You’ve probably heard about VPNs, but do you know what a VPN is and what VPNs do? If you’re not already using a VPN service, maybe you should start doing so as soon as possible. You might not see its real value right now, but over time, you will likely acknowledge that VPNs are just as important as your internet connection. In this article, I’ll explain what a VPN on a computer is, how VPNs work, and what you can use them for. Read on if you’d like an insight into why it’s important to use a VPN service on your computers and other devices:
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 most cases, 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 I 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 both of your computers to be on the same network. Unfortunately, your friend/colleague is out of town and not in front of their computer. The simplest solution is 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 you are on a local network, even if both of you are only connected to the internet.
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 your traffic goes through there, 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 you communicate with no longer see the IP address of your device as the source of requests but that of the VPN you are using.
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 it cannot monitor you.
However, there is a catch: if you use a VPN with a server in your country that also uses the same ISP, the internet service provider may 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: Proxy vs. VPN: When to use a proxy server and When to use a VPN.
I’ve also made two diagrams to help you understand more easily what I’ve explained above. First, here’s how online navigation works without a VPN:
… and here’s how it works with VPN:
In the above diagrams, I’ve added a firewall, which may or may not be present. Still, it is necessary to illustrate another possible problem some users 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 all websites, regardless of the network you’re 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 are free to access what you want on the internet.
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, here’s how to add and use a VPN in Windows 10 and how to connect and use a VPN in Windows 11.
If you want to use a VPN on an Android smartphone, follow these steps to set up a VPN on your device.
In case you’re using an iPhone, this tutorial will show you how to create, configure and use a VPN connection on an iPhone.
NOTE: You can also use specialized software to create a secure VPN tunnel. The VPN app you install 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 that it is tough to hack, and, as such, it’s almost impossible for anyone to steal your password. Also, each token is unique, meaning the VPN server can instantly recognize its user.
Here’s 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 can access the whole internet without censorship that might affect you otherwise.
- You can access services and geographically restricted websites using a VPN server located in a region where those services or websites are available.
- The servers 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.
We at Digital Citizen have tested several VPN services to try and find out which are the best, most secure, and fastest VPNs. While there’s an incredible number of VPN providers out there, the ones I and my colleagues like the most and the ones we use daily are the VPN services and apps offered by NordVPN, TunnelBear, and CyberGhost. Personally, I highly recommend you get a VPN on all your internet-connected devices. Even if it’s not one from our top three VPN list, any with a good reputation will do. Just make sure you research the internet about it before you subscribe.
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. That means that the information you send cannot be easily intercepted. I hope that this article helped you gain a better understanding of what a VPN is and how it works. Before closing this guide, let me know whether you use VPN, how, and why. Comment below, and let’s debate.