VPNs 101 – vpnMentor’s VPN Guide for Newbies

If you're alive, surfing the web in the year 2017, and living anywhere that isn't under a rock, , you've undoubtedly heard and read the term "VPN" at least dozens of times. If you're still wondering what it is, what it does, and how you can use it to improve your online surfing experience, options and privacy – vpnMentor is here to help. Let's dive right in, shall we? Share

vpns101 VPNs for newbies

If you’re alive, surfing the web in the year 2017, and living anywhere that isn’t under a rock, , you’ve undoubtedly heard and read the term “VPN” at least dozens of times. If you’re still wondering what it is, what it does, and how you can use it to improve your online surfing experience, options and privacy – vpnMentor is here to help. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

What is a VPN?

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a network technology that creates a secure network connection over a public network, such as the Internet, or a private network owned by a service provider. Everyone from large companies and corporations to government agencies uses VPN technology to allow remote users a secure connection to a private network.

There are dozens of VPN service providers across the web, through which you can connect to a server for a monthly fee of around $5-$10, in order to securely encrypt your personal data and online activities. In addition, most operating systems have some integrated VPN support and there are also free VPNs (and/or free versions of commercial VPNs) available as well.

VPN protector

What is a VPN Good For?

Between WiFi spoofing, internet hackers and honeypot attacks – public networks have become a dangerous and  treacherous place for the average Joe to surf. So, rather than using public networks and praying for the best, be smart and use a VPN.

Although VPN technology was originally developed to enable corporate employees to securely connect to their workplace’s networks in order to access them when away from the office, VPN connections are now used primarily to hide internet activity, thus providing privacy and enabling bypass of local or governmental censorship (by your workplace, school, state, etc.), to avoid hackers when using public WiFi, and to “fool” websites into thinking you’re surfing from a different geographical location, in order to access websites which are limited to users from specific countries, states, or regions.

For more information on the different uses of a VPN, see Different types of VPNs and when to use them.

How Does a VPN Work?

Just as a firewall protects the information on your computer, a VPN protects your data online. Though a VPN is technically a Wide Area Network (WAN), its front end offers the same security, appearance and functionality as a private network. VPNs can be either remote access (connecting a computer to a network) or site-to-site (connecting two networks to each other).

When surfing without a VPN, you are actually connecting to your ISP’s (Internet Service Provider) server, which in turn connects you to the website of your choice. This means that all of your internet traffic activity passes through their servers and can be monitored by them.

When surfing through a VPN, however, your traffic passes through the VPN server using an encrypted “tunnel”. This means it is not accessible to anyone, apart from yourself and the VPN server. That being said, there is a difference between privacy and anonymity. Using a VPN does not make you anonymous, as your VPN provider knows who you are and can view your online activity. It does, however, provide you with privacy from your ISP, your school or workplace and even your government. In order to ensure your privacy is truly protected by your VPN service provider, it is critical to choose a “no logs” provider. If the VPN provider keeps activity logs, the authorities can always demand to receive or view them, which means your information will no longer be private.

It should be noted that, even if your provider commits to keep no logs, it can still monitor your real-time online activity when necessary, e.g. for technical reasons such as troubleshooting. Though most “no logs” VPN service providers will also commit to not monitor your real-time activity, most countries are legally permitted to compel any VPN provider to start keeping logs for any individual user, without alerting said user. However, if you are not already on the run from the authorities for unlawful online activity, you probably have no reason to worry.

In addition to choosing a “no logs” VPN service provider, you also want to ensure that the provider you choose uses shared IPs, meaning that many different users are assigned the same IP address. This makes it infinitely more challenging for any third party to link your identified online behavior to you specifically.

vpns101-diagram

Can I Use a VPN on my Mobile Device?

Although VPNs are fully supported by both iOS and Android and will fully protect you while accessing websites for P2P downloading, the mobile apps you install on your phone have access to other data aside from your IP address, through which they can gain access to your online activity. This includes your GPS location, contact list, app store ID, etc. The collected data is then sent directly by these apps to their parent companies, affectively bypassing your VPN.

Therefore, in order to enjoy the full benefits of your VPN using your mobile device, it is important to access websites only through their web pages or interfaces using a privacy-friendly, open source browser (such as Firefox) and never though dedicated apps.

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.

Advantages and Disadvantages

To help you better understand the benefits and drawbacks of using a VPN, I’ve drawn a table of the main pros and cons of using this technology (*spoiler alert*: In this writer’s opinion, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, but I leave the final decision up to you).

