Written by Ivan Belcic & Christina Edwards
Updated on May 30, 2024

What does VPN stand for?

VPN stands for "virtual private network."

  • A VPN is virtual because it creates a digital tunnel — there isn’t a physical cable that reaches from your device directly to the VPN server.

  • A VPN is private because it encrypts your data in transit and hides your IP address.

  • A VPN is a network because it creates a connection between multiple computers — your device and the VPN server.

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    What does VPN mean?

    VPN means virtual private network — it’s a private tunnel through the internet. VPN services help you bypass censorship, get around content blocks, and unlock website restrictions. In addition to encrypting your internet traffic, VPNs hide your IP address and location, making it harder for others to know who you are or what you’re doing.

    Whenever you’re online, every link you click, site you view, picture you post, or purchase you make can be tracked by websites and others. By concealing your IP and location, a VPN makes it more difficult for those actions to be connected to you, strengthening your internet security and privacy.

    A VPN can mean the difference between carefree browsing and a heightened risk of leaked passwords and exposed information. A VPN lets you safely use public Wi-Fi networks and connect remotely to your office’s network without fear of your personal data getting out.

    Strictly speaking, when we talk about the meaning of “VPN,” we’re only talking about the private network connection. The actual software app that manages your device’s VPN connection is technically called a VPN client. But the two cybersecurity terms are often used interchangeably.

    Why you should use a VPN

    VPNs offer some of the best protection against online snoops and hackers, and you should use one if you want to browse privately. As well as encrypting your internet traffic, a VPN helps prevent others from finding your IP address by showing the IP address of the VPN server you’re using instead.

    Your public IP address links your device to your ISP and to your geographic location, which can make it easier for companies to use geo-blocking, enforce censorship, set up price discrimination, and carry out other activities.

    A VPN can help you avoid that, because it uses IP masking to keep your identity and location private. With a VPN, you may be able to get more content, better deals, and increased privacy.

    There are many VPN benefits to take advantage of. Here are some of the reasons that people use VPNs:

    • To keep data safer
      All internet data sent to and from your computer gets encrypted, so your login credentials and credit card information won’t get out.

    • To minimize online tracking
      The sites you visit via a VPN won’t be visible to hackers or ISPs. Make sure to use private browsing to help disable tracking cookies, too.

    • To stream content
      Your ISP can throttle your connection for a lot of reasons — perhaps they don’t like how much bandwidth you’re using. Or, you may want to watch your favorite shows on the go. A VPN can help you shield your streaming activity so you can access the content you want.

    • To stay safer on public Wi-Fi
      Public Wi-Fi doesn’t usually feature strong Wi-Fi security protocols, so you should use a VPN connection. Cybercriminals can intercept unsecured traffic more easily, meaning your phone could be hacked without you realizing it.

    • To protect business communications
      All businesses need to protect themselves from risks like costly ransomware attacks and other cyberthreats — not to mention the need to protect the communications and data of remote workers.

    • To avoid surveillance
      Activists or journalists who need to protect their sources, access secure data or records, or protect themselves from unwanted attention can use VPNs to help keep their online activity private.

    • To play online games
      Online gamers may simply want to keep their gaming activity private, or they may want to access games that aren’t available where they are.

    • To shop online
      Some companies might vary the prices of their products based on geographic location. Using a VPN can help protect online shoppers from price discrimination.


      Use a VPN to stay safe on public Wi-Fi, unblock content, bypass censorship, stop ISP tracking, and pay fair prices.

    Can I be tracked while using a VPN?

    A VPN can help block others from tracking your online activity based on your IP address, but it can’t prevent other web tracking methods such as cookies and browser fingerprinting. And once you log into a website, your activity can be tracked by the site regardless of whether you’re using a VPN or not.

    A VPN only affects your own internet activity — it won’t stop sites from downloading tracking files onto your computer. Security extensions for Chrome and private browsing can help with that, by protecting you against ad tracking.

    In the end, you need both. One of the best ways to ensure privacy is to combine a private browser, which blocks cookies, and a VPN, which hides your activity and IP address.

