What Is a VPN and How Do I Use One?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a service that secures your connection to the internet by assigning you another IP address and masking your real one. Then, while connected to the VPN, all of your internet traffic is sent through a secure (encrypted) tunnel that no one can gain access to. So, that means all of your internet activity is hidden from view and since your actual IP address is hidden that means no one can trace your internet activity back to you.

Usually when we connect to the internet and type a website name into a search browser, what’s happening is our computer sends a request to that website’s server directly and the website will respond by loading the page. This works fine most of the time but it can get risky if you’re doing anything related to sensitive information online. When you connect to a VPN and try to access the same website, your computer has an encrypted connection with the VPN and sends the request to the VPN then the VPN sends the request to the internet server. The VPN is similar to an old telephone/switchboard operator in the sense that they’ll do the work of getting you connected to the right place, but the place you’re connecting to doesn’t get to know your actual location and data.

Connecting to open networks (credit: askleo.com)

This is how your computer connects from an unencrypted network, which is any WiFi or hotspot that doesn’t require a password to connect. Sniffing is a term used for when someone is monitoring your internet traffic in order to capture sensitive information.

Connecting through WPA encryption (credit: askleo.com)

This is the path your data takes when it’s connected to an encrypted network, which is similar to your home WiFi that requires a password to connect. The only encryption takes place from your device to the access point, then from the access point everything is sent to your Internet Service Provider, and finally to the internet servers.

Connecting with VPN (credit: askleo.com)

Though the path your data takes when connected to a VPN service adds an extra hop in between getting you connected to the internet, it shows your data remains encrypted all the way to the VPN (because you’re using it through an app).


What I think is beneficial about VPNs is that my internet traffic/data can’t be tracked and the information being sent is encrypted, meaning if someone were to gain access to it they would see a bunch of writing that is indecipherable. Some VPNs also give you the option of choosing where you want to be seen as “connecting” from. For example, if you’ve ever been traveling outside of the country and wanted to watch a show, then you go to the website that hosts that show and get a message saying ‘this isn’t available in your country’ or something along those lines.. If you connected to a VPN and chose an IP address originating in the U.S. you could watch that show because the website will think you’re connecting from the states. For this reason, VPNs are also beneficial to people living in heavily regulated countries where the government censors information online.

Connecting to a server in France using Nord VPN service
Connecting to a server in the United States using Nord VPN service

There’s lots of different VPN software available that offer pretty competitive rates and different features, so you can always find one that works great for your needs. Living in today’s age where we are always connected to the internet through mobile phones, laptops, or other devices, and connect to public WiFi whenever we get a chance, using a VPN service is a good step to take for your security & privacy online.

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7 thoughts on “What Is a VPN and How Do I Use One?

    1. Thanks so much! I taught a Cybersecurity camp for a couple weeks this past Summer and had all the kids download and use NordVPN while I talked them through it. It was a little easier then to address questions in real time than thinking ahead about everything someone would want/need to know and addressing them at once. There was more I wanted to add about benefits/drawbacks but maybe that’ll be part 2!

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      1. Yes, thank you for the very clear explanation of VPNs. One thing I’ve been curious about is how to properly assess whether a VPN is safe and reliable as well? In other words, is there a risk to using certain VPNs?

        Like you stated, VPNs seem to provide an important function for both network security and Internet freedom. I’m also curious how law enforcement feels about VPNs (I imagine it also depends on the society and governments that VPNs are operating within).

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      2. Yes, I would say there is definite risk to using certain VPNs and best way to find out which is right for you is to look up reviews/experiences and information on the service. Since VPN is a software you use by downloading to your device, you want to make sure it’s reliable and worth the money. For me, a basically good VPN uses strong encryption and doesn’t log any of my data.
        In short, the better security something has means the better encryption it has, which means the more money it costs to maintain. This is why a lot of companies (services, products, etc) neglect to invest in proper security protocols.
        In terms of data logging, we know by now that nothing is free on the internet. I would be wary of VPNs that are free or nearly free because they could have weak security or could be logging your activity for marketing purposes and that defeats some important needs for using one in the first place.
        Alright I hope I’m sort of getting to the answer of your question. A good VPN service should have strong security protocols and doesn’t log any of your activity (or only logs necessary stuff at most). Be cautious of free VPN services. Most reliable ones will offer a trial period for you to test it out, and some offer better discounts if you subscribe for a year or longer rather than paying monthly.
        Sometimes it’s difficult to trust a website that reviews products/services because they could be part of a promotion program where they are compensated whenever they refer someone to a specific product, I’ve seen this countless times for Amazon products. But if you want to learn more there’s a great website to use as a resource: https://thatoneprivacysite.net/
        They keep a steady log of all VPNs and comparisons, rather than giving you a top 5 list (that’s always usually the same 5).

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  1. I loved the article it was so informative, I wanted to ask where did you get those first 3 images? Because it explains everything in such an easy way. I do not know a lot about VPNs, I am not a technical person at all, so when I was selecting a VPN, I read articles, reviews and talked with so many people asking their opinion. I started my online security journey with Nordvpn, it works okay. I do not have any complaints, but at the begging, I had so many questions about the product. Thankfylly, customer support was so friendly, helpful and patient with me that I am still surprised about that.

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    1. The images were taken from askleo.com, I linked the direct link to the pictures so if you give it a click you’ll be directed to his page for more information on the pictures!
      I agree, there’s lots of diagrams and images that try to illustrate what VPNs do but these ones are very clear and show exactly why you want to use one when connecting to the internet.

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