What is a VPN? Guide to Understanding and Buying the Best VPN

As of April 24, 2020, 59% of the world’s population was active on the internet according to a report published by Statista, a German online portal for statistics.

That is about 4.57 billion users sharing personal and not so personal information every minute of the day. How many of these people understand the need for using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) when going about their daily internet chores?

In case you don’t understand why we are worried about the huge numbers of people sharing their data online without much care, here is a word picture. 

You have several gold chains you need fixed and polished by a jeweler at the mall. There are several routes to get to jeweler’s shop but each one of them is marked with danger.

The fear isn’t just about getting robbed, but having the gold chains interfered with in any way to reduce their value. Worse still, they could get swapped for some fakes. How do you get the gold chains polished and returned to you safely?

That’s where VPNs come in.

A VPN is a logic network operating over a shared public internet connection aimed at providing security services for data exchanged between two or more devices.

So, How do VPNs Work?

The internet acts as the main infrastructure and as the streets between your home and the jeweler’s shop in the analogy, it is unsafe.

The internet is built to first focus on the efficient delivery of data packets from the source device to the destination device under the governance of rules known as Internet Protocols (IP). 

Since its conception, the internet was designed to ensure that communicating devices have IP addresses, think location addresses to enable the delivery of data.

But if the destination device failed, the data was directed to another device because it had to get somewhere. Shock!

That meant security was not the priority. Even today, it isn’t. Many services still transmit data without considering security. But for those who care about the security of data, using a VPN is vital.

When taking your bling to the jeweler’s shop at the mall to get it fixed, wisdom calls for you to conceal it to avoid attracting petty and daring jewelry thieves.

Think of the bling as your identity, credit card number, and login to your smart home devices. In all sanity, you would never leave this information within reach of a malicious fellow. 

In this case, your home is your laptop trying to access a website, the jeweler’s shop stored in a server, the mall. Your home acts as the originating IP address while the jeweler’s shop, the destination IP address. 

The question now is how to get the broken bling from your home to the jeweler’s shop, get it repaired and polished then returned home safely.

The good news is, your home and the jeweler’s shop are secure, and the jeweler is trusted. The bad news is, the route between the two isn’t.

That is, you can trust your laptop with your information because you know it well. So can you the website. But the internet isn’t to be trusted.

A VPN offers secure services by creating a ‘safe tunnel’ between your device and the website so that all data exchanged between the two remains private and secure.

This involves tunneling technologies and cryptographic algorithm which secure the IP traffic by mashing it up in a way that if eavesdropped, its real meaning isn’t easy to discover. 

There are three aspects to the secure services; authentication, confidentiality, and integrity. In authentication, VPN ensures that both IP addresses involved are the intended entities.

Confidentiality ensures data privacy through encrypting it so that only the intended entities can understand it. And integrity sees to it that the data being delivered has not been modified along the way. 

In my jewelry analogy, my VPN would involve dressing my trusted messenger in a long dark coat, a hat, and cowboy boots instead of his usual uniform.

He would also need to ride a motorcycle to the mall and back instead of using public transport. The jewelry would sit in a backpack inside a repackaged packet of flour. How’s is that for disguise?

Application of VPN in Everyday Life

Before dismissing VPN as a second class service as most internet users do, it is important to understand in detail where companies and individuals like you use VPNs.

VPNs allow users who may need to work from home or out of their offices to access resources in their office over the internet by creating secure remote access. Think of the number of people doing exactly that this year due to the COVID 19 pandemic. Instead of the company in question investing in a special physical link for you and all other employees working from home, setting up a VPN makes the whole process cheaper.

VPNs are also used to give companies secure access to partners such as banks using the internet as the backbone; accessing extranets. Connection to banking services is created on-demand and released upon completion of the service. Like the visit to the jeweler analogy, banks ensure secure internal networks and expect you to do the same at your office. VPNs complete the circuit by ensuring a safe connection between the two unrelated institutions.

That would have you rethink using free Wi-Fi at a coffee shop to access banking services unless you have a great VPN work.

