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What Is a VPN? (Everything You Need to Know)

What is VPN?

From 2016 to 2018, VPN usage has grown by an astonishing 165%. In fact, right now, around 26% of Internet users rely on VPNs (around 1.1 billion people). So it’s safe to say VPNs are more popular than ever today.

Even so, people new to VPNs often ask us the same question: “What is a VPN?” Also, many existing users have asked us to put together an article detailing everything there is to know about VPNs. So, we decided to write this ultimate guide for you. Here’s all you need to know about VPNs.

What Is a VPN?

In simple terms, it’s an online service that can hide your IP address to mask your geo-location, and encrypt your online data and traffic to protect them from government surveillance, ISP snooping, and cybercriminals.

But what does VPN stand for?

Well, the acronym spells out Virtual Private Network, meaning it allows you to set up a private network (that is not physical – hence the “virtual” part) over a public one (the Internet, in this case).

Corporate VPNs vs. Personal VPNs

To better understand what is a VPN, you need to learn to differentiate corporate VPNs from personal ones.

In a nutshell, a personal VPN is a service that’s offered by VPN providers – third-party businesses that offer VPN functionality to any kind of online user. The goal of personal VPNs is to help you – the average Internet user – browse the web in a secure manner, and bypass any restrictions you encounter.

On the other hand, a corporate VPN (also called a remote-access VPN) is a VPN connection which large businesses configure in-house. Corporate VPNs mainly have one purpose – giving employees, owners, and stakeholders secure remote access to company data.

What Is a VPN Provider?

A VPN provider is a third-party company that offers their VPN connections that consist of applications, encryptions, protocols, and servers as a service. You normally have to get a subscription, but some providers can offer their services free of charge.

If you’d like to learn more about VPN providers, follow this link.

How Does a VPN Work?

Simply put, the moment you run a VPN client and initiate a connection to a VPN server, the client will start encrypting all the traffic you send to the server. Once the client establishes a connection to the server, your IP address is replaced with the server’s address.

How does a VPN work diagram

Afterwards, the server decrypts all the data it receives from you, and forwards your connection requests to the website you want to access. After the server receives the requested data (like a web page), it encrypts it, and forwards it to the client. When the VPN client on your device finally receives the traffic, it decrypts it for you.

Interested in finding out more about how VPNs work? Here’s a guide we wrote on that topic.

What Is a VPN Server?

A VPN server is a physical or virtual device that VPN providers use to deliver their services to users. They manage to do that by installing VPN software on the server. Some providers have their own physical servers, but most of them rent high-security servers from reliable data centers. Physical VPN servers are a bit more popular than virtual ones, but they’re equally secure as long as they are configured properly.

In case you want to find out more about VPN servers and how they work, check out this article.

What Is a VPN Client?

A VPN client is software that you install on your device, and use to initiate connections to a VPN server. They are responsible for encrypting the traffic you send to the server, and decrypting all the data you receive from the server. Most VPN clients also have added functionality – like allowing you to switch between VPN protocols, choose different ports, and turn additional features (like a Kill Switch) on or off.

It’s important to differentiate between built-in VPN clients and third-party clients. The former are native software that come pre-configured on your operating system (like the Windows 10 VPN client). The latter are applications you get from third-party VPN providers.

For example, here is how the CactusVPN app looks like:

CactusVPN app

To learn more about VPN clients, follow this link.

What Is a VPN Protocol?

VPN protocols are sets of instructions and rules VPN providers use to make sure the connections their users enjoy are stable and secure. How powerful a protocol is will influence how secure the VPN connection is.

What Is VPN Tunneling and How It Works

A VPN tunnel is simply the encrypted connection between your device and the Internet which a VPN service sets up for you. As for how a VPN tunnel works, it basically encapsulates your traffic in encrypted data packets. That means the “tunnel” is the layer of encryption VPNs add to your connections. Also, VPNs use tunneling protocols (known as VPN protocols) to further configure and optimize the connections.

What Is VPN Encryption?

VPN encryption is how VPN services convert your traffic and data (which can be seen by anyone) into an unreadable format. Once encrypted, only a VPN server and a client can decrypt the information.

So What Does a VPN Do, Actually?

Now that you know what is a VPN, it’s time to take a look at what it can actually do for you.

