A virtual private network (VPN) is a connection between a device and the internet that is encrypted. The purpose of the encryption is to ensure that the connection is safe and to protect the digital information that is being transmitted from being exposed. The VPN will hide your true IP-address and provide the address of the VPN-server instead.
This is particularly useful when trying to circumvent geographic restrictions, governmental blocks, and even ISP-throttling. In order for a connection to be classified as a VPN, it needs to be encrypted.
In this article, you will be able to find information about how a virtual private network works, what you can use it for, and why it may not always be a good idea to use one. I have reviewed and audited hundreds of VPN-services and below you can find some of the best VPN services of 2021.
Popular VPN providers
What is a VPN?
A Virtual Private Network creates a private network within a public network to enable devices to communicate directly with each other. Devices in a VPN, therefore, benefit from security, functionality, and management of the structure being used. This technology was created to allow employees of a corporation to access information through their mobile devices or branch offices. The connection is established using a tunneling protocol, and users have to pass authentication processes before accessing data.
In some cases, internet users use VPNs to prevent geo-blocking and censorship by the government or use proxy servers to ensure their private information is safe. Contrary to this, some websites have put stringent measures to prevent access from devices that use VPNs.
Why do I need a VPN?
Surfing the internet could put private data in jeopardy, especially if you are using unsecured networks. When signed into a local network, your device broadcasts its information on the network. A hacker can easily eavesdrop on what you are doing and can access or alter the data.
You risk exposure to your browsing habits and the sharing of private information. Therefore, VPNs should be crucial if you are concerned with your online security and privacy. The anonymity and encryption that a VPN provides protect all your online activities, including shopping, sending emails, and even paying your bills.
Moreover, your web browsing history will be anonymous. Make a habit of using secure networks or VPNs if you are using an open system. Homes might seem to be secure from prying eyes due to low traffic. However, a hacker can get access to your trusted network if it is not adequately secured.
Furthermore, some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have been known to sell private information to third parties. ISPs say that the information is anonymized, and this is sometimes not the case. Having a VPN as part of your network adds another layer of security to the network. To ensure all systems work, you should add the VPN on the router since installing it on devices might cause errors to some programs. In addition to security, you will also be able to access and stream content that would have otherwise been unavailable in the country.
Working remotely is another thing that requires the safety and anonymity of data. Sales teams, conferences, and advertising of a business can all be done with a simple click thanks to the advancement in technology. Given this simpleness of communication, security comes into play because the data and information being shared are private.
Recently, more companies have invested in the use of VPNs to help them protect information for their companies since they are accessed remotely. Such companies do need a customized VPN service due to their large scale workforce and clients. Office servers hold proprietary data, which is only relevant to the company, and employees might need to access them remotely. With VPNs, this is possible and secure.
How a VPN Works
A VPN works through routing of a device’s internet connection through a selected VPN server rather than using your Internet Service Provider (ISP). The data transmitted comes from the server rather than your device. A VPN acts as a middleman between the computer and the internet, therefore concealing your IP address.
Moreover, the data sent is encrypted, and if by any means it is intercepted, then it is unreadable until it gets to the intended destination. Encryption is a term used to describe how the data is kept safe in transit. Only a computer with a known key can decrypt the data. Decryption is the process that is used to decode the data, which refers to making the info readable once more. In relation to real-life experience, when you enter your credit card information on a website, the data is encrypted until it gets to the destination.
Different VPN providers use a variety of encryption processes to ensure the data is secure from online hackers. However, there are three common procedures for doing this.
One: when you connect to the private network, a tunnel is used to encode your data. The data is now in an unreadable format as it moves between the server and your computer.
Two: your device acquires the same IP address as the local network of the VPN. This means your IP will be the same as the one on the VPN provider’s server.
Three: you can now browse the internet as you please without sharing your data. The effectiveness of the connection will depend on the type and protocol implemented by the VPN.
There are different VPNs in the market that you can use. Some of them include standalone VPNs, browser extensions, router VPN, and corporate VPN. Standalones are software that can be installed on PCs or smartphones. The application creates an encrypted connection to the private network that you can then use. Corporate VPN is an organization oriented for its employees who work remotely. Since it is customized, it requires heavy IT resources and personal development. Router VPNs are mostly implemented in homes and entail installing a VPN on your router.
Different Types of VPNs
VPN technology is a straightforward idea of securely connecting to trusted information through a network you don’t trust. Tricks come in when you don’t know what type to use and in what instance.
Two basic types of VPNs are Client-Based VPN types and Network-Based VPN types.
Dynamic multipoint VPNs, and MPLS-based L3VPNs.
