VPNs for Beginners – What You Need to Know
VPN technology was originally developed to allow remote workers to securely connect to corporate networks in order to access corporate resources when away from the office.
Although VPN is still used in this way.
the term now usually refers to commercial VPN services that allow customers to access the internet privately through their servers.
This article (and the Recommendedvpn website)
deals exclusively with these commercial VPN services.
use of the term VPN here should not be confused with private corporate networks.
which are an entirely different kettle of fish (despite similarities, and crossovers in the underlying technology.)
How does it work?
when you connect to the internet you first connect to your Internet Service Provider (ISP),
which then connects you to any websites (or other internet resources) that you wish to visit.
All your internet traffic passes through your ISP’s servers and can be viewed by your ISP.
When using VPN you connect to a server run by your VPN provider
(a “VPN server”) via an encrypted connection (sometimes referred to as a “VPN tunnel”).
This means that all data traveling between your computer
VPN server is encrypted so that only you and the VPN server can “see” it.
This setup has a number of important consequences:
1. Your ISP cannot know what you get up to on the internet
- It cannot see your data because it is encrypted
- It cannot know which websites (etc.) you visit because all internet activity is routed through the VPN server. Your ISP can only see that you are connected to the VPN server.
- Your ISP can only see that you are connected to the VPN server.
- You appear to access the internet from the IP address of the VPN server
If the VPN server is located in a different country to you.
then as far as the internet is concerned you are located in that country
(most VPN services run servers located in many different countries).
Anyone monitoring your internet activity from the internet will only be able to trace it back to the VPN server.
so unless the VPN provider hands over your details (more on this later).
your real IP address is hidden.
This means that websites etc. cannot see your true IP address (just that of the server).
3. It is safe to use public WiFi hotspots
Because the internet connection between your device and the VPN server is encrypted.
Even if a hacker somehow manages to intercept your data.
for example by tricking you into connecting to an “evil twin” hotspot or packet-sniffing your WiFi data.
the data is safe because it is encrypted.
4. Your VPN provider can know what you get up to on the internet
You are therefore shifting trust away from your ISP (which has no interest in, or commitment to
protecting your privacy) to your VPN provider who usually promises to protect your privacy
More privacy-minded VPN services mitigate this issue by employing various technical measures to know as little as they can about you. More on this later.
- Your internet will slow down because:
Encrypting and decrypting data requires processing power.
This also means that, technically, the stronger the encryption used, the slower your internet access.
However, given the power of modern computers, this issue is relatively minor compared to…
The extra distance traveled by your data.
Using VPN always introduces another leg to the journey that your data has to travel
(i.e. to the VPN server), and thanks to the laws of physics, the further your data has to travel, the longer it takes.
If you connect to VPN server located geographically nearby in order to access a website also located nearby.
then you can expect around a 10 percent hit to the internet speed you get without using VPN.
If you connect to a server half way across the planet, you should expect a much greater hit.
It is also a case that some VPN providers do better than others when it comes to speed performance.
which is why every review we publish includes detailed speed tests.
This is due to factors such as server processing power.
available bandwidth, and load (how many other people are using the server at the same time as you).
All other things being equal.
for best performance when using VPN you should connect to the VPN server closest to the website or service you wish to use.
and then as close as possible to your own location.
For example, if I want to access US Netflix from the UK I would connect to a server located in the US.
but as close as possible to the UK (somewhere on the northern East Coast, such a New York, would be ideal).
See our top 5 fast and reliable VPNs now >
Is it legal?
Yes. In most countries citizens have a legal right to privacy
as far as I know simply using a VPN service is illegal pretty much nowhere.
More repressive countries such as China and Iran.
who understandably do not like the unrestricted and largely unaccountable access to the internet that VPN allows
Do ban VPN services from operating in their country, and attempt to block users from accessing overseas VPN services.
Even in China, however, which has the most sophisticated internet censorship system in the world.
such blocks are only partially successful (and we have yet to hear of anybody getting into trouble just for using VPN).
In Europe, the threat of terrorism has been seized on by a number governments to introduce wide-ranging surveillance laws.
in many countries (such as France and the UK) VPN providers are required to keep logs of users’ activity.
VPN users looking for privacy should, therefore, avoid any services based in such countries.
use servers located in countries where logs are not legally required.
So… am I “safe” if I use VPN?
Using a good no logs VPN service does provide a high degree of privacy.
It will protect you from blanket government surveillance.
prevent your ISP knowing what you get up to on the internet, prevent you being tracked by copyright owners when pirating stuff.
will even provide a fair bit of protection when engaged in low-level criminal activities.
It will not, however, protect you if the police, your government, or the NSA.
are specifically interested in you, and are willing to spend time and resources investigating what you do on the internet.
Journalists, whistleblowers, and others who need a very high level of anonymity should therefore use
Tor instead (although VPN through Tor does provide some concrete benefits).
How secure am I?
VPN protects your data using encryption.
I have two core articles discussing VPN encryption and the various terms used to describe it.
They are rather technical for this beginners guide, but if the subject interests you then please do check them out:
PPTP vs L2TP vs OpenVPN vs SSTP vs IKEv2.
VPN encryption terms explained (AES vs RSA vs SHA etc.)
The TL: DR version, however, is to use OpenVPN (or maybe IKEv2) wherever possible.
L2TP/IPsec is fine, but PPTP should be avoided at all costs (in my view it is irresponsible for a provider to even offer customers PPTP as an option!).
As a point of reference, the minimum default settings for the OpenVPN protocol are:
Hash authentication: SHA-1
This is more than sufficient for most users.
but if you are the sort of person who worries about the NSA.
then my minimum recommendation for a “secure” VPN connection that should be resistant to any known form of attack for the foreseeable future is:
VPN Protocol: OpenVPN with Perfect Forward Secrecy enabled
Hash authentication: SHA256
Does VPN work on mobile devices?
VPN is well-supported on the iOS and Android platforms, and as with desktop computers will encrypt your data and hide your IP address for all internet connections.
When accessing websites through your website’s browser for P2P downloading, therefore, you are fully protected when using a VPN.
However… mobile apps have many ways other than your IP address to determine your identity and know what you are doing online.
Apps often have access to GPS data, contact lists, Google Play/Apple Store ID, and more.
Many apps send this and all sorts of other personal data directly to their parent companies (thereby bypassing your VPN).
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the ads used in many apps as a way for developers to monetize their product are whole privacy nightmare just by themselves!
To gain the full benefits of VPN on a mobile device you should, therefore, access websites and services via their web page or web interface using your browser
(preferably the open source and privacy-friendly Firefox), rather than through dedicated apps.
Please always be aware, however, that smartphones
(even more than WiFi-only tablets) are inherently insecure, and it is very little you can really do to make them secure.
Check out our current top VPNs we have tested please click HERE