VPN is an abbreviation you’ve likely heard bandied about with considerably more regularity in recent years - there's even an International VPN Day now - but you still might be unsure of what one actually is and asking the question: "So what is a VPN, anyway?"
In the simplest terms, a VPN - or Virtual Private Network - is a way of keeping yourself secure and anonymous online, while also helping you get around apps and services that may have been blocked where you are. Pretty handy!
How does it do all this? That’s what we’re going to address here, explaining the basics of what a VPN is, what they do and the most popular VPN uses, as well as looking at how they work in a bit more depth. We’ll also discuss why you might want one – and indeed potential downsides to a VPN – and how to get one of these services up and running if you wish. And by the end, we assure you you'll understand fully the meaning of VPN and which to get.
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VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. As that name suggests, a VPN service creates a kind of private network – a link between your device and a remote computer somewhere else in the world owned by the VPN provider (known as a VPN server). This link is commonly referred to as a ‘tunnel’ and your data travels down it encrypted, giving you security. The linked server effectively becomes a ‘virtual’ part of your home network, hence it’s a Virtual Private Network.
What is a VPN... in 30 seconds?
When you go online, you’re constantly sending out data, and receiving data back. You might request a picture, for example, then receive that image as a download. Normally, data travels from your device straight out onto the internet effectively naked, and can be viewed by your Internet Service Provider (ISP), or possibly others if intercepted.
When using a VPN, you install client software on your device, and this hooks up with the software on the VPN provider’s server elsewhere. These two apps create a link – an encrypted ‘tunnel’ – between them, and your data goes down that instead, before heading out onto the internet.
This way, your ISP, or anyone else who might seek to intercept and view the data, won’t be able to make any sense of it because it’s encoded. Furthermore, the origin of the data appears to be the VPN server – the exit point of your ‘virtual network’ – and not your own device, and this has benefits in terms of online anonymity.
What is a VPN and how do they actually work?
Building on what we just discussed, a good VPN will likely have thousands of servers, based in dozens of countries across the globe. When you start the VPN client software on your machine, you choose to connect to one of these many VPN servers via the aforementioned encrypted tunnel.
Incidentally, that encryption can come in a number of different forms, known as VPN protocols. Any of the best VPNs out there will use a modern highly secure protocol, as you’d expect, with that often being OpenVPN (but there are other good choices including the new WireGuard, as well as some providers who have their own proprietary protocols, like the NordVPN's NordLynx and the aforementioned ExpressVPN’s Lightway).
So, the benefit from robust encryption is super-tight security, and the benefit of having a choice of thousands of servers is the ability to change your location with all manner of options. As mentioned, the VPN connection will make it seem like the VPN computer (server) is where your data is coming from, and not your own PC. Therefore, to all intents and purposes, you will actually look like you’re based in that location – hiding your true location and giving anonymity. Furthermore, you can gain access to content that might otherwise be blocked in your home country (we’ll discuss that in a moment).
For a more in-depth look at exactly how all this happens, see our dedicated article on how a VPN works.
What is a VPN for and why do I need one?
There are many uses for a VPN that you can benefit from, alongside the obvious boon of beefing up your security – because your data is encrypted, even if it is viewed or somehow intercepted, it’ll mean nothing because it’s scrambled and unintelligible. That means you’re much safer even in riskier online scenarios, like using public Wi-Fi which can be insecure and a potentially dicey proposition for various reasons.
As we’ve seen, staying anonymous online is also a compelling benefit of a VPN, hiding the real identity (and location) of your computer, and stopping any actions being traced back to you. This isn’t just useful for folks who may be engaging in, say, copyright-infringing downloads – which obviously we don’t condone – but also those who simply prefer not to be tracked by advertisers or other third-parties.
