How does a VPN work?

A straightforward breakdown of what a VPN, how it works, and why you might want one.

What is a VPN?

Virtual private network (VPN) software is built to create a private network connection while using public internet. This is like the logic of your local network – the wired and wireless connections in your home – and the public network (the internet via a provider) that your local network connects to in order to get all of the connected devices on your local network online.

But a public network may also be a coffee shop, a friend’s local network or at a big event where hundreds or even thousands of people are connected to the same network. Using a VPN in any of these settings helps to make your online activities virtually untraceable, protecting your privacy often via thousands of server options around the world.

How does a VPN work?

Local networks use private internet protocol (IP) addresses for your devices, usually automatically assigned by a router or modem-router, but a single public-facing IP address is used to connect a local network to the internet.

VPNs mask your public-facing IP address by redirecting internet traffic through a remote server that acts as a VPN host. As far as the internet is concerned, all of your internet usage via a VPN is coming from the remote server rather than your own public IP address, so providers and other online third parties can’t see what you’re doing.

How does a VPN protect me?

We’ve explained what a VPN is, but here’s why you need one. VPNs have to be active to protect, and they can be installed on individual devices – including computers and mobile devices – as well as at a local network level, as long as your router or modem-router supports this.

Activated on an individual device, a VPN will mask the internet goings-on of that device only. If it’s activated at a local network level, as long as the VPN is active, all devices connected to the local network will have their online activities masked. A VPN can also be used to block intrusive or potentially dangerous online ads, too.

By masking your public IP address, a VPN effectively anonymises all of your internet activities as long as it’s connected. This means that your browsing history won’t be visible by your provider or other third parties. It may be less of a concern on your home internet connection, but because anyone can connect to a public WiFi hotspot, these sorts of connections can expose your devices to hackers, and a VPN effectively puts your devices in the ‘too hard’ basket because it’s not as easily accessible.

How does a VPN work for Netflix?

VPNs have many uses, such as connecting to a very specific and authenticated work network from an outside network, but one of the more popular recent uses of VPNs is to access overseas streaming services and libraries that are normally geoblocked. Geoblocking is one of the ways that online services can protect licensing agreements for content that’s only intended to be accessible in certain regions.

With Netflix, for example, the library you have access to is determined by the region you’re connecting from. While certain titles are identical, Australia has a different Netflix library to America, Ireland and Malaysia (to name a few). Netflix uses your public IP address to determine which library you should have access to, which means if you’re traveling with a device, you’ll notice the library change based on the country you’re in.

A VPN can effectively spoof your location by connecting to a server in a different country, which gives your device an IP address from that country, so you can then access that region’s Netflix library. Keep in mind that VPNs tend to slow internet traffic – and the farther away the server, the slower the internet traffic – which can impact overall streaming quality. Oh, and using a VPN to bypass geoblocking is a big no-no as far as Netflix’s terms of service are concerned.

Can a VPN help with gaming?

Yes and no. VPNs are great for privacy but connecting to an external server also tends to increase your latency. The farther away your internet connection is from the VPN server you’re connecting to, the higher the latency. Higher latency can also introduce factors like packet loss, which can lead to an online gaming experience that’s anything but smooth.

That said, if your provider already has high latency, it may be the result of bad network routing, wherein your connection to a game server is jumping along an inefficient path of servers, thereby increasing your latency. A VPN may help improve your online gaming latency in this instance, particularly if you’re playing games on international servers.

How does a VPN work on iPhone and Android?

To use a VPN on a computer, you download and install the software, enter your credentials, then connect either automatically or manually to a server of your choice. On iOS and Android smartphones and tablets, VPNs are apps that you download and install, enter your credentials, then connect automatically or manually to a server.

The good news is more and more VPN services support a range of devices and multiple device connections, which means you can feasibly use a VPN single subscription to protect computers and mobile devices in your home. For instance, CyberGhost lets you use up to seven simultaneous devices, NordVPN allows up to six, while ExpressVPN is capped at five. If you want to protect all of your family’s devices, Surfshark allows for unlimited devices.