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HTG Explains: What is a VPN? (And Why You Might Want to Use One)

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A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, allows you to create a secure connection to another network over the Internet. VPNs can be used to access region-restricted websites, shield your browsing activity from prying eyes on public Wi-Fi, and more.

VPNs essentially forward all your network traffic to the network, which is where the benefits – like accessing local network resources remotely and bypassing Internet censorship – all come from. Most operating systems have integrated VPN support.

What is a VPN?

When you connect your computer (or another device, such as a smartphone or tablet) to a VPN, the computer acts as if it’s on the same local network as the VPN. All your network traffic is sent over a secure connection to the VPN. Because your computer behaves as if it’s on the network, this allows you to securely access local network resources even when you’re on the other side of the world. You’ll also be able to use the Internet as if you were present at the VPN’s location, which has some benefits if you’re using pubic Wi-Fi or want to access geo-blocked websites.

When you browse the web while connected to a VPN, your computer contacts the website through the encrypted VPN connection. The VPN forwards the request for you and forwards the response from the website back through the secure connection. If you’re using a USA-based VPN to access Netflix, Netflix will see your connection as coming from within the USA.

Uses for VPNs

VPNs are a fairly simple tool, but they can be used to do a wide variety of things:

  • Access a Business Network While Travelling: VPNs are frequently used by business travellers to access their business’ network, including all its local network resources, while on the road. The local resources don’t have to be exposed directly to the Internet, which increases security.
  • Access Your Home Network While Travelling: You can also set up your own VPN to access your own network while travelling. This will allow you to access a Windows Remote Desktop over the Internet, use local file shares, and play games over the Internet as if you were on the same LAN (local area network).
  • Hide Your Browsing Activity From Your Local Network and ISP: If you’re using a public Wi-Fi connection, your browsing activity on non-HTTPS websites is visible to everyone neraby, if they know how to look. If you want to hide your browsing activity for a bit more privacy, you can connect to a VPN. The local network will only see a single, secure VPN connection. All the other traffic will travel over the VPN connection. While this can be used to bypass connection-monitoring by your Internet service provider, bear in mind that VPN providers may opt to log the traffic on their ends.
  • Access Geo-Blocked Websites: Whether you’re an American trying to access your Netflix account while travelling out of the country or you wish you could use American media sites like Netflix, Pandora, and Hulu, you’ll be able to access these region-restricted services if you connect to a VPN located in the USA.
  • Bypass Internet Censorship: Many Chinese people use VPNs to get around the Great Firewall of China and gain access to the entire Internet. (However, the Great Firewall has apparently started interfering with VPNs recently.)
  • Downloading Files: Yes, let’s be honest – many people use VPN connections to download files via BitTorrent. This can actually be useful even if you’re downloading completely legal torrents – if your ISP is throttling BitTorrent and making it extremely slow, you can use BitTorrent on a VPN to get faster speeds. The same is true for other types of traffic your ISP might interfere with (unless they interfere with VPN traffic itself.)

Using a VPN

Connecting to a VPN is fairly simple. In Windows, press the Windows key, type VPN, and click the Set up a virtual private network (VPN) connection option. (If you use Windows 8, you’ll have to click the Settings category after searching.) Use the wizard to enter the address and login credentials of the VPN service you want to use. You can then connect to and disconnect from VPNs using the network icon in the system tray – the same one where you manage the Wi-Fi networks you’re connected to.

Some VPN providers may offer clients that do this configuration for you.

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Free VPN Options

If you’re just getting started with VPNs and want a basic VPN for using on public Wi-Fi hotspots or accessing region-restricted websites, there are a few good, free options.

TunnelBear has easy, dead-simple setup – you just click the dial in the application; you don’t even need to configure the VPN in Windows. The free version limits you to 500 MB a month, but that may be fine for occasional coffee shop use.

We’ve also covered proXPN, which provides a free client. The free client is limited to 300kbps, but traffic is otherwise unlimited.

