What is a VPN and How To Use One?

Authored by: Support.com Tech Pro Team

1. Introduction

In This Guide

You'll Learn:

  • What a VPN is.
  • Why a VPN may be used.
  • Types of VPN services.

2. What Is A VPN

What is a VPN?VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. A VPN is a private connection, over the existing connections you are using. This is sometimes referred to as a 'tunnel' or 'bridge'.

In very simple terms, a VPN connects your PC, smartphone, or tablet to another computer (called a server) somewhere on the internet, and allows you to browse the internet using that computer’s internet connection.

Why use a VPN?

In most cases, you would use a VPN to connect to another computer (called a server) to access a service or feature that's not available, not secure, or not safe to access using your current internet connection.


If you work from home, you may use a VPN to access workplace resources. While at work, your workplace computer(s) will have access to many services, such as email or shared files, that are not, and should not be available to everyone on the Internet. Using a VPN connection allows you to securely connect your home computer to a work computer (server) to gain access to those workplace resources from home.


There are numerous reasons you may choose to use a VPN service with your personal computer:

  • Bypass geographic restrictions on websites or streaming audio and video.
  • Watch streaming media like Netflix and Hulu.
  • Protect yourself from snooping on untrustworthy Wi-Fi hotspots.
  • Gain at least some anonymity online by hiding your true location.
  • VPN 'home' when you are out and about to securely access files stored on your home computer.

Some VPN services allow you to 'move locations', or set your connection to appear like it is geographically located in a certain part of the world. This can provide access to geographically-blocked or limited websites. If you are restricted or afraid of censorship in one place, you can connect to your VPN service securely, and enjoy fewer restrictions on your browsing habits, as it appears your connection is coming from someplace else, rather than your actual location.

Using a VPN connection can also cause certain websites to provide services differently. It's common for airlines and cruise services to track access, and increase the price when they can tell you are interested in their services. That tracking fails when you 'move' your connection using a VPN; to their servers, it's a new connection from a new user. 

3. Types of VPN

There are two main ways a VPN is implemented.

Software VPN

This is the most common, and the one almost all Consumer VPN services will provide.

The VPN service will offer a separate piece of software that is installed and run on your computer to create a VPN connection, or may provide instructions on using the built-in features of your computer's Operating System. Once the VPN connection has been established, all the communication between your computer and the internet is routed automatically through said VPN connection, instead of your internet provider.

While it can be a bit confusing at first, most VPN services make the process of setting up their particular service easy with simple step-by-step instructions, or a simple program you run to perform the entire connection process for you.

Hardware VPN

While not very common, Hardware VPNs are sometimes a preference for businesses who have work-from-home employees.

There's no configuration or setup that needs to be performed on the computer itself. Rather, you plug in a special router that's pre-configured with all the required VPN information, and then connect your computer to that special router. This makes it incredibly easy to setup, but harder to 'move' later. You cannot use this type of service at a coffee shop or from a hotel Wi-Fi most times, for example.

4. VPN Services Setup and Use

Setting up a VPN greatly depends on the services you purchase, and the company you choose. Just like there are hundreds of different companies, each one will have a slightly different way their VPN service works, and the services each provides.

General Setup

Business VPN

If your company has asked you to VPN into their network, their systems administrators will provide you with all the instructions, login information, and hardware necessary to connect properly.

Reach out to your company's internal help desk for assistance in setting up the VPN connection to your company's network.

Personal VPN

Again, each and every service is unique. In general, once you purchase their services, the VPN service will provide a download link to their client software. After installing, you use the Username and Password you setup with the VPN service, and connect.

Alternately, the VPN service may provide detailed, step-by-step instructions on exactly how their services work, and how to use the built-in networking tools of your computer to connect.


Once connected, you can expect to use any services you'd normally use.

For a business VPN, this means your mail, internal web pages, and other programs should work just like you're in the office.

For Personal VPN services, you can browse the web as you normally would. When you browse the web using a VPN connection, your computer contacts the website through the encrypted VPN connection. The VPN forwards the request for you and forwards the response from the website back through the secure connection. You don't have to worry if someone is trying to 'listen in' on what you're doing, because VPN traffic is encrypted; anyone who sees it will just see a nonsense jumble of random characters, keeping you safe and secure.