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What is a VPN?

VPN, or virtual private network, is a secure tunnel between your device and the internet. VPNs protect you from online snooping, interference, and censorship.

VPN explained in 90 seconds

What is a VPN? And what can you do with it?

A VPN (virtual private network) is the easiest and most effective way for people to protect their internet traffic and hide their identities online. As you connect to a secure VPN server, your internet traffic goes through an encrypted tunnel that nobody can see into, including hackers, governments, and your internet service provider.

ExpressVPN encrypts your entire internet connection.

Consumers use VPNs to keep their online activity private and ensure access to sites and services that might otherwise be restricted.

Companies use VPNs to connect far-flung employees as if they were all using the same local network at a central office, but with fewer benefits for individuals than a personal VPN.

Benefits and advantages of VPN

Change your virtual location: Woman placing location pins on a globe.

Change your location

Using a VPN changes your IP address, the unique number that identifies you and your location in the world. With a new IP address, you can browse the internet as if you were in the UK, Germany, Canada, Japan, or virtually any country, if the VPN service has servers there.

Hide your online activity: Man taking a privacy mask off a rack.

Protect your privacy

Changing your IP address with a VPN helps hide your identity from websites, apps, and services that want to track you. Good VPNs also hide your activity from your internet provider, mobile carrier, and anyone else who may be listening, thanks to a layer of strong encryption.

Secure your data with a VPN: Woman at a computer with a green lock icon.

Increase your security

Using a VPN protects you from hacking in many forms, including packet sniffing, rogue Wi-Fi networks, and man-in-the-middle attacks. Travelers, remote workers, and all kinds of on-the-go individuals use a VPN whenever they’re on an untrusted network like free public Wi-Fi.

Unblock restricted content: Woman unlocking a padlock on browser.

Unblock websites

If you’re in a part of the world that restricts access to Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, or other sites and services, using a VPN will let you regain access to the free internet. You can also use a VPN to break through firewalls on school or office networks.

When should I use a VPN?

If privacy is important to you, you should use a VPN every time you connect to the internet. A VPN app runs in the background of your device so it won’t get in the way while you use other apps, stream content, and browse the internet. And you’ll have peace of mind knowing your privacy is always protected.

But here are some situations in which a VPN is especially useful:

Get the internet you expect: Traveler using a smartphone in an airport.
While traveling

Exploring the world doesn’t mean you have to change the way you use the internet. A VPN lets you use the internet as if you were still in your home country, no matter how far you travel.

Enjoy the content you want: Man streaming TV and music.
While streaming

Using a VPN lets you watch movies and TV on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and HBO with freedom from ISP throttling or blocking by your ISP or local Wi-Fi network.

Stay safe on public Wi-Fi: Man using a tablet in a coffee shop.
While on public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi hotspots like those in cafes, airports, and parks are common hunting grounds for cybercriminals. Using a VPN on your devices stops hackers in their tracks.

Game better with a VPN: A video game player holding a controller.
While gaming

Using a VPN unlocks games, maps, skins, and other add-ons that might be restricted on your network. It also shields you from DDoS attacks and reduces ping and overall lag.

Download anonymously: Man torrenting.
While torrenting

P2P file sharing usually means that strangers can see your IP address and possibly track your downloads. A VPN hides your IP address, letting you torrent safely and anonymously.

Get lower prices: Woman at a desk on a desktop computer.
While shopping

Some online stores show different prices to people in different countries. With a VPN, you can find the best deals in the world no matter where you’re shopping from.

How does a VPN work?

To understand how a VPN works, it helps to first understand how your internet connection works without one.

Without a VPN

When you access a website without a VPN, you are being connected to that site through your internet service provider, or ISP. The ISP assigns you a unique IP address that can be used to identify you to the website. Because your ISP is handling and directing all your traffic, it can see which websites you visit. And your activity can be linked to you by that unique IP address.

With a VPN

When you connect to the internet with a VPN, the VPN app on your device (also called a VPN client) establishes a secure connection with a VPN server. Your traffic still passes through your ISP, but your ISP can no longer read it or see its final destination. The websites you visit can no longer see your original IP address, only the IP address of the VPN server, which is shared by many other users and changes regularly.

A laptop user connecting to the internet while protected by a VPN.

