What is a VPN? The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide
Dec 23, 2021
In 2020 over 150 million people were affected by data breaches. It was a slow year for stolen data, but this is still a shocking number.
In 2020 over 150 million people were affected by data breaches. It was a slow year for stolen data, but this is still a shocking number. The point is this: protecting your personal data needs to be your priority. You can do this by investing in a VPN.
So, what is a VPN? A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a private tunnel to access the public internet. A VPN protects your information from internet service providers, criminals, and the government.
Below, we will discuss everything you need to know about VPNs to make an informed decision. Is a VPN right for you? Find out the answer to this question below.
What Does a VPN Do?How Does a VPN Protect your IP Address and Privacy?Why Do You Need a VPN?The History of VPNsWhat are the Benefits of a VPN Connection?How Does a VPN Work?How to set up a VPN?Establishing a Built-In VPN Connection on a Windows PCHow to Install a VPN Connection on Your Computer (PC or Mac)How to Install a VPN Connection on Your Smartphone (Android or iOS)How do VPN Servers Operate? (Step By Step)Different Types of VPNsRemote Access VPNs / Client VPNsSite-To-Site (Client-to-Client) VPNsBrowser Extension VPNsRouter VPNsCompany VPNsTypes of VPN Encryption ProtocolsPPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling)OpenVPNWireGuardIKE (IKEv2)L2TPList of VPN PricesFree VPN vs. Paid VPN – Which is Better?How To Choose The Best VPN For Me?Look for “No Logs” VPNsA VPN Kill-Switch FeatureVPN Server LocationsLook for a Quality CipherAlternatives to VPNTor Browsers and Privacy BrowsersIncognito Mode with Immediate Cookies DeletionAn Onion RouterZero Trust NetworksWrap Up – Are VPNs Worth It?How These Addresses WorkWhat Your IP Address Can Reveal About YouPublic vs. Private AddressesWhat is the relationship between a public address and a web domain?Static vs. Dynamic IPsHow Can I Find Out What My IP Address is?Finding Your IP on WindowsFinding Your Address on MacFinding Your IP on Android and iOS Mobile DevicesFinding Your Address on LinuxHow to Change Your IP AddressConclusion – How To Protect Your IP
What Does a VPN Do?
A VPN helps you out by doing the following:
- It prevents third-party groups from accessing your data.
- VPNs enable you to access a network tunnel to a server in an alternate location.
- A VPN encrypts your data into a garbled mess that third parties cannot translate.
- It protects you from your ISP, government agencies, and would-be criminals
- A VPN hides your IP address behind another server IP address
- It fools websites into thinking you are from another country to access blocked content
- It circumvents blocked content is heavily restrictive countries
How Does a VPN Protect your IP Address and Privacy?
A VPN gives you a new IP address. Typically, the network locations and servers you connect to are nearby (or overseas) places. Where you want your connection is up to you.
The new IP address you have shows the “fake” location to whoever is trying to access your data. So a VPN masks your current IP address and replaces it with a new one.
This IP concealment, combined with data encryption, protects most forms of data from escaping. While this won’t help you if you have a Google account logged in or an active Facebook profile, it will protect other forms of data.
Why Do You Need a VPN?
You need a VPN to defend yourself from those who use your information without your permission. For example, selling your information to third-party entities so that they might send you spam emails.
Data packets travel back and forth between you (the client) and the server (website, game, torrent connection, etc.) anytime you do anything with the internet. Typically, those packets contain information that enables third-party entities to use your information against you.
The most common use of these is programmatic advertising, a directly targeted form of advertising based on data. For example, shopping for new boots on Amazon is typically followed by advertisements on the same (and similar) boots on other sites.
You might not like them using this information, which is where a VPN comes in.
Protecting this data can be incredibly helpful when using public, unencrypted networks. For example, you might want to access your local wi-fi at Starbucks, but you have no idea who might be watching this data.
The alternative use of VPNs is to circumvent government sponsorship. Countries like China are well known for hiding “unwelcome ideas.” If you don’t believe in government censorship, VPNs are one way to get around it.
