What is a VPN and How to Use It? – Benefits and Extra Features

Stephanie Faris
Writer
Dolores Bernal
Editor
February 12, 2024

As Internet usage habits worldwide have evolved and transformed in the last decade, many new concerns and problem areas have started cropping up for home and business users. 

For example, modern Internet users are usually more aware of data privacy and tracking concerns and often want an Internet experience that is safe, secure, and free from prying eyes.

At the same time, with the massive uptick in streaming services and content consumption, many Internet users are also concerned with geo-blocking or content restrictions that apply to their home countries and myriad content choices available in overseas markets.

These two trends have created a growing need for Internet users to use VPN services. While VPN services can significantly boost privacy and security, they also offer several other benefits that have encouraged a recent surge in popularity.

A look at the total number of VPN users worldwide shows that the segment has grown consistently over five years with a whopping annual growth rate of over 20 percent.

This is proof enough that VPN adoption is quickly on the rise, and people worldwide are using VPN services to bypass censorship and snooping, enhance privacy and security, protect their identity, and access geo-restricted media.

But what exactly is a VPN? How does it work? How do you choose one that is specifically great for your needs? Here, we discuss these questions in detail and offer you the critical insight you need to make your choice.

What is a VPN?

Vpn Abstract Analysis image

Image by Gino Crescoli

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, a self-explanatory name if you consider the basic architecture. However, to understand this technology in detail, we must go deeper and understand its capabilities.

A physical network involves actual point-to-point connections, either wired or wireless. Similarly, a public network is public-facing and accessible from the outside. A VPN differs from these as it is both virtual and private.

In short, a VPN creates a virtual and private connection from your computer to other devices or networks, with the main feature being that all the traffic going through the connection is completely encrypted. The process of encryption effectively scrambles the data, making it impossible for any unauthorized person to make sense of it.

In simple language, it is a special connection over the Internet that allows you to protect all your Internet traffic, hide the IP address of your computer, and access the Internet from a choice of virtual locations. Your Internet traffic is anonymized and routed through one of many real or virtual servers in a different location.

There are many options to choose from when it comes to commercially available VPN services. You can choose from several reputed service providers, pick from free or premium packages, and take advantage of VPN protocols like L2TP, OpenVPN, and WireGuard.

Since all your web traffic gets encrypted while using a VPN, this information is not accessible to any outside party. 

In addition, most major VPN providers offer many other features and services that can go a long way in helping create a safe, secure, and private online experience.

Benefits of Using a VPN

Using a VPN service has many significant benefits, most of which are becoming increasingly crucial today.

1. Security Through Encryption

During regular Internet usage, all data movement to and from your computer or phone is in plain format or text. If any malicious party can intercept this data flow, it is easy for them to decode it or see it. 

Anyone accessing this data traffic can capture sensitive information, including your passwords, payment details, personal details, and Internet usage history. This is a massive security loophole that threat actors can easily exploit.

A VPN solves this problem by encrypting your traffic. This way, even if someone intercepts your data traffic, they will end up with garbled data (lots of odd symbols) that will be virtually useless for them. With modern industry standards of encryption like AES-256, this gives you nearly impenetrable security for any personal, sensitive information.

This becomes all the more important if you regularly use public wireless or hotel Internet access points.

2. Privacy and Anonymity

In most scenarios, any attempt to track your online activity starts with your IP address. This is the unique identifier that is assigned to you by your Internet Service Provider (ISP), such as Comcast, Verizon Internet, AT&T,  and others. An IP is automatically tied to your physical location. 

Suppose your IP address is exposed in this way. In that case, it can be simple for threat actors to establish your location, find other details about your Internet connection, and even use the IP address to plan attacks.

Using a VPN hides your IP address. Any attempt to detect your IP will instead detect the IP address of the VPN server you are connected to. If you visit any website with malicious code or any external party that tries to use your IP address to exploit its vulnerabilities, a VPN service gives you an effective layer of protection, thereby preserving your privacy and anonymity online.

