What Is A VPN? Do You Need One? The 2019 VPN Guide for Newbies

VPNs are so easy to set up and use, anyone can do it - no technical background required. Learn how you can use a VPN to access blocked content, enhance your online security, protect your digital privacy and freedom, and so much more.

vpn 101 newbie guide
New to VPNs? No worries – everyone has to start somewhere!

At vpnMentor, we’re here to help. If you’re still wondering what a VPN is, how it works, where you can use it, and which one to pick, you’ve come to the right place. Join us as we shed some light on everything a newcomer should know about the basics of this super useful technology. And don’t worry about the technical bits!

Let’s dive right in, shall we?

What Is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. A virtual private network offers a higher degree of protection and privacy as you’re surfing the web, whether at home or outside.

But how does it achieve this?

Simply put, a VPN creates a secure connection over public networks (such as the wi-fi in public transport, hotels, or your favorite café) as well as home networks (like the one provided by your internet service).

By routing your traffic through specialized servers and encrypting your data, VPNs hide your online activity and protect you from the many dangers on the web – from hacker attacks to data selling, identity theft, and much more.

Enough theory for now! How do things look in practice?

VPNs are useful in many areas online. Not only do they provide better security for you and your devices, but they can also help you bypass censorship and access geographically blocked content on the internet from anywhere!

So, if you want to access US Netflix overseas, watch your country’s TV streams while you’re abroad, or you’re simply an advocate for an internet without borders, a solid VPN with a big server list and fast speeds will open up whole new worlds of entertainment for you to enjoy.

VPNs are everywhere these days. From large corporations to government agencies, VPN technology is often used to provide remote and secure access to the networks of the organization.

What’s more, many regular people who value their privacy – just like you – use virtual private networks to minimize exposure and keep themselves shielded from the many threats that can be found online. Others simply need a way to get around censored content in their country, or geographical restrictions on streams and services abroad.

Whatever the case, the bottom line is that VPNs help make the internet better.

What Is a VPN Good For?

We already gave you a hint of what a VPN can do for you. Now it’s time to expand on the various situations where VPNs help out. There’s quite a lot of them, so we’ve made a detailed list for you:

Unblocking Netflix, BBC, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and Other Geoblocked Content

Want to get the full Netflix catalog, even if you aren’t in the United States? Or maybe you’d like to watch Hulu from anywhere? How about streaming some BBC outside of the United Kingdom? You can even get easy access to Amazon Prime Video, no matter where you’re located.

Usually, you wouldn’t be able to do any of that due to geoblocks. But with the right VPN, you can easily pretend to be in whichever country you like, “fooling” geo-restricted websites into thinking that you’re surfing from the right location.

Many streaming services have been using advanced VPN detection measures not all VPNs can bypass, but there are some, such as NordVPN, that can unblock just about anything.

Better Protection on Public Networks

Do you often find yourself using free wi-fi in parks, hotels, cafés, or elsewhere? Then you should probably know about the risks of unsecured public networks. Between wi-fi spoofing, honeypot attacks, and hackers looking to easily intercept your data, it’s a very bad idea to use your personal devices in such places without extra protection.

A VPN will take care of everything, allowing you to enjoy the various public wi-fi networks away from prying eyes and in complete safety.

Higher Levels of Anonymity

VPNs granting you “full” anonymity is a myth, but it’s true that they’ll hide your sensitive data from those who wish to abuse or even steal it.

By masking your internet activity, a VPN will ensure your browsing habits remain hidden from your ISP (Internet Service Provider) and in extreme cases, the government.

Everyone has a right to privacy, and a worthwhile VPN works hard to preserve this right for its users.

Dealing with Censorship

If you’re planning to visit a country that imposes serious internet censorship – or currently living in one – you can bypass this issue with a VPN. A reliable VPN service will allow you to access many sites and services that were previously unavailable.

Whether it’s Google and Facebook in China, VoIP apps in Dubai, or Western media in Russia, you won’t have to worry about government censorship again.

Unrestricted Access to the Internet at School or Work

It’s common for schools, universities, and workplaces to restrict access to content that may be unsuitable or distracting. There’s often a good reason for such restrictions, but sometimes the blocks can go a little too far.

