You might have heard of VPNs from some commercials, or you're using one right now and want to brag about how it keeps your network "secure" as if you knew better.
So what is VPN exactly? Is it all that good?
If you have these questions or, on the other hand, haven't even heard of a VPN at all, you're reading the right post. You'll find the necessary general information on this type of network connection for travelers -- with an emphasis on travelers -- and how to get one for free.
Most importantly, you'll learn when to use a VPN and when not. Hint: VPN is not synonymous with security, privacy, or the lack thereof.
Dong's note: I first published this post on April 1, 2019, and updated it on April 26, 2023, to add additional relevant information.
What is a VPN
VPN, short for virtual private network, is a method to create a secure(*) logical (virtual) connection within a physical network structure to make a device at one geophysical location be part of a system at another.
(*) The VPN connection is encrypted by default securing all traffic within it. This encryption notion tends to be exaggerated to prop up the importance of VPNs.
Without a VPN, a computer's connection to the Internet is encrypted by the application -- some applications' connections might not be secure, but most are.
For example, your browser is using a secure connection to display this page, as indicated by the lock (or shield) icon in the URL, whether you're using a VPN or not.
Depending on the VPN protocol and the way a server is set up, one VPN connection can be more secure than another. The drawer below will give you some brief highlights.
Three VPN protocols in brief
The following are popular standard VPN protocols:
Wireguard is the latest VPN protocol. Debuted in 2016, initially only for Linux, but since 2020 has been available cross-platform (Windows, macOS, BSD, iOS, Android).
Using cryptography, the new protocol is slated to be extremely simple yet fast. WireGuard is still under development but has proven to be the most secure, easiest-to-use, and simplest VPN solution.
WireGuad is on the way to possibly replacing all existing protocols below.
As the name suggests, OpenVPN is a flexible VPN protocol that uses open-source technologies, including OpenSSL and SSL.
As a result, it has a high level of customizability and is the most secure. It also can't be blocked.
In return, OpenVPN requires extra client software, making it less practical. But this protocol is the best if you want to be serious about VPN.
Short for Layer 2 Tunnel Protocol is the second most popular VPN protocol -- it's also a built-in application in most modern operating systems -- and an interesting one.
It has no encryption by default, so it's not secure where the IPsec -- or IP security -- portion comes into play to provide encryption. Therefore, this protocol is rigid in port use and can be blocked by a third party.
The point is L2PT/IPsec is great when it works. And it does in most cases, which ultimately depends on whether the local network of the remote device allows it to pass through.
Short for point-to-point tunneling protocol, PPTP is the oldest among the four and is on the way out.
First implemented in Windows 95 and has been part of the Windows operating systems and many other platforms since PPTP is well-supported and the easiest to use.
However, it's also the least secure. It's better than no VPN at all, and it does its purpose of making a remote device part of a local network.
That said, if you take security seriously, or have other options, skip it. On the other than, it sure is better than nothing and good enough for most home users.
Specifically, you can be thousands of miles away from home, but the device you're using via a VPN can be part of your home network. Thus, it's like the device (and, therefore, you) is still at home.
If that sounds odd, that's because VPN is not normal. It's for specific needs. So the question is, why do you want to be part of these complicated "shenanigans"?
Well, that brings us to the good in a VPN -- why we'd want one at all.
Benefits of using a VPN: Being part of a remote network
The main and possibly only advantage of using a VPN is that you can "spoof" your device's online location. In a way, you can hide it.
Hide from whom you might wonder. From the network the device's physically part of in real-time, or from other parties on the Internet (like a website or a streaming service) it's accessing. It doesn't exist to the former; to the latter, it appears to exist elsewhere.
Let's take a specific example. You're at a cafe in Europe, and your laptop connects to the venue's free public Wi-Fi. Additionally, if it's also connected to your home (or office) VPN in the US, the following will be true:
- Privacy and security via isolation: Your device, for the most part, is invisible to the local network at the cafe. Specifically, the computer of the guy sitting next to you that connects to the same Wi-Fi network will not "see" yours. Whatever you do online is, for the most part, unknown to any parties around you.
