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What is a VPN?

A VPN, which stands for virtual private network, is a service that establishes a secure and private connection to the internet. A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel to protect your personal data and communications, hide your IP address, and let you safely use public Wi-Fi networks.

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    VPN services also help you bypass censorship, get around content blocks, and unlock website restrictions. By encrypting your internet traffic, VPNs hide your IP address and physical location, so that no one can tell who you are, where you are, or what you’re doing online. That’s why VPN means virtual private network — it’s an on-demand, private tunnel through the internet.

    Strictly speaking, the VPN meaning refers only to the private network connection itself — 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. Most operating systems include VPN clients, but many VPN providers create their own clients that make using a VPN more convenient.

    This comprehensive guide to VPNs will explain exactly how a virtual private network works and why you should use one. You’ll also learn how to choose a VPN service depending on your connection needs. VPNs aren’t just for desktops or laptops — you can set up a VPN on your iPhone, iPad, or Android phone, too.

    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 and hides your IP address.

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

    What does a VPN do?

    VPNs hide your IP address behind a different IP address (often in another part of the world) provided by the VPN server. VPNs work by adding a layer of encryption to the data that passes through your internet connection. There are many benefits of using a VPN — VPNs let you:

    1. Encrypt your internet connection.

    2. Secure your data over public Wi-Fi networks.

    3. Stream freely and get around location-based content blocks.

    4. Access blocked websites.

    5. Avoid internet censorship.

    6. Evade ISP tracking.

    7. Prevent price discrimination.

    Not only does a VPN connection encrypt your browsing and other web traffic; it can give you access to a freer internet by letting you configure your settings to alter your virtual online location. This combination of security and flexibility makes VPNs extremely versatile. Some people even use a VPN for gaming.

    You should use a VPN because it lets you secure your data over public Wi-Fi, access blocked websites and content, bypass internet censorship, prevent ISP tracking, and block price discrimination.

    Having explained the VPN basics, let’s discuss what a VPN is used for in more detail. VPNs strengthen your personal security and privacy online because they do the following:

    Encrypt your internet connection

    VPNs establish a secure connection to the internet by encrypting all your online traffic and routing it through a point-to-point connection between your device and the VPN server. 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.

    When you’re hooked up to an encrypted VPN network, not only is all your internet data shielded from hackers, but your true location and identity remain hidden from your internet service provider (ISP), the government, marketers, or anyone else who may be snooping on your local network.

    Secure data transfer

    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.

    Because a VPN connection encrypts your communication with its server, anyone trying to eavesdrop on the network will see only gibberish. That’s a big part of what VPN protection is: ensuring that no one can access your data. In fact, the original purpose of VPN technology was to connect remote workers with corporate networks, so that sensitive information could be shared safely.

    Securing your data with a VPN is particularly important for staying safe on free public Wi-Fi networks. Despite their convenience, there are many risks of public Wi-Fi, since anyone can hop onto an unsecured Wi-Fi network, and there’s no way to know exactly who’s connected at any given time (or what they’re doing). It’s all too easy for a hacker to sit on a public Wi-Fi network and intercept all the traffic flowing across it.

    Stream from anywhere

    Due to licensing restrictions, streaming platforms feature different content libraries in different countries around the world — this is known as geo-blocking. If you’re traveling abroad and want to keep up with your favorite shows from home, you may find that they’re unavailable in your current location.

    A VPN lets you bypass location-based content blocks when watching TV online by letting you connect to the best server location to suit your needs. If you’re traveling and pick your home country from the server list, you’ll be able to access all the content you normally would. And you can even equip your mobile device with a VPN, meaning you can truly stream from anywhere.

    A VPN let's 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 certain websites are blocked for certain reasons or because you’re in a particular location — such as while you’re at school or at work. VPNs get you around content blocks so you can access blocked websites, even if you’re somewhere that restricts access to certain sites.

    Your encrypted VPN connection tunnels right through any restrictions to bring you the websites and services you want, regardless of the content blocks on your network.

    Avoid censorship

    Many countries limit internet access. China blocks Google and Facebook and all their associated services, such as Gmail, Google Maps, WhatsApp, and Instagram. A VPN connection can get you around censorship blocks in the same way it can circumvent content geo-blocking and website restrictions by configuring your virtual IP address.

    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 for. And ISPs can use that information to throttle your bandwidth depending on your usage.

    Many people don’t understand how much leverage your ISP has over your data. In the UK, your ISP will store your online history for a year — that’s everything you read, watch, view, and click. And in the US, your ISP can store and sell your browsing history to the highest bidder — such as an advertising network, data broker, or subscription service — without your consent.

    Because of how a VPN works, it protects you from this kind of invasion of privacy. Since VPNs encrypt your device’s internet connection, your ISP can’t monitor exactly what you’re doing online, and they can’t see your browsing history.

    Prevent price discrimination

    Price discrimination, also called dynamic pricing, happens when ecommerce sites offer different prices for the same product to different people based on their location or perceived ability to pay. Online retailers use a variety of criteria to calculate the prices for visitors to their websites — device type along with demographic information such as your real-world location.

    Airlines are frequently accused of price discrimination, with flight prices changing depending on when you buy, where you are, and other factors. As well as allowing you to shop online more safely, using a virtual private network to give yourself an IP address in another part of the world means you can counteract location-based price discrimination.

