With many Internet users coming to realize that they need to take their online security seriously, the question “What is a VPN” is one question we hear often around here. Not only are people asking what a VPN is, but they’re also asking many other questions about VPNs.
Here at BVP, we’re doing everything we can to help people understand what VPNs are for, and their many uses. I’m going to try to answer a whole bunch of common questions, most are more complex than “what is a VPN,” so that you know why you need one. Let’s start answering some common questions!
What is a VPN?
The name describes what it is pretty well in this instance. A VPN is a private network of actual, physical servers that connect over the public Internet. Where the ‘virtual’ comes from is that it’s not a real private network with its own cables. It uses the existing Internet structures and ‘virtually’ makes them private.
When you connect to a VPN you’re connecting to these servers, which are a real and physical device, through the public Internet. The next question will answer where the ‘virtual’ aspect comes from.
What is a VPN doing to keep me secure?
VPNs owe their security to two of their best features:
- The use of the remote server’s IP addresses to hide your own.
- Powerful encryption that hides your data inside the VPN tunnel.
You can read this article on hiding your IP address if you’re still not sure about that. The encryption of your data is easily explained.
Think of your VPN as creating a tunnel through the Internet that starts directly at your computer, to the remote server you’re connected to, and finally to the website you’re visiting. This tunnel is created with encryption and your data flows through it. This is where the ‘virtual’ aspect of the network comes in. It doesn’t create an actual tunnel, it’s a virtual construct made up of encryption protocols. This video by ExpressVPN explains tunneling and encryption well:
Anyone tapping into that tunnel will be unable to steal your data – it will be a mish-mash of indecipherable code. That’s where the ‘private’ aspect comes from!
Which VPN protocols are the most secure?
Now, what is a VPN using as far as protocols go to create this secure tunnel? While it varies from one VPN provider to the next, there are only so many in use today. The most common, and a brief summary of each, are:
- PPTP: Short for Point to Point Tunneling Protocol. This is both the easiest to set up, and the fastest to use. It can, however, easily be broken as the encryption is not strong.
- L2TP/IPSec: Ideal for mobile devices, and able to cover some of the weaknesses of PPTP. It can be slow and lag.
- SSTP: A very secure VPN protocol used by many businesses, hospitals, and other government agencies with strong encryption needs. If you require a strong level of encryption be sure to check that your VPN provider offers SSTP.
- OpenVPN: Frequently referred to as the strongest of all VPN encryption protocols. This open source software is a bit difficult to set up for the average user, but a good VPN provider will just include it as part of their app.
See this article on VPN encryption protocols if you want to know more about which is the right one for you. Honestly, PPTP is no longer truly useful for protection if that’s what you’re after. Here’s a video that further discusses the differences between these protocols:
How do I know if my VPN is secure?
After you go through the simple process of selecting a VPN, installing the client, and paying the small monthly fee, how can you be sure that your VPN is doing its job? These days, popular VPNs are leaking the IP addresses of users. You can test it yourself by using these tools:
- IP Address leaks: Whoer.net will show you what websites are seeing so that you know your VPN is protecting you.
- DNS leaks: Use www.dnsleakstest.com to make sure that your VPN isn’t leaking your DNS information. They have a simple or extended test, use the extended and spend those extra 30 seconds making certain that your VPN’s secure.
- WebRTC leaks: To check if you are experiencing a WebRTC leak, go to https://browserleaks.com/webrtc or https://ipleak.net/.
- Torrent security: ipMagnet will download a small file onto your computer using your Torrent client. It will then check your VPN’s security when downloading torrents.
If you need to know more about your VPN security, read this article on checking VPN security features. What is a VPN good for if it’s not truly secure?
Can I use a VPN to bypass geoblocking?
Have you ever gone on vacation from the USA to a foreign land? Some place really strange, like, let’s say England. Now have you tried to connect to your Netflix account to access your full range of content – that you’re paying for – while on this exotic vacation?
You didn’t get full access to your content, did you?
This is because of a thing called geoblocks. It keeps people in foreign lands from accessing certain content by reading their IP address and giving them a big virtual “NOPE!”
VPNs get around geoblocks by allowing you to connect to servers in other countries. Remember above when I was saying that servers you connect to are not virtual, that they’re real physical devices? Well, they’re placed in countries all over the world so that you can access a server in the USA from England and watch that awesome episode of Daredevil (which is every episode) you’ve been meaning to see.