If you’re tired of sites with political discussions being blacklisted, or you simply want to log into Facebook and check your news feed, the smart solution is to use a VPN. But keep in mind that you may face consequences if you’re caught – proceed at your own risk.

Improving Your Internet Connection

While using a VPN will always take a little from your internet speed, it may also help make it better!

This may sound weird, but when you realize that many ISPs actively throttle connections when they detect that you’re streaming, downloading large files, or using a lot of bandwidth in general, it starts to make sense.

When a VPN encrypts your data, it will be very difficult for anyone – including your ISP – to decipher that it’s actually yours, and you won’t experience any throttling. The result? An unclogged, faster internet connection and zero tampering with the service you’re paying for.

Safe, Unlimited Torrenting

While torrenting itself is not illegal, downloading pirated content is. For this reason, quite a few countries ban all the big torrent sites.

If you’re located in one of these countries, a VPN will give you to access these websites – but no matter where you are in the world, a VPN will keep all your torrenting activity hidden from prying eyes.

Not all VPNs allow torrenting on their servers, but some, such as CyberGhost, offer specially designated P2P servers optimized for torrenting.

Secure Streaming on Kodi, Popcorn Time or Putlocker

If you use Kodi, Popcorn Time, or Putlocker, a VPN can greatly enhance your streaming experience. You can mask your location and access any content you like, including movies and TV shows that are geo-restricted to specific countries or regions.

Perhaps more importantly, a VPN will keep your connection anonymous and secure. No one will able to spy on your activity, including government agencies and even your own ISP. You’ll be safe from online threats, such as malware and spyware, that could be embedded in third-party add-ons or extensions.

Here at vpnMentor, we don’t encourage the distribution of pirated content, but we do support online freedom and privacy.

In short, there are many ways a VPN can help you experience a better, unrestricted internet. Whether it’s privacy, security, or entertainment on your mind, you’ll be getting a lot more out of the web. For more information on the different uses of VPNs, take a look at our article on the different types of VPNs and when to use them.

VPNs vs Proxy Servers

You may be wondering why you should choose a VPN over a simple proxy server in order to access geoblocked content, for example. A proxy server is a middle man that masks your IP address on the internet, without doing anything to secure your data. If changing your IP address is the only task you’re looking for, a proxy might be a good option.

However, a VPN will change your IP address while also encrypting your information. You can think of it as a two in one service. To learn more about the difference between the two and decide which to use, you can check out our guide to VPNs vs proxies.

How Do VPNs Work?

It all starts with your VPN client – the interface where you manage your VPN connections. Once you launch it, you’ll be able to select a server in a location of your choice that will be in charge of rerouting and encrypting your web traffic.

Normally, the details of your traffic would be visible to your ISP. When you launch your VPN, however, all the ISP sees is that you’ve established a connection with a VPN server – anything past that is off-limits. Your data is routed through the VPN before arriving at its destination.

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You also obtain a different IP address from your real one, so your online identity is protected at all times. Your chosen destination doesn’t know that your traffic is coming from your real location, because it’s actually sent from the VPN server.

If that sounds a little too confusing, think of it this way: your VPN is the middleman you’ve hired to make sure your data is under lock and key as it’s transferred from your end to the website or service you’re visiting. It also gives you privacy by keeping your real IP, device, and location hidden (although they may still be visible to the VPN provider).

As far as everyone else is concerned, your digital location is wherever your VPN server is, and your IP address is the one provided by it, which is shared with potentially thousands of other users. For example, if you’ve connected to a server in Germany, you now have a German IP address somewhere in Berlin or Frankfurt.

Keep in mind that this is just a simple explanation of a very complex technology. If you want to learn more about the inner workings of a VPN, we invite you to check out our in-depth guide on VPN tunneling.

VPN Protocols

There’s much more to VPN encryption. One of the most important parts is choosing the right protocol.

Most VPNs use one or more of the following protocols: PPTP, L2TP, SSTP, IKEV2, and OpenVPN. You will usually be able to switch between them easily through the settings menu.

