Many people keep asking what is a VPN? Simply put, a VPN is a network designed to provide a secure conduit for data transmission between a web server and a web browser. The tunnel is secure due to the levels of encryption thereof. VPNs are essential today because of their practicality and efficiency.
When you have a suitable VPN you get;
Privacy – a VPN allows you to stay anonymous over the internet. Neither your ISP nor the government can view your activities on the web.
Censorship – many institutions such as schools, the workplace, the government and even your ISP can censor what you can access on the web. By using a VPN, you can evade all that and have the freedom you desire regardless of the network.
Geo spoofing – some services on the internet are denied to users based on their geographical locations. VPNs are the best way to overcome these restrictions as they mask your location thereby giving you the access you need.
Prevent hackers – time and again we hear that you shouldn’t use your devices over public Wi-Fi hot-spots. Public Wi-Fi hot-spots open you up to hackers and malicious people who would want to steal your data. A VPN solves this problem by providing you with the proper encryption to stay safe from such people.
Downloading – for those who love downloading files from the internet be it movies, software, and many others, having a secure connection is critical as this helps prevent an attack and keeps your identity anonymous.
To understand what is a VPN? you need to know the different types of VPNs
There are two types of VPNs.
Remote Access VPN
Remote access VPN is a type of VPN that’s used to connect to a private network and uses its resources from a remote location. The connection is done over the public internet but is private and secure.
This type of VPN is beneficial to both home users and businesses. When an employee wants to work while traveling, they will use a VPN to access the necessary files or resources they need from the company’s private network. For the home user, this VPN comes in handy to bypass restrictions such as blocked websites.
Also known as a Router-to-Router VPN, Site-to-Site VPN is popular with corporates. Businesses that have offices in various geographical locations use Router-to-Router VPN to connect these offices.
Therefore, the Site-to-Site VPN merely is a secure virtual bridge where the networks of geographically distant workstations are joined to maintain secure communications.
There are different types of VPN security protocols that provide varying levels of security features. Some of the protocols are as follows:
Internet Protocol Security (IPsec)
Internet protocol security is used to secure internet security communication across an IP network. IPsec secures communication by authenticating and encrypting each data packet during a connection.
The protocol operates in two modes, i.e., Transport mode and Tunneling mode. The transport mode handles the encryption of the message in the data packet while the tunneling mode encrypts the entire data packet. IPsec is also used in conjunction with other security protocols to enhance the security system.
Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP)
Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol, also known as L2TP is a tunneling protocol that combines with another security protocol such as IPsec to achieve a highly secure VPN connection. L2TP is responsible for creating a tunnel between two L2TP connection points while IPsec protocol handles the encryption of the data as well as the secure communication between the tunnels.
Point-to-Point-Tunneling Protocol (PPTP)
Point-to-point tunneling protocol or PPTP is a widely used protocol that creates a tunnel and at the same time encapsulates the data packet. PPTP allows the encryption of multiprotocol traffic and encapsulating in an IP header to be sent across the internet. PPTP protocol is used mainly for remote access and site-to-site VPN connections.
Secure Socket Layer (SSL) and Transport Layer Security (TLS)
SSL and TLS protocols are widely used by online service providers and online shopping websites. The SSL and TLS protocols create a VPN connection enabling the web browser to act as a client thus, restricting user access to specific applications as opposed to the entire network.
A web browser can switch swiftly to SSL since they come integrated with SSL and TLS. SSL connections are easily identified with the presence of https at the beginning of the URL instead of HTTP.
The OpenVPN protocol is a widely used, flexible open-source software tunneling application that utilizes SSL/TLS for key exchange and is capable of traversing firewalls and Network address translators (NATs). OpenVPN ensures point to point connections in routed configurations. The protocol is not only stable but also reliable on Wi-Fi hotspots, as well as unreliable networks. It will also give you high speeds even when on connections with high latency.
Secure Shell (SSH)
Secure Shell (SSH) creates the VPN tunnel where data transfer takes place and also ensures the encryption of the tunnel. SSH clients create SSH connections, and the data is routed from a local port on to the remote server via the encrypted tunnel.
SSH is ideal for providing an encrypted channel to enable the logging into another computer over a network and also the moving of files from one computer to another. It provides secure encrypted communication and authentication.
Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP)
Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol, also known as SSTP is a VPN tunnel that enables the transportation of PPT traffic via an SSL/TLS channel. SSTP is used for remote client access and does not support site-to-site VPN tunnels. SSTP supports user authentication but does not support device or computer authentication.
Is a VPN Safe to Use?
Closely related to the question of what is a VPN is the question as to whether the use of VPNs is legal or illegal. Using VPNs is legal. In most democratic countries in the world, every citizen has a right to privacy. And VPNs do just that. They make sure your activities on the internet remain private.
After extensive research on the subject, we couldn’t find a single democratic nation that has made the use of VPNs illegal. However, there are regimes such as Iran, Turkey, and China that censor what their citizens can and can’t access online. China is notorious in this aspect with their ‘Great Fire Wall’ and the banning of VPN services.
In as much as these countries have sophisticated systems to censor internet use in their countries, these mechanisms are usually just slightly successful. People in these countries still use the best VPNs for their countries to bypass the censorship.
Due to the recent terrorist attacks on European nations, they have implemented surveillance laws that aim at keeping the citizens safe. In countries such as the UK and France, the law requires a VPN service provider to maintain a log of user activity. Therefore, if you want to continue using a VPN, you should consider using one in a country where the law does not require the VPN service to keep user activity logs.
How to Choose the Best VPN
Knowing what is a VPN is important, however, knowing how to choose the best VPN is the difference that makes a difference. A good VPN service is critical to your security and anonymity online. Top tier VPNs give their users a good balance in features between connectivity protocols, server locations, and pricing among others.
Many VPNs are designed with a certain type of user in mind. There are those that focus more on removing Geo-location restrictions, while others focus more on heavy data downloading and content freedom. Therefore, when you are contemplating which service best suits your needs, here are a few things to look out for;
The Protocols a VPN Service Uses
In your endeavor to find out what is a VPN, you will most likely come across many terms such as OpenVPN support (sometimes referred to as SSL/TLS), L2TP, PPTP, IPsec and other types of VPNs. All these protocols might seem confusing for the non-techies.
It’s important to note that all these protocols give the users a secure connection on the internet. However, OpenVPN is highly recommendable as it not only provides the highest encryption for your data but also uses digital certificates to authenticate the data.
How many Servers and Server Locations does a VPN service provide?
This is an important aspect of choosing the right VPN. Depending on what you want to use a VPN for, the VPN locations are critical to making the decision. When you are concerned with Geo-restrictions, you have to find a service that has servers in the desired location.
For example, if you want to watch live TV in the US, you should make sure the service provider has multiple servers in that area.
If your concern is ISP or government snooping, it’s a good idea to choose a service with servers outside the said country. Some apps restrict usage to certain geographical locations.
Getting a service that has host servers in the region you want will give you unfiltered access as though you were there.
3. Does a VPN Service log your online activities?
Data logging is a grave concern for many people. As such, finding out what is a VPN is not enough. You need to go ahead and find out whether a particular VPN logs your data. When you use a VPN service, you transfer your trust from the ISP to the VPN service provider. Your communications are secure from hackers and eavesdroppers, but the service can choose to log your data.
Before choosing the right VPN service, you should conduct proper research into the logging practices of the service provider.
Some people say that VPN services based in the US are required by law to log their user data. This is quite untrue. However, it’s critical to note that the government can request whatever data they want to have whether they log or not. Today, the most reliable VPN service providers purge records of your activity.
As much as VPNs provide a lot of protection, it doesn’t mean that you are bulletproof. You should make sure that you are using HTTPS as much as possible and be careful of what you are downloading online.
Top tier VPN providers have anti-malware/spyware scanners to make sure their clients don’t download files that might harm them. This is especially true for mobile clients. These Anti-malware/spyware scanners filter every download to ensure that you do not download Trojans and viruses disguised as genuine files.
A good VPN service will always cost you money. Let no one tell you otherwise. As such, the service provider should be able to provide consistency over all your devices; from your computer to your smartphone to your tablet.
Any VPN service worth its salt has mobile apps for all these platforms. This ensures that whichever device you use, you get protection when accessing the internet.
The question of what is a VPN is closely followed by wanting to know the price of subscribing to a competent VPN service. Some service providers offer their VPNs for free while others require you to pay a subscription fee.
Before deciding on the appropriate service to use, make sure you read the service’s privacy policies. The policies will show you the true difference between paid and free service.