Check out our list of the best VPNs for geoblocks if you need to unlock content from around the world. Here is our top-ranked provider:
[affilioProvider max=”1″ top=”n” cat=’home’]
Is it smart to buy a VPN to get around geoblocks?
Not only is it smart to do so, but it’s quickly becoming the norm the world over. Entertainment giants have begun restricting who can see their content depending on what country they’re in. Remember when people just made websites and wanted to share their content with their world? There was a time, but those are done and only VPNs can really bring them back.
If geoblocks are big for you, be sure to research providers and make sure that they have a server in the country you’re hoping to unlock. People from all over the world want to know what’s going on back home, so don’t worry; you can find a VPN which could unblock South Africa for the biggest LADUUUUUUMA moments back home.
How do I choose the best VPN service?
The number of VPN providers can be quite overwhelming to someone looking for the best VPN service. To make it easier, here are things to take into account:
- Number of servers: The ideal VPN provider has several servers all around the world. The top VPN providers we’ve reviewed have hundreds of servers, with some even having more than a thousand servers in different countries.
- Location of servers: Make sure that you choose a provider that has a server in the location you need. If you’re in Australia and want to access Hulu, for instance, the Australian VPN service you sign up for must have servers in America and Japan where Hulu is available.
- Unlimited bandwidth: Most paid VPN services offer unlimited bandwidth, just make sure to read their terms of service. Bandwidth is also one of the things we look into when we review VPN providers, so we know which ones offer unlimited bandwidth and which providers have placed limits.
- User-friendly interface: Most VPN users have an average technology quotient. They know the Internet and all the basic things related to it (including security and privacy), but are not necessarily into software development or overly technical stuff. Because of this, it’s important for a VPN’s user interface to be easy to use and require minimal configuration.
- Reasonable price: You can get a decent VPN service for as low as $3 per month. Prices tend to go down when you sign up for a year or longer, so choose your payment plan well.
- Level of encryption: Not all VPN encryption protocols are equal. There are providers that use AES with 256-bit key which is the latest standard and used by the US government and security experts. There are also VPNs that uses CBC Blowfish which has vulnerabilities.
Lastly, consider the reason why you need a VPN. Aside from the anonymity it provides, do you need a VPN for torrenting? Do you need it for streaming movies? We reviewed different VPN providers and found out which ones work for specific purposes – torrent, Netflix, Reddit, Kodi, etc.
All these items that make a VPN service decent are all factored in our reviews, so take time to look into each of the VPN providers and select the one that suits your needs.
What is a VPN going to cost on average?
You can get a VPN service for $3 per month at the cheapest, and it goes up from there for higher-quality providers. An average cost will be around $6 per month.
That can go down as well depending on the length of time you sign up for since most VPN providers reward loyalty. Premium services, such as dedicated streaming and Netflix unblocking may come at an additional cost, but prices are still affordable.
Is it legal to use a VPN?
The use of a VPN is legal and highly encouraged to enhance security and privacy while using the Internet. In fact, a lot of corporations use VPNs to secure their work network and data. A lot of people also use a VPN to share sensitive files to other people such as their lawyers and doctors.
The goal of the majority of VPN users, however, is to access high-quality entertainment content, and this is legal too. Activities that are illegal without a VPN remain illegal when done behind a VPN. This includes fraud, child pornography, hacking, and spamming, to name a few.
@jesskellynt A VPN is 100% legal it is what it is used after applying the VPN could be illegal, I use a VPN for work connections and they are used daily all over Ireland. PIA is a very good legal VPN service which can be used on multiple devices.
— Tommy Burke (@tommycahir) January 22, 2019
The tweet above is spot on. Note also that in some countries, restrictions have been placed on VPN usage. In China, Oman, Russia, and Iran, only government-approved VPN providers are allowed to operate. Iraq, Belarus, North Korea, and Turkmenistan have a total ban on VPNs, which makes it illegal. In the UAE, only businesses are allowed to use VPNs.
What is a VPN going to do to my Internet speed?
VPNs are known to slow down connections, not speed them up. The encryption process affects the speed of connection, but it is an essential part of what a VPN is.
23% of IT bosses believe using a #VPN will slow down their internet, according to our market research report. However, this is usually due to factors such as the encryption level and the distance to the server.
