about their privacy online.

We hear about information leaks from giants like Facebook, Target, and others and wonder if we had our information stolen.

One of the most basic steps to protect your privacy is to download a VPN.

If you don’t know what a VPN is, this guide is a good starting place.

This guide will help you understand the basics of what is a VPN, starting with the VPN definition, what does a VPN do, why you want to use a VPN, concerns about security, and the cost.

Let’s jump in.

What is a VPN?

A VPN – Virtual Private Network – is a service to ensure greater privacy while online. A VPN makes your data harder to access by hackers and other outsiders.

It can be used across organizations to keep high profile information safe or it can be used for homesick travellers abroad who just want to watch Netflix, including:

  • Masking IP address
  • Accessing geo-restricted sites
  • Torrenting
  • Streaming Kodi, FireStick, Popcorn time
  • Protecting data in public Wi-Fi

Starting with the VPN Definition

According to MIT, the VPN definition is a:

“set of sites that communicate over the open Internet but with the security and management capabilities of dedicated circuit or frame relay network, supporting applications without modification, with simple management for admins and users”

Say what?

If you have no idea what that means, you are not alone. Reading a VPN definition doesn’t mean you understand VPN meaning.

So we are going to take a stab at breaking down VPNs. We look at what is VPN, what does a VPN do, how does a VPN work, and try to give you clear examples to help illustrate what VPNs do in real life outside of the cables and infrastructure.

What matters is that you understand what a VPN does for you.

Simplifying the VPN Meaning

Imagine a VPN as a private virtual tunnel that connects your computer to a server. Let’s pause right there.

This server is important.

This server receives all of your online activity and translates it into a secret code. This process is called encryption.

Encryption makes your data into a language that is only known by the people you trust. (Hopefully, you trust your VPN service provider. You probably give them your money).

This tunnel is not open to everyone. It is your tunnel between you and your server. Hackers, governments, and even internet service providers (ISPs) have a hard time getting into this tunnel.

That’s why VPNs are one of the most reliable ways to ensure your privacy and security.

What does a VPN do?

You now understand that VPNs are for made for privacy on the internet. But you might still be wondering what does a VPN do. A VPN can do a few basic things and it depends if it is being used by an individual or an organization.

What Is a VPN for Individuals: Hiding your IP address

An IP (Internet Protocol) address is basically your computer’s address.

It works just like a home address. An IP address allows devices to connect to the internet and indicates the device’s physical location.

A VPN gives you a completely different IP address. This prevents criminals, governments, websites, and others from knowing where you are. The VPN can make you appear like you are in a different location, often a different country, of your choosing.

What Is VPN for Organizations: Secure Network

Though the average person usually considers what a VPN is for individual purposes, VPNs play a big part in securing data for large organizations. Businesses, often spread across multiple locations, can use a VPN to build a secure network to communicate and share files safely.

This is similar to building an intranet. It creates a secure private network within the Internet, that only people with specific login information can access. The data within the network is encrypted, meaning that hackers and outsiders have a much more difficult time intercepting the data.

Why Using a VPN is a Good Idea

You now know what a VPN does. It makes you appear in a different location or enables your organization to have its own network. But what does a VPN mean for your life?

A VPN Means Privacy

Privacy is the driving force behind VPNs. VPNs hide your location so that hackers, governments, websites, and other virtual onlookers can’t know what you are doing, how much money is in your bank account, what you are buying, where you are travelling, what business deals you are pursuing, etc.

Recently, lawmakers returned ISPs the right to collect and sell user information without user consent. This means the company who sells you internet can collect and sell your private information without your knowledge or agreement. This private information includes your IP address, the websites and online content you access, the content of forms you submit, and more.

Your internet provider can collect that data and sell it to marketers and other third parties.

Most people don’t want a mysterious third party seeing which bank they use, how often, and what they do on the internet. But without a VPN, the company who provides you internet can collect that information and do what they please.

VPN Means Security

Privacy and security go hand in hand. Americans are typically inherently private people. The idea of private information being sold to marketers doesn’t usually sit well. But beyond that, there are actual security threats if one does not take their privacy seriously.

Online identity theft is one security risk. This can take form with hackers taking control of your online banking, Paypal accounts, and opening new accounts with large e-Commerce platforms like Amazon and eBay.

A VPN can be an effective way to prevent criminals from stealing and abusing your identity.

VPN Means a Preferred Location

Sometimes international business people, government representatives, journalists, and travelers need to appear as if they are in a different country.

Switching your location can allow users to access websites that are prohibited in your location, use geo-restricted services like Netflix or Hulu, access your local business network, or even give you better prices on plane tickets and hotels.

It is a strange feeling to have all of the world’s information at your fingertips, but face restrictions to content just because of where you are located. Censorship and geo-restricted services seem superfluous in an increasingly interconnected world. VPNs let you get around these restrictive and antiquated policies.

Examples of VPN at Work

We have mentioned why people are using VPNs. To better understand what does a VPN do, here are some clear examples. These specific examples will hopefully give you a better picture of what a VPN is.

What a VPN Does for Netflix and Hulu Viewers

Expats, university students abroad, or any other travelers want their favorite shows while in a different context. Netflix and Hulu have geographical restrictions on which shows they feature, where, and in what language.

Netflix works in over 190 countries but features different shows and movies in each region.

What a VPN does for viewers is change their IP address to the country of their choosing, like the US, UK, or wherever you desire.

Netflix has been cracking down on VPNs so you have to do your research to find a VPN that can get around Netflix’s advanced VPN detection capabilities.

