If you surf the internet in public places, consume entertainment content on the web, or communicate with people online, then you may want to consider using a VPN service.
VPNs let you browse the web through an encrypted connection, allowing you to go about your online business in private. VPN services also hide your IP address to make it seem like you’re surfing from a different location, and this enables you to visit websites that are restricted in your location.
In this detailed guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about VPNs. We’ll talk about how a VPN works, what service you should use, and the common issues people run into when using a virtual private network.
By the end of this guide, you’ll have a solid understanding of virtual private networks, and you’ll have the info you need to determine the best VPN for you.
Let’s get started.
Before diving into the nitty-gritty details of virtual private networks and the services you can check out, let’s shed light on the fundamentals of the technology. Here are some of the answers to the most common questions people have about VPNs.
What does VPN mean?
VPN stands for virtual private network. It’s a service that encrypts your web connection, so your browsing activities aren’t visible to your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and other third parties (e.g., hackers, the government, nosy people).
See, when you’re browsing the internet using an unencrypted connection, your web activity and data are fully visible to your ISP. This means that your internet service provider can see what you’re doing online and collect information that it can use for things like targeted advertising.
Additionally, if you’re using a public internet connection — like the free WiFi in your local coffee shop — the administrator of that network can monitor your web activity and data.
Using a VPN service helps prevent all that.
How does a VPN work?
So, how does a virtual private network protect your web browsing activity? To put it simply, a VPN can serve as the middleman between you and the internet.
A VPN service encrypts your data before it leaves your device (i.e., laptop, tablet, phone), so when it passes through your ISP’s servers, your provider doesn’t see it. The VPN will then decrypt the traffic and data once it reaches their servers. That way, only you and your VPN will be able to see the information.
Many people use a tunnel metaphor to describe how VPNs work. Picture this: when your data leaves your device, a VPN encapsulates that information into a “tunnel”, so your information and activities aren’t visible to third parties.
Here’s a VPN diagram illustrating how the technology works: https://www.istockphoto.com/nz/photo/vpn-tunnel-gm524156555-51519070
Need more visuals? Check out this ExpressVPN video that explains it further: https://youtu.be/xKPKs9tVmN4?t=54s
Why use a VPN?
Let’s go into a bit more detail on the benefits of using a VPN service. In this chapter, we’ll discuss the top reasons people use virtual private networks.
- Browse the web privately – Users don’t want prying eyes to see their data (particularly when connecting to a public network), so they use a VPN service that lets them browse the web privately.
This is the number one reason people use VPNs. Comparitech cites a survey from GlobalWebindex which found that 31% (the highest in the survey) of respondents who used VPNs did it because they wanted their internet data and activities to stay private.
- Access to entertainment content – Entertainment websites such Netflix and YouTube restrict content in certain countries due to copyright issues. Using a VPN service can make it seem like you’re browsing from a different location (such as the US), allowing you to unlock the content you want to watch.
According to GlobalWebindex’s VPN usage study, access to “entertainment content from media sources like Netflix, YouTube, and the Apple Store” is the second most cited reason for using VPNs.
- Access content or websites that are blocked in your country or workplace – Depending on where you’re located, access to certain websites may be restricted. Mainland China, for example, has a long list of banned websites and apps, including Google, Facebook, and Snapchat. Meanwhile, schools and workplaces can also block websites and apps. Using a VPN service can help you get around these restrictions
- Communicate with loved ones – This is the fifth most popular reason people use VPN services, according to GlobalWebindex. Since social networks and apps are blocked in some countries, connecting through a VPN service could be the only way to access the tools users need to communicate with others abroad.
What’s the best VPN service for you?
At this point, you’re probably asking something along the lines of, “What VPN service should I use?” or “Where do I buy a VPN?”. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to these questions as the “best” VPN will depend on your needs, your devices, and your budget, among other things.
Factors to consider when choosing a VPN service
Need help figuring out the VPN service for you? Here are the top factors to look at when deciding on a solution:
- Server locations – If you need to appear as if you’re browsing the web from a specific country, make sure the VPN you choose has servers in that geographical area. For instance, if you want to appear as if you’re browsing from the United States so you can watch certain shows on Netflix, then see to it that your VPN provider has servers in the US. Want to access BBC iPlayer? The you’ll want to connect to a server in the UK.
Remember, while having VPN service makes you less visible to ISPs and other third parties, your VPN will be able to see your internet data and what you’re doing online. That means your provider can access and even log your internet data and activities. That’s why you’ll want to go with a provider that doesn’t keep logs of your traffic and keeps your data secure from third parties such as the government.
