Virtual private networks (VPNs) are increasingly essential security tools to keep your data safe and private. Whether for accessing streaming video, blocked social media, or to keep your information protected when using public Wi-Fi, using one has a lot of advantages. It’s definitely a good idea to know how to use a VPN.
However, despite the recent surge of VPN service providers and users, it is still something not everyone is familiar with. Things can get confusing too, with a multitude of VPN options, and various settings and features to deal with. To help with that, we take a closer look at how to use a VPN, and why you should!
What is a VPN?
Before we jump into how to use a VPN, you should probably know what they are. Instead of going into any intricate details, I’ll let Android Authority‘s explainer of all things, Gary Sims, handle it in this great Gary Explains video below.
How to use a VPN
For this tutorial, we’re going to use ExpressVPN as the main example. It’s one of the best VPN services around, and offers everything you would want from a premium VPN. Of course, there will be special mentions where other VPNs do things differently from ExpressVPN.
Most VPNs require an email address to sign up and get started. For ExpressVPN, it is also what you use to login to the various apps. Others, like PureVPN, either send you a username and password or let you set them up on your own. The service guarantees your email address is not shared or used for anything other than customer service. If you want more anonymity, you can always set up a dummy account too.
Multiple payment options are available with most VPNs, like credit and debit cards, Paypal, and Bitcoin. ExpressVPN and some others also include the option of payment wallets. NordVPN accepts cryptocurrencies other than Bitcoin, while PureVPN even lets you use gift cards from stores like Best Buy, Lowe’s, Sears, and more. Most people won’t struggle to find a way to pay that works for them.
Some VPN services, like Mullvad, take anonymity to another level by not requiring an email address to sign up. The service also encourages the use of cryptocurrency to pay for subscriptions, ensuring that the service has very little information about you.
ExpressVPN is compatible with most devices and operating systems. Apps are available for Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, and even BlackBerry OS, and they’re easy to download and install. It also offers helpful installation guides for setting the VPN routers up directly on Linux systems, and media and gaming consoles. Browser extensions are also available for Chrome, Safari, and Firefox.
ExpressVPN features one of the most robust lists of compatible devices and operating systems, but every VPN service will at least have easy-to-install apps for Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android. The VPN website will have download links for all compatible devices, and Android and iOS apps can be found on the Google Play Store and Apple App Store respectively.
Almost every VPN service offer apps for the common operating systems that people use — Android, iOS, Windows, and MacOS. However, if you are looking to set up a VPN on routers, gaming consoles, and other devices, you’ll have to make sure that the VPN you choose supports them.
Connecting to a server
Once you download and install the app on your device, getting started is really simple if you don’t want to mess around with the settings or server location. Most apps will have a prominent connect button you can tap to starting using the VPN. The server closest to you, or the one the app picks, will offer the lowest latency and fastest speed. If you’re just looking to keep your online activity and information private, that will be the best option.
Some users may want to know how to use the VPN server in a specific country. For instance, you will have to connect to the right US server to access Netflix’s US catalog, Hulu, and other streaming services, or the right UK server for BBC iPlayer. Another consideration is torrenting, since not every location or server may support it. It’s always important to know every aspect of how to use a VPN, even if you don’t plan on using it much.
ExpressVPN automatically picks a “smart location” for you — it’s the server with the lowest latency and highest speed. If you are looking for something specific, tapping the “Choose Location” button brings up the full list of servers available. Once you figure out what the best servers are for your needs, you can favorite them so they show up at the top of the Recommended page.
VPN services like PureVPN and CyberGhost take the guesswork out of how to use a VPN by picking a server completely with their “Mode” and “Purpose” lists. If you want to watch videos on Netflix US, all you have to do is select the “Stream” mode and pick Netflix on the purpose list. The app will then make the best choice for you, which is ideal for first-time users.
Settings and features
The settings and features sections are where competing VPN services really differ. Let’s take a look at what ExpressVPN offers.
The menu in the top left corner includes Express VPN’s speed test, a help section, and diagnostics. The help section includes a Contact Us page and lets you test security features with an IP Address Checker and a DNS Leak Test.
The Options button will open the Settings page, which offers these features:
- General: Here you can set startup behavior and enable features like Network Lock. Network Lock ensures if the VPN connection ends unexpectedly, the internet connection is completely shut down as well to avoid any leaks.
- Protocol: You can choose which security protocol to use when using the VPN. All options like OpenVPN (UDP and TCP), L2TP/IPSec, PPTP, and SSTP are available. Of course, you can always set it to Automatic, and the app will decide on the best protocol to use.
- Browsers: This appears on the Windows or Mac OS apps. You have the option to set up and enable any browser extensions here, which are available for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.
- Advanced: Advanced options include the ability to set up IPv6 leak protection and select whether to only use ExpressVPN DNS servers while connected. Having both enabled is definitely the best way to go.
In general, most VPNs can select a VPN protocol. We recommend using the OpenVPN protocol for the best combination of security and speed. However, other security settings and features will vary.
How To Choose the right VPN for you
A lot of elements go into how to use a VPN for your needs. There are hundreds of options available, which makes everything a little harder. Let’s take a look at the key factors you need to consider when choosing a VPN service.
- Free vs paid VPNs: Paid VPNs offer a far better quality of service with no ads, data caps, or speed throttling, and more security and privacy features. They are definitely the better way to go if you are serious about your online privacy and security.
- Privacy: The best VPNs keep zero activity or connection logs like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and IPVanish. Others may keep connection logs only, so it depends on whether you are comfortable with that. Any VPN that keeps all logs are a complete no go.
- Where the VPN is based: This is another key factor, as the country’s privacy and data retention laws may come into play. ExpressVPN is based in the British Virgin Islands, which is fine. IPVanish promises zero logging, but it is based in the US, which can be concerning.
- Where you are: Your location plays an important role as far as deciding which VPN is best for you. For example, if a VPN service has no servers close to your location, you won’t get the best speeds.
- Security: You get different security features with different VPNs. SaferVPN offers a Kill Switch, which is the minimum you should expect. ExpressVPN adds IPv6 and DNS leak protection to the mix. NordVPN goes all out with features like obfuscation, specialty servers, Double VPN, and more.
- Usage: Not every VPN allows for everything you may want to use the service for. For example, while ExpressVPN and NordVPN provide access to Netflix US, IPVanish does not. Services like SaferVPN feature only one location for P2P, while some, like TunnelBear, don’t allow it at all.
- Ease of use: Almost every VPN service is very easy to use, and it is up to as to how specific you want to be. SaferVPN is one of the simplest VPNs around in terms of bells and whistles. That said, PureVPN completely takes the guesswork out of server selection with its various Modes.
- Pricing: Pricing is often the most important factor when choosing anything. ExpressVPN is at the upper end of the pricing spectrum, while SaferVPN is a lot more affordable. In every case, significant discounts are provided if you opt for long-term plans. Special offers and deals are also often available.
Our VPN recommendation
Android Authority recommends ExpressVPN to our friends, family, and colleagues. It ticks the most boxes of high-end VPNs, and rates the highest in our recent extensive reviews of quality VPNs. ExpressVPN offers the perfect balance between speed, security, and privacy.
We will continue to bring you more great VPN coverage with our on-going series of VPN reviews, guides, comparisons, best lists, and a whole lot more! Looking for a specific VPN for us to review? Let us know in the comments section below.