What’s a VPN?

what is a vpn

If you are concerned with the amount of information your government can collect about your internet activity, it’s time to take matters into your own hands. VPN, which stands for Virtual Private Network is your tool to fight Internet censorship and protect your online identity.

What? Don't you know what a VPN is? That’s not a big deal. I’m here to explain to you what VPN is and its benefits. Then, I’m going to give you some tips how to choose the best VPN

Why do we need a VPN? 

Let’s first explore the different reasons why you might need a VPN. The simplest one is security and anonymity online. When you connect to the Internet, you connect first to your Internet Service Provider. The ISP then redirects you to the desired website.

The problem is that the IPS can see which site you’re visiting, what comments you’ve written, from where you’re accessing the Internet, and so on. And all the information about your activity gets stored on its servers.

Is this an issue? The simple answer is yes. The IPS can:

  • ​Sell your data to third parties legally who will use it for who knows what
    Sell your data to third parties legally who will use it for who knows what
  • ​Hand over the information to your government on request
    Hand over the information to your government on request

Moreover, the connection between you and your IPS is not encrypted, which means that third parties (hackers) can also steal your information, credentials, money.

As you can imagine, for someone who wants to be anonymous online this is bad news. Especially, if he lives in a country who supports censorship and opposes freedom of speech.

Another reason why you need VPN is to bypass regional restrictions. Say, you want to watch the latest episode of Doctor Who on BBC, but you don’t live in the UK. You’ll get an error message when you access the page. VPNs can quickly remedy that if it has servers in this region.

Moreover, if you frequently use free Wi-Fi, you must use a VPN. Free Wi-Fi is not encrypted in any way and what you’re doing is visible to everyone who is in range. So, word of advice, don’t ever use free Wi-Fi to enter any credentials unless you’re using a secure VPN.

You also need a VPN to download “illegally” movies, songs, or books. I’m talking about torrents, of course. If you live, for example, in Bulgaria it’s not a big deal if you pirate movies.

However, if you live in the USA or the UK, you can receive a hefty fine for downloading a song. And VPN is the only way to make sure that no one can catch you pirating.

What’s a VPN and what are its benefits? 

As we said, VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. In simple terms, a VPN is a service, which allows you to connect to the Internet through a VPN server.

The VPN establishes a secure, encrypted link between you and a private network. It encrypts and protects your data and makes it difficult for anyone to track your online activity. Or hack into your connection and steal personal data.

vpn explanation

​Credit: ExpressVPN

vpn explanation

Think about this link as a tunnel. No one can peek inside it, so no one can know which website you’re visiting or what you’re doing. Your IPS can only see that you’re connected to a private VPN, it can’t see that you’re downloading the latest Marvel movie, for example.

Moreover, your device unique IP address gets replaced by the IP address of the VPN server. What’s the meaning of this? Say, you’re living in Germany, but you’re using VPN server in Romania. For all interested parties, the IP address will show that you’re in the Romania. In this way, no one knows your real location.

So, let’s summarize in short the benefits of using a VPN:

  • ​Hides your true IP address
    Hides your true IP address
  • ​Encrypts your Internet connection and protects it from prying eyes and IPS
    Encrypts your Internet connection and protects it from prying eyes and IPS
  • ​Prevents your government and ISP from spying on your online activity.
    Prevents your government and ISP from spying on your online activity.
  • ​Gives you access to restricted content
    Gives you access to restricted content
  • Allows you to download torrents with a peace of mind
    Allows you to download torrents with a peace of mind
  • Protects your private information
    Protects your private information

Do VPNs have disadvantages? 

All good things have a negative side. VPNs are not an exception. So, what’s the bad news about VPNs? Well:

  • ​Price
    Price
  • ​Internet speed
    Internet speed

Most VPNs that you can trust to protect your data and encrypt your connection are paid. Of course, there are free VPNs, but they can’t be trusted. Let me tell you why. Free VPNs:

  • ​May have embedded malware or viruses
    May have embedded malware or viruses
  • ​Might steal personal information, money, your identity
    Might steal personal information, money, your identity
  • ​Data might leak through the encrypted tunnel
    Data might leak through the encrypted tunnel
  • Hackers can hack into your traffic
    Hackers can hack into your traffic
  • They might have hidden tracking to monitor your online activity
    They might have hidden tracking to monitor your online activity
  • Steal and sell your bandwidth
    Steal and sell your bandwidth

That’s not to say that you can’t find a good free VPN. But keep in mind that you get what you pay for, in this case – not very much. You might have to deal with unwanted advertisements, slow speed, a limited number of servers, limited download speed and so on.