    A hidden IP address goes a long way. AVG Secure VPN enhances your privacy by masking you and other VPN users behind a single, shared IP address. That makes it extremely difficult for anyone to link your web activity back to you, since multiple users are sharing the same IP at any given time. It’s just one of the many ways AVG Secure VPN keeps you safer online.

    Is using a VPN legal?

    VPNs are legal in many countries, but not all. Some countries restrict VPN usage, while others forbid certain types of content or censor certain websites.

    While it may be unlikely that you get into legal trouble for streaming with a VPN, your streaming content provider may block your account if you violate the service’s terms and conditions.

    How does a VPN work?

    A VPN works by using encryption protocols to funnel all your internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel — a virtual private network —between your computer and a remote VPN server. That hides your IP address and secures your data, preventing others from intercepting it.

    Here’s what a VPN does, step by step:

    1. Authentication: The VPN makes sure you’re allowed to access it.

    2. Encryption: The data you want to send to the VPN — whether by uploading something or visiting a link — gets converted to a virtually uncrackable code.

    3. Encapsulation: Your encrypted data is enclosed within data packets to make their contents more difficult to identify.

    4. Tunneling: Your data gets sent to the VPN securely, making it more difficult to intercept.

    5. Decryption: The VPN decrypts the data and sends it to the receiver.

    When not hooked up to a VPN network, your internet traffic is potentially exposed to your ISP, advertisers, or other people on your network. That’s why VPN connections are crucial to online privacy and security.

    Here’s an image showing how VPNs work:

    How a VPN works to protect all internet traffic to and from your device.A VPN funnels your internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel between your computer and a VPN server.

    What is VPN tunneling?

    VPN tunneling is the process of securing your device’s connection with a VPN server. VPN tunneling encrypts internet data “packets” sent to and from VPN servers using a technique called encapsulation to wrap an outer packet (a protocol) around the original data packet, so it can’t be intercepted by unauthorized parties.

    The level of protection you receive when using a VPN depends on the type of tunneling protocol used. It also depends on whether you use full or split tunneling. A full tunnel means all internet data goes through the VPN tunnel, whereas a split tunnel sends only traffic that you, or your organization, want to be protected (for example, Instagram activity could be exempt).

    How do VPN servers operate?

    Here’s how VPN servers operate:

    1. A secure VPN connection is established.

    2. The VPN client (or app) encrypts outgoing data and sends it to the VPN server.

    3. The VPN server decrypts the data and forwards it to the destination server.

    4. The website sees that the VPN has sent data to it.

    5. The website sends return data to the VPN server, which encrypts it.

    6. The VPN server sends you the incoming data.

    7. The VPN client decrypts the website data.

    Thanks to this server routing and encryption process, only you and the receiving website have seen this activity, and the website doesn’t know who was behind it.

    What does a VPN do?

    VPNs hide your IP address and add a layer of encryption to the data that passes through your internet connection. A VPN connection can also give you access to a freer internet by letting you configure your settings to alter your virtual online location. Some people even use a VPN for gaming.

    Let’s examine what VPNs do in more detail.

    Encrypt your internet connection

    VPNs establish a secure connection to the internet. Establishing an encrypted, private network is exactly what a VPN connection does — and this encrypted layer offers an array of security, privacy, and performance benefits.

    Secure the data you send and receive

    If you log into your bank account, check your email, or use social media over an unsecured connection, hackers may be lurking, waiting to snap up your login credentials. And any messages you send or personal data you transmit can be intercepted and used for blackmail or identity theft. But anyone trying to eavesdrop on your encrypted VPN connection will see only gibberish.

    A VPN is particularly important for staying safe on public Wi-Fi networks. There are many risks of free Wi-Fi, since anyone can hop onto an unsecured Wi-Fi network. It’s easy for a hacker to intercept traffic flowing through a public Wi-Fi network and execute a man-in-the-middle attack. You should also use a VPN if you visit the dark web.

    Help you stream content

    By letting you connect to the best server location to suit your needs, a VPN helps you access the content you want and watch TV online. You can even equip your mobile device with a VPN to help stream content on the go.

    A VPN lets you get around geo-blocking so you can stream content freely.A VPN lets you access shows from your home country when you’re traveling abroad.

