What Does a VPN Hide & What It Doesn’t?

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A reliable VPN hides your IP address, online activities, and (some) personal data and may hide that you’re using a VPN. Some VPNs also conceal your GPS location to show your GPS trackers are elsewhere.

However, a VPN won’t hide your device browsing history, user account data, aspects of your data usage, and information you reveal yourself

Plus, not all VPNs are robust enough to hide your IP address and online activities.

So, continue reading to find out what a VPN hides, in what instances it hides this information, and what a VPN won’t help you hide.

7 Things a VPN Hides When You’re Online

A VPN hides your IP address, online activities, and personal data. 

I explain everything a VPN helps you hide online below.

1. IP Address

Your IP address is a unique set of numbers that can be used to:

  • Identify your device.
  • Identify your device’s location.
  • Track your data across the web.

Connecting to a remote VPN server assigns you the IP address of that VPN server, which is what every entity you now interact with online sees.

VPN IP Address
ExpressVPN leak test showing its hiding user's IP address

So, websites, gaming platforms, advertisers, peers, and other web servers think you’re browsing from the location associated with your IP address rather than your actual address.

This helps you:

  • Avoid ad tracking across the web.
  • Defeat DDoS attacks, which rely on getting your actual IP address.
  • Avoid price discrimination from airlines, hotels, ecommerce stores, and other programs that hike prices based on your internet activity.
  • Beat session hijacking.
  • Protect your online data from your ISP (since it can’t track the IP address it didn’t assign you).
  • Unblock content from abroad (since the web servers think you’re in the IP address location).

2. DNS Addresses & Requests

Reliable VPNs will also hide your DNS requests and addresses so no one can log the data you transmit on the internet.

While your internet service provider (ISP) usually handles these requests, you’ll now pass them through secure VPN tunnels.

DNS Addresses and Request
NordVPN servers DNS requests from its private DNS servers

You’ll need to hide your DNS requests to prevent:

  • Online tracking
  • DNS hijacking
  • DNS poisoning
  • ISP throttling
  • Server requests logging

However, not all VPNs will handle your DNS requests. That’s why it’s essential to check that your preferred VPN provider offers an in-house DNS service rather than outsourcing this to third parties.

If in doubt, you can choose ExpressVPN, which has a Private DNS service.

3. GPS Location

Some VPNs can hide your GPS location in addition to your IP address.

While GPS location and IP addresses can be used to tell your device’s location, the GPS location data usually overrides the IP address for core system functions. 

That’s because GPS sensors are hardware components of your device, unlike IP addresses which are a software feature.

GPS Location
ExpressVPN spoofs GPS location on PC to Canada

In fact, your actual GPS data may pass through a VPN tunnel unchanged, even if your IP addresses and internet traffic are now encrypted.

That’s why you may use a VPN to surf the web like you’re in the UK but still get local Uber services in your region.

Spoofing GPS locations is vital for:

  • Protecting yourself against doxing attacks.
  • Improving your online privacy further.
  • Unblocking some location-restricted app services.

Fortunately, some VPNs can help you spoof your GPS location. These are:

  • Surfshark – spoofs your GPS location on Android devices.
  • ExpressVPN – spoofs your GPS location on your PC.

Read this guide to spoofing your GPS location with a VPN to get started.

4. Online Activity

A VPN is essential for hiding the details of your online activity like streaming, gaming, and web browsing.

VPNs do this by employing AES 256-bit encryption on their servers and protocols to tunnel your data securely. Thus, your ISP, the government, employer, school, or network admin can’t see the data you’re transmitting.

Hiding your online activity is important for

  • Evading arrests in authoritarian regimes like Thailand, China, Vietnam, and Russia.
  • Running a blog anonymously from highly censored regions.
  • Streaming heavy content without getting bandwidth throttling from your ISP.
  • Playing games, accessing censored content, or bypassing school Wi-Fi and work computer blocks.
  • Protecting your banking information, online logins, and conversations on public Wi-Fi networks.
  • Browsing the web securely without worrying about privacy breaches by your ISP or government authorities.

Luckily, the industry-standard AES 256-bit encryption makes it impossible to hack your live traffic.

5. Torrent Activity

Trustworthy VPNs will help you download torrents faster and securely without getting nasty warnings from your internet service providers (ISPs).

In line with protecting your online activity, your torrent download data is tunneled via secure packets that your ISP or copyright trolls can’t decipher. 

Thus, they can’t tell what you’re downloading or where you’re downloading it.

Torrent Activity
ExpressVPN supports torrent downloads and seeding

Likewise, some VPNs, like ExpressVPN, provide P2P-supported servers to download torrents faster. Your ISP can’t throttle your internet connection when downloading torrents over these VPN servers since it has no idea what you’re doing.