PROS CONS
You can increase downloading speeds from peer-to-peer file transfer protocols (such as BitTorrent), as some ISPs throttle them (and other types of traffic) and make them extremely slow. In such cases, a VPN can be used in order to gain a faster downloading speed. Your normal online surfing speed will decrease by at least 10%, depending on the extra distance your data has to travel. If both the VPN server you are using and the website you want to access are located in close proximity to each other and to you, the lag will be minor, if at all noticeable. The greater the distance between yourself, the VPN server and the server of the website you are surfing – the slower your connection will become. Your internet speed will also be marginally affected by the encryption, as encrypting and decrypting data requires processing power; however, these differences are usually barely noticeable.
You can use WiFi hotpots safely, as the internet connection between your device and the VPN server is encrypted. This means that your personal data is safe, even if a hacker does manage to somehow intercept it. Your VPN service provider does have access to your online activity. It’s hard to define this point as a clear cut “con”, as one way or another someone will be able to see your data either way and trusting a VPN provider is by far the smarter choice (as ISPs have no interest in protecting your privacy), but you should be aware of this matter either way. The safer VPN providers use technical measures to ensure they know as little as possible about you and your online activity.
Your internet service provider has no access to your online activity, due to the encryption provided by the VPN server. This means that your ISP has no way of knowing where you are surfing or what you are doing, but only that you are connected to a VPN server. You may encounter websites with VPN blocks. Some censored websites have figured out a way to detect when a VPN is being used to access them, and have subsequently developed VPN blocks to stop unwanted users from entering their pages. Fortunately, these blocks can also be bypassed. For info on how to do it, you can read our guide on How to Bypass VPN Blocks with Ease.
You can access your home or business network while traveling, which is the primary reason for which VPN technology was developed in the first place. The local resources don’t have to be exposed directly to the Internet, which increases security. This allows you to access a Windows Remote Desktop over the Internet, use local file shares and play online games as if you were on the same LAN (local area network). You may be opening a door to IP spoofing and blacklisting, as a VPN disguises your real IP and uses the VPN IP in its place. The VPN IP is public and shared by an unknown number of the same provider’s customers, making IP spoofing simpler. Additionally, the activity of another VPN user with your same server IP address may cause it to be blacklisted, thus limiting your access to specific websites which have blacklisted the server you are connected to. Using a VPN is also likely to reduce the trust that the destination service (such as your bank, email host, etc.) has in you, so it might be a nonstarter anyway if your VPN host already has a bad reputation.
You can geo-spoof any website into thinking you’re surfing from a different location, thus websites that are blocked in your country or limited to users only from a specific location, become wide open to you by remotely connecting to the right server. Anyone trying to monitor your internet activity will trace it back to the VPN server you’re using, so your real IP address is virtually untraceable.

Legal Repercussions

While censored websites frown upon (and try to stop) people who use VPNs to access them, citizens in most countries have a legal right to privacy, and therefore the use of VPNs is rarely illegal (although the content you access when using the VPN may be), even in VPN-blocking countries such as China, Syria or Iran.

That being said, as of July 2016, using a VPN service while in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is illegal and punishable by jail time and fines of between 500,000 and 2,000,000 UAE dirham (136,130 – 544,521 USD). So, if you’re planning a trip to the UAE in the near future, we would strongly advise exercising caution and entering unrestricted sites only.

As for censorship incurred by your school or workplace, you would do well to consider that, if caught bypassing them via VPN on a private WiFi or LAN network (slim as the chances may be), you could be facing suspension, termination or other disciplinary measures, depending on the policies in place for such instances. This should be taken into account when deciding whether using a VPN is actually worth it.

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.

As in any decision process, your first step should be research –
Visit our 2017’s Best (& Worst) VPNs page, read online reviews and recommendations and study your options before making your final decision.

welcome-on-board

After you’ve done all that, 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. To review some free options, here are the top free VPN services for 2017.
  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? Will the provider be able to effectively prevent hackers and unwanted third parties from accessing your information?
  4. What is the geographical distance between the VPN server and the server I wish to access? As I 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 (“load”).
  5. How many servers does the provider have and where are they located? If you need to access multiple websites whose servers are located in various countries, a larger number of servers and countries will improve your chances that there will be an available server for you to connect to in the location of your choice.
  6. How many devices can I use simultaneously? VPNs are available for almost all computer-type devices, including desktops, laptops, smart phones, 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.
  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. Take a look at The Refund Diaries to find out which providers can be trusted to meet their money back guarantees.
  9. Does the provider offer cross-platform support? To use the service on any device, find out whether their website offers dedicated apps or setup guides for various platforms and OSs.
  10. Are there any additional features or perks? VPN clients can add different features and perks, such as VPN kill switches, DNS leak protection, “stealth servers”, cloud storage,

Tor – The Ultimate in Anonymity

tor-logo
Remember when we discussed privacy vs. anonymity? Yes, your VPN service provider can always know who you are and where you’re surfing. Unless, of course, you connect to your VPN service via the Tor browser. This way, even you VPN provider cannot see your real IP. If you’re concerned about your privacy (as you very well should be) and wish to reach true anonymity, signing up using Tor and choosing to use an anonymous payment method will provide you with just that.

The drawback, however, is that your internet speed will be decreased by both the VPN and Tor, meaning that your connection will be considerably slower than normal.

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