Here are the main benefits you can enjoy while using a VPN:

  1. You’ll get increased online security. So you’ll no longer have to worry about cybercriminals keeping tabs on what you do, and stealing your data. 
  2. You’ll manage to bypass any restrictions you encounter – both firewalls and geo-blocks – since the VPN will hide your IP address.
  3. With a VPN, you’ll be able to significantly strengthen your Internet privacy by ensuring your ISP, government surveillance agencies, and advertisers won’t manage to monitor your online habits.
why do people use vpn

In case you’d like to find out even more info about the advantages of using VPNs, check out our in-depth guide.

As for when to use a VPN, any of the following situations are adequate:

Here’s What a VPN Won’t Help You Do

Like any kind of service, a VPN has its limitations. It’s important to know about them since you’ll have an easier time deciding if this is the right service for you. So, here’s what you shouldn’t expect a VPN service to be able to do for you:

  • Protect you from the law – We’re in no way saying you’re a criminal or anything like that, but you must understand that you can’t use VPNs to do anything that might be illegal in your country (like engaging in online harassment or bullying, for example). Also, keep in mind that depending on the laws of the country where the VPN provider is located, government authorities might be able to legally force the provider to share user data with them.
  • Keep you safe from malware and viruses – VPNs simply aren’t designed to protect your device and operating system from malware and virus infections. That’s why you should always use a reliable antivirus/antimalware solution alongside a VPN service.
  • Make you 100% anonymous online – A VPN can encrypt a lot of your online data and traffic, yes, but it simply can’t make it seem like you’re “invisible” on the web. The service can’t prevent websites from placing cookies on your device, finding out what type of device or desktop resolution you have, or seeing what kind of GPU you have or what operating system you’re running.

How Secure Is a VPN?

That’s not an easy question to answer. The real answer is “It depends.”

On what? Well, on what kind of encryption standards or VPN protocols the VPN provider uses, for one. For example, a VPN that only offers PPTP connections isn’t secure at all since PPTP traffic can be cracked by the NSA.

On top of that, how much user data the VPN provider logs is also important. And so is the country where they’re headquartered. After all, if the provider resides in a country where they’re legally forced to share user data with the government (like Russia), you’ll hardly be able to enjoy any level of Internet privacy.

Overall, the best way you can tell that a VPN is safe to use is if the provider:

  • Uses powerful encryption (like 128/256-bit AES ciphers).
  • Uses secure protocols – like OpenVPN, SoftEther, and IKEv2
  • Makes it clear they don’t log user data.
  • Has its HQ in a country that has strong privacy-centric laws, or isn’t part of any data-sharing intelligence agreements (like Gibraltar, Switzerland, or Moldova).
  • Offers a Kill Switch, which ensures your traffic is shut down if your VPN connection goes down.

Are VPNs Legal?

In most countries around the world, using a VPN service is perfectly legal. You can freely download and install VPN clients on your devices, and use them to secure your connections and unblock Internet content.

Are VPNs Legal?

However, there are some exceptions. In the following countries, using a VPN is either against the law, or you can only use a government-approved VPN service:

  • China
  • Russia
  • Oman
  • The UAE
  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • Turkey
  • Belarus
  • Turkmenistan
  • Uganda
  • North Korea
  • Egypt

Of course, just because VPN usage is against the law or regulated in those countries doesn’t mean that online users don’t find ways to circumvent government restrictions, and freely use a VPN anyway.

To find out more about this topic, please read this article.

How to Get a VPN

Getting a VPN is pretty simple. All you need to do is find a provider you like, pick one of their subscription plans, and set up an account. Once you’re done, all that’s left is to download and install the provider’s VPN app.

How Much Does a VPN Cost?

A VPN service can cost as little as $4-$5 per month to as much as $12-$13 per month. Usually, the more servers, features, extra services, and cross-platform compatible apps the provider offers, the more they will need to charge per month to cover the costs.

You can generally get pretty decent discounts if you choose a yearly or quarterly subscription – like paying only $4 per month instead of $7.

How to Choose a VPN – Red Flags to Watch Out for

Choosing the right VPN provider all depends on your preferences. Still, here are some red flags that should help you filter out the bad providers:

  • Limited data caps, bandwidth throttling, or any type of bandwidth and speed limitations.
  • Any kind of data logging – especially if it includes usage logs.
  • Limited customer support, or no direct method to contact support teams if something goes wrong.
  • Lack of proper encryption, and access to weak protocols (PPTP, L2TP) only.
  • The presence of ads in the clients.
  • Any kind of limitation regarding how many servers you can connect to, or how often you can switch servers.
  • Lack of a free tutorial period, or of any money-back guarantee.