— Appstractor Corporation (@appstractor) January 23, 2019
If you value security, a few seconds of delay shouldn’t be an issue. Most of the time, latency can be solved by connecting to a VPN server that’s closer to your physical location.
However, a VPN can also speed up your Internet connection specifically when you download, play online games, or stream videos. ISPs are known to throttle network speed when you visit entertainment and gaming sites, or download content.
When you hide behind a VPN, your ISP won’t know what you’re doing since you are in an encrypted tunnel. Therefore, they can’t throttle your speed.
Can I watch the US Netflix catalog with a VPN?
BY far the largest of Netflix catalogs is the one available to those living in the USA. If you’re not in the USA, you don’t get access to the catalog… Unless you use a VPN.
Netflix enforces this geo-restriction by checking your IP address when you log in. IP addresses are unique pieces of information assigned to each device. One piece of information that your IP address tells about you is where you live on planet Earth. If Netflix sees that you’re in Canada, you get the Canadian content. If it sees that you’re in the US, you get the US content, etc.
A VPN can change your IP address by assigning you to a server in the USA, allowing you to watch US Netflix. You need to pay attention to the provider you sign up for as Netflix has been clamping down on this, at the moment our team recommends this provider:
[affilioProvider max=”1″ top=”n” cat=’netflix’]
Why does Netflix block VPNs?
Netflix doesn’t want to block content, it comes down to licensing within regions and copyright holders. Have you noticed how all Netflix originals are available everywhere? That’s what they want, but some content has licensing issues outside of the USA and that is what causes the blocks.
At first, Netflix didn’t care at all about VPNs. Then content license holders started putting pressure on them in 2016 and they relented and started cracking down on VPNs. This doesn’t come down to Netflix at all; it comes down to these bizarre concepts we call ‘countries,’ and the even more bizarre laws which govern copyrights.
What is a VPN going to do for streaming TV?
You can watch TV streams through regular Internet connections, but using a VPN for your streaming service offers a few benefits:
- More privacy: VPNs will hide what you’re watching from your ISP, and prevent other parties from knowing what services you are watching and the exact shows you watch.
- Faster connections: ISPs have been known to throttle down Internet connections, they could be why your Netflix and chill has way too much chilling while it buffers.
- Locked content: You can use a VPNs to change your IP address and access videos that are available in other countries.
These benefits let you get the most out of any streaming site. Adding this to everything else they can do makes them a great investment in improving your online experience.
How can I get my TV or PS4/Xbox to work through my VPN?
This is where you are going to have to take your VPN off your computer, and turn your router into an encrypted VPN router. Here are the basic steps to do that:
- Connect to the system control panel of your router using your computer. You will do this through your browser with the address provided to you by your router manufacturer.
- Go to the screen where you can control your Internet and WAN setting. Look for a tab called ‘Network,’ ‘Basic,’ or ‘Basic Setup.’
- Ask for, or use, the setup details provided to you by your VPN provider on setting up your router. This will likely include your username, password, and any gateway or subnet mask settings. This step will vary slightly from provider to provider.
- Change the connection type to the VPN protocol we discussed above. If all you’re doing is streaming TV, you can use PPTP. If you’re doing online gaming, you may want a higher level of protection.
- Select the DCHP settings provided to you by your VPN.
- Save your new settings.
Here’s a short tutorial on how to setup a VPN on Xbox Live. The VPN used in the video is CyberGhost, one of the providers that we’ve tested and reviewed.
Now not only will your TV, PS4/Xbox be going through your VPN, so will every single other thing that you connect to it. You’ll be able to unlock geoblocked content, as we were just discussing in the question above, secure your iPad and other tablets while doing anything online, surf the Internet from an encrypted connection on your TV, and protect your gaming from DDoS attacks. Happy gaming!
Should I use a VPN for downloading torrents?
Yes. People who download torrents protect themselves by using a VPN because the legality of torrenting has always been something of a gray area. There are advocates who claim that torrenting does not violate any law, while copyright owners fight for their property (with some even going into legal battles).
Keep in mind what happened to some Popcorn Time users who were sued over copyright infringement and to the creators of Pirate Bay who were found guilty for the same crime. To save yourself the hassle of a possible DMCA notice, use a VPN when downloading torrents. You wouldn’t be the first person to do this.