With these types, your network can be tailored to either voice or video traffic. This is not possible while using the internet. Moreover, the bandwidth in this scenario is much cheaper as compared to WAN. Enterprises are now adapting to VPN rather than the use of WAN due to this reason.
A Client-Based VPN is created between a single user and a remote network. Most of these networks are created by applications installable on PC or mobile devices. To start, you need to provide a username and password, which then creates a tunnel. The user will have remote access between the server and the tunnel. Examples of these types include Cisco’s AnyConnect and Pulse.
Most devices, including Windows, Mac, and mobile operating systems, have built-in client’s options. All these enable the users to connect to a secure tunnel from any location as long as they have an internet connection. Client-based VPNs are very secure since they scan the device that has the software installed before allowing them to the network.
Network-based VPNs connect two networks together through an unsecured network. An example is the IPsec-based WAN, where offices of a network can easily communicate with each other using IPsec tunnels. To successfully build a network tunnel, two devices must be selected to be endpoints, identify the authentication procedure between these devices, and finally choose the traffic that will be allowed to flow through the tunnel.
Policy-based VPNs can also be implemented on IPsec tunnels. Their function is to provide a crypto access list that defines the traffic flow. Use policy-based IPsec where a single tunnel is built between networks that have controlled access to resources. Such a scenario is a company doing business for another company.
Is a proxy connection a VPN?
A proxy is not a virtual private network since it lacks encryption.
A proxy will process your requests and change your IP-address if desired but will not provide the security that a VPN would.
The limitations of a VPN
The few disadvantages you can experience while using a VPN are the following:
- Slower internet connection.
While it is also common for users to circumvent ISP throttling, you will sometimes experience a slower connection when the VPN-server you are connected to is overcrowded.
Some streaming services (mainly Netflix) will continuously block VPN-servers in order to uphold their geographic content restrictions. There are ways to get around this, mainly with an IP-refresh feature, but it is reportedly annoying to get interrupted while you are streaming.
- Logging by VPN-companies.
Some VPN operators will claim that they do not log any activity and do it anyway. There have been several examples of operators getting caught doing this, which is why it is important to do your due diligence when choosing which service to subscribe to.
There are also instances of operators selling their company and the new owners will start logging and selling information.
Advantages and Disadvantages of using VPN
Advantages of VPNs
- Hides your IP, thus masking your online identity
- Helps bypass firewalls and restrictions
- Protects your data from cybercriminals
- Avoids online discrimination in some websites
- Safer to download torrents
Disadvantages of VPNs
- Not all devices natively support the use of VPNs
- Some VPN providers log user data
VPN Encryption Protocols
Now you know that VPNs assign your device a new IP address and use a tunnel to transmit data. However, not all VPNs are the same, depending on the encryption protocol being implemented.
Basically, encryption is the process of rearranging letters and numbers to encode information so that few people can have access and understand. In advanced stages, ciphers are used to perform the process of encryption and decryption of data. The operations of these ciphers follow a predefined number of steps depending on a provided key. Without this key, it is impossible to decrypt the data. The key length increases the security of the encryptions. Short lengths are susceptible to Brute Force Attacks. A key length of 256bit is considered as a gold standard. VPN protocols are the processes and instructions followed by a VPN to ensure a secure connection between a VPN server and the client.
Commercial VPN services use different protocols.
The first one is SSL and TSL. This protocol is not specifically for VPN use, but it has been implemented in OpenVPN and HTTPS secure websites. TSL (Transport Layer Security) was built as an improvement to the SSL (Secure Socket Layer). TSL implements a combination of public and symmetric keys to secure the network. TSL offers a secure connection, but issues usually arise in cases where a website uses one private key for sessions. If this key is compromised, then a hacker can easily get control.
Another protocol is OpenVPN, which is standard in commercial VPN providers. It can easily be configured, it is secure, and runs on almost every device. OpenVPN is open-source and its code is publicly shared. Experts can research on it, fix errors, or improve it for use. This protocol implements TSL and OpenSSL protocols with other tools to create a reliable and secure connection.
It is recommended under most conditions.
Other protocols are the IKEv2/IPsec, L2TP/IPsec, SSTP, WireGuard, and PPTP among others. PPTP is the least reliable in the list since it can easily be broken into and also obstruct. It uses the Point-to-Point Tunnelling protocol. It is advisable not to use this protocol unless it is necessary and is for non-critical use.
What does encrypt mean?
Encryption is the process of making information unreadable for everyone who is not supposed to be able to. In order to make it readable again, you will have to de-encrypt it.
What can a VPN hide?
VPNs hide a lot of data that you share online apart from passwords. Web browsers have the ability to track and log your browsing data for easy retrieval. All this information is tied to your IP address. Without a VPN, all this information can easily be on your network if it is not properly secured.