However, ensure the VPN service you choose for torrent downloads offers

  • Native torrent support. Otherwise, you may still get caught torrenting.
  • P2P-supported servers. These servers are optimized for P2P-file sharing to download torrents faster than average.
  • Seeding support. Not all VPNs that support torrenting also support seeding. ExpressVPN does both, though.
  • Extra torrent support. Some VPNs like PIA offer port forwarding and SOCKS5 proxy support for even faster and more secure torrent downloads.

6. Personal Data

Always use a VPN on untrusted connections to hide your data from the network admin, hackers, or other threat actors. Otherwise, they may see:

  • The messages you send over the network.
  • Your online banking details or other sensitive logins.
  • Files you send or receive on the network.

Also, you should use VPN software over your home network or a network of connected devices. That prevents hackers from:

  • Seeing data transmitted between your devices.
  • Hijacking files you send on the home network (from your laptop to the printer, for example).
  • Taking control of your home network.

7. VPN Traffic

Most reliable VPNs offer obfuscation to disguise VPN traffic as regular traffic, allowing it to pass through undetected in regions/on platforms with VPN traffic blocks set up.

Some websites and platforms block VPN traffic to keep out users who want to circumvent geo-blocks. High censorship regions like China also set up extensive firewalls to keep VPN users from bypassing the content blocks.

VPN Traffic
ExpressVPN offers fast obfuscation on all protocols

The same is true for some employers and schools.

By hiding your VPN traffic under obfuscation, you can:

However, obfuscation usually causes a significant speed drop.

Fortunately, ExpressVPN offers ultrafast obfuscation on all servers and protocols.

7 Things a VPN Won’t Hide When You’re Online

VPNs may cover much of your online privacy and security, but they’re not enough against all kinds of deanonymization threats.

Below, I discuss seven aspects of your online experience that a VPN won’t hide. 

I also add a tip to help you secure this online data better.

1. Device Browsing History

A VPN can’t hide your device browsing history, even though it keeps your ISP or external actors from hacking your live traffic.

So, while no one gets remote access to your browsing activity, the history could still be present on your device and available to anyone who gains physical access.

2. Search History

Your search history is also a part of your device’s browsing history, but it’s often stored on external servers. If you use search engines like Google, your search history may be stored on its servers.

Search History
A VPN wont hide your search or device's online history

Likewise, internal site engines like Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube keep records of your recent searches. So, anyone entering queries into the search bar can see related searches you recently made.

3. Existing Device Cookies

Browsers store cookies when you visit websites to save your preferences and serve customized results. However, cookies are also used for ad retargeting, tracking your device across the internet, and even deanonymizing you.

In fact, saving cookies could sometimes interfere with your VPN’s unblocking and IP-changing ability.

So, depending on the kind of cookies you allow on your computer, your VPN may not hide the information those cookies collect from other web servers.

4. MAC Address

Your device’s MAC address is a unique ID through which other devices on the same network identify your unit. Unlike IP addresses that can change depending on your location, your device’s MAC address is usually constant.

Thus, a user that knows your MAC address can identify your device and track it across multiple networks.

MAC Address

Luckily, a VPN ensures the tracker can’t see what your device is doing on that network. Still, it doesn’t change the MAC address or obfuscate it, making it possible to know what networks you’re connected to.

5. Data Usage

A VPN can hide your DATA TRANSMISSION over a network, but it can’t hide your DATA USAGE. So, your ISP still knows how much of your data plan you exhausted, even though it doesn’t know what you’re using it for.

Likewise, network admins (or the person paying for the data plan) can still see approximately how much data you’re consuming.

Since you paid for the data or got it via other legal means, there’s no reason to hide your data usage from your ISP.

6. Information You Reveal

There’s a vast misconception about VPNs hiding everything about your online identity once you’re connected. However, you’re only as protected as the information you venture.

For example, if a VPN hides your IP address, but you reveal it, there’s no way a VPN will protect you from that. Similarly, a VPN won’t hide your identity on a social media account that bears your full name, home address, age, and other sensitive details.

7. User Account Data

Logging into Google services or other online accounts will inform connected web servers of your identity, even if you’re using a VPN.

However, you can still use connected accounts over a VPN without suffering a data leak to outside servers.

How to Choose the Best VPNs for Online Protection?

The best VPNs for online protection boast reliable security, impressive encryption protocols, and top-notch privacy across multiple server locations.

Here are essential criteria for choosing the best VPN to secure digital privacy.

Multiple Server Locations

You need a VPN with multiple server locations to enjoy preferred web versions while surfing anonymously. Here, I look for VPNs with:

  • Local servers. Thus, you can secure your internet in your country and retain access to local content.
  • Global servers. Unblock content abroad, bypass censorship, and enjoy a private internet experience.
Multiple Server Locations
ExpressVPN's supported server locations

When there aren’t local servers, ensure the VPN supports split tunneling

Thus, you can protect sensitive apps while allowing other local apps/services to bypass the VPN tunnel.