Finally, VPNs are used in intranets to link various branches of a company in different geographical locations over the internet. Think of corporations with offices all over the world yet needing to keep all their offices in one network for resource sharing purposes. Instead of using expensive dedicated channels, they use the internet but tunnel their data through VPNs.

What are the Benefits of Using a VPN?

With the applications in mind, it is difficult to ignore the need for a VPN even in your internet escapades. It is a wonder how anyone would go about without the service. This is what you will miss if you are not using a VPN:

In offering confidentiality, VPN services scramble the data leaving your device so that anyone eavesdropping does not understand what you send or receive. The process is known as encryption. So when you sit at the coffee shop to order a book you have been dying to read on Amazon, if you are using a VPN, the malicious eye prying on your personal information a few tables away won’t make sense of it even if they grab it by any means.

A VPN hides your IP address by shielding it with its own. In case anyone is snooping on your internet connection with plans of blasting it with malware, they would not get your IP address. If anything, the VPN’s IP address would mislead them. 

All your browsing history is indicated as originating from the VPN’s IP not your own. That may mean several servers around the world, making it difficult for your Internet Service Provider (ISP), the Government, or any other person seeking to study your browsing tracks to do so.

Some ISPs sell their customers’ browsing history to companies seeking clients such as the Ads companies. In America, ISPs now have the right to sell their users’ data to the highest bidder to make more profit. Where a VPN is used, the information is scattered across the VPN’s multiple servers hence lacking coherence. It is of no good use.

A VPN hides your physical location like it does your IP address. When communicating through a VPN, your location identity does not read as the place you are accessing the internet from, say country, but another spot the world as directed by the VPN server. For example, as I write this article, my VPN says I am in Frankfurt yet I have never stepped foot in Germany!

Using a VPN enables you to access region-restricted websites so you won’t miss content you would love to access just because your country of residence is blocked from it. Think of someone in India wanting to access BBC’s iPlayer; setting the VPN to the UK will allow them to access the content. So would setting the VPN to America to access Hulu when you are in Africa. The VPN would also help you evade your office or institution boundaries.

Note, however, this could be against the law of the country. But again if you are a digital nomad subscribing to certain streaming services, you may not access such in some of the countries you visit. Setting your VPN to an IP address of a country allowed to access the service gets you back in the game.

Most ISPs choke large files downloads making it either too slow to bear or impossible even while using BitTorrent. But when you go through a good VPN, your ISP won’t slow down the connection and your download will be fast.

Does this mean you are completely safe?

Not exactly; we will explain why at the end of the article. For now, understand that no VPN is completely foolproof, but most offer a great degree of security to your data.

So, Why Should You Use a VPN?

You owe it to yourself to enjoy some level of privacy. 

When your browsing history is exposed, your browser is quick to accept adverts that relate to your recent or frequent searches. Most pop up when watching movies or just surfing through various websites.

While that sounds advantageous, there are times you want fresh searches, not related to what you came across yesterday. Instead, you end up with adverts showing offers that may not have better pricing. That’s annoying!

Again, malicious people steal your personal information as you key it in websites and use it in criminal activities.

They could buy stock, file tax returns, open bank accounts, apply for loans, and make illegal purchases online in your name. And that would lead to unending court cases or spending time in jail. 

This is a good time to book the 2004 movie, Identity Theft written by Deena Goldstone to get a glimpse of how that works in real life. 

When you access the internet on your device through a VPN connection, you keep your activities private preventing phishing, cyber threats, attack by viruses, and malware.

VPN protects you on public Wi-Fi at your favorite coffee shop ensuring that your information is secured even if the connection itself isn’t.

How to Shop for the Best VPN

If resisting the urge to check your email on that free Wi-Fi does not work for you, using a good VPN will cut on possible risks. So, what do you look for in a virtual private network to ensure it is working for you and not against you? 

  • Price

Let’s be honest, free is the first word that comes to mind, and there is nothing wrong with that. But as far as our research is concerned, free stuff and great security wouldn’t spend a night in one bed under normal circumstances. Wait for the secret behind this truth in the next point.

