A VPN – which stands for Virtual Private Network – helps to stop people from seeing what you do while you use the internet. For example, your internet provider can’t slow down your connection speed based on your activity, and it also means it can’t sell your data to third parties which might target you with annoying adverts. Not all ISPs do this, but a VPN means none can.
A common misunderstanding is that a VPN makes you anonymous online. To some extent it does, but your activity can reveal your identity. As a simple example, when you log into a website with your username and password, that site knows exactly who you are, even if you’re using a VPN.
Another popular use for a VPN is to make it appear as if you are located in another country. This can unlock services that are blocked from your real location, for example, you can watch shows on Netflix that aren’t available in your region. Plus, if you love to play online games, you can lower your ping by connecting to a VPN server in the country where the game is hosted.
Another situation where a VPN is useful is on public Wi-Fi. A lot of the free Wi-Fi hotspots that you find in cafes, hotels, airports and shopping malls are ‘open’ which means you can connect without entering a password. That’s convenient, but it also means there’s no encryption for that connection: you’re relying on the encryption offered by the websites and apps you use.
Using a VPN adds that all-important encryption and removes much of the risk.
How to use a VPN
So now you know why you’d want to use a VPN. They may sound complicated, but they couldn’t be easier to use. And they’re also very affordable, typically costing just a few pounds or dollars per month.
1. Sign up to a VPN service
The first step to using a VPN is to choose a service. You can see our recommendations of the best VPN services, but if you’re in a hurry, here are three to investigate:
When signing up on the provider’s website you’ll find a choice of how long to subscribe for. In most cases, the longer you go for, the cheaper the monthly cost becomes. In all but rare cases, they offer a money back guarantee (usually for about a month) so you can try the service and get a refund if you’re not happy.
Once you’ve paid – and you can pay via cryptocurrency if you want to be anonymous to the VPN service you’re using – install the app on your device from the app store or the provider’s website, launch it and enter your username and password (which you chose or were sent while signing up to the service).
Some providers let you log in with an activation code instead, but the app will tell you what you need to enter.
2. Choose a VPN server
When you’re logged in to the app you’ll usually see a prominent ‘connect’ button. Pressing this will usually pick a server automatically – either the closest one to you or the one which will offer the fastest connection.
If you want to change your location and seem to be in a different country – in order to unblock a video service, say – then look for a list of countries or servers. In the case of NordVPN, which we’re using here, the main screen shows both a clickable map as well as a list of countries.
Simply click on one and wait until you get a confirmation that you’re connected. This typically takes only a few seconds.
The location of the server you connect to is then your new virtual location, meaning websites, video streaming services and any other online service will think that’s where you are right now. That’s why the server you choose will depend on what you want to use the VPN for.
There’s no need to use a VPN all the time. You can enable when you need to unblock something, or have some extra privacy while browsing the web.
If you want to watch a show that’s only on US Netflix you’ll need to select United States from the list. To watch BBC iPlayer you’ll need to connect to a server in the UK. Note that not all VPN services will unblock all streaming services.
Streaming services and VPNs play a cat-and-mouse game of blocking and unblocking so the situation can change from day to day. This is why picking a VPN service with 24/7 live chat is a good idea: if you can’t watch something, you can ask for a solution in a chat window.
When you’ve finished doing whatever you’re doing, you can click the Disconnect button to return to using your regular internet connection without the VPN.
3. Test the VPN is working
If you want to see evidence the VPN is working properly and to prove that your real location can’t be detected, you can use a website such as IPleak.net. This will tell you what your virtual IP address (and location) is.
So, visit the site before you connect to the VPN and have a look at the details. It should show your country, and may even display the name of your internet provider.
Now connect to a VPN server in a different country and visit the site again. You should now see your IP address locates you in the country of the server you chose, and so should the DNS address. If you still see your own country displayed for either IP address or DNS address, there’s a problem. If not, the VPN is working correctly.
4. Enable the kill switch
Many VPN services have a kill switch that will stop any data being sent over the internet connection if the VPN connection drops unexpectedly. This helps to protect your privacy by ensuring your real location is never ‘leaked’.
Often you have to go into your VPN app’s settings to enable the kill switch, as it’s not turned on by default. A kill switch may not be available in all the apps a VPN provider offers. Some, such as NordVPN’s iOS app, don’t show a kill switch option because it’s permanently enabled and you can’t turn it off.
There’s a good reason why kill switches aren’t on by default, though: you won’t be able to access the internet unless the VPN is connected.
If available, you might prefer to use the ‘App Kill Switch’ option which Nord offers in it’s Windows app. This lets you pick which apps should have their internet connections cut off if the VPN stops working, and leaves all others working as normal.
A similar feature called split-tunneling lets you choose which apps use the VPN connection and all others use the normal connection.
There are other options, but that’s really all you need to do to: using a VPN is very easy.
The only other tweak you might want to make is to get the VPN to connect automatically if your device connects to an unknown Wi-Fi network. This ensures you don’t forget to enable the protection a VPN offers.
What’s the difference between free and paid VPNs?
There are many VPN services available, and some are completely free to use.
Depending on why you want to use a VPN, a free one might be fine, but for most people they are too limited because they offer a tiny selection of servers (and maybe not in the countries you want) and only give you a small data allowance that’s rarely enough for streaming videos.
In rare cases, a free VPN service might sell your email address and browsing habits to cover the cost of you using its service, which negates the whole point of using a VPN for some people.
You can see our recommendations of the best free VPN services.
Paid VPNs typically offer hundreds or thousands of servers in locations around the world, and give you unlimited data so you can stream as much video as you want. And that’s why most people pay for a VPN.
How to choose a VPN
VPNs are built around trust, so it’s important that you pick one that’s trustworthy. Almost all services these days say that they keep no logs of your activity – such as when you used the service, your IP address and other data – but as a user, you can’t verify whether this is true or not. You have to take their word for it.
Some employ third-parties to audit their policies to ‘prove’ that they stick by their word – we mention these in our reviews.
There’s also a VPN Trust Initiative which has been set up by a selection of companies that want to raise the minimum standards of VPN services and – in the process – increase the level of trust that people have in their services.
Beyond these aspects, you should factor in whether the provider offers apps for the devices you want to use a VPN on – Android, iOS, Windows, Mac etc – and whether it has servers in the countries you need.
All VPNs will have an effect on your internet connection speed, but this shouldn’t be noticeable with the fastest services, especially if they support the new WireGuard protocol.
Tech Advisor’s recommended VPN services
We’ve been testing VPNs for years and we’ve ranked and rated the best ones here: