Avast Academy Privacy VPN What Is a VPN & How Does It Work?

What Is a VPN & How Does It Work?

A VPN is a cybersecurity tool that encrypts your internet connection to hide your location and stop others from intercepting your web traffic. A VPN ensures your internet privacy and anonymity while surfing, shopping, and banking online. Learn more about VPNs, how they work, and why you need one. Then, get a powerful, reliable VPN like Avast SecureLine VPN to secure your connection and stay private online.

Written by Charlotte Empey & Nica Latto
Updated on August 11, 2023

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What is a VPN?

VPN stands for "virtual private network" — a service that helps you stay private online by encrypting the connection between your device and the internet. This secure connection provides a private tunnel for your data and communications while you use public networks.

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    So what are VPNs used for? At a basic level, VPNs protect your privacy online to help prevent you being targeted by hackers or getting discriminated against based on your location. While VPNs were once novel tech solutions, they are now necessary tools.

    If you’re still unclear on the meaning of a VPN, it can help to imagine the internet as a kind of highway that we zip around on motorcycles. We visit our favorite locations (websites), make purchases in shops, check our stock portfolio, read the news, play games, and so on.

    Sitting on a motorcycle, you’re completely visible. Anyone can peek into your private life along these digital highways. It’s easy to see your identity, view your online activity, and more. Worse, they can follow you home. You’re traceable.

    With a virtual private network, instead of riding exposed on the wide open internet highway, you can use a private tunnel instead. A VPN acts as your own personal tunnel that encircles you, masking you in anonymity, and blocking anyone from seeing where you’re going or what you’re doing.

    To abandon the metaphor, and get a little more technical: a VPN encrypts your network connection and hides your IP address.

    How does a VPN work?

    VPNs work by routing a device’s internet connection via a specially configured remote server network administered by the VPN service. This means that all data shared across a VPN connection is not only encrypted. It’s masked behind a virtual IP address, allowing you to hide your identity and location.

    What does a VPN do?

    Instead of sending your internet traffic (searches, pages visited, uploads, downloads) directly to your Internet Service Provider (ISP), a VPN first routes your traffic through a VPN server. That way, when your data is finally transmitted to the internet, it appears to come from the VPN server, not your personal device.

    Without a VPN, your IP address — a special number unique to your network — is visible to the web. A VPN masks your IP address by acting as an intermediary and rerouting your traffic. It also adds encryption, or a tunnel around your identity, as you connect. The combination of the VPN server and the encryption tunnel blocks your ISP, governments, hackers, and anyone else from spying on you as you navigate the web.

    What kind of IP address do you have? The right kind can make a difference when it comes to online safety. Learn the ins and outs of your IP address with our guides to public vs private IP addresses and static vs dynamic IP addresses.

    A diagram showing how VPNs work to encrypt and route data securely, preventing tracking or surveillance.

    What does a VPN hide?

    VPNs work on the operating system level, so they reroute all your traffic through other servers. That means all of your online traffic, along with your physical location, stays hidden while you surf the web. When you access a site through a VPN server, the source of your connection is shown as one of the many VPN routers — called a proxy server — not your own. So the owners of the site, and anyone else trying to spy on you, cannot figure out who you are.

    VPN protection is the closest you can get to true anonymity online without using the Tor network, which bounces your connection around a widely distributed network of volunteer relays, basically keeping your web activity in constant motion so nobody can focus on it. VPNs do not use this (very slow) protocol, but they do offer sufficient — and essentialprotection as you cruise through today’s deregulated and potentially hacker-lined cyber highways.

    When it comes to online privacy solutions, a VPN, Tor, and web proxies are all options — but a VPN offers the best balance of comprehensive security and speed.

    Whether you want to stay safe on public Wi-Fi, disguise your location from content providers and advertisers, or protect yourself from identity theft, a VPN will keep you private. It offers powerful protection, especially when combined with other cybersecurity tools, like a secure messaging app.

