How-To Guides: Intermediate

A Complete Guide to VPNs

By Jinia Shawdagor | May 26, 2021

Using a VPN for privacy and security is an added layer of protection to your digital assets. Here we discuss VPNs in greater detail if you decide that you want to go the extra step to protect your digital ecosystem.


A Guide to VPNs

Imagine sending a postcard to your uncle and having everyone at the post office read through your letter. Well, that is pretty much the equivalent of using the internet without a VPN as your internet service provider (ISP) and anyone capable of intercepting your traffic can see your browsing history.

Without a VPN, it’s easy for any website to pinpoint your location and determine what device you are using to browse the internet. Using a VPN can help you unblock content on websites such as YouTube, the BBC, and Netflix and stream content that is blocked in your location. You can also use a VPN to buy cryptocurrencies on exchanges outside your jurisdiction.

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a service that connects your device to the internet through an encrypted server or a network of servers in a process called tunneling to secure data privacy. Simply put, a VPN will prevent your ISP or any other third party from spying on your online activities.

It is similar to sending your postcard in an envelope with a seal.

How does a VPN work?

To understand how VPNs work, let’s first take a look at how your device normally connects to the internet. When you go online, your device normally connects to the modem either via an Ethernet cable or a Wi-Fi connection.  It is the modem that then connects to the network of your internet service provider (ISP).

During the interaction between your device and the internet via your ISP, packets of data are exchanged back and forth from the websites you are visiting and your device. These data packets give off a lot of information about your precise location, your browser history, and other input information through your device.

Since your ISP is the intermediary between your device and the internet, your ISP has access to this information. Other malicious actors can hack your ISP’s network and gain access to your private online information. Furthermore, with access to your location, a website can restrict access to certain types of content.

A VPN creates a secure network or a VPN gateway that comes between your device and the internet. Therefore, all the data packets sent back and forth between your device and the website you visit goes through the VPN where it is encrypted.

The data encryption process

Data encryption is a process of encoding digital messages or files such that the message is only visible to authorized parties. The process uses complex encryption algorithms that scramble the data making it unreadable for any onlookers on the network. When the data is received by an authorized party, a decryption process is initiated to make the message readable once again.

The VPN works by re-directing the packets of data sent from your device to a server controlled by the VPN Company. This is where the data is encrypted and decrypted then sent to its intended destination. Therefore, the VPN allows you to appear as if you are connecting to the internet from a location different from the actual location you are browsing from.

Reasons to use a VPN

Some of the main reasons for using a VPN include security and access. You might need a VPN to bypass firewalls that restrict access to content based on locality as is the case with Netflix, YouTube, and other media platforms. A VPN can help you bypass local network restrictions especially when governments decide to restrict access to specified websites. 

Administrative institutions exercising geo-blocking or government censorship check your IP address to determine your location. A VPN covers up the true identity of your IP address allowing you to have unlimited access.

A VPN is also useful for protecting your data online. If you want to prevent your ISP from monitoring your online activity or hackers from spying on you, a VPN’s encryption service is a decent method of keeping your online data private. 

How to set up a VPN

Most VPNs have a simple setup process. Some VPNs have made it much easier even for cryptocurrency enthusiasts to pay with crypto and verify accounts with an email address. While the steps might vary from one VPN service to another, here are the exact steps to expect while setting up your VPN.

Step1: After you have picked the VPN service you want to use, sign up with your email and make the payment if it’s a paid service. 

Step2: Once your payment is verified, you will receive an email with a link to your VPN client software download.

Step3:  Your VPN dashboard will vary depending on the VPN service you pick, however, most feature an intuitive user interface that will allow you to set a location and pick a server from a network of servers around the world.

Step4: To confirm that the VPN is working, head over to and check that your IP address is redirected by the VPN.

What are the best VPNs?

VPNs come with all sorts of features however, the best VPNs feature a good number of reliable servers and connectivity protocols to choose from. The best VPN also needs to suit your specific need as some people only need a VPN for occasional browsing while others need a VPN to download heavy files. While some VPNs are free, the best performers come at a price.

Here is a look at some of the best options out there.


ExpressVPN’s best feature is its intuitive user interface. A lot of VPN reviews attest to its superior performance when it comes to streaming and bypassing geo-restrictions. This VPN service comes with a speedy app that is compatible with a variety of devices and operating systems including Windows, iOS, Linux, and Android. You can use the VPN on multiple devices including your home router, game consoles, and your phone. Despite its capacity to handle any purpose, ExpressVPN leans more on the pricier side when compared to alternatives. The good news is that you can test their services for free and determine whether it’s worth your while thanks to a 30-day free trial.


If you are looking for a cheaper alternative to ExpressVPN, the NordVPN service is something you should look at. Not only is NordVPN one of the most popular VPNs out there, but the service also comes with tons of servers that deliver incredible speeds. Some of the extra features to expect to include a kill switch and a choice protocol that allows you to choose between speed and safety. Although NordVPN was subject to a publicized data breach in 2018, the company has since taken steps to remedy the situation with military-grade encryption that keeps your data safe.


