VPN Beginners Guide

A Beginners Guide to VPNs

Updated on: 18 March 2019 HOW TO

You might be looking for information to help you understand everything there is to know about VPNs; perhaps you have heard they are great but are not too sure if you need one. In this VPN guide, we talk you through everything you need to know about VPNs. We cover what a VPN does, who needs one, what the benefits of a VPN are, how to install a VPN, and most importantly of all, what are the best VPNs in 2018.

1. Why Do People Need a VPN?

VPN is an acronym of a Virtual Private Network. To explain fully what a VPN is and what it does, let’s first look at how you connect to the internet right now. For most people nowadays, whether at home or work, they use a laptop or a mobile device to access the internet. But have you ever stopped to think about ‘how’ you connect to the internet?

Any device needs to be connected to a network to access information online. For many people, this is usually a hub in their home or office, or their preferred telephone network supplier might provide a network, depending on whether you are stationary or mobile will often dictate which you use. Either way, your device accesses the online world by being connected to a network, which permits them to directly take you anywhere on the web you wish to go (in most cases).

Now, if you have ever heard of ‘parental controls,’ then you will understand the basic concept of blocked sites. You can set up parental control to prevent access to any places and websites as you like. Typically, parents will block pornography sites, Facebook, gambling, and more.

If you try to connect to the internet using another network outside of your home, such as free-Wi-Fi in a public place, it is also possible they will block access to individual sites too. These are typically content streaming sites, gambling, pornography, and more.

2. How and Why are Websites Blocked?

Every single website is categorized when it gets published online. As we touched on in the section above, some sites are blocked by ‘connection providers,’ such as café’s and other areas that offer public WiFi services. Employers block other websites in their place of work, parental controls block some, and in certain countries, the government will decide which sites they want their people to access or not.

The reasons that these providers choose to block specific sites can vary greatly.

For parents, they want to make sure their children do not inadvertently arrive at a site with inappropriate content displayed.

For employers, they want to control which sites their staff can access at work. Typically, streaming, gambling, and Facebook are blocked as they prevent their workers from being productive in their roles.

For public Wi-Fi providers, they block streaming sites because they slow down the connection for everyone else which can result in customer complaints as their ‘free Wi-Fi’ suddenly grinds to a halt.

For Governments, they choose to block sites for a whole other set of reasons. Many countries, such as China, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai (or even the United Kingdom) all have strict censorship that is not present in the Western World. In such places, the government wishes to control what data the citizens of their country can see. Whole nations have permanent censorship that prevents them accessing sites that are categorized as Gambling, Media, Content Streaming, File Sharing, VOIP, even popular social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp are forbidden in certain places.

So, when you pick up your device and try to connect to a website that is blocked by your connection provider, you will not be able to access it, and a message will display that tells you the site has been blocked.

Also, some services such as SoundCloud may not be available in every country. You then need a VPN to have SoundCloud unblocked. YouTube is also a service that is sometimes blocked in some countries. Check out this guide to unblock YouTube to learn how to overcome this.

Enter, THE VPN!

3. What is a VPN?

A VPN is a type of server that acts a ‘middleman’ between your computer and the website you are trying to visit. As we mentioned earlier, when you connect to a site, this is a direct connection that occurs from your device and the website in question.

When you use a VPN, your request to visit a website will first be routed via the VPN server, which then connects you to your site of choice.

Let’s take the example of blocked sites from above and talk about how a VPN can fix that problem for you.

If you are trying to access Netflix and your connection provider has blocked this, then a VPN is the only way to get around this issue. When you type in ‘Netflix,’ it is immediately recognized as a blocked site, and your access is forbidden.

However, when you use a VPN, this will not get blocked because the request to access the site is handled by the VPN, rather than your connection provider. With a VPN, nothing will get blocked.

Another critical function that a VPN performs is to keep your identity completely anonymous. We will talk in detail, at a later point in this post about the many benefits of using a VPN. However, for now, be aware that when you use a VPN, your online activity cannot be traced back to your computer.

Because the VPN is connecting you to your websites of choice (as opposed to you connecting from your device directly), there is no information stored online about your device, because they cannot see it.

So, if you want to browse the internet anonymously, a VPN will furnish that request.

4. The Benefits of a VPN

There are many reasons people choose to buy a VPN. There are also many employers that insist their remote staff connect to their company via a VPN. Here are some of the most compelling reasons why people buy a VPN.