The Five Eyes (FVEY) alliance allows countries to take your data for government tracking, even in the US. If you don’t feel that government entities and ISPs have a right to your data, a VPN is one way to protect yourself.
The History of VPNs
The first VPN was made by Gurdeep Singh-Pall, who started development on the first VPN protocol: the Peer to Peer Tunneling Protocol (PPTP). You can trace it back to Microsoft in 1996, where these tunneling protocols were a method of encrypting a single connection between computers.
The early days only had the small-scale peer-to-peer VPN, one of the earliest forms. This peer-to-peer system is primarily useful when protecting corporate internets with simple LAN server connections. We will go through other VPN forms later in this article.
By 2000, the specification for this system was widespread, enabling anyone to use VPNs on their home computer. However, it didn’t reach peak popularity until after 2013, where Edward Snowden released numerous classified NSA documents related to the FVEY and monitoring efforts.
The exposure was related to several ethical concerns about government monitoring and those behind these activities. Eventually, it led to a much higher emphasis on protecting personal data from government watchdogs and third-party groups.
What are the Benefits of a VPN Connection?
Here is a quick roundup of the benefits of using a VPN connection:
- It protects your online activities and personal data from people who don’t need to know
- VPNs provide security when using public wi-fi networks
- It provides you with a secure connection to sites that might not be secure
- It enables you to use a VPN tunnel to connect to previously restricted content
- VPNs protect you against identity theft when used correctly
- It covers your actual location from hackers and ISPs
- It gives you access to more TV programs on Netflix, Android TV, and other networks
There are numerous reasons to set up a secure connection with a VPN. Provided you don’t expect this security to apply when logged in on Facebook or Google; you are working with the right expectations.
How Does a VPN Work?
A VPN works by following this multi-step process:
- Your VPN software encrypts your data and sends it to a VPN server
- The VPN server unencrypts your data and re-encrypts it. The re-encrypted data contains new information from the new server.
- The re-encrypted data returns to you and leaves your VPN software.
- The VPN software decrypts enough of your data to be usable (like location requests).
- The useless encrypted data goes to all who would generally request it, still granting you access to the internet without providing personal information.
A good VPN service can offer online security, anonymity, and freedom to access previously restricted information through this. A VPN securely connects through multiple VPN protocols, which we will discuss later.
How to set up a VPN?
There are two forms of setting up a VPN:
- Downloading software
- Using your computer’s limited features
In most cases, you’ll find that downloading VPN programs is your safest option. This download process is typical because these include a variety of location-based services hiding your IP address.
Windows is not built with hiding your information in mind. Microsoft is another large, data-driven company.
Regardless, we will go through both options below:
Establishing a Built-In VPN Connection on a Windows PC
Under both Windows 10 and 11, you can follow these steps to establish a VPN connection:
- Click the “Start” button and access Network and Internet Settings
- Find the tab that says “VPN.”
- Click “Add a VPN Connection”
- Choose “Windows” for VPN provider
- Enter the address for your VPN server
- Type in the sign-in info for your credentials to access the server
Of course, this assumes that you are accessing an off-site server. Typically, this means your company has an internal VPN to encrypt all outgoing and incoming data.
The alternative option is to have a server located somewhere in the country to house this software. Because this isn’t everyday use, you’ll need to install a third-party application like FastVPN.
Below are the steps you can follow for establishing this connection on your computer.
How to Install a VPN Connection on Your Computer (PC or Mac)
To get started using almost any VPN connection, you can follow these four steps:
- Download and install a VPN service that works for your device
- Open the VPN app and familiarize yourself with the interface
- Find out what server appeals to you and click the connect button
- Let the VPN allow you to connect to the new location
The connect button will select a server based on the fastest available by default. This typically means the closest, so you should be able to scroll through various server location options (depending on your app).
How to Install a VPN Connection on Your Smartphone (Android or iOS)
Whether you install your app on Android or iOS, the process is the same. The difference is that you will want to start your exploration at your application storefront.
How do VPN Servers Operate? (Step By Step)
Here is a step-by-step on what VPN servers do with your data:
- The VPN server takes your computer data and aligns it with account data to be sure you can access their services
- The VPN server needs to decrypt your data to confirm it is you.
- Once confirmed, the VPN server makes it seem like your data is now their data by replacing your IP address based on location and other information.
- The VPN re-encrypts your data using an algorithm to determine how to scramble your data. (this can be something as simple as switching out letters for other letters)
- Once the data is re-encrypted using the internal program, it returns to your VPN application, where it partially decrypts again to determine where it needs to go (what website or server to access).
The encryption process is known as a cipher, which the algorithm uses to understand how to encrypt. Decryption is the process of applying that cipher to find out what the data translates to.
In the case of peer-to-peer connections (which aren’t VPN applications), the data encrypts using a program from the computer. Because this is an older form of communication, encryption is typically weak and easy to crack using the right programs.
The process of extending that private network (through servers of multiple computers/clients) is known as VPN tunneling.
So when thinking of a VPN, think of a very long tunnel. Nobody can drive through the tunnel wall because there are no intersections. However, you can move into the tunnel without worrying about another car. Another automobile might come crashing into yours and take some of your vehicle (data) with them without the tunnel.
Different Types of VPNs
There are many VPNs, with the two most popular being remote and site-to-site. However, there are more VPN types we will discuss below. We will start with the basics:
Remote Access VPNs / Client VPNs
Remote-access VPNs are when you access a virtual private network via an application on your computer. Through installation as software on your computer, they work to encrypt all forms of data.
A client VPN can be beneficial if you access the internet through means beyond a browser (i.e., torrent sites, gaming, applications). Be sure that the application is on before you access any online material.
Another form of Client VPN is the mobile version associated with installing a smartphone application. These smartphone application VPNs are no different from any Client VPN but might have extra features if you look in the settings.
Site-To-Site (Client-to-Client) VPNs
Site-to-site VPNs are unique connections set up between two clients. Typically, no server is involved, as it involves a direct connection between your computer and the next computer to secure data.
These VPNs are typically best with secure data that you should only access in limited scopes. You won’t see these at coffee shops or available through a hotspot.
Browser Extension VPNs
Browser extension VPNs are another form of client VPN specifically associated with internet browsers. The most popular browsers you see this for are Google Chrome and Firefox.
In cases where you regularly access internet data from a browser, these can be incredibly helpful. However, activating your Client VPN and your browser-based VPN is redundant and will likely slow your computer down.
Also, some browser-based VPNs do not have any VPN features, acting more as a proxy server. Check the features of any application you download before relying on it.
Many VPN services enable you to download applications directly on your router. This software is efficient in cases where you want to encrypt data coming from your home network or company.
Router VPNs are less popular because they require technical knowledge to set up. However, installing it the right way the first time can secure your entire household efficiently.
Company VPNs involve a complete network of Client VPNs, Router VPNs, and Mobile VPNs. The only difference is that these encrypt data across all company devices.
Company VPNs might come with some warranty or guarantee regarding data protection. Otherwise, these are no different from being a small business and just having a VPN.
Types of VPN Encryption Protocols
There are several major VPN Protocols worth talking about:
PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling)
PPTP is the most basic form of a peer-to-peer connection made by Microsoft in 1996. It is not in use today due to numerous security issues
OpenVPN is an open-source VPN connection through OpenSSL or TLS for encryption. It is a widespread protocol that is quickly being overtaken by the next one:
WireGuard is another free, open-source protocol known for being incredibly fast. Like OpenVPN, it is under consistent support from developers with many applications.
The Internet Key Exchange (IKE) is widespread and works with IPSec due to the two coming from the same development. IKE is well-known for its use with Cisco networks and automatically restored connections, making for more consistency.
Layer 2 Tunnel Protocol comes with IPSec because it has no encryption features. However, IPSec is secure enough in its own right, making this more of a combo among multiple protocols.
