Everything You Need to Know About VPN Services

A laptop connecting to a VPN service

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and there are many companies out there offering VPN services. A great VPN service won’t be free, and will work to protect your data from scammers, your ISP, or anyone else with malicious intent toward your data by using encryption protocols and other methods.

Internet privacy is a hot topic, and for good reason. It’s not acceptable for anyone to peek through your windows at home, so it shouldn’t be okay to peek at your browsing history and collect your data. A great Virtual Private Network (VPN) service can make sure your personal data stays private.

Many people know that a VPN service promotes security and privacy for you, but what does that even mean? Defining what a VPN is and how it works may seem intimidating to even the most tech-savvy people, but it’s actually quite simple.

What Is a VPN?

A smartphone with a VPN settings screen

Before getting into what a VPN is and what its purpose is, let’s expand the acronym. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, but people often use the shortened acronym of VPN because it’s more publicly recognized and easier to say and write.

In short, a VPN is a service that protects your data, internet connection, and, ultimately, your online privacy by providing a private network connection that encrypts your online identity. With a VPN service enabled, your IP address is changed, and your virtual location is masked, protecting you from anyone who may maliciously use or sell your data, like hackers on a public Wi-Fi network or even your Internet Service Provider (ISP) on your home network.

There’s a lot that goes into cloaking your online identity, including encrypted tunnels and VPN protocols, but more on this later. VPN services help you feel safer about using both public and private Wi-Fi networks, whether you’re shopping, answering emails, or working with sensitive data.

It’s important to note that there are “free” VPN services out there, but they’re often lackluster and don’t provide nearly as much security as paid VPN services. If you wanted to hire professional security services for your physical home, would you ever hire someone offering their services for free? Probably not, and it’d make you wonder how they’re making money if their services are being offered to you for free.

A Brief History of VPNs

Since we’ve been using the internet, there have been discussions about what’s happening with our private browsing data. Early in the VPN game, most services were created for and offered to corporate businesses. In recent years, the demand for personal VPNs has greatly increased as we’ve learned how much our personal data is at risk on a regular old password-protected home network.

In 1993, Software IP Encryption Protocol (swIPe) emerged, providing network users with authentication and confidentiality features. Then, in 1994, the Internet Protocol Security system (IPsec) built on that and created an internet security protocol that encrypts and authenticates data packets shared on the internet. While both swIPe and the IPsec system laid a great foundation for secure internet usage, neither quite hit the mark of what we deem the “first VPN service.”

The first true creation and use of VPN technology as we know it today was in 1996 by a Microsoft employee named Gurdeep Singh-Pall. He created a Peer-to-Peer Tunneling Protocol, shortened to PPTP, and used the tunneling encryption method we see in modern VPNs today. With Singh-Hall’s PPTP, remote employees for Microsoft could securely access the company’s internal network from anywhere.

Once it was clear how successful this remote access protocol was for Microsoft, other companies started adopting the same protocol. Personal VPNs didn’t really become a thing until 2010 when security breaches were more commonplace among companies people trusted their data with. In recent years, many companies have enacted geographical access restrictions for content—like Netflix or YouTube—inspiring people to make the leap and invest in a VPN service.

How Does a VPN Work?

Diagram of client-based VPN tunnel by Nord VPN

A VPN gives people privacy while using the internet, but how exactly does it do this? The best analogy I’ve heard to explain how a VPN service works—in very basic terms—uses two things we’re all very familiar with: a highway and cars. In this analogy, the internet is a highway and anyone using the internet is someone in a car on said highway.

No matter where you are on the highway, anyone who chooses your car and decides to follow you can see you wherever you are, and even follow you home if they want to. Now, imagine that right next to the highway, there’s a private tunnel you can take your car through instead. Only your car can go through this tunnel. No one can follow you, and you’re protected from view.

VPN services act as your own private tunnel, hiding where you’re going, who you’re talking to, or what you’re doing while you have your VPN turned on. These private tunnels don’t necessarily reinvent the wheel. The way you use the internet, and your computer won’t change at all. The only difference between the highway (the internet) and the tunnel beside it (the internet with a VPN service enabled) is the ability for other people to see you.

