What Is a VPN? Virtual Private Networks Simplified

A VPN, meaning virtual private network, is a connection method used to add security and privacy to both private and public WiFi networks. Though all Internet users would benefit from using a VPN, they can be hard to understand if you aren’t familiar with technology and Internet privacy.

How VPN works

A VPN secure network

Using a VPN isn’t like using Incognito Mode, since your VPN doesn’t hide your traffic; instead, it encrypts it. Virtual private networks use advanced encryption protocols and secure tunneling techniques to encapsulate all online data transfers.

Once you connect with the server, the secure connection is formed, and the tunnel leads to your provider’s server. That server, in turn, sends the decrypted traffic to its final location. Therefore, the traffic appears to come from the provider’s server, not from yours. Laptops, desktops, mobile devices, and even routers can all make these connections.

Virtual private networks aren't the only "gateway" between a user and the Internet. Proxies are also a popular option for increasing network security. However, since all traffic is protected, virtual private networks are preferable to proxies.

Reasons to use a VPN

Regardless of what you use the Internet for, using a VPN makes your online experience more private and secure. Virtual private networks protect your data on the web, including your browsing history, social media use, emails, and any other personal data. Here are just a few reasons why you should use a VPN:

  1. You can use free or public WiFi without worry. Public WiFi networks can put you at risk for getting hacked, but a secure VPN encrypts your traffic, meaning your Internet connection is much more secure. You can visit coffee shops, libraries, or any other place with public WiFi and connect without worry.
  2. You can evade network censors to access blocked sites. Because a virtual private network disguises your IP address, you can access sites blocked by your work or school. Furthermore, you can spoof your IP address to make it seem as if you’re from a different region or country, giving you access to different countries’ streaming libraries on sites like Netflix. You may even be able to find better deals when shopping for big items like airline tickets.
  3. It protects your data from the government. The government collects a lot of data from Internet users, largely gathered from their browsing histories. A VPN protects you, reducing the amount of data that the government and other third-party sites can collect.

You can choose between free virtual private network services and paid virtual private network plans; depending on how much security you need, a free one may do the job. Paid virtual private network providers typically provide more high-quality services, with robust gateways, proven security, free software, and increased speeds. However, all virtual private network providers support a VPN’s main purpose of added security, privacy, and IP location flexibility.

How to set up a VPN

Setting up a virtual private network is a rather straightforward process. In many cases, it’s as simple as entering a username and a server address. Most big-brand smartphones can configure virtual private networks using PPTP and L2TP/IPsec protocols. Furthermore, most VPN providers include an app in their service, which will auto-configure your device to use their VPN. This makes the setup process simple for all users, regardless of how familiar they are with technology.

However, if you prefer to configure your settings manually, or if your VPN requires a manual configuration, follow these instructions.

Setting up a VPN on Windows 10

To connect a VPN on a Windows 10 PC, you must first have a virtual private network profile set up. If you have a VPN profile established, skip to the steps below.

To set up a VPN profile:

  1. Select the Start button, then type Select Settings, then Network & Internet, then VPN. Click Add VPN.
  2. In Add VPN, perform the following actions:
    1. For VPN provider, choose Windows (built-in).
    2. In the Connection name box, enter a name for the VPN connection that you will recognize.
    3. In the Server name or address, enter the address for the VPN server.
    4. For VPN type, choose the type of VPN connection you want to create. You’ll need to know which type of VPN connection your VPN service uses.
    5. In Type of sign-in info, choose the type of sign-in info (or credentials) to use.
  3. Select Save.

To connect the VPN:

Setting up VPN on a computer
  1. Go to Settings.
  2. Select Network & Internet, then
  3. Next to the VPN connection you choose, select Connect.
  4. Enter your username and password or other sign-in info.

Setting up a VPN on MacOS

On MacBooks and other Apple devices, to connect to a virtual private network, you need to enter configuration settings in the Network preferences. If you have a VPN settings file, import it to set up the connection. If you do not, you can enter the settings manually.

To import a VPN settings file:

  1. Double-click the file to open Network Preferences and automatically import the settings.
  2. Choose the Apple menu and then System Preferences. Click Network, then click the Action pop-up menu.
  3. Choose Import Configurations.
  4. Select the file, then click Import.

