A VPN is a Virtual Private Network. Think of it as a spy-proof connection between you and the internet that stops anyone from seeing your activity and your financial and personal information which travels between your device and a website.
There are many reasons to use a VPN and they’re legal in most countries.
How to use a VPN
1. Sign up to a VPN service
First, choose a VPN service and install the app on your device, launch it and enter your username and password (which you chose as part of 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.
When signing up you have 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 30-day money back guarantee so you can try the service and get a refund if you’re not happy.
2. Choose a VPN server
When you’re logged in you’ll usually see a prominent ‘connect’ button and possibly the option to pick a server automatically based on being the closest to you or the one which will offer the fastest connection.
You might see a list of countries or a map. In the case of NordVPN, which we’re using here, the main screen shows both a clickable map as well as a menu of recently used servers, speciality servers and a full list of locations.
Simply click on one and wait until you see it say ‘Connected’ or ‘Protected’. This typically takes only a few seconds, but can be up to around 20-30 seconds.
The location of the server you connect to is then your virtual location, meaning the internet thinks that you are in that location right now. That’s why the server you choose will largely depend on what you want to use the VPN for.
It can be worth picking a server that’s in the same country or even city for general web browsing as this adds a level of privacy that you don’t get otherwise.
If you want to watch a show that’s only on US Netflix you’ll need to choose a US-based server, or to watch BBC iPlayer you’ll need a UK-based server. Of course, it’s important to note that doing so goes against both services terms and conditions, but is not illegal.
If you want to use a different server, you can usually just click or tap on it in the list, and you can turn the VPN off by tapping or clicking Disconnect.
3. Test the VPN is working
To prove that your real location can’t be detected, you can use IPleak.net which will tell you what your virtual IP address (and location) is. It should be roughly the location of the server you chose.
4. Enable the kill switch
Many VPN services have a kill switch that will terminate your connection to protect your privacy if the VPN connection stops unexpectedly. Often you have to go into the app settings to enable this, as it’s not turned on by default. It may not be available on all devices, either.
There’s a good reason why kill switches aren’t on by default. In Nord’s case, as with lots of other services, 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. 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.
In other VPNs, a similar feature is called split-tunneling and it means you can 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 setting that could be useful is to make the VPN connect automatically your laptop or phone connects to an unsafe Wi-Fi network. This ensures you don’t forget to use the service.
Why you should use a VPN
Hopefully this is already clear, but it’s worth explaining in a bit more details.
A VPN helps to stop anyone from seeing what you do while you use the internet. You can probably think of several situations where this is advantageous, but it means 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. We’re not saying 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 and ‘behaviour’ online 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.
Here’s another situation where a VPN is vital. Most free Wi-Fi that you find in cafes, hotels, airports and shopping malls is ‘open’ which means you can connect without entering a password. That’s convenient, but it also means it’s very easy to steal people’s data and see what they’re doing because, without a password, that connection is not encrypted.
Using a VPN on public Wi-Fi fixes that, adding the all-important encryption.
Another 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.
What’s the difference between free and paid VPNs?
There are many VPN services available, and some are free to use. Depending on why you want a VPN, a free one might be fine, but for most people they are too limited because they offer a tiny selection of servers (probably 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 for free VPN services, but given that there are so many advantages of paying for a VPN – and that the monthly cost is so low – it makes more sense to subscribe to one.
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.
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.
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 won’t be noticeable with the fastest services, especially if it supports the new WireGuard protocol.
Tech Advisor’s recommended VPN services
Since it’s remarkably easy to set up your own VPN service, just about anyone can do it. And this means it’s important to choose your service wisely. We’ve been testing VPNs for years and we’ve ranked and rated the best ones here:
If you’re in a hurry, though, then here are three quick picks:
NordVPN – Best VPN overall
ExpressVPN – Best premium VPN
Surfshark – Best value VPN