The best VPN should offer a variety of prices depending on how you pay for the service and the number of devices covered.

You can either pay every month or yearly. From our research, most of the VPN providers charged below $12 per month to cover 5 devices in one connection. A fair discount is included for an annual subscription. 

  • Respect for privacy

Here is the promised secret. A certain silent internet rule states, ‘Good things must cost something, so if you are getting such for free, someone else is paying the price.’

And most of the time, it is someone you would not go to bed with on matters concerning your private information. This calls for confirmation that your VPN of choice does not sell your data whether you are paying for it or not. But how do you know that for sure?

You don’t.

But respectable VPN providers do not keep a log of your online escapades. They do not need for them; good or bad. 

  • Data limits

Before settling on any VPN, find out if the provider gives you full bandwidth, unmetered.

Their offer should match your needs especially if you spend most of your life online streaming, gaming, and downloading large files.

  • Use on multiple devices

It is so easy to forget the number of devices active on the internet in one home today.
My own has at least 7 at any one time. A suitable VPN option should cater to each one of them.

Most Virtual Private Network providers have various packages factoring the number of devices covered.

A good example, TunnelBear VPN and Kaspersky Secure Connection cover 5 devices each in one user account while Norton Secure VPN gives an option to cover 1, 5, or 10 devices in one account, of course at different prices.

If several devices covered in one account are something to go by, Norton becomes a better option for my 7 devices. 

  • Servers and locations

VPN providers use several servers located in various countries around the world to tunnel your data for security purposes.

The best VPN providers have servers in more than 30 countries giving you more flexibility and location freedom.

Some providers may not have servers in your country of residence, though that does not make them unfit for the job, connection speed may be a little compromised. 

Beyond the countries, the best VPN providers have their servers in various locations in each country.

They may not mention such information for competition and security purposes, but more locations translate to a fairer distribution of servers hence lesser chances of congestion.

Speaking of congestion, remembering that we have 59% of the world’s population actively online at the moment, heaven knows how many devices are online at any one minute.

Imagine a provider with say 1 server in per country and residents of each country decide to prioritize their own when choosing a VPN based on speed. In no time, the VPN servers will be overwhelmed!

We recommend settling for a provider with at least 1000 servers spread over about 70 locations in at least 30 countries. That would guarantee you some decent speeds at any one time. 

  • Technologies in place 

Matters concerning security of your data cling more to the technology used than pricing, number of servers, and data limits put together. Before going to bed with any VPN provider, find out what protocols they use to see if they are satisfying. 

VPN protocols are derived from the old Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP). This protocol creates a tunnel between a device on the dial-up side and network access server then packages IP data packets before sending them from one end to the other.

The highest voted VPN protocol is OpenVPN, an open-source protocol that supports major operating systems; Windows, MacOS, Android, iOS, and Linux. That covers your laptops, tablets, smartphones, and all.

Being open-source, any security issue discovered is handled by a community of users fast because they have access to the source code. This lowers exposure to potential security dangers. 

OpenVPN uses up to 256-bit encryption supported by OpenSSL, it comes in as either OpenVPN TCP or OpenVPN UDP.

The former ensures that every packet sent between two communicating devices gets confirmation for arrival before another is sent. If confirmation is not received, the originating device resends the packet.

While this makes the OpenVPN TCP reliable, the send, acknowledge, resend business results to too much data. That makes it too slow for applications that depend on speed like streaming and gaming.

It is therefore left for the surfing and emailing team that cares nothing about latency but capitalizes on security.

OpenVPN UDP, on the other hand, has no time to confirm if data packets have been received or even resending the missing bits if any.

The delays are minimal and it capitalizes on speed hence suitable for your gaming and video streaming life.

The best VPN provider using OpenVPN allows you to have access to both versions of the protocol so you can choose the one that fits you best depending on the application at hand. 

WireGuard is the new kid in the VPN protocol block. Compared to OpenVPN, it has a smaller code and is easier to setup.

It uses up-to-date encryption standards, has fast connection time and speeds to write home about. Being too new makes it the least adopted VPN protocol, though some daring providers like the notorious TorGuard have gone all the way to use and support it. 

