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What is a VPN and Why Would You Use One? The Complete Guide

Virtual private networks, or VPNs, have become must-have tools for anyone who values their privacy and security online. But if you‘re new to the world of VPNs, you probably still have some questions. What are VPNs exactly, and why are they so popular? How do they keep your data safe? And is using one legal?

In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll give you a full overview of what VPNs are, how they work, why so many people use them today, and even how to choose the best VPN for your needs. Let‘s get started!

VPNs 101 – What Exactly Are VPNs?

A VPN, or virtual private network, is a service that creates an encrypted connection over the internet between your device (like a computer, phone, or tablet) and a server operated by the VPN service.

This encrypted connection is often referred to as a VPN tunnel. Think of it like a protected tunnel that your internet traffic flows through, hiding your online activities and preventing snooping or interference.

According to a recent survey, 73% of Americans say that having their online activity tracked bothers them. VPNs provide a solution to take back control of your privacy.

When you‘re connected to the internet without a VPN, your internet service provider (ISP), government agencies, hackers on public WiFi, and advertisers can potentially view and record data about your online activities.

A VPN prevents this by creating a private, encrypted tunnel where your data is hidden from prying eyes. This allows you to browse the web privately and access blocked sites and apps anonymously.

Over 30% of internet users worldwide currently use a VPN, and that number is rising every year. The surge in VPN adoption is driven by people seeking better privacy and the ability to access restricted content on the internet.

Diagram showing how a VPN works

Now you know what VPNs are in a nutshell. Next, let‘s look under the hood to better understand how VPN encryption and tunneling work to keep your connection secure.

How VPN Encryption and Tunneling Work

VPN services use a combination of advanced encryption protocols and a global network of VPN servers to establish secure, tunneled connections.

Here‘s a simplified breakdown of how VPN tunneling and encryption protect your data:

1. Your device connects to a VPN server

This could be a server located in a different city, state, or country from where you are located.

Popular VPN providers like ExpressVPN and NordVPN have thousands of servers scattered across 94 countries and 59 countries respectively.

2. The VPN negotiates an encrypted connection

Your device and the server communicate and negotiate the parameters of your VPN connection, including the encryption algorithm to be used (typically AES-256) and other security mechanisms like the VPN protocol.

3. A secure VPN tunnel is created

This encrypted tunnel protects data flowing between your device and the server. It prevents your ISP and anyone else on the network from viewing or accessing your online activity.

According to cybersecurity experts, AES-256 bit encryption would take an impossible 3.31*10^51 years to crack with a brute force attack.

4. Your web traffic flows through the tunnel

Any internet requests you make are securely routed through the encrypted VPN tunnel between your device and the server.

This includes your browsing data, app usage, instant messages, VOIP calls, and any other internet traffic.

5. The VPN server forwards your requests

The VPN server takes your web traffic that arrives through the secure VPN tunnel and forwards it to the public internet and destination sites. Responses are sent back the same way.

From the perspective of the websites you visit, your traffic appears to be coming from the VPN server rather than your actual IP address. This masks your identity.

6. Your ISP only sees an encrypted connection

Because your data is encrypted inside the VPN tunnel, your ISP has no way to view your online activities. All they see is an encrypted connection between your device and the VPN server IP address.

By encrypting, tunneling, and masking your real IP address, a VPN prevents the deepest invasions of your digital life. Now let‘s look at why you might want to use one.

Why You Should Use a VPN in 2022

There are several important reasons why over 29% of internet users worldwide choose to use a VPN service today:

Enhance Online Privacy from ISPs

Internet service providers can legally monitor and record information about your internet usage. They‘re even allowed to sell your browsing data without consent in many cases.

A VPN hides your online activities and prevents your ISP from tracking the websites you visit, apps you use, videos you watch, and other sensitive information.

Privacy tip: 78% of VPN users report using one to keep their online activity hidden from their ISP.

Public WiFi Security

Open public WiFi networks at coffee shops, airports, hotels, and other locations are dangerously easy for hackers to snoop on.

Norton Security estimates there are over 142 million public WiFi hotspots globally, and 90% are unsecured.

A VPN encrypts your connection on public WiFi to keep hackers and cybercriminals out of your device. It‘s essential for peace of mind when traveling and using public hotspots.

Bypass Geographic Blocks and Censorship

Certain websites and services are restricted through geographic blocking in some countries and regions. This includes social media, news, messaging apps, steaming platforms, and more.

By routing your traffic through a server in an uncensored location, a VPN allows you to bypass these types of geographic blocks and access the entire open internet no matter where you are.

Stream Geo-Restricted Content

Popular streaming sites like Netflix restrict certain movies, TV shows, and other content to specific countries and regions.

Connecting through a VPN server in another country gives you access to that country‘s media library. According to surveys, 26% of VPN users leverage this ability to unblock geo-restricted content.

Secure Remote Access

Remote workers connecting to company networks and servers through the open internet put corporate data at risk on public connections.

Corporations often provide staff with VPN access to allow secure, encrypted remote access to internal systems and tools when working remotely.

Torrent Anonymously

Peer-to-peer downloading of copyrighted material carries legal risks in many countries. In addition, ISPs often throttle or block torrenting traffic.

A VPN masks your IP address and encrypts P2P connections to hide torrenting activity from your ISP. However, VPNs do not make illegal downloading legal.

Bypass Throttling

Some ISPs intentionally limit and throttle connection speeds for high-bandwidth activities like streaming HD video.

Using a VPN prevents ISPs from detecting and throttling certain types of traffic, allowing you to enjoy faster speeds.

Now that you know the main benefits of using a VPN, let‘s look at how to select the best VPN for your specific needs and budget.

How to Choose the Best VPN Service

The number of VPN providers has exploded in recent years, so it can be tricky evaluating all the options. Here are key factors to consider when comparing VPNs:

Encryption & Security Protocols – AES-256 bit encryption is standard. Look for VPNs using protocols like OpenVPN, IKEv2, and WireGuard for optimal security.

Server Network – More servers in more locations means faster speeds and more connection options to bypass geographic blocks.

Speed – Connection speeds vary across VPN providers. Test them to find one that‘s consistently fast for streaming and downloads.

Bandwidth Limits – Some VPNs limit bandwidth. Unlimited bandwidth is ideal for HD streaming and torrenting.

Pricing – VPN services typically cost between $2-$12 per month. Multi-year plans offer the cheapest rates.

No-Logs Policy – A strict no-logs policy prevents the VPN provider from tracking your usage and data.

Reliability – Check reviews for VPNs with excellent uptime, low connection drops, and good 24/7 customer support.

Ease of Use – User-friendly apps for all major platforms, with guides to get connected quickly.

To give you a headstart, here is a comparison of 5 of the top-rated VPN services on the market today based on independent testing and verified customer reviews:

Table comparing top 5 VPN services

Let‘s dig into the key features and criteria a little more so you know what to look for in a VPN.

VPN Encryption Standards

The level of encryption used by a VPN is critical – it‘s what keeps your data locked down and secure as it travels through the internet.

AES-256 bit encryption is now the gold standard used by most leading VPNs, including ExpressVPN, CyberGhost, IPVanish, Private Internet Access, and others. It would take an unfathomable 3.31*10^51 years to crack AES-256 protected data with current computing technology.

Some VPNs offer even greater security by using AES-256 in combination with 2048-bit RSA keys for authentication when the VPN connection is initiated.

You definitely want to steer clear of outdated, weaker encryption standards like 128-bit Blowfish, DES, and RC4 which are easier to compromise.

Top VPN Protocols

Besides encryption, you also want to look at what protocols a VPN service uses to establish secure connections. Not all protocols are created equal when it comes to speed and security.

Some of the top VPN protocols in use today include:

OpenVPN – Very secure and customizable, but can be slower. Used by Surfshark, CyberGhost, ExpressVPN, and others.

IKEv2/IPSec – Fast connection speeds. Used by many leading VPN providers including NordVPN, Hotspot Shield, and TunnelBear.

WireGuard – Uses state-of-the-art cryptography for excellent speeds and security. Implemented by NordVPN, Mullvad, and AZireVPN.

L2TP/IPSec – Lesser security but very fast. Still used by a few VPN providers.

SSTP – Created by Microsoft and easy to set up, but considered less secure than other protocols.

The best VPNs offer a choice of protocols like OpenVPN and IKEv2 so you can select the right balance of speed and security for your needs.

Server Network Coverage

VPN providers maintain global networks of remote servers to route encrypted connections through. Wider coverage means you have more options to evade geographic blocks and find faster connections.

For example, ExpressVPN has 3,000+ servers in 94 countries, while CyberGhost has over 6,800 servers in 89 countries. More is generally better when it comes to VPN server locations.

Look for VPNs with servers strategically placed throughout North/South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa to unlock global content and bypass restrictions no matter where you travel.

Connection Speeds

VPN encryption has a cost when it comes to performance. All VPNs impact speeds to some extent, but quality providers optimize their networks to minimize this.

The fastest VPNs can still deliver 50-80% of your regular ISP speeds, which is fast enough for HD streaming and torrenting for most users.

Be sure to test a VPN with a speed test tool before subscribing. Speeds vary based on the protocol used, strength of encryption, server loads, and other factors.

Bandwidth Limits

Some VPN providers impose monthly data limits or "bandwidth caps" on their lower-tier plans to manage server loads. This can be an issue if you stream a lot of HD video or heavily torrent.

Unlimited bandwidth is ideal if you want to use your VPN without constraints. Most premium VPN plans are uncapped.

No-Logs Policies

Any reputable VPN worth your money will have a strict no-logs policy. This means they do not monitor or record your online activities and usage data while connected to their servers.

VPNs that do log user data introduce major privacy risks. Your VPN activity could be tied back to you or shared with authorities upon request.

Over 85% of people view no-logs guarantees as the most important criteria when selecting a VPN provider. Top no-logs VPNs include NordVPN, ExpressVPN, Surfshark, and Mullvad.

Advanced VPN Uses

Beyond just browsing the web privately at home or on public WiFi, there are some more advanced ways people are using VPN services today:

Gaming – Lower ping times to game servers, avoid DDoS attacks, and prevent bandwidth throttling by ISPs.

VoIP Calls – Encrypted protection for your voice calls made through apps like Skype or WhatsApp.

Internet of Things Security – VPN at the router-level secures smart home devices that can‘t run their own client.

Mobile Gaming Apps – Unblock and improve performance for geo-restricted apps like Pokemon Go.

Get Around School or Work Firewall – Access prohibited sites and services with a VPN tunnel.

Share Large Files Securely – Create a temporary mini-network with friends using VPN P2P functionality.

BitTorrenting – Hide torrenting activity from your ISP and copyright enforcers.

Access .Onion Sites – Use VPN + Tor browser to safely browse dark web .onion domains.

Bypass NFL/MLB Blackouts – Tunnel your location to avoid sports streaming blackout restrictions.

China/UAE Use – Reliably bypass heavy censorship firewalls in restrictive countries.

Remote Access Home Network – Set up your router for VPN access back into your home network when traveling.

Bottom Line

We hope this guide gave you a solid understanding of what VPNs are, how they keep your web traffic secure, when to use one, and how to select the top providers for protecting your privacy in 2022 and beyond.

Here are the key takeaways:

  • VPNs create an encrypted tunnel for your traffic that hides your online activities and identity.

  • VPN encryption and protocols like OpenVPN protect you on public WiFi and from prying ISPs.

  • Top uses include enhancing privacy, accessing restricted content, and securing remote connections.

  • Look for VPNs with extensive server networks, fast speeds, unlimited bandwidth, and air-tight no-logs policies.

  • Test out NordVPN, ExpressVPN, Surfshark, CyberGhost or Private Internet Access to take back your privacy.

In today‘s digital world, a quality VPN is one of the best investments you can make to take control and ownership over your personal data.


Streamr Go

StreamrGo is always about privacy, specifically protecting your privacy online by increasing security and better standard privacy practices.