Any device that uses the internet has a unique IP address, which is akin to someone’s fingerprint. When you don’t have a VPN service turned on, and you visit a website using your IP address, it’s like touching a doorknob or a glass and not wiping off your fingerprints. Many people wouldn’t “use your fingerprint” maliciously—but that’s not to say that other people wouldn’t.

By turning on a VPN while you’re using the internet, you’re simply taking that possibility away. Instead of someone seeing your IP address, they’ll see the IP address of the VPN server, which is usually shared by a ton of other people.

In more technical terms, here’s what happens when you open up your laptop in a coffee shop and turn on your VPN before you get to work. After you send the request to connect to whichever VPN service you’re paying for, the service authenticates your client—which can be your laptop, smartphone, tablet, or any other device accessing the internet—and applies an encryption protocol to all your data, along with a VPN tunnel for your data to go through privately. Unless someone has the specific key to decrypt this data, any of your browsing data will look like complete gibberish to anyone trying to access it.

Each little packet of data goes through encapsulation, which is just a fancy way of saying your data gets encrypted and has an extra coat of armor surrounding it while it goes through the tunnel. Once your encrypted data reaches the VPN server, your data is decrypted and forwarded to the designated web server—or in other words, the website you’re actively using on your device. When the web server responds with its own data packets, it gets encrypted on its way to the VPN server and decrypted once it reaches your device.

The entire time you’re using your device, any website you visit will see the IP address of the VPN server you’re using and not the IP address of your device. That said, if someone were to look at your connection, they’d be able to see that you’re using a VPN server, but nothing more.

The Most Common VPN Types

A phone with NordVPN open on it

Everyone seems to have a different way of labeling the available VPN types out there, but here are the most common three categories: Remote Access VPN, Site-to-Site VPN, and Personal VPN.

Personal VPNs are aptly named, as they’re the most popular choice for personal use. Also referred to as a Consumer-Grade VPN or Commercial VPN, Personal VPNs are what we’ve primarily been referring to in this article when explaining how a VPN works. These VPNs connect your device to a VPN server, encrypt your data, and hide your actual IP address, showing the VPN server’s IP address instead.

Remote Access VPN services work very similarly to Personal VPNs because they both hide your own unique IP address. With Personal VPNs, the IP address displayed to anyone looking is the VPN server’s IP address. Remote Access VPNs are typically used in work-from-home situations, and you’re remotely connecting into your company’s internal network, displaying that IP address and using the same network security measures as if you were there in person.

Site-to-Site VPNs are mostly used by large corporations that often have multiple offices in various locations throughout the world. Just like every other VPN, a Site-to-Site VPN utilizes private encrypted tunnels to send data back and forth among its many offices, with each office having its own Local Area Network (LAN) and Wide Area Network (WAN). However, the tunnels are specific to that corporation’s many networks, making it easy to share data between offices while protecting the data from anyone not within that network. This can also be referred to as a Router-to-Router VPN service.

When researching VPNs, you may come across the terms Corporate VPN or Business VPN. Both of these terms are interchangeable, and they just indicate that the VPN service is for a business. Large corporations or smaller businesses typically choose either a Remote Access VPN, Site-to-Site VPN, or both, depending on its workforce needs.

Should You Have a VPN?

A VPN—just like a home security system—will give you protection and privacy. Is it absolutely necessary to have a VPN? No, but if you can afford the extra protection while you’re on your smartphone or laptop, why not be preemptive about malicious attacks?

A home security system isn’t necessary either, but many people invest in one because they want to feel as safe as possible in their own home. With a VPN, you can use your device without having to worry about anyone sneaking a look at your personal data. Plus, VPN services only cost about $5 to $10 per month, and you can often pay annually to knock a bit off that monthly average. In exchange for privacy at all times, $5 to $10 seems super affordable—especially if you spend a lot of your time on public Wi-Fi networks.

The Best VPN Services of 2023


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Private Internet Access

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Proton VPN

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Mullvad VPN

Best VPN for Privacy

Mullvad VPN

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