Then there is the kid born of Microsoft and Cisco, Internet Key Exchange version 2 (IKEv2). It is a request-and-response encryption tool used to create a security association in the IPSec protocol suite to secure data.

It is easy to set up, has mobility and multihoming hence being a favorite for mobile users. It is very fast, has strong security ensuring that no action is taken until the requester’s identity is affirmed and is keen on data integrity.

It uses 256-bit encryption like most VPN protocols but it is the only one supported by Blackberry alongside other operating systems.

Microsoft’s Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (MS-SSTP is an older VPN protocol. It isn’t keen to support non-Windows products and focuses on Windows Vista SP1 and later versions.

It uses 256-bit encryption, was built for the remote client application, and will have nothing to do with site-to-site tunneling.

Another VPN protocol in use is the 256-bit L2TP/IPSec (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol/IP security).

It is considered the best where secrecy is of utmost importance and supports most operating systems; Windows, macOS, and those used in smartphones.

The oldest VPN protocol used today is the Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol. We would not recommend this protocol today due to its inability to resist the ASLEAP dictionary attack tool leaving your data vulnerable.

But we feel you should know that it is simple to set up, offers fast speeds and it was designed by Microsoft. It, however, supports other operating systems like Linux and MacOS.

It has been around since the days of Windows 95; a dinosaur if you may. Interestingly enough, some VPN providers still offer it as an option though hardly on its own.

Should you see it as an option, make sure the other protocols above; IKEv2, OpenVPN, SSTP and L2TP/IPSec are at work too. WireGuard is yet to take a permanent sit in the list of VPN protocols. 

  • Operating System Support

It would be absurd to opt for a VPN provider that leaves out the very device you are working so hard to protect. That calls for a need to find out what Operating System your devices use before picking a suitor.

Most of the VPN providers have learned this trick and support Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android, and iOS. That brings almost every data packet from your home devices into safety.

  • Ability to support Mobile Devices

The most used devices to access the internet today are also the most forgotten where advanced security is concerned.

Besides the tough screen password and a few others on the applications, most mobile devices don’t have any other protection. Not even an antivirus. 

Imagine the amount of data conversed over the internet using your smartphone in a day; all that could be in the hands of a fellow up to no good. Quite sobering, huh?

That explains the ads popping on Facebook and other social media apps after a simple search on your mobile browser.

Or the seemingly timely YouTube video after a conversation on WhatsApp. That should get you a little bit more than curious. 

Before courting a VPN provider, find out if it has any goodies for your mobile devices. The same measure of protection given to your laptop and desktop should be extended to the mobile fellows too.

After all, they spend more time with you; in your hands than the latter. And chances are you watch more videos, surf and visit social media more on your mobile phone than your laptop.

  • Ability to block ads 

While you can install an ad blocker on your browser, some VPN providers take it upon themselves to do so for you. Ads tend to interfere with your browsing especially when they pop up unwelcomed while watching a movie.

An attempt to shoo them away could lead to the opening of another browsing tab. Such a nuisance!

They also slow down the loading of your page wasting even more time. While ad creators only mean to make a living by advertising products you may need, some have the guts to infect your device with malware or try to trick you into giving important information for later targeting. More often than not, ads are up to no good.

Except for the likes of Norton Secure VPN and IPVanish, most of the other VPN providers we have worked with don’t condone ads. You shouldn’t too.

  • Protection via Kill switch

A kill switch acts like a pair of bikers worn under a sundress on a windy day. When the wind blows the dress off, the lady’s thighs are not exposed.

The best VPN providers ensure that should the VPN protection go south, a kill switch takes over the connection and hides your naked IP address. It protects your data from prying eyes until the VPN connection resumes.

Again, Norton Secure VPN doesn’t offer this service despite scoring high on other services.

We cannot explain why, but we suspect they trust their VPN servers so much that they don’t expect them to fail. Providers such as TunnelBear, TorGuard, and Express VPN don’t mind using a kill switch though. 

