What Is a VPN and How Do I Use One?

public internet

VPNs are affordable, legal, and a great way to keep your internet activity (mostly) away from prying eyes.

Have you ever sat down in a Starbucks and cracked open your laptop to get some work done on the public Wi-Fi connection? If you have, then you might not know how dangerous that can be. It’s easy for hackers to see everything you’re doing on that public network. And if they can see it, they can steal your private data—including passwords.

Whether you’re a Wi-Fi freeloader or not, it’s always a good idea to protect your online privacy. Even if you never leave your house and always use your own internet connection, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) give you an easy and effective extra layer of security so you can surf the web in peace.

What is a VPN?

You have a ton of VPN services to choose from, but all of them do basically the same thing: protect your online activity. VPNs hide your IP address and lock down all your private information so any bad folks (or sometimes even governments) can’t get to it.

Light Bulb icon

What's an IP address?

An IP address comes from your internet provider. It’s an exact address that attaches to everything you do online, whether that’s googling cat photos or emailing your boss. That also means that every online place you visit knows exactly where you’re located thanks to your IP address.

Maybe you’re not so worried about hackers but you are tired of Google knowing every single detail about your private online life. VPNs can help you there, too.

With a VPN, no one can tell where you are or what you’re doing—including search engines. Not even your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can look at your activity on their own. So if you really don’t want Xfinity to know your bank login (and who would), then a VPN keeps that info safe.

How does a VPN work?

Normally, when you visit a website, your info goes straight from your computer, phone, or tablet to a server that holds the website you want to look at.

Light Bulb icon

What's is a server?

A server is essentially a big computer that stores a lot of data. Every website in existence is stored on some server somewhere and all those websites’ servers put together help make up the internet.

That whole journey from your device to the website’s server is all out in the open for lots of people (or companies) to see. It’s like in eighth grade if you passed a note across the classroom without folding it. Everyone who touches the note to pass it on can see what it says.

Every website you visit or search engine you use can see your IP address (which has your location) and various other bits of information about you. VPNs lock that data down by serving as a middleman and routing your connection through their own servers first.

All that the website or search engine can see is the VPN’s information. So, yours is totally hidden. In this instance, it’s like passing your note across the classroom but the other kids couldn’t see what it said or who it is came from.

Heads Up icon

Heads up

Using a VPN can slow down your internet connection a bit because it has to route through an additional server. They also don’t work well with satellite internet.

VPNs also protect your data through encryption. Your VPN service encrypts all of the info you’re sending over the internet and protects it from everyone: your ISP, the government, marketers, hackers, or even your mom.

Encryption is a high-tech way to convert all your information into a secret code. Only the person (or computer) with the key to the code can read it. Because VPNs encrypt all of your information before you even access the internet, not even your ISP can see what you’re doing online.

It’s like folding that eighth grade note in some mega-complicated way that only the person you’re passing it to knows how to open.

Where are VPN servers located?

VPN servers can be anywhere in the world. They don’t have to be close to you or even in the same country as you.

Most VPN providers have dozens of servers around the globe so you can choose which city or country you want the internet to think you’re from.

Light Bulb icon

Good news

Since VPNs hide your location and make the internet believe you’re from somewhere else, you can use them to watch geo-blocked content. That means you can watch TV shows or sports games that aren’t normally available in your area.

Some VPN providers let you set up the service directly on your smart TV, but for whole-home coverage, we recommend setting it up on your internet router.

Is a VPN legal?

Short answer: yes, but not everywhere. VPNs are legal in the US, Canada, and most other Western countries.

There are some countries where VPNs are totally banned—mostly countries with super-restrictive governments like Iran, North Korea, China, and Russia.

Light Bulb icon

Warning

Even though VPNs themselves are legal, that doesn’t mean you can use them to do absolutely anything you want. You can’t (or at least shouldn’t) use a VPN to do stuff online that is against the law, like buy drugs or look at illegal adult content. Illegal things are still illegal, no matter how you access them.
Some VPN providers let you set up the service directly on your smart TV, but for whole-home coverage, we recommend setting it up on your internet router.

Keep in mind, the legality of your VPN depends on where you are at any given moment, not where you’re from. You can’t hop on your VPN during your relaxing vacation in Pyongyang just because it’s legal in your home country.

VPN providers have to follow the laws of the countries they’re located in. For example, if your VPN provider is located in a country where the government could legally make VPNs hand over information, then your VPN could potentially have to hand over your personal information. Even if you personally don’t live in the same country as your VPN provider, your info could still be compromised.

How to choose a VPN provider

Different VPNs use different methods to keep your data away from the baddies. Some of these methods (called “protocols”) are more secure than others. You don’t need to know the technical details of how each protocol works (unless you really want to). You just need to know which ones are the most secure.

Somewhat secure VPN protocols:

  • Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP): PPTP is one of the oldest protocols around—Microsoft developed it in the 1990s. PPTP gives you a really fast connection and it works even on older devices. But its security isn’t the best—it can be cracked.

Secure VPN protocols:

  • Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol with IPsec (L2TP/IPsec): L2TP/IPsec is a little bit newer than PPTP, and it’s more secure, but it’s also slower. Some websites that use firewalls might also block your L2TP/IPsec connection, which is annoying.

Extremely secure VPN protocols:

  • Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP): SSTP is super secure but works only on Windows devices, so you can’t use it on your Macbook or iPhone. On the bright side, SSTP doesn’t get blocked by firewalls as much as L2TP/IPsec.
  • Internet Key Exchange, Version 2 (IKEv2): You can use IKEv2 on basically any device (except Linux-based systems) and it’s very secure. It’s also faster than some other protocols like L2TP/IPsec.
  • OpenVPN: OpenVPN wins all the protocol prizes. It’s fast and it’s extremely secure. You can also configure it for either more security or more speed, depending on which is more important to you.

You can look at various VPN providers and see which protocols they use. Keep in mind, which ones you can use will also depend on what type of device you have.

One more thing: when you look for a VPN provider, it’s best to choose one that keeps “no logs.” That means it doesn’t keep any records of who you are or your online activity.

If your VPN provider does keep logs, then there’s a record of you somewhere in the world and it could potentially get out.

What are some suggested VPN providers?

There are some free VPNs, but we recommend paying for one if you want to ensure your data is kept secure and your VPN provider isn’t selling it on the side. They’re usually not very expensive—most cost less than $10 per month.

Recap

VPNs are super useful for protecting your privacy from hackers, search engines, the government, or anyone else you don’t want watching you on the internet. They stand between you and the websites you visit so your data isn’t as vulnerable to leaks and theft.

We recommend installing your VPN service directly on your router so it covers your entire private network, and you should definitely use a VPN anytime you use a public Wi-Fi network to get on the internet.

Do you use a VPN service? Do you think it’s worth it for privacy protection? Let us know in the comments!