As a rule of thumb, use OpenVPN whenever possible – it offers the best balance between speed and security. If you’re curious about the finer details of VPN protocols, take a look at our detailed comparison.

How Does a VPN Guarantee My Privacy?

You may be asking yourself how you can enjoy full anonymity when your VPN provider basically replaces your ISP as the watchman of your internet traffic. That’s a valid concern – and the answer is that you can never be 100% anonymous, even with a VPN.

No-Logs Policies

It’s crucial to understand that privacy doesn’t equal anonymity, and there’s a huge difference. No matter what, your VPN provider can view your online activity. Unless it operates under a no-logs policy.

Many VPN services with strong privacy promise you that your connection and bandwidth data will never be collected, stored, or shared. This means that your zero-logging VPN provider won’t be able to poke around your sensitive information. What’s more, the lack of any logs will prevent your data from being handed over to authorities, if they ask for it.

In short, a no-logs policy is a mandatory feature of any VPN that claims it can improve your privacy.

Unless you have zero interest in keeping your digital footprint to yourself, you should always look for a VPN service that doesn’t collect any sensitive data – feel free to check out the best no-logs VPNs currently on the market.

VPNs and Tor

Tor, also known as The Onion Router is an anonymizing network that sends your data through at least three relays before it reaches its destination, but it has its limitations. This is why if anonymity is particularly important to you, it’s a good idea to use a combination of a VPN and Tor

There are two ways of doing this:

  • Tor over VPN
    In this model, you connect first to your VPN and then to Tor – this way, third parties who may be snooping on your connection won’t be able to see you’re using Tor (which could arouse suspicion).
  • VPN over Tor
    When you connect to Tor first, your data enters Tor, leaves through an exit node and is then passed to a VPN server.

Are VPNs Easy to Use?

The great part about a VPN – if done right – is that it can be as simple or complex as you want it to be.

Depending on your needs, you can either have a compact client that encrypts your connection and keeps you safe on the internet in just a couple of clicks, or an exhaustive piece of software with a whole arsenal of features and settings to help you with specific activities like streaming, torrenting, or eliminating censorship.

Whatever the case, good VPNs are very easy to use and can be set up instantly, without any complicated steps or daunting requirements.

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You may be wondering if VPNs are for your computer or laptop only. Not at all!

Can I Use a VPN with iOS or Android?

Absolutely! Installing a VPN on your mobile devices is easy. Most top VPN providers offer excellent client apps for Android and iOS.

With that said, keep in mind that only your internet connection will be affected by it – a VPN’s powers don’t typically extend to other apps, which may be collecting and sharing your GPS location, contact list, app store ID, and more.

In most cases, you can connect multiple devices simultaneously with a single VPN license, which is a great way to keep your entire family or small business secure. The number of devices varies – some providers will only allow you to connect three or four, but Surfshark, for instance, allows you to connect an unlimited number of devices to one account.

If you want to know more about using VPNs on your smartphone, see our lists of Best & Worst VPNs for Android and Best & Worst VPNs for iOS.

Can I Install a VPN on My Router?

Yes, you can, as long as your router is compatible with VPNs – and it’s a great way to keep all devices in your household or business secure. Click here for a detailed installation guide.

Can I Use a VPN for Free?

With dozens of high-quality VPN service providers on the web, it’s not too hard to land on a good one for your needs.

For a rather cheap monthly fee (rarely over $10, much less if you pick a long-term plan) you can easily connect to a VPN server and protect yourself – the difficulty comes from choosing the best service among many great ones. But who likes paying if they don’t have to, right?

There are plenty of free VPNs around, too – and some of them are better than others. But one common aspect all free VPNs share is their limitations compared to premium services.

Here are some examples: there may be a cap on how much bandwidth you can use, the server list may be poor, and your connection speed may be intentionally restricted. Among the more serious concerns are sketchy privacy policies, security flaws, and sometimes the outright selling of your browsing data – which is one of the main reasons to use a VPN in the first place.

We’re not saying every free VPN engages in such shady practices, but you’re very likely to run into an issue that wouldn’t be present in a premium VPN.

