what is a vpn

What Is a VPN and Why Do I Need One in 2021?

Why is it that our team at AllAnonymity — a site dedicated to covering all the ins and outs of online security — always comes back to VPNs? It might be because this is one of the very few cases where “one weird trick” actually works.

Online security is a topic at least as complicated as romance. Maybe more so: there are lots of poems and songs about love, but none of them require you to understand IPv6 or AES-128. You can talk knowledgeably about love without having a master’s degree in it.

smiling-man-in-graduation-robes
If anybody claims to have a master’s in love, you probably shouldn’t date them.

If there’s no “one weird trick” for romance, why should there be one for secure browsing? And yet there is. VPNs are a minor miracle: a simple, cheap solution that can protect you from 90 percent of the dangers found online.

But what is a VPN? How does it work? And do you need one? In this article, I’ll cover everything you need to know.


So, What Is a VPN? Breaking Down the Basics

VPN stands for “virtual private network.” A VPN is an encrypted smokescreen that shields your online activity from prying eyes.

The forerunner of today’s VPN technology was invented at Microsoft in the ‘90s. The first VPNs were essentially private networks for big businesses, connecting employees to a company server that allowed them to share sensitive information with each other without leaking it to the world at large. VPNs also let employees access company files without having to be physically present in the building.

This ability to connect to a VPN remotely inspired some businesses to sell access to their virtual private networks to users outside the company. When these private users connected to the company’s VPN, then from there to the wider internet, anybody spying on them could only see the VPN. The customer’s personal identity and information were safe.

Nowadays, when you hear somebody talk about a VPN, they’re usually not talking about an internal corporate network. They’re referring to a network of servers, accessed through a desktop app, where all the user’s connection requests are routed through before heading to their ultimate destination.

Why bother doing this? Because of something called an IP address.

How a VPN Hides Your IP Address

IP stands for “internet protocol.” It’s a unique identifier that tells website servers where to send the information you’ve requested — like when you give a name for the barista to shout out when your order’s ready.

Barista-creating-latte-art
“We got a latte for 2001:0db8:85a3:0000:0000:8a2e:0370:7334!”

While IP addresses are indispensable for surfing the web, they’re also a double-edged sword. Having an IP address means nothing you do online is anonymous. There’s a single thumbprint attached to all your activity online, which doesn’t just mean you can be tracked — because ISPs are local, your IP address can be used to physically find you.

So how can you protect your privacy? With an impenetrable alias, of course.

When you use a VPN, your IP address is replaced with that of the server you connect to. You have the same IP address as every other user of the VPN. Nothing you do can be traced back to a single individual or their location.


How Does a VPN Work?

I’ve already gone over the basics: a VPN uses a private network of servers to encrypt your web requests and hide your IP address.

However, online security is a highly technical topic. People tend to throw around complicated lingo even when talking about a VPN provider from the consumer side. In this section, I’ll run down a glossary of the more common terms.

VPN Terminology 

Server: A computer that provides services to other computers, which are called clients. In VPNs, a server is the part of the VPN you connect with to access its services. You’ll usually choose the server closest to your location for better speed, though you might want a different one in certain circumstances.

IP address: A unique ID number that attaches to your online activity. To be anonymous online, you need to hide this.

Protocol: As a private network, a VPN needs to make sure it can communicate with any server on the public network (the World Wide Web). A protocol is the language a VPN uses to exchange information with the internet. Some of the most popular protocols include OpenVPN, L2TP/IPSec, SSTP, IKEv2, and WireGuard.

Split tunneling: A feature on some VPNs that allows you to send only some of your web traffic through the VPN, while keeping the rest unprotected. Useful if your VPN is causing you to experience slower speeds.

P2P: Stands for peer-to-peer. P2P file sharing, also known as torrenting, is a method of transferring files untraceably. The files are stored in small pieces on a distributed network of computers, then condensed together when a download begins.

Kill switch: A feature that automatically disconnects you from WiFi if you ever lose contact with your VPN. A kill switch is useful for making sure you never browse unprotected, even for a moment.

Geoblocking: The practice of websites restricting access to online content based on what country the user is in. Streaming platforms like Netflix often use geoblocks because they don’t have the rights to stream all their content in every country. Some VPNs can be used to circumvent geoblocking.


What Is a VPN Used For?

A VPN does two basic things for you whenever you’re connected to the internet. First, there’s rerouting, which we’ve already described. When anybody tries to trace your online activity, they see the VPN server’s IP address, not yours.

But there’s a critical second feature of any VPN service: encryption.

