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Install Norton Secure VPN to encrypt your online traffic, help safeguard your data, and access content.

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How does a VPN work? + Tips to use one effectively

Photo of a man and woman looking at a computer learning how a VPN works.

Keeping your online activity private should be high on your list of cybersecurity goals, and it must be if you’re reading this. A VPN can mask your physical location and IP address, as well as encrypt your online traffic. Learn how a VPN works, then download a powerful and reliable VPN app to help enhance your privacy and access the content you want.

How does a VPN work?

A VPN (virtual private network) encrypts the traffic between your device and the internet. To do this, it creates a secure VPN tunnel for your internet traffic to pass through when your device connects to a network. That helps to hide your IP address and keep your online activity private.

With a VPN, you can browse without worrying that a cybercriminal or hacker is watching you, send messages safely, and access your favorite content from around the world.

Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how VPNs work.

#1 Download a VPN

Choose a reliable VPN, like Norton Secure VPN. Sign up for the VPN service, then download and install the VPN onto your device.

#2 Turn on the VPN

Turn on your VPN. Some VPNs, like Norton Secure VPN, allow you to choose the server location at this point, which can make you appear to be from other places when you visit websites.

#3 The device and the VPN establish a connection

Your device will connect securely to the VPN server. Once it connects, the VPN begins encrypting traffic flowing between your device and the internet.

#4 Traffic is encrypted to securely surf the web

After you connect, all of your browsing becomes encrypted, meaning that no one else can see your online activity.

Illustrated chart explaining how a VPN works.

Advantages of using a VPN

While it used to seem like VPNs were tools primarily for hackers and journalists, everyone can benefit from one. Privacy or security and accessing content are some of the greatest benefits of using a VPN.

The advantages of a VPN include:

  • Masking your browsing history: VPNs help you block snoopers, companies, and advertisers from following your browsing activity and profiling you.
  • Hiding your IP address and physical location: Your internet browsing is your business. A VPN hides your IP address and physical location by directing the traffic from your devices to a network far away from you, making your browsing private and helping you access the content you want.
  • Stopping cybercriminals from watching your activity: If you’re using public Wi-Fi or an unsecured home network, cybercriminals could monitor your activity. They may be able to steal your login credentials from your mobile banking accounts and anything else you sign into online.
  • Protecting sensitive information: Even if you don’t realize it, you expose sensitive information every time you log onto a website through an unsecured network. A VPN keeps your sensitive information safe by masking your IP address and encrypting your traffic.
  • Sharing files securely: Whether working from home or sending files to family members, a VPN lets you send and receive files without worrying about a hacker holding your files for ransom or inserting malware.
  • Making online payments safely: A VPN helps keep your shopping activity private, making it safer to buy online.
Illustrated chart explaining the advantages of using a VPN.

What can I do with a VPN?

VPNs have many practical applications. Here are some common reasons to use a VPN:

  • Avoid location-based price discrimination: Many online retailers charge more in the United States than other countries. You can save money on goods, travel, and accommodation by setting your location to different countries.
  • Avoid bandwidth throttling: If you are streaming, gaming, or downloading many files, your ISP may decide to slow down your internet. With a VPN, they won’t be able to do that.
  • Secure your VoIP conversations: Internet phone calls aren’t always secure, but a VPN means your conversations stay private.
  • Access the internet safely when traveling: Depending on where you’re at, the internet may not be safe to use, especially if your only internet connection is public. A VPN lets you browse with less worry.
  • Avoid censorship: Some countries censor the internet. If you’re traveling and need help avoiding censorship, a VPN may help.
  • Improve your gaming experience: While VPNs can slow your connection a little, they can also create a more stable, secure connection that can improve your gaming experience.
  • Access content: VPNs let you choose which country your traffic is routed through, which can help you access your favorite content and sites. Make sure VPNs are legal to use wherever you are.
Illustrated chart explaining some of the things a VPN lets you do.

Are there any drawbacks to using a VPN?

While most VPNs provide you with a much higher level of cybersecurity than browsing without one, there are a few potential downsides to using a VPN:

  • Not all VPNs protect you from cookies on the websites you visit: While most cookies are safe, they can introduce vulnerabilities and are used to track your habits.
  • Cybercriminals have hacked VPNs: Cybercriminals can use zero-day exploits that haven’t been discovered or patched by some VPNs. That’s one reason why it’s essential to download the latest software updates as soon as they’re available.
  • VPNs are not created equally: VPNs come in many varieties. Some are free, and others have monthly fees. Free VPN services often collect information about you and target you with ads based on your online profile.
  • Some free VPNs sell your data to third parties: Free VPN users may have no control over whether or not their data gets sold. Cybercriminals have even set up free VPNs to harvest personal information.
  • Using a VPN can slow down your internet connection: While it might not be that noticeable most of the time, you may experience slower download and upload speeds, which can impact your streaming or gaming.

