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How to use a VPN: A step-by-step guide
From watching movies to banking transactions, there isn’t much that we can’t do online anymore. However, keeping your activity private and information secure has never been more important. That’s where a good VPN can make all the difference! Things can get confusing, though, with numerous VPNs to choose from, and various settings and features to deal with. To help with that, we take a closer look at how to use a VPN and things to look for.
Read more: What’s a VPN and why do you need one?
Choosing the right VPN
Before diving into how to use a VPN, let’s quickly talk about what to look for. There are a few things to consider.
- Free vs paid VPNs: Paid VPNs offer a far better quality of service with no ads, data caps, or speed throttling. They are also more feature-packed. There are a few decent options that are free, but a paid service is much better if you are serious about your online privacy and security.
- Logs: You ideally want a VPN that keeps zero activity or connection logs. Others may keep connection logs only, so it depends on whether you are comfortable with that. Anything more than that is a complete no-go.
- Where the VPN is based: This is another key factor, as privacy and data retention laws come into play. It’s better to stay away from a service that is based in a “5-eyes” location.
- Security: At a minimum, you should look for features like a kill switch that blocks any traffic if the VPN connection drops. More advanced features like obfuscation, anti-malware, and more are available with some services as well.
- Usage: Not every VPN lets you do what you want. Some don’t allow access to streaming services, others aren’t P2P-friendly, and many might not have servers in or around your country. Figure out what you need a VPN for and filter out those that don’t offer that feature.
- Ease of use: Almost every VPN service is very easy to use, but some are simpler and less feature-packed (which can be a good thing) than others. There are a lot of great options if you simply want to tap a button and get connected. Many will also let you dive into the settings and features if you want to.
- Pricing: Pricing is often the most important factor when choosing anything. There are a bunch of excellent options that are relatively affordable too. Long-term plans come with huge discounts more often than not, and special offers and deals are usually available as well.
See also: The advantages of downloading a VPN
How to use a VPN: Getting started
Once you’ve picked the right VPN service, you’ll need to sign up and pay for it. In most cases, an email address will be required to set up an account. Most VPN providers guarantee that the email address won’t be used for anything other than customer service, but you may want to set up a dummy account to add an extra layer of privacy.
You can use standard payment options like debit cards, credit cards, and PayPal. Some let you use cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and you might even get the option to use regional payment wallets or gift cards.
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.
Every good VPN service comes with apps for common operating systems like Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows. You’ll have to check and see if the VPN supports other devices, like Linux systems, gaming consoles, and streaming sticks, if you need it. You can also look into setting up the VPN directly on a Wi-Fi router to cover multiple devices simultaneously.
You can first download an app and go through the signup process, or set everything up on the VPN website first. Mobile apps will be available on the Google Play Store and App Store and links for other OS’s should be easy to find on the VPN’s website. Simply download and install the apps you need, sign in, and you’re ready to go.
Connecting to a VPN server
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 looking to get started right away, simply tap on the button and you’re good to go.
You may want to know how to connect to a VPN server in a specific location, though. For instance, you will have to connect to the right server to access a streaming service. Some locations and servers are more P2P friendly than others. Some VPNs clearly indicate what each server location is good for.
Using ExpressVPN as an example, it picks a “smart location” for you — the server with the lowest latency and highest speed. If you are looking for something specific, tap on “Selected location” to bring up the full list of servers. You will also be able to “favorite” your preferred options to easily access them later on.
Some VPNs like CyberGhost take the guesswork out of it by providing Modes and Purposes. You can select what you want to do and the app will make the best choice for you, which is ideal for first-time users.
Settings and features
The settings and features sections are where things start to look different, but the basics remain. With any VPN, you should look for and activate the kill switch. This might have a different name like Network Lock, Internet Kill Switch, and more, but the idea is the same across the board. This feature blocks any Internet activity and traffic if the VPN connection drops.
You might see the option to choose the VPN protocol, with options like OpenVPN (UDP and TCP), L2TP/IPSec, and PPTP available. OpenVPN is definitely the best option. Of course, you can always set it to Automatic, and the app will make the decision. However, this isn’t always ideal if the VPN still supports older protocols like PPTP.
Finally, you’ll come across some advanced features depending on the service you opt for. Some services offer ad removal and malware protection, obfuscation servers, and a whole lot more. If these features are important for you, VPNs like NordVPN and Surfshark are excellent options.
Our VPN recommendations
It’s between ExpressVPN and NordVPN for the top spot for me, but Surfshark is hot on their heels. Both Nord and Surfshark have a lot more security features and are also among the cheapest VPNs around. While ExpressVPN is on the other side of the price spectrum, it remains my go-to choice because of the connection speeds I get. However, your personal experience may vary.
Cyberghost is great for someone unfamiliar with how to use a VPN. It makes things very simple by categorizing everything. A huge number of servers, great security features like malware blocking, and an affordable price tag all work in its favor as well. I’ve had problems with connection speeds in the past, but that has improved over time.
I’ve also done reviews of more services like BullGuard, SaferVPN, StrongVPN, PureVPN, VPN Unlimited, and IPVanish, that are worth checking out. For mobile-specific options, we also have a roundup of the best Android VPN apps you can get.