At vpnMentor, we recommend opting for a reliable and transparent paid VPN service with plenty of features and a strong reputation.

NordVPN has excellent beginner-friendly settings, intuitive clients for desktop/mobile devices, and doesn’t keep any sensitive user logs. What’s more, it comes with a full-satisfaction 30-day refund guarantee – meaning you have a whole month to try it out and get your money back if you aren’t satisfied for any reason.

If you want to learn more about NordVPN, see what our experts and thousands of users have to say about it.

The best part? You don’t even have to spend too much to get a leading VPN service! Take a look at the end of the guide to find out how you can benefit from amazing deals on premium VPNs.

Are VPNs Legal?

The short answer is, yes! Citizens in most countries have a legal right to privacy, and VPNs don’t break any laws as pieces of software – so, in essence, their use is rarely illegal. And here’s when we get to the long answer…

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While VPNs are generally legal, there are several countries that actively try to monitor and/or restrict them. It’s also important to know that in the majority of cases, it’s not about whether you’re using a VPN or not – rather, it’s about what you’re using the VPN for.

Some countries (like China, Russia, and Iran) don’t forbid the use of VPNs, but there’s a catch. Technically, you’re only allowed to use VPN services approved by the government.

This means that approved providers have most likely complied with anti-privacy and censorship requirements, making their VPN services useless for many.

Using a VPN that hasn’t been government-approved may result in hefty fines, if you’re caught. These laws are intentionally vague, and it seems they’re also rarely enforced. However, the bottom line is you need to be extra careful and well-prepared if you want to use a VPN in these countries.

The United Arab Emirates is another notorious example, where the threat of jail time is added on top of six-figure fines. But, contrary to popular belief, using a VPN in this country isn’t outright banned – what’s forbidden (and punishable) by law is using one for “illegal purposes”. These range from gambling and hate-speech to accessing Skype and Wikipedia, so as you can see, it’s pretty easy to commit a crime with a VPN under UAE law.

Again, these laws seem to be rarely enforced, but their existence is enough to potentially get you in trouble if you haven’t prepared accordingly.

Other countries such as Iraq, Belarus, and Turkmenistan, go even further by completely banning the use of VPNs. Whether it’s to curb terrorist presence on social media, establish political control, or simply restrict access to foreign media outlets, the online privacy of citizens in these regions is severely restricted by law.

What’s the major takeaway here? With the exception of a few extreme cases, VPN use is perfectly legal. However, some countries have unique requirements and restrictions on which VPNs to use, and what to use them for.

If you’re planning a trip to Russia, China, or the Middle East, it’s important to get familiar with the way VPNs are treated within the legal context of these countries. Otherwise, you’re liable to run into trouble.

DISCLAIMER: While we’ve done extensive research to make sure the information is helpful, accurate, and up-to-date, we aren’t lawyers or experts on the various countries’ stances on VPNs. Therefore, nothing in this guide should be considered legal advice.

VPN Pros and Cons

VPNs have a lot to offer you, but they aren’t perfect. In order to better help you understand the advantages and disadvantages of using a VPN, we’ve prepared a list for you:

Pros

  • You can bypass the geoblocks on any website.
    Provided you have the right VPN for the job, you can watch your favorite shows and read your favorite boards without any geo-restrictions getting in the way. Geoblocked websites will think that you’re connecting from wherever your VPN server is located, all while you’re relaxing in your own home, thousands of miles away.
  • You can securely access your home or business network.
    The main benefit of a solid VPN is the encryption, which provides a strong extra layer of security. Whether you’re traveling or at home, using a VPN allows you to access your remote desktop and home network with minimal risk.
  • You can use wi-fi hotspots safely.
    We already mentioned the various risks of using public wi-fi without protection. With a VPN, you won’t have to worry about your credentials getting hijacked as you’re having your morning cup of coffee or trying to catch up on work in your favorite café.
  • You can combat censorship.
    It doesn’t matter if it’s your school banning Facebook, or your government blacklisting the entire Western media – the principle of censorship is the same, and VPNs are a dependable solution against it. If you want to make your opinion heard without fear of legal repercussions, you can do so in privacy with a VPN.
  • You can limit the control your ISP has over your traffic and speed.
    By using a VPN, you’ll keep your internet service provider in the dark – they don’t need to know your browsing habits or what you’re downloading, anyway. Furthermore, you can prevent intentional throttling of your bandwidth and enjoy your internet connection at full speed, as it’s meant to be.
  • Your correspondences will remain private.
    If you want to make sure your messages, emails, and discussions reach only those they were meant for, it’s a good idea to use a VPN. Your important data will remain private, and snoopers won’t be able to tamper with it.
  • You can protect yourself from DDoS attacks.
    If you’re a hard-core gamer, you know that distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks are crude, but effective – and they can ruin your fun in an instant, especially when you’re engaged in competitive games with sore losers. By using a VPN, you can quickly switch servers and obtain a new IP address, effectively getting rid of any malicious attacks directed at you.

