A virtual private network, or VPN, can hide your IP address and encrypt your online activity. Using one can help make your personal information and data more secure. However, not all VPNs are created equal. Be sure to choose a reputable VPN, like the one we offer, that includes key features such as a kill switch, ad blockers, and split tunneling.

Virtual private networks, also known as VPNs, first emerged in the mid-90s.

Initially used mostly by businesses to protect their data, VPNs have since become mainstream. Today, they play a crucial role in online privacy.

But how does a VPN work exactly, and how do you know if you need one? Find those answers and more in this article. 

How does a VPN work? 

A VPN is a service that hides your IP address, encrypts the data you send online, and sends that information through private channels.

Public networks, like the free Wi-Fi at the coffee shop, can be easy ins for hackers and thieves, who may be able to see what you enter while using the shared connection.

But if you connect to the internet through a VPN, your online activity — including usernames, passwords, and credit card numbers — will be scrambled into a code in a process called encryption, which adds a layer of protection.

Does a VPN hide your location?

Internet service providers (ISPs) assign devices like laptops, smartphones, and tablets an individual identification number, called an IP (which stands for “internet protocol”).

This number serves as a locator in the same way your physical address does. In fact, IPs carry geotags that indicate the few-mile radius around where you log on.

A VPN hides your IP address and prevents such tracking. Because once you install VPN software and establish a safe internet connection, the VPN assigns its own IP address to your device.

As a result, your true IP address will remain hidden while you’re browsing the web. Your internet service provider, along with other nefarious outsiders, will see the VPN's IP address instead of your own.

And since IP addresses include geotags, this hides your general geographic location, too. 

Does a VPN encrypt data?

The information you send online moves through the internet in what experts refer to as data packets. If you don’t connect to a VPN, any data packets transmit openly across the wide-open web (e.g., your login credentials, bank account numbers, and more) —  where they can be intercepted by cybercriminals.

But with a VPN, data travels via a private route — nicknamed a "tunnel.” And even before your data embarks on this private journey, it undergoes encryption and encapsulation.

Encryption scrambles your outgoing data into what looks like gibberish. From there, the scrambled data gets packed into a protective capsule in a process called encapsulation. Once a capsule safely arrives at its intended destination, a decoding key breaks it open and restores your data to intelligible content.

All of this happens automatically while you're using the internet through a VPN, without interrupting your online experience.

Do I need a VPN?

It could be argued that anyone can benefit from using a VPN. Even so, there are three sets of users who could stand to gain the most from using a VPN.

For starters, a VPN is helpful for people who wish to protect their privacy online. This is particularly important for anyone who regularly uses public WiFi or other unsecured networks.

Additionally, VPNs can help those who wish to stream games and other content securely, which is particularly helpful for avid gamers and those who wish to avoid buffering issues.

And lastly, VPNs can also be used to help businesses protect their company data. Since the normalization of remote work, many require employees to log in to a VPN before they can access business data.

VPN vs. Incognito mode

You may already know that dark browsing (also known as “incognito mode”) offers some level of privacy, too. Incognito mode lets you browse online free of cookies, so your web browser won’t keep a record of the web pages you visit.

However, your IP address can still be tracked and shared with third parties when in incognito mode — so it’s not as secure as a VPN. Likewise, your general geographic location is detectable and can be shared when solely in incognito mode. 

Are VPNs safe?

It’s important to note that not all VPNs are created equal, and those offered for free may be risky.

For example, internet providers may sell your browsing data, including what you search, the sites you visit, how long you spend on social media channels, etc., to advertisers — and many free VPNs do the same.

The best VPNs go beyond IP cloaking, encryption, and tunneling. Some VPNs, including the one that we offer, include advanced features like the following:

  • No-log policy: So your online browsing is neither tracked nor stored in the VPN’s log. 

  • ISP throttling protection: ISPs lower your bandwidths when online traffic gets congested in a specific geographic location (called throttling). Throttling affects your download speeds and can create lag — which can affect streamers, gamers, video conferencing, and more. VPN protocol selection allows you to choose IPs associated with alternate geographic locations and thus escape throttling. 

  • Split-tunneling: Some traffic can be routed through the VPN, while other traffic goes directly to the public internet. This way, users can access the internet with the security and privacy of a VPN, while also being able to access unencrypted websites or services that are not available through the VPN.

  • Kill switch: If your VPN connection drops, a kill switch immediately disconnects you from the internet, so you never get exposed. 

  • Ad-blocking and anti-trackers: No tech completely protects you from targeted ads, social media tracking, and third-party data profiling. But using a VPN will cut down significantly on each of those.

How can I tell if my VPN is working?

The fastest way to check your VPN status is by looking at your IP address before and after connecting to a VPN.

Note your disconnected IP address, then log in to your VPN and check again to see if that address changes. You'll know the VPN is working if it does.

You can find your IP address by visiting What Is My IP Address or checking your system preferences.

How to get a VPN

No security measures can completely shield you from cyber snoops. All told, though, a VPN is a great tool to have in your online safety arsenal.

Select Allstate Identity Protection plans include a military-grade VPN that works on both desktop and mobile devices. If you're a member, check your account dashboard at any time to see if your plan includes our cybersecurity features, which include our VPN, and start the activation process.