Some of the VPNs I trust are presented in the table below.

VPN Provider Servers Countries Split Tunneling Support?
ExpressVPN 3000+ 94 Yes (Android, PC & routers)
NordVPN 5500+ 59 Yes (Windows PC and Android)
Surfshark 3200+ 95 Yes (Windows PC and Android)

Security

AES 256-bit encryption is non-negotiable on a reliable VPN for online security.

This ensures your live traffic can’t be hacked by your ISP, the government, its authorities, or other unauthorized persons.

Also, this level of encryption tunnels your VPN traffic via the VPN IP address. 

So, your actual IP address is protected at all times.

Security
Surfshark connected with kill switch enabled

Moreover, there should be a kill switch to prevent IP/DNS leaks if the VPN connection randomly drops.

Privacy

Select a VPN provider that’s not in surveillance-centric countries or countries with data retention laws.

However, there are exceptions. For example, Surfshark is a notable and reliable VPN provider in the Netherlands, a part of the 14 Eyes countries

In these cases, look for an audited no-logs policy.

Thus, even if the country requested your data from the VPN, it won’t have anything to hand over.

Fortunately, my top VPNs for online privacy are no-logs providers and were independently audited for these claims. See the table below for how they compare.

VPN Provider Headquarters No logs? Audits
ExpressVPN The British Virgin Islands Yes Cure53 and PwC
NordVPN Panama Yes PwC
Surfshark Netherlands Yes Cure53

Protocols

VPN protocols are essential for getting the right balance of speed and security. Likewise, you need obfuscation protocols to hide your VPN traffic.

The best VPNs will at least offer WireGuard and OpenVPN (UDP and TCP) protocols. They can also have IKEv2, IPSec, L2TP, and other protocols for added convenience and choice.

Protocols
NordVPN tunneling and encryption protocols

However, WireGuard is missing on picks like NordVPN (used NordLynx instead) and ExpressVPN (developed Lightway as an alternative).

You can often leave the protocol set at Automatic to allow the VPN to choose the best one. Even so, I recommend knowing what each VPN protocol is best for

That way, you can tweak the settings if something isn’t working.

Torrent Support

Not all VPNs support torrent downloads. So, be sure your preferred VPN provider does before you connect to uTorrent or other torrent download clients.

Torrent Support
NordVPN is great for downloading torrents but not for seeding

Likewise, some VPN providers (like NordVPN) support torrent downloads but don’t allow seeding on their servers.

Finally, make sure the VPN has P2P servers. While these allow you to connect to peers and download torrents faster, they’re also more secure for file sharing.

Extra Security Additions

Top VPN providers constantly add extras (part of your subscription package) to help boost your privacy and security. These extras are sometimes similar, but they’re primarily different to give each VPN provider an edge.

Looking at my top three reliable VPNs for online privacy and protection, I’ve detailed some of the extra security additions they provide below.

VPN Provider Security Feature Significance
ExpressVPN Threat Manager Blocks ads and trackers from deanonymizing you on the internet
IP Address Checker Confirms that your IP address is hidden and you're using the VPN server’s IP address
DNS Leak Test Confirms you’re not leaking DNS requests
WebRTC Leak Test Checks against WebRTC leaks which could also deanonymize you on the web
NordVPN Threat Protection Lite Protects you from malicious websites, ads, and trackers
Dark Web Monitor Scours the web for email data breaches and other personal information leaks
Surfshark Rotating IPs Changes your VPN IP addresses around while keeping you connected to a single server location
CleanWeb Blocks ads, malware, and trackers

Does Private Browsing Hide the Same Things as a VPN?

Private Browsing (or Incognito browsing mode) doesn’t hide your IP address, DNS address, torrent activity, online activity, or even your data. 

Likewise, it can’t prevent your employer, school, or ISP from knowing the websites you visited when connected to the network.

However, it hides cookie data, device history, and search history from anyone else using that computer.

Private Browsing or Incognito Browsing Mode

Still, that’s not enough privacy since the network admin can still find that information by “sniffing” your internet data packets or hacking your live traffic.

Thus, get a VPN to protect your sensitive online data over private browsing mode.

Can a Free VPN Hide Your Internet Activity?

Free VPN providers lack reliable encryption to protect your online data from deanonymization, tunnel your torrent downloads securely, or prevent personal data interception.

In fact, free VPN services are notorious for logging your data for personal gain, often selling the data to third-party bidders (like advertisers).

