VPNs for Beginners – Everything You Need to Know

April 18, 2019
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article by Nicky Hoseck author

When you hear others talk about VPNs, do your eyes glaze over and your mind wanders off in another direction? They shouldn't, as this is a vital cybersecurity tool that, given the frequency and severity of cyber crimes, everyone needs access to. Find out everything you need to know about what a VPN is, how it works, and what it can do for you in this informative guide.

The Birth of the VPN

Once upon a time, there was a thing called peer-to-peer or point-to-point tunneling protocol which was developed by a Microsoft employee to facilitate secure communications. By utilizing a form of encryption, PPTP could create an encoded tunnel that would allow for anonymous online activity. After this first foray into cybersecurity and encryption, it wasn’t long before the first Virtual Private Network (VPN) appeared on the scene.

What a VPN does

Although PPTP is still in use, it isn’t considered as safe as some of the other protocols utilized by VPNs, although the premise remains the same – instead of traffic traveling directly from your device to the site you are accessing, it passes through an encoded tunnel, making it impossible for anyone, including your ISP or Internet Service Provider, from seeing where you’re going or what you’re downloading.

Because you access the internet via the VPN tunnel, it also means your location is hidden behind a proxy IP address. In other words, instead of your traffic originating from your device, it appears to the recipient as though it originated from the VPN server you’re using to connect with. These fake IP addresses are one of the biggest benefits of using a VPN, but more of that later…

How a VPN Works

Basically, a VPN is a gateway but one with a big, fat padlock on it. Only subscribers to that VPN have the key to unlock the padlock. Once you’re through the gateway, no one can see what you do or track you as you browse. You also have a choice of gateways or servers so you can appear to be in a different location to your geographical one. While you still need an ISP to connect to the internet, that server provider won’t be able to see the contents of your traffic. Simple, yet effective, a VPN offers a range of benefits that we’ll explore in our next section.

Benefits of a VPN: Cybersecurity

A lot of us tend to bury our heads in the sand when it comes to online security but, with cyber threats increasing in frequency and severity every day, it’s high time we took stock of our online behavior. Rather than having blind faith in our ISPs, it’s time for us to wake up and smell the coffee which, if you don’t have a VPN, is most probably burning.

According to research, around 60 million Americans were victims of or affected by identity theft in some way or another in 2018 alone. Despite this, a survey done the previous year indicated that over half of the respondents believed their data to be at least somewhat secure online.

Unfortunately, that’s clearly not the case and a VPN can help secure your data within an encrypted tunnel so that it’s more difficult for cybercriminals to gain access. There are a few other benefits of a VPN in terms of online security and these include:

1. Protect yourself against cybercrime

If you use online shopping sites and internet banking functions, you run the risk of leaving a digital trail that can give cybercriminals access to your financial information. Even the most secure password won’t help you if you enter your login information on a phishing site rather than a genuine one.

A VPN can help prevent this kind of vulnerability by alerting you, should it detect a malicious site, and encrypting your data so it can’t be intercepted and diverted to a dangerous site. Some of the best VPNs, like CyberGhost VPN for example, include an in-built firewall that will prevent hackers from accessing your device and give you extra protection as a result.

2. Stay safe on public Wi-Fi

Using free or public Wi-Fi connections is part of daily life for many of us and we often connect without even considering the possible implications or vulnerabilities that we’re exposing ourselves to. Because a public Wi-Fi connection is open to anyone, even if you use a password to connect, your device and your data are vulnerable from the moment you click the connect button.

Not only could you find yourself connected to a fake Wi-Fi connection created by a hacker, but you are also vulnerable to Man-in-the-Middle attacks. The best VPNs for public Wi-Fi are those, like NordVPN, which have military-grade encryption and additional security features. These make your device effectively invisible and scramble your data using an indecipherable code.

3. Prevent tracking

Unfortunately, there are a lot of eyes out there keen to catch a glimpse of your online behavior. Why? Primarily, for financial gain, but in the US we also have the NSA to contend with. Although the National Security Agency has good intentions, unfortunately, things don’t always go according to plan when it comes to online surveillance.

The NSA’s tracking and hacking habits compromise the security of every individual and device on the internet. With backdoors built into many products for the purposes of government surveillance, the NSA is effectively making every device and piece of software vulnerable to hackers.

Of course, the NSA isn’t the only one interested in what you’re up to online, with advertisers, insurance companies and credit card companies all keen to gain access to information about what you do and what content you access. This may seem innocuous enough, but it could impact negatively on you. For example, if traffic trends indicate that others who visit similar sites to those you frequent tend to file more insurance claims than the average American, you could find your insurance premiums increased as a result.

