What’s a VPN? Do You Need One? The 2018 VPN Guide for Newbies
Everyone's talking about VPNs these days. Are you wondering what they are, what they do, and if you need one? We're here to help! 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. Share
New to virtual private networks? No worries – everyone has to start somewhere! You’ve made the right choice, and very soon you’ll be up to speed with everything a newcomer should know about the basics of VPNs.
Still wondering what a VPN is, how it works, where you can use it, and which one to pick? At vpnMentor, we’re here to help – and we’ll make sure you understand everything clearly, even if you’re a little scared of the technical bits. We’re in this together. Let’s dive right in, shall we?
What is a VPN?
By now, you probably have a faint idea of VPNs and what they give you: higher levels of security, more privacy, and even better access to restricted content online. All of that sounds great – but what are the secret ingredients that make a VPN your trusty bodyguard and sidekick on the internet?
A VPN is a network technology that creates a secure connection over a public network (such as the wi-fi in public transport or your favorite café) or a private network (like your connection at home, which is owned by your internet service provider). In other words, VPNs offer a higher degree of protection as you’re surfing the web, whether at home or outside.
VPNs are by no means a rarity nowadays. 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 – now use a virtual private network to keep themselves shielded from the many threats to their online identity and activity.
Government spying, data selling, and even various hacker attacks can be prevented and avoided with a solid VPN. A good VPN will also help immensely against heavy censorship and geographical restrictions on online content – perfect if you’re an advocate for an internet without borders, or you simply want to get the full Netflix catalog from anywhere in the world. We’ll talk more about the benefits of a VPN further below.
VPNs Are Easy to Use
The great part about a VPN – if it’s 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.
You may be wondering if VPNs are for your computer or laptop only. Not at all! You can easily equip your mobile device with a VPN. 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, etc. 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.
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.
Are VPNs Legal?
And now, the big question: is using a VPN actually 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…
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 obsolete 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.
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 geographically restricted content. Want to get the full list of Netflix shows, 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? Usually, you wouldn’t be able to do any of that due to geoblocks and advanced VPN detection measures. But with a VPN, you can easily pretend to be in dozens of countries and “fool” geo-restricted websites into thinking that you’re surfing from the right location. Not all VPNs have what it takes for this task, but plenty of them remain committed to providing you with excellent content unblocking.
- Better protection on public networks. Do you often find yourself using free wi-fi in parks, 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 there 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 or currently living in a country that imposes serious internet censorship, you can bypass this issue with a VPN. You’ll need some knowledge and certain features, but in the end you’ll be able to access many sites and services that were previously unavailable. Whether it’s Google 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 doesn’t sound too weird 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. By encrypting your data, it will be very difficult for anyone 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.
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.
How Does a VPN Work?
You know what a virtual private network is, and you know about its major benefits. But there’s one more important question you need answered – how does it actually work? It’s magic, of course! Just kidding – it’s all about encryption, servers, and tunnels.
In all seriousness, the inner workings of a VPN are complex. So complex, in fact, that they deserve a separate, in-depth explanation. We invite you to check that out if you want to get familiar with all the juicy details. In the meantime, let us try to give you a more basic view of how a VPN functions.
Think about your internet connection – how does that work? Simply put, you connect to your ISP’s server, which in turn connects you to your website of choice. As all this happens, your internet traffic passes through that server, and is visible to your ISP.
Now think of your VPN as the middleman you’ve hired to make sure your data is under lock and key as it’s transferred from your end to the ISP. Your traffic now takes a slight detour at the start, passing through the VPN server via an encrypted “tunnel”. No one else is allowed in – just you and the VPN provider.
After coming out of that tunnel, your IP address is no longer you own – instead, you’ve “borrowed” one from your VPN server. As far as everyone else is concerned, your digital location is wherever you set the VPN to. For example, if you’ve connected to a server in Germany, you now have a German IP address somewhere in Berlin or Frankfurt. Your real IP is safe and invisible to others, and you’re browsing the web privately from a completely different location. Great success!
Of course, there’s much more to VPN encryption. One of the most important parts is choosing the right protocol. 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, check out our detailed comparison.
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. 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.
Pros and Cons of VPNs
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:
- 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. 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.
- Your connection speed will take a hit. A VPN reroutes your internet connection through its own servers, so the extra distance results in a minor speed bump. Your destination also matters – for example, connecting to a Canadian server from the US will result in a much faster connection than, say, Australia. VPNs will always slow you down, but if you choose a service with an optimized network and fast servers, 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.
We believe these cons to be subjective, because you wouldn’t be aware of their existence if you didn’t use a VPN in the first place. Therefore, they aren’t inherent shortcomings of VPNs, but rather unique issues that may arise after deciding to use a VPN to access otherwise restricted websites or services.
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 do I want out of my 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 to do some research on VPN services that offer obfuscation and stealth settings. Using a basic VPN simply won’t get the job done.
- 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:
- How much am I willing to pay? Different providers offer different prices for their services, normally between $5 and $10 per month.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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 means nothing if most of them are sluggish – so make sure the network is adequate by checking what experts and users have to say.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Take a look at the Refund Diaries to find out which providers can be trusted to meet their money back guarantees. For a list of great services that let you try them for free, check out the best VPNs with free trials.
- 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.
- 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.
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. If you’d like to see the best services currently on the market, take a look at our top picks:
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