Here are several key concepts related to VPN that will help you understand how a VPN works and the benefits it provides:

Proxying

The VPN server acts like a proxy, or stand-in, for your web activity: Instead of your real IP address and location, websites you visit will only see the IP address and location of the VPN server.

This makes you more anonymous on the internet.

Authentication

Establishing a secure connection is a tricky problem solved by clever mathematics in a process called authentication.

Once authenticated, the VPN client and VPN server can be sure they are talking to each other and no one else.

Tunneling

VPNs also protect the connection between client and server with tunneling and encryption.

Tunneling is a process by which each data packet is encapsulated inside another data packet. This makes it harder for third parties to read in transit.

Encryption

Data inside the tunnel is also encrypted in such a way that only the intended recipient can decrypt it. This keeps the contents of your internet traffic completely hidden, even from your internet service provider.

Learn more about VPN encryption.

VPN protocols

VPN protocols are the methods by which your device connects to the VPN server. Some protocols are better for speed, some are better for security, and some simply work better under certain network conditions.

Speech bubbles with different VPN protocols.

Most VPNs use a standard set of protocols, but ExpressVPN built Lightway to outdo them all in speed, reliability, and security. Give it a try to see for yourself. Learn more about Lightway.

ExpressVPN automatically chooses the best protocol for your network, but you can also choose one manually.

Popular VPN protocols in use today include:

See all VPN protocols

*ExpressVPN does not support WireGuard.

**SSTP has been obsolesced by other protocols and is no longer supported.

Types of VPN

Woman turning on VPN on a tablet.
Commercial VPN

A commercial VPN, also called a personal VPN or a consumer VPN, is a private service offered directly to individuals, usually for a fee.

ExpressVPN is such a VPN service because it directly caters to the privacy needs of its customers.

Man in a suit looking at graphs on a tablet.
Corporate VPN

A corporate VPN, also called a business VPN, allows an organization’s remote employees to connect securely to the internet as if they were physically present in the office.

Unlike commercial VPNs, however, corporate VPNs are meant to protect the privacy of the company and not necessarily the individual.

Man using tools on a CPU.
Self-setup VPN

Some tech experts and DIY hobbyists choose to set up their own VPN using their own equipment.

Self-setup VPNs, however, do not provide the protection of shared IP addresses, server locations in multiple countries, or many other features enjoyed by commercial VPN users.

Alternatives to VPN

A VPN isn’t the only tool that can increase your privacy, security, and/or freedom online.

Tor onion symbol.

Tor

Tor (short for The Onion Router) is a free network of servers, or “nodes,” that randomly route internet traffic between each other in order to obfuscate the origin of the data.

Using Tor can significantly increase your anonymity, and using Tor in conjunction with a VPN creates the best possible protection from surveillance.

The biggest drawback of Tor, however, is speed. Because your traffic is relayed through several hops, you will probably find it inconvenient to stream, download, or torrent with Tor.

A man using a proxy server to connect to the internet.

Proxy services

A proxy server is any intermediary between your device and the internet. Unlike a VPN, however, most “proxy services” you’ll find are quite slow and don’t offer any privacy or security benefits.

So-called “free proxy services” are especially dangerous, as many will find other ways to monetize your data, like selling it to third parties.

Neither Tor nor a proxy service can replace the benefits of a VPN. A trustworthy VPN is still the best privacy solution for most people.

FAQ

How do I choose a VPN?

Why should I pay for a VPN?

Are VPNs legal?

Can I use a VPN on mobile? Why would I want to?

Will a VPN slow down my internet?

How do I get and use a VPN?

Step 1

User signing up for ExpressVPN.
Sign up for ExpressVPN

Visit the order page and select the option that’s right for you. All of our plans are fully covered by our 30-day money-back guarantee.

Step 2

Green shields with checkmarks on an assortment of devices.
Download a VPN app

You’ll immediately be invited to download the app for the device you’re using. Getting apps for all your other devices is just as easy.

Step 3

Globe showing VPN server locations.
Connect to a VPN server location

Simply hit the On Button, and you’ll be instantly connected to the best location for your connection. Or pick one from our global network.

Learn more about VPN

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No activity logs

ExpressVPN does not see or record what websites you visit

Learn more

Man on chair with laptop.
Encrypt your data

Strong encryption protects your data and communication

Learn more

Women unlocking padlock on browser.
Unblock websites

Access your favorite web services and defeat censorship

Learn more