Privacy and Anonymity

A VPN is one of the most secure ways to connect to the internet. It can hide your IP address from the outside world which helps you to keep your activities completely private. Another key benefit offered by top VPN providers is encryption. This means that any data you send online, such as personal or financial data, cannot be recorded or intercepted whatsoever; even your Internet Service Provider (ISP) will be unable to detect your activities.

With many people also now regularly accessing the internet using public Wi-Fi, and this hotspot-type of connections being easy targets for hackers who like to monitor the traffic and then steal personal information; it is especially crucial for those who use such Wi-Fi connections to protect their privacy through a VPN.


If you have anti-virus software, you might not always be aware when a website is trying to inject malware or viruses onto your equipment. Many anti-virus software programs simply deal with risk in hand. However, not all anti-virus software is updated (especially the free versions that usually come pre-loaded on your laptop), and not all these programs can detect the latest practices used by cyber thief’s until it is too late.

A VPN is an essential security tool for the modern-day internet user. We send so much information over the internet, about ourselves and our financials; with cyber-crooks updating their tactics all the time, the easiest way to make sure you stay safe is to get a VPN.

5. Accessing Sites and Services from Abroad

There is a vast range of websites and services that are exclusively limited to a specific country. A couple of famous examples of such sites and services can easily be found with the likes of HBO and Netflix. While there are ‘watered-down’ versions available outside of the US, anyone who wants to access the latest and most comprehensive catalog of shows on this service should be using a VPN that will instantly unlock the full service which is only intended for those living in the USA.

How this works is simple. To detect your location, and provide services intended for your location, companies use your IP address. This is a unique address that is given to your connection and will typically reflect where you are located.

However, with a VPN, you can choose a new IP address each time you connect to the service. If you need an IP in the UK, USA, UAE; or anywhere else; then most VPN providers will make it easy for you to choose your preferred country of connection.

6. How to use a VPN

Using a VPN is simple. Lots of the top VPN service providers have created products that are very quick to download and incredibly easy to use. There is typically no complicated sign-up process and downloading the software takes a matter of minutes. A few quick clicks to install and run, then you are ready to roll.

Almost any VPN can be selected, set-up, and ran in just 5 quick and easy steps.

  • Find a VPN service provider and sign up to their service.
  • Download the software and install it on your advice.
  • Open the VPN and run the software.
  • Choose a server or country of connection.
  • Connect and Go.

7. Which Devices Will a VPN Work With?

Almost all VPNs that you buy, (not the free ones) will work on virtually any device, operating system, and smart TV. This includes phones, computers, gaming platforms, and tablets. Most of the paid versions will operate on Mac, Windows, Linux, Android, and iOS.

The reason the best VPNs are those which you pay a subscription for is that they develop and update their software to work well across all devices and systems. These service providers will also typically create a specific version for each different device to ensure that it is easy to use and works seamlessly across any device.

Another critical point is the updates, which you typically only get with a paid for VPN. With the rapid development of online threats and tactics used by the cybercriminals, it is essential to make sure you are protected at all times. Periodic updates from your VPN service provider will make sure you are not vulnerable to any new threats.

With a free VPN, you very seldom get any developments or updates following the initial download. Usually, companies who produce such software cannot afford nor have the staff to dedicate to such vital matters as they do not have the funding.

8. Will My Internet Be Slower with a VPN?

If you use a paid for VPN, the difference is very marginal and often not noticeable. The reason it may be marginally slower is down to the fact that your traffic or request is now being routed via a ‘middleman’. A VPN needs to do this to make sure your identity and security are protected at all times. Another reason your speeds are supported so well is due to the professional Datacentres and Servers they pay to use on your behalf.

With free VPNs, there can be a more significant decrease in internet speeds. With some free VPNs, some unscrupulous businesses will actively slow down your internet and your equipment. This can be intentional behavior; there is also a genuine risk of malware being placed onto your computer and actions that occur in the background without your knowledge. from some providers of free VPN services.

Because genuine Datacentres and servers cost regular money, the free VPN providers will not be able to support your internet speed as they do not have access to the same high-quality resources needed. At peak traffic times, the lack of coverage regarding servers in different locations can really grind your internet and requests take much longer and are therefore a lot slower. Some of the VPN services can slow your speeds down by up to 80%.

It is, therefore, always advisable to use a subscription-based VPN service that you pay for. In many cases, the top VPN providers offer VPN plans that can work out as low-cost as $3 per month.

9. Is it legal to use a VPN?

There is nothing illegal about using a VPN. You are simply connecting to another server which re-directs you to the website or service you were looking for.