A free VPN might be good if you need it for something simple. But it won’t be useful for hiding your identity and IP address if you want to bypass Netflix restrictions or download torrents. That’s a task you should only trust on a paid VPN.

However, even paid VPNs have a slight con. They will slow your Internet speed to some extent. That’s not something that could be avoided. First, your data gets encrypted and decrypted, and that takes time and processing power.

Then we have to take the physical distance between you and the server into account. Let me explain it in this way. You live in China, for example, and you’re using a VPN in Switzerland. Your traffic has to go all the way through there before you can access the website you want to visit.

Moreover, if the VPN is over-populated, meaning too many people are using it, your Internet speed will be affected.

But don’t worry. We’re not talking about waiting for ages for a page to load. If you have configured your VPN probably, you won’t even notice a difference. For optimum speed, always choose the server that’s the closest to you.

So, be prepared to pay anything from $2 to $12 a month for VPN subscription. The good news is that most VPN offer a discount on 6-month plans and 1-year plans. Of course, you might be reluctant to pay $50-$80 for something you’re not sure how it would work for you. 

My advice is that you start by purchasing a one-month subscription to see if you’re satisfied with the speed and the connection. And if you’re not happy most VPNs have a money-back guarantee, so you have nothing to lose by trying it. Just make sure that you read the fine print. 

Tips for choosing the best VPN 

When it comes to VPNs there are several things you have to keep in mind:

  • ​Encryption
    Encryption
  • ​Logs
    Logs
  • ​Location
    Location
  • Availability
    Availability

What’s the best encryption? 

To encrypt your data, every VPN server uses encryption protocol to make sure that no one can access your information. There are several encryption protocols in use today. It’s important that you know which one your selected VPN uses so you can judge how protected you are:

  • ​Point-to-Point-Tunneling Protocol - this is an old encryption protocol with some known vulnerabilities. I advise that you stay away from any VPNs that use it.
    Point-to-Point-Tunneling Protocol - this is an old encryption protocol with some known vulnerabilities. I advise that you stay away from any VPNs that use it.
  • ​Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol with Internet Protocol Security (L2TP w/ IPSEC) – this offers you more protection than PPTP, but it doesn’t provide the best speed.
    Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol with Internet Protocol Security (L2TP w/ IPSEC) – this offers you more protection than PPTP, but it doesn’t provide the best speed.
  • ​OpenVPN – this is an open source project, and it’s considered of the most secured VPNs. Moreover, it offers your pretty solid speed. Most VPNs use this encryption, but check to be sure.
    OpenVPN – this is an open source project, and it’s considered of the most secured VPNs. Moreover, it offers your pretty solid speed. Most VPNs use this encryption, but check to be sure.
  • Internet Key Exchange version 2 (IKEv2) – this is the other secure encryption protocol which comes with fast speed and secure protocols. The only downside of this protocol is that Microsoft develops it and it’s not open-sourced. But it’s also pre-configured in some operating systems, and it works for mobile devices, too.
    Internet Key Exchange version 2 (IKEv2) – this is the other secure encryption protocol which comes with fast speed and secure protocols. The only downside of this protocol is that Microsoft develops it and it’s not open-sourced. But it’s also pre-configured in some operating systems, and it works for mobile devices, too.

Logging policy is crucial for online privacy 

The other things you have to pay attention to when choosing a VPN is its logging policy. The options here are:

  • ​Browsing logs. If the VPN keeps browsing logs, it records everything you do online. Stay away from any VPNs that collect usage data.
    Browsing logs. If the VPN keeps browsing logs, it records everything you do online. Stay away from any VPNs that collect usage data.
  • ​Connection logs. This means that the VPN keeps some data such as dates, times, and connection information. The important thing is to pay attention how your data is secured and how it gets deleted.
    Connection logs. This means that the VPN keeps some data such as dates, times, and connection information. The important thing is to pay attention how your data is secured and how it gets deleted.
  • ​No logs. From a privacy point, this is the best option, but only a few VPN keep no logs because sometimes VPNs have to enforce restrictions, for example, how many devices you can use with one subscription.
    No logs. From a privacy point, this is the best option, but only a few VPN keep no logs because sometimes VPNs have to enforce restrictions, for example, how many devices you can use with one subscription.