To enter VPN settings manually:

  1. Choose the Apple menu and System Preferences, then click Network.
  2. Click the Add button in the list at the left. Click the Interface pop-up menu, then choose
  3. Click the VPN Type pop-up menu, then select the type of VPN connection you want to set up and give it a name. Click Create.
  4. Enter the server address and the name for the VPN connection.
  5. Click Authentication Settings, then enter the information you got from the network administrator.
  6. If specified by the network administrator, click Advanced to enter additional information like session options, TCP/IP settings, DNS servers, and proxies.
  7. Click Apply and then click OK.
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Types of VPNs

There are three main types of virtual private networks. They are divided into categories depending on how they work. They are remote access VPNs, intranet-based site-to-site VPNs, and extranet-based site-to-site VPNs.

Remote access VPNs are primarily for personal use. They connect the user to a secure remote server in order to access a private network with added encryption.

Intranet-based site-to-site VPNs work for bigger businesses and companies. They let multiple users in fixed locations access each other’s resources with the same encryption and security.

Extranet-based site-to-site VPNs are also for bigger businesses or companies, but they also work when multiple companies or groups need to connect without the possibility of one accessing the other directly.

All kinds of virtual private networks prioritize privacy and security, but remote access VPNs are significantly easier to implement and more flexible than site-to-site VPNs. However, if you need virtual private network coverage for a large company or many users, site-to-site will be the best bet.

Virtual private network protocols

Virtual private network protocols are the set of instructions that determine how your data routes between your device and the server. Protocols provide a stable connection, and while the number of virtual private network protocols and available security features continues to grow with time, the most common protocols are the following:

An image of a user establishing VPN protocols on a computer
  • Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol, or PPTP, which has been around since the days of Windows 95. It can easily be set up on every major operating system. PPTP tunnels a point-to-point connection over the GRE protocol. However, due to its age, it’s no longer the most secure protocol available.
  • Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol over IP Secure, or L2TP over IPSec, which has more secure connections than PPTP and offers more features. L2TP is a way of implementing two different protocols together in order to get the best features of each. It combines the tunnel of L2TP protocol and the secure channel of IPSec in order to create an impressively secure package.
  • OpenVPN, which is an SSL-based virtual private network. It has become more popular in recent years; the software used is open source and freely available. SSL is a mature encryption protocol, and OpenVPN can run on a single UDP or TCP port, making it extremely flexible.

Frequently asked questions

Does a VPN change your location?

Yes, a virtual private network changes your location - at least, as it appears to the Internet. You don't change locations, but your network will register as somewhere other than where you are geographically because it changes your IP address. Some virtual private networks, like NordVPN, allow you to pick the geographic location from where you appear to be connected. This is particularly helpful when trying to access other streaming services' libraries, for example.

When you're choosing a VPN provider, keep in mind the number of server locations they have, as this will tell you how many options you will have in choosing where you want your traffic to route from.

Can a VPN be hacked?

Unfortunately, yes, a VPN can be hacked. Nothing on the Internet is completely impervious to hackers. However, virtual private networks aren't particularly vulnerable; generally, users trust their safety and security . There are only two ways to hack a virtual private network: through breaking encryption, which is quite difficult and can take years, and by stealing a key, which also is not easy for even the best hackers. Overall, you will be safer on the Internet when using a virtual private network than you would be without one.

Does a VPN change your IP?

Yes, it changes your IP in a sense. It works similarly to your location when using a virtual private network; you don't actually get a new IP address to use forever, but your VPN disguises your actual IP address instead, making it appear as if the address originates elsewhere. With some virtual private networks, your IP will change every time you use the network to surf the web, which gives a very secure browsing experience.

Does a VPN hide your IP?

Yes, a VPN hides your IP address; in fact, that's its number one purpose. Your virtual private network goes through all the steps of encrypting, decrypting, and tunneling your Internet traffic in order to hide your true IP address. That allows you to browse the web without limits and added security.

However, depending on the configuration, your real IP address could be seen. After connecting to the VPN, visit the WhatIsMyIP homepage to see your IP address.