Ask A Nerd: What’s A VPN?

VPNs have become increasingly popular over the past few years, and it seems like everyone is using them these days – but what in the world is a VPN anyway?


VPN stands for “Virtual Private Network”, which doesn’t exactly make it easier to understand what it is or does, but we have to start somewhere.

A VPN is used to secure your online connection to the Internet so that your browsing information becomes anonymous, and your activities are hidden. But why would you need your browsing to be anonymous?

Well, let’s start with going over how your Internet connection works. All of our devices (smartphones, computers, printers, etc.) all have what’s called an IP Address. Your IP address is like a virtual home address and can be used to track online activity back to a single user or network. A VPN essentially replaces your IP address with one provided by the VPN service and even lets you can choose from a variety of locations. So although you may be sitting in a Starbucks in Los Angeles, as far as your connection goes you’re browsing online from Moscow. Being able to do this is handy for a few reasons…



Are you ever on public Wi-Fi networks? At the airport, a coffee shop, etc.? VPNs help to keep you safe when you’re connected to networks whose security you don’t control. By masking your connection, VPNs make sure that there aren’t prying eyes watching or monitoring your online activity when you’re connected to a public network. The VPN does this by encrypting all of your activity and communications, which doesn’t happen when you’re connected normally.


We’ve all been there – downloading something on a torrenting app. Whether the contents of the download are legal or illegal, torrenting can get dicey and the last thing you want is to end up on a corporate watch list because of your downloading habits. VPNs are a no-brainer when it comes to downloading – they mask your IP and encrypt all of your activity which means that you can download anonymously to your heart’s content without big brother’s watchful eyes seeing what you’re doing.


If you love to travel, VPNs can be incredibly useful. Many countries use IP addresses to impose content geo-restrictions – changing the content you see from location to location. Sometimes they block users from going to certain sites like Skype, Facebook, or YouTube. So let’s say you travel to Austria but popular Austrian TV isn’t really what you’re into – you can use a VPN to connect to a remote VPN server and appear to be connecting to Hulu from New York City, let’s say, and get all your favorite American Hulu shows and movies.


Not all VPNs are created equal – the VPNs out on the market can differ greatly for a lot of reasons, but here’s a quick list of things to look for:

  • Virtual Locations: Remember that the location you are using is very important if you’re trying to unlock geo-restricted content. So always make sure that the locations your service offers are the ones that will do the trick.
  • Device & Operating System Support: Many of the most popular VPNs offer support for just about any device and OS, but make sure that you check before you buy that yours is supported.
  • Price: Price varies widely with VPNs so do your due diligence and make sure you’re paying for what you want and getting all of the features, subscription length you need.
  • Speed: Often VPNs can slow down your connection depending on the service, make sure you research the VPN you’re about to purchase and see what people have to say about the speed/lag.

Whether you’re concerned about online safety, downloading, or just curious, having a VPN is easy to install – usually just installing some simple software, a username and password – and can save you from a lot of headaches down the road.