There is a disturbing trend in the VPN industry. The increased demand for online privacy and anonymity propelled the market growth. To stay relevant and competitive, many companies make false claims they provide complete anonymity and zero logs.

In reality, however, users get tricked by tech mumbo-jumbo whereas providers offer minimal – or no – transparency on the technology they use, or how they handle user data.

I compiled the following list of VPN Frequently Asked Questions with the aim of not only helping beginners sort out the basics of VPN but also casting light onto the common myths and untruths about VPNs.

Note: Before we get any further, there is one thing you should know – a VPN does not make you anonymous. It will improve your privacy provided you choose the right service. But a VPN is by no means a tool for illegal activities.

What is a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network is an online service that encrypts and tunnels your Internet traffic through its server. With a VPN:

  • Your Internet Service Provider can’t see what you’re doing online.
  • You can spoof your location, i.e., appear as if connecting from another geographical location.
  • You can bypass state censorship and access websites and services banned in your country.
  • You can access geo-blocked streaming and gaming services.
  • You can circumvent employer- or school-imposed restrictions.
  • Patent trolls won’t be able to track you.
  • You can enjoy P2P.
  • Hackers preying on unsecured public Wi-Fi hotspots won’t be able to intercept your traffic.

Where Can I Get a VPN?

To use a VPN, you need to subscribe to a VPN service. Prices differ, and many providers offer free trials. On average, expect to pay $4-$12 per month – long-term plans usually offer significant discounts.

Browse my Reviews section for a detailed breakdown of the VPN providers before making your decision.

Note: You still need your ISP-provided Internet connection to use a VPN.

Are VPNs Secure?

It depends on your threat scenario. If you want to access streaming and gaming services like Netflix, Hulu, or Steam US libraries, a VPN alone is enough. Likewise, if you use public Wi-Fi frequently, you’re safe with a reliable provider.

On the other hand, if you need to avoid state surveillance, you shouldn’t rely on a single privacy tool to protect you. A combination of a VPN, Tor browser, The Onion Router, or I2P is necessary to isolate one layer of security from another. With that in mind, you should understand that even advanced setup won’t help if state surveillance targets you.

If you need a VPN for online privacy, you want to investigate a prospective provider’s background, especially their jurisdiction, applicable data retention laws, privacy policies, and customer feedback.

A lot of countries ban VPNs (think China, Thailand, Russia, Saudi Arabia). In places like these, you can get in trouble for only using a VPN. You don’t want to be selling VPN access in such countries.

How to Choose a VPN?

Choosing a reliable provider with good work ethic is hard work in and of itself. Due diligence is inevitable. So, consider:

  • Privacy and Logging – All VPNs promise privacy and anonymity. However, there are ways to tell the truth from lies. See below for more information on privacy and zero logs.
  • Security – The provider must explain the technology used to ensure your secure browsing. Is OpenVPN supported? How good is encryption?
  • Cross-platform – If you plan to use VPN on various devices, desktop, and mobile, inquire into the availability of native apps. If there is no native app, will you be able to set up the open-source OpenVPN client?
  • Simultaneous Connections – How many devices do you plan to connect to VPN simultaneously? Does the provider allow multiple simultaneous connections, and if yes, how many?
  • Speed – Test, test, and test. Speeds, when using a VPN, differ greatly and depend on a variety of factors – your ISP speed, the location of remote servers, server load, and more.
  • Server Coverage – Check if the provider offers ample server coverage in the country into which you need to spoof.
  • Tech Support – Is live chat available 24/7? This is vital if you lack technical skills.
  • Free Trial – Sometimes, a brief trial is enough to see that a VPN doesn’t meet your requirements. Many providers offer free trials (several hours to several weeks).|
  • Money-back guarantee – Many providers have no-questions-asked money-back guarantee; others apply draconian restrictions on their refund policies. Always read customer feedback – some providers ignore such requests even though their ToS promise a rock-solid refund.

The criteria for choosing a decent VPN are many. Some users want access to Netflix US, and that requisite will govern their choice. The above are just a few factors you want to consider before you subscribe to anything.

What Does “Zero Logs” Mean?

You need to understand the difference between usage logs and connection logs.

Connection Logs:

  • Metadata about your connection, such as
  • The time you connect to a VPN
  • For how long you are connected
  • How often you connect to a VPN
  • Amount of data consumed

Usage Logs:

  • Your online activity while connected to a VPN
  • Websites you visit
  • Identities you use

See the difference? Usage logs are the most compromising. Some providers keep connection logs for a limited time (a few hours to three days), which is a reasonable practice for troubleshooting.

