A Layman’s Guide on “What is a VPN?”

Last updated: September 4, 2019
Muhammad Hamza Shahid

Muhammad Hamza Shahid

This is the ultimate layman’s guide to VPNs. Learn what they do, how they work, and receive suggestions on the best VPN services available.

These days, VPNs are quite popular. Everyone is talking about them, wants to know how to use them, and how they can benefit from getting one. However, since they seem very complicated, plenty get put off instantly.

So, I took it upon myself to simplify what a VPN is for a beginner user. I’ll also be giving you a few recommendations by the end of this guide to help you pick the best VPN for your privacy/entertainment needs. Are you ready?

What is a VPN Connection?

In the simplest of words: a VPN (abbreviation for Virtual Private Network) is a service that allows for the secure and private browsing of the web.

Think of it this way; the internet is a busy highway everyone knows about and uses daily, but a VPN is the private tunnel beneath it, only you know about.

Admittedly, the highway brings a lot of convenience to you for traveling, but at the same time, it may put you at risk of dangerous accidents and other uncertainties.

Meanwhile, the tunnel beneath it is only accessible to you. It is private, away from the crashing of cars, the uncertainty of roadblocks, and cops pulling you over.

Similarly, if you use the internet without a VPN, it puts you at risk of accidents like identity theft, ransomware, geo-restrictions, and spying by the government.

Conversely, the internet with a VPN beneath it is a secure and anonymous place. One that is free from the above dangers, because nobody can see what you do.

It typically routes your internet connection through a secure and encrypted tunnel, which hides your online activities and keeps your identity private.

How Does a VPN Work?

After you sign up and download/install the relevant online VPN app, you start the client software and find a list of servers in different regions.

You connect to any server and the software then encrypts your data, before your internet service provider or Wi-Fi you connected to, sees it.

All the internet traffic that was to pass directly from the ISP to the website you visited, now goes through an added layer of encryption with a different IP address.

As such, the destination website now sees data from the server you selected via the VPN client. Not your real location and IP address obtained from your ISP, keeping you hidden.

How your connection looks without a VPN connection:

All your data is out in the open. Any interested party like copyright infringement hunters, government agencies, or hackers can peek into what you’re doing online.

how an internet connection looks without vpn

How your connection looks with a VPN connection:

Your data is invisible to all parties, including your ISPs and Wi-Fi host. Nobody knows what you’re doing online, because they will first have to decrypt the data (an impossible task).

internet connection with vpn

What are VPN Protocols and which is the Best One for You?

When you look at different services offering a VPN product, you may frequently come across terms like PPTP, L2TP/IPSec, SSTP, IKEv2, OpenVPN, and WireGuard.

These are all VPN protocols that define how a specific service handles the transmission of data. Below I give a brief overview of each while being as non-technical as possible:

PPTP

One of the oldest protocols still in use by some users. PPTP is fast but loaded with security flaws (because it does not utilize encryption). As such, it is only recommended for users who want to indulge in basic web browsing. Nothing more, nothing less.

L2TP/IPSec

This VPN protocol is a combination of the Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol and the security protocol, IPSec. It is the successor of PPTP and uses AES-256-bit encryption. However, the protocol is still outdated and easy to detect, due to reliance on a single port.

SSTP

The Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol or SSTP comes integrated with all Microsoft operating systems after Windows Vista: Pack 1. It offers excellent security by transporting your VPN traffic through an SSL/TLS channel to cloak your connection as HTTPs.

IKEv2

Developed by Microsoft Cisco, IKEv2 is a proprietary protocol that provides a secure key exchange. It is paired with IPSec for maximum encryption and authentication. The protocol is fast, mobile-friendly, and has several open-source implementations.

OpenVPN

The strongest of all and used by almost all VPN providers, OpenVPN is an open-source VPN protocol. It is undefeatable, protecting user data via military-grade AES-256-CBC or AES-256-GCM cipher with 2048-bit RSA authentication, and a 160-bit SHA1 hash algorithm.

WireGuard

Currently, in “beta phase,” WireGuard aims to replace both IPSec and TLS-based solutions like OpenVPN. The overall design allows for no resource allocation and is presently focused on Linux-based device, as implementation requires less than 4,000 lines of code.

Surfing with VPN Encryption

Most VPNs employ AES-256-CBC or AES-256-GCM ciphers for encrypting your connection, as to keep your identity private and safe from prying eyes, regardless of whether you are surfing the web, streaming, torrenting, or gaming.

