Security Technology Explained

What Is a VPN Connection and How Does It Work?

Dan Price 28-01-2019

If you take your online privacy seriously, there’s a good chance you use a VPN connection. They offer a layer of privacy that’s unattainable if you access the web directly through your ISP’s servers.

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However, despite their increasing popularity, not many people know how a VPN works; what is happening behind the scenes?

Let’s look at what a VPN connection is and explain how a VPN works.

VPN Meaning

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network.

What Is a VPN?

It is easiest to think of a VPN as a secure tunnel between two parts of the web. In the same way that nothing on the outside could see what you’re doing in a secret tunnel under a mountain, nobody else on the web will be able to see what is happening in your private VPN tunnel.

On a more technical level, a VPN is a connection method that brings a vast number of additional security benefits, especially to anyone using a public connection such as in a hotel, airport, or library.

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A VPN can be installed on a specific browser, a desktop or laptop, a smartphone, or a router.

How Does VPN Work?

When you connect to the web without a VPN, your traffic is flowing freely an in an unencrypted form from your machine to your ISP’s servers. From there, it goes to servers around the world. At all times, it is vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks, snooping, and other security threats.

If you use a VPN, your traffic is encrypted by the VPN app on your computer or smartphone before it even leaves your device.

From there, it goes to your ISP’s server, and then your VPN’s server. When it reaches the VPN server, the traffic is decrypted and passed on to the broader web. It also uses your VPN’s IP address. In many cases, users can choose the physical location of the VPN server they are using.

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Types of VPN Protocols

Several types of VPN protocol exist. Not all providers support all the protocols. Some of the most popular VPN protocols include:

  • IPsec: Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) was created for use with IPv6. It encrypts traffic by encapsulating an IP packet inside an IPsec packet.
  • SSL/TLS: Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) can tunnel all the traffic on a network through a VPN connection. It is used in the OpenVPN project.
  • SSH: Secure Shell (SSH) VPNs use tunneling to add security to intra-network links.
  • SSTP: Microsoft Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) uses Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) tunnels to send traffic via an SSL 3.0 channel.

What Does a VPN Do?

A VPN can perform many different functions for many different types of user. Note that a VPN is different than a proxy Proxy vs. VPN: What's the Difference and Which Should You Use? Can a proxy protect your online privacy? Better off with a VPN? Not sure what's best? Let's settle the proxy versus VPN debate. Read More , however.

Remote Access

VPNs first arose due to the need for people to access networks remotely and securely. Some of the first users were businesses with multiple branches or off-site employees.

Those original benefits still exist today. Millions of people use a company-provided VPN to access internal networks and servers.

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Privacy and Online Security

Because of the way VPNs work, users were quick to realize that the technology also had colossal privacy and security benefits.

Not all VPNs offer the same features. However, if you use one of the market-leading paid VPN services (like ExpressVPN or CyberGhost), you should benefit from most of the following:

  • Encryption: Almost all commercial VPN services encrypt your web traffic data. It means your information is unreadable to any hackers or malicious apps that are snooping on your network data.
  • Hidden IP Address: To outsiders, your computer appears to have the IP address of the VPN servers. Many companies collect vast amounts of data based on IP addresses, so removing your own address drastically increases your anonymity.
  • No Logging: Some VPNs will not log any of your browsing data. It means that if a government comes looking for information, there is nothing to hand over. Be aware, however, not all VPNs dispose of logs, and some have intentionally vague privacy policies.

Circumnavigate Blocked Sites

Websites are frequently blocked on certain networks. For example, your employee might not let people log onto Facebook while in work, your school probably blocks adult content, and in extreme cases, governments have prevented access to some sites across entire countries.

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A VPN will let you access any blocked sites. The tunnel we spoke about earlier provides your machine with a way to break through a network’s restrictions and freely access the internet from your VPN server’s location.

Geo-Blocked Content

The final significant thing a VPN does is to provide access to geo-blocked sites. It’s a feature that’s especially useful for cord cutters and expats who want to watch video content from their home country.

VPNs that specialize in unlocking geo-blocked content will typically have hundreds of servers in dozens of countries around the world to provide flexibility to users.

(Note: Several leading streaming services theoretically restrict access from VPNs by blocking known VPN IP address, leading to a never-ending game of cat and mouse.

What a VPN Cannot Do

VPNs are great, but they’re far from being a one-size-fits-all online security solution—they can’t do everything.

Block Cookies

There are other ways that companies can track you around the web. One of the most common ways is to use cookies.

A VPN cannot block cookies. It means that organizations such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google will still be able to monitor you.

(Note: There are lots of different types of cookies you should be aware of 7 Types of Browser Cookies You Need to Know About Browser cookies aren't all designed to reduce your online privacy---some are there to help you. Here's what you need to know. Read More .)

Make You Entirely Anonymous

VPNs are not a guarantee of online anonymity. Firstly, they can go offline unexpectedly or suffer from DNS leaks, both of which could expose your data to snoopers, ISPs, and governments without warning.

Secondly, although your ISP no longer has a copy of your browsing data, your VPN provider now has a copy. As such, you are placing a lot of trust in the provider not to use it for undesirable purposes.

For a better level of online anonymity, you should consider using the Tor network instead.

Protect You Against Malware

A VPN connection has no anti-virus properties. You still need to run one of the best anti-virus suites The Best Computer Security and Antivirus Tools Concerned about malware, ransomware, and viruses? Here are the best security and antivirus apps you need to stay protected. Read More to protect yourself from the threats you’ll inevitably come across while surfing the web.

And remember, some malware has the ability to switch off your VPN without your permission, rendering it entirely useless.

Should You Choose a Paid or Free VPN?

In truth, you should never use a free VPN. As is always the case with free stuff online, you become the product. It’s an issue we saw repeatedly when we looked at the best free VPN providers.

Instead, make sure you sign up for a reputable, reliable, and secure paid VPN provider. There are lots of great paid VPNs The Best VPN Services We've compiled a list of what we consider to be the best Virtual Private Network (VPN) service providers, grouped by premium, free, and torrent-friendly. Read More you can choose from.

Image Credit: prykhodov/Depositphotos

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. Brad Woody
    January 26, 2020 at 11:48 pm

    Dude. In the video, you kept saying "datta". It's correctly pronounced "dayta". It's difficult to take you seriously when you sound like a granny who just got her first cell phone and can't believe it can actually send "datta". All of us who make our living working with data laugh at people who mispronounce it.

    Now you can sound like you know what you are talking about...

  2. Thomas
    January 29, 2019 at 5:26 am

    Definitely go for paid VPNs. They're faster, more secure and usually easier to use. I was able to install ExpressVPN in seconds.

  3. Filton
    January 28, 2019 at 5:48 pm

    Online safety depends from ourselves, I am happy that with VPNs help we can take it in our own hands. I like what I get from Nordvpn app, this provider is worth every cent. But, of course, if you want to get a refund, you can do it in 30 days.