What Is a VPN?

How a VPN hides your IP address, data, and identity on the internet

A virtual private network (VPN) connects to the internet privately by hiding your real IP address and routing your internet traffic and data through a private and securely encrypted tunnel over public networks. VPNs are popular because they provide a way to browse the internet without giving away your identity, location, or data. When data is encrypted inside the VPN tunnel, ISPs, search engines, marketers, hackers, and others can't see or track your activities on the web.

A lock in a cloud, representing VPN style security on the internet
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How a VPN Network Protects You

VPNs protect you in three main ways:

  • Disguises your real IP address and location: After connecting to a VPN service, you go to the internet from a new gateway server. This spoofs your IP address and makes it appear as if you're in a different city or country than the one you're in.
  • Encapsulates your internet traffic through a private VPN tunnel: Data on the internet moves in packets. With a VPN, all your data packets are encapsulated inside additional data packets. This encapsulation creates a private tunnel inside public networks.
  • Scrambles your private data with encryption: When using a VPN service, your internet traffic and personal information inside the tunnel are scrambled using encryption. This makes a VPN connection virtually impossible for outside forces to hack.

Some of the most secure types of VPN encryption include:

  • OpenVPN
  • L2TP/IPSec (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol)
  • IKEv2/IPSec (Internet Key Exchange version 2)
  • SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol)
  • SSL (Secure Sockets Layer)

When to Use a VPN Network

Use a VPN when browsing over public networks, at home, at the office, when traveling or living in a country with geo-restrictions, or on mobile devices. Anytime you want to browse privately (or spoof your IP address), use a VPN.

Use a VPN Over Public Networks

When using public Wi-Fi, it's easy for hackers and other entities to view and steal private data over public networks, even with a password. It's important to use a VPN to protect sensitive information, such as logins and passwords when you're on public Wi-Fi. This includes Wi-Fi hotspots at airports, hotels, cafes, schools, and libraries.

Use a VPN at Home

Home networks are usually private with tightly controlled access. However, everything you do online—from your Google searches to the websites you visit and the things you buy—can be linked to your IP address. In many cases, this information is compiled and assigned an ID for marketing purposes and is often permanent and can't be erased.

If you don't like the idea of search engines and advertisers tracking your every move, use a VPN to avoid these attempts to spy on your online activities. Anyone (ISPs, search engines, marketers, and governments) who attempts to track your activities will see your VPN tunnel only, not what's inside. This keeps your web browsing private, even at home.

Use a VPN at the Office

Many companies allow employees to use the internet at work. However, you may not want your employer keeping tabs on the websites you visit. This includes browsing the internet on your mobile phone while using the company network. A VPN on your computer or mobile device can anonymize your browsing activities while on the job.

Use a VPN to Bypass Geo-Restrictions

Because a VPN spoofs your IP address, you can use a VPN to access geo-restricted content, blocklisted websites, and prohibited VOIP services when you're in a country that has geo-blocking in place. Use a VPN to access your favorite websites, TV shows, and free communication services wherever you happen to be.

Use a VPN on Mobile Devices

In addition to using a VPN on your laptop or desktop, download a VPN app to protect your data and identity when using a mobile device while you're away from home or traveling.

How to Get a VPN Service

Setting up and using a VPN service is a relatively straightforward matter. Home and mobile users can subscribe to a VPN provider's service for a monthly or yearly fee. You can also use free VPN services (although these may come with advertising or in-app purchases).

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