You might have heard of VPNs from some commercials. Hell, you might even be using one right now and want to brag about how secure your network is. 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. Here, 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 yourself for free.
Most importantly, you’ll learn when you want to use a VPN and when not to. 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 March 12, 2022, to add additional relevant information.
Table of Contents
What is a VPN
VPN is short for virtual private network. It is a method to create a virtual connection within a physical network structure to make a device at one geophysical location be part of a system at another.
Specifically, you can be thousands of miles away from home (or office), but the device you’re using in front of you, via a VPN, can be part of your home or business network. Thus, in effect, it’s like the device (and, therefore, you) were 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 or identity. In a way, you can hide it.
Hide from whom you might wonder. Well, 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 (kind of) doesn’t exist to the former, and to the latter, it appears to exist somewhere else.
So, for example, you’re now at an airport, and your device, say, a laptop, is connecting to free Wi-Fi. On top of that, if it’s also connected to your home (or office) VPN, then the following will be true:
- Privacy and security: Your device, for the most part, is invisible to the local network at the airport. Specifically, the computer of the guy sitting next to you that connects to the same Wi-Fi network will not “see” yours, nor will yours his. Whatever you do online is, for the most part, unknown to any parties at the airport.
- Location masking: To the Internet as a whole, 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. For example, you can be in Europe when your computer connects to a VPN server in the US, you can watch Netflix shows accessible only to the US audience.
- Working remotely: When traveling, a VPN allows you to access your home/office network’s resources as though you were there.
So, in short, using a VPN, a remote device becomes part of the network at the VPN server’s location, no matter the physical 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:
(Note: This is with the assumption that you use VPN in its totality, which is the typical case of most users. 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 be the upload speed at the server’s end, at best. (It’s commonplace that the upload speed of a broadband connection is much slower than the download one.) Your device’s Internet speed and latency with a VPN connection are always worse than they are when without.
- Privacy risk: The owner of the VPN server has access to all of your VPN-connected device’s Internet traffic, and possibly also the traffic of your local network. Keep this in mind before you opt for a third-party VPN service.
- Extra work or cost: You have to set up a VPN server and maintain it or pay for a service.
- Isolation: Depending on the configuration, the device might not be able to access certain local services since it appears to be part of a remote network. For example, if a device is in the U.S but connects to a VPN server in the U.K, it’ll reach the U.K market when you want to use Netflix. The same goes for online stores, etc.
The bottom line of VPN and when you should use it
So as you might have noticed. Using a VPN has nothing to do with security or privacy. It’s just a way to make you look like you’re somewhere else, and all that implies.
Assumptions about a VPN
The privacy and security notion of using a VPN is a big assumption that generally includes:
- The local network you’re using is not safe. That can be true when you use an unknown open free Wi-Fi network, though 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, though also not always the case.
- The owner of a VPN service always means well. Now, this is almost always not true when you use a VPN service.
This assumption is the selling point third-party VPN providers often use to coerce you into thinking that you need to pay for a VPN service.
Read those three points above again and, once again, keep this in mind:
The owner of the VPN server may have access to all of your device’s traffic. If you get a third-party VPN service, not only does that cost you a monthly fee, but you’ll also give them access to your online activities.
The business of collecting user information via a VPN connection is so lucrative that many big companies give you VPN for free. Seriously, there’s so much a company can do with that kind of information.
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 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 not available 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 also help. Note: 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.
I’ve seen many folks having a VPN installed on their home computer for “security purposes.” That’s completely unnecessary. In fact, you are doing so almost certainly at the expense of your privacy with nothing in return, especially when it’s a third-party VPN service.
Since VPN is so valuable in terms of metadata and even more, Internet giants like Google, Apple, and Cloudflare are all participating in the business of offering free VPN (and DNS) services.
So, take free with a grain of salt since information about your connection — even when gleaned anonymously — is quite valuable.
Virtual Private Network (VPN) vs. Domain Name System (DNS)
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 routes all of your device’s traffic through the VPN server at all times. 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.
Common ways to get the benefits of VPN
There are a few ways to get a VPN server. You can subscribe to a paid service, use a free one, or set one up on your own.
Using a paid VPN service
Using a paid service gives you the ease of use and flexibility — you can use it for both 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. The truth is, you’re already giving away valuable personal information; why should you pay for it?
Using a free VPN service
There are quite a few free ways to get a VPN for mobile users. If you use an Android phone, it comes with one from Google or its vendor. iOS devices will get one from Apple.
Other than that, there are also those from other parties. Among those free ones, Cloudflare’s WARP is quite popular and useful.
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 back in April 2018, as a DNS app, giving users the option to use Cloudflare’s 184.108.40.206 DNS address as their own. Since then the app has evolved into something much bigger that includes 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 be 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. Don’t need to provide any personal information — not your name, phone number, or email address — to use the 220.127.116.11 App with WARP; and
- 4. We will regularly hire outside auditors to ensure we’re living up to these promises.”
If that’s not reassuring enough, you should consider making your own VPN server.
How to set up a VPN using a supported router
VPN is one of the most common advanced features for home Wi-Fi routers released in the past ten years. For example, almost all routers from Asus, Netgear, D-Link, TP-Link, and others have this feature built-in.
Generally, to use a router’s VPN, you first need to set up Dynamic DNS, which I detailed in this post.
After that, use the router’s web interface, turn on the VPN feature, and create accounts for this feature. No matter what type of servers (protocol) you use, the setup on the server side is fairly self-explanatory.
By the way, a home router can handle three to 30 VPN clients simultaneously, depending on the model.
Now, set up the VPN connection using the information you’ve created on the client (remote) device.
Generally, this includes the Dynamic DNS domain name (address), VPN protocol, username, and password. Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android platforms have a VPN section that supports standard VPN protocols. With OpenVPN, you might need separate applications or apps.
Below are summaries of three popular VPN protocols (or types), including PPTP, L2TP/IPSec, and OpenVPN.
Short for point-to-point tunneling protocol, PPTP is the oldest among the three.
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 in 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.
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.
By itself, it has no encryption, 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.
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 a bit less practical. But if you want to be serious about VPN, this protocol is the best.
Some routers use the vendor’s proprietary VPN protocol, but most support one or all these VPN server types.
And in that case, you can set up one or all three on a single router. That allows you to pick whichever one to use when it’s most applicable. When you need a VPN connection, even an unsecured VPN is still better than no VPN at all.
By the way, some networking vendors simplify VPN into a mobile app for mobile users. 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 — more on them in this post on Instant Guard vs Teleport.
Considering how easy it is to have a VPN, there’s no reason not to use one when traveling.
Using your own VPN server is best, but it’s also OK to use a third-party service when necessary. In this case, don’t use it all the time, but only when applicable.
The rule of thumb is when you use a local network the security which you’re not sure about, like one at an airport or a coffee shop, it’s a good idea to use a VPN. Or when you need to access something not available to your current physical locale.
Using a VPN is somewhat like getting in and out of your home through a backdoor connecting to your neighbor’s house.
In this case, your privacy and security are safe from those stalking you at the front door but at the mercy of your neighbor. Your neighbor might or might not charge you for using their property but getting home this way sure is less convenient, among other things.
How often, or in what circumstances, would you choose this backdoor over your house’s front for “security” reasons in real life? And that’s about how often you’d need a VPN.
On the other hand, VPN sure is not necessary when you’re already in a safe zone, like a home or office network. 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.