Before moving on, let’s take a moment to talk about these malicious third parties who might be snooping on your web traffic. A few of the most common examples:

  • Hackers
  • Scam artists
  • Advertisers
  • ISPs
  • Corporations
  • Information brokers
  • Totalitarian governments
  • Stalkers and abusers

If you want to keep all those bad guys at bay, you can find proxy services that will mask your IP address from prying eyes. However, for many interlopers — ISPs included — it’s child’s play to follow a connection from one server to another. With one more hop, they’ll know exactly where the activity originated.

That’s why encryption is important. VPNs take any traffic that reaches their servers and scramble it with a code that takes enormous amounts of processing power to crack. Nobody will track your activity, because nobody will be able to see what it is.

Do I Need a VPN on All My Devices?

A VPN isn’t passive. It can only protect a device that’s actively connected to it. If your desktop computer is connected to a VPN, but you’re browsing on your phone, you may be exposed.

The good news is that almost every reputable VPN service can be used on multiple devices at once. It’s not always exactly the same: some let you install the VPN on unlimited devices but only connect with a certain number at a time, while some maintain a hard limit on associated devices, period.

You should also be careful to get a multi-device VPN that’s well reviewed. If the VPN is shoddily built and has a low bandwidth limit, using too many devices at once can slow down your connection.

One of the best ways to protect all your devices without straining your VPN is to install it on your router. This takes a bit more work, but once you’re done, any device that connects through that router will be protected.

Should I Use a VPN All the Time?

Not everything you do online needs to be protected by a VPN. If you’re on a password-protected WiFi connection, you’re probably safe with regular browsing activities that don’t transmit any login credentials or financial information.

That said, no matter where you are, you should always turn on your VPN for anything the slightest bit sensitive. That means sending money, logging in to websites, torrenting, doing anything not 100 percent socially acceptable, doing anything involving location services…

minesweeper-game-flag
Minesweeper is probably safe.

It’s probably easier to just leave the VPN on all the time. You wouldn’t remove your seatbelt every time the car stopped at a red light, then hurriedly put it back on when it started moving.

Can You Be Tracked While Using a VPN?

It’s normally impossible, but there is one vulnerability to beware of.

When your traffic is routed through a VPN, even your ISP should be unable to see where it’s going. But there is one entity that can still track you: the VPN itself. You’re going through its servers, so it can see your IP address, your page requests and everything else.

VPN providers know they’re the weakest link in your online security, which is why most of them have privacy policies a mile long. Sadly, that’s not always enough.

Some VPNs, especially free ones, bury clauses in the fine print that allow them to sell your location to third-party advertisers. For example, the privacy policy for Aura, parent company for popular free VPN Hotspot Shield, openly admits to selling your geographic location to Google, then tries to pretend they’re doing you a favor because those sales keep their product free.

two-red-fly-agaric-mushrooms
“We’re selling your privacy, so we can give you free privacy. Take these mushrooms and it’ll start to make sense.”

Then there’s the case of IPVanish, one of several VPNs that claim not to log user data. After being served a subpoena, IPVanish revealed that, oops, it actually did have logs the whole time.

The only surefire way to tell if a VPN is trustworthy is to look at its reputation. Check the news to see if any VPN you’re considering has been caught logging and selling user data. If a VPN service has persisted for years without major controversies, it’s more than likely safe.

How to Test Your VPN to Make Sure It’s Working

A VPN app should give you the IP address of the server you’re connecting to. If anyone checks, your connection should show that IP address — not your real one.

The simplest way to test if your VPN is working is to turn it on, then type “what is my IP address” into your favorite search engine. If the answer matches the VPN, you’re good to go.

For a more sophisticated test, go to ipleak.org with your VPN active. It’ll test for IP leaks, and also for DNS leaks, where your website requests are visible even when your IP isn’t.


5 Reasons to Use a VPN

1. Protect your information from hackers

Hackers often try to hijack internet connections so they can scoop up unsecured personal information. With a VPN, all your data will be fully encrypted, so if hackers see anything, they won’t be able to use it.

It’s worth a mention that AES-256, the “bank-grade” encryption used by top VPN providers, is functionally impossible to crack. If you set the world’s most powerful supercomputer to the task, it would be consumed by the expanding sun before it finished.

2. Remain anonymous while browsing

You know how online ads are all creepily personal these days? It’s because advertisers are now capable of scraping information from basically everything you do on any device connected to the internet. Isn’t it awesome that we developed that technology instead of cold fusion or interstellar space travel?

But with a VPN, they can’t connect your activity to your identity. You’re fully anonymous. No more invasive ads. You can play with your VPN by setting it to different countries, then watching Facebook try to advertise to you in that country’s national language.

