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

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The acronym VPN stands for virtual private network. A VPN is a method used to connect to the internet privately. It does this 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 personal 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.

How Does a VPN Network Work to Protect You?

VPNs protect you in three main ways:

  • Disguise your real IP address and location: After connecting to a VPN service, you're sent 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 actually in.
  • Encapsulate 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.
  • Scramble 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 to hack by outside forces.

Some of the most secure types of VPN encryption include:

When Should You 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. 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.

Use a VPN at home

Home networks are generally 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. 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.

Use a VPN to Bypass Geo-Restrictions

Because a VPN spoofs 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.

Use 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 advertising or in-app purchases).

To find the right VPN for your needs, learn how to get a VPN.