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How Does A VPN Work?

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If you ever wake up at night in a cold sweat and wonder if someone is keeping tabs on you online, you might want to invest in a virtual private network (VPN).

Many people have heard about and use VPNs but don't really understand much more than how to turn one on. So, how exactly does a VPN work? Read on to learn about the basics of VPNs to maximize your online security and privacy.

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What Is a VPN and How Does It Work?

VPNs are tools designed to protect your sensitive information and safeguard your privacy while you're connected to the internet. They hide your Internet Protocol (IP) address, which is a string of numbers that represents each device connected to the internet. This address is responsible for directing requests and data to their intended destinations.

IP addresses are pretty convenient — the internet as we know it depends on them — but they also present some problems. Because an IP address represents your device, anyone who knows it can trace it to find out your browsing history, what you're doing online and even your physical location.

VPNs offer a solution to this issue. A VPN reroutes your online traffic through its servers, concealing your IP address and encoding your data.

The Basics of VPNs (Virtual Private Networks)

Downloading and installing a VPN is no more difficult than doing so for any other software application. Most VPNs are compatible with all major operating systems, including iOS, Android, Windows, Mac and Linux, so you're likely covered no matter your preferred system.

Of course, people don't go after this technology just because it's simple to use, but because of its benefits when using the internet. These include:

  • Hiding your physical location: VPNs ensure hackers, stalkers, government agencies or anyone else can't decipher where you are.
  • Protecting your privacy: You can surf the web in peace, knowing your activity isn't monitored or tracked by an outside party.
  • Accessing geo-blocked content: You can watch movies, listen to music or play video games your provider would otherwise block due to your location.
  • Stopping targeted ads: Advertisers can't bombard you with targeted advertisements when they can't track your online activity.
  • Keeping cybercriminals at bay: VPNs can prevent hackers from accessing and using your personal information against you.

How VPNs Work

VPNs streamline a series of complicated technical processes behind the scenes to establish a secure and private connection. Fortunately, you don't need a Ph.D. in programming to use this technology or understand its basics. With just a little know-how, you can surf the internet with a VPN like a pro.

Establishing a VPN Connection

To initiate a VPN, the first thing you have to do is connect it to the internet. This shouldn't be more complicated than tapping the connect button, clicking a designated area of your screen or toggling a virtual switch.

The VPN will connect to your internet service provider and then locate the nearest VPN server. Once the connection has been established, you can use the internet knowing that your online activity is kept safe from prying eyes. Still, at this point, the process has just begun.

Encryption of Data

Encryption is what protects your data from being intercepted by third parties. VPNs scramble your data, making it impossible to decipher unless you have the encryption key or password. With encrypted data, you don't have to worry about cybercriminals getting their hands on sensitive information like your passwords or credit card numbers.

The best encryption available is AES-256, also called "military-grade encryption," because it's the most reliable technology available to protect top-secret data. AES stands for Advanced Encryption Standard, with the numbers after it representing the encryption key's length. The key can be 128 bits, 192 bits or 256 bits — the higher the number, the longer and more complex the encryption key is.

The best VPNs use AES-256 to encrypt your data before sending it to its servers. This means anyone trying to monitor or access your information won't know what it is, nor will they know who or where you are.

Data Transfer Through a Virtual Tunnel

After the data is encrypted, it's sent to the VPN's server. Even though your data is already encrypted, VPNs use a tunneling protocol to transport your data, which adds an extra layer of security. This technology wraps your encrypted data inside other data, creating a secure tunnel that stretches from your device to the VPN server.

Decryption at the Server Level

At this point, your encrypted data reaches the VPN server. The VPN then sends your request to whatever corner of the internet you were trying to access, whether that's another server, an online service or a website. Most VPNs will not look at your data during this process as part of their privacy policy.

Rerouting the Data

Finally, the request you made reaches its destination. Let's say you're trying to watch a hilarious cat video posted on a website — a fairly innocuous activity, but let's roll with it.

The VPN server gets your request and asks the website for the data to watch the cat video. The website has no idea who is asking for this information behind the guise of the VPN server. When the VPN server gets a response from the website in the form of data for the cat video, it codes that data with AES-256 encryption and sends it to you through another encrypted tunnel.

Although this process sounds lengthy, it all happens in a few moments at most. You'll see the website load shortly and the cat video will begin to play before you know it.

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Do VPNs Really Work?

