What Is a VPN? Beginner’s Guide, Explained by Experts (2022)
Short for Virtual Private Network, a VPN creates a secure connection between you and the internet. It gives you an extra layer of privacy and anonymity to hide your activity and location, avoiding hackers and trackers (especially on public WiFi). A VPN also helps you overcome online censorship, torrent anonymously, and access your favorite streaming services when traveling.
You don’t need to be a technical expert to use a VPN, either. I tested 30+ VPN services, and there are plenty of beginner-friendly VPNs for your devices. The best choice overall is ExpressVPN, as it’s packed with 1-click features in an easy-to-use app. It offers a 30-day money-back guarantee so you can try ExpressVPN out for yourself completely risk-free. If you’re not satisfied, just claim a full refund.
What is a VPN and How Do VPNs Work?
A VPN is an essential security tool for protecting your online privacy. Until recently, VPNs were primarily used by businesses as a way for remote employees to securely access their company networks. However, after revelations from individuals like Edward Snowden, the general public has grown more vigilant about online security and privacy. This, and the desire for access to the internet without restriction, has caused a significant increase in the popularity and use of VPNs.
Without the protection of a VPN, your internet activity can be easily intercepted and viewed by other people. This includes your browsing history, downloaded files, online banking details, and passwords. Everything can be traced back to your device through your Internet Protocol (IP) address. Your IP address reveals your physical location and can be used to track you down. It’s like sending postcards through the mail — anyone can read the message and see your name and address.
But when you’re connected to a VPN, your internet activity is encrypted, and your real IP address is masked. No one can see who you are or what you’re doing, not even Internet Service Providers (ISPs), governments, or hackers. A service like ExpressVPN uses server obfuscation to disguise your VPN traffic, making it even more difficult to detect your activity.
Instead of digital postcards, you’re now sending an ultra-secure private message that only the intended recipient can read, with no sender address or name. If someone else tries to peek, they’ll just see a jumble of encrypted information. Plus, the recipient website or service sees the VPN server as the origin of your data, not you — this gives you the opportunity to experience the internet freely, without network restrictions.
Do You Really Need a VPN?
Yes, you really do need a VPN if you want to safely and freely access the internet. Here’s a list of reasons why consumers currently use VPNs:
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular reasons for using a VPN, and how the VPN works to enhance safety and improve your online experience.