  • Presence of Free Versions

Paying for VPN services isn’t a simple commitment, most providers demand one month’s fee which leaves you at the mercies of their service. Experiencing a teaser VPN service would go a long way before jumping into such a relationship.

Most VPN providers don’t shy from free versions though they may set data limits on such or knock off a few other benefits.

The idea here is to show you what you would miss if you didn’t say ‘I do’ to them. Throughout our testing time, we are keen to feel these free services and loved Proton VPN, Windscribe, and Hide.me.

Other VPN providers opt for trial versions where you feel the full product for a certain number of days.

They could offer trials for mobile devices only, or every other device for say, one week. That is enough time to stream videos on every other awkward website and test for adblocking.

And then some others don’t bother with the free or trial stuff, instead, they offer a money-back guarantee.

You have to terminate the service before the stated days are over though, otherwise, payment for the service continues to the next month. You need to give them your credit card details to sustain this kind of relationship.

As mentioned earlier, going to bed with a VPN provider promising free services isn’t very wise. Some sell your personal information to the same ad fellows you are trying to divorce.

A few are faithful and just want you to taste their package of goodies with the intention of wooing you home. 

What Encryption Means in VPN Lingo

Having mentioned the word encryption several times in this article, we feel the need to go into soft details of what it means. 

Your VPN provider ensures that every bit of data going online is unreadable to malicious eyes, the government, and companies that may go hunting for it. That’s encryption at work.

Using a VPN allows mashing up of your data to a point that only the device with special kind of information can understand; decrypt it. The decrypting information is very well hidden.

Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) is the standard form of encryption used today. It is the first and only algorithm for performing encryption and decryption available publicly and approved by the National Security Agency for top secret information.

It is one of the symmetric encryption algorithms, uses keys of 3 different lengths, 128, 192, and 256-bits.

AES is one of the most common encryption methods used in IPSec, the set of protocols used to secure IP traffic using cryptographic technology giving necessary secure services against threats on the internet. It is hard to imagine a VPN without IPSec or AES.

Top 5 VPN in 2020

This guide would be incomplete without giving you a list of VPN providers we loved throughout our journey to understanding online data protection.

Of course their hundreds of VPN providers in the world; we scooped the top layer of those offering free services and those who insist on giving none. Choose the best VPN that suits your situation and work with it.

ProtonVPN

The fact that ProtonVPN offers free services backed with a strong no-log policy with Switzerland Privacy laws to preserve your anonymity left us in good shock.

For the free package, they promise servers in 3 countries; Japan, America, and the Netherlands, to protect one device. They have an automatic kill switch, keep off ads, and strong AES encryption services.

The speed isn’t high though since a good percent of online users who know them want a slice of their free stuff. 

But should you want more, they promise over 700 servers in 50 countries to cover 10 devices; including the famous Tor Servers.

They support IKEv2 and OpenVPN protocols. For this, you have to pay $24 per month in their visionary plan. You can also choose the basic plan and pay $8 to cover 5 devices with most of the services offered in the previous plan. 

Unlike other VPN providers offering free services, ProtonVPN was able to unblock Netflix during the test. They support Windows, Linux, MacOS, iOS, and Android.

WindScribe

Following in the footsteps of ProtonVPN, Windscribe’s free package includes 10GB free data per month while blocking ads and unblocking entertainment sites; Netflix, Hulu, and HBO.

They are keen to keep their privacy policy exhaustive so you know what you are getting into. No bones in the closet. 

Paid services begin at $9 per month but you can opt to go for their ‘cool badge’ offering you $49 for the whole year coming to $4.08 per month. They accept Bitcoin.

They support major operating systems and almost every browser you can imagine. They boast of routing your data through over 400 servers spread over 110 locations in more than 63 countries hence the assurance of fair speeds no matter where you are.

It, however, could not get us through to BBC iPlayer which was rather a sad bearing in mind it did well accessing Netflix.

The only other thing you may not love about Windscribe is the almost-no-support state and lack of kill switch.

Their support is outsourced to what we thought was a freelancer. But they were honest about not having in-house staff, making it easier for us to understand. They use OpenVPN, IKEv2, and SOCKS5 protocols for their VPN services.

