A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a technology used to securely connect to the internet and protect data by sending it via an encrypted tunnel.
It also hides your real IP address. Instead, it displays the IP address of the server that you’re connected to. That’s the simple breakdown – but of course, there are quite a few layers that your VPN provider has to manage.
How does a VPN work?
Most of us connect to the internet through our ISPs (Internet Service Providers). When you do that, your data travels through a network of routers to reach its destination.
Usually, it’s completely unencrypted (i.e. plain text). Even if it has some encryption, some information remains visible – like your IP. It’s needed to communicate with the internet with no issues.
On top of that, your ISP can easily see what you’re up to online… and worse, so can anyone who monitors your connection. This includes the websites you browse and the files you download.
How does a VPN make your connection private?
When using a VPN, a secure “tunnel” is created between the provider and the end-user (that’s you!). VPNs operate on the same lines everyone else uses on the internet. There is an important distinction: the data is scrambled to create a private connection.
Your information travels back and forth privately via this encrypted “tunnel”. Using this encrypted “tunnel,” information travels back and forth between the user and the VPN provider. If somebody tried to decrypt it, they would have to have an access key. Without it, that’s essentially impossible!
What is the “tunnel” in Virtual Tunneling Protocol?
The virtual tunnel referred to in the acronym VPN isn’t actually a tunnel at all. A physical tunnel between two locations would involve a direct link between them.
WAN access was used in a similar way before VPN technology spread throughout the world. So, virtual tunnelling uses a method called encapsulation to literally wrap your data in a layer of secure encryption. This is the “virtual tunnel” we are creating when we use a VPN.
Why would I want to use a VPN?
The era we live in is one of connectivity. While it has many advantages, it unfortunately also has a lot of risks. There’s a growing number of cyber-threats and generally a lot of unsolicited attention in our lives.
Not all of it is malicious. For example, advertisers may want to collect your private information for marketing reasons. But they do compromise your privacy, and that’s something many people value – and a lot more should.
If you want to be more private online, or don’t want anyone to spy on you, using a VPN is an easy – and simple – choice to make.
VPNs also provide other nifty benefits. For example, you can access content that’s not available in your country. You can also protect yourself on public WiFi, and even get better prices when you shop for airline tickets! There are quite a few more use cases, and you can find all of them here.
Is it legal for me to use a VPN?
This will vary depending on your country or region.
Many countries have no laws banning or restricting the use of VPNs. For example, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom don’t restrict the use of VPNs. Neither do countries that belong to the European Union.
North Korea, China, Russia, and Iraq, on the other hand, restrict or outright ban the use of VPNs.
You’ll want to check your local laws for an up-to-date answer to this question.
Are VPNs easy to use and configure?
Consumer VPNs are very easy to set up! Most VPN services, including Surfshark, have easy-to-use apps that handle the majority of the setup for you. If you can open a web browser or log in to your email, you can use a VPN.
VPN services do include complex security and privacy features. Luckily, the applications take care of them on their own! You’ll probably only need to enter your login information, select the server you want to connect to, and that’s it!
The server you select will provide websites and servers you connect to with a proxy IP. That way, nobody will ever know where you’re truly connecting from.
VPNs used to require some technical know-how to establish and secure, but that’s no longer true. If you were intimidated by the VPN setup process in the past, you shouldn’t hesitate to dive in right now!
VPN Protocols and Security
So, how can a VPN protect your data? It uses security encryption on all packets that are transmitted to and from your computer to the provider. Specific details – including how effective it is – vary from protocol to protocol.
Generally, encryption works by scrambling the information that is transmitted. Anyone attempting to view it without the decryption key will be looking at gibberish.
Decryption keys are shared in different ways, too. It depends on the encryption protocol itself and how its configured. Here’s an easy way to think of these keys: picture an impenetrable locked file cabinet. It’s safe, but you need one of your coworkers to access it.
So, what do you do? Simple – you give them a key. Now, they can open this cabinet and access the files whenever they need to. Of course, in reality, actual encryption key sharing is more complicated. Some methods are more “secure” than others, but it’s a realistic way to picture how key encryption works.
There are a few common VPN protocols currently in use:
Here’s a quick glimpse at two popular secure protocols and how they work:
OpenVPN is one of the most reliable open source software choices. It’s trusted and recommended by the leading internet security providers, such as Surfshark. OpenVPN guarantees fast performance and top-notch encryption.
Paired with robust encryption algorithms, OpenVPN supports data transmission protocols UDP and TCP.
OpenVPN is used for Surfshark’s Windows app and manual router configurations.
‘Open source’ also means it is continuously improved and developed by the security community worldwide.
IKEv2 (also known as Internet Key Exchange Protocol Version 2) is the most recent and advanced protocol. It’s way faster than most protocols and is really good at maintaining a stable VPN connection.
This tunneling protocol was developed by Microsoft and Cisco. Currently, it’s considered the most reliable in terms of performance and security.
Surfshark uses IKEv2 on some of its apps: Windows, Android and iOS apps, as well as macOS.
How do VPNs protect my data?
On top of the encryption that we spoke about earlier in this article, it doesn’t end here. Most VPN providers rely on additional policies to ensure their customer’s data stays anonymous and safe.
All the information going to and from the client to the VPN is encrypted. Meanwhile, The information going through the outgoing VPN server obeys the usual rules.
Despite being a secure method of data transmission, VPN servers need to know a few things. Namely, where the data is going and who to send it to. That means some information to do with packet destination, customer location, and packet size must be collected.
Good VPN providers who care about their clients’ privacy take steps to preserve it. That includes ensuring such information isn’t written to long-term logs, or only logged for a very short time and then deleted. Some countries have policies on how long providers must store such information.