Also, free VPNs lack the infrastructure to offer obfuscation

So, your VPN traffic is exposed and blocked by platforms with extensive VPN firewalls.

Overall, free VPNs don’t only fail to hide your internet activity. 

They can make things worse and invade your privacy too.

How to Fix a VPN Not Hiding Your Internet Activity? (Troubleshooting Guide)

You may need to switch VPN providers, change protocols, restart the VPN, or speak with customer support if your VPN isn’t hiding your online activity.

In no particular order, I collated the troubleshooting guide below to help fix this issue.

  • Choose a reliable VPN. You can’t go wrong with VPNs like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, or Surfshark.
  • Enable the kill switch. You may suffer momentary IP/DNS leaks if you don’t enable the kill switch and your VPN connection drops. So, enable it before connecting to any server.
  • Switch protocols. Some VPN protocols (like L2TP) aren’t as robust as others (like WireGuard/Lightway/NordLynx) for encryption. So, choose a better and more secure protocol.
  • Check the VPN connection. Ensure the VPN is connected before going online.
  • Update the VPN app. Look for a VPN app update. Download and install it if available. The VPN provider might have already fixed a bug causing the app to misbehave.
  • Restart the VPN app. This fix usually works more on PCs than mobile. When the VPN app isn’t responding or working correctly, restart it.
  • Understand the VPN’s limits. Know what your VPN can hide and what it’s helpless against. No level of tweaking will make a VPN hide what it can’t.
  • Speak with customer support. If all else fails, reach out to customer support. My top VPNs offer reliable 24/7 customer support.

Frequently Asked Questions

VPNs hide your actual IP address, DNS addresses and requests, torrent downloading activity, and some personal data. Some VPNs like Surfshark and ExpressVPN hide your GPS location data, making them more efficient for geo-spoofing.

Also, you can hide your online streaming data, gaming activities, and the websites you visit from the government, network admins, your employer, school, or ISP with a VPN.

A VPN can’t hide your text messages. However, it can prevent the interception of your non-SMS text messages by sending them through secure tunnels.

This is important on public Wi-Fi networks susceptible to conversation hijacking and man-in-the-middle attacks. Thus, your conversation’s integrity is preserved, and threat actors can’t see files or texts you receive/send on the network.

Anyone tracking your activity over a VPN will only get as far as the new IP addresses you got from the remote server you’re connected to. 

Thus, it’ll take the cooperation of your VPN provider to find out who’s behind the remote server connection.

This is why choosing a no-logs VPN provider based in a data-friendly country is essential. That way, the provider can’t be compelled to give up any data on you, and it won’t even have any data to offer since it doesn’t collect it.

A VPN doesn’t hide your phone number, as that’s assigned to the SIM hardware in your device. So, your actual number will show up on the caller/text ID even if you first connect to a VPN remote server.

If you want to change your number, you’re better off registering a new SIM, buying an international SIM, using an e-SIM, or signing up for a burner SIM.

The FBI can’t see through reliable VPNs like ExpressVPN, thanks to its un-hackable AES 256-bit encryption. That means they’ll have to rely on ExpressVPN’s cooperation to access the data you’re tunneling through the VPN.

Fortunately, reliable VPN providers are outside the FBI’s jurisdiction and don’t log user data to hand over.

However, free VPNs and some unreliable VPN providers don’t offer enough encryption to keep the FBI out of your live traffic data. 

In fact, they may also cooperate with the FBI by collecting your data and handing it over to the bureau.

A VPN can hide your real IP address by connecting you to another server location associated with another IP address. Thus, the web servers you interact with and people you communicate with online can’t see your IP address, only the VPN’s IP address.

However, a VPN won’t help if you reveal your IP address, and you may still get IP-related attacks like DDoS.

VPNs don’t hide your search history from your parents, as that’s mostly device and app-based. So, you’ll have to manually clear your search histories or use Incognito Mode to prevent logging search histories.

However, a VPN can help hide your internet activity from your parents and circumvent blocked websites if they install parental control spyware on your device.

Your employer can still find your browsing history on your computer if they physically access it, even though you’ve been using a VPN. 

However, they can’t decrypt your live traffic to see what websites you’re visiting or restrict your internet access with a VPN.

Thus, it’s best to clear your device browsing history manually or use private browsing modes if your employer has physical access to your computers.

Stay Secure and Private

Not knowing what a VPN hides and what it doesn’t might put you at risk of unknowingly leaking data. Now that you know, you can let the VPN do its work better while you tighten other parts of your online experience where the VPN may be limited.

Don’t forget to enjoy ExpressVPN’s fast obfuscation to hide your IP address, tunnel your DNS address, hide your online activity, download torrents securely, and hide your VPN traffic.

You can enjoy these HUGE ExpressVPN discounts for a better value and a 30-day money-back guarantee.

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