✎  Related: How to Protect your Data and Identity Online ➔

3. Monitoring and Tracking

At any moment, there could be entities with the capability of monitoring and tracking your Internet usage. This includes not just your ISP but a host of government agencies and other organizations.

For example, your ISP can easily track your Internet usage habits, log every website you visit, calculate your Internet data usage, and keep a log of your activity history. Similarly, other organizations might attempt to track you to collect information they can sell to targeted ad companies.

Invasive governments in many countries also routinely track their citizens’ Internet usage, often for nefarious purposes. In fact, many countries with restrictive censorship policies use this kind of tracking to enforce these policies. Think China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and others. 

A VPN makes it difficult to track these metrics due to the complete encryption of all traffic. As a result, you can use the Internet with complete peace of mind knowing that none of your Internet activity is being tracked.

4. Geo-Restricted Content

With content consumption on the rise, most streaming providers like Netflix, HBO, and Disney provide curated collections of content based on different countries. Also, certain content is only available for certain countries. 

So if something you want to watch is unavailable in your country, the only way to access it is with a VPN, which allows you to connect to a server in the country that hosts that content. This gives you instant access to all geo-restricted content, like TV shows and movies, that you can’t view if you don’t use a VPN.

Extra VPN Features

Now, let us look at some of the additional features and nice-to-have benefits you can get from VPN providers. When looking for a VPN service, these are a few things you can watch out for based on your usage and requirements.

1. Kill Switch

This feature instantly shuts off Internet activity if the VPN connection stops working. This ensures that there is absolutely no unencrypted data traffic in motion, even when the VPN is down. A simple VPN kill switch will shut down traffic for the entire system, while other providers might offer a more advanced kill switch where you can define different rules for specific applications. This is also called “leak protection” by some providers.

2. Multi-hop

While one layer of security is excellent, two or more is even better. This is why some providers offer multi-hop, a feature that doubles security and encryption by chaining connections to one or more additional VPN servers. This can also take care of advanced tracking methods by adding a second destination to your data traffic that is much more difficult to track.

3. Port Forwarding and P2P

Certain VPN providers offer special servers optimized for P2P file sharing with port forwarding. Port forwarding allows you to expose a particular port for P2P traffic, a common requirement for most P2P software. Some providers offer this as a free service, while others might offer this as a paid add-on.

4. Ad Blocker and Malware Protection

Many VPN providers offer ad-blocking and malware protection services to improve privacy and security. These help block ads and tracking cookies during regular web browsing and also serve alerts if you visit a website with malicious code. This will protect you from most online viruses and can also prevent identity theft attempts.

5. Obfuscation

With the recent popularity of VPNs, many ISPs and organizations have now devised a way to detect VPN traffic. For example, if an ISP detects a VPN being used, it can block that traffic and effectively stop you from using VPNs

Obfuscation takes care of this by disguising VPN traffic as regular, everyday traffic. Obfuscation is also useful when trying to circumvent country-wide or government-enforced VPN blocks. Each provider has their own way of achieving this.

Choosing a VPN Provider

When choosing a VPN provider, there are several variables to consider. Not all providers are the same regarding features and reliability; a little research can go a long way. Consider your requirements and the following points –