Free VPNs – these VPN providers do not charge you for their service. As such, they have to look for other ways to generate income for the upkeep of their servers and staff. This is the reason why free VPN providers always have ads on their apps. Apart from that, they also have fewer exit locations and lenient policies concerning privacy. They usually do not have many features, but some are excellent. However, if privacy and activity logging is crucial for you, you might want to go premium or avoid them entirely.
Paid VPNs – since you are paying for this type of VPN service, the providers take your security and privacy a bit more seriously. For the paid services, there are usually no ads on the apps, but whether or not the company stores your activity logs varies from one provider to another.
The best thing about paid VPNs is that they usually offer a free trial period which can run from a week to a month so that the user can decide whether or not they like the service and would like to go on with it. Many paid VPN services are usually subscription-based. The customers pay on a monthly basis but usually get some discounts for annual purchases.
When you are using a VPN, your speed will slow down. This is because data transmitted over a VPN is usually encrypted. As such, encrypting and decrypting the data needs some processing power. However, given that today’s computers and devices have more processing power, this usually isn’t a problem.
The second aspect that affects internet speeds is the distance that your data must travel to get to you. As we said earlier, VPNs allow us to choose the location of the servers you want to use. As such, this increases the distance in which the data must travel to reach you.
When you choose a server that’s close to you geographically, you should expect a slight decrease in speed. However, when you select a server that’s halfway across the world, you can expect a more significant dip in your internet speed.
This, however, does not mean that you cannot enjoy super-fast internet while using VPNs. Speeds vary across multiple VPN service providers. There are a few factors that dictate this such as available bandwidth, server processing power and the number of people currently using a particular server.
Many first time users of VPNs have many questions that need addressing as fast as possible. Therefore, getting a VPN service with proper customer support is essential. The customer representatives should be able to respond to issues on time and have answers that work. Having good customer service means that you will solve problems faster without struggling.
The Best VPNs with no IP leaks
Now that you know what is a VPN and the elements that comprise the best VPN, we provide you with our list of the best VPN services that we have tested and which can provide you with the best security and anonymity features to keep you safe while you browse the net.
NordVPN is the perfect answer to the question what is a VPN?
NordVPN is arguably the best VPN service in the market. The VPN provides you with 4300 servers in 62 different countries, unlimited bandwidth, and allows simultaneous connection up to 6 devices. NordVPN supports a wide range of protocols ranging from OpenVPN, PPTP, L2TP, IPsec, and IKEv2 protocols. They have a zero log policy, allow P2P file sharing and provide double VPN for increased anonymity.
Read full NordVPN Review
ExpressVPN- A VPN that provides you with robust encryption
ExpressVPN is another excellent VPN service provider with blazing fast speeds and robust 256-bit encryption. They have servers in more than 94 countries, unlimited bandwidth, unlimited server switches, and works on all devices. ExpressVPN is excellent at bypassing Geo-restrictions even the great firewall of China. They do not log your network and have fantastic customer service.
IPvanish-A VPN service that provides incredible speeds
IPvanish is a VPN service that campaigns for an open and safe internet. They are a tier1 VPN service with 850 servers in more than 6o countries and allow up to 5 simultaneous connections. IPvanish is compatible with Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Chrome book, Firetv, Windows phone, and Router. They provide incredible speeds, unlimited bandwidth and allow Torrenting. The VPN service has apps for all devices and provides 256-AES encryption.
Read full IPVanish review
VyprVPN-A VPN that uses the Chameleon protocol to scramble OpenVPN Metadata and bypass Deep Packet Inspection.
VyprVPN is a VPN service that is based in Switzerland, a country with one of the best privacy protection laws. The VPN uses the OpenVPN, PPTP, L2TP/IPsec, and the Chameleon protocol. The Chameleon protocol has the capabilities of scrambling OpenVPN Metadata to bypass Deep Packet Inspection. The VPN exhibits fast speeds and has servers spread across the world.
Read full VyprVPN review
In conclusion to the important question of what is a VPN? We’d advise you to make use of a competent VPN service to secure your online activities. Though transacting online brings about convenience, it also involves risks such as hacking and snooping. If you need more information before using a VPN service, you can read our comprehensive review of some of the best VPN services. If you are on a limited budget and thus not able to spare a dime for purchasing a VPN, don’t lose hope, read our guide on the best free premium VPN services and secure your online activities for free.