Need a Reliable VPN Service?

We’ve got you covered – CactusVPN offers a high-end VPN that features military-grade encryption, 24/7 support, a Kill Switch, 30+ high-speed servers with unlimited bandwidth, and up to six VPN protocols to choose from. What’s more, we don’t log any of your data, and our service works across multiple platforms.


And if you ever want to try out other ways of unblocking websites, we also offer a Smart DNS service that unblocks 300+ websites for you. That, and all our VPN servers double as proxy servers.

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“How Do I Get a VPN for Free?”

Well, all you need to do is pick a free VPN provider. However, you should know that free VPNs are much riskier than paid VPNs. You can have your bandwidth stolen, your device infected with malware, and much more.

Overall, the best way to get a free VPN experience is to choose a provider who offers a free trial period. That way, you can test out the service before making any payments.

“Can I Learn How to Set Up My Own VPN?”

Yes, you can if you have the patience. First, you’re going to have to get a server. You can rent a decent dedicated one from data centers. Depending on your needs, you might pay anywhere between $15 and $100 per month for it. You should pick a virtual server since they’re normally cheaper.

VPN features

Afterwards, you can try using the open-source Algo VPN scripts to install the dependencies on your device. The installation instructions can be found right here. It’s convenient to use Algo VPN because it automates the VPN installation process. Plus, if you use DigitalOcean, the scripts will even create and configure the server for you since Algo VPN uses the platform’s API.

Alternatively, you can try using SoftEther VPN or OpenVPN to set up and configure your connections.

Still, you should know that setting up your own VPN has its drawbacks:

  • Setting up the VPN on your own can be pretty difficult if you’re not very tech-savvy (even with the user-friendly Algo VPN). And if you try to configure an OpenVPN or SoftEther connection, things will get even more complex.
  • You’ll have to deal with limitations when you want to unblock content. You won’t have access to dozens of servers from around the world, after all. You can rent more servers from different areas, of course, but it can get expensive fast.

Since you’ll be the main user on your server’s IP address, you won’t get the same privacy-centric perks VPN users with shared IP addresses get.

How to Use a VPN

Using a VPN is very simple.

  1. First, you need to create an account with a VPN provider or get your own dedicated server.
  2. Afterwards, you just need to download and install the VPN client, run it, and connect to a VPN server of your choice (or your own server).
  3. That’s it – once the client establishes a connection to the server, you’re good to go.

Depending on the VPN provider, you might be able to tweak your connection settings before connecting to a VPN server – like choosing which VPN protocol to use, if you want to use DNS leak protection, and whether or not you want features like a Kill Switch and Auto-Reconnect turned on. Those are just some examples – there are tons of other features you can tweak when using a VPN client.

What Platforms Do VPNs Work on?

VPNs are pretty flexible when it comes to cross-platform compatibility. They work on the most popular platforms, like Windows, macOS, iOS and Android. However, VPN connections can normally be set up or installed on other platforms, such as:

  • Linux distributions (like Ubuntu)
  • Android TV
  • Amazon Fire TV
  • Browsers (Firefox, Google Chrome)
  • Windows Phone
  • Boxee Box
  • Chromebook
  • FreeBSD
  • Solaris
  • e-readers (like Kindle Fire)
  • BlackBerry
  • Synology NAS

Some platforms don’t offer any native support for VPNs, though. For instance, you can’t directly set up a VPN connection on a PlayStation console, some types of smart TVs, or a set-top box. In those situations, you need to configure a VPN connection on your router. That way, any web-connected device you have in your home will use the VPN connection whenever it accesses the Internet through your router.

You could get an out-of-the-box VPN router, but they can be pretty expensive. The best option is to get a flashed router, or flash your router’s firmware, and set up your VPN service on it afterwards. The process can be a bit complex, but if your provider offers step-by-step tutorials, it shouldn’t be too difficult.

“How Do I Know If My VPN Is Working?”

The easiest way to test if your VPN connection is working or not is to use our own IP detection tool. Access the website when you’re connected to a VPN server, and see which IP address is displayed – your real one, or the server’s address.

Test IP Leaks

To be even more thorough, you can try the following tools:

  • IPLEAK.NET – Test if your IP is leaked when you’re using a VPN.
  • DNSLeakTest – See if your VPN connection suffers DNS leaks or not.
  • WebRTC Leak Test – Make sure your VPN connection isn’t prone to WebRTC leaks.