Unblocking content is another biggie that we just touched upon. Because a VPN can allow you to appear to be in a different country, you can access services that would otherwise be geo-blocked. For example, if you live in the UK, and want to stream a show on US Netflix that isn’t shown in the UK, you can simply connect to, say, the New York server of your VPN. This means that you will appear to be using a computer in New York, and can therefore view that US content (in theory – VPNs aren’t 100% bulletproof in this respect). It's no wonder that so many people search the web for the 'best Netflix VPN' day-in day-out.
A VPN can also be used to bypass content restrictions if you live in – or are visiting – a place where the authorities impose censorship (so you can still get on your social media sites while on holiday in a country where they’re banned, for example).
There are small extra bonuses, too, where using a VPN could potentially save you money in certain circumstances, like, for example, booking a flight. You might get cheaper prices by appearing to be from a different country, because airlines can adjust their pricing depending on where they think you’re from (and reportedly factors like repeated viewing of the same flight: if you see the price is going up when you revisit, you might be coerced into buying – but the anonymity a VPN provides stops this kind of tracking).
What are the disadvantages of VPN?
The first obvious downside of using a VPN is that it could slow down the performance of your internet connection. That's particularly the case when using servers in far-flung countries, as the distance of the server matters.
While that might sound drastic, the reality is that in most cases, any performance impact will probably not be that noticeable – certainly with the top VPNs which we fully test for performance in our reviews. Even with a more average VPN in speed terms, with some careful choice of servers, you probably won’t notice much, if any, difference in everyday computing either. The main scenario where you might want to switch off a VPN is online gaming, an area that’s very sensitive in terms of latency. Although gaming VPNs certainly have their uses, too!
Another potential thorny area is that while using a VPN means your ISP can no longer snoop on your data, instead that data is going through the VPN provider’s system, and an unscrupulous VPN could play fast and loose with your data. Every VPN will insist that it maintains your privacy, though (it’d hardly say otherwise – that’s why you’re signing up, after all!), and claim not to keep any ‘logs’. They're small bits of logged data relating to the service, which can – but hopefully shouldn’t – include how you use it.
A clear ‘no logging’ policy is a must for watertight privacy, then, but how can you trust that a VPN is actually true to its word, and doesn’t keep any potentially privacy-trampling logs? There’s one sure-fire way, and that’s to pick a VPN service that has had its security levels and policies independently audited – some of the top providers are already doing this.
In short, most of the potential disadvantages of adopting a VPN can be neatly swerved around by choosing a highly-rated and trusted provider.
How do I get a VPN?
Having made the decision that you want to take the plunge with a VPN, the first step is to pick a provider. You’ll find plenty of guidance on this, and we’ve got a great resource in our best VPN services roundup.
When you’ve made a choice, it’s simply a matter of heading to the VPN provider’s website, where you can sign up for a subscription plan. Yearly plans offer the best value – particularly multi-year contracts – but of course you’re making more of a commitment in these cases. Some providers will offer a VPN free trial of some kind, which is great for giving the VPN a spin before committing at all (also keep an eye out for money-back guarantees, which can effectively act as a trial).
There are free VPN services, too, but these are often limited in many ways, or have other hidden costs.
Once you’ve signed up and created your account, you’ll need to download the VPN client app, and install it. Just start the app and you can connect to a VPN server and immediately benefit from tighter online security (plus all the other boons we’ve covered here). When you first fire up the VPN app, there could be a little setup to go through, but don’t worry – we’ve got you covered on that front with further advice on how to set up a VPN right here.
Is it illegal to have a VPN?
No, there is nothing illegal about using a VPN. However, there can be a bit of confusion around this area because some people use VPNs to cover up the fact that they’re doing something illegal. Obviously, though, the use of the VPN isn’t the illegal thing – it’s the activity which breaks the law, and that would remain true whether the perpetrator was a VPN user or not.
While in the vast majority of countries, VPN usage is perfectly legal, the caveat is that a small number of regimes across the globe have banned VPNs. If you travel to these places – or live there – obviously you would have to respect the law or potentially face the consequences. Using a VPN in China is the most obvious example of a country where VPNs are banned, but even here, there are no actual reports of visiting travelers being arrested for using a VPN.