What Is a VPN?

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

Image of a lock in a cloud, representing VPN style security on the internet

traffic_analyzer / Getty Images

The acronym VPN stands for virtual private network. As the name suggests, a VPN is a method used to connect to the internet privately. It does this by hiding your real IP address and routing all of your internet traffic and data through a private, securely encrypted tunnel over public networks.

VPNs are popular because they let you browse the internet without giving your personal identity, location, or data away. When all of your data is encrypted inside the VPN tunnel, ISPs, search engines, marketers, hackers, and others can't see or track your activities on the web.

How Does a VPN Network Work to Protect You?

VPNs protect you in three main ways:

  1. By disguising your real IP address and location. After connecting to a VPN service, you're sent onto 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 actually in.
  2. By encapsulating all of your internet traffic through a private VPN tunnel. Data on the internet moves in packets. With a VPN, all of your data packets are encapsulated inside additional data packets. This encapsulation effectively creates a private tunnel inside public networks.
  3. By scrambling your private data with encryption. When using a VPN service, all of your internet traffic and personal information inside the tunnel is scrambled via encryption. This makes a VPN connection virtually impossible to hack by outside forces.

Some of the most secure types of VPN encryption in use today include:

When Should You Use a VPN Network?

There are many times you may want to use a VPN, including when you're browsing over public networks, at home, at the office, when traveling or living in a country with geo-restrictions, or on mobile devices. Basically, anytime you want to browse privately (or spoof your IP address), you should use a VPN.

Using a VPN over public networks

Many of us use public Wi-Fi without giving it much thought. The problem is, even with a password, it's easy for hackers and other entities to view and steal private data over public networks. At the very least, 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.

Using a VPN at home

Home networks are generally private with tightly controlled access. However, you may not be aware that everything you do online — from your Google searches to the websites you visit to the things you buy — can still be linked back to your IP address. In many cases, this information is being 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, using a VPN will thwart these attempts to spy on your online activities. Anyone (ISPs, search engines, marketers, governments, etc) 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.

Using a VPN at the office

Many companies allow employees to use the internet at work. Nevertheless, you may not want your employer keeping tabs on the websites you visit. This includes browsing the internet over your mobile phone while using the company's network. If this is the case for you, a VPN on your computer or mobile device can be used to anonymize your browsing activities while on the job.

Using a VPN to Bypass Geo-Restrictions

Thanks to a VPN's ability to spoof your IP address, you can use a VPN to access geo-restricted content, blacklisted websites, and prohibited VOIP services when you're in a country that has geo-blocking in place. This allows you to access your favorite websites, TV shows, and free communication services wherever you happen to be.

Using a VPN on mobile devices

In addition to using a VPN on your laptop or desktop, there are many VPN apps available to protect your data and identity when using mobile devices. This is handy when you're away from home or traveling.

How Can I Get a VPN Service?

Setting up and using a VPN service is a relatively straightforward matter. Home and mobile users can subscribe to a service from a VPN provider for a monthly or yearly fee. There are also free VPN services you can use (although these may come with unwanted advertising, etc).

To learn more about how to get the right VPN for your needs, see How to Get a VPN.