- Location masking: To the Internet, your laptop will appear to be at the location of the VPN server, wherever it is. As a result, among other things, you can access services available to the server's locale. In this particular case, you can watch Netflix shows accessible only to the US audience, for example.
- Working remotely: When traveling, a VPN allows you to access your home/office network's resources like you were there. For example, you can open a file on your office's server and even print a document to the office printer.
So, in short, using a VPN, a remote device becomes part of the network at the VPN server's location, no matter the distance between them.
Disadvantages of using a VPN: Being part of a remote network
Nope, it wasn't a typo. The disadvantages of a VPN are precisely where its advantages are. A VPN is a double-edged sword. Having to connect to a third party before anything else means a couple of things:
There are advanced ways to use VPN selectively for particular services or devices of a network, etc. But that's a different story.
- Slow speed, high latency: Since all Internet traffic goes through a remote server, the connection is now slower and with higher latency. Specifically:
- The download speed at the remote device will depend on the upload speed at the server's end. The actual rate will be whichever of the two that's slower.
- Your device will get double the latency. You're effectively dealing with two Internet connections, the local and that of the VPN server.
- Privacy risk: The owner of the VPN server has access to all of your VPN-connected device's Internet traffic and possibly the traffic of your local network. Keep this in mind before you opt for a third-party VPN service.
- Extra work or cost: You must set up a VPN server and maintain it or pay for a service.
- Isolation: Depending on the configuration, the device might be unable to access local services, including other devices within your home network, since it's part of a remote network.
So as you might have noticed, a VPN is not inherently better for online privacy or security. It's just a way to make you look like you're somewhere else and all that implies. With a VPN, your information might be more secure, or it might not. And it can also be more vulnerable.
And a VPN will always make your Internet connection worse, by little or by a lot, depending on the server and where you are.
Assumptions about VPNs and security
The privacy and security notion of using a VPN involves a few assumptions, including:
- The local physical network you're using is not safe. That can be true when you use an unknown open free Wi-Fi network, but it's not always the case.
- The remote network (where the VPN server is) is safe. That's likely true when you VPN into a home (or office) network, but also not always so.
- The owner of a VPN service always means well. That is almost always untrue when you use a third-party VPN service.
These assumptions are the selling points third-party VPN providers often use to convince you to have one. Literally, there's no VPN commercial without the word "security."
Many paid VPN providers -- all of them, in fact -- offer deep incentives via affiliation and referral payouts. And that's the reason behind the never-ending myriad of online content advocating their "security" and "privacy" half-truth. When you click on the sign-up link, the writers make money.
Once again, keep this in mind:
The owner of the VPN server has access to all of your device's traffic. A third-party VPN service charges you a monthly fee and gains access to your data. It's a double whammy.
That brings us to the next important part: When to use a VPN and when not to.
When to use a VPN
Again, a VPN allows for being part of a remote network, so you only need one when you're not physically there. Most of the time, that means when you're traveling or working from home.
In the former, you want to be isolated from the possibly sketchy network you're using, and in the latter, you want to be able to access your office's resources.
Another situation where you might want a VPN is when you need to access a service unavailable at your locale. For example, if you're in China and want to access Facebook, a VPN (located outside of China) will help.
Finally, when you want to hide your identity from the Internet service provider or any other party over the Internet, a VPN will help -- your online presence can't be traced back to you. (I'm not advocating illegal activities here.)
When not to use a VPN
Generally, if you don't need to hide your identity or access some remote services/resources, there's no need to use a VPN. Using one, in this case, only makes things worse.
Many folks have a VPN installed on their home computer for "security purposes." That's completely unnecessary, with nothing in return. And when you use a third-party VPN service that way, you also put your privacy at great risk -- you're being spied on.
While seemingly unrelated, a VPN server (or any network, for that matter) always involves DNS.
DNS works like a directory service that identifies and points a device to the website you want to access. After that, your device will interact with the site directly, independently from the DNS server.
On the other hand, a VPN always routes all of your device's traffic through the VPN server. Furthermore, a VPN server also uses a DNS server of its own. So if you use a VPN, you'll likely use the DNS setting of the VPN's owner.
