What is a VPN or virtual private network? The meaning explained

Dawna Roberts

Nov 24, 20235 min read

What is a VPN or virtual private network? The meaning explained: Header image

A VPN, also known as a virtual private network, is a powerful tool that can hide your location and protect you from various cybersecurity threats. Historically, VPNs were used exclusively when connecting to a workplace. Now, internet users of all kinds benefit from this added layer of security when using the internet.  

VPNs may sound mysterious, but they are really quite simple, and if you aren’t using one, you should be. Let this guide help you understand what a VPN is, how to use a VPN, and why it benefits you.

How do you define a virtual private network or VPN?

To define a VPN, a virtual private network is a service that encrypts all your online activity, keeping it safe and confidential. A VPN starts with an app or program that you turn on. It then connects to a remote server, providing you with protection against intruders and online attacks. While the VPN is turned on, all your data is encrypted. 

What is the meaning of a VPN?

A VPN extends your home or office network to other locations by creating an encrypted tunnel that is hidden and inaccessible to anyone other than you. All your data is encrypted from your device to the connected server or application you are using. It’s like driving through an underwater tunnel. You’re safe and sound inside the tunnel while the danger stays outside. 

What does a VPN do?

One of the most commonly asked questions about VPNs is, “What is a VPN, and what does it do, anyway?” 

Anytime you browse the internet or use applications on your phone, you’re not just making a quick, direct connection. Rather, requests travel from your device to a remote location by making a few stops along the way, bouncing off many remote servers. During this journey, bad actors who want to steal your information or money can sabotage or intercept it. 

A VPN, on the other hand, connects you directly to a highly secure server, which routes your traffic to your final destination through an encrypted connection. 

The VPN hides your IP address and assigns you one from a remote location so that hackers cannot determine your exact location or IP and break into your private network. 

VPNs protect location data and IP address
Image by Pexels

Types of VPN connections

The term VPN is broad and covers many different types of VPN connections, some of which you may have heard of, and others may be new to you. Here are the most common types of VPN connections. 

Remote access

A remote access VPN is a closed connection, usually between an employer and an employee. The purpose is so that the employee can log on security to the company’s server and access all its resources remotely. This type of VPN can help tremendously when traveling abroad, where some websites might be blocked. 

Cloud VPN

A cloud VPN safely connects users to a cloud environment over the internet. An excellent example is Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure. 

A screenshot of the Amazon AWS Cloud VPN.
Amazon AWS is a trademark of, Inc.

Site-to-site VPN 

A site-to-site VPN is a single, direct connection between two routers, often used by large corporations to connect satellite offices. They include both intranets and extranets. 

Mobile VPN

A mobile VPN works on a mobile device, allowing the user to securely connect to a private network or use internet resources safely. Typically, the user installs an app on their phone and then connects through their wireless network. 


An SSL VPN (secure sockets layer virtual private network) uses an SSL protocol to secure the connection between the user and the network. Web services employ SSL connections by encrypting all data that passes through the website, keeping users safe.

A screenshot of an SSL VPN.
Google Chrome is a trademark of Google LLC

PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol) VPN

The PPTP VPN is one of the oldest and simplest forms of security. It encapsulates data packets sent between two computers and secures them. It doesn’t require any special hardware or software but is considered less secure than other VPNs. 

L2TP (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol) VPN

L2TP is an advanced form of PPTP with an additional layer of security and a robust encryption algorithm. 

Open VPN

OpenVPN is an open-source application that also encapsulates data between two computers. It’s highly flexible and secure, allowing users to securely access databases, email, and websites. 

Why do you need a VPN? What does it do for you?

Today’s modern, digitally focused world requires us to use online resources for almost everything. You cannot be safe enough online. A VPN can help keep all your information safe and secure and give you peace of mind that your online activities will remain private, as they should. Here are some of the benefits of using a VPN. 

Use public Wi-Fi safely

Logging on to a public Wi-Fi network at your local coffee shop, the airport, or a hotel is unsafe unless you use a VPN. Hackers often use unsecured Wi-Fi to commit man-in-the-middle attacks.

With a VPN, you could sit at Starbucks sipping your latte safely and log onto your bank account without worrying about anyone stealing your credentials. 

Mask your IP and location

Cybercriminals can use your IP address to break into your home network and wreak havoc on your life. A VPN masks your IP address and makes it appear that you are logging on from a completely different location, so hackers cannot track you. 

Anonymous browsing

It seems like everyone is tracking everyone online these days for marketing and other purposes. With a VPN, you can browse the internet anonymously without worrying about who is spying on you. 

Avoid content restrictions

Some countries block access to things like Netflix and other streaming services. Even when you travel, you can use your VPN to connect to and use these services without interruption. 

A screenshot of how to stream Netflix with a VPN.

Avoid identity theft

VPNs give you an extra layer of security to keep all your private information safe and secure, no matter where you browse or what games or apps you use. They can also help you avoid nasty cases of identity theft, which are tricky to bounce back from. 

VPNs are another valuable resource in your cybersecurity toolbox that you can use to stay safe. They are inexpensive and easy to set up and use. Most importantly, the added protection they give your information online is priceless. 

Dawna Roberts Dawna Roberts
Dawna has spent her entire career in web dev, cybersecurity, and IT. Her work has been featured on Forbes, Adobe, Airtable, Backblaze, Cyberleaf, Lifewire, and other online publications for the past ten years.