Cons

  • Your connection speed will take a hit.
    A VPN reroutes your internet connection through its own servers, which slows your connection down. However, if you choose a service with an optimized network and fast servers, such as ExpressVPN, you’ll barely notice a difference. And remember, the faster your connection, the less this will matter.
  • Your VPN provider does have access to your online activity.
    In reality, there’s no surefire way to be convinced that a VPN service provider will never take a look at your logs.
    In some cases, they may be required to hand over user info due to data retention laws – in others, you may be asked to enable the logging setting in your client so that they can assist you with an issue you’re having.
    That’s why it’s important to know which jurisdiction your VPN service operates under, and what users have to say about its privacy claims. The most transparent VPN providers will go into great detail in their privacy policies, explaining the technical measures they’ve implemented to ensure they know as little as possible about you and your online activity.

There are also some subjective drawbacks, which we don’t consider as cons, but should be mentioned:

  • You may encounter sites that block VPNs.
    Nowadays, many geo-restricted websites pay serious attention to unblocking software. These sites have strict detection mechanisms in place, which block users from accessing them with a VPN service if they’re found to be using one. It’s an endless game of cat-and-mouse – fortunately, there’s always a solution.
    For more information on this topic, you can read our guide on how to bypass VPN blocks with ease.
  • You may be opening a door to IP spoofing and blacklisting.
    The majority of VPN services work with shared IP addresses by default. This means that the VPN IP address you’re using is shared with many other users that have chosen the same provider, making IP spoofing simpler.
    What’s more, the actions of one VPN user may result in that IP address being blacklisted by certain services, and you wouldn’t know until you fail to connect. In some cases, this can result in reduced trust from said service, such as your bank, email host, etc.
    You can avoid this outcome by choosing a VPN that also offers static IPs – that way, you’ll have a dedicated address all to yourself, which you can use for more demanding services without losing on the benefits of VPN technology.

Getting Started

Fortunately, there are a vast number of VPN providers who are competing for your business. Unfortunately, such an abundance of options can also be very confusing and intimidating. Don’t panic! You can find the right VPN for you if you set your priorities straight. Allow us to help you out with that.

Before you start with the details, you need to answer the most important question of all:

What Should I Look For in a VPN?

It may seem like people get VPNs for “privacy and security”, but such a statement doesn’t really help with your choice. Also, by now you know VPNs can do a lot more for you. The truth is that VPN users are different in their needs and preferences. With that said, it’s down to you to figure out why exactly you want a VPN:

  • To unblock popular streams.
    Many use VPNs to unblock Netflix from abroad, and that requirement may take precedence over any other features. However, Netflix and other popular streaming platforms have made it extremely hard for many VPN services to gain access without getting detected.
    There’s also the matter of streaming with a VPN – you’ll need fast speeds and reliable servers as well.
    The bottom line? Not every VPN is suitable for unblocking and streaming, so you’ll need to pick carefully. Interested in eliminating geoblocks and watching whatever you want on the internet without restrictions? Check out the best VPNs for Netflix, Hulu, and BBC iPlayer.
  • To browse privately and use public wi-fi with zero worries.
    If your needs are a little more basic, you’ll have a much greater choice of capable VPN providers.
    You can opt for low budget VPNs if you’re a casual user in need of simple, no-frills protection – or you can take a look at the top services if you want excellent performance and a host of features. In any case, don’t make any compromise with your privacy and make sure you choose a zero-logs provider.
  • To eliminate heavy censorship.
    If you’re planning a trip to China, you probably don’t want to deal with the Great Firewall over there.
    In order to bypass the VPN blocks and access your favorite websites and services from regions with serious censorship, you need a VPN that offers obfuscation and stealth settings. Using a basic VPN simply won’t get the job done.
    Click here for our frequently updated list of VPNs that currently work in China.
  • To download torrents in complete privacy.
    Not all VPNs support peer-to-peer (P2P) connections on their servers, and even some of those that do aren’t ideal for torrenting.
    What you’re looking for here is a good variety of P2P servers in close proximity to your real location. And like streaming, torrenting is a bandwidth-intensive task – so your VPN needs to be fast as well.
    Looking for a suitable VPN for all your torrenting needs? We have you covered – take a look at the best VPNs for torrents you can currently get.

After you’ve decided on the main purpose of your VPN, ask yourself the following 10 questions:

  1. How much am I willing to pay?
    Different providers offer different prices for their services, normally between $5 and $10 per month.
  2. What is the provider’s privacy policy?
    As discussed earlier, you want to make sure that your VPN service provider is committed to maintaining your privacy.
  3. How good are the provider’s technical safety measures?
    Does the provider offer acceptable encryption, and if so, which protocols are supported? Is OpenVPN included?
  4. What is the geographical distance between the VPN server and the server I wish to access?
    As mentioned, this will directly affect your surfing speed. Other variables that impact surfing speed include the server processing power, available bandwidth, and the number of people using the same server simultaneously, also known as “server load”. Keep in mind that by choosing a high-quality VPN provider, you won’t have to worry about speed issues too much.
  5. How many servers does the provider have and where are they located?
    The server list is an integral part of any VPN service. The more of them you have available, the better. Their spread is very important as well, especially if you need to connect to servers in multiple countries. Lastly, thousands of servers mean nothing if most of them are sluggish – so make sure the network is adequate by checking what experts and users have to say.
  6. How many devices can I use simultaneously?
    VPNs are available for almost all major platforms, including desktops, laptops, smartphones, and tablets. While some VPN service providers will limit you to one device at a time, others allow you to simultaneously connect a number of different devices to their servers at once. Pay special attention to this if you’re in need of multiple simultaneous connections.
  7. How good is the provider’s customer support?
    By reading the customer reviews and ratings for each VPN service provider, you can choose a provider that responds to your queries or concerns in a timely and professional manner.
  8. Does the provider offer a free trial?
    The best and quickest way to know whether a service suits your needs is to try it out on your own. For a list of great services that let you try them for free, check out the best VPNs with free trials.
  9. Does the provider offer cross-platform support?
    To use the VPN easily on any device, find out whether the service’s website offers native clients. If it doesn’t, you’ll want to get clear instructions for manual setups – make sure your VPN has those.
  10. Are there any additional features or perks?
    Last but not least, some VPN features are essential, and you must absolutely have them. The top items on your list are the kill switch and DNS leak protection. Others, like stealth settings, double encryption, static IPs, and split tunneling can all come in handy, depending on your needs.

Once you have a solid decision process and you’ve gone over all the important questions, you’re guaranteed to find what you’re looking for. One thing you should remember, however, is that research is required no matter what. As a general rule, picking a pricey, but solid and well-equipped VPN is preferable if you’re looking for a long-term service. Even if you think you don’t need the extra features now, you never know where you’ll be a couple of months from now.

Summary

If you’ve reached this part of the guide, congratulations – you started off as a VPN newbie, but by now you’ve graduated to an informed VPN enthusiast. We hope this guide answered all your questions! Now it’s time to choose your VPN and enjoy a safer, better internet.

Which VPNs Are the Best?

If you’d like to see the best services currently on the market, take a look at our top picks below:

Want to get a great deal on some of the best VPNs around? Look no further – we’ve made a list of the hottest VPN bargains happening right now! Don’t forget to check back often for more amazing deals.

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