That said, a remote device connecting to a VPN network will use the DNS server of that network. Consequently, the VPN server can manage, monitor, and control all aspects of connected clients.
A few easy ways to have a VPN
There are a few ways to get a VPN connection. You can subscribe to a paid service, use a free one, or set one up on your own.
Buying a paid VPN service
Using a paid service gives you ease of use and flexibility -- you can use it for mobile and regular computers.
A paid service tends to promise to deliver fast performance, though that depends on many other factors, like the actual location of the remote device.
The downside is, well, it's not free. And, if a VPN service itself is hacked, which has happened, its privacy protection aspect is canceled. And you only find out about this after the fact. Also, again, keep in mind that you're giving away your online privacy.
That said, I generally don't recommend buying a VPN subscription -- mostly because you can get one for free. You're already giving away valuable personal information; why should you pay for it?
Using a free VPN service
Since VPN is so valuable regarding user data collection, Internet giants like Google, Apple, and Cloudflare all offer free VPN (and DNS) services.
Take "free" with a grain of salt since information about your connection -- even when gleaned anonymously -- is valuable.
If you use an Android phone, it comes with one from Google. iOS devices will automatically get one from Apple. All you have to do is go to the VPN section of the device and turn it on. (This section also allows you to create a VPN connection with a standard server.)
Other than that, there are also those from other parties. Among those, Cloudflare's WARP is quite popular and useful. The drawer below will give you more info.
Touted as the "VPN for those who don't know what VPN stands for," WARP is easy to use. All you need is to install the app on your device -- running Android, iOS, macOS, Linux, or Windows -- and choose to turn the VPN on, and that is it.
WARP was initially introduced in April 2018 as a DNS app, allowing users to use Cloudflare's 126.96.36.199 DNS address as their own. Since then, the app has evolved into something much bigger, including a comprehensive VPN function.
WARP is free to use, and Cloudflare promises to make your device more secure and faster access to the Internet. (There's also a paid version called WARP+ that promises to deliver even better speed.)
By the way, Cloudflare promises to respect WARP users' privacy. Here's what it told me on the matter:
- "1. We don't write user-identifiable log data to disk;
- 2. We will never sell your browsing data or use it in any way to target you with advertising data;
- 3. Users don't need to provide any personal information — not your name, phone number, or email address — to use the 188.8.131.52 App with WARP; and
- 4. We will regularly hire outside auditors to ensure we're living up to these promises."
Turning your Wi-Fi router into a personal VPN server
Setting your server takes a bit of work but is the best way to go about having VPN. It's free, and you're in charge of your data.
Generally, to use a router's VPN, you first need to set up Dynamic DNS, which I detailed in this post on DDNS. After that, configure the VPN protocol of your choice, as mentioned above.
Besides standard VPN servers, many routers also have a simplified app-based VPN solution. Specifically, Ubiquiti's AmpliFi routers come with Teleport, and Asus routers have Instant Guard. Both are valuable and well-thought-out VPN solutions for mobile users, as I detailed in this post on Instant Guard vs Teleport.
Finally, a home router can handle between three and thirty VPN clients simultaneously, depending on the model -- enough for any personal needs.
Considering how easy it is to have a VPN these days, it's generally a good idea to use it when connected to a local network whose security you're unsure about.
Here are a couple of recap bullet points to keep in mind:
- A VPN connection is only applicable when:
- you need to access something not available to your current physical locale.
- you want to be anonymous when online.
- Building your own VPN server is best, but using a third-party service is OK when that's an easy option.
- A VPN only makes things worse when you're already using a safe network
Using a VPN doesn't guarantee online privacy or security. It only changes your exposure by moving your risks from one party to another.
When you're home, getting connected via a VPN is like using your neighbor's landline phone instead of your own.
Your conversation is safe from those prying on your house, but your privacy is at the mercy of your neighbor. If your home is not bugged, you actually increase your privacy risks unnecessarily. And there's no guarantee that their place is more secure than yours.
That's not to mention the hassle of walking out of your home to a different building.
The most important takeaway is that VPN is not synonymous with security or privacy, and using one willy-nilly can cause adverse effects on this front.