Make sure you are familiar with your VPN provider’s policies on logging and that they handle your information correctly. Generally speaking, logging policies where information is kept for less than 30-days can be considered safe.
Do VPNs keep me totally safe on the internet?
Put simply, no they don’t. You should still follow safe browsing practices and be cautious of how you use the internet. While the amount of anonymity and protection provided by a VPN is extensive, they still have limits.
That’s why it’s crucial to do what you can to keep yourself safe. If you’re being careful on the internet, the VPN will take care of keeping your connection anonymous.
Can I watch Netflix or Youtube while using a VPN?
Yes, absolutely! Using a VPN to watch streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Youtube is one of the most popular reasons for using a VPN. You can also use a VPN to stream with Kodi, to watch movies on your smart TV or Android TV, as well as Apple TV. Surfshark also offers an app for Fire TV Stick.
Can I use two VPNs at once?
While it is technically possible to run two VPNs at once, there’s no practical advantage to doing so. Plus, you may run into some big technical snags if they aren’t configured properly. Instead, you can use our MultiHop™ feature that connects you via two servers and increases your security.
Are VPNs and proxies the same thing?
No, they are not, but the line has blurred in the last few years. All VPNs are technically proxies, but not all proxies are VPNs.
The main difference between the two comes in the virtual tunnel present in a VPN connection. Communication over a VPN is encrypted; communication over a simple proxy is not. Both will attempt to mask your IP by making it appear your outgoing communication is coming from another server. However, only VPNs will truly protect the anonymity of your data on the web.
How is a VPN different from the Tor browser? Should I use them together?
While the function of Tor and VPNs are similar, under-the-hood they are very different. Both services work to encrypt information sent to and from your web browser. That’s where the similarities end!
Tor is a browser. That’s why it cannot encrypt traffic send outside of its application. Of course, it’s possible to achieve it if you don’t mind extra setup & configuration. So usually, data being sent to and from a Torrent application, for example, would not be encrypted.
VPNs will encrypt all incoming and outgoing traffic. It doesn’t matter what program is used to communicate it. Tor uses a Peer-to-Peer (P2P) encryption method, called onion routing. It sends encrypted traffic through a designated series of routing points. Each point “peels” a layer of encryption off the transmitted packet, like an onion.
In this way, Tor offers a similar level of security to that of a VPN. The downsides include being slower and having limited compatibility with some devices. The designated routing points in the Tor network are all operated by volunteers. While the network is secure, relying on volunteer time and assets can result in slowdowns.
VPN and Tor can be used together for additional protection. Simply connect to your VPN service, then use the Tor browser for your internet activities. Learn more about the differences between proxies, VPNs, and Tor.
Can I use a free VPN?
There are free VPN services available, and they can be used to encrypt traffic. Of course, the old “you get what you pay for” adage applies here.
Free VPNs are usually going to have less bandwidth and higher latency than a paid VPN. In other words, your connection will be noticeably slower than if you were using a paid VPN service. Many free VPN services also use older or less secure tunneling protocols, potentially leaving you open to attacks.
They may also have limited server options or include built-in ads to help generate revenue.
While this may not be true in all cases, it’s better to look for a good paid VPN service instead of going for a free option. VPN servers cost money to operate and maintain. Paying the VPN provider is a necessary part of being able to provide you with a good, secure VPN service.
Can I use a VPN on my mobile device?
You can absolutely use a VPN on your mobile phone! It’s highly recommended that you do so, particularly if you use public WiFi when traveling or working. Phones and tablets that frequently connect to public WiFi hotspots are at high risk of being spied on. Using a VPN goes a long way towards protecting your anonymity and the safety of your data.
Most paid VPN providers offer a mobile app for your Android or iPhone. Even if you don’t often use WiFi hotspots, using a VPN to protect your data and internet usage is recommended. Why? For the same reasons you’d do so on a home network: to keep prying eyes away from your activities on the internet.
Can I run any internet application through a VPN?
The overwhelming majority of apps and software will run just fine while your VPN is on.
That being said, there may be a handful of cases where connecting through a VPN could be problematic. If you’re running your own server for a video game, for example, this could potentially cause issues. For that, Surfshark has a feature called Whitelister™ that allows apps or websites to bypass the VPN connection.
Still, an average user will not see a difference while using their programs, apps, or services.
What is a “Kill Switch” and how does it prevent IP leaks?
Some VPN clients feature a built-in “Kill Switch”. It automatically closes any open connections you have to the internet if your VPN server goes down or loses connection. This is to prevent unencrypted data from being sent in the event of a failure somewhere between you and the VPN service.
It’s an effective way to keep your information – like your real IP address – protected in case something goes wrong. Not all VPNs feature Kill Switches, and in many cases, they may be unnecessary.
Will using a VPN interfere with my local network?
Using a VPN won’t interfere with other devices and computers on your local network. It may, however, interfere with your ability to interact with those devices. This will vary from provider to provider. It also depends on what protocol is in use, the way the client uses this protocol, and how it keeps your information secure.
As an example, you may not be able to use your printer when connected to a VPN. This would be a “worst-case scenario,” and can easily be remedied. All you need to do is disconnect from the VPN and you’ll have access to your printer again. Or you can use Surfshark’s Whitelister™ that is built for fixing issues like this.
If you’re unable to use your network devices while connected to your VPN, don’t worry. This is just the VPN doing its job to keep you secure on the internet.
Velte, V. J. and Velte, A. T. (2007) Cisco: A Beginner’s Guide, Fourth Edition. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.