What is a VPN?

A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a private network that encrypts and transmits data while it travels from one place to another on the internet. Using a VPN to connect to the internet allows you to surf websites privately and securely as well as gain access to restricted websites and overcome censorship blocks. VPNs aren't just for desktops or laptops -- you can set up a VPN on your iPhone, iPad or Android phone, too.

This guide will take you through exactly how a VPN works and what it can be used for, as well as addressing what you need to know before choosing a VPN service that’s right for your needs.

How does a VPN service work?

Using a VPN to ensure the security of your personal data works like this:

  1. Once you connect to the internet with your VPN service switched on, you will be connected to one of the VPN provider’s servers
  2. At the same time they will provide you with the IP address (a unique set of numbers that identifies your device) of that particular server. Instead of using your own IP address you are using one that belongs to the VPN provider.
  3. Your internet connection is also encrypted (the process of converting data into code to prevent unauthorized access) between your device and the server you’re connected to.
  4. Hiding your IP address allows you to access the internet privately and helps to prevent your browsing from being tracked or traced. You are then able to surf the web privately and securely.

Still a bit confused? We like to use the good old helicopter example for this. Here’s what we mean.

You’re driving along the freeway, sunglasses on, hair down, Taylor Swift blasting radio on and there’s a helicopter above you.

NB. This is no normal helicopter: On board is a group of hackers from the local coffee shop, your ISP (Internet Service Provider) tracking your browsing history and your government who can oversee everything. They can see everything you’re doing and are pretty happy about it too.

But wait, a tunnel. Into the tunnel you go and suddenly that helicopter can’t see anything you do. As long as you’re in that tunnel you’re hidden.

How a VPN works: the car and tunnel metaphor

Think of that tunnel as a VPN. Once you’ve got it switched on you create a secure tunnel between your device and the internet. Everything that happens in that tunnel is encrypted, meaning only you can access it. Yes, that means governments, ISPs , hackers, your boss (even your Mom) can’t track what you’re doing online.

Encryption. What does that mean?

Encryption is the process of taking some information (your data) and scrambling it so that it can’t be read. When you connect to the internet using a VPN your connection is what becomes encrypted, which means that if cyber criminals were to intercept the stream of your data, all they would get is gibberish code.

You can consider encryption a form of secret code. The way your data is scrambled is called a cypher, and there is a key (or logic) that allows you to decypher the message so that it makes sense again.

The highest encryption standard available is known as AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) 256-bit and is used by the most recommended VPN providers. What does 256-bit mean? It's the size (or complexity) of the cypher used in the encryption. The bigger it is, the more possibilities there are, and the harder it is to guess the key. In the case of 256-bit encryption, there are more combinations than there are stars in the universe. In fact, this level of encryption is so secure it’s used by banks and governments worldwide to ensure the security of their data.

Let’s talk protocols

A VPN protocol refers to the technology a VPN provider uses to ensure you get a secure and fast connection between your device and their VPN servers. A VPN protocol is a combination of encryption standards and transmission protocols.

Illustration of a computer with data being encrypted by a VPN

The most widely used VPN protocol is OpenVPN. Being ‘open’ may not sound like the best thing for something designed for privacy, but it’s the safest and most secure option there is when using a VPN service. Why? Because it’s exactly that: It’s open-source, which means its source code is available for anyone to verify. So if any security holes were found they’d be picked up quickly by the community of developers that support it. You can also be sure that the code isn't being used to do anything funny, because it's available for all to see.

Another commonly known protocol is PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol) which is mainly used on free VPN services and is much less secure. It’s been around for much longer (circa 1995) and while it's easier to set up, it's full of known security flaws and should be avoided if you’re looking for anything like a  secure connection.

Why are IP addresses important?

Your IP address is a unique set of numbers that identifies your device when you connect to the internet. Think of it as a home address for your device that usually looks something like this: 216.3.128.12 . Every device has one, and when you connect to a website, the address you typed in to get to it gets translated into the IP address of that website’s server. But just like your computer is colleccting that server's IP address to connect to it, so are the servers of every website you connect to collecting your device’s IP address.

Your IP address links your device to your ISP, and also to the region that you are operating in. This is how services go about restricting content by region: your IP address flags the region you're in, and if the content you are trying to access is restricted where you are then you won't be able to see it.

Connecting to a VPN server means you get its home address — no matter where in the world that server may be

When you connect to a VPN server, you effectively get the IP addresse of one of their servers in whatever region that server may be — hiding your IP address behind it in the process. Anyone who come snooping around on your activities will only be able to find the IP address of your VPN provider. Not yours.

Team that with the encrypted internet connection between your device and the VPN servers, and your browsing habits are private from ISPs, hackers and government surveillance.

Why use a VPN service?

