How Does a VPN Work?

When you go online, you have a unique IP (Internet Protocol) address, which is a personal identification code for your Internet connection. This address reveals your location and makes you recognizable and traceable online no matter what you're doing. A VPN, which stands for Virtual Private Network, lets you create a more private, more secure connection when you're online. Basically, a VPN creates this secure connection by routing your internet usage through specialized servers and encrypting your data to make it unreadable to unauthorized users, which protects you from hackers, identity theft, and data mining. While this may sound like complicated technology, you don't need to be an expert to understand how a VPN works.

The Basics

Each time you connect to the internet using your computer, tablet or smartphone, if you’re using a VPN, it connects you to another computer, called a server. This server can be in one of several locations in one of several countries, depending on how many server connections a VPN has in its arsenal. As you browse the web or work online, everything you do is sent over this secure connection and routed through the server’s internet connection and an encrypted virtual tunnel. Thus, any data you send to a website and any data that comes back to you from the website all goes through this secure connection, masking and protecting your information and online identity. By encrypting your data and making your IP address and location invisible, a VPN helps protect you from hackers and cybercriminals looking to track what you’re doing online and/or steal your personal information. This can be especially important when you’re using public Wi-Fi connections that aren’t very secure. A VPN effectively shields your browsing activity from everyone, but you can also use it to gain access to websites that restrict users from certain regions. When you browse the internet using a VPN connection, your IP address changes and makes it appear as if you’re browsing from the location/country of the VPN server, instead of where you really are. This helps you gain access to websites or online services blocked to certain geographical locations. Downloading and installing a VPN is as easy as any other app, and it’s one of the simplest ways to protect your privacy online. Good VPNs can be set up instantly without any complicated steps using the in-app instructions and are also easy to use. Once installed, all you do is connect to a server of your choice when you go online and disconnect when you’re done. The VPN does all the rest while you confidently surf the Internet knowing your information and web activity are being guarded.

How to Pick the Best VPN

There are tons of VPN providers out there to choose from with distinct advantages and disadvantages, so there isn’t a single service that’s perfect for everyone. There are several important features to consider when choosing the best VPN for your needs.

  • Security/Privacy. All VPN companies say they don’t save your connection logs or what you’re doing online, but sometimes data collection occurs. Always check the Privacy Policy and Terms of Service to learn exactly what’s collected and how long it’s kept and to ensure they never sell your information. For the most privacy, choose a VPN that operates under a no-logs policy, meaning your connection and bandwidth data will never be collected, stored, or shared.
  • Location & Servers. A large server list spread out over multiple countries is an integral part of any good VPN service. The VPN should have servers available in the geographical locations you need with numerous servers available in each country or region to spread out the load of multiple users to guarantee optimum performance all the time.
  • Performance. Check important performance features, such as how many devices you can have connected simultaneously, download speeds and monthly data limits, which can all affect your streaming capabilities — especially if multiple household members use the same connection. On average, VPNs allow between three and seven devices to be connected at the same time, but this number varies between one and unlimited.
  • Cost. Like any service, beware of cheap or free plans that may restrict features or only offer discounts for the first billing period then automatically renew at much higher pricing. Always read the fine print on the pricing details, and if the service renews automatically, choose a payment option that lets you easily cancel subscriptions yourself.

Why Do You Need a VPN?

VPNs were originally created to provide businesses with a way to securely connect their networks together over the internet and allow employees to access the business’ network while working off-site at home, on the road, or abroad. While businesses still use VPNs for these reasons, individuals seeking safer internet access also found many other reasons why they need a VPN, including:

  • Online anonymity through a hidden IP address and location
  • Increased online security, especially while using public networks or Wi-Fi hotspots
  • Accessing a home or business network while traveling
  • Safe, anonymous downloading and uploading of files
  • Ensuring emails and instant messages remain private
  • Hiding browsing activity from a local network and internet service provider
  • Bypassing restrictions based on geography or censorship, such as streaming services, social networking or internet content not available in every country
  • Protection from hackers who intercept and steal data unknowingly spread while browsing the web
  • Blocking advertising networks from collecting information about you to sell to third parties
  • Preventing slower internet speeds when your internet service provider throttles down your service due to using a lot of bandwidth while streaming or downloading large files

How Much Does a VPN Cost?

With so many VPN services available, you’ll find a huge price range. The costs for a VPN also vary greatly based on the features you want, so make sure you understand what you’re getting for the price. However, a good VPN usually isn’t very expensive, with most costing less than $10 per month. Premium plans with additional security or encryption typically increase your cost, but these plans may be worth it, depending on your needs. There are also free VPNs available and some companies with paid-for services that offer a basic service that don’t cost anything. Like most free products, these no-cost services typically come with several catches. The most common drawbacks are data caps, session limits, usage restrictions, and advertising. Many free VPNs aren’t reliable and don’t secure your connection nearly as well as paid services. Untrustworthy free VPN services may even install malware on your devices. However, you can find good free VPN services that may be fine for protecting your laptop during infrequent public Wi-Fi usage, but commercial products are still the better choice. Most VPNs offer a per-month fee as part of a subscription with varying lengths of commitment available. The longer your subscription, the less you’ll pay in the long run. Some VPNs also offer deeper discounts on service plans when you opt to pay for a couple of years up front. Before you spend a lot of money, it’s advisable to pay for only a month first. If you’re still happy after this trial period, upgrade to a longer plan that offers a better value.

Additional Resources