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How Does a VPN Work?

How does a VPN work
VPNs are used by tons of people worldwide. You’ve probably used one at least once when you browsed the web. But did you ever ask yourself: “How does a VPN work actually?” Well, we’ve got all the answers you need in this 6-minute article. Oh, and even if you’ve never used a VPN but are curious how one works, this article will be a good read for you too.

But before we get to that, let’s review what a VPN is, and then showcase (alongside with illustrations) how you experience an online connection without and with a VPN – so that you can better understand how the service works.

What Is a VPN?

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a service you can use to protect your personal information and online traffic on the Internet. Basically, the service establishes a secure, encrypted connection between your device and a VPN server. All your web connections go through your ISP, but they can’t monitor them anymore. Also, your real IP address is hidden.

How You Connect to the Web Without a VPN

Here’s an accurate representation of how your connection to the Internet goes:

Unprotected connection to Internet

It quickly becomes obvious that whenever you connect to the web, your data and traffic goes through your ISP in a readable format, meaning they can essentially see everything you do online – what you search for, what files you download, what websites you access, and so on.

For some of you, that might not be a huge concern, but consider this – many ISPs have to comply with data retention laws, so they have to store user data (yes, that includes your web activity) and share it with the authorities and government agencies. In places like the US, they can even sell that information to third-party advertisers.

Besides that, hackers are another threat since they can eavesdrop on your connections (especially on unsecured networks), and steal your private data. Once they do that, they can either use it to steal money from you or commit identity theft, or just auction it off on the deep web. Oh, and let’s not forget about surveillance agencies who can freely keep tabs on all your online habits.

And that’s not all – your personal data and online traffic aren’t the only things that are exposed on the web without a VPN. Your IP address and – consequently – your geo-location are exposed too.

Don’t think that’s something to be worried about? Well, think of it this way – some people can actually use your exposed IP address to gather information associated with it, such as the country and city you live in. In some situations, cybercriminals could even find out who your ISP is, or just use your IP address to run targeted attacks against your devices and routers.

What’s more, if you’re in a country where torrenting is a touchy legal subject, your ISP might either send you a warning if they catch you torrenting files, or they might just forward your information to copyright agencies, which can result in you receiving:

  • DMCA notices
  • Huge fines
  • Jail sentences

How You Connect to the Web With a VPN

Now here’s how your connection to the Internet would look like if you were to use a VPN:

How does a VPN work diagram

Basically, you use a VPN client to connect to a VPN server which you then use to access the web. The incoming traffic is sent to your device through the VPN server and client. That’s pretty much the gist of how VPN connections work.

Because an encrypted “tunnel” is established between you and the VPN server, your ISP (or anyone else, for that matter) can’t monitor your online traffic and data. Only the devices on each end of the VPN tunnel (the VPN client on your device and the VPN server) can decrypt the information since only they can encrypt it. Also, the VPN server will replace your IP address with its own as well once the connection is established, effectively hiding your geo-location online.

All in all, unlike accessing the web without a VPN, doing it with a VPN ensures you get to enjoy private browsing, peace of mind knowing your personal info is protected, and unrestricted access to any content (since hiding your IP address means you can bypass annoying geo-blocks and firewalls).

How Does a VPN Work?

A VPN relies on a VPN client, VPN server(s), and VPN encryption protocols to offer you a smooth, safe online experience. The client establishes the secure connection to the servers, and both of them encrypt and decrypt your online data and traffic by using different types of VPN protocols.

Here’s a quick overview of the whole process:

  1. You use the VPN client to connect to a VPN server. When you do that, the client starts encrypting your data.
  2. The VPN client establishes a connection to the appropriate server through your ISP, and sets up the VPN “tunnel.”
  3. The VPN server replaces your IP address with its own (thus hiding your geo-location), starts decrypting the data it receives from you, and forwards your connections to the web.
  4. Once the VPN server receives the online data you requested from various web servers, it encrypts it, and sends it back to your device through your ISP.
  5. When the VPN client receives the incoming traffic, it decrypts it for you.

And that’s pretty much how VPNs help in private browsing and how they work. While the whole process might seem like it’d take a long time, it usually happens almost instantaneously.