List of VPN Prices
When it comes to the top VPN providers, here is a list of prices you should expect:
- FastVPN – Free
- SurfShark – $12. 95 per month ($2.21 / mo for two years)
- NordVPN – $11.95 per month ($4.95 / mo per yr)
- ExpressVPN – $12.95 per month ($8.32 /mo per yr)
- ProtonVPN – $24 per month (from $48 to $72 per year)
One might ask why you would pay for something you can get for free? Below, we will get that question answered.
Free VPN vs. Paid VPN – Which is Better?
When choosing between paid VPNs and free options, which is better? Admittedly, there is a stigma with free VPNs due to some selling your data.
If someone tells you that free VPNs are unsafe, they are wrong. Unsafe VPNs are unsafe, so be picky with the VPN service you use and check the public reputation. Paid things aren’t automatically better.
How To Choose The Best VPN For Me?
The best VPN for you depends on your priorities. Here are some good things to look out for across all VPNs:
Look for “No Logs” VPNs
A VPN that keeps your connection logs and internet history won’t help you. “No logs” VPNs will know when you get into the server, and that’s it. Stick with VPN programs that protect your privacy and destroy your internet history.
A VPN Kill-Switch Feature
A kill-switch feature protects you with an extra layer in case of a DNS leak. A DNS leak occurs when your VPN server suddenly shuts down, unencrypting your connection for a moment.
The kill switch disables your internet automatically, preventing you from getting exposed data.
VPN Server Locations
Try and look for VPN servers in countries that appeal to you. If you plan on overcoming TV restrictions, you might look for those programs in other countries.
Otherwise, you might seek nearby server locations or more server locations just to be more secure. Often, VPNs will automatically connect to the fastest server. A nearby server can still be incredibly safe due to data encryption.
Look for a Quality Cipher
A cipher encrypts and decrypts the data sent between servers and clients. Look for mentions of encryption protocols like AES-256, SHA-256 3DES, and CAST-128.
Without getting too technical, those are all respected methods of encrypting data. You should also look for companies that perform regular updates.
Alternatives to VPN
Alongside VPNs, here are some alternatives you can use to enhance your security further. You can use these alternatives instead of VPNs, but they are best alongside VPNs for extra protection. :
Tor Browsers and Privacy Browsers
Tor browsers are an alternative to standard browsers that go through the onion network. The onion network is similar to VPN servers due to passing through multiple encrypted servers. However, Tor Browers (or privacy browsers) do not apply to traffic outside of browsers, so they are ineffective for alternative uses.
Incognito Mode with Immediate Cookies Deletion
You can use settings inside most non-privacy browsers to prevent tracking through immediate deletions. Combined with incognito mode, these settings can avoid a lot of tracking. However, not all websites will follow your request not to follow them, so a VPN is still a better alternative.
An Onion Router
An onion router uses the same system as the Tor network, only applied to the router. Given that these are similar to VPNs, you might think them a good alternative. However great the Tor Project is, the servers are pretty slow. You can expect VPNs to be faster.
Zero Trust Networks
Zero Trust Networks apply to network settings where nobody is trusted. As a result, there are numerous restrictions, often slowing and bottlenecking features.
This, combined with VPNs on your computer, can result in an overall incredibly secure experience. However, you will need to keep your security settings up to date, and you won’t be able to enjoy online gaming.
Wrap Up – Are VPNs Worth It?
In the world of online security, losing your credit card information or getting your identity stolen seems inevitable. However, a secure VPN tunnel can remove many of these common risks, adding a layer of security at home and on the go.
In this way, we invite you to try FastVPN, which emphasizes a secure experience that doesn’t sacrifice your speed.
We hope this article helps you out when understanding what a VPN does.
How These Addresses Work
An IP is assigned randomly based on TCP/IP protocol. It is most familiar as a 32-bit number with four periods between each set. Here’s is an example:
IPs come in multiple versions depending on their source. The most common options are IPV4 and V6:
- IPV4 is your standard format separated by three sets of numbers. Because it is older, IPv4 is entirely out of addresses.