    Access blocked websites

    You may find that some websites are blocked for certain reasons or because you’re in a particular location, such as at school or work. VPNs help you get around content blocks so you can access blocked websites.

    Avoid censorship

    Many countries limit internet access. Journalists, activists, and others living or working in places where information is restricted can use VPNs to access the information they need and communicate more freely.

    Evade ISP tracking

    Without a VPN, your ISP can track all your online activity: the websites and services you use, when you use them, and how long you use them. ISPs can then use that information to throttle your bandwidth depending on your usage, or even sell your browsing history to an advertising network, data broker, or subscription service.

    Prevent price discrimination

    Price discrimination, also called dynamic pricing, happens when sites offer different prices for the same product to different people. Flight prices change depending on when you buy, where you are, and other factors. As well as allowing you to shop online more safely, a VPN can also help you avoid location-based price variations.

    VPNs help you avoid price discrimination.By keeping you anonymous, a VPN can shield you from price discrimination.

    What is VPN encryption?

    VPN encryption is the process of using data encryption (encryption protocols) to create a secure tunnel for your data to travel through. If anyone intercepts your VPN connection, they’ll see scrambled data. Only your device and the VPN server you’re using can encrypt and decrypt, or unscramble, your data.

    While many encryption methods, or algorithms, exist, most VPNs use the 256-bit AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) algorithm. This level of encryption is so secure that it’s used by banks and governments worldwide — as well as by AVG Secure VPN.

    What are VPN protocols?

    A VPN protocol is a set of rules or instructions that create the connection between your device and the VPN’s proxy servers. Each VPN protocol is a combination of encryption methods and transmission protocols. You can change your VPN protocol in the settings of your VPN app.


    Popular for its speed and security (it uses 256-bit encryption), OpenVPN is one of the leading VPN protocols. As an open-source protocol, anyone can verify its source code. And if exploitable vulnerabilities are found, they’re addressed quickly by the developer community that supports it.


    IKEv2 (Internet Key Exchange version 2) is an efficient protocol usually combined with IPsec (Internet Protocol Security). Like OpenVPN, IKEv2 uses 256-bit encryption and provides a fast connection. IKEv2 is especially popular with phones because it can easily switch between mobile data and Wi-Fi networks. But unlike OpenVPN, IKEv2 isn’t open-source.


    Developed by Microsoft to create a VPN over dial-up networks, PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol) is an antiquated and far less secure protocol that's still popular with some free VPN services. While it's easier to set up than more advanced options, PPTP is full of known security flaws and should be avoided if you want a secure connection.


    L2TP (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol) was developed by Microsoft and Cisco as the successor to PPTP. Responsible for creating the VPN connection, L2TP is often combined with IPsec for security.


    Microsoft developed SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol) to further enhance security and bypass proxies and firewalls that L2TP couldn’t. SSTP uses TCP Port 443, meaning it works in most instances, even in countries and companies that block VPN connections. It’s encrypted with the AES cipher and is considered very secure, but support is very limited for operating systems other than Windows.


    Originally created for Linux, WireGuard now works with Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android. It’s simple to set up and one of the fastest protocols. By default, WireGuard stores IP addresses on the VPN server, which raises a potential concern about user privacy. But it depends on how the VPN provider addresses this, as they can use their own software to make sure IP addresses aren’t stored.


    Shadowsocks isn’t a VPN protocol but a tunneling proxy. It was created by a Chinese programmer to circumvent internet censorship and bypass firewalls. Shadowsocks will help you access restricted content but it won’t hide your IP address or encrypt the data you send and receive online, which is what a virtual private network does.

    History of VPNs

    In 1996, Microsoft developed the first VPN, known as PPTP, which soon made way for L2TP. In 1998, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) introduced IPsec, delivering more advanced encryption methods. Then in 2001, the open-source protocol OpenVPN was created. While in the early days of VPNs, it was mainly businesses using them, they’re now mainstream and also popular for personal use.

    Types of VPN

    There are three main types of VPNs: site-to-site and remote VPNs, which are typically used by organizations and businesses, and personal VPNs which are intended for individuals to secure their online connections.