Note: If a provider does not even mention deleting connection logs – steer clear.

Do I Need to Read a VPN’s Privacy Policy?

You want to ask providers a series of critical questions to see if they are transparent, or pinpoint if something seems off. So, yes, you need to read the document.

Many providers claim to keep zero logs while in reality they are tracking and profiling their users.  Often, the lengthy Privacy Policies and Terms of Service (ToS) weave a complex web of shady legalese that does explain the extent of logging they deploy. In this case, providers hope users never read them. But since you agree to the ToS and Privacy Policy, you can’t blame the provider for lying.

In other words, it’s your job to read the fine print. Also, if security is a priority for you, make sure to read in-depth reviews before committing.

  • A decent VPN company is transparent about its logging practices and wipes the logs regularly.
  • Consider that in some countries, law enforcement can compel a zero-logs provider to record data on a particular user.
  • Avoid providers based in the Fourteen Eyes countries.

Other questions you should consider:

  • For how long does the company retain logs?
  • What personally identifiable data does the company retain?

How Credible are VPN Reviews?

You need to understand that VPNs are businesses that navigate in an unregulated online realm. Some engage in quite shady marketing strategies, where cash flowing through sponsored reviews and affiliate programs to bloggers and major websites inflates their ratings.

Competition in this business is anything but healthy. So you want to be critical of reviews and charts on the mainstream news outlets.

How to tell if a review is not trustworthy:

  • It praises a provider with a known track record of selling out its users.
  • A review gives a high score to a company that is criticized by security experts or is under investigation.
  • A review is too positive and lacks reasonable criticism, or sounds like an ad.
  • If a major website keeps rotating the same big-name providers in every single roundup.

Tip: One reasonable and trustworthy review is never enough, though. Browse for user feedback on Reddit or GitHub; ask a tech-savvy local community.

A Good Read: Beware of False Reviews – VPN Marketing and Affiliate Programs  

Am I Anonymous When Browsing Through a VPN?

No.

Many providers advertise complete anonymity online. What they’re not telling you is:

  • Their ToS and Privacy Policy contain the fine print that suggests logging.
  • Their Privacy Policy states “we don’t log” without going into the detail.

Example:

Hotspot Shield website:

Hotspot Shield Privacy Policy:

Also, you have no way of knowing how credible a zero-logs claim is, especially since running a massive IT infrastructure with NO logs is impossible.

Remember:

  • A VPN does not make you anonymous but greatly increases your security and privacy online.  
  • A VPN provider usually knows who you are and what you’re up to online.
  • So, if privacy is a concern, you want to choose a transparent vendor.

Additional things to consider:

  • Data retention laws – in many countries, law enforcement can compel a company to log user activity and hand it over to authorities. So, you must be aware of where the company is headquartered and what laws govern its customers’ data.
  • Switzerland, Romania, Seychelles, Hungary do not require that providers keep user logs.
  • VPN companies that focus on privacy will accept gift cards, cash, or Bitcoin, and will not require your real name, phone number, address, or banking details.

Good Reads:

What Are the Basics Of VPN Encryption?

Besides masking your IP address, a VPN also protects your data by encrypting it. In layman terms, encryption is data conversion from plain text anyone can read to cipher that can only be read by authorized users.

Encryption does not prevent hackers from intercepting your data. Instead, it makes your data unreadable.

To encrypt your data, a VPN uses protocols – PPTP, L2TP, OpenVPN, SSTP, and IKEv2. While these are quite technical, you should know that:

  • OpenVPN is the current golden standard for all privacy wonks out there.
  • Avoid PPTP at all costs.
  • L2TP IPSec is not recommended for use on mobile devices.

A Good Read: Don’t Use L2TP IPSec, Use Other Protocols.

What is a VPN Kill Switch?

A VPN connection might occasionally fail even with a reliable provider. When the VPN connection drops, your real IP address is revealed. To prevent the occasional connection drops from exposing your data, many VPN providers embed a kill switch into their software.

A VPN kill switch shuts down all your Internet connection whenever your VPN drops out and until the VPN connection is re-established.

Alternatively, some VPNs come with a firewall solution that can be configured to act as a kill switch for particular programs instead of shutting down all Internet connection.

What Is Smart DNS?

If the only reason you need a VPN is to bypass geo-blocks from the likes of Netflix, and you couldn’t care less about privacy or security, you’re good with Smart DNS:

  • It’s cheap.
  • The speeds are fast.
  • There is nearly no learning curve with Smart DNS.

The technology behind Smart DNS is much simpler than in the VPN:

  • No encryption.
  • Supports most Internet-enabled devices, even those that can’t run a VPN client (Smart TVs, gaming consoles).

Commercial VPNs vs Free VPNs

You’re better off with a paid subscription because if a provider’s customer base is 90%+ free users, their monetization model is based on tracking you and selling your data.

Many reputable VPNs offer free limited accounts to entice users into subscribing to their paid plans. For instance, if you need a VPN once in a blue moon, you might as well make do with such a limited account.

If you intend to use VPN on a daily basis, consider paid subscriptions.

Are VPNs Legal?

In most Western countries – yes.  In countries with authoritarian regimes – no.

Currently, a host of countries in the Middle East, as well as countries with authoritarian, pro-Muslim regimes, have banned the use of VPNs.

China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, India, Turkey, Iran, Russia, Thailand, and another couple of dozen of countries have banned VPNs. In these countries, using a VPN is illegal, but selling access to VPN can land you a prison sentence.

Is Torrenting Through a VPN Safe?

If a provider explicitly permits P2P, and lists servers that support torrenting – you’re good. Do run a few security checks for DNS leaks to make sure your VPN does not leak your real IP address.

When you are torrenting, everyone downloading the same file can see your IP. With VPN enabled, they will see your fake, VPN-provided, IP.  

So, VPN providers routinely receive copyright infringement notices. Some providers will hand over the customer details of infringing users. Others may just disconnect repeat offenders.

Some companies “silently ignore” DMCA notices. If you want to engage in P2P, look for the latter.

What Are Patent Trolls?

Another reason why you don’t want to leak your real IP while torrenting is patent trolls. These are law firms that monitor popular torrenting websites and track down copyright offenders to charge them monumental fines.

You don’t want to engage in file-sharing without a VPN in countries with strict anti-piracy laws – Germany, Japan, USA, UK, France, and others.

What Can’t VPNs Do?

While VPNs improve your online privacy and security, they can’t:

  • Provide complete anonymity.
  • Prevent websites you visit from tracking you (cookies, browser fingerprinting, beacons).

Am I Safe When Using Public Wi-Fi Hotspots with a VPN?

In most cases, yes.

VPNs encrypt the traffic between your device and VPN servers. So, hackers won’t be able to read your data. If you happen to connect to a fake Wi-Fi hotspot some entrepreneurial hackers set up in public places, and they manage to intercept your traffic, all they will see is encrypted gibberish.

Why Do Connection Speeds Drop When I Connect to a VPN?

First of all, to use a VPN you need to have a stable Internet connection with your ISP. You can’t have a Dial-Up connection.

Assuming your base connection speeds are decent, some factors may affect your speeds when you connect to a VPN:

  • If you use an encrypted connection, such as OpenVPN 256-bit AES, your speeds will drop because encryption requires processing power and time. The stronger the encryption, the greater is the speed drop.
  • If you connect to servers located at a great distance from where you physically are, your speeds will drop even greater. The further the server, the slower your speed.
  • If you connect to a nearby server, your speed drop should be minor.
  • The server you’re connected to is loaded (too many people using it at the same time).

In some cases, your speeds may improve with a VPN if a provider has a large server coverage with ample bandwidth.

Tip: Connect to a VPN server that’s closest to a) your real location, b) the location of the service you need to access.

What is a Warrant Canary?

In the US, and beyond, some warrants come with gag orders that prohibit the provider from warning its users about the served warrant. A security expert Bruce Schneier dubs Warrant Canary a legal hack that helps providers notify their users.

A Warrant Canary is a web page some VPN providers maintain to publish information about secret subpoenas from law enforcement. If Warrant Canary is regularly updated, the provider has not been receiving subpoenas. Otherwise, the users are to assume the provider has received a subpoena.

Good Reads:

Wrapping Up

A VPN is a must-have tool if you want to protect your right to privacy. Providers are many, but with due diligence, you can really find a reliable – and affordable – VPN service. For a few bucks a month, you can protect your devices from getting hacked, and stop your ISP from snooping on you.

Don’t treat VPN as a panacea to all online threats and mass surveillance. It’s just a capable technology everyone should be using in these rough dystopian times.

I hope this guide helps you sort out the basics of VPNs and the VPN industry as a whole. Feel free to list your questions, if you have any. I’ll do my best to answer them as impartially as I can.