A Beginner’s Guide to VPN Features and Geek Speak

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You probably already know a bit about VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) and what they do. Maybe most of the people you know use them to bypass geo-restricted content, like the US Netflix library. In addition to giving you access to geo-restricted content, however, VPNs also help you surf more securely by keeping your banking details safe from hackers. They also help establish a private connection by creating an encrypted tunnel that hides your online traffic from your ISP (internet service provider), and thus from marketers and governments as well.

So you finally decide to get a VPN, and begin to scour the internet for the best option for your needs. However, you keep coming across terminology that’s somewhat beyond you. What’s the meaning of all those features and technology that different VPNs are equipped with? Do they matter to you? Well, to answer this question you first need to understand them.

In this article, we’ll guide you through all the main VPN features and geek speak related to VPNs, so you can know exactly what’s being offered. We’ll explain the meaning of Double VPN, a kill switch, zero-log VPNs, cloaks, and everything else that’s left question marks hanging over your head.

VPN Features Explained

Let’s go over the most common and important features one by one. Understanding the VPN geek speak should help you choose a VPN best tailored to your needs and preferences.

What is a Double VPN?

Double VPN, also known as double-hop, multi-hop, nested, cascading, or chained VPN, is the process of getting your internet traffic encrypted twice instead of once, as your data goes through two VPN servers rather than only one. If someone wants their data encrypted even more than twice (going through more than two servers), it’s also possible – and that’s what’s generally referred to as cascading VPNs.

When you use a single VPN, your outgoing and incoming data is encrypted to prevent third parties from deciphering it. The VPN server replaced your IP address with its own IP, so websites you visit can’t track you. Double VPN adds a second layer of protection, by taking your data through a second VPN server and thus a second encryption process. The idea behind using a double VPN is if one security (encryption) key is hacked (compromised), the second one will keep your data safe from third parties.

If you’re thinking about getting a double VPN, we recommend you opt for a nested double VPN, which means that the data gets encrypted twice on the end user device (your device). NordVPN is our top choice when it comes to double VPN, and uses this sort of nested technology.

Do you need a double VPN? Probably not. If you’re really looking to amp up the security and anonymity through thicker layers of protection, you may want to consider signing up for two different VPNs. That way, one VPN server will only see your device IP, and the other one will only see your internet activity. NordVPN recommends its double VPN feature to people under heavy surveillance, like journalists or political activists living under oppressive regimes.

What is a Kill Switch?

A VPN kill switch, also known as an internet kill switch or a network lock, is a VPN feature which serves as a safety net in case your VPN goes down for some reason.

When you surf, your VPN is constantly working, encrypting all the data that goes from and to your devices. This means that if your VPN goes down, you’d be left unprotected in your online activities.

This is where a kill switch enters the picture: if your VPN connection drops for some reason, a kill switch automatically disconnects you from the internet until your VPN connection is restored. You can also choose to manually turn off the kill switch, which means that your internet connection will resume uninterrupted regardless of whether you’re connected to the VPN or not.

Most VPNs offer one overall desktop kill switch, but some options also offer this feature on mobile apps as well. Additionally, some VPNs offer a selective kill switch (like NordVPN), which allows you to choose which apps to shut down.

What’s the Difference Between OpenVPN TCP and OpenVPN UDP?

OpenVPN is the most widely used VPN security protocol that allows secure point-to-point and site-to-site connections by establishing a tunnel between VPN clients and VPN servers. The software is open-source, so most VPNs use it and sometimes tweak it for various purposes.

Now, most VPNs will offer OpenVPN TCP and OpenVPN UDP options. TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) and UDP (User Datagram Protocol) are two different ports that OpenVPN can run over. So what’s the difference, and which should you choose?

TCP, also known as the ‘stateful protocol’ is generally the preferred OpenVPN protocol as it’s more reliable and secure. It offers error correction, which means that the delivery of all data is confirmed and guaranteed. However, this protocol is slower due to its higher encryption methods.

UDP, also known as the ‘stateless protocol’ is less reliable and doesn’t guarantee the delivery of packets. However, it is faster than TCP. You can alternate between the two by generally using TCP, but switching to UDP when you need speed for streaming, p2p downloading (torrenting), or gaming.

What is a Zero-Log (No-Log) VPN?

A zero-log or no-log VPN is a provider that doesn’t keep any logs of your online activities and the personal data that get transmitted through the network. Usually, your browsing data and so on gets stored only temporarily on the VPN’s server before being erased. This will both keep your data private from the VPN provider and also keep your data safe from governments. Namely, if a VPN is based in the US, government law enforcement agencies can force them to disclose your personal information by serving them with a subpoena. However, if your data is already deleted, it will do them little good.

Keep in mind, however, that while you should opt for a zero-logs VPN provider, they don’t guarantee foolproof anonymity and there are always some logs being kept, although these are usually non-identifying logs. You should check out the privacy policy and any privacy FAQs provided by your VPN of choice.

For instance, some non-identifying logs that a paid VPN provider may track are:

  • Login times
  • Active sessions
  • Type of device

Some identifying logs that a paid VPN may track are:

  • IP address

You can take some further steps to mask your identity by using a burner email address when you sign up and paying through an anonymous billing method (cryptocurrency, Mint card, etc.).

We strongly advise that you avoid using a free VPN, as they keep a lot of logs of your online activities, including:

  • Your IP address
  • Which website you visited
  • What files you downloaded
  • And other private information.

What is Split Tunneling?

VPN split tunneling is a useful feature that allows you to be selectively connected to your VPN based on apps and devices. Basically, with split tunneling you can choose which apps and devices go through the VPN and which don’t, so they’ll be directly connected to a public network, like the internet.

Split tunneling can be useful when you want to be connected to both foreign and local networks. So let’s say you’re connected to a VPN server in another country, but at the same time you want to access a YouTube video which is only available in your country (due to geo-restrictions). Split tunneling will allow you to remain connected to your VPN overall, but it will be inactive for some apps or devices.

One advantage of split tunneling is that you can get a faster internet connection for some local tasks or activities, and conserve more bandwidth (as using a VPN eats up additional data due to the additional encryption protocols). A disadvantage of using split tunneling is that it leaves your device more vulnerable to attacks. Additionally, any online activity you do outside your VPN connection will be visible to your ISP.

If you want split tunneling, you may wish to consider ExpressVPN as it offers this feature. They also have inverse split tunneling, which allows everything except some devices or apps to flow outside the VPN.

What is VPN Obfuscation?

VPN obfuscation (meaning to make something obscure), sometimes referred to as ‘cloak’ or ‘cloaking technology’ is a method that hides VPN traffic and makes it appear as regular traffic. Usually, when an ISP looks at your metadata, they can tell that you’re using a VPN. And while using a VPN is fine and legal in most countries, this isn’t the case everywhere. In countries where VPN use is banned, obfuscation technology will hide the fact that you’re using a VPN in the first place, making the VPN protocol seem like regular internet traffic. For instance, the Stealth VPN protocol is used to make encrypted VPN traffic appear to be the usual HTTP traffic.

Some VPNs that come with a cloak are SurfShark, NordVPN and  ExpressVPN.

A Few Words Before You Go…

There – now you’re equipped with the knowledge to venture into your numerous tabs and compare the different features offered by various VPN providers. And this time around, you’ll know exactly what they mean.

Knowing what each of these features can bring to your private online activities can help you choose the right VPN provider.

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