Far from being innocent, online tracking can impact on you in ways you never anticipated and using a reliable VPN like Surfshark VPN with its inbuilt ad blocker, can prevent companies from using your online activities to predict your future reliability or liability.

4. Stop ISP throttling and privacy invasion

You would think your ISP is precisely that – a service provider that gives you access to the internet – but the truth is, they aren’t only working for you. With Congress giving ISPs the freedom to gather and share user data,  it means that your internet service provider is not only making money from charging you for the service, but they’re also free to collect and sell your data.

Some consider this to be a serious breach of personal privacy but, as it is law, there’s little you can do, except prevent your ISP from getting hold of your data in the first place. A VPN hides your activity from everyone, even your ISP, so not even they know whether you visited Amazon or Netflix earlier in the day.

This also means that a VPN, especially one as powerful as ExpressVPN, can prevent your ISP from throttling your bandwidth. Many ISPs will reduce your bandwidth if they detect that you’re streaming content from a site such as YouTube or Netflix. The reason for this, so they say, is to prevent congestion, but the truth is, many do it for financial reasons. In other words, to ensure you have high-speed access to online entertainment, your ISP may ask you to upgrade to an “unlimited” data plan. Even then, you may only have access to standard definition and could be asked to cough up even more if you want to watch a movie in high definition or 4k.

With a VPN, your ISP can’t see the type of traffic you’re downloading so won’t be able to throttle you simply because you’re streaming content from YouTube, for example. In this manner, a VPN not only gives you greater security, but it also helps to save you money… which we will discuss more in our next section.

Other Benefits of a VPN: Freedom and Frugality

One of the main reasons people use VPNs is because of their capacity to access blocked sites and navigate around geographical restrictions. Indeed, this feature of a VPN is one of its greatest advantages and can enable you to:

1. Bypass Geographical Restrictions

If you’re at school or in the office, you may find the network you’re connected to restricts access to certain sites. Many businesses have decided to block social media sites like Facebook in order to make their employees more productive and to limit the threat of malware infections and other online hazards. Nevertheless, there may come a time when, for some reason, you need to access a site that your employer considers inappropriate. A VPN can do this by hiding the identity of the site you’re visiting and disguising your IP address so the network thinks you’re somewhere other than sitting at your desk.

2. Access blocked sites

Although, as a rule, Americans enjoy great freedom of access when it comes to online content when traveling overseas, things change dramatically. Certain content is restricted to specific countries or regions due to copyright limitations so, once you’ve headed over the border into Canada, for example, you’ll find the content available on Netflix or Amazon Prime is suddenly more restricted than it was before you left home. By using your VPN to connect to a server within the US, you can visit Netflix from a fake US IP address and continue browsing as you would at home with no restrictions whatsoever.

This is one of the most popular reasons for subscribing to a service like ExpressVPN, although not all VPNs are effective at navigating geographical blocks, especially not those employed by Netflix, which are incredibly complex and advance. As Netflix seemingly manages to block a different VPN every day of the week, if you’re looking for a service that will guarantee you consistent access, ExpressVPN is the best option.

3. Circumvent Government Censorship

Much as some content is geographically restricted, some countries prevent you from accessing specific sites that they’ve deemed unsuitable for their citizens. If you head off to Beijing for a weekend, for example, you’ll find it impossible to share your photographs on Facebook or even use Google to search for local tourist hotspots.

Although Chinese censorship is by far the most virulent, there are hundreds of countries that restrict access to certain sites on the basis of protecting their culture and morality. Without a VPN, you could find you’re left upstream without a paddle. Not only won’t you be able to keep in touch with friends and family, but you may find you’re blocked from accessing your online banking site as well.

As a VPN can give you an IP address in the US, it can give you the freedom to access whatever content you want. Not only that, but it will also stop any government agencies from spying on your browsing session.

4. Avoid the high cost of dynamic pricing

Geographical restrictions aren’t only used to control content but also to influence pricing. As your IP address indicates the region you’re connecting from, if a site detects you’re situated in an affluent area of the US, you will automatically see inflated prices compared to someone connecting from a poorer country, such as Poland.

By using a VPN with a large, global server network, like ExpressVPN or NordVPN, you can appear to be anywhere a server is situated so you could book flights from Croatia before heading over to Slovenia for the best price on car hire. To make the best of this situation, you need to delete all your cookies and browsing history prior to your search, but it’s well worth the little extra effort as it could result in savings of several hundred or even thousands of dollars.

What to Look for in a VPN

While there are hundreds of VPNs out there, not all of them actually do what it says on the tin. If you’re completely new to the world of cybersecurity, following expert opinions and advice, like those offered on BestOnlineReviews, is the best way to select a reliable and effective VPN. If however, you want to go it alone, you should look for a VPN with the following features:

Security – AES-256 bit encryption is the industry standard so don’t opt for anything less.