VPN location matters

The third thing you should keep an eye on is location. If you want to bypass certain regional restrictions, for example, watch a show in the UK, the VPN should have a server in the UK.

In addition to this, keep in mind that a VPN fall under the laws of the country, it’s located in. That’s why I recommend that you always choose a VPN is a country with good privacy laws, for example, Bulgaria, Romania, or Switzerland. And avoid VPN providers based in any of the 14 countries, participating in the 14-eyes program.

Moreover, if you need a VPN to bypass Netflix restriction, keep in mind that not all can do this. Netflix is constantly making attempts to block VNPs, so if you want to enjoy the Netflix catalog, you should check specifically if the VPN unblocks Netflix. Up to now the best VPN for that job is ExpressVPN.

VPN for mobile phones and tablets

Once you’ve secured your laptop and computer, you have to think about your mobile phone. In general, phones collect tons of data about its users, and mobile applications have access to personal information.

That’s why it’s a good idea to install a VPN on your phone and tablet, too. But don’t trust cheap or free VPN applications. You can’t be sure whether they won’t infect you with malware or a ransomware and steal your identity.

Moreover, you don’t want to be paying twice for the same services. I recommend that you choose a VPN that will work on phone just like Perfect Privacy. You should also install a VPN on your router to secure all devices.

You should also check whether the VPN works on different operating systems –Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Is VPN legal?

After everything we’ve said, you might be wondering if VPN is legal and whether you’ll face any unpleasant consequences if you’re using one. Well, the good news is that VPNs are legal in most countries, bar, for example, the United Arab Emirates.

Some countries like Iran doesn’t approve of VPNs because they tend to censor the Internet and the social media. They don’t like it when people learn things they don’t want them to learn.

China also tries to prevent VPNs, but if you choose a secured VPN outside China, you won’t have any problem to access the Internet. Besides, these days most people who want to have some control over their online activity use VPNs.

Is VPN safe?

In general, VPNs are safe as long as you use trusted and secure ones. There are a couple of VPNs with known vulnerabilities and security risks that you should avoid. You can find a list of those VPNs here.

Keep in mind that you might stumble on a VPN scam, which offers features like “lifetime subscription” or free VPN apps for your phone. Don’t trust everything you read. After all, when someone is selling you something, he is not going to mention its issues.

The only way to determine if a specific VPN is safe, fast and reliable is to test it yourself. Here’s a complete guide you can use to find out how secure a VPN is.

VPN or proxy?

If you want security while surfing the Net, the answer is obvious. Choose VPN. A proxy also connects to you to a remote server and hides your IP address so you can bypass certain regional restrictions. But it doesn’t encrypt your data or the connection between you and the proxy server. This means that anyone can snoop on your information.

Moreover, when you use a proxy, you configure a certain application run through the proxy server, for example, BitTorrent. But you don’t configure the whole computer, so not all traffic goes through the proxy.

And since good proxies are always paid, it makes more sense to use a VPN to hide your identity.

A VPN checklist

To summarize everything, we said until now, here is a VPN checklist, which you can use to help you find the best possible VPN:

  • ​Look for a good, secure, fast server and don’t expect it to be too cheap. Cheap VPNs that offer lifetime subscription are probably fake and dangerous.
    Look for a good, secure, fast server and don’t expect it to be too cheap. Cheap VPNs that offer lifetime subscription are probably fake and dangerous.
  • ​Read the fine print regarding logging and privacy protection.
    Read the fine print regarding logging and privacy protection.
  • ​Make sure that the VPN uses proper encryption protocol – OpenVPN at least or IKEv2
    Make sure that the VPN uses proper encryption protocol – OpenVPN at least or IKEv2
  • Check on how many devices you can use the VPN.
    Check on how many devices you can use the VPN.
  • What support does the VPN offer? It should have at least 24/7 ticked-based one or live chat support at best.
    What support does the VPN offer? It should have at least 24/7 ticked-based one or live chat support at best.
  • Test how secure is the VPN on this page.
    Test how secure is the VPN on this page.
  • Check this video.
    Check this video.

VNPs are a necessity if you want to protect your privacy, stay anonymous and avoid malicious hackers or anyone else interesting in tracking you online. Just remember that you have to choose your VPN carefully. Using a bad VPN is worse than no VPN at all. 

So what do you think about VPNs? Do you use one? Tell us your opinion in the comments.

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