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What Is a VPN (Virtual Private Network)? [Simplified Guide]

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A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is a service that provides an encrypted connection over the internet to protect your online data and privacy.

In this guide, you’ll learn the history of VPNs, how a VPN works, what to look for when choosing a VPN, and the top 3 best VPNs for 2023.

Brief History of VPNs

VPN development dates back to the 1960s when the first ever VPN protocol, TCP/IP (Transfer Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), came into existence.

This protocol preceded the development of PPTP (Peer-to-Peer Tunneling Protocol) in 1996.

At this time, demand for security software encryption grew, leading to the creation of modern-day VPNs. The first consumer-based VPN was created in the early 2000s, mainly for company use. It was only in the 2010s that the demand for these VPNs exploded.  

How Does a VPN Work?

nordvpn connected to us server

When you access a website with a VPN, your VPN provider establishes a secure connection between itself and one of its servers.

This VPN server changes your IP address so that your ISP can no longer track or even see your online destination. Additionally, any website you visit can no longer see your original IP address, only the VPN’s server IP.

Here it is in layman’s terms:

  1. You connect to a VPN server.
  2. An encryption protocol is added to your network traffic as it passes through the server.
  3. Your VPN service creates an encrypted “tunnel” over the internet to secure all data traveling to and from your destination.
  4. Finally, your traffic passes through your ISP. However, your ISP can no longer track or see your online activity.
  5. Anyone looking at your encrypted traffic only sees unreadable code. 

What Is VPN Tunneling?

vpn tunneling

VPN tunneling happens when one of several encryption protocols establishes a connection between the server and the VPN client. However, the strength of the tunnel depends on the type of encryption and VPN protocol being used.

For more information on VPN tunneling, read our guides on:

How Do VPN Servers Work?

surfshark location servers

Once you connect to a VPN server, all your traffic goes in and out of it.

That means if someone is monitoring your traffic, like your ISP or government, they’ll only see a mess of characters.

Additionally, when you access a website or service that reads your IP, it’ll appear as that of the VPN server. This is great for activities like streaming geo-locked content and torrenting.

Why Do You Need a VPN?

surfshark cleanweb kill switch

There are many reasons you need to use a VPN. Some reasons include privacy, accessing restricted content, navigating censorship, and bypassing bandwidth throttling.

Here’s a table that explains the various instances when you need a VPN:

When You Need a VPN When You Don’t Need a VPN
To use public Wi-Fi. If your internet connection is weak/very slow.
To access local content while you’re traveling abroad. If you’re trying to access local content from home.
As a shield from DDoS attacks during online gaming. If you want to connect to a device on your local network, such as a printer.
To bypass bandwidth throttling by your Internet Service Provider (ISP).  
To stay hidden from the government, internet service providers, and surveillance from other notorious entities.  
To bypass censorship and access blocked websites.  
To unlock region-blocked content on streaming platforms such as Hulu and Netflix.  
To keep confidential information secure, especially on public Wi-Fi.  
To torrent files without copyright trolls sending DMCA notices.  

What Are the VPN Types?

Most VPNs fall into three categories:

  • Client-to-Server VPN – This is a common type of VPN that must first be installed and configured on your device. It prevents third parties from accessing or compromising your network connection by encrypting all your data. A great example is NordVPN.
  • SSL VPN – A remote access VPN allowing a user to securely connect to a remote network, such as the office network. It helps stimulate the kind of security you’d have if you were connecting to the office network while in the office.
  • Site-to-Site VPN – Large businesses mainly use a site-to-site VPN with their international offices. It helps connect intranets into a single, seamless network that can be used without any configuration to other networks.