Speed – some VPNs slow your internet connection down to an unusable extent so making sure you select a VPN that will guarantee a minimum speed of 5Mbps is essential.

Privacy – a VPN should be committed to user privacy, ensuring that no logs are kept of their online activity and that their data isn’t shared with any third parties. Check out ExpressVPN’s no-logging and privacy policies to get an idea of the standards you should be looking for.

Connections – some VPNs are extremely generous which it comes to accommodating simultaneous connections, with Surfshark VPN allowing users to connect as many devices as they like. If you have a lot of gadgets or you’re looking for a VPN to secure all your family, opt for one that is going to facilitate multiple users, like Surfshark or CyberGhost VPN which allows for seven simultaneous connections.

Compatibility the best VPNs are compatible with almost every device imaginable, be it PlayStation, Android, or Roku. Before signing up for a VPN, make sure it’s compatible with your device and preferred operating systems.

Servers – the more servers a VPN provider has, the more traffic it can accommodate. If you know that you’re going to be traveling to Europe on a regular basis, you’ll want a VPN that has plentiful servers in both the US and Europe.

Ease of Use – with the best VPNs offering apps that are both easy to install and simple to operate, you don’t need to be some advanced computer geek to get the best in terms of cybersecurity. VPNs like CyberGhost VPN have been specifically designed to appeal to those who are a little less tech-savvy than the norm and intuitive interfaces mean you can perform complex operations simply by clicking on a button.

Free trials and money-back guarantees – although free trials aren’t necessarily the norm, there are some VPNs offering some great incentives to try out their services at no cost. Even those that don’t offer free trials usually give a 30-day money-back guarantee so, if the service proves unreliable or unsuitable for any reason, you can opt out without losing out.

Customer support – when it comes to taking care of their clients, VPNs are at the top of their game, and any VPN provider that doesn’t offer 24/7 live chat support is basically not worth considering, simply because there are so many that do.

Kill Switch – this essential feature prevents any data leakage in the event of an unexpected disconnect. If the VPN you’re looking at doesn’t have one, look again.

VPN vs Proxy

While a VPN isn’t the only way to hide your IP address, it is one of the easiest. However, if you’re looking for a cheaper alternative and don’t mind the lack of encryption, a proxy could be the answer. A proxy works in a similar way to a VPN, diverting your traffic so its origin is not traceable. While this can be advantageous when it comes to circumventing network restrictions at work or college, it won’t be able to offer the same level of device security as a VPN.

A public proxy is pretty simple to use but it does need to be set up on each application, whereas a VPN covers all your applications once installed on a specific device. Indeed, a VPN can go even further if you install it on your home router, as then everything from your smartphone to your connected Samsung washing machine will be covered!

Proxies are cheap and, in some cases, even free, but can do little in terms of preventing online tracking, encrypting your traffic, or securing your device. If you just want to hide your real IP address behind a fake one, then a proxy can do that, but if you want actual online security, a VPN is by far your best bet.

Free VPNs vs Paid Services

It’s difficult to say whether there’s ever been as much controversy over a free service as there has been over free VPNs. While some free apps that promise online protection actually do the precise opposite, installing malicious software into your device, there are some free VPNs that actually offer a decent service.

Nevertheless, the chances are, even the best free VPNs have their limitations, either in terms of bandwidth, server availability, level of security, or service consistency. While we recommend paying for a reliable service, you can find out more about how free VPNs compare to their paid rivals here.

Conclusion

Even if you only use your smartphone to do a spot of online shopping or keep abreast of your friend’s lives via social media, a VPN can be an enormous asset, protecting you against cyber threats, government surveillance and inflated prices, giving you the freedom to access the content you want whether you’re tucked up in bed or out enjoying the nightlife in Brazil.

The best VPNs will enshroud your traffic in a complex code that will prevent it from being intercepted, which is particularly important when sharing sensitive financial data, such as your credit card details, online. You can also circumvent ISP throttling and surveillance by using a VPN and protect yourself against potential malware infections.

Even if you’re not prepared to pay for a VPN, some free VPN providers will give some level of protection and anonymity online but, as the US government continues to undermine users rights and privacy in an attempt to combat terrorist threats, opting for one of the best-paid services becomes increasingly imperative for those committed to maintaining content access and anonymity.

2 comments
Kate Harrison says:

Will using a VPN give me the same speed as my regular internet connection?

Laura.k says:

Using a VPN tunnel is typically are not as fast as direct internet access. However, many VPNs today are extremely advanced, and you should be able to enjoy relatively fast speeds and comfortable web surfing via VPN.