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.
What Is a VPN?
In very simple terms, a VPN connects your PC, smartphone, or tablet to another computer (called a server) somewhere on the internet, and allows you to browse the internet using that computer’s internet connection. So if that server is in a different country, it will appear as if you are coming from that country, and you can potentially access things that you couldn’t normally.
VPNs essentially forward all your network traffic to the virtual 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.
VPNs originally were just a way to connect business networks together securely over the internet or allow you to access a business network from home, but their uses have grown well beyond that.
What Is a VPN Used For?
So how does this help you? Good question! You can use a VPN to:
- Bypass geographic restrictions on websites or streaming audio and video.
- Watch streaming media like Netflix and Hulu.
- Protect yourself from snooping on untrustworthy Wi-Fi hotspots.
- Gain at least some anonymity online by hiding your true location.
- Protect yourself from being logged while torrenting.
Many people these days are using a VPN for torrenting or bypassing geographic restrictions to watch content in a different country. They are still very useful for protecting yourself while working at a coffee shop, but that’s hardly the only use anymore.
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What Else Does a VPN Do?
VPNs are a fairly simple tool, but they can be used to do a wide variety of things:
- Access a Business Network While Traveling: VPNs are frequently used by business travelers 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 Traveling: You can also set up your own VPN to access your own network while traveling. 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 nearby, 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 traveling 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.)
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How Does a VPN Work?
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 public 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.
What Is P2P Specialty Service for a VPN?
Some VPNs offer special servers that are optimized to function with peer-to-peer (P2P) services. Common examples of P2P services include:
- BitTorrent (and other torrent programs)
- Some multiplayer gaming services
- Some voice chat services
- Plenty of messaging apps
Because of how they work — and how they’re often used — P2P services are sometimes blocked by VPN providers. Using a dedicated P2P server may improve performance and reduce your chances of running into technical difficulties. You may even find that your VPN provider will switch you to connect to a special P2P VPN server if you’re doing something like torrenting.
P2P VPN servers aren’t inherently less secure than any other VPN server you might use, so there really isn’t any downside to using one, and there are some potential benefits.
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How Do You Get a VPN, and Which One Should You Choose?
Depending on your needs, you can either use a VPN from your workplace, create a VPN server yourself, or sometimes host one out of your house — but realistically, the vast majority of people are just looking for something to protect them while torrenting or help them watch some media online that they can’t seem to access from their country. Not all VPNs provide exactly the same functionality, and you might have specific requirements for a VPN.
The easiest thing to do is pick one of the best VPNs, sign up, and download the VPN client for your Windows PC, Mac, Android, iPhone, or iPad. It’s as easy as that.
These are some of our favorite VPNs:
- ExpressVPN: This VPN service has the best combination of ease of use, speedy servers, and support for streaming media and torrenting—all for a reasonable price. It has apps for every major platform as well as routers, streaming devices, and more.
- Private Internet Access (PIA): PIA works well, with lots of fast servers available, and is a bargain at a low price. Unlike some services, it stays at that low price, even after the introductory period.
- NordVPN: NordVPN is a great all-around VPN that’s easy to set up and use. NordVPN has a great Windows application particular, making it a great pick for Windows users.
If you have absolutely no idea which VPN you should use, pick ExpressVPN. It is a great all-around VPN and will meet the needs of most people.
Using a VPN in Windows
Connecting to a VPN on Windows is fairly simple. If you’ve chosen a VPN service, you should generally use that VPN service’s app for an easy connection experience. You can also configure a VPN connection manually, which is particularly useful for VPNs provided to you by your employer or other organization.
In Windows 10 or Windows 11, press the Windows key, type VPN, and click the “Add a VPN Connection” option, then select “Add a VPN Connection.”
Tip: You can access the VPN window by navigating to Settings > Network & Internet > VPN on Windows 10 and Windows 11.
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.
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How to Use a VPN on iPhone
Most of the best VPNs also have apps you can install on your phone, and we’d generally recommend you use the app if you want to connect to a VPN on your iPhone. You can add a VPN manually, but it requires entering a ton of details about the VPN — a task best avoided if possible.
You must first launch the app and give it permission to run before you can activate it through the VPN menu. Then open the Settings app and navigate to General > VPN & Device Management to toggle the VPN on and off.
When the VPN is active, the toggle will turn green, the status will read “Connected,” and “VPN” will be displayed at the top of your screen.
If you must add a VPN manually, click “Add VPN Configuration,” listed under the VPNs you have installed and fill in the required details.
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How to Use a VPN on Android
Android devices — just like iPhones or PCs — can connect to a VPN using an installed app, or manually, using Android’s built-in options.
Note: These instructions are for “Pure Android,” and things will be different on customized versions of Android, like what you find on Samsung’s devices.
Open the Settings app, navigate to Network and Internet > VPN, then tap the VPN you’d like to activate if you installed a VPN app. You can also tap the gear to adjust the settings.
Tap the plus icon in the upper-right corner of the screen to manually add a new VPN.
You must fill out all of the details for the VPN you want to connect to. It is a bit annoying, so you’re better off.
When a VPN is active, you’ll see a small key icon at the top of your screen.
RELATED: How to Use a VPN on Android
Our VPN Recommendations
If you’re just getting started with VPNs and want the best VPN for using on public Wi-Fi hotspots or accessing region-restricted websites, there are a few great, simple options. Keep an eye out for deals, too, as most VPNs frequently offer great bargains for two- or three-year subscriptions.
You may also be interested in setting up a VPN on your own server, which you can do with Wireguard, OpenVPN, OpenWRT, on Windows, or on Linux. Of course, this won’t allow you to access geo-blocked websites — unless you’re traveling outside the country and accessing your own network remotely.
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