    Suspect you’ve fallen victim to identity theft? It’s crucial to act quickly. Learn how to report identity theft to mitigate damages, then remove your personal information online, and take steps to prevent identity theft from happening again.

    Is a virtual private network safe to use?

    A VPN is safe to use — as long it’s from a reputable VPN provider and used correctly. Trustworthy VPN providers are privacy-forward, with transparent privacy policies for their users. An unsafe VPN provider may secretly track and log your online activity, have security vulnerabilities that lead to data leaks, or even sell your data to advertisers.

    But although a VPN protects the privacy, security, and anonymity of your internet connection, you’re still at risk of malware and phishing attacks. So while it can reduce your exposure to hacking and online trackers, even the best VPNs are no substitute for top-rated antivirus.

    How does the encryption tunnel work?

    Encryption is a method of changing normal text into an unreadable jumble of code. A key, or decryptor, unscrambles the text and renders it back into readable information. When you use a VPN, only your device and the VPN provider contain the decryption key. Anyone else trying to spy on you would only see a mess of characters.

    There are three main types of encryption: hashing, symmetric cryptography, and asymmetric cryptography. While each type has its own strengths and weaknesses, they all scramble your data and metadata so that it’s useless in anyone else’s hands.

    Different VPN providers offer varying degrees of encryption strength, but the best encryption software uses various methods to protect your privacy. Avast SecureLine VPN uses a combination of hashing, symmetric cryptography, and asymmetric cryptography for 256-bit AES encryption — the same standard that banks and the military rely on.

    Avast offers an extra layer of protection with our own DNS resolution system. The DNS (domain name system) is what translates numerical IP addresses into their more memorable text-based URLs. The DNS is what allows you to type in a simple site name rather than a long string of numbers.

    Cybercriminals can monitor DNS requests to track your movements online, but a VPN’s DNS resolution system is designed to thwart them with further encryption. We make sure all IPv4 traffic coming from your device is firewalled and also disable IPv6 requests.

    VPN apps are legal in most countries, especially democratic countries. Even China allows some amount of VPN use, though the government doesn’t love them.

    History of VPNs — when was the VPN invented?

    The Virtual Private Network was first developed by Microsoft in 1996 as a way for remote employees to securely access the company’s internal network. Once it doubled company productivity, other companies began to adopt the practice. Corporate VPNs that allow remote work are now a standard feature of the global business landscape.

    Developers then realized that this secure “tunnel” could be used by average people who wanted to securely connect to the largest network on the planet: the world wide web. VPNs are now the cornerstone of online privacy in the consumer sector.

    Different types of VPN

    There are two basic types of VPNs. A remote-access VPN allows users to connect to another network, be it the internet or their company’s internal system, through a private encryption tunnel.

    A remote-access VPN allows you to connect to a company's internal server or the public internet.A remote-access VPN lets you connect to a company’s internal server or the public internet.

    The other type is a site-to-site VPN — also called a router-to-router VPN. This type of VPN is mostly used within corporate environments, specifically when an enterprise has headquarters in several different locations. The site-to-site VPN creates a closed, internal network where the various locations can all connect with each other. This is known as an intranet.

    A site-to-site VPN is used to create an intranet.A site-to-site VPN is used to create an intranet.

    VPNs mostly fall into these two categories, and within these categories are specialty VPNs designed for specific tasks — like a P2P VPN server for file sharing and downloading.

    There are several VPN protocols, or methods of security. The oldest is PPTP, point-to-point tunneling protocol, which is still in use today but widely considered one of the least secure. Others are IKEv2, L2TP/IPSec, SSL, TLS, SSH, Wireguard, and OpenVPN. As an open-source protocol, OpenVPN is amongst the most secure because any vulnerabilities in its programming will quickly be noticed and patched.

    What is a double VPN?

    Double VPNs are a type of VPN service that use VPN server chaining to route internet traffic through two separate VPN networks. Also called doublehop VPNs and multihop VPNs, double VPNs encrypt network data twice, offering an even more private and secure VPN connection.

    Do you really need a VPN?

    Do you really need a VPN? Is a VPN worth it? Yes and yes. There are several important reasons why you need a VPN, the two main purposes being privacy and access.

    Public Wi-Fi networks — in coffee shops, airports, and other public areas — are risky. All it takes is one hacker connected on the same network, and they can easily spy on all your activity with a sniffer or other tool. A VPN acts like an invisibility cloak, hiding everything you do on your phone or computer and protecting you even from evil twin attacks.

    Do I need a VPN at home? VPNs also allow you to hide from your ISP, governments, and advertisers… so you can avoid censorship, price discrimination, and media geo-blocks.

    In 2017, the US abandoned net neutrality — the principle that ISPs should treat all internet data equally — and various lawsuits continue over the issue. The complete elimination of net neutrality would free ISPs to collect and sell your personal data, including your browsing history, physical location, health info, and even your Social Security number. It would also permit ISPs to slow down your connection if you do a lot of downloading and streaming, and otherwise discriminate against certain internet users. A VPN blocks your ISP from seeing your browsing history and other personal data.

    VPN pros and cons

    Though there are many benefits to VPN protection, there are also some drawbacks — particularly around device performance. But considering all the functionality and protection a VPN gives you, the gains far outweigh the losses.

    Using a VPN: the pros

    Our guide to the benefits of a VPN will give you a detailed explanation, but here’s a quick rundown of the pros of VPN usage:

    • Stream from anywhere: If you’re abroad and you try to access a streaming account you use at home, you may find some shows are not available in that region. A VPN lets you choose servers with IP addresses from back home. By changing location on an iPhone or other device, you evade content restrictions and get access to your favorite content.

    • Access blocked websites: Certain institutions — schools, libraries, companies — restrict access to specific web pages, such as social media. The encrypted connection provided by your VPN will tunnel right through and let you bypass content blocks.

    • Avoid censorship: Certain governments go to extremes to control information. A VPN can help you avoid government restrictions by hiding your real location and encrypting your traffic.

    • Beat price discrimination: Price discrimination can hit you in two ways. One is by your location. Some businesses program their sites to display a higher cost of goods (like airline tickets) to users based in locations with a higher cost of living. The other is if you regularly buy a product, your ISP can sell this info to the vendor, and they may start charging you more because they know you’ll buy it.

    • Avoid tracking: It bears repeating as its own section: don’t let yourself be tracked by hackers, cybercriminals, corporations, the government, or even your own ISP. Keep yourself free from repression, targeting, and discrimination.

    Avast SecureLine VPN will make your connection secure, no matter if you’re at home or on public Wi-Fi. Use our VPN on all your devices to get real digital privacy. Access blocked websites, avoid price discrimination, and keep your private matters private.

    Using a VPN: the cons

    As with any type of technology, there are also some disadvantages to using a VPN:

    • Potentially slower speeds: Your web traffic goes through more steps than usual when connected via VPN, so there could be a perceptible slowdown. However, recent VPNs have optimized speed and performance, so streaming Netflix and gaming is always smooth. If your VPN is slow, check out our tricks to speed up your VPN connection.

    • QoS challenges: QoS (quality of service) describes the performance of a service or network. VPNs do not yet have a standard in place to gauge and report such measurements. With no metrics to analyze, you need to rely on professional reviews and word-of-mouth to learn what’s most reliable.

    • VPN blocks: Some businesses are getting wise to the fact that VPNs give their users carte blanche to access content. To fight back, companies are beginning to block access from known VPN IP addresses. Not to be easily defeated, VPNs can simply turn on new IP addresses to trick them again.

    • No cookie protection: While VPN protection keeps you private and encrypted, it’s not possible for a VPN to block cookies, some of which are necessary to make sites work properly. Tracking cookies can still be stored in your browser and identify who you are. You can delete tracking cookies or use a private browser, like Avast Secure Browser, to help prevent web tracking.