VPN technology was originally used to allow remote workers access to corporate files and folders when working from a location away from the central office. This meant they were able to access sensitive documents on a secure and encrypted internet connection. While this is still the case, when we talk VPNs in this article we’re referring to commercial services that offer people security and privacy when accessing the internet.

Not only does a VPN secure your browsing with an encrypted connection, it can also give you access to a freer internet by letting you choose where you are located globally. This combination of security and location swapping means VPNs have a lot of tricks up their sleeves. They let you:

  • Make public Wi-Fi safer
  • Stream regionally blocked content
  • Access blocked websites
  • Avoid censorship
  • Prevent ISP tracking
  • Prevent price discrimination

As you can see, VPNs can be use for all kinds of things these days. Some people even use a VPN for gaming.

VPNs make it safe to use Public Wifi. Here’s why

Free Wi-Fi is awesome am I right? WRONG. Yes it’s free, but in reality you’re paying a lot more than you think.

Let’s break it down (literally, it’s SO easy to break down a public Wi-Fi network): it’s insecure, anyone can access it, and if they know a couple of hacking tricks (which are readily available online, FYI) then bam! They’re in. Which means they can see, track and hack all the info you’re sharing on that network.

Illustration of the dangers of free public Wi-Fi

Bit of online banking? Bank details nabbed. Private messages? Used to blackmail you for money (trust us it happens). Personal data? Ideal for stealing your identity. The list is endless.

Because a VPN encrypts your communication to its server, it doesn't matter who's on the public network or trying to eavesdrop: all they see is gibberish. It's almost as if you had your own separate network. A virtual one.

Stream from anywhere

You may have never considered this but your streaming subscription services actually license different content depending on where they’re located in the world. Picture the scene: You’re 3 seasons deep into that show with the dragons and desperate to know what happens to the Queen of Everything. You’re off on holiday for 3 weeks, laptop packed, ready to unwind after a day of exploring. But wait. You can’t access your show because that content isn’t available where you are now. Woe.

Luckily, all is not lost. A VPN means you can choose to virtually appear almost anywhere in the world your provider has a server. So if you pick your home country from the server list, it will be like you never left home. Sit back and enjoy the dragons. Panic over.

Access blocked websites

Sometimes, you may find that certain websites are blocked in certain scenarios or locations. At work, school and university this happens a lot. Now we’re not here to judge. If you think being on Facebook at school is better for your education, then you do you. Same things goes for work. Is it really fair of your boss to block your access to Linkedin? It happens.

VPNs get you around all kinds of access blocks even if you’re in an environment that restricts access to certain websites. Your connection gets encrypted and tunnels right through any restrictions, coming out the other end of your VPN provider's server. 

Using a VPN means you’re able to see blocked websites even if you’re in an environment that restricts access

Avoid censorship

Not everyone is lucky enough to live in a country that embraces freedom of information. China, for one, imposes strict sanctions and censorship on the use of websites such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. Which means anything associated with them too. So that’s Gmail, Google Maps, WhatsApp, Instagram to name just a few. Even FaceTime isn’t an option. Not the greatest when you’re travelling and need that access. VPNs can get you around these censorship blocks in the same way they can get you around access blocks.

Using a VPN can get you around censorship by routing you to a server located in a country that embraces the open internet

Evade ISP tracking

This one’s a biggie. Your ISP is your Internet Service Provider. In a nutshell, they’re the companies who supply you with an internet connection. Think AT&T, Verizon, Sky, BT etc. Did you know they can see everything you do online? Not only can they see what you do online, they can store it too.

In fact, in the UK your entire browsing history is stored by your ISP for a year. That’s everything you read, watch, view and click on. From the US? Your ISP is able to store and sell your browsing history to the highest bidder without your consent. Advertisers, subscription services, you name it, they can buy it.

Using a VPN prevents your ISP from being able to keep tabs on what you’re doing online.

VPNs protect you from this kind of invasion of privacy. This is because your internet connection in encrypted, meaning only you can see what you're doing. No tracking, storing or selling. Nada. Which leads us nicely on to…

Prevent price discrimination

Never heard of price discrimination? It's when different prices are offered to different people based on their perceived ability to pay. This happens a lot more than you think online.

A lot of price discrimination mainly happens based on your location. For example if you’re based in New York or London, you're more likely to have a higher income than someone in Kentucky or York. Which means you’ll often get shown the higher prices for goods. This happens a lot with airlines but can be applied to almost anything. Why? Because companies want to make money and they know how to do it.

The same way VPN location-swapping gets you around content blocks also makes it harder for those companies to jack their prices on you.

Using a VPN can help you avoid higher prices based on your location

It’s sounding a little ominous now, huh? Okay, okay that's only one example. How about this: Remember what we were saying about ISPs in the US being able to sell browsing history? In the hands of the right advertiser, you could be subject to price increases on the things you enjoy most.

