What is a VPN? What does a VPN do?

You have probably heard about VPNs, but there is a big chance that you do not use this type of service. We think that you should use a VPN, and you should do it as soon as possible. You might not see its real value right now, but over time, you are likely to acknowledge that VPNs are just as important as your internet connection. In this article, we explain what a VPN is, how VPNs work and what you can use them for. Read this article to understand why it is so important for you to use a VPN service on your computers and devices:

What is a VPN? The definition

A VPN or Virtual Private Network is a secure encrypted connection to another network than the one you are in, made through the internet. This means that a VPN extends a private network across a public network (in our case, the internet), which allows users to send and receive sensitive data as if their computers or devices were directly connected to the private network, even though, physically, they are not in the same network.

This information might be easier to digest if we showed you a real-life situation. Let's say that you need to exchange a large amount of information with a colleague/friend and the program you have to use for this data transfer requires that both of your computers are on the same network. Unfortunately, your friend/colleague is out of town and not at his/her computer. The simplest solution is for you to configure VPN access to your network so that your friend/colleague connects to your network through VPN. By doing so, it would seem as if you are both on the same local network and the information exchange can be completed easily. In other words, the VPN helps you pretend that you are on a local network even if you are both only connected to the internet.

How a virtual private network works

How does a VPN work?

To go further into the characteristics of VPNs, let's talk a bit about internet traffic. When you use your local network to access various services from the internet, the source of your network requests is your local area network (LAN). However, if you are connected to a VPN and all of your traffic goes through there, then the outside world sees you as part of the VPN's local network. Therefore, the source query is no longer your network, but the one to which you are connected through VPN. This means that the websites and other networks with which you communicate no longer see the IP address of your device as the source of requests, but that of the VPN you are using.

The CyberGhost VPN app for Windows

Furthermore, your ISP (Internet Service Provider) only sees a single connection: the one set up between you and the VPN service you are using, which is, of course, encrypted. As such, your ISP cannot see what you are doing inside your VPN connection, even if it works over the internet and, therefore, it cannot monitor you.

However, there is a catch: if you use a VPN whose server is located in your country, that also uses the same ISP, then it's possible for the internet service provider to see your network traffic. Even so, it cannot deduce it is yours since the origin of this traffic is the VPN server and not your device.

In some ways, a VPN works similarly to a proxy because your ISP only sees the connection to the proxy and the proxy server is the source of your requests. The main difference is that your ISP can easily see the request made to your proxy since they are not encrypted. In other words, at a simple search, everything is still visible. You can read more about the differences between using a VPN and a proxy server, in this article: When to use a proxy and when to use a VPN?.

To help you understand more easily what we have explained above, we also offer you two diagrams. First, here is how online navigation works without VPN:

Surfing the internet without a VPN

Here is how it works with VPN:

Surfing the internet with a VPN

In the above diagrams, we have added a firewall, which may or may not be present. Still, it was necessary for us to illustrate another possible problem some of you might have: what happens when your ISP, university, company or government has a firewall or proxy that prevents you from accessing certain websites. This problem is easily solvable with the help of a VPN service, which allows you to access any online service and access all websites, regardless of the network you are connected to. The firewall/proxy sees the connection between your computer and your VPN but, since this connection is encrypted, it cannot read the information you exchange. Therefore, as long as you remain connected to the VPN server, you are not blocked by the firewall/proxy, and you are free to access what you want on the internet.

How to connect to a VPN

You can connect to a VPN in several possible ways, but the general idea is that you have to certify your identity. The simplest way to establish this secure connection is by logging in directly to the VPN server with a username and password. If you want to connect to a VPN in Windows, using this particular method, we recommend you read one of the following tutorials:

Creating a VPN connection in Windows 10

If you want to create and connect to a VPN on your Android smartphone, we covered all the steps, in this guide: How to create, configure and use a VPN connection in Android.

Using a VPN connection in Android

In case you use an iPhone or an iPad and want to create a VPN connection on your iOS device, you can read our guide: How to create, configure and use a VPN connection on an iPhone (or iPad).

Creating a VPN connection on an iPhone

NOTE: You can also install specific software that allows you to create a secure VPN tunnel. That VPN app handles the encryption and decryption of data. Similarly to the above method, it usually requires a username and password to confirm your identity. However, you can still choose whether you prefer using other forms of authentication, such as tokens or smart cards. The advantage of using a token is the fact that it is tough to hack and, as such, it is almost impossible for anyone to steal your password. Also, each token is unique, which means that the VPN server can instantly recognize its user.

The advantages of using a VPN

Here is a list that summarizes all the information above, in an attempt to show you the benefits of using Virtual Private Networks:

  • All the traffic between you and the VPN service you use is encrypted, so it is impossible for someone else other than your VPN provider to see what you do on the internet
  • As long as you are connected to your VPN, you have access to the whole internet without censorship that might affect you otherwise
  • You can access services and geographically restricted websites if you use a VPN server that is located in a region where those services or websites are available
  • The servers that you connect to on the internet cannot see your real IP address, just that of the VPN server
  • You can surf the web, check your emails or send important information on public networks without the risk of someone else spying on you, other than your VPN provider

Which are the best VPN services?

We have tested several VPN services, to try and find out which are the best, most secure and fastest VPNs. The ones we liked best are CyberGhost, NordVPN, and F-Secure Freedome VPN. For more details check our reviews:

How are you using VPN?

VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) have become a necessity in the age of online tracking, especially if you want to protect your privacy and secure your connections. A VPN creates a private tunnel, a closed connection that cannot be decrypted by other agents, such as your internet service provider (ISP) or government, for example. That means that the information you send cannot be easily intercepted. We hope that this article helped you gain a better understanding of what a VPN is and how it works. Before closing this article, tell us whether you are using VPN, how, and why. Comment below and let's debate.