Shepherd-tending-flock-with-dog
To this day, Amazon still thinks I’m a shepherd in the Caucasus foothills.

3. Watch Netflix in other countries

In a previous section, I mentioned that streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video restrict what content is available in certain countries. With a VPN, you can pretend you’re connecting in one of those countries — say, the UK. Once you’ve established your Brit-sona, you can access the secret videos they forbid Yanks from viewing.

Man-laughing-with-British-flag-in-background
This man is laughing at a joke too subtle for Americans to understand. Probably something about crumpets.

Not every VPN is capable of doing this. The best ones (highlighted on the list below) are constantly changing up their services to get around streaming platforms’ bans. If you’re getting a VPN for streaming, make sure it’s one that can beat geoblocks; otherwise, you might find you can’t stream at all.

4. Use public WiFi safely

Public WiFi is a sweet summer child. “If I just let everybody on without a password,” it thinks, while making a daisy chain, “they’ll all play nice together, and we can have world peace!” Then woodland creatures gather around it to sing a song.

In the real world, sharing anything on a public network is basically begging for it to be stolen. Hackers can pull traffic from public WiFi like a whale gobbling krill. The only way to be safe is encryption, and that means a VPN.

5. Shop online without fear

Without protection, sending financial information is one of the most dangerous things you can do online. Not only can hackers intercept your bank information, they might not even have to fake shopping websites or use unauthorized redirects to trick customers into providing their banking credentials willingly.

But online shopping is awesome. It would be so much harder to complete my board game collection without it. A VPN keeps our financial information safe, so we can play Catan instead of The Settlers of Bankruptcy.

monopoly-board-with-train-token
Also known as Monopoly.

What to Look for in a VPN Service

The most important feature of any VPN service is security. Does this provider actually keep you safe? Look for strong, secure protocols like OpenVPN, plus a good record of handling security breaches.

Privacy comes next. Read the VPN’s privacy policy in detail, and check the news to make sure they haven’t been caught logging or selling user data.

After that, check on user-friendliness and speed. Make sure the interface is easy to use, with a shallow learning curve. Test that being connected to the VPN doesn’t slow down your internet too much. These can be hard to test without taking advantage of a free trial or a money-back guarantee, but you can always look at reviews.

Look for where the VPN’s servers are located. A server will provide better performance the closer it is to your location. If you live in the United States, you probably have a choice of several, but pickings are slim in some regions, especially Africa and South America.

Consider price as well — you want a VPN you can afford. Some VPNs give you the option of saving money by paying for six months or a year in advance.


My Top 3 VPN Recommendations

1. ExpressVPN

In the VPN world, ExpressVPN is the all-around top performer. In almost every area I covered in the last section — security, privacy, user-friendliness, speed, network of server locations — ExpressVPN comes out on top.

Explicitly designed to circumvent streaming bans, ExpressVPN is the most likely service to beat Netflix’s VPN ban. It can also break into Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, CBS All Access and BBC iPlayer, so whatever you want to watch, you’re covered.

Price is the only area where ExpressVPN lags. It starts at $12.99 per month, and you need to sign up for 15 months to start seeing real savings. For most people, though, its coverage is more than worth it.

Check out ExpressVPN’s pricing.

2. NordVPN

NordVPN is ExpressVPN’s closest competitor for the top spot. Its server network rivals ExpressVPN’s and goes a step further by offering servers geared toward specific purposes. Some servers are built for P2P torrenting, some are for streaming, and some are “double-hop” servers that provide an extra rerouting layer for even more protection.

Both NordVPN and ExpressVPN enjoy spotless privacy records, with no history of logging user data or providing it to third parties. In price, NordVPN slightly beats out its rival at each level, with its one-year plan costing $4.92 per month.

Check out NordVPN’s pricing.

3. Private Internet Access

If price is a barrier for either of our top two recommendations, go with Private Internet Access (PIA to its friends). With this VPN, you’ll get a more stripped-down app with fewer special features. But you’ll save money while enjoying all the security and slick functionality of a top VPN provider. Plus it has a mind-boggling 25,000 servers in 77 countries.

Check out PIA’s pricing.


Conclusion

Earlier in this article, I compared VPNs to romance. Get ready for another metaphor: VPNs are also like seat belts. Unknown before the late 1960s, seat belts became ubiquitous in cars everywhere, saving hundreds of thousands of lives per year.

VPNs are just starting to appear on the radars of casual internet users without technical training. The more widely they’re adopted, the more identities they’ll save — protecting millions every year, and ultimately, building a safer internet.

Now that you know what a VPN is, it’s time to get started on an inviting, anxiety-free online experience. Try out a good seat belt — and VPN service — today.

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