While there are certain countries such as Iran, Saudi, UK, Germany, UAE, Turkey, and many more who have rather authoritarian leaders who like to limit and control what people access online, there is nothing untoward about a VPN. In the countries named above, they may block certain media sites, gambling, pornography, file sharing, VOIP, and social media sites and apps.

With a VPN, you can travel, work, and live anywhere without having to worry about blocked sites. It sites are disallowed or blocked, a VPN will make sure you can access any site at any time without being detected. The traffic is protected so well that not even your Internet Service Provider will be unable to detect or see it whatsoever.

10. Is it safe to use a VPN?

As long as you use a professional VPN service provider, that you pay a small fee for their service, you will get a VPN with encrypted traffic; with a free VPN, it is doubtful that your traffic will not be encrypted and as such, will not be kept entirely out of the public realm.

If you do not use a professional VPN provider, then you are merely going to be sending all your internet traffic to them first, allowing potentially interceptions of your information, which may include log-in details, passwords, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, and more.

The key point that we are trying to make about free VPN providers is that any business needs money to survive, let alone pay-out for staff, servers, security, etc. So, if they do not have the same resources, whether personnel or equipment, they are unable to offer features like encrypted traffic, good connection speeds, customer support, updates to the product, and security overall.

A VPN from a professional company costs as little as $3 per month, which can then work simultaneously on multiple devices at the same time. Regarding customer support, updates, encryption, connection speeds, and the security and privacy of your information overall, a VPN that you pay a small fee for, can give you lots of benefits overall and genuinely enrich your online, gaming and streaming experiences for the better. They will also have a strictly enforced none data logging policy which means that even they will know or track your actions online.

11. Do I need a firewall if I have a VPN?

Essentially, a firewall will safeguard your device from attacks made online by malicious applications. Using a firewall is also another essential and will typically come with your device when you buy it. So, yes you do need a firewall; they are also easy to switch and set-up if it has not been automatically installed.

12. Will I actually be anonymous if I use a VPN?

For almost all intents and purposes, yes. If you visit websites such as Facebook, Netflix, etc., then you will be anonymous, and these websites will never know your real IP and real location. This way you can use services not available in your country and avoid internet censorship policies in your location.

Nobody, not even a Government or your internet service provider will know of any actions you take online or where you have been. Traffic is encrypted and completely secure.

If you use a free VPN, you cannot be certain of such assurances. It is most likely that they will not offer true message encryption.

A final point of note regarding anonymity, you cannot use a VPN to hide criminal activity. With any serious crime, the law enforcement can still request private companies (such as ISP’s and VPN companies) to provide them with your data.

Obviously, this is never the case when you use a VPN to connect from a different country to use a website or service unavailable in your country. This does not break any laws. But if you are actually breaking the law and doing illegal things while using a VPN, then law enforcement will be able to find you.

13. Should I use a free VPN or a paid VPN?

You should always use a subscription-based VPN.

We have addressed this question several times in this article and referred continuously throughout. From speeds to security, and privacy too, no matter how you look at it, a paid VPN is always better than a free VPN.

Quite simply, the resources required to support and run a professional VPN company require regular money, multiple servers, and Datacentres in prominent countries; also, free VPNs are often unsupported and therefore deemed not as safe nor as performant are VPNs that you pay for.

Most VPNs that are free will also run slowly and slow everything down. If you are looking to use a VPN to access services such as Netflix, then you need a professional company that offers many thousands of VPN addresses. With free VPNs, they will not be able to support this and once they are detected as a VPN, they are blocked.

In the very unlikely event that IP was detected, then there are hundreds, if not thousands of other IP addresses to use, and in what seems like a nano-second, the paid for VPN company will instantly resolve the issue with no impact on you whatsoever. With a free VPN they hardly have the resources to fix an issue like this quickly.

Always consider why and how it is free? How do the owners make money?

Perhaps, they offer their services for free to intercept your data and sell it to corporations, or even worse, hack your email, social media, and potentially online banking accounts.

If you use a professional VPN service, you can see real user reviews and feel confident that the company you are going to be routing your traffic through provide a completely safe and secure service that you can depend on.

From $3 per month for one of the top VPN services, there is no question of the value a VPN can offer.

Written by: Elizabeth March

Advanced ITSEC Specialist Based in Cambridge, England, Elizabeth has held notable positions for a range of high-profile vendors and clients in the European IT Security and Communications Sector. As a former IT Trainer, Technical Specialist, and Product Manager; she transitioned into the role of an expert IT Copywriter in 2015. Since then, her works have been published globally, and she continues to help people easily decipher complex technical challenges and make informed decisions about their digital lives.

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