What makes a good VPN for downloading torrents?
When you are trying to find a VPN for downloading torrents, here are the important points to consider:
- Location: For starters, you may want to connect to VPN servers in countries that are “torrent-friendly.” If that’s not a concern, you’ll want one with servers near you so that your ping rate is low and your download speeds can be high.
- Speed: Not only do you want fast download speed, but good torrent users also want decent upload speed to help the community.
- P2P optimized: Some VPNs actually optimize some of their servers for peer-to-peer torrenting.. You can be sure that these servers will be fast, and have good connections.
- Mobile apps: We all know that torrenting movies on the go is foolish with devices having smaller storage, but downloading music on the go is perfectly normal. Be sure your provider has a good mobile app so that you can torrent right after hearing a great new song.
For more, be sure to read our reviews of the best VPN services for torrenting, and look at how they measure up to the needs above according to your situation. If you want to cut to the chase, at this time we recommend this provider:
[affilioProvider max=”1″ top=”n” cat=’torrenting’]
Is using a VPN in China safe?
It is for the most part, many people are using them in China for business and pleasure. March of 2018 was when the Chinese government really started cracking down on ‘unlicensed’ VPNs and started pushing ‘government approved’ ones instead. Take a guess at why they did this…
It is highly recommended that you stay up to date on the developments in China by following our blog, and reviewing our list of the top providers for China as they change.
Why does being in China make me need a VPN?
The infamous “Great Firewall of China blocks access to dozens of sites, a few of which are guaranteed to be used by the average modern person daily. Google, YouTube, Facebook and many more are all blocked. Visiting for fun or business? Good luck accessing your Gmail to check in with clients, or uploading a travel video to YouTube.
A VPN allows you to bypass many restricted sites, but China is tightening the noose all the time. Our team here stays on top of which VPN providers are working in China, and this is the one we most recommend right now:
[affilioProvider max=”1″ top=”n” cat=’china’]
Is there a router with a built-in VPN?
There are modern routers that have built-in VPN clients which can be configured through the router’s admin page. There are also VPN providers that offer pre-flashed routers so all you have to do is set it up as you do with a regular router. All devices connected to the router will be protected by the VPN.
If you have an old router and want to install a VPN on it, check out our list of the best VPNs for routers.
Are there risks to buying cheap VPNs?
Cheap VPNs, especially free ones, can be quite risky. Not only might they be lacking useful features, but they might actually be used for malicious reasons and not actually be VPNs at all, like with Facebook’s ‘cheap/free’ VPN. No, for real, it was spyware:
Not only could you be losing out on features with a cheap VPN, but you could also be missing out on the actual benefits of a VPN! Lower speeds, crowded servers, poor selections of countries… some cheap VPNs just aren’t worth it.
Out of those we’ve tested, these are the two cheap VPNs which are actually worth your money:
[affilioProvider max=”2″ top=”n” cat=’cheap’]
Can VPNs protect my 3G connection through my mobile carrier or only Wi-Fi?
For the most part, a VPN will protect all Internet connections on your smartphone, whether it’s through your mobile carrier or Wi-Fi. Be aware that some carriers may block the VPN connection or 3G and 4G, or not support it at all. Your VPN will always work over Wi-Fi, but 3G and 4G connections can be blocked, so be sure to check if your VPN is working over your mobile connection.
Will a VPN let me bypass capped mobile data plans?
No one will be able to see what you’re doing, but you’re still going to be using data. A VPN won’t help get around mobile data caps. Your ISP will still see the amount of data you use and impose your Internet plan limits, they just won’t see what the data is as it’ll be encrypted.
Will a VPN drain my smartphone’s battery?
Think of a VPN as any other app on your phone; of course it will drain a small amount of battery from your phone. Some users will set it up so that the VPN will shut down as soon as the phone is not in use, but that can be tedious. A VPN consumes power for sure, but it’s not like Pokemon Go-level or anything.
What is a VPN question that you have?
Those are the most common VPN questions we see here at BVP. When it comes to which VPN provider is the best, our most often asked question, we invite you to read our reviews of the 10 best VPN providers. Take the time to consider what you have read in this article as you make your choice, and feel free to ask me below in the comments about anything you want to know!
BONUS: Read our CyberSecurity glossary for some more explanation of the most common acronyms and terms used in the digital security world!