22 common VPN terms explained

VPN related terms
VPN related terms (Image credit: Android Central)

It's essential to use one of the best VPN services to protect your privacy and data. Besides the security benefits, you also tend to gain some other advantages too, like avoiding geo-limitations or throttling by your ISP. However, it's a confusing world out there, and you might already be struggling to know what we mean. VPNs can seem baffling to figure out and understand precisely what you need from one.

Besides recommending the best VPN services to you, we've also deciphered much of the most commonly used VPN terms along the way. That way, you can understand exactly what you're getting involved in and what features may be most important to your needs. Our guide will also explain how VPNs can help you circumvent some common online issues you may not have considered before. Read on and you'll figure out so much more in no time.

Unsure of which VPN you should purchase? Surfshark and ExpressVPN are our favorites. ExpressVPN is the best overall pick for most users, while Surfshark offers a more affordable experience. You can't go wrong with either of them.


When you walk down the street, no one knows who you are. When you're browsing online, things aren't that simple. Anonymity in the context of the internet means that there's no way of tracing what you're doing online back to you and your IP address (more on that later). You're entirely anonymous with no virtual paper trail following you.


BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer (P2P) protocol used to download and distribute files over the internet. Instead of downloading a file from one central source, torrenting involves connecting to multiple users and downloading parts of each file from individuals. Once combined, it forms the complete file. It's generally a quicker way of downloading a large file because you are effectively crowdsourcing the data. If you don't use a VPN, your IP address is exposed to anyone involved in the process.

DNS Hijacking

DNS or Domain Name System is the name given to converting web addresses (like google.com) into a numeric IP address. Every website has an IP address but to simplify it; it converts to an URL/web address so you can easily remember it. DNS Hijacking is where a hacker intercepts your visit to a website, redirecting you to a malicious site under the guise of it being the one you were trying to visit. All good VPNs can prevent this from happening by creating a secure path between your device and the DNS server you want to visit.

DNS Leak

A DNS leak is where your attempt to visit a site 'leaks' out of the encrypted VPN tunnel that's meant to be protecting you. A good VPN service offers DNS leak protection so that your connection drops before this happens, ensuring no one can spot where you're visiting, even for a second.


Encryption involves converting data into an encrypted form so that potential hackers and threats can't figure out what it means. It's the best way to protect sensitive data and the addition of a VPN means that your sensitive browsing (such as when you want to check your online banking) is extra safe and difficult to decipher.

Five Eyes

Five Eyes is an intelligence alliance formed by Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The countries work together to collect mass surveillance data on possible security threats, circumventing laws that prohibit them from spying on their own citizens. The general rule of thumb is to avoid using a VPN provider that's based in one of these countries.


Streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are available worldwide, but did you know that each country has a slightly different content catalog? Using a VPN, you can dodge geo-restrictions that limit what you can watch, allowing you to watch shows and movies that wouldn't ordinarily be available in your country. Geo-restrictions also relate to governments that have a high level of censorship so users in those countries opt to use a VPN to circumvent geo-restrictions and be able to browse sites that their government has previously deemed as inappropriate or illegal.

IP Address

An IP address is a unique numerical address you're given by your ISP every time you connect to the internet. A VPN can mask your true IP address making it near impossible to trace your activities online back to you.

IP Leak

An IP leak is when your VPN connection briefly drops, and your true IP address is exposed to the website you're browsing. A good quality VPN offers IP leak protection so that this doesn't happen, and your entire connection drops for a moment if the VPN happens to quit for a brief time.

Kill Switch

Similar to IP and DNS leak protection, a Kill Switch is when a VPN cuts out your connection any time your VPN connection drops for some reason. By disconnecting you, your privacy remains secure until you choose to reconnect. It's a beneficial service that any good VPN will offer.

No Logs Policy

If you're trying to avoid being tracked or logged by your ISP, it stands to reason that you don't want your VPN service to collect logs on you either. All reputable VPNs offer a no-logs policy, meaning no information is stored on your browsing habits, the times you visit, or anything to do with the hardware you're using to browse online.


OpenVPN is an open-source software protocol that offers plenty of configuration options tied into VPNs. It's something you won't have to think about often as your VPN client will deal with the hard work. However, it's good practice to have a VPN that offers this protocol as it's so highly respected.


P2P is much like BitTorrent. It's a type of network in which computers or other devices can share files with each other rather than having to rely on downloading them from a central source. The vast majority of reputable VPN services support P2P, and it's worth pursuing it if you plan on downloading many files.

Port Forwarding

Your router acts as a gateway between your devices and the internet. At various points, it may need to forward certain traffic through specific ports and block out unwanted traffic from other ports. Typically, you only need to interact with port forwarding settings if you want to set up a gaming server or improve your torrenting speeds. Make sure your VPN supports this if you need it.


A protocol is effectively a set of security instructions for the VPN, so it knows how to deal with threats and keep you secure via encryption. There are multiple protocols and encryptions out there, including AES, PPTP, L2TP, OpenVPN, IKEv2, WireGuard, and much more.


In the context of VPNs, proxy server acts as a go-between between your computer and the internet. It's what makes it possible for your traffic to look like it's coming from a completely different source. Proxies aren't encrypted, so they're only really temporary solutions, while a VPN makes this process much more secure and encrypted.

Public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi is any Wi-Fi network that is open to everyone. Whether you're hanging around a library or a coffee shop, if the network is available to everyone, it means that it's far from secure. It's safe for casual browsing, but it's not sensible to check your online banking through public Wi-Fi as hackers can exploit the network reasonably easily. That is unless you have a VPN service set up and protecting your data along the way which stops them in their tracks.

Server Locations

All VPNs offer multiple server locations. This means you can choose to look like you're browsing from anywhere in the world. In conjunction with lifting geo-restrictions, this can be very useful when using streaming sites or circumventing censorship issues, but it can also simply show you different news stories on international news sites or provide you with varying speeds of connection.


Throttling an internet connection means restricting it in some way. ISPs may do this if they feel you're downloading too many files from a P2P service or simply using too much bandwidth at a peak time. VPNs can work in some way to limit throttling issues.


Tunneling or VPN tunnel as it's also known, is a term for the encrypted connection between your computer and a VPN server. The tunnel protects your data and privacy up to the other server you're trying to access. Think of it as a secure path each step of the way. Some VPNs like ExpressVPN and NordVPN offer a split-tunneling service so that your connection is split in multiple directions, making it even harder for a potential hacker to see your original location.

VPN Client

A VPN client is the software you use to connect your computer or smartphone to a VPN server. Most VPN services offer simple to use software so it's not hard to figure out.

VPN Server

The VPN service or provider runs a VPN server. It's used to help you connect to the internet via the aforementioned encrypted tunnel.

VPN Service

A VPN service is a company that provides VPN servers for you to use in exchange for a subscription fee of some sort. Companies like ExpressVPN, NordVPN and Tunnel Bear are all examples of VPN services.

We test and review VPN services in the context of legal recreational uses. For example:

1. Accessing a service from another country (subject to the terms and conditions of that service).

2. Protecting your online security and strengthening your online privacy when abroad.

We do not support or condone the illegal or malicious use of VPN services. Consuming pirated content that is paid-for is neither endorsed nor approved by Future Publishing.

Jennifer Allen