VPN for beginners: A simple guide to online privacy

Have no idea what a virtual private network (VPN) is or what it can do? We can help.

Talk of VPNs has increased lately, and we've already covered quite a few topics related to security and privacy. To help you get acquainted with VPNs, we compiled this beginner's guide with just about everything you need to know to become a VPN pro.

What is a VPN?

A VPN is a security and privacy tool that effectively shuttles the information from your PC, phone, or another device to the open internet through an encrypted tunnel. On one end is your PC, on the other is a VPN server (usually) located elsewhere in the world.

NordVPN double VPN

The popular NordVPN actually offers a double VPN, which routes your traffic through two servers before hitting the open internet.

The VPN server has its own Internet Protocol (IP) address that is shared among any connected users, meaning you can enjoy a bit of extra privacy. Although interested parties (such as some notorious government agencies) could no doubt eventually figure out who you are and what you're up to, your activity will be masked to those with lesser resources.

For more information about exactly what a VPN is, check out our guide to the difference between a VPN and a proxy, as well as our article that dispels six common myths associated with VPNs.

IP Vanish

Advertisement


Why you should use a VPN

VPNs were traditionally (and are still) used as a way to remotely access a company's servers without exposing them to the open internet. However, due to waning internet privacy and shady open Wi-Fi access points just about everywhere you go, VPNs are catching on with the general public.

Use a VPN while online shopping

Using a VPN while shopping is never a bad idea.

Not only do VPNs offer regular internet users a bit of extra privacy and security by encrypting your information before it hits the open internet, they can also provide ad- and tracker-blocking, they can help bypass geo-restrictions — that's especially helpful for journalists or activists in countries with oppressive governments — and can put an end to annoying ISP bandwidth throttling.

There are plenty more, lesser-known uses for VPNs, which we've already written about in detail.

What's the deal with free VPNs?

There are basically two types of VPNs: paid and free. Paid VPN services rely on subscription-based business to pay for many servers they host around the world. They also have intuitive apps compatible with most platforms, and their services usually come with a bunch of extra features that free VPNs do not have.

TunnelBear free VPN

TunnelBear is one of the best free VPNs out there.

Still, there are many free VPN services out there. The problem? Most of them should be avoided due to security concerns. Unless a free VPN provider is incredibly generous or belongs to an activist group, it's likely making money through other means than subscribers. Some will inject ads into your online experience, while others will go so far as to sell your internet traffic to interested parties. Since you're interested in a VPN for privacy, that pretty much ruins the whole experience.

Not all free VPNs are awful. The best ones are usually run by companies that offer paid VPN services. They're looking to get you hooked on a VPN that's more like a trial version (with bandwidth and speed caps), hoping you'll eventually splurge for the full deal. If you're interested in trying out a VPN before buying, check out our suggestions for the best free VPNs.

Best free VPN services

How to choose the right VPN

A VPN with plenty of servers is usually preferred

Look out for a VPN service with plenty of servers.

When choosing a VPN service, there are a few basic features to look for. You want a service that hosts plenty of servers in many countries around the world. No matter where you travel or what content you're trying to access, you want to be sure that there are multiple servers to connect to. Multiple servers mean less traffic, and you won't notice as much of a slowdown in speed.

A VPN protects your privacy, so you want to ensure the service itself isn't keeping an eye on you. Many VPN providers talk about keeping no logs, but you should always read the fine print in the privacy policy. You'll often find that there is some information being kept despite a claim of no logs.

You also want to verify where the VPN service is primarily based. A country with lax log-keeping policies is preferable, and it never hurts to find a VPN that isn't on good terms with the country you're living in. Requests for information are a lot less likely to go through between two unfriendly nations.

Still wondering which VPN is best? Check out our roundup of the questions you should ask before buying a VPN, as well as our picks for the best VPN services.

IP Vanish

Advertisement


How to manually configure a VPN

VPNs can be manually configured on Windows 10 Mobile

VPNs can be manually configured on Windows 10 Mobile.

Say you already purchased a subscription to a leading VPN service. Great! You're almost there. While the best of them offer intuitive apps for Windows 10, you might be unable to install them due to limitations — like if you're using Windows 10 S.

Likewise, some VPN services do not have Windows 10 Mobile apps or do not keep existing apps updated. If you're in a situation where you can't use a VPN app to easily configure and connect to a server, don't fret. You can manually configure a VPN on all versions of Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile.

We already wrote in-depth guides on manually configuring VPNs on both platforms, so check them out for all the help you need.