The Complete Beginner’s Guide To How VPNs Work
I’ve been writing about VPNs for quite a long time now, and you’re all pretty well acquainted with some of the best private VPNs around the planet.
Recently, however, I’ve been getting queries from many of my first-time readers regarding a very basic question.
What exactly are VPNs, and how do they actually work?
While this might seem to be a rather rudimentary query to expert VPN users, for newbies to the VPN fold, the technology can seem esoteric.
After all, what’s the use of connecting to a Virtual and Private Network, when you can directly use the internet?
That’s why today, I’ve decided to go ahead and compile this complete beginner’s guide to how VPNs work.
Keep in mind that though this is a beginner’s guide, I’ll covering a lot of information, so you best get ready to put your technical chops to work.
That being said, I do acknowledge that in a single post, I won’t be able to cover everything there is to know about VPNs.
The subject itself is rather vast, and would probably take a series of articles to cover everything in depth.
Nevertheless, if you’re just starting your VPN journey, then this guide can help you to understand the fundamentals of how VPNs work, why you should use them, and whether they are really worth your money or not.
Let’s get down to business then.
What Is A VPN?
First, let’s answer the most basic question of all: what is a VPN?
You already know the full form of the acronym (Virtual Private Network), but what does it actually mean?
Let’s understand it with a simple analogy.
Suppose you’re driving to work, and you have to drive through a congested road to get to your office.
It’s full of potholes, there’s a lot of rash traffic, and in one remote location, there are bandits that stop cars and rob riders.
But you have to get to work and have no choice but to drive through this road filled with unwanted traffic and dangerous elements.
Do you wonder what if you could have a tunnel that’s all yours?
A road that’s private to you, and can be accessed whenever you need it?
If such a tunnel existed in real life then you’d have no trouble getting to work safely.
While this is hardly possible in real life (unless you’re one of the multi-billionaires), in the virtual world you can achieve this with the help of VPNs.
Regular internet traffic is just like the dangerous road we spoke about just now.
It’s fraught with roadblocks, risks, and security concerns that can very well topple your digital life.
That’s where a VPN comes in.
A VPN acts as a virtual tunnel through which your network traffic is routed safely, securely, and anonymously.
When you use a VPN, you can rest assured that your traffic is protected from prying eyes.
And believe me, the internet is full of prying eyes.
So, how exactly did a VPN come into being, and what are the reasons behind its widespread use?
That’s what we’re going to tackle in the next section.
A Concise History Of VPNs
The origin of the VPN can be traced back to Microsoft Corporation when in 1996 it developed the PPTP or the Peer-to-Peer Tunneling Protocol.
The technology was primarily meant for use by large businesses to allow employees to connect safely to off-site computers.
The PPTP protocol was meant to keep corporate data safe, and initially, it was only available to businesses. Then cyber-threats began to evolve, government prying into private traffic increased, and people became more aware of the many threats that plague unprotected internet use.
This is when VPNs became mainstream, and today they are used to surf the internet safely and privately.
And so do I, find out my reasoning in using one here.
Another factor that has significantly contributed to the rise in the use of VPNs is geoblocked online content.
Major streaming companies such as Netflix today have location-specific libraries that can only be accessed from specific geographic locations.
Thankfully, using VPNs, users can route their traffic and spoof the origin of their connection.
This allows a user in Japan to safely route their traffic through a US server, and access Netflix’s US library.
Of course, Netflix has a countermeasure that we’ve called Netflix VPN Ban.
Today, as security concerns over the internet rise and governments the world over try to curtail online freedom, VPNs have emerged as the solution to these problems.
How Does A VPN Work?
And now, we’re going to get into the meat of the matter and see how VPNs actually work.
To gain a better understanding of the inner workings of VPNs, we’re going to have to take a look at how the regular internet works at first.
When you connect to the internet using any computing device such as a laptop or a smartphone, your device first connects to a router.
This router, in turn, is linked with a modem (in most cases they are the same unit), which connects you to your Internet Service Provider (ISP).
Your ISP then connects you with the rest of the internet.
Do you know your ISP tracked your IP address and keep a log on them?
Now, whenever you send any request over the internet, your device sends small clusters of information called data packets.
These packets travel over the internet to the destination servers, are processed accordingly, and a response (also in the form of data packets) is sent to your device.
This entire process is rather straightforward but comes with certain caveats.
The internet is basically a connection between servers and routers all sharing data.
When your data is traveling along this information super-highways, it can be easily compromised and stolen.
Now, in case you’re browsing for fun, then it doesn’t really matter if someone is indeed viewing your data packets.
But just imagine: what if you’re doing a private commercial transaction, such as online banking?
This can put your data, and all your funds, at risk.
What’s more, when using the internet without any protection, all your personal data such as IP address, geographic location, and your internet activity can be tracked by your ISP.
It can even be shared with government agencies and private companies for intrusive marketing purposes.
