What is a VPN

Navigating the digital age, we often hear about VPNs as a solution for online privacy and security. But what exactly is a VPN, and why is it becoming increasingly relevant?

In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know about a VPN, including how it works, why they’re good and how they allow you to use the internet safely.

What is a VPN?

A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a digital service that offers privacy and security for users navigating the internet. At its foundation, a VPN allows users to establish a secure connection to another network over the internet.

When people connect to a VPN service, their online data gets encrypted. Encryption is a complex method of scrambling data so that only someone with the appropriate decryption key can understand it. This means that even if someone intercepts the transmitted data (like personal information or banking details), they won’t be able to decipher it because they won’t have the key to unencrypt it. 

As well as keeping your online data secret and safe, a VPN masks the user’s IP address so your location cannot be determined when going online. Your device is allocated a unique IP address whenever you connect to the internet. This is used by your device to communicate with the online service you’re visiting. When you connect to a website or app, the online service needs to know where to send the requested information. For this to work, your IP address needs to contain information disclosing your location. For example, if you’re in the US, your IP address will show you’re in the US. If you’re in the UK, it will show you’re in the UK and so on…

By masking or changing this IP address, a VPN provides anonymity. Websites and online services see the IP address of the VPN server rather than the user’s actual IP. This is especially beneficial for those concerned about advertisers or websites tracking their online behaviours or for users wanting to bypass regional digital restrictions.

What are the benefits of using a VPN?

In today’s digital world, a VPN offers several major benefits:

  1. Safety: VPNs protect your information, ensuring that your online actions and personal details remain private, especially when online threats are rampant.
  2. Privacy: With a VPN, your online history and activity are yours only. A VPN will prevent anyone from being able to see your online activity.
  3. Unblocking geo-blocked content: Have you ever encountered an error like “content not available in your region” when going online? VPNs help you access your favourite shows and sites, regardless of their location.
  4. Connect Anywhere: Whether in a cafe or an airport, VPNs ensure your connection stays secure, even on public Wi-Fi.

In simple terms, a VPN provides safety, privacy, and freedom online. It’s a must-have in today’s digital world.

What is a VPN

How do VPNs work?

When you use a VPN, your online data is encrypted and rerouted through the VPN servers. This gives you an anonymous online connection and allows you to change your IP address if needed.

At the heart of a VPN is the protocol, which dictates how data is transmitted between your device and the VPN server. Protocols such as OpenVPN, L2TP/IPsec, and IKEv2/IPsec define the rules and encryption standards that keep your data secure during transit. These protocols ensure that data packets are wrapped in an extra layer of protection, obscuring the contents from anyone potentially looking to intercept your data. 

Once a connection is set up using these rules, “tunneling” starts. Think of tunnelling as putting your personal data into a protective envelope. To anyone watching, it just looks like regular internet activity, but inside that envelope, your information is safely encrypted.

Encryption is achieved using cryptographic keys. When a VPN connection is initiated, both your device and the VPN server exchange a set of public and private keys, establishing a secure handshake. Algorithms like AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) with 256-bit keys are then employed to encrypt the data packets, rendering them unreadable to anyone without the corresponding decryption key.

An additional level of security is provided by the VPN masking your actual IP address. When connected to a VPN server, your traffic appears to originate from the server’s IP address rather than your own. This not only offers anonymity but can also bypass geographical restrictions on content.

Are there alternatives to VPNs?

While VPNs are widely recognized for providing online privacy and bypassing geo-restrictions, there are alternative tools and methods to achieve similar objectives.

Proxy Servers: Similar to VPNs, proxy servers act as intermediaries between the user’s computer and the internet. They accept user requests, forward them to the destination web server, and then return the data back to the user. This process effectively masks the user’s original IP address. However, unlike VPNs, most proxy servers don’t encrypt user traffic, making them less secure.

