What is a VPN, what does it do, and why might I need one?

Looking for a way to boost your security when using public Wi-Fi? Tired of being tracked when surfing the web? Want a way around geographical restrictions on internet content? There is one tool designed to answer all these problems: a VPN. So, should you consider using one?
by Alyssa Schmitt
Man stands at counter in café looking at tablet computer
Connected to public Wi-Fi? A good VPN can protect your privacy.

What does VPN stand for?

VPN stands for virtual private network. A VPN connects your computer or other online device to a remote server owned by the VPN provider. The key word in the name is “private” – a VPN boosts your online privacy by encrypting your data and masking your IP address when you use the internet.

How does a VPN work?

When you install a VPN app on your device and then connect to the internet, the traffic to and from your IP address is redirected through the VPN host’s remote server. The VPN also encrypts your data as you surf. So, no third party – even your internet service provider (ISP) – can see the websites you visit or the data that you send and/or receive. Once your data is encrypted by the VPN software, it cannot be read without the encryption key, which is known only by your device and the VPN host.

There are several different types of VPNs that can vary their exact workings, but generally speaking, here is how a VPN works:
  1. Once you have installed a VPN, connect to the internet and start your VPN
  2. The VPN forms a secure, virtual “tunnel” between your device and the internet that cannot be detected by third parties.
  3. Your device is now part of the VPN’s local network.
  4. As you surf the internet, your IP address will now show up as the address of the VPN server and your personal data is protected. If someone were to intercept the data, it would appear “scrambled” without the VPN encryption key.

What is the purpose of a VPN?

VPNs are commonly used to protect online privacy and security, and they serve several primary functions:
  • Anonymity: Don’t want to be tracked when using the web? When you surf using a VPN, your internet connection is routed through the VPN server, which hides your actual IP address. Your ISP as well as websites, advertisers, and other online services will see the IP address of the VPN server instead of yours.
  • Security: Do you use public Wi-Fi networks when you are out and about? These often offer less security against hackers and other cyberattacks, so many experts recommend connecting to public Wi-Fi via a VPN. Because a VPN encrypts the data transmitted through the internet connection, your data cannot be viewed by unauthorized parties. This helps keep your personal information confidential.
  • Access regional content: Want to stream a show not offered in your location? Certain online services may be restricted based on your country. A VPN can make it look like your IP address is in a different country, allowing you to stream content or use other online services that would not otherwise be available in your area.
  • Work remotely: Like working in your yoga pants? As working from home has grown increasingly common, many companies and organizations have set up VPNs to allow remote workers to connect securely to their networks from private internet connections.
  • Get around censorship: In countries that censor internet content and monitor user online activities, VPNs can be used to access blocked content and move more freely online.

Are VPNs safe?

VPNs offer a combination of IP masking for anonymity and encryption for data security, which means a good VPN can keep you safer online. However, as with all apps and software, you should do your research and choose one from a reputable provider. Be sure to check the privacy policy and terms of service, because free VPNs may collect and sell your personal data. Here are  three other things to look for when choosing a VPN:
  1. Encryption protocols: The VPN service should list the protocol it uses for security and encryption. Look for OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPsec, or WireGuard – these are all considered secure, while L2TP/IPSe and PPTP are older and less secure.
  2. Log policy: Look for a VPN provider with a no-log / zero-log policy, which means that they don’t log or store any of the data that is transmitted while you are connected.
  3. Kill switch: You’ll want this feature that makes sure that your internet connection disconnects if the VPN service is disrupted. Otherwise, if the VPN connection is interrupted, your real IP address may become visible.
Good to know: A VPN will protect you from tracking and data theft, but it will not block viruses, prevent phishing, etc. So, even when using a VPN, you should exercise caution when downloading files and clicking on links.

 Will a VPN work on a streaming service?