Express VPN

While they do not give free services, they have a trusted 30-day money-back guarantee if you don’t like them; we doubt you will tear yourself away from them though.

They have more than 3000 servers in 94 countries spread through 160 locations allowing you to enjoy ultra-fast streaming, surfing, and gaming anonymously. One account supports 5 devices including the mobile family at $12.95 per month or a discounted $99.95 for a whole year.

ExpressVPN’s customer support stays up day and night to ensure all your devices are well secured. They support all major operating systems, have a kill switch, DNS leak protection, and use top-level data encryption.

They also have a strong no-log policy. During our test, ExpressVPN allowed us to stream on Netflix!

Another winning aspect of ExpressVPN is their positive attitude towards payments made with Bitcoin alongside Paypal and credit cards. We could not ask for more. 

NordVPN

To ensure unbeatable security and great speeds round the clock, NordVPN’s clients are distributed across their over 5600 servers in 59 countries.

They promise not to log your data, have a kill switch to mask your IP address in the unlikely event their VPN servers fail, and aren’t shy to support all major operating systems. 

They have an outstanding 2048-bit encryption, convenient connection wizard, and can VPN into Tor.

And though they experienced a security breach in 2018 causing some level of doubt in the market, they invested more to boost security winning back the hearts of their clients. The mere fact that they didn’t hide the issue makes us believe more in their high sense of data protection.

NordVPN supports BitTorrent so you can download huge files without worries. Your browsing episode is ridden of ads and one account supports 6 devices instead of the usual 5 for less than $12 per month.

You can pay 41% less if opt for annual billing. They accept payment in Bitcoin, Paypal, and credit cards like ExpressVPN. 

Don’t go looking for free sampling though, NordVPN believes in the product to a point of backing it up with a 30-day money-back guarantee.

IPVanish VPN

The self-declared leader in VPN privacy protection prides of more than 1300 servers spread across over 75 locations.

They support IKEv2, OpenVPN and L2TP/IPSec VPN protocols, SOCKS5 web proxy, and use 256-bit AES encryption. They also have the connection kill switch in case the VPN servers fail.

They have a strict no-log policy, 250GB SugarSync encrypted storage, and backup and support all major operating systems plus Fire TV app.

Unlike other VPN providers, one account supports 10 devices, and the setup is all fun! They charge $5 per month for their services or $39 per annum with a 7-day money-back guarantee. 

A major negative of IPVanish is their inability to block ads making it necessary for you to use an ad blocker or better. They allow BitTorrent.

Are VPNs the Gods of Absolute Data Protection?

Of course not. And we have reasons to support this.

First, in the name of big data mining, there’s no telling what is done with any data scraped from VPN servers that insist on storing your data for 14 to 30 days.

That leaves you with the option of courting VPN providers who swear never to keep any of your information like Express VPN. But don’t they have your basic personal data used while billing you?

Second, if you are going to bed with any VPN promising free services, even for a day, chances are you are a piece of merchandise to them. Some pieces of your dirty laundry are probably somewhere in southeast China. No offense. 

Then there are those crazy mobile Apps that insist on having a little bit of your data to serve you. Your VPN does not have the muscle to protect your data from such because you give it willingly.

Again, any mobile app that helps you search for certain services offered in your locale tends to keep some of your data. It isn’t hard to reconstruct data regarding places you have been to or searched from such history.

And lastly, every device has a unique identifier on the network called Media Access Control (MAC) address that allows your ISP to see how it is being used. No VPN can keep the MAC anonymous.

At least not yet, if ever. The usage data gathered by your ISP though sounding harmless may be of use to someone you do not want accessing it. 

Remember ISPs in America can now sell that data for extra profit and in the United Kingdom, it can be used against you in court. So where does this leave internet users who care about personal data like you and me?

From this guide, you know what a VPN is. Shop for the best VPN from the list above and pay them to protect your data in the best way possible.

Then, remember to court mobile apps that you need with caution, not all need to rent space in your device. A little more care and the input of a great VPN can limit what a prying eye sees.

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