How does a VPN work?

5 min


A VPN establishes a separate, encrypted connection between your device and the internet page or service you want to use. This means that others cannot see your sent and received data. It is also not possible for anyone to trace where you are. It’s as if a private tunnel that only you use, is being built every time you use it.

To do this, your device first connects to the server of the VPN service, which then functions as a gateway. This server ensures that your connection cannot be traced, and hides your IP address (your “telephone number” on the internet). An additional advantage is that the server can also adjust the country code of the IP address as desired, so that it appears to the server as if your requests come from another country. This way you can also bypass geo-blockades. Because if the American Netflix server thinks that your request comes from America, you get access to all content that is only available to Americans.

VPN Protocols

There are various protocols to establish a VPN connection. A protocol means: a number of technical agreements about how the devices communicate. Compare it with file formats: you need the right program to open a particular file. For an MP3 music file, you need a program that can play MP3.

Different protocols have different advantages and disadvantages. Some emphasize encryption, while others are merely an agreement on how the connection is established. The most common are:

  • IPsec / L2TP, Layer Two Tunneling Protocol: These two protocols together ensure a secure connection. IPsec takes care of the encryption, L2TP creates the tunnel between the client (i.e. the user) and the server. IPsec always uses UDP port 500, which in practice means that it is easy for network administrators, for example, to block this connection. In practice, this means that if you log in to a public WiFi network where port 500 is closed, you cannot use this VPN protocol.
  • PPTP, Point to Point Tunneling Protocol: This protocol is used less and less often, as it turned out to contain more and more security holes over time. The problem is that PPTP only sets up the tunnel between server and client, but hardly encrypts the data. We therefore do not recommend this protocol.
  • OpenVPN: This is an open source solution. Open-source means that the source code of the software is freely (and free) available, and therefore many people contribute to improve it. Open VPN, like Open SSL, uses certificates. This ensures that the server and the client know how the data is encrypted and how to decrypt it again. OpenVPN is one of the safest solutions for a VPN connection.
  • Softether: This relatively new protocol is open source, just like OpenVPN. So, it has the same benefits (free, and many people are working on improving it) but it hasn’t been around for very long. That does not mean that it is unsafe, just that it simply does not have such a long track record as OpenVPN, for example.
  • WireGuard: The latest protocol, faster and with higher performance than its predecessors. Not all experts were convinced that the security problems of this protocol would be solved, but VPN provider NordVPN has now adopted this protocol. NordLynx is the name NordVPN gave to this protocol, which WireGuard is the basis of.

In principle, you only have to use the provider’s instructions when setting up your device. It also takes care of the technical settlement. Once installed, you don’t have to worry about the technology.

What does a VPN do?

There are two main effects of a VPN. The first is to increase your privacy. All data traffic between your device and the world is encrypted and hidden. This is great if you want to make sure at home that your online behavior cannot be traced. This is especially important if you use the internet via a public WiFi connection. In the latter case, it is very easy for others to tap your data traffic and see exactly which sites you visit and what you do there.

VPN and internet speed

It is important to know that a VPN connection can lower your internet speed. All data is sent via the VPN server. Free services in particular don’t give you full bandwidth. Paid services give you more bandwidth, and the terms of your subscription tell you exactly what to expect.

How secure is a VPN?

A VPN makes your internet traffic almost untraceable to outsiders. That is very safe in practice. However, there are a few things to keep in mind.

To begin with, your data traffic is visible to the VPN provider. You log in with them so they theoretically know what you are doing on the internet. So that’s a trust issue, and on this site, we recommend VPN services that we believe are reliable.

Second, there is a chance that VPN services operating out of the United States will still have back doors to the US police and security services. This does not mean that all your data traffic is immediately passed on to the CIA, but the (small) chance is present.

Stay vigilant

And finally, using a VPN is no guarantee that you will never be hacked. So, make sure you always follow basic security rules, such as never using the same password twice and being careful when filling out forms or other “voluntary” forms of entering your own data. A VPN is also not a protection against “phishing”, in the form of fraudulent emails or WhatsApp messages that pretend to come from banks or governments.

A VPN therefore increases your security, but it remains important to be alert yourself!


A VPN ensures that you can use websites and online services anonymously and safely. The advantage is that your data cannot be tapped and you suddenly have access to many more services. You only have to set up a VPN once and then you can get started freely. Note that some (free) VPN services can reduce your internet speed and that you are never 100% safe from hackers or scammers. But still, a VPN can prevent many privacy breaches.


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River Scott

Emmett River Scott: Emmett, a culture journalist, writes about arts and entertainment, pop culture trends, and celebrity news.