You may also be interested in setting up a VPN on your own server, which you can do with Tomato, OpenWRT, or on Linux. Of course, this won’t allow you to  access geo-blocked websites – unless you’re travelling outside the country and accessing your own network remotely.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 01/15/13

Comments (25)

  1. Chemical

    A VPN is useless if the provider:
    -keeps logs (law enforcement can and will take these)
    -doesn’t support P2P (torrenting)
    -doesn’t offer PPoE, PPTP, and L2TP encryption

    TorrentFreak has a great article on which VPNs take privacy very seriously. Quote: “…not all VPN providers live up to their marketing after an alleged member of Lulzsec was tracked down after using a supposedly anonymous service from HideMyAss.”

    http://torrentfreak DOT com/which-vpn-providers-really-take-anonymity-seriously-111007/

  2. Don

    Thanks for demystifying VPN!

  3. TheFu

    Who needs a VPN? Anyone using a public internet connection anywhere in the world, including Europe, Canada and the USA.

    If you do not 100% trust the network provider that you are using, you need a VPN. Every network to which you connect can do pretty much anything they like with your data. ANYTHING. Free hotel wifi anyone? Free restaurant wifi? Free cafe wifi? Are we crazy? Use a VPN and you don’t care. Be aware that using SSL connections on these free networks is not necessarily enough to protect us.

    It really is that simple.

    It is also relatively simple to run a VPN from your home broadband connection, so you don’t need to pay for a service when you are out for coffee or traveling in a foreign country. Many home routers will run OpenVPN, so you don’t even need to leave a PC running.

  4. Vaidya

    ” It is also relatively simple to run a VPN from your home broadband connection, so you don’t need to pay for a service when you are out for coffee or traveling in a foreign country. Many home routers will run OpenVPN, so you don’t even need to leave a PC running.”

    An excellent and very useful idea. But do I do it. Can some one provide me the details or any link where I can learn it.

    Thanks.

  5. TheFu

    @Vaidya – Google found this: http://www.howtogeek.com/60774/connect-to-your-home-network-from-anywhere-with-openvpn-and-tomato/
    This is the search result that I expected http://www.dd-wrt.com/wiki/index.php/OpenVPN

    If you only want “good enough” security, not something entirely trusted, even PPTP can work better than nothing for local places in your own country. I’d never trust PPTP internationally. Call me paranoid.

    “relatively simple” means different things to different people. If you do not understand internet networking, then it can be a large hill of knowledge to climb first, before you are ready to handle the complexities of a VPN setup that YOU own and maintain.

  6. Heikoworld

    And I thought I was computer Savvy, probably not as I cannot get a VPN working.

  7. LEECAD

    So can this be used at a home private network. I use a VPN from my home router and then when I go somewhere or I am in the car, I will be able to access the Internet? Is this the way that I am understanding this???????????????

  8. Pedram

    thanks to strict censorship in Iran , even a 12 years old child know exactly what vpn is!!!

  9. novis

    Is this only for Windows? How about Mac users, smartphones and iphones?

  10. Joyce Walton

    I don’t know whether or not I’m already on a VPN! Windows seems to think I’m on a local network, because that’s how my ISP connected modem and satellite disk for Internet communications. Now what?

  11. jeepmanjr

    For the last couple of years I’ve used a VPN service about 99% of the time. I use an OpenVPN option that covers all traffic leaving my PC. It generally works pretty well. The biggest issue I’ve had is with PayPal. They don’t like to see you attempting log-ins from different IP addresses. I have to drop my VPN to avoid hassles with them. I use Astrill and am fairly happy with them. Good price too. Gotta keep an eye on servers though as availability and speed fluctuate. They offer service for my Android phone and my Linux box in the Man Cave as well. Check ‘em out! Tell ‘em jeepmanjr sent ya! :-)

  12. clamo

    @TheFu: all most EVERY ISP in the US is now owned by the MPAA so HOW can they be trusted?
    Comcast is NOW under Universals ownership.
    time Warner cable aka road runner cable. is Warner bros pictures.
    who knows what other ISP’s they own. that right that’s 30% of the nations isp’s.
    BOTH studios are a part of the MPAA.
    and there NOT the only 2. SONY, Disney, FOX are ALSO the MPAA.
    so really HOW can ANY isp be trusted?