Allow us to paint the picture: You’ve thoroughly enjoyed free streaming the current season of that show with the dragons. But what happens when the new season (in about 200 hundred years) arrives? That same free provider has started charging for it? They know you watch it, they know you love it and they know they can make you pay for it. A VPN means your ISP can’t see what you do online. And if they can’t see it? They can’t sell it.

Why is online privacy so important?

The Internet's always getting bigger, and when even your toaster's getting online it’s easier than ever to have your entire life exposed. These days, everything we do is online. We google it, snap it, filter it, WhatsApp it — the list in endless. And the risk of exposure is higher than ever. Your browsing history, habits and behaviour are all tracked and stored by ISPs, be it for government requirements or to sell on to advertisers.

Your personal information should be just that. Personal. And because it’s personal, it’s important you’re able to to limit others from sharing, selling and tracking it. The consequences of not protecting your personal data on the internet can be dire. Without protecting your privacy you’re wide open to attacks from cyber criminals, tracking by ISPs, advertisers targeting you and government surveillance.

illustration of a shield in the middle of the various connected devices

Why is this a bad thing? Well, it doesn't take very much for a cyber criminal to be able to steal your identity. A few basic pieces of your personal data can give them ways to access your online banking accounts, credit card details and private information in seconds.

Having your ISP track your browsing history means they are aware of every site you access online: They can view your personal preferences on what you read, view and surf. And shouldn’t what you do on the internet be your business only?

And if you think it's OK for the government to know what you're up to, you may not have thought it all the way through. Government restrictions on what is deemed acceptable behaviour online can change at any time. If the government decides tomorrow something is illegal, they can use the access they have to your browsing history to persecute you. Do you still want your government to be able to track and access all your internet browsing habits?

What you freely do today could be unnacceptable tomorrow — and that won't be up to you

Even if you think nothing you do could ever be used against you, saying you don't care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don't care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say: someone else might, and it's not up to you to remove that right from others because you have no use for it.

And everyone has something to hide. It’s common knowledge that people don't act the same when they know they're being watched. This is stifling for freedom of speech and thought. We’re much less likely to look up controversial material if there is the risk that it will label us as something in the future.

Can I still be traced online when using a VPN?

When you purchase a VPN you will often do so with your credit card details, so your VPN provider will likely know who you are. There are untraceable methods of payment such as certain cryptocurrencies similar to Bitcoin  Bitcoin isn't as anonymous as you may think — but that's a discussion for another time. But practically speaking, while they may know who you are, the most information a VPN company should ever have on your online activity is your IP address and the IP address of the server they connected you to.

Look out for a VPN that offers shared IP addresses: this means that when you’re connected to a server, you share its IP address with any other person connected to it. This makes it almost impossible to tie you to anything that is accessed from that IP address. In short, your internet browsing history should not be traceable by your VPN provider.

There’s also more at stake than whether your VPN service can trace you. You have to remember that there are plenty of ways for your browsing to be tracked whether you’re using a VPN or not. Advertisers can (and will) follow you online if you have a cookie in your browser  using a different IP address won't change that. If you’re connected to Facebook in one tab then all your other tabs are monitored too. The same goes for Google.

What does "no logging" mean?

Whenever an activity happens on a computer, that event is logged in a record. These logs are useful for a variety of things. They can help IT experts figure out what operations a computer was doing when it crashed, for instance. Well, servers are computers, and so technically they are capable of keeping logs of the commuications that go through them.

Every server collects information by default when it is accessed by a device. The extensiveness of what information the server collects on you when you connect should be outlined clearly in the privacy policy of the VPN service you are using. It’s important to always read the privacy policy of the VPN provider to ensure you know exactly where you stand. After all, if they are able to log your browsing history then this defeats the purpose of using a VPN service for internet privacy and security.

When a VPN provider claims that it has a "no logging" policy, it means that it doesn't keep logs on what you do online. All reputable VPNs have such a policy. All they should know is your payment method, your IP address, and the address of the server you connected to in their network: and that's all they should be able to provide if they are compelled to release information.

Are VPNs free?

Yes, some VPNs are free. But be wary: Free doesn't always mean secure. A free VPN service has to make its money somehow, and it’s often at the expense of your data and security.

  1. Weak protocols  Most free services only provide PPTP ( Point to Point Tunnelling Protocol) VPN which is an old-school method built in 1990s and widely regarded as obsolete. Several vulnerabilities have been discovered over the years and the encryption can be broken easily using widely available tools online. 
  2. Slow speeds  Everyone loves a freebie — and that means tons of people slowing down servers and delaying connections. Enjoy watching that spinning wheel on every page you load.
  3. Download limits  Free VPN services will restrict their users with very small download limits.
  4. Fewer locations — A free service rarely support as many locations as paid services.
  5. Advertising  Like we said, they need to make their money somehow. Be prepared for pop-ups and spam galore. This can even be a security risk — such as we when they inject their ads into otherwise secure websites like your bank.

