Decided it’s time to use an expat VPN? Good choice – you’re about to enjoy a freer and more unrestricted Internet + extra security.
But we’re willing to bet you’re not 100% sure what a VPN actually is, how it works, and how you need to use it. There’s no shame in admitting that – we know that most online articles don’t explain VPNs too well.
So if you’re looking to learn more about VPNs, you came to the right place. This VPN beginner’s guide will teach you everything you need to know about these tools.
What is a VPN? (basic definition)
A VPN is a simple tool you can use to hide your location (by masking your IP address) and secure your traffic (by encrypting your connections).
VPNs can help you:
- Unblock geo-restricted
- Bypass firewalls and government censorship.
- Protect your data against hackers.
- Stop bandwidth throttling.
And much more, but those are the highlights.
How does a VPN work?
A VPN works like a middleman – it sits between you and the Internet. All your online traffic first goes through the VPN before it reaches its destination (the sites you want to access).
Here’s a quick sketch to show you how a VPN connection looks like when you access Netflix:
Because your traffic is routed that way, any website you access will only see the VPN’s IP address (so, your IP is hidden).
And when VPNs route your traffic through their servers, they encrypt it. Nobody can decipher it – only the VPN app and server can decrypt it. If a hacker or government surveillance agency were to spy on your encrypted VPN traffic, they’d only see gibberish (like HGhgtrew4FHgfs54ge4F, for example).
How do you use a VPN?
You’re probably thinking you need to deal with complicated setups and apps.
Well, don’t worry – using a VPN is nothing like that!
Instead, you just have to subscribe and create an account. Then, you download the VPN provider’s app for your device. Next, you follow the installation instructions to quickly install the app (it won’t take more than one-two minutes). And, finally, you run the app and connect to a server.
And that’s it! Once you connected to a VPN server, you can securely browse the web and unblock any content you want.
Hint : When you want to unblock sites, always connect to a VPN server that’s in the same country where the site you want to access is available. For instance, if you want to unblock BBC iPlayer, use a UK VPN server.
Are VPNs legal?
Yes. Well, they’re legal in most countries, at least. To be honest, even countries that block VPNs (like China) don’t actually make using a VPN illegal.
All in all, you don’t generally need to worry about getting in trouble with the law because you’re using a VPN. Just don’t use it to do anything illegal – that’s definitely against the law.
However, keep in mind some services might ban you if they catch you using a VPN. For example, Steam’s TOS say that using a service like a VPN is against the rules.
Are VPNs free?
Yes, there are free VPNs. However, we really don’t recommend using them.
Because they’re simply not as good as paid VPNs. The main drawback is that they’re very slow. It’s usually because their servers are often overcrowded.
Another big problem with free VPNs is that they use bandwidth caps. For instance, a free VPN might limit you to around 2 GB of data per month. Watching HD videos on Netflix consumes around 3 GB per hour. And playing some online games eats up anywhere between 50 and 100 MB per match. Obviously, a bandwidth cap won’t let you do much with the VPN.
Besides that, here’s why else you shouldn’t use a free VPN:
- They have buggy apps that crash often.
- They spam you with ads a lot.
- You barely get any customer support.
- They might log and sell your data.
- They might expose you to malware (especially random free VPNs on Google Play).
Will VPNs slow down your speeds?
Yes, they will do that. It’s because they encrypt your traffic, so it becomes “heavier.” Due to that, it takes longer for it to travel between the VPN app and the VPN server.
Also, if you use a VPN server that’s pretty far from your location, that will contribute to the slowdown too. Again, data packets will take longer to arrive to their destination.
Another problem is if you use OpenVPN. It’s a very secure protocol, but it’s also pretty slow. It’s single-threaded, meaning it only uses one CPU core. Due to that, it slows down your speeds.
But don’t worry! There are plenty of things you can do to increase your VPN speeds. Here are some methods we tested which worked really well for us:
- Instead of OpenVPN, use WireGuard. It’s a very fast protocol. If it’s not available, try IKEv2/IPSec or L2TP/IPSec.
- If possible, connect to a VPN server that’s close to your location. If the VPN has a large server network, it should be easy to find a nearby server.
- If the VPN app displays the server load percentages, use that to your advantage. Only connect to servers that have low load (aren’t overcrowded).
- Try using a wired connection instead of WiFi. If the WiFi signal is too weak, your VPN speeds will be slow. You can get a long ethernet cable so that you don’t have to sit next to the router.
- If the VPN has split-tunnelling, use it to only route the traffic you need through the VPN. If it has to encrypt/decrypt and route less data, your speeds will be faster.
- If you have non-essential web-connected background apps running, turn them off.
The bottom line
VPNs are extremely simple tools any expat can use to improve their online experience. We did our best to cover this topic in-depth and also make it easy to understand. If you have more questions, please drop us a line in the comments.