Subscribing to a reliable VPN provider will allow you to surf the web with greater security and privacy. This is feasible by encrypting the data your device sends and receives — which can protect you against cybercriminals — and concealing your IP address.

A VPN will also allow you to view content from other regions of the world — as long as its servers haven't been blacklisted by your streaming service.

Is There a VPN That Works with Netflix?

If you're not getting a VPN for greater privacy and security online, chances are you're getting it to access geo-blocked content. Geoblocking is when a service, such as Netflix, Hulu and Prime Video, limits the content available to users based on their location.

If your favorite TV show isn't available in your current location, all you have to do is choose a VPN server in a country where it does show up. Imagine said show is only available in France: Your VPN can trick Netflix into thinking you're in Paris or Lyon and give you access to everything French Netflix has to offer.

Bear in mind that circumventing your streaming service's geo restriction could breach your user agreement. In the case of Netflix, for example, the platform may detect that you are using a VPN and block your server's IP address. Your account won't be banned, but you won't be able to watch anything until you turn off your VPN or try out another one of its servers.

How Do I Know If My VPN Is Working?

Most VPN apps will indicate whether your internet connection is secure. Don't want to take the VPN at its word? There's another way to check your connection.

First, make sure your VPN is off and go to whatismyipaddress.com. This site will tell you what your IP address is and provide other information connected to your IP address, like the name of your internet service provider and the city, region and country you live in. Snap a picture or write down your IP address and related information.

Next, exit the website, connect your VPN and go back in (refreshing the page also works). If your VPN works, your IP address should be different from the one you wrote down. Any other information should also be different.

Why Won't My VPN Work?

Your VPN may not work because of connectivity issues involving your internet, firewall or antivirus software. You might also be having issues because your router isn't working correctly or you're not running the latest version of your VPN's software. Here are a few things you can check:

  • Does your firewall allow the use of VPNs?
  • Are you connected to the internet?
  • Do you need to update your VPN software?
  • Are your VPN settings configured correctly?

Contact your VPN provider's customer service if you can't solve the problem. A representative should be able to help you with specific issues.

Do VPNs Work on Phones?

VPNs work on phones and on multiple mobile operating systems. After you've installed the VPN's app and subscribed to the service, you can secure your connection with the tap of a finger.

VPNs also work on a variety of other devices. For example, you can download a VPN onto your desktop PC or Mac or as a browser extension. You can even install some VPNs on devices like a tablet, smart TV, PlayStation 5 and Amazon Fire Stick.

Do VPNs Work With Wi-Fi?

One of the main use cases for VPNs is stronger security in public Wi-Fi networks. Using Wi-Fi in cafes, airports and hotels without a VPN may allow other parties within the network to track your online activities and location or even stage cyberattacks on your device.

Although public networks may be easy to use and convenient, you're opening yourself up to some harmful possibilities, including:

  • Malware: Hackers can install malicious software on your device to steal your data.
  • Man-in-the-middle attacks: Cybercriminals can intercept your data by getting between you and another party.
  • Password hacking: Mock Wi-Fi hotspots can be set up to trick users and get their passwords.
  • Online account takeover: Hackers can use several tactics to take over your social media accounts and sell them.

Cybercriminals can perform other attacks through public wifi, so connecting to them with a VPN like Norton VPN can keep you protected.

Do VPNs Work with Cellular Data?

If you've tried to connect to a Wi-Fi network five times already and it won't work, you can use your cellular data and remain protected. While this may be a relief, you should know VPNs use more data than your device would otherwise. How much extra data gets used depends on your VPN, but some use up to approximately 15% — or more.

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How Does a VPN Router Work?

A VPN router works much the same as a VPN. The main difference is that instead of accessing the software on your device, the software is installed directly onto the router.

Using a VPN router means your entire network will share the benefits of your VPN. Anyone who connects to the internet through the VPN router will have their data encrypted and privacy protected.

Not everyone may need to use a VPN at home, and VPN routers usually aren't as beneficial for a single person, as you can download and subscribe to a VPN with much less hassle. But if you're running a business and want to ensure your online activity remains encrypted, a VPN router may be a worthwhile investment.

Summary of Digg's How Does a VPN Work

VPNs are excellent tools for protecting your privacy and data when surfing the web. These services encrypt your data, send it through a secure virtual tunnel, decrypt the data when it reaches the VPN server and then send the information to the website or platform you're trying to access.