What to Look for When Choosing a VPN?

purevpn protocol settings

Here are factors to keep in mind before settling on a VPN service provider:

  • Device Support – Before buying a VPN, ensure it offers support for the devices you wish to secure and supports simultaneous connections.
  • Server Coverage – A good VPN should offer worldwide server coverage so you have more locations to choose from.
  • No Logs – Choose a VPN that doesn’t keep data logs, has undergone a third-party audit, and whose headquarters don’t fall under any surveillance jurisdiction.
  • VPN Encryption – Ensure the VPN provider has AES-256 cipher, as it’s the most secure today.
  • VPN Protocols – VPN protocols dictate how fast, secure, and stable the VPN is. They also determine how reliable the VPN is at unblocking services/websites. Look for VPNs that offer OpenVPN, WireGuard, and IKEv2.
  • Obfuscation – Obfuscation disguises VPN traffic as regular web traffic, which can help bypass VPN blockers and shield you from your ISP.
  • Reliable – Ensure that the VPN is reliable for whatever reason you need it for, whether torrenting, streaming, etc.

Top 3 VPNs

Here’s a summary of the best VPNs to make your work easier.

NordVPN

nordvpn threat protection

NordVPN is a super-fast VPN that offers access to 5,400 servers in 59+ countries.

It’s based in a privacy-friendly jurisdiction (Panama) and has all the security and privacy features you can expect from a reliable VPN.

This includes malware protection, obfuscation, a kill switch, Multi-Hop, and more. NordVPN also allows you to connect up to 6 devices simultaneously.

Additionally, it unblocks region-restricted content across all streaming platforms, such as Netflix and BBC iPlayer.

If you value security and convenience, go for NordVPN.

Surfshark

surfshark us and uk servers

Surfshark is an affordable VPN based in the Netherlands. It has 3,200+ servers in 100 countries. It also offers unlimited simultaneous connections, unlike NordVPN, which only provides 6.

Surfshark doesn’t skip out on premium features, either. It offers AES-256-bit encryption, a kill switch, P2P support, Private DNS for every server, and an adblocker.  

If you prefer an affordable VPN with excellent features, consider getting Surfshark.

PureVPN

purevpn connected to south africa server

PureVPN is another cheap VPN with a vast network of 6,500+ servers in 78+ countries. It’s based in the British Virgin Islands and thus, it’s not required to store any data. Additionally, it has undergone third-party audits for its no-logs policy.

Some of its premium security features include port forwarding (paid add-on), a kill switch, AES-256-bit encryption, split tunneling, and DNS leak protection.

It supports up to 10 simultaneous device connections.

If you value having access to a more extensive server network and decent speeds, consider going with PureVPN.

How to Set up a VPN Connection?

You can set up a VPN connection in three ways:

  • Using a VPN app – Most VPNs offer user-friendly apps for major platforms, like Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android. Simply download the native app for your device and launch it.
  • Installing a VPN on your router – A VPN on your WiFi router will protect every device connected to the network. However, you need a supported router or a router that supports flashed firmware.
  • Setting up the VPN manually – If you have the technical expertise, you can set up your VPN manually. However, this requires access to your router’s control panel or downloading config files. Reach out to your VPN provider if you need help.
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FAQs

VPNs are legal in most countries. However, countries like China and Russia outright ban VPNs or regulate their usage. You can still use a VPN to bypass government censorship in such countries. However, download the VPN before you travel there.

Your business should use a VPN, especially if it deals with confidential information or wants to allow employees remote access to its network without jeopardizing security.

A VPN can slow your internet connection. However, a reliable VPN may improve your connection if your ISP is throttling your traffic. Ensure you use a server location closer to your actual location.

A VPN can be hacked, as it’s not full-proof and is still susceptible to malware and hacks. To limit susceptibility to hacks and malware, use a VPN that doesn’t log user data. Avoid free VPNs at all costs.

Protect Your Privacy With a Leading VPN

Now that you know what a VPN is and how it works, you just need to get one.

Out of the three VPN providers above, I recommend NordVPN.

It has all the necessary features of a top-notch VPN service. It constantly stays on top of updates for an improved user experience.

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