Reasons for Encryption

Ever since Edward Snowden leaked classified information from the NSA, the secret alliances and listening practices of the American, British, Canadian, New Zealand, and United Kingdom have come to light.

After realizing that even celebrities and Queen Elizabeth was victim of surveillance, securing digital communication has become a basic need of the society, hence why encryption is imperative for protecting your identity.

Are VPNs Legal to Use?

For the most part, VPNs are legal to use, including in the US. However, since they can be associated with illegal online activities like downloading pirated files, the specifics may vary location by location.

Some countries outright ban the use of VPNs like China, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, UAE, Oman, Belarus, Uganda, and Venezuela, hence making it necessary to choose a provider with obfuscation available.

Using a VPN can also breach terms of service. For instance, it is not illegal to use a Netflix VPN to access the US version or BBC iPlayer UK, but it does ignore their terms of use.

It is essential to mention that despite VPNs being legal in some countries. Government laws can force providers to store logs and provide data when issued a gag order accompanied by a subpoena.

The Many Ways a VPN Can Help You!

When you connect to a VPN, your device contacts websites/apps through the encrypted server and IP address, securing your connection. This can be used to do a wide variety of things like:

Download Torrent Files

The most common reason for using a VPN for torrenting is to receive protection from copyright infringement hunters when engaging in activities like downloading pirated torrent files.

A VPN connection allows users to bypass ISP throttling on BitTorrent clients. Therefore, you can use one to boost your download speeds. Features like SOCKS5 proxy further help in this area.

Unblock Netflix/Hulu/BBC iPlayer

Distributors partnered with streaming platforms lose money when individuals access geo-restricted content through a VPN. Many indulge in banning these privacy tools altogether.

However, a VPN that uses obfuscation and strong encryption successfully allow streamers to access Netflix US outside the country, unblock BBC iPlayer UK, and binge on Hulu freely.

Access Geo-Restricted Websites

Some websites limit their content to country-specific individuals. Schools, colleges, and universities also indulge in the blocking of different apps/websites while on campus.

VPNs are a breath of fresh air in such circumstances. By shifting your IP address to another location and cloaking your identity, you can successfully bypass any geo-restrictions.

Bypassing the Great Wall of China

China has the toughest cyber ecosystem in the world. It bans access to popular platforms like Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a myriad of apps the common man uses daily.

Deploys IP blocking, DNS tampering/poisoning, DNS hijacking, and DPI attacks to block and re-route encrypted connections instantly. However, VPNs designed explicitly for use in China give users the ability to bypass “The Great Firewall of China.”

Protect Yourself on Public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi available in restaurants, bars, and libraries may not be secure. You could be cheated into connection to a network that may seem “legit” but is controlled by a cybercriminal.

If your connection is unsecure, you may fall victim to ransomware, identity theft, or data erasing malware/viruses. VPNs replace your IP address, offering proper safety from such attempts.

Find Amazing Deals and Defeat Advertisements

By using a VPN and shifting to different country/city servers, you can access an entire pool of amazing deals, be it for everyday products or plane tickets for local/international travel.

Most providers even offer a built-in feature for ad/tracker/malware blocking. This further protects you from irritating pop-ups and scroll-ads that force you into closing different websites.

Getting Whitelisted for Banking/Financial Apps

Expats or regular travelers may face trouble in accessing their local banking/financial apps in other countries, due to geographical restrictions and security issues.

VPNs offer dedicated IPs that are only accessible to YOU. By using one based in your country and city, you can act like a local and get whitelisted for banking/financial apps to make transactions.

How Do I Get a VPN?

  1. Jurisdiction
  2. Anonymous Payment Method
  3. Diskless
  4. Obfuscation
  5. Logging
  6. Leak Protection

There are over a hundred VPN providers in the marketplace, and not all deliver an excellent service. If you are looking for the best VPN services, you need to consider a few crucial factors:

Location of VPN Provider

The legality and VPN performance varies by location. However, not all countries which deem VPNs as legal can be regarded as a safe jurisdiction. Countries part of the Five, Nine, and Fourteen Eyes Alliances are bad choices, period!

Why? These countries impose mandatory data retention and mass surveillance laws. For instance, if a provider has its headquarters in the US, it is useless signing up with it.

At any given time, a government-issued subpoena will force the VPN to give away user information. Go for a provider that is away from these “Internet Enemy” jurisdictions.

Anonymous Payment Method

All websites, services, and apps want to collect more user data. Governments, copyright infringement hunters, and cybercriminals want the same.