If you’re not sure about whether a VPN is for you but want to give a try we suggest getting a free trial first. AVG Secure VPN offers a 30-day trial completely free of charge before you commit to the paid service.

Try AVG Secure VPN

Are VPNs secure?

Remember that encryption stuff we were talking about earlier? That’s what makes a VPN secure. The AES 256-bit encryption used by the best VPN providers mean that all the data shared on your internet connection is secure and private. If it’s good enough for military-level government operations, then it’s good enough for us.

However, you need to be sure that you know what you’re working with when you pick a VPN service. Choosing the wrong one is like handing over the keys to your entire kingdom. They can potentially see everything that goes through their servers. Read that Privacy Policy and then read it again to make sure you know what you’re signing up for.

Okay so VPNs are secure, but are they legal?

VPNs are 100% legal. There's nothing wrong with giving yourself a little bit of privacy online. But using that privacy to commit a crime is definitely illegal  a crime is a crime, no matter how you commit it. Some governments do view using a VPN as a hostile act as they demand more control over what is accessed online within their regions. Because of this we advise that you always check the country specific laws on VPNs when you are traveling, as they can often change with new governments and bills (remember what we were saying about how what is acceptable behavior isn't yours to define?).

You may, however, find that some services will detect the use of a VPN and block you from accessing their services. Netflix are a good example of doing so.

What about using a Smart DNS or Tor instead of a VPN service?

A Smart DNS is a much simpler technology geared up for users who just want to access restricted content around the world — most commonly streaming services. But there are fundamental differences between a Smart DNS and a VPN. Using a Smart DNS will not encrypt your internet connection which means there’s a total lack of privacy online — don't even think of using it on public Wi-Fi. However, an advantage of using a Smart DNS is that all your internet traffic doesn’t have to be routed through another server, meaning the speed is normally much better. If you’re not interested in protecting your privacy or security (WHY?!) but are looking to virtually hop around the world, then you might want to consider using a Smart DNS.

A Smart DNS won't provide you with the protection of a VPN 

The Onion Router (Tor) is free software that's meant to anonymize you over the internet. Unlike a VPN, which routes your traffic via a single server, Tor routes you through many servers maintained by volunteers. Each server adds another layer of encryption to disguise your IP address so it isn't traced back to you. However, it’s not completely secure: The NSA are widely known to have back door access to Tor and seeing as it’s a browser, it’s much more prone to man-in-the-middle attacks from hackers and governments. Very few VPN services that allow you to use their software through Tor.

Can I use a VPN on multiple devices?

Um, YES. I mean how often are you carting around the one device to connect to the internet? This isn't 2007 and we’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. We’re using the Internet more than ever before in more ways than we even realize, and that means more devices at risk of breaching your personal data.

Reputable VPN services will offer you protection across all of your devices, often with the most secure and up-to-date protocols in place per platform. Look out for ones with dedicated VPN apps for your individual devices such as VPN for iPhone and Android.

What should I look for in choosing a VPN?

Well we’ve been through all the detail on why you need one and what you can use it for. So let’s lay out some simple points to consider when choosing a VPN.

  1. Paid VPN  Like we said, free versions are not secure, and they’re vulnerable and spammy. If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product. .
  2. Shared IP  If a VPN service offers you access to shared IPs then you know you’re onto a winner. Because that means multiple users are accessing it at the same time. Which means it’s impossible to pinpoint that IP traffic to any one user.
  3. Logs  A good VPN service will have a no logging policy. Which means that they are unable to track, trace or view what you access online. The only information they will have on you is your IP and the IP of the server you connected to. 
  4. Multi-device  Smartphones and tablets basically make the world go round these days. Make sure you choose a VPN that offers protection for all your devices.

We recommend both our own AVG Secure VPN and the quirky but very cool HMA! Pro VPN which meet all the points highlighted above.

Liked this one? Try these:

Avoid these mistakes when using free Wi-Fi

Checking your balance on that free airport Wi-Fi could end up costing you everything you have. Here’s how to avoid getting hacked while using public Wi-Fi.

How to Set Up & Use a VPN on Your Mobile Phone

This step-by-step guide helps you set up and connect to a VPN client on your iPhone or Android phone. Start using a mobile VPN today and keep your online activity private and anonymous.

The Large-Scale Cyberattack Survival Guide

Everything you need to know to survive the Big One. Here are 7 tips on how to stay protected and make sure you don't get roped into a cyberwar when large nation states start slinging digital arrows at each other.

What is DNS hijacking?

You type in an address, and get redirected to a fake websites that steals your passwords. Here's how it happens, and what you can do to stay protected.

AVG Secure VPN Try It FREE