- IPV6 is the current Internet Protocol version that provides a larger address space at 128 bits. The extra length gives IPV6 many more variants with the same identification power.
IPV4 has simple dot-decimal notation, while IPV6 uses colon-separated notation. Its hexadecimal properties provide for much more variance in addresses.
What Your IP Address Can Reveal About You
Your public address can reveal many different unwanted details about you:
- Your city
- Zipcode (area code)
- Internet Service Provider (ISP)
- Your online activity
- Aspects of your identity
While a public address won’t reveal credit card details or your physical address, it does show a lot about your location. Finding out you live in a specific North American city and following your spending habits can be enough for fraudsters to steal your identity.
All of this comes from your public address.
Public vs. Private Addresses
When checking your IP address, you might notice you receive both addresses. The dual-use comes from the distinction of how private and gigantic networks (like your ISP) identify you. An external computer network is public while your home network is private.
Your private address is suited to your local network. Typically, these private IPs are limited to IPV4, as you likely don’t have enough home devices to take all V4 addresses.
Your public address (IPV6) is generated amongst other people on your shared server that contains the essential data. Even web domains take these public addresses.
What is the relationship between a public address and a web domain?
All websites have a public address to identify themselves on the network. The network, in this case, is the worldwide web.
A connection establishes when one public IP sends data packets to another IP. Think of it like you receive a package from UPS. UPS wouldn’t be very good at their job if they didn’t have your physical address.
The sending of data back and forth must be encrypted to remain secure, so stick with websites that use HTTPS. For your security, it’s best to consider dynamic addresses.
Static vs. Dynamic IPs
IP addresses are generated based on what’s available on the network. However, you can make your network settings stick with a single address, otherwise known as a static IP.
This address is different from a dynamic IP, which changes each time you access the global network. It also prevents conflicts with you and other people on the web you access.
These address types are typically limited to IPV4 addresses, as IPV6 addresses are constantly changing. Plus, you have no control over other IPs.
How Can I Find Out What My IP Address is?
You can find out your IPV6 address at the top of our homepage. You can also find out your current ISP and whether you have a virtual private network (VPN) activated. There are also third-party IPLookup tools.
For alternate methods of finding your IP, here are some steps:
Finding Your IP on Windows
- Select Network & Internet under settings
- Select Wi-Fi or Ethernet (depending on whether you have a wired or wireless selection)
- Right-click on your connection and choose “properties.”
Alternatively, you can type “ipconfig” on your Windows command-line interface. Type “cmd” in your windows search bar, and you will find it.
Finding Your Address on Mac
- Open the Apple menu
- Select System Preferences
- Double click on the network icon
- Select Ethernet or Wi-Fi (depending on your connection) and spot the IP in the middle
You can also type “ipconfig getifaddr en1 (or en0)” using the Mac terminal. For your public address, use “Curl ifconfig.me.”
Finding Your IP on Android and iOS Mobile Devices
Android devices require the following steps:
- Open settings
- Select “status”
- Scroll into you find network details that include the IP address
iPhones and iOS tablets require these steps:
- Select Wi-Fi
- Choose the blue “i.”
- Select DHCP
Finding Your Address on Linux
Typically, ipconfig -a (private) or curl ipconfig.me (public) are the go-to for Ubuntu, and Debian-based Linux builds. You can do this using Terminal.
Using GNOME, you can access this from your settings and select the cog next to your connection.
How to Change Your IP Address
If you want to change your public IP, reset your internet connection by turning it off and on again. If you have a static IP, you will need to enter a new IP manually.
The new IP will conflict with any existing address that matches it. So you might have to go through a few options to see what works.
You might also need to reset your router, as it has its IP address. Having a proxy server (which you can find built into most internet browsers) will also help you mask your IP.
Here’s an image within Firefox’s browser:
Conclusion – How To Protect Your IP
In the quest for internet privacy, it is up to you to be sure you have complete protection. To ensure you can adequately mask your IP from hackers, your government, and any internet provider, you need a VPN.
The Fast VPN has military-level encryption, ensuring you get a new IP address that protects your internet location.