With growing demand and increasing availability of VPNs, including VPNs for smartphones and tablets, VPN services are likely to continue to get smoother and faster. Some VPN services also come with antivirus protection, giving you even more security and privacy online. For example, Norton Secure VPN is a built-in feature of Norton 360 Deluxe, which is a powerful suite of cybersecurity tools.

How do I get a VPN?

You can set up a VPN manually or do it the easy way by downloading a VPN app. Once you have the app installed, pick a server location (if the app permits this) and start browsing immediately.

Norton Secure VPN lets you pick which high-speed server you want to connect to, or you can let it auto-select the best region for you. It can give you access to your favorite content while traveling and block ad-tracking technologies to help prevent advertisers and others from tracking your activity online.

Types of security protocols

As we mentioned, not all VPNs are equal. While some function similarly to proxies, others mask online traffic using different protocols and architectures. Let’s look at some of the most common protocols, how they encrypt data, and how secure they are.

Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP)

PPTP was the earliest VPN protocol, first released in Windows 95. It’s fast, but that’s because the protocol provides a low level of encryption.

Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and Transport Layer Security (TLS)

SSL was a common encryption protocol for VPNs before 2015. It evolved into TLS for encryption of data traveling to an SSL VPN server. One of the reasons that SSL has largely been replaced in VPNs is the large number of vulnerabilities discovered in the protocol.

Secure Shell (SSH)

The SSH protocol isn’t user-friendly and doesn’t automatically encrypt all of your data. Plus, it’s more difficult for everyday users to configure. Fewer providers use this protocol, which limits your choices.

Internet Protocol Security (IPSec)

The IPSec protocol is highly secure and is useful for protecting inbound and outbound traffic. However, it can require a lot of processing power, affecting device performance.

It’s also not necessarily the safest protocol because cybercriminals have hacked some of the security algorithms used in IPSec in the past. Newer versions of IPSec use stronger, more complex algorithms.

Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP)/IPSec

L2TP is a VPN protocol that pairs with IPSec encryption. It’s available on most devices and operating systems and provides a high level of security. The downside? It can result in slower connections because it uses the double encapsulation process.

Internet Key Exchange, Version 2 (IKEv2)

This protocol is based on IPSec. Many consider it to be quite secure and fast, especially when compared to earlier VPN protocols. It can change encryption keys during a session to ensure security. One downside to using a VPN with the IKEv2 protocol is that firewalls can block it.

Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP)

This Microsoft-developed protocol is considered highly secure and easy to use, but it doesn’t work as well on platforms other than Windows. Created to replace the outdated PPTP protocol, it is secure, but compared to open-source protocols, it isn’t updated as frequently and works on fewer platforms.

Open VPN

This is the most popular VPN protocol. It combines high security and speed. Because it’s open source, numerous third parties maintain and update the technology. We use this protocol for our VPN, Norton Secure VPN. Download it now and start benefiting from bank-grade encryption.

Get a private VPN for safer surfing

VPNs give you a powerful layer of added security when you’re online. Norton Secure VPN uses bank-grade encryption and has a no-log policy, which means it doesn’t track, log, or save your browsing activity. Download Norton Secure VPN now and help reclaim your online privacy and access the content you want.

FAQs about Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)

Have more questions about VPNs and how they work? We have answers

Why doesn’t everyone use a VPN?

Most people don’t use a VPN because they don’t know what they are or don’t want to pay for one. But cybersecurity statistics show that more than 50% of people have been the victim of a cybercrime, so security and privacy should be a priority for everyone.

What is a no-log VPN?

A no-log VPN doesn’t collect and use the data you send through the VPN, such as the websites you visit or your downloads. Because people use VPNs to enhance their privacy, you might think all VPNs would be no-log VPNs. This isn’t always so.

Some VPN providers collect minimal user information, such as your email, but these exceptions to the rule should be available in the VPN provider’s privacy policy. Norton Secure VPN has a strict no-log policy.

Are there any VPNs that are always on?

Some VPNs have settings that turn the VPN on whenever you connect to the internet, while some devices, like Android, have global settings that turn on a VPN as soon as the device boots up.

Does a VPN give you internet?

A VPN is not a replacement for an internet connection — you still have to be connected to the internet to use a VPN. A VPN will provide you with a more secure connection to the internet than public Wi-Fi or networks at home or your job.

What is a VPN concentrator?

A VPN concentrator is designed to funnel multiple VPN tunnels to a secure network. Companies with remote workers spread across the country or globe will commonly use them. They can be expensive and difficult to set up and maintain, but as more companies go remote, VPN concentrators can help reduce security risks.

Clare Stouffer
  • Clare Stouffer
  • Gen employee
Clare Stouffer, a Gen employee, is a writer and editor for the company’s blogs. She covers various topics in cybersecurity.

Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. Our offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about Cyber Safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses. The Norton and LifeLock brands are part of Gen Digital Inc. 


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