Reliable VPNs services hide this information by changing the outgoing IP addresses. That means that the data that you search or websites that you visit will not be shared.
Internet Service Providers are also known to share private information with third party companies. Using a VPN will hide the information from the Internet Service Provider, keeping you safe from identity theft. IP addresses and location information is also hidden. Your location is tied to your IP address. As stated earlier, the IP address is a unique identifier to your device. VPN networks change this IP address, and therefore, the browsing data will not be tied to you since the IP is not your own.
Moreover, the location is also hidden. That means you can change the location to any place you want and access websites restricted in your country. Some VPN service providers also include your current location as one of the selectable countries. This benefits people who frequently move from one country to another. They will enjoy online content from their countries without going through too much hassle.
Devices and web activity are also hidden from the internet. These devices include desktops, laptops, and smartphones. If a cybercriminal identifies the device that you are using, there are certain tailored-exploits that can be implemented to gain access to the device. Hiding the device using a VPN will prove difficult for such an activity.
VPNs also hide your torrenting activities. The government, as well as media companies, are working hard to prevent peer to peer file sharing through torrent networks. If you like torrenting, then it is advisable to use a VPN to hide your activity. The provider you choose should be reputable and offer fast speeds and track records, as well as using the latest encryption protocol technologies.
See here for more information on the best VPN for torrent use.
How to connect to a VPN
The easiest way to connect to a VPN on Windows, Android, Mac, iPhone, or any other operating system is to purchase a subscription and connect with their application.
Most services will have a very user-friendly interface which will allow you to pick and choose any server you want, from your desired new destination.
There are other ways to connect to a VPN-service, which include creating a network in your OS and connecting directly to that.
Your VPN-service will often have written guides to help you set it up.
Are VPNs legal?
While VPNs are certainly sometimes used for illegal activities, such as purchasing illegal contraband on the dark web.
But just using one is not a crime, in most of the world.
Countries where VPNs are banned, include North Korea, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, China just to name a few.
Using a VPN-service in any of those countries, if detected, will most likely only result in a fine.
VPN Routers explained
If you want to avoid installing a VPN on every single device in your home, you may want to consider setting up a VPN for your entire home network.
This is especially useful if you wish to access another region’s library of Netflix on your smart-TV.
Generally, there are 3 different kinds of VPN-routers:
- Routers with OpenVPN support.
- Pre-flashed routers.
- Manually configured routers.
For the vast majority of people, buying a router that is already configured for VPN-usage is the easiest and fastest way, but may potentially end up costing more than the other alternatives.
I highly recommend that unless you are tech-savvy, you skip the extra steps of configuring a router on your own and buy one that is ready to go out the box.
How to create your own VPN
Here is a quick guide on how to create your own personal VPN.
- Create an account on a cloud hosting provider of your choice.
- Download “Algo VPN” here.
- Install Algo’s core dependencies found here: GitHub
- Run the install wizard.
- Set your configuration options.
You have now created a working private VPN-server.
However, cloud hosting providers often do carry logs, and using such a service will not be any safer than using a known VPN-provider.
Creating your own VPN is best suitable for people who just may want to be more secure on public Wi-Fi and want to avoid paying bigger monthly cost for it.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who can benefit from VPN services?
Everybody who goes online and wants their information to be hidden can benefit – from privacy geeks, security devotees, human rights activists, and travelers who do not trust internet connections.
Are there free versions of VPNs and is there any problem using them?
Most providers have free versions of their services but with limitations. However, these free VPN services are often not safe. Some collect personal information and sell it to a third party.
What operating systems support the use of a VPN?
Typically, all operating systems, including Windows, macOS, Android, Linux, and iOS support the use of VPNs. Finding a VPN suitable for your device will not be difficult.
How many devices can connect to the VPN at once?
VPN providers have different plans. The number of simultaneous devices that can be connected ranges from 1 up to 12, depending on the plan that you have purchased.
Do VPNs have kill switches?
In some cases, connections to the VPN drops, and this would mean you are no longer protected. VPNs have kill switches which instantly disconnect from the internet.
Do VPNs block ads?
Pop-ups are very annoying while browsing. Sometimes they slow down internet connections. Most VPNs on the market provide tailored ad-blocking services to help keep your device safe from malware.
SUP46, Start-Up People of Sweden, Regeringsgatan 6th floor, Stockholm
Author Per-Erik Eriksson
Per-Erik-Eriksson is the main author of VPNetic. Everything you read here has been written by him or one of his colleagues. Per-Erik has 10 years of experience within cybersecurity and has previously worked at Microsoft as a software engineer.
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