Tor (The Onion Router): Tor is a free software for enabling anonymous communication on the internet. It directs web traffic through a free, worldwide, volunteer overlay network consisting of more than seven thousand relays. This multiple relay process ensures that individual users’ requests are masked and makes tracking their original source difficult. However, Tor can be slower than other solutions due to the multiple layers of routing.

Smart DNS: For users primarily looking to bypass geo-restrictions, a Smart DNS might be an efficient alternative. Instead of rerouting all traffic like a VPN, a Smart DNS only reroutes specific information related to your location. It’s faster than a VPN because there’s no encryption involved. However, the lack of encryption means it doesn’t provide the same level of security as VPNs.

SSH Tunneling: SSH, or Secure Shell, is a protocol primarily used for secure logins and file transfers. By setting up an SSH tunnel, users can forward their traffic through an encrypted channel. It’s secure but can be complex to set up for those unfamiliar with the protocol.

What is a VPN

Why we think VPNs are the best option

1. Comprehensive Security: VPNs offer end-to-end encryption, which ensures that all user data, from the moment it leaves the device until it reaches its destination, is encrypted. Proxy servers, in contrast, do not encrypt traffic, leaving data more vulnerable to interception and potential breaches.

2. Reliability: VPNs often have a vast infrastructure with servers located worldwide. This robust setup provides many options for connecting to different regions. The Tor network, while global, can be inconsistent in speed due to its volunteer-based nature.

3. Streamlined User Experience: Using a VPN is straightforward. Once set up, users can connect with a single click, and many VPNs automatically choose the best server for optimal performance. In contrast, solutions like SSH Tunneling can be technically challenging to set up and maintain, especially for average users.

4. Multi-Functionality: While tools like Smart DNS are designed mainly for bypassing geo-restrictions, VPNs offer a suite of advantages, from enhanced security to thwarting digital trackers. This makes VPNs a versatile tool for a broad range of online activities.

5. Platform Compatibility: Most leading VPN providers offer solutions for a wide variety of devices, from PCs and smartphones to routers and smart TVs. They often provide dedicated apps for different operating systems, making it easy for users to connect regardless of their device.

6. Accountability and Support: Commercial VPN providers usually offer round-the-clock customer support and maintain transparent policies regarding their operations. On the other hand, alternatives like free proxy servers might offer limited accountability, potentially risking user data and providing inadequate recourse in case of issues.

In conclusion, while there are various methods available to protect one’s online presence or access geo-restricted content, VPNs remain a top choice for their holistic approach to online security, user-friendliness, and comprehensive feature set.

The best VPNs (2023)

We’ve been using and testing VPNs for a number of years. We test them over multiple criteria:

  1. We test how secure the VPN is: We do this by running it through DNS leak tests. If the VPN has a DNS leak issue, it has an issue with its security, as internet service providers (ISPs) can still potentially see your online data. The best VPNs don’t come across these sorts of issues.
  2. The number of servers: The best VPNs have thousands of servers around the world. The more servers, the better. Lesser VPNs, especially free VPNs, don’t have many servers meaning there’s less opportunity for you to surf the web anonymously.
  3. Speed: We measure the speed of a VPN by doing speed tests for multiple servers worldwide. We then compare this to our base internet speed with a VPN turned off.
  4. Compatibility with streaming services: A critical use case for VPNs is the ability to access geo-blocked streaming services. Unfortunately, these services try and prevent VPNs from accessing their platforms. The best VPNs have measures in place to get around these blocks. When testing a VPN, we try it with several geo-blocked streaming services. The best VPNs will allow you to watch all the leading streaming services worldwide.
  5. Price: Based on our research, the average cost of the top 20 VPNs is $4.33/month. We use this as a comparison when looking for the best-value VPNs.
  6. Devices: VPNs are usually compatible with more than one device simultaneously. Obviously, the more the better.

1. ExpressVPN πŸ₯‡ $6.66/month

The fastest and most reliable streaming VPN of 2023

  • βœ”160+ IP addresses in 94+ countries
  • βœ”5 simultaneous devices
  • βœ”Live chat support
  • βœ”Over 3,000 servers
  • βœ”>80% connection speed
  • βœ”Unlimited bandwidth
ExpressVPN review

ExpressVPN ($6.66/month) is still the best VPN. And importantly, it ALWAYS has servers that are open with major streaming sites such as Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, Paramount+, Amazon Prime Video, etc.