As the name suggests, OpenVPN is an open-source VPN service that can be used by anyone for free. While this is its strongest quality, it’s also its greatest weakness as anyone (both good and bad) can exploit its weaknesses. The good news is that there are no reports of mass data breaches concerning the service to date, therefore, establishing the VPN as one of the most secure open-source protocols available. Its open-source nature has made it accessible across all devices, platforms, and operating systems today. Its strongest feature is the fact that it comes with an unbreakable 256-bit key encryption which is the industry’s highest level of encryption. 

What to consider while choosing a VPN

Apart from ease of use and price, there are several important considerations to have in mind while picking a VPN for your needs. 

Router and Internet connection

While VPNs allow you to keep your data private online, they come at the price of reduced internet speeds. If you have a slow internet speed, you can expect the addition of a VPN to slow down your speeds by about 10 percent or more depending on a variety of factors. 

Choosing a server on the VPN network that is closer to your actual location is an easy solution to maintaining relatively higher speeds. 

The speed of your router also determines the speed of your internet when your VPN is on. While regular internet users will hardly notice the difference, using a higher speed router can give better results especially for heavy internet users.

Privacy and security policies

Even though VPNs are capable of providing degrees of privacy and anonymity online depending on their features, none provide 100 percent anonymity or privacy. While a VPN can mask your IP address to hide your identity and location, your device’s MAC address can be used to reveal your identity. Furthermore, anyone can track the accounts you have logged into to determine your true identity. 

That is why it is important to check the privacy policy of a VPN service provider and understand the level of privacy and anonymity that the service affords you.  Since the VPN service has access to your true identity, some VPN companies have been known to give third parties access to their customer’s data. 

Be sure to check through a VPN’s logging policy as it will indicate whether that VPN service stores your data and traffic history. Despite a “zero logs policy” by most VPN service providers, it is important to read through a VPN’s logging policy as it will detail out the reasons for your VPN’s collection of data and the overall level of privacy to expect from the VPN. 

Is the VPN service audited?

Most VPN companies use proprietary software that can’t be independently analyzed. This means that the VPN Company can potentially add a back-door to their software allowing government institutions such as the NSA access to your data. Furthermore, the VPN Company can track you with cookies and give third parties access to your traffic for online surveillance. 

While reading through lengthy privacy policy terms can be time-consuming and boring, you can check to see whether the VPN service you pick is independently audited.  NordVPN for instance is audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers AG and the audit is available to NordVPN users.


Are VPNs legal?

Unless you are in China, Uganda, or Russia, to mention only a few, using a VPN is perfectly legal in most jurisdictions. Here is a list of countries that outlaw the use of VPNs with an additional list of countries taking steps to illegalize the use of VPNs.

Countries where VPNs are illegal

  • Venezuela
  • Turkey
  • Iraq
  • China
  • Oman
  • Belarus
  • Uganda
  • Iran
  • United Aram Emirates

The following countries are taking steps towards illegalizing the use of VPNs

  • North Korea
  • Cuba
  • Syria
  • Vietnam
  • Egypt
  • Turkmenistan
  • Myanmar

Will a VPN slow down my internet connection?

Unfortunately, a slower internet speed is one of the cons of using a VPN. The process of protecting and tunneling your traffic through an encrypted network ultimately slows down your internet speeds. However, you can mitigate the effects of using a VPN by boosting your broadband and using a faster computer and router. You can also connect to VPN servers that are closer to your location.

Should I go with a free VPN?

While free VPNs are popular and decent enough for occasional use, they tend to have limited servers and much lower speeds than paid services. In most cases, a free VPN will limit your connectivity to a single browser and you will not be able to change to a different server when your internet speed plummets. Furthermore, there is a reduced degree of privacy and security on a free VPN as most free VPNs will compromise data privacy for advertising income. 

Is there a difference between a VPN extension and a VPN app?

There isn’t much of a difference between a VPN app and a VPN extension. While a VPN app is software you can download on your phone a VPN extension is installed on your browser.  Both tools will give you the same access to your VPN client dashboard.

Will other people know that I am using a VPN?

Your ISP provider will know that you are using a VPN however, they will not have access to your browsing history. Some websites designed to detect VPN users will also know that you are using a VPN server however VPNs are increasingly becoming sophisticated with improved methods of server obfuscation.

Final consideration

With the increased centralization of the internet not to mention online censorship, VPNs are becoming a necessity rather than an option. For instance, if you are a Bitcoin investor in the US, you might want to use a VPN to bypass geo-blocking on crypto exchanges that keep US citizens from trading cryptocurrencies.

However, beware that VPNs have drawbacks. For instance, using the same IP address as other users on the VPN network can link your device to some shady activities of other VPN users. Plus, you have to blindly trust your VPN service provider as they can still have access to your traffic.