This is where a VPN can come in handy.
When you install the VPN software and access the internet through it, the software encrypts all your data using mathematical algorithms.
Once the data is encrypted, it is sent via a secure channel to the VPN server, from where it reaches the target destination.
Any traffic from the destination back to you also goes through the same process.
This ensures that all your data traffic is effectively hidden from prying eyes. Even if a malicious player does intercept any of your packets, all they are going to see is garbled ciphertext.
Thus, all your private information is protected.
Another way in which a VPN protects your online browsing is by hiding your actual IP and geographic location.
When using a VPN, all your traffic is routed through the VPN servers.
This means your ISP, the government and any destination server only see the VPN server location and IP.
Your personal identity and location are protected at all times.
However, a downside to all this protection is that using a VPN may slow down your internet speed somewhat.
This is understandable as the additional encryption and routing take up some time and processing.
One of the VPN (ExpressVPN) that I’ve tested does not particularly slow down in terms of download speed but it boosts the upload speed by almost 10%. Don’t just take my word, check it out in my testing report here.
However, this is a tradeoff that can be accepted in lieu of the advanced security you’re getting.
All of the above mechanisms ensure that using a VPN, you can browse the web privately, securely, and safely from any agencies trying to spy upon your traffic.
You can also spoof your geographic location and unlock geo-specific content on the internet.
Is VPN Use Legal?
From the above, you can well understand that using a VPN protects your online activities in more ways than one.
Doesn’t it seem as if you’re actually circumventing laws by hiding your location and related information from the government and ISPs?
Can you get into trouble for using VPNs?
That’s what we’re going to explore in this section.
In general, the use of a VPN for private browsing activities is perfectly legal in most nations of Europe and North America.
However, there are certain censor-savvy nations such as China, Iraq, and UAE where VPN use is banned or strictly regulated.
At the end of the day, the use of VPNs is governed by the laws of the country you’re physically located in.
Since the concept of VPN use itself is a rather new one, the laws around this aren’t that well established.
Which means the rules still hover in a gray area, and can be interpreted in many ways.
That’s why I recommend doing some research about the laws governing VPN use in your location before taking the leap.
That being said, I must mention one warning: using a VPN for illegal purposes such as online crimes, frauds, and piracy is not at all recommended.
Even when you’re using a VPN, you are not actually 100% cloaked from the law. This means if you indulge in any untoward activity you can easily be tracked and legally prosecuted.
Can A VPN Make You Completely Invisible Online?
No. Using a VPN can certainly protect your online activities, but it can’t make you 100% invisible.
In fact, many VPN providers store records such as service logs, payment records, and browsing history.
In case these VPN providers are legally obligated to share information with the government, your data may be at risk.
Also, the connection protocol and encryption levels that different VPN providers use are also different.
Not all of these can deliver equally high standards of protection. This means you’ll have to check the country your VPN provider is based in, their logging policy, and technological details before settling on the right VPN.
Another factor that you need to consider is that a VPN just masks your IP and spoofs your location information.
But these aren’t the only ways by which you can be identified online.
For example, your device MAC address, any websites you’re logged onto, and the ISP you’re using can all reveal who you truly are.
That being said, using a VPN is still better than going around the internet with no protection at all.
If you are not ready for a VPN, at least familiarize yourself with these 7 habits in protecting your privacy online.
A well-established VPN service provider will give you, if not complete, but adequate protection, privacy, and anonymity for all legal online operations.
Free Vs. Paid VPNs
Another aspect of VPN use that I often get asked about is whether to go with free or paid VPNs.
Newbies to the world of VPNs are confused that there are free VPN services that you can avail of.
Now, if something is available for free, why pay for the same service in the first place?
This is exactly my point too.
Just think about it: from whatever you’ve learned about VPN use from the above, it’s clear that running a VPN service effectively requires significant investment and operating expenses.
This means that a VPN service cannot be offered for free; anyone claiming otherwise may just be out to fleece you.
Paid VPN providers are upfront about their services and charges.
In fact, if you look at it from a long-term perspective, VPN services don’t really cost much at all.
A free VPN, on the other hand, might actually log or steal your private info and sell it to malicious parties for money.
This defeats the very purpose of using VPNs itself.
That’s why, I always recommend going with reputed, paid VPN service providers.
This not only guarantees you the necessary peace of mind but also ensures that you get proper value for your money.
With that, we come to an end of this beginner’s guide to how VPNs work.
If you are interested in a more advanced topic, head over to IPv4 vs IPv6 for more insights.
Now that you’re up to speed on the basic principles of VPN use, I hope you’ll be able to make a better choice.
So, do we need a VPN? That’s up to you. But I’m not willing to hand over my privacy data without a fight.
Using a VPN is one of the best steps that you can take to protect your online activity.
Just remember to do the required research, and settle on one that’s best for your needs.
For beginners, I would definitely suggest Surfshark!