For a more in-depth guide on how to make sure your VPN is working well, follow this link.

“Why Is My VPN Connection So Slow?”

It’s important to understand that a VPN can slow down your online speeds. That mostly happens due to the VPN’s encryption – especially if it’s a very strong one. How powerful your CPU is, how far you are from the server you’re using, and how fast your original Internet speed is also contribute to how much a VPN could slow down your speeds. 

In case you’d like to learn more about this topic, check out this guide.

Should You Use a VPN When Torrenting?

We already mentioned that you can use a VPN when downloading torrents, but here are the main reasons it’s a good idea to do that:

  • It can keep you safe from DMCA notices, and from getting your ISP service shut down.
  • Torrenting with a VPN protects your privacy from the other users of the Swarm (total number of uploaders/downloaders on a torrent) since they can’t see your real IP address.
  • It’s extremely useful when traveling. Hotels might kick you off the network if they catch you running torrent clients or downloading torrents, so using a VPN can help you stay under the radar.

DISCLAIMER: We here at CactusVPN do not encourage or endorse illegal copyright infringement and torrenting. But we are aware that many people around the world can only get the entertainment, school and work files, or software they need through torrenting.

“What Does My ISP See When I Use VPN Services?”

Basically, as long as you use a VPN service that offers powerful encryption, your ISP won’t be able to see what you do on the Internet. They won’t know what websites you access, what files you download, or what videos you watch. They’ll just see pure gibberish.


The only things your ISP might be able to see are:

  • The fact that you are connected to a VPN. Their data doesn’t outright tell them that, but they can guess based on the fact that your traffic is encrypted.
  • The timing of your VPN connection. 
  • The IP address of the VPN server you’re connected to. 
  • The amount of data that you send and receive, but not what data.

That’s exactly why many people use VPNs to bypass ISP bandwidth throttling.

Why Does Netflix Block VPN Services?

Netflix has been trying to block VPN services ever since 2016. Its efforts were somewhat met with success since the platform managed to blacklist some providers.

Why does Netflix focus on VPNs so much, though? It’s mostly because the platform doesn’t own the copyright to all the content it displays. Also, in order to broadcast shows and movies worldwide, Netflix and the copyright holders would need to buy licensing rights. And that can get extremely expensive, so its no wonder that Netflix and the owners of the content it displays don’t want the US content available to the whole world.

So, Netflix blocking VPNs is basically the company’s attempt of respecting all the licensing deals it has with movie and TV show studios and networks.

netflix overseas

How does Netflix manage to block some VPNs? Simply put, it uses advanced detection methods to sniff out VPN users. Since a lot of providers offer shared IP addresses, the platform can see if a lot of data and requests are coming from one specific address. Once Netflix’s servers discover that an IP address belongs to a VPN provider, it blacklists it.

Sometimes, Netflix might block IP addresses in bulk since some VPN providers buy them that way. However, that can often backfire since the platform can end up blocking individual IP addresses that belong to their users.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that all the VPN providers Netflix manages to block stay that way. Many providers constantly develop workarounds, so it’s not like Netflix is constantly inaccessible to VPN users.

But if you really want to make sure you’ll have uninterrupted access to Netflix, you should pick a provider that doesn’t offer only VPN services, but proxy and Smart DNS services too. That way, you have multiple ways to unblock Netflix. And if Netflix suddenly blocks any service, you will have a backup plan (or two).

What Is Double VPN Support?

Double VPN support means the provider allows you to use two VPN servers at the same time. Essentially, your traffic and data are secured two times – once by the first VPN server, and another time by the second server.

Some online users prefer this type of VPN connection since it offers enhanced privacy (the second server won’t know your real IP address), and improved security (with each connection, another layer of encryption is added).

However, double VPNs are very taxing on your online speeds and system memory. It’s pretty easy to end up with slow connection speeds if the connections aren’t properly configured, and if your bandwidth and CPU can’t handle them.

Want to find out more about double VPNs, multihop VPNs, and VPN chains? Check out this guide.

What Is a VPN? The Bottom Line

So, what is a VPN then?

To keep it simple, it’s a service that helps you hide your IP address, and secure your online traffic and data. It does much more than that, of course, but that’s the main idea.

We’ve tried to answer all the relevant questions we could think of in this article. But if there are any other things you want to learn about VPNs, let us know in the comments, and we’ll try to answer ASAP.

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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.