What a VPN Does for Public WiFi Users

If you are at a coffee shop, hotel, or other public space, you are at serious risk if you use the available public wifi without a VPN. Many people think that using public wifi is riskier than using a public bathroom, yet the majority of people still use it.

Public wifi is usually free and convenient but it puts you at serious risk for a cyberattack. Anybody can log in to Youtube and watch a video on how to hack wifi hotspots.

Experts uncovered one complex hacking campaign, called “Darkhotel.” Hackers targeted business executives and travelers in a luxury hotel. While visitors were on the Hotel’s wifi, they were asked to update their software. These updates infected the user’s computers and allowed hackers to obtain private information from their targets.

According to the Harvard Business Review, you should never log into financial or eCommerce sites while on public wifi, but on top of that, public wifi users should always have a VPN to protect their privacy.

What Does a VPN do in Restricted Areas

China has the world’s strictest internet censorship. The “Great Firewall” prevents internet users within China from accessing sites like Google, Facebook, Youtube, or popular news platforms.

Business professionals, travelers, and Chinese residents themselves cannot get around the Great Firewall without tools like VPNs. A sophisticated VPN installed before entering the country can allow people to appear like they are outside of China to be able to safely communicate with others and view restricted content.

Recently, China has been cracking down on VPNs. Finding effective VPNs that work for China and other areas with high censorship tools, like certain Middle Eastern countries, Cuba, and Russia takes additional know-how.

How Secure is a VPN?

Security is what VPN is all about. The VPN definition states that a VPN is a set of sites that communicate over the open Internet but with the security

Security is one of the first words to describe what VPN means.

Despite this, many question how secure VPNs really are. And with reason.

In 2014, Target and Home Depot were in the spotlight because of mishandling their VPNs and leaking customer information by the millions.

So how secure is a VPN really? The answer is: it depends.

The security of a VPN depends on the type of technology used, the policies followed by the provider, and the proper management by the user.

To better answer this question, we first have to understand some basics of how VPNs work.

How Does VPN work?

For the average user, they wonder how does VPN work for me? It means choosing a VPN provider, installing the VPN (usually after a payment), and hitting Go. The VPN works that simply.

But for those who are concerned more about the integrity and security of their VPN, they most first explore how do VPNs work at the infrastructure, policy, and upkeep level. This will help you choose which VPN you feel most comfortable with.

How Does VPN Work with Different Protocols?

Understanding how do VPNs work starts with first exploring protocols.

Protocols define how VPNs work and with what level of security. There are many different types of protocols.

Three of the top protocols are:

  • SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol)
  • IKEv2 (Internet Key Exchange, Version 2)
  • OpenVPN

Understanding what are VPN protocols is important and takes additional research.

How does VPN Work with Different VPN Policies?

There are several VPN policies to look out for when selecting a VPN. If your top priority is privacy, then you want to make sure your VPN has a no-log policy.

A no-log policy means that your private information is not being collected, recorded, or shared with anyone else. A no-log policy keeps the pure VPN meaning: your private information stays yours.

Most VPNs tout no-log policies, but in reality, those same VPN providers log some form of information.

To better understand what is VPN no-log policy, compare different providers and their policies.

How a VPN Works Once Downloaded: Proper Use of a VPN

You have selected your VPN carefully, reading about its protocols and policies. But the implementation and upkeep of the VPN is up to you.

In the IT world, professionals have compared unprotected internet to unprotected sex. You know it is risky, but it still happens.

To keep things light, let’s compare a VPN to a condom. Does a condom reduce unwanted pregnancy and STDs? Absolutely.

But it has to be used properly to work.

Though most VPNs are simple to set up, there are multiple steps that have to be done properly. If not done properly, you leave room for information leaks.

One of the most secure ways to prevent leaks is to make sure that you constantly keep access management up-to date and carefully vetted. Otherwise, you might leave room for intruders.

To make sure you have no leaks, you can run various leak tests.

Which Devices Support VPN?

Most of them. It depends on the service provider as well, but generally, you can find one for:

  • Desktop devices – Windows, Mac, Linux
  • Mobile devices – iPhone, Android
  • Browsers – Chrome extension
  • Gaming Consoles
  • SmartTVs

Cost

As mentioned, not all VPNs are the same. They have different protocols, speed, and policies. Some are free and some are costly. You have to consider what is your main motivation for using a VPN and which VPN will best suit your needs.

The price also varies if you pay monthly, annually, or every few years.

If you need a simple VPN on occasion when you are at coffee shops and just need to check your email, there are several free options.

If you need to stream Netflix or get around China’s firewall for an extended period of time, you will need something more advanced. VPNs such as these can range from $3.99 a month – $12.99 a month.

Consider online comparison guides to help you pick the best and most affordable VPN option.

Now that You Know What VPN Is

By now, you should have a good grasp on the basics of what is a VPN, what does a VPN do, how does a VPN work.

There are many reasons to use a VPN. The main purpose is to protect your privacy.

Protecting your privacy and location can enable you to use the internet more freely.

You can access restricted information or streaming services in your location. You can log into your financial information without fear. You can rest assured that your information isn’t being sold to marketers.

Whatever your motivation, a VPN is the first step to protecting your internet activity. Period.

What is the best VPN, by so far?

Due to 1.08.2018, the best performing VPN service is NordVPN

Why?

Read our NordVPN Review and see yourself.

However, one size does not fit all. Even though NordVPN is the safest choice, there are other VPNs for more personalized preferences.

Our top 2 safest picks:

  1. NordVPN (NordVPN Review)
  2. ExpressVPN (ExpressVPN Review)