You often hear the word VPN being thrown around, whether through incessant marketing or from other people on the Internet. The term isn’t new, but only recently grew in popularity with the boom of streaming services. So what is VPN (Virtual Private Network)?
How does a VPN work?
First, we must mention the IP address, given to you by your ISP (Internet Service Provider). It gives your network a unique public and local address, making it distinguishable. But, because you’re using their infrastructure, your ISP has complete and unlimited access to your Internet traffic. They can see everything you do online, and block certain websites. Some even sell your personal data to third-party companies for advertisement or send them to federal agencies.
This is where the VPN comes in. Think of it as a real-life tunnel whose entry point is your network, and its exit point a website or service you want to visit. No one can see inside that tunnel, right? This is what happens with a VPN. Once connected, every bit of data sent or received through the Internet is routed through the tunnel and encrypted. Even if by some miracle the tunnel crumbles, the data inside is useless without a decryption key.
When routed through the tunnel, the data is split into small packets. Additionally, during the transfer, the packets are grouped into an outer packet. Many call this process encapsulation. This “capsule” of data is essential to how the VPN works. It does two main things. First, it makes sure that none of the smaller packets got lost on their way. Secondly, it ensures that the data has arrived at the destination without being detected by your ISP, government, hacker, or a federal agency.
What does a VPN provider do for you?
In its core, they purchase or rent servers across the globe. They give you permission to send and receive data through their servers, which acts as the “tunnel” we mentioned. A new IP address is assigned to you during that time. And, as long as you are connected, it will look like you’re in that location, often a different country or continent. No one can read your browsing history, track your movements, or discover your true identity either.
Do I need a VPN?
How to choose the best VPN?
Instead, we’ll focus on mentioning VPN features to look out for. Through their existence or absence, it will be easy to decide which of the VPN services is the right one. To save you time, we already debated which VPNs for watching British TV are worth purchasing. Did you know there are also VPNs built into browsers, Opera being one?
A VPN provider must have a zero log policy to be even considered. This means they promise not to store any of the data transferred between your network and its servers, even if encrypted.
This should be the primary criterion when choosing a VPN. A certain percentage of download and upload speed is inevitably lost in the process. But, it should not make a major difference, nor should the latency increase significantly, especially if you plan to use a VPN for gaming. Look at various reviews and speed test comparisons before you commit. You always want quality servers available in a country you need to connect to.
It used to be harder to pick a VPN based on encryption in the past. Nowadays, a 256-bit military-grade AES encryption is an industry-standard and a bare minimum. You can choose a different type of encryption or one whose encryption key has more bits, but there’s no need.
It would take us ages to describe all available VPN protocols. They essentially determine how a VPN operates. Often, they are a combination of two older protocols to provide more features, or very similar but named differently. The most common ones are OpenVPN, IKEv2, and IPSec, so make sure a VPN provider supports those.
Bypassing geo-restrictions on websites and services
This singlehandedly became the reason for the popularity of VPNs. You see, watching content on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, BBC iPlayer, Disney+, DAZN, 10Play, Hotstar, Sky TV, and similar platforms is often impossible outside of the country they air in. So, even if you pay a subscription but live or travel to another country, you wouldn’t be able to access any of them. By using a VPN, you can trick the service into thinking you’re at that location, thus circumventing their geographical restriction.
The most common form of peer-to-peer (P2P) data transfer is torrenting. For that, you need a VPN provider with dedicated servers for the activity. For one, they will provide a maximum download and upload speed. Secondly, these servers will make sure your ISP cannot track you down for piracy (although we don’t condone it), and send you a hefty bill or sue you for copyright infringement. This also includes online gambling, since the activity is sometimes forbidden by the ISP and country laws.
Device and system support
Based on the devices and operating systems you use, find a provider that supports Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, or iOS. Ideally, you want the provider to also support a VPN for routers. That way, every connected device is automatically protected. Also, look for a provider with support for as many simultaneous devices. A minimum would be 3, although most support between 5 and 10 devices, and some allow an unlimited number of connections at once.
The Great Firewall of China
The Chinese government is very strict and imposes censorships upon its citizens. You can’t access websites such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Gmail, Instagram, or Twitter from China without a VPN. They also constantly block VPNs that can bypass this firewall, arrest people who try, and seize servers and equipment. If you plan to live there or travel temporarily, make sure the VPN provider can circumvent the severe measures.
Never go for free VPNs if you value your privacy and security. Don’t go for the cheapest one you can find either. Pick one that won’t break your bank, but still has the features you need.