    Site-to-site VPN

    A site-to-site VPN connects two or more private intranets at different sites. They’re used by larger organizations or businesses so that employees can access the same private network and information no matter where they are. This type of VPN is difficult to set up and maintain, and requires the configuration of networks at all sites.

    Site-to-site VPNs can’t be used by employees at home or in a coffee shop, because the organization has no control over these networks — a remote access VPN is needed for this.

    Remote access VPN

    A remote access VPN lets employees connect to a remote network securely using dedicated software. The employee’s “host” computer needs a client application to set up the connection. With this type of setup, you can work from anywhere with the same level of network security as if you were on-site.

    Personal VPN

    A personal VPN, or consumer-grade VPN, is for individuals. It provides a secure, encrypted connection via your VPN provider’s server so that websites can’t see your location and no one can track your online activity or communications.

    It’s the simplest way you can set up a VPN connection — simply download a VPN app to your device and turn it on when you want to use it, or leave it on all the time.

    How to choose a VPN

    There are lots of VPNs to choose from. Here are some of the things you should consider:

    • Speed: The best VPNs boast very fast download and upload speeds, unlimited bandwidth, and use highly efficient protocols to ensure you won't suffer from a slow connection.

    • Security: Look carefully at the VPN’s encryption methods and protocols. AES-256 is the industry standard, don’t settle for anything less.

    • Price: There are free VPNs, but premium VPNs typically offer better privacy and performance. Look for an affordable option that meets your needs. Many secure and powerful VPNs, like AVG Secure VPN, offer free trials.

    • Data allowance: If you plan on streaming, gaming, or using your VPN to shroud your internet usage, you’ll need one with a high or unlimited data allowance.

    • VPN reputation: Check out user reviews and expert ratings to gauge reliability and customer satisfaction.

    • Servers: A higher number of VPN servers to choose from can enable faster speeds, better reliability, and more flexibility.

    • Locations: If you want to access content available in specific countries, you’ll need a VPN with servers in those locations, and the ability to select the one you want to connect to.

    • Privacy policy: Virtual private networks should be just that — private. Choose a VPN that respects your privacy and doesn’t collect, keep, or sell logs of your activity.

    Is there a free VPN?

    Yes, there are free VPNs, but their services and features are often more limited than premium VPNs. Free VPNs typically replace subscription fees by displaying ads or even by collecting personal data. And free VPNs usually don’t allow multiple simultaneous connections, meaning you can’t connect to your VPN from several devices at once. Other problems with free VPNs include bandwidth limits, slow connection speeds, and fewer server locations.

    Thanks to AVG Secure VPN and its no-commitment, free trial period, you can enjoy 60 days of full access to all features of the VPN, and see for yourself what it’s like to browse without borders or anybody peeping at your activity.

    How to use a VPN

    Here’s how to set up a VPN connection to instantly encrypt your data and hide your IP address:

    1. Download and install AVG Secure VPN.

    2. Open the VPN app on your computer or mobile device.

    3. Choose a VPN server and connect.

    To benefit from VPN protection on your MacBook or iPhone, check out our guide to setting up a VPN on Mac devices or mobile phones.

    If you have an IPv6 address or an IPv4 address, check that the VPN app supports this first. You can then go into the app and choose a VPN server to connect to.

    Are VPNs safe and secure?

    A VPN service increases your safety and security a great deal, but it is not the same as an antivirus tool. While VPNs secure your internet connection, they’re not designed to detect, block, or scan and remove malware.

    You need a strong antivirus to protect against malware, spyware, or phishing attacks — in addition to using a VPN service for internet privacy.

    Use a secure VPN you can trust

    AVG Secure VPN keeps your data safe with 256-bit AES encryption — the same encryption that banks and governments use. Our lightning-fast servers located around the world will get you the content you need while hiding your identity behind a shared IP address, making it nearly impossible for anyone to link your activity back to you.

    Secure your Wi-Fi network, protect up to 10 computers and mobile devices with a single account, and stay more anonymous online today.

    Encrypt your connection and access content with AVG Secure VPN

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    Encrypt your connection and access content with AVG Secure VPN

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    Ivan Belcic & Christina Edwards