What is a VPN? The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

what is a vpn

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?

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:

  1. Your VPN software encrypts your data and sends it to a VPN server
  2. The VPN server unencrypts your data and re-encrypts it. The re-encrypted data contains new information from the new server.
  3. The re-encrypted data returns to you and leaves your VPN software.
  4. The VPN software decrypts enough of your data to be usable (like location requests).
  5. 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.

The trade-off is that you have to trust the VPN service enough to use your data without selling it. So always pay attention to any service’s privacy policy regarding your data.

How to set up a VPN?

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:

  1. Click the “Start” button and access Network and Internet Settings
  2. Find the tab that says “VPN.”
  3. Click “Add a VPN Connection”
  4. Choose “Windows” for VPN provider
  5. Enter the address for your VPN server
  6. 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:

  1. Download and install a VPN service that works for your device
  2.  Open the VPN app and familiarize yourself with the interface
  3. Find out what server appeals to you and click the connect button
  4. 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.

FastVPN has both apps for Android phones and iOS.

How do VPN Servers Operate? (Step By Step)

how do vpn servers operate

Here is a step-by-step on what VPN servers do with your data:

  1. The VPN server takes your computer data and aligns it with account data to be sure you can access their services
  2. The VPN server needs to decrypt your data to confirm it is you.
  3. 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.
  4. 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)
  5. 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.

Router VPNs

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

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 

military-grade encryption types

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

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 

WireGuard is another free, open-source protocol known for being incredibly fast. Like OpenVPN, it is under consistent support from developers with many applications.

IKE (IKEv2)

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.

L2TP

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.

Before using any VPN, be sure to check the privacy policy. Here is a quick comparison between two options:

 Free VPNPaid VPN
Server countTypically lowerMore options
Cost of usingNoneAnywhere from $2 to $15 per month
SpeedDependent on location and protocolDependent upon location and protocol
SecurityDependent on encryptionDependent on encryption
RisksMight sell your dataMight sell your data
FeaturesUsually limitedOften more

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

VPN alternatives (like private browsing)

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.

Unlike the more expensive onion routers and the use of incognito mode, most VPN services are a simple alternative. However, you will want to familiarize yourself with their public reputation and privacy policy before settling on a VPN provider.

In this way, we invite you to try The Fast VPN, which emphasizes a secure experience that doesn’t sacrifice your speed.

We hope this article helps you out when understanding what a VPN does.

VPN FAQs

Is a VPN secure?

Provided you do not access online accounts like Facebook and Google, VPNs are the most secure option available. Providing your data for free eliminates some of the purposes of VPNs, so you will want to be careful where you give your data.

Should you use a VPN at home?

Yes. Even under strict network requirements, unencrypted data sent through browsers, servers, and other sites can be intercepted by government agencies, criminals, and your internet service provider.

Is a VPN legal?

We have a right to privacy, making VPNs 100% legal worldwide. China is the only exception to this rule.

How can a VPN help protect against identity theft?

Criminals may use data packets intercepted between you and an unsecured service to determine login times, giving them more significant opportunities to hijack your information. When encrypted, identity theft criminals do not have access to any information that proves they might be you, eliminating social manipulation tactics.

What does a VPN hide?

A VPN hides your location, IP address, connection logs, and most data sent between client-server interactions. VPNs will not conceal any account data you willingly provide via forms.

How many devices can connect to the VPN at once?

Each VPN service has a different number of devices based on their subscription plan. Fast VPN enables you to link up to five devices, including your phone, tablet, PC, and smart TV.

Do VPNs block ads?

Some VPN browser extensions include blocking ads, but most VPNs do not include this service. However, VPNs do stop programmatic advertising based on location and connection logs.

Do VPNs log user data?

“No Log” VPNs only log the one connection you make to their servers. Most VPNs do not track connection logs or traffic logs to ensure the security of their users. Check the privacy policy of any VPN before using it to see what user data they log.

Are free VPNs safe?

Most free VPNs are safe, but you will want to check their privacy policy. If the VPN mentions anything about having rights to your data, you should avoid it.

Does a VPN hide your IP address?

Yes. A VPN will hide your IP address and replace it with the IP address of the server you connect to.

Should I leave my VPN on all the time?

You should ideally leave your VPN on as much as possible. This ensures that you maintain constant security, blocking potential criminals who may be tracking you.

Can your internet provider see your history with a VPN?

No. Your internet service provider will receive encrypted data that they cannot translate without accessing the server’s cipher.

Is using a VPN safe for banking?

Yes. A VPN is safe for banking.

You might have to disable the VPN with some banks, as they block any connection that comes from countries they do not operate in.

Is using a VPN safe for the cryptocurrency market?

Much like banks, VPNs are fine with cryptocurrency. Given that crypto has numerous hackers, you should remain secure through hardware wallets, VPNs, and two-factor authentication.

Can a VPN make my internet connection faster?

Because VPNs travel through multiple servers, they will not make your internet faster.

What is a no-logging or a no-log VPN?

A No-logging VPN does not keep track of your connection or traffic data.

Connection data refers to when you initially connect to any server (gaming, torrenting, websites). Traffic data is any communication between your server and the other server. A no-log VPN is a safe VPN.

Will a VPN slow down my internet?

A VPN bounces your data between multiple servers, meaning it is likely to cause your internet to slow down. Some VPNs are faster than others, so you might run a speed test between multiple VPNs to see the fastest.

Do VPNs drain the battery?

VPNs are relatively low impact, so they will not excessively drain the battery of your smartphone or laptop. However, any additional running apps drains your battery, so these aren’t entirely without energy consumption.

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