  • Device Support – Ensure that your chosen provider supports every kind of device that you plan to use with the VPN. For computers, this means looking for a provider that has options available for different operating systems like Windows, MacOS, and Linux. For mobile phones, ensure there is support for iOS and Android. Finally, if you want to implement the VPN in your router, ensure it is supported.
  • Number of Devices – How many devices do you want to work with the VPN? Many providers have a maximum limit of devices you can use simultaneously. When you purchase a subscription plan, ensure it supports at least the number of devices you want to use. If you have several computers and phones in the family, as well as other devices like gaming consoles, it might be worthwhile to look at a generous provider regarding the number of supported devices.
  • Server Location – The more countries and servers the VPN provider covers, the better. This gives you more options when it comes to choosing the correct server to connect to. Capable VPN providers should offer you worldwide coverage or a close approximation.
  • Speed and Reliability – Using a VPN affects your Internet speed and can also adversely affect particular usages, like P2P software or streaming media. Before choosing a VPN, you can take advantage of its trial period to see its effect on your usage. Also, look at the provider’s history to see if there is any downtime and how reliable the coverage is.
  • Quality of Protection – The best VPN providers offer the latest AES-256 encryption standard while supporting the most recent protocols like IKEv2, WireGuard, and OpenVPN.
  • Streaming Support – If you want a VPN specifically for watching geo-restricted streaming content, verify if it supports all the streaming services you intend to use.
  • Reputation – This is the most critical factor to consider while choosing a VPN. Sometimes, VPN providers themselves are not the most reliable in terms of reputation. There are a few things to consider to ensure that you choose correctly. First, ensure your provider has a strict no-logs policy, guaranteeing your data will not be logged while using the VPN. Opting for a provider headquartered in a region outside the major global surveillance zones, alliances, and jurisdictions is also a good idea. Finally, a VPN provider has willingly submitted to a third-party code audit and publishes the result is a good choice as you can be sure of their transparency and work ethic.

Here are a few recommendations to get you started – 

  • PrivateVPN – Known for being affordable and good value for money, PrivateVPN ticks all the boxes regarding features and has great streaming support, excellent speeds, and a fast and responsive support system. Their apps are also some of the easiest to install and use.
  • Surfshark – An excellent choice for streaming, Surfshark goes beyond unblocking most common streaming platforms by providing a DNS service specifically for appliances like consoles and smart TVs. Additionally, if you are planning to use multiple devices, Surfshark is one of the very few providers that allow for an unlimited number of devices.
  • NordVPN – One of the most highly rated VPN services, NordVPN is known for its fast speeds thanks to its modern, streamlined Nordlynx protocol, superior customer support, P2P-friendly policies, and rich added features like ad blocking and malware protection.
  • AtlasVPN – One of the few providers that offer a free plan with zero data restrictions, AtlasVPN has global coverage and a customer-friendly approach.

Setting Up and Using a VPN

When you sign up for a VPN service, the provider usually wants you to have a smooth, pain-free, easy experience. This is why the setup and use process is generally streamlined to a great degree of simplicity. In most cases, this is the workflow you will have to follow while setting up and using the VPN of your choice –

  1. Visit the website of your preferred VPN provider and purchase a subscription plan that suits your needs. Different plans can come with different usage and data capacities, extra features, and the maximum number of supported devices.

  2. Once done, head to the download page and download the installer of the VPN client compatible with your device. Providers usually have download links for specific desktop and mobile operating systems listed clearly.

  3. Install the client on your device and log in to your account. This is usually the first prompt you will receive when you open the software for the first time.

  4. Once logged in, using the VPN should be simple to use. By default, the VPN will connect you to its default location using its default settings. If you want to change the location of the server you are connecting to, you can do that in the software settings. You can also use settings to turn on special features and fine-tune the experience.

Once the VPN client is configured correctly and turned on, all traffic to and from the device in question should be routed through the VPN and therefore protected. You can turn the VPN off whenever you want and use it whenever necessary. You can also do that if you prefer to use the VPN only when traveling or using public access points.

A more complicated setup that can cover an entire group of devices on your home network involves setting up the VPN on your home router. Again, most providers will offer detailed guides on their websites regarding the exact process to follow for your brand and model of router.

Conclusion

Using a VPN is an excellent idea for protecting your privacy, safety, and security. It can save you not just from unwanted tracking and monitoring but also be a great tool at your disposal when you are looking to avoid instances of identity theft. It also opens up a whole new world of geo-restricted content.

Consider your needs and look at different VPN providers before making a choice. 

For all-around peace of mind, consider getting identity theft protection. Services like Aura include a VPN as part of the subscription along with monitoring of your accounts for any suspicious activity. 

VPNs offer an invaluable layer of protection. With a VPN, you can browse the web with confidence, knowing that your personal information remains shielded from prying eyes. Embrace the power of a VPN today and unlock a world where safety and convenience go hand in hand, enabling you to explore, connect, and thrive in the digital era.

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