Read our full ExpressVPN review.

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2. NordVPN $3.19/month

An incredibly fast and trustworthy VPN

  • βœ”Over 5,000 servers worldwide
  • βœ”6 simultaneous devices
  • βœ”Reliable customer service
  • βœ”Fast NordLynx protocol
  • βœ”Cybersec ad and tracker blocker
  • βœ”Easy to use interface
NordVPN Best VPN image

NordVPN is the most widely-used VPN in the world. And it’s easy to see why. It’s a polished app that delivers fast connections (more on this later) to a massive network of VPN servers.

It’s the most reliable at unblocking popular streaming services too – US Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, BBC iPlayer, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, etc. This is because NordVPN hired a full-time technical team (that’s responsible for monitoring its servers’ connections with popular TV streaming services) and has been aggressively investing in its network of IP addresses in key locations.

Read our full NordVPN review.

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3. Private Internet Access $2.03/month

An affordable, reliable VPN

  • βœ”35,000 servers worldwide
  • βœ”Unlimited simultaneous devices
  • βœ”24/7 chat support
  • βœ”Servers in over 80 countries
  • βœ”MACE ad blocker included
  • βœ”Supports multiple protocols
Best VPN list - PIA

Private Internet Access is one of the leading no-log VPN services with over 1-million paying customers.

This VPN is one of the best in the industry at beating streaming sites’ VPN bans. It provides reliable connections with US Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Hulu, MAX, Disney+ Amazon Prime, and many more.

Even better, it allows for an unlimited number of simultaneous devices to be connected to its servers at the same time. So you can share the account with all of your friends.

Read our full Private Internet Access review.

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4. Ivacy $1.00/month

A trustworthy and affordable VPN

  • βœ”5700+ servers worldwide
  • βœ”10 simultaneous devices
  • βœ”24/7 customer support
  • βœ”Dedicated IP address option
  • βœ”Available on all major platforms
  • βœ”Great price
Ivacy Best VPN image

If you’re looking for an excellent VPN, with an even better price tag, Ivacy ($1.00/month) is a great option.

While it doesn’t do much more than the other VPNs on this list, the main attraction is the price. This is an affordable VPN that will allow you to stream BBC iPlayer, in HD, from any country in the world on Mac, PC, Android, iOS and FireStick. You’ll also be able to unlock other services like US Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, MAX, Amazon Prime, etc. with ease.

Read our full Ivacy review.

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(30-day money-back guarantee)

5. CyberGhost $2.19/month

A solid VPN package

  • βœ”Deloitte verified no logs policy
  • βœ”Servers in 91 countries
  • βœ”7 simulatenous devices
  • βœ”Proprietary NoSpy servers
  • βœ”Multiple protocol options
  • βœ”Split tunneling support
CyberGhost Best VPN image

CyberGhost is one of the more established VPNs on the market. It has a well-established, and well-tested global network of servers that perform well.

It also offers NoSpy servers which are specially designed to provide an extra layer of security and privacy for users.

Read our full CyberGhost review.

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Patch Bowen
Patch Bowen is an accomplished technology journalist with a solid academic foundation, holding a degree from Auckland University. His expertise spans across a range of tech topics, with a notable focus on product reviews, industry trends, and the impact of technology on society. With his work featured on major New Zealand websites like Stuff.co.nz, thebit.nz, and The Press, Patch has established himself as a credible voice in technology media. His articles are known for their detailed analysis and practical insights, particularly in making complex technological concepts understandable for a broad audience. At ReviewsFire, Patch is renowned for his thorough evaluations and clear, informative writing style. He has a knack for identifying and explaining the nuances of the latest gadgets and digital trends, earning him a reputation as a trusted source for tech advice and information.

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