    • Not total privacy: While a VPN blocks your ISP, governments, hackers, and other snoops, the VPN provider itself can see your internet activity if they want. That’s why it’s so important to choose a trustworthy provider that doesn’t keep logs of your internet habits.

    So are VPNs worth it? Considering how the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, a VPN is a relatively simple and effective way to protect your online privacy.

    Can I use a VPN on any device?

    Any device that connects to the internet will benefit from the privacy VPNs provide. Most VPN providers offer their services on multiple platforms. Avast SecureLine VPN will cover up to ten devices — PC, Mac, Android, and iOS — with one account. If you have a smart TV running Android TV, Avast’s VPN works there as well.

    VPNs work on all PCs, tablets, and mobiles.VPNs work on PCs, tablets, and mobile phones.

    Desktops, laptops, tablets, and phones can all connect individually to a VPN, but it’s not so easy with smart devices (other than the smart TVs mentioned above). For other IoT devices, the best option is to set up your router with VPN protection. Then, all devices that connect through that main hub will be protected. Certain routers are sold with VPN software already built in.

    You can use a VPN on your router to protect your privacy on all connected devices.Use a VPN on your router to protect your privacy on all your connected devices.

    It’s quite easy to set up a VPN — most VPN services guide you to download the VPN application via their download page. For example, after you download Avast SecureLine VPN and launch the app, it will start working with the touch of a button.

    What to look for when choosing a VPN

    Many good paid services offer a free trial, allowing you to take it for a test drive before committing. A paid VPN service is essential for secure, reliable VPN use — but how do you know which provider to choose? There are many factors to keep in mind when selecting the perfect VPN app:

    • Speed: You want to make sure the VPN offers sufficient speed, as many providers struggle to stay fast enough for streaming Netflix or downloading.

    • Reputation: To get a good sense of how the VPN performs, read both consumer and professional reviews. Also, since the issue of net neutrality rose to the forefront, many fake VPNs have popped up, so make sure you’re looking at a real one.

    • Shared IP addresses: Choose a VPN that offers shared IPs. Being among multiple anonymous users adds another layer of privacy to your browsing.

    • Servers: When it comes to performance, more servers equals better browsing, because each server will be less crowded. Also, the closer you are to a server, the faster and more reliable your VPN connection may be.

    • Encryption: Look for AES-256 (advanced encryption standard), which holds the highest encryption standard to date. It’s virtually impossible to crack, as it has more combinations than there are stars in the universe.

    • Protocol: Avoid weaker security protocols like PPTP, and go for the more reliable OpenVPN.

    • Policy: A reputable VPN will not keep or give away your private data or records of your internet activity. Though some data collection by VPN providers is used to help improve performance for their clients, read the VPN policy to ensure your private data is not being logged and exploited.

    • Customer support: The best VPNs have customer support standing by in case anything goes wrong.

    • Features: Keep in mind what’s important to you, and be sure the VPN you choose is compatible with what you need. For instance, some VPNs don’t allow you to use BitTorrent, while others do. Some VPN download allowances are limited to a certain number, while others are not. Some offer ad-blocking, firewalls, kill switches, simultaneous VPN connections, or the ability to change your IP address and server location at will. Find what works best with your online lifestyle.

    • Free trial: Many VPNs offer free trials, and it’s a good idea to try them out first. Test the ease of use and the performance of the VPN before you decide to purchase it.

    The average price of a paid VPN is around $10 per month — but it can be much cheaper if you opt for a yearly subscription, rather than paying monthly. Other factors that influence the price of a VPN include the provider, the features, and any discounts or promos.

    Should I get a free VPN?

    There are many VPN providers out there — how do you choose just one? The first thing to keep in mind is that free VPN services are low-quality and should be avoided. There are many problems with free VPNs, including:

    • Poor security: Many free options employ weaker security protocols, such as PPTP, instead of more secure protocols like WireGuard and OpenVPN.

    • Fewer servers: Your speed can slow to a crawl when there aren’t enough servers to cover the necessary bandwidth of many users.

    • Annoying ads: Some free VPNs rely on ads to generate revenue on their free VPN application.

