VPNs 101: What They Are & How They Work

A virtual private network (VPN) is a service that encrypts your internet traffic and protects your online identity. It makes you appear to be using the internet from a different location. There's lots of confusion around how VPNs work, what they can do, and what makes one better than another, so clearing it all up is important.

VPN stands for virtual private network. Just as it sounds, it's a special kind of network that phones, computers, and other devices can use to transmit information securely over the public internet.

When you use a VPN, you're essentially attaching to a virtual tunnel that runs through the internet from where you are to wherever the VPN server is located. This allows you to access the rest of the internet from that new location instead of where you are physically.

VPNs are used for many reasons, but they all share the same basic goal: to access a resource, like a web page or a video, as if you were elsewhere. This carries with it some unique potential, like the ability to reach content usually restricted to specific countries. Since a good VPN is encrypted, they're also used to keep your online activity hidden from hackers and governments.

See our VPN FAQ for answers to common questions. The VPN Glossary simplifies the most important terms. The VPN Reviews page lists the best providers out there.

What VPNs Do

Without one, when you connect to a website, the site can see identifiable information about you. Whether you're viewing from the US, Germany, Pakistan, etc. is known. With a little digging, the website owner can identify which ISP you use and ultimately who you are.

A VPN introduces another location to the mix. If you're located in Europe but the server you're using is in North America, the website will see your location as being there, like in the US, since that was your "last stop" before accessing the site.

You can think of the virtual tunnel as a two-way radio. You have one and the VPN server has the other. As you speak through it and your voice is heard on the other end, people nearby might assume you're in the vicinity and can communicate with you locally as if you were really there. Likewise, the websites that you access through a VPN think that you're wherever the VPN server is, thus faking your location.

Depending on the service you use, the server could be located a city over from where you are or a country on the other side of the world. Most let you choose which server to connect to.

On top of the location redirect, essentially all VPNs also encrypt the traffic so that anyone viewing your data transfers will have no idea what you're doing. To return to the radio analogy, someone snooping in on the radio will just hear gibberish. It doesn't matter if you're just on Google, sending private messages to someone, or streaming music, all of it is scrambled to the point that someone peeking into the network can't see what you're doing.

What VPNs Don't Do

VPNs have a very specific task. It's important to keep that in mind before choosing to use one. While there are plenty of benefits, it won't change everything you do on the internet.

Most notably, a VPN won't speed up your internet beyond what you pay your ISP for. This isn't just a limitation of some of these services, it's physically impossible for any to make your internet faster than what your ISP restricts it to. This isn't to say that using one will slow down your connection (although it probably will at least a little), but it definitely can't and won't allow it to exceed the maximum speed set by your ISP.

For example, if your internet subscription permits speeds up to 30 Mbps, you can never exceed that limit. Even if other people using the VPN you have can get speeds of over 300 Mbps, that slower limit set by your ISP is the fastest you'll ever see. The same is true in reverse: if what you pay your ISP for is faster than what the VPN supports, your speed while connected to the VPN will be slower than if you weren't using it.

That said, there are cases where a VPN can give your internet speed a boost, but only if your ISP is throttling your bandwidth.

Similarly, the amount of data you're allowed to use throughout the month doesn't change when you use a VPN. If your ISP puts a cap of 50 GB on your monthly data usage, or your phone carrier charges extra beyond 2 GB of use, a VPN won't let you bypass that restriction. Whether all that data is coming through a VPN or not is irrelevant because it's still passing through the ISP, so their data cap still applies.

GPS readings are also unchanged when you're using a VPN. This is a good thing in most situations so that you can continue using your navigation apps and other trackers. But if you want a VPN so that you can trick your phone into thinking you're miles away, you'll have to try something else or pick a service that also includes location spoofing.

Unless the app is made otherwise, a VPN program, in and of itself, also doesn't usually protect you from malware, disable tracking cookies, or provide 100% anonymity.

Common Features

Most VPN services are fairly similar. Here are a few examples of some popular features:

  • Minimal logs are kept to maintain your privacy
  • You choose which server, in which country, to connect to so that you can unblock websites
  • The app identifies the server that'll be fastest for you
  • It turns on automatically when you're connected to unfamiliar or unsecured Wi-Fi networks
  • Your account can be accessed from multiple devices without paying for separate plans
  • There's an app for multiple platforms to support your phones and computers
  • Anonymous payments are accepted to remain super private
  • P2P traffic is allowed so you can download torrents safely

Most countries permit the use of VPNs. This is because they can be used for normal, non-controversial things. You could use one from South America to download an app that's only available in Europe, or to connect to your work computer from home to access files. Those activities are hardly frowned upon.

What prompts this question in the first place is that it's very easy to use a VPN for something illegal. For example, one might use a VPN to avoid copyright restrictions. Or maybe your country has outlawed certain websites that are accessible only through an encrypted VPN.

North Korea and Turkey are examples of counties that have banned VPNs. Everyone in the US, Canada, and most other countries are free to use one without any legal issues.

Is Paid or Free Better?

Many VPNs that don't cost are restricted in one or more ways. Beyond the features mentioned above are these things that a paid service might allow that a free version might not:

  • More countries to connect to
  • Unblocks different websites and services
  • Faster speed while on the VPN
  • More data can be used per month
  • Additional security-related features
  • Faster customer support

Free VPNs are also sometimes supported by ads since they're not generating revenue from those users. If it's not random ads, you might constantly be prompted to upgrade to the premium version. In a worst-case scenario, the company could be selling your personal data to advertisers.

A trial VPN, however, is often not as limited but might still restrict some features. If you're on a time-limited trial, you can usually (not always) use it to its maximum capacity until the expiration date.

Should You Get One?

If you're trying to use the internet securely, a VPN is a great way to start. They're easy for anyone to use and most are completely affordable. After starting the VPN app, you can connect to a server in just a few seconds without needing to know anything about how a VPN works.

If you're one to connect to public Wi-Fi networks, like in airports or restaurants, or you share your internet with neighbors, co-workers, or roommates, encrypting all of it with a VPN keeps your data private from anyone intercepting the connection.

Other reasons people use VPNs are to unblock apps and websites inaccessible in their country or to speed up slow internet (this only works in really specific cases).

What's the Best VPN?

This is an extremely important question that can't be answered in one sentence. Enabling a VPN will route all your internet traffic through that company's servers, which is a big decision considering you're essentially switching ISPs and giving this company you maybe have only just heard of access to everything you're doing online.

As you're reading VPN reviews online, keep in mind these tips when choosing one:

  • A higher-priced VPN doesn't necessarily mean it's more reliable or faster or that it has more respect for your privacy.
  • Well-known providers are probably safer, but not always.
  • Some companies will blatantly lie to get your money, so read everything you can about them.
  • A long list of 5-star reviews is a good sign, but it shouldn't be the only reason to pick that VPN.