It is because of this neediness of consumer info that forces netizens do invest in a VPN solution to leverage anonymity. To boost it, I recommend going for a provider that supports bitcoin.

Diskless

Most providers claim they are “logless.” They get furious when accusations are thrown about them recording session/connectivity info, but connect their server hardware to hard drives.

Make sure to ask every provider whether or not they are diskless, as this is the only way you can guarantee your information is safe and not recorded for nefarious purposes.

Obfuscation

As mentioned earlier, not all providers deliver an excellent service. Most fail to meet a certain need just because they are lacking a certain feature. In most cases, providers fail to bypass VPN bans.

However, if you opt for a service that comes equipped with obfuscation, you can easily bypass bans on VPNs in countries like China or streaming platforms like Netflix and BBC iPlayer.

Logging

When finding a suitable VPN service, make sure to read their logging policy thoroughly. Most VPNs will state they are logless but will strategically reveal the data they record in the next few lines.

Usually, prospects miss this vital piece of text and then later find out the VPN did actually log their data and betray user trust. Go for a provider with a verified “no logging” policy.

Leak Protection

The last thing you need is signing up with a VPN only to find out it leaks your WebRTC/DNS/IP address. Not only will this reveal your identity, but also put your privacy at risk.

If you are found downloading torrents or streaming pirated content, you could have to pay hefty DMCA notices. Therefore, go for a provider that offers solid leak protection and employs strong VPN encryption.

Paid VPN services versus a Free VPN

Ever heard of the saying, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” This rule applies to VPNs too. How can it be free when you have to pay for legal fees, tech support, website hosting, advertising, bandwidth, and server expansion?

That is where shady practices like an ad-filled service and points-based systems come in place. Some may even go as far as stealing your data and selling it for money to third-party services. Others come with many limitations, including:

  • Bandwidth Usage – Most free providers, will set a limit on the data you can use, which ranges to a few GB of data/month. Paid services impose no such restrictions.
  • No Torrenting – Free VPNs block torrenting, but will allow them on paid plans. Bear in mind downloading torrents means increased bandwidth, which is not FREE.
  • Servers – Most free VPNs will have a limited selection of servers available ranging anywhere from one to ten, and these servers will usually be very crowded.
  • Logs – There is no good way to determine whether free VPNs log your data. When you purchase a subscription, you have a contract with the VPN.
  • Speed – Majority of the free VPN providers will set bandwidth caps. My VPN test reveals this limits users to receive speeds ranging from 1-3mbps. Paid services offer unlimited bandwidth.

What is the difference between VPN and VPS?

Where a VPN setup uses the internet to connect one network privately via virtual networking, a Virtual Private Server (VPS) is the sharing of the main host computer in a data center.

These virtual servers are sold as a service by internet hosting services. They run their own copy of an Operating System (OS) and customers have to pay for superuser-level access.

What is the difference between VPN and Tor?

Short for “The Onion Router”, Tor uses a decentralized network offering that directs internet traffic through an overlay of servers consisting of more than seven thousand relays for maximum anonymity.

VPN tunnels, on the other hand, rely on a simple metholody of connecting to a physical/virtual server in a different country and adding encryption to cloak your identity.

Can I Use a VPN on Windows, Android or iOS?

Yes, almost all VPN providers offer dedicated apps for Windows, Android, iOS, Linux, MacOS, and even browser extensions for Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.

As another option, users can even rely on OpenVPN Gui and Tunnelblick for setting up manual connections by loading .ovpn files offered by a provider.

Can I make my own VPN service?

Yes, you can make your own VPN service. Create an account on a cloud hosting service like Digital Ocean, download Algo VPN and unzip it. Install the dependencies with these command lines. Run the installation Wizard and enjoy using your own VPN!

How to Setup Fritzbox VPN?

The process is simple. Download the .ovpn configuration files from your VPN provider. Open FRITZ, click on “Internet” > “Permit Access” > “VPN” tab > “Add VPN Connection” > “Import a VPN configuration” > “Choose File”

Recommendations on the Best VPN Services

Based on all the factors mentioned above for the best VPN services, I decided to compile a list of the most reliable providers that offer a universal product for all needs.

Some of the best options available in the marketplace that unblock VoDs like Netflix, bypass VPN bans, offer DDoS protection for gaming, and deliver maximum anonymity include:

  1. Surfshark
  2. NordVPN
  3. ExpressVPN
  4. PureVPN
  5. CyberGhost

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