- Where the VPN is based – Where a VPN service is headquartered can affect how it treats your data. VPN companies that are based in the United States, for example, may have to comply with government demands when it comes to turning over data about their customers. If this is an issue, you may want to opt for a VPN provider that doesn’t fall under US jurisdiction.
- Protocols used – We now know that a VPN service encapsulates your data into a “tunnel” to mask it from third-parties. But it’s also important to look into how the service encrypts your data and the security standards it adheres to.
This is where security protocols come in. A VPN protocol is the method that the service uses when connecting to its server. Here’s an overview of the different types of VPN protocols:
- OpenVPN – This is a highly configurable protocol that can be implemented on any port. It’s open source, which means any security issues or flaws can be identified by the community. OpenVPN is considered as the best VPN protocol in terms of security, so it should be your first choice when selecting a protocol. The only downside is many smartphones and tablets do not support it.
- SSTP – Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol or SSTP is owned by Microsoft and is only available on Windows, though some sources report that there is support (albeit limited) on other operating systems. SSTP isn’t open source, which means it doesn’t get scrutinized by third parties.
- L2TP/IPsec – Layer 2 Tunnel Protocol doesn’t provide a strong encryption or authentication, which is why it’s used together with the IPSec protocol. This protocol is more secure than PPTP, though it’s considered a slow solution. L2TP/IPsec also often runs into firewall blocks.
- PPTP – Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol or PPTP should be your last resort when it comes to VPN protocols. It’s quite old (as in Windows 1995 old) and isn’t secure as the protocols mentioned above. Sure, it’s fast, common, and easy to set up, but it has several vulnerabilities. Only use this protocol when you don’t have a choice.
Comparing VPN services
Now that you know what features and factors to look at, here’s a list of some popular VPN services in the market. Check them out and see which one is right for you.
IPVanish is a top-tier VPN service that has a network of more than 40,000 IP addresses and 850+ servers all over the world (60+ countries).
Where are the servers located? IPVanish VPN’s 850+ servers are spread out across six continents: North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Oceania, and Asia. You can see the full list of countries and cities here.
Where is the company’s headquarters? United States
What protocols do they support? OpenVPN, PTTP, L2TP, IPSec
How much does the VPN service cost? Annual plan – $77.99 ($6.49 per month)
3-month plan – $26.99 b($8.99 per month)
Monthly plan – $10.00 per month
Many experts regard NordVPN as one of the best in the market, thanks to its secure service coupled with features such as double encryption, Onion over VPN, and more.
Where are the servers located? NordVPN has 1412 servers in 61 countries. Check out the full list at nordvpn.com/servers/
Do they log user data and activities? NordVPN has a no-logs policy. According to the company: “we have a strict no-logs policy when it comes to seeing user activity online: being based in Panama, which does not require data storage or reporting, we are empowered to deny any third party requests. Period.”
Where is the company’s headquarters? Panama
What protocols do they support? OpenVPN, PPTP, L2TP/IPsec, IKEv2/IPsec
How much does the VPN service cost? Annual plan – $69.00 ($5.75 per month)
6-month plan – $42.00 ($7.00 per month)
Monthly plan – $11.95 per month
ExpressVPN touts its speedy performance and 24/7 customer service. It has servers in 94 countries and even has “stealth” services in Hong Kong.
Where are the servers located? ExpressVPN has 1,500+ servers in 145 VPN server locations. They have servers in 94 countries. View them here.
Where is the company’s headquarters? The British Virgin Islands
What protocols do they support? OpenVPN with UDP, OpenVPN with TCP, SSTP, L2TP/IPsec, PPTP
How much does the VPN service cost? Annual plan – $99.00 ($8.32 per month)
6-month plan – $59.95 ($9.99 per month)
Monthly plan – $12.95 per month
Golden Frog VyprVPN
Reliable and easy to use, VyprVPN reaches decent speeds and uses a proprietary Chameleon™ technology that “scrambles OpenVPN packet metadata to ensure it’s not recognizable via deep packet inspection (DPI), while still keeping it fast and lightweight.”
Where are the servers located? Golden Frog VyprVPN’s 700+ servers are located in 70+ locations across six continents. Check them out here.
- Does not log a user’s traffic or the content of any communications
- Does not perform deep packet inspection of your traffic, except where requested by the customer for firewall purposes.
- Does not perform shallow packet inspection of your traffic, except where requested by the customer for firewall purposes.
- Does not discriminate against devices, protocols, or applications. Golden Frog is network neutral.
- Does not throttle your Internet connection.
- Does not rate limit Internet connection.
That said, the service does store certain user information for 30 days. They include: “the user’s source IP address, the VyprVPN IP address used by the user, connection start and stop time and total number of bytes used.”