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

    Why you should use a VPN

    VPNs offer the best protection against online snoops and hackers, and you should use one if you want to browse privately and securely. As well as encrypting your internet traffic, and keeping your online activity hidden, a VPN prevents anyone from finding your IP address by showing the public internet the IP address of the VPN server you’re using instead of your own.

    Your public IP address links your device to your ISP as well as to your geographic location, which enables geo-blocking, censorship, price-discrimination, and other content restrictions. Pair that IP masking with encryption, and a VPN helps keep your online activities fully private from ISPs, hackers, and government surveillance.

    AVG Secure VPN enhances your privacy by masking you and other VPN users behind a single, shared IP address. This 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 safe online.

    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.

    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. This hides your IP address and secures your data, preventing others from intercepting it.

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

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

    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 examines 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 the 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.

    OpenVPN

    Popular for its security and speed, OpenVPN is one of the leading VPN protocols. As an open-source protocol, its source code is available for anyone to verify.

    If exploitable vulnerabilities are found, they’re addressed quickly by the community of developers that support it. VPN connections that use open-source code also allow anyone to verify that the developers aren’t doing anything suspicious themselves.

    IKEv2

    IKEv2 (Internet Key Exchange version 2) is an efficient protocol usually combined with the IPsec protocol for security. Like OpenVPN, IKEv2 uses 256-bit encryption, and both can provide fast connections. IKEv2 is especially popular with mobile devices because it can easily switch between mobile data and Wi-Fi networks. But unlike OpenVPN, it isn’t open-source.

    L2TP

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

    PPTP

    PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol) is an obsolete and far less secure protocol still popular with 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.

    FAQs

    Why is online privacy so important?

    As our lives move online, the risk of exposing intimate personal data grows. Your personal information should be just that — personal. Without privacy protections, you’re exposing yourself to tracking by advertisers, your ISP, and your government, and the risk that you become a victim of identity theft or other cybercrimes increases.

    Can I still be tracked online when using a VPN?

    VPNs can prevent people from monitoring your online activity based on your IP address, but they can’t block other web tracking methods such as cookies and browser fingerprinting. And once you log into an account online, the site can still track your activity even if you’re using a VPN.

    Security and privacy extensions for Chrome and dedicated private browsers can block cookies and protect you against browser-based web and ad tracking, while a VPN insulates your data and hides your IP address.

    What does "no logging" mean?

    No logging means that your VPN network provider doesn’t keep any records of what you do while using the VPN. A no-log VPN provider won’t track or store any information sent over the VPN connection — they know only your IP address, payment information, and the VPN server you use while connected.

    Are VPNs free? And are free VPNs safe?

    Free VPNs are much less secure than premium VPN services. They typically replace subscription fees by showing you ads or by collecting and selling your 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.

    Are VPNs secure?

    A VPN service is as secure as its protocol. VPN services using the OpenVPN protocol leverage the same method of 256-bit encryption trusted by banks and governments around the world. But remember that a VPN 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 shouldn’t plan on using a VPN to protect against viruses, ransomware, spyware, or phishing attacks.

    How do I choose a VPN?

    You should choose a premium VPN that offers the security, stability, privacy, and connection speed you’re looking for. Many free VPN services simply cannot compete — you can expect ads, unreliable connections, or weaker security. They may also collect and sell your personal data.

    Other important factors include the number and location of servers offered, and whether the VPN service provides additional security features such as shared IP addresses that make it more difficult to identify the actions of any individual user. You should also get a VPN that includes a “kill switch” that shuts down your internet connection in case your VPN service is interrupted for any reason.

    Are VPNs legal?

    VPNs are legal in most countries, but not all. Some countries restrict VPN use, while others forbid certain types of content. But no matter where you are, using a VPN for criminal purposes is always illegal. While you’re unlikely to get into legal trouble for streaming through a VPN, your streaming content provider may block your account if you violate the service’s terms and conditions.

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

    A Smart DNS is a simple service for people who want to access geo-blocked content. But a Smart DNS doesn’t encrypt your internet connection, which means it won’t keep you safe on public Wi-Fi like a VPN will. This is just one of the many differences between a Smart DNS and a VPN.

    While Tor (The Onion Router) does encrypt internet traffic, when you compare Tor to a VPN, you’ll notice that Tor is very slow. And since its network is maintained by volunteers, using it to download or share large files is discouraged. A VPN service will give you much faster speeds, without limits on what you can do while connected.

    Should I always use a VPN?

    You can’t lose by keeping your VPN on at all times. The most important time to turn on your VPN is if you’re about to connect to an unsecured public Wi-Fi network. Without VPN protection, it’s possible someone else on that network can see what you’re doing and access your data.

    Will a VPN drain my battery?

    The more apps you have open at once, the more battery power they demand, whether you’re on your mobile device or your laptop. While your VPN app shouldn’t use a large amount of power, it will still consume a bit more of your battery life than if you weren’t using it. Some VPNs offer a battery-saver mode in the settings. If not, you can disconnect your VPN when you’re not actively using your device.

    Protect your privacy with a leading VPN you can trust

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

    Secure any Wi-Fi network, protect up to 10 computers and mobile devices with a single account, and stay anonymous online with AVG Secure VPN. Try it today with a 7-day free trial.

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    Ivan Belcic & Christina Edwards
    24-06-2022