    • Download limits: Free services usually put harsh limits on how much you can download or even upload.

    A VPN you can trust

    Wondering how to download a VPN? We can help with that! Avast SecureLine VPN offers breakneck speeds and top-of-the-line features. With servers in a variety of locations across dozens of countries (including US VPN servers, UK VPN servers, Australian VPN servers, and more), we’ll keep your online activity hidden.

    You can bypass content blocks while avoiding advertisers tracking your location and hackers snooping on you via public Wi-Fi. Avast SecureLine VPN gives you the most powerful security with AES-256 bank-grade encryption and the OpenVPN protocol. Give it a spin now with our free trial.


    How do I set up a VPN?

    Getting a VPN is easy, with free VPN tools available for PC and all other major platforms, including Mac VPNs, Android VPNs, and iOS VPNs. To set up a VPN, select a VPN service from a trusted vendor, download the app, and launch it to get started.

    Are VPNs legal?

    VPNs are totally legal in most countries, including countries with the best server locations. But of course, anything that’s illegal without a VPN — such as pirating copyrighted content — is also illegal with a VPN. Unblocking websites with a VPN is not illegal, but doing so to stream geo-restricted content may break a website’s terms of use.

    What is the best VPN?

    The best VPNs offer advanced AES-256 encryption (or another advanced encryption protocol), a wide range of geo-optimized servers, and lightning-quick connections with no download or bandwidth restrictions. You can get all this and more with Avast SecureLine VPN.

    Are VPNs better than Tor?

    The Tor browser is very secure, but it offers a slow browsing experience. Likewise, proxy servers offer many of the benefits of a VPN, but without the same level of security. When comparing VPNs, proxies, and Tor, VPNs combine performance with privacy for the best all-around solution.

    Can I still be tracked on a VPN?

    With your true IP address hidden, and your internet traffic encrypted, top-quality VPNs make it very difficult for ad trackers — or anyone else — to track you online. Websites won’t be able to find your IP, and while your ISP may see that you’ve connected to a VPN, they won’t be able to see the traffic itself. To cover your tracks even more thoroughly, ensure that your VPN kill switch is enabled, and use a private browser like Avast Secure Browser.

    Who needs a VPN?

    A VPN is an essential tool for staying secure online. Routinely using a VPN to connect to the internet prevents cybercriminals from hacking into your network, and stops web trackers following your activity online. By encrypting your data, VPNs don’t just unblock websites, they also protect your privacy and help you stay safe on public Wi-Fi.

    Should I leave my VPN on all the time?

    There are pros and cons to leaving your VPN on all the time. Leaving it on means you’ll always reap the security and privacy benefits of a VPN. However, a VPN requires additional bandwidth and increases latency, so turning it off may help to fix slow internet speeds. Plus, services and websites with specific regional restrictions or access limitations may have limited functionality if you’re connected to a VPN server that’s overseas.

    How to test if a VPN is working?

    You can test if a VPN is working by using an IP address detection website to compare your IP address before and after turning on a VPN. Here’s what to do:

    1. Find a reputable IP address detection website.

    2. Use the website to find your IP address, when you’re not connected to a VPN.

    3. Connect to a VPN and run the test again.

    Your results for the two tests should be different, because a working VPN should hide your real IP address. If you’re getting the same results, then your VPN is not working properly. For a comprehensive walk-through on testing your VPN, use our guide to check if your VPN is working.

    What is a no-logging or a no-logs VPN?

    A no-logging or a no-logs VPN refers to a service provider’s VPN policy that does not keep or share logs or other records of its users’ browsing history, downloaded files, or other online activity. Although using a VPN with no logging ensures a certain level of data privacy and anonymity, other service providers may keep logs for performance and analytics purposes, and still maintain high levels of user privacy.

    Encrypt your internet connection and stay private online with Avast SecureLine VPN

    Free trial

    Encrypt your internet connection and stay private online with Avast SecureLine VPN

    Free trial
    Charlotte Empey & Nica Latto