How Do VPN Clients Work?

VPN clients are software provided by VPN providers to their users to allow them to easily run their VPN services on their devices. VPN clients generally work across multiple devices and operating systems, and are easy to install.

Users normally just have to run the client, and choose a server they want to connect to. Additionally, they might be able to tweak certain connection options, like choosing between TCP and UDP or the VPN protocol they want to use.

Once the user chooses a server, the client will establish the connection, and start encrypting any connection requests the user sends to the web.

What is VPN client software

Not all devices offer support for VPN clients, though – like gaming consoles and some smart TVs, for example. In that case, VPN connections have to be established on a router first. That way, any device that connects to the web through the VPN-enabled router will do so using VPN-secured connections.

Now, client applications aren’t the only one out there. Besides clients developed by VPN providers, you also have VPN protocol clients. For example, OpenVPN has its own client, and so does SoftEther. However, VPN protocol clients tend to be a bit more complex and don’t really offer a lot of cross-platform compatibility, so a lot of online users prefer sticking to client apps instead.

Furthermore, sometimes, VPN clients aren’t even applications – just VPN protocols or clients that are integrated in an operating system. The Windows VPN Platform is a good example of that. Though, it’s worth mentioning these options are more DIY and not 100% reliable.

How Do VPNs Work on Mobile?

How a VPN works on mobile is pretty much similar to how a VPN client works. The only difference is that you have to download and install a VPN app on your mobile device – usually through iTunes or Google Play.

In case the VPN provider doesn’t have a working mobile client, they will usually offer you access to tutorials that show you how to set up a manual connection.

How Do VPN Tunnels and Encryption Work?

VPNs rely on encryption to secure your web connections and the incoming traffic you receive from the Internet. Simply put, encryption is a way to convert data from a readable format to an encoded one. Only the person/device who has a decryption key (in this case, that’s the VPN client and the VPN server) can convert the data back into a readable format.

And that’s essentially how VPN encryption works.

VPN protocol

As for how a VPN tunnel works, just think of it as a private network set up between your device and the VPN server. Everyone outside the tunnel (ISPs, surveillance agencies, hackers) can’t take a peek inside it.

Now, how strong a VPN’s encryption is depends on the VPN protocol the VPN software uses. Less powerful encryptions offer faster speeds, but are less secure, while more powerful protocols can slow down your speeds a bit because of the encryption/decryption process. Generally, these are the most commonly-used VPN protocols:

Bottom line – encryption is how a VPN provides security online, how a VPN hides you and your traffic on the Internet, and how VPNs keep hackers at bay.

How Do VPN Servers Work?

How a VPN server works is pretty straightforward – it receives encrypted traffic from your device, decrypts it, and forwards it to the Internet. Next, it encrypts the data it receives from the web, and sends it back to you. The data is then decrypted by the VPN client for you.

VPN Servers

If you’re curious what VPN servers are, they’re basically normal servers that are configured with VPN software and have more logical and communications ports. VPN providers host their services on these servers, and deliver them to consumers. The VPN software will also handle access control mechanics, and secure client/server connections by using various types of VPN protocols.

Also, connecting to such a VPN server is how VPNs change your IP address. Once you connect to it, your ISP-assigned IP address is instantly replaced with the IP address of the VPN server. So, any website you access while connected to a VPN server will only see the VPN server’s IP address.

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So, how does a VPN work? Well, here’s the short version – the software encrypts your connection requests to the VPN server, and the web information the server sends back to you, thus making sure your ISP (who is the middleman between you and the VPN server) can’t monitor what you do or access on the Internet.

Also, when you connect to a VPN server, your ISP-assigned IP address is replaced with the server’s address, effectively hiding your geo-location (and any other info associated with your IP address) when you’re online.

Overall, VPNs have many uses, and it’s always a good idea to rely on one when you’re accessing the web – whether you just want to enjoy enhanced privacy, protect your data from hackers, or access restricted content.

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Tim has been writing content and copy for a living for over 4 years, and has been covering VPN, Internet privacy, and cybersecurity topics for more than 2 years. He enjoys staying up-to-date with the latest in Internet privacy news, and helping people find new ways to secure their online rights.

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