One reason a lot of people use a VPN is to access geo-restricted content – in other words, to access streaming services like BBC iPlayer, Hulu, or Netflix that aren’t available in their location or offer different shows and movies in different countries. Technically, a VPN can help you view your favorite costume drama or sci-fi thriller, but there are some important restrictions to keep in mind:
  1. The streaming service may block you. Streaming services are on to the VPN trick, and many will actively block any traffic coming from VPN or proxy servers.
  2. The streaming experience might not be great. For a smooth, high-quality streaming experience, you need a certain amount of bandwidth. A VPN routes your internet through a remote server, which can result in a decrease in connection speed – and then your favorite show keeps pausing in mid-stream. If you plan to use a VPN for streaming, look into the server speed the provider offers before signing up.
  3. You may be violating the terms of service. Although this is a common practice, you should be aware that many streaming platforms do not allow the use of VPN to stream their content.
  4. Your VPN location has to match the streaming service. The point of using a VPN for streaming is to pretend that you are actually in the location in question. So, if you are trying to access a streaming service in a specific country, make sure your VPN provider offers a server there or you definitely won’t be able to access the desired content.

Will using a VPN get me blocked?

Yes, using a VPN will sometimes result in a block by certain websites or online services. For example:
  • Geo-restrictions: One of the most common reasons people use VPNs is to get around location restrictions on websites or online services. Since the companies are aware of this, sometimes they will block all traffic from VPN servers. So, if you use a VPN as a matter of course and find yourself unable to access online services that are actually available in your country, you can remove the block by switching off your VPN to access the websites that are blocking you.
  • Abuse prevention triggers: When multiple users are accessing a site from the same VPN server, it can automatically trigger the online service’s protective measures against suspicious activities. This can result in a temporary IP block, or you may have to complete a CAPTCHA verification.
  • Terms of service violations: As we mentioned above, some online services explicitly prohibit the use of VPNs. If you violate their policy, you may find yourself temporarily blocked or permanently banned from the site.
  • Problems caused by shared IP address: Using a VPN means you are sharing the VPN’s IP address with the other people who use the service. If other users violate a site’s terms or trigger their security measures, all users sharing that IP address can find themselves restricted.
Pro tip: Have you been blocked while using a VPN? There are ways to decrease the risk of this happening. Select a large and reputable VPN provider with a wide range of server locations – this makes it less likely that all their IP addresses will be blocked. Some VPN services also offer you dedicated IP addresses (for a price!), which can solve problems caused by IP address sharing. And if you are experiencing a block, a quick fix can be switching server locations or IP addresses within your VPN. However, do not switch IP addresses too often in a short period of time – this can also trigger security blocks.

Should I use a free VPN?

We all know by now that, just like there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as a truly free online service. A company that offers a “free” VPN has to make money somehow – in the best-case scenario, this will be by showing ads, often annoying and intrusive pop-ups. But in some cases, they generate their revenue by collecting and selling your data, which is ironic because probably one of the reasons you want a VPN is to protect your privacy. And if you download software from an unknown VPN provider without checking their reputation, you could be putting your device at risk of malware.

In addition to these risks, a free VPN often offers limited services compared to a paid service. For example, the encryption protocols may be weaker and there may be caps on the amount of data you can transfer (which is a problem when streaming games or high-resolution videos). Plus, they often do not have as many servers – but still have a lot of users attracted by the free service – so your connection might not be as fast or reliable.

Which VPN is recommended?

Here are three VPN recommendations from mail.com employees:
  • “My absolute favorite is NordVPN. I appreciate having it on each of my devices (apart from the Apple TV, which should come soon), the map view, the choice of countries, and the double VPN.”
  • “I use Tunnelblick for Mac: there are no ads, no affiliate marketers, no tracking, and a lot of countries to choose from.”
  • “My favorite VPN is Surf Shark VPN. It has so many locations to choose from around the world and the service is reliable. I have never had an issue with using it. You can pause your connection and resume within a matter of seconds.”
Now you know all about VPNs and their many uses – and you can start considering if a VPN would be right for you. But first, please leave us some feedback below. And if you still don’t have an account with mail.com, why not create a free email address today?

Images: 1&1/Shutterstock

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