  13. ned11wils

    Good explanation in the article and a lot of very helpful comments. Even if you are not highly concerned about the records being saved a VPN is useful. Say that you are overseas and want to purchase a music download from Amazon. Even an entirely aboveboard transaction will be turned down from some locations. A “local” VPN location skirts the problem.

  14. Set271

    “Connecting to a VPN is fairly simple. In Windows, press the Windows key, type VPN, and click the Set up a virtual private network (VPN) connection option.”

    Obviously doesn’t work in XP.

    For those of us still using XP: “We are many, too many for Microshaft to afford, but so many due to the Vista fiasco. We are loathe to upgrade to 7 or 8, and 8 has been such a smash hit so far…alas.”

  15. TheFu

    @clamo – What does the MPAA have to do with VPNs and trust? Certainly if you are in the USA, you know what is legal (or not) and certainly you wouldn’t be doing anything illegal over the connection. That doesn’t mean that we want Starbucks or McDonalds or the local airport or your local government watching all your data. While I don’t want Comcast (my ISP) looking at all the data pushed over their network, I know that it is THEIR network.

    I’m most concerned when traveling overseas where I don’t know every law or how the government may monitor every internet connection. For me, remoting back home over a VPN is the best option.

    Downloading copyrighted media illegally in the USA is the lease of my concern. There are plenty of relatively cheap methods to view almost all video-media here. It simply is not an issue even on my mind. If I were interested in grabbing copyrighted movies and TV, I’d use a foreign VPN service and go over an SSL connection. I’d still do that from my home network, so I’d still need a VPN to get back there when on travel. VPNs can be configured in different ways after all.

    I’m mostly concerned about data privacy.
    * The MPAA can’t see encrypted email content.
    * In the USA, I believe the risk of a DNS provider and CA being manipulated into allowing undesirable access to HTTPS content is also relatively limited, though it is entirely possible. https://krebsonsecurity.com/2013/01/turkish-registrar-enabled-phishers-to-spoof-google/

    The internet is a dangerous place folks. Encryption is really the best defense for now.

  16. caswm42

    I’ve been trying to do exactly what Set271 say cannot be done, even though Microsoft says it can – use VPN with different versions of Windows – I’ve got Windows 7 and XP pro versions now. When I started almost a year ago I was using windows 7 home trying to use VPN on my XP pro – after much hair pulling and frustrating failure Microsoft says I can do it but only if I upgrade windows 7 home to pro. Guess what I did that and I still cannot get VPN to work. BUT, I can remotely connect to my Uncle’s Windows 8 Home with my Windows 7 Pro…very confusing even more, because, again Microsoft VPN claims to require that both systems be the same versions!

  17. putongren

    Very interesting and helpful article, as so often the case with HTG. FYI, access to TunnelBear appears to be blocked here in China.

  18. Cho

    Is “Teamviewer” a VPN implementation.

  19. Cho

    ??

  20. Shmuel

    Anyone have a review of hola.org in this respect?

  21. VP

    I use VPN when travelling for business to access my local network in office. The upload speeds in the region where my office is, is very choppy. Its Rogers in Canada. This makes working with VPN very painful as it is slow and even when I type an email the characters lag my typing.

    Is there any way to speed this up? Thanks.

  22. ratpak

    “……….You’ll also be able to use the Internet as if you were present at the VPN’s location, which has some benefits if you’re using pubic Wi-Fi or want to access geo-blocked websites.”

    This is not what a VPN is! Check your spelling!

  23. spike

    @Cho: No, it’s a remote access solution, and peer-to-peer file transferring solution.

  24. AnnaHowart

    Virtual private network generates a secure network connection over office network or any other desired network, I can now access blocked websites with the help of VPN software. I am currently using “Hotspot Shield VPN” which is available free to Access all blocked websites. By using this i can now easily bypass all firewall restrictions for uncensored access to all blocked content that i want. Check it here – http://www.hotspotshieldvpn.com/

  25. Saroj Kumar Agrawal

    While this is not the subject of this ‘HowTo”, I would like to learn how to interconnect two separate LANs, both connected to Internet, so that I can share file between nodes of the two LANs?

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