Where is the company’s headquarters? Switzerland
What protocols do they support? PPTP, L2TP/IPsec, OpenVPN, Chameleon
How much does the VPN service cost? VyprVPN Premium – $6.67 per month if billed annually or $12.95 if billed monthly. This plan includes unlimited data usage, supports five simultaneous connections, offers VyprVPN Cloud, and the Chameleon Protocol.
VyprVPN – $5.00 per month if billed annually or $9.95 if billed monthly. This plan offers unlimited data usage and three simultaneous connections.
Hide My Ass!
Probably the VPN solution with most memorable name, Hide My Ass! is a decent VPN service that works reasonably fast.
Where are the servers located? HMA! Has 840+ VPN servers in 280+ locations covering 190+ countries around the world. View their server map here.
Where is the company’s headquarters? United Kingdom
What protocols do they support? OpenVPN, PPTP, L2TP/IPSec
How much does the VPN service cost? Annual plan – $78.66 ($6.56 per month)
6-month plan – $49.99 ($8.33 per month)
Monthly plan – $11.52 per month
This is a solid VPN that encrypts your data with split tunneling — a unique feature “that allows users to split and route the flow of their device traffic between the VPN and their ISPs.”
Where are the servers located? PureVPN has 750+ servers in 140+ countries. Learn more here.
Where is the company’s headquarters? Hong Kong
What protocols do they support? OpenVPN UDP, OpenVPN TCP, IKEv2, SSTP, L2TP, PPTP
How much does the VPN service cost? Annual plan – $69.00 per year ($5.75 per month)
6-month plan – $53.70 ($8.95 per month)
Monthly plan – $10.95 per month
CyberGhost is a reliable and simple to use VPN with numerous servers in Europe.
Where are the servers located? CyberGhost has over a thousand servers in 36 countries.
Where is the company’s headquarters? Romania
What protocols do they support? OpenVPN, PPTP, L2TP/IPSec, IPSec
How much does the VPN service cost? Annual plan – $59.88 ($4.99 per month)
6-month plan – $47.94 ($7.99 per month)
Monthly plan – $10.99 per month
Buffered offers basic VPN services. According to PCMag, it has a “good geographic diversity” when it comes to servers. It also allows BitTorrent and P2P.
Where are the servers located? The service has servers in 46 countries. Check them out here.
Do they log user data and activities? According to Buffered, the service doesn’t log your online traffic. “We only log data regarding the duration of your connection. We never log anything related to the content you’ve accessed.”
Where is the company’s headquarters? Hungary
What protocols do they support? OpenVPN exclusively
How much does the VPN service cost? Annual plan – $99.00 ($8.25 per month)
6-month plan – $59.94 ($9.99 per month)
Monthly plan – $12.99 per month
III. Common issues when it comes to VPN services
While VPN services should give a smooth and secure web browsing experience, you may encounter a few hiccups from time to time. Here are the most common issues when it comes to VPNs — and what to do about them.
Slow VPN service or slow internet connection
A slight slowdown in your internet connection can be expected when you connect through a VPN service. VPNs typically slow down your internet speed by 10-20%. If it’s more than that, and it’s bothering you, try doing the following:
Switch servers – A slowdown caused by VPN services could be due to either the server being congested or being too far from your geographical location.
Change protocols – Another way to speed up your connection is to reduce the levels of encryption. You can do this by switching protocols. Regarding speed, the fastest protocol is PPTP followed by L2TP/IpSec, and then OpenVPN, SSTP, and then finally, IKEv2/IPSec. Do note, however, that the fastest protocol (i.e., PPTP) is the least secure, so you may be compromising security if you choose that option.
VPN won’t connect
Having trouble connecting to your VPN service? Take the following steps:
Check your login credentials – See to it that you’re using the correct username and password when connecting to the VPN.
Switch protocols – The protocol that you’re using might be blocked in your location. Try a different one, then reconnect.
Disable any firewalls – A firewall could be blocking your VPN service. Consider disabling your device firewall then try connecting again.
Restart or switch devices – The issue could be on the local device. Try rebooting it or switching to a different device.
Connect to a different server – Failure to connect may be a server issue, so choose a different one and see if you’re able to connect successfully.
Change your location – Like with protocols, some VPNs are blocked in certain countries or locations. Try moving to a different location and see if it works.
VPN services aren’t just for those viewing highly sensitive information online — i.e., you don’t have to be a spy to benefit from virtual private networks. VPNs are also useful for regular folks who want to access entertainment, communicate with their loved ones, or simply browse the web away from prying eyes.
If you’re in the market for a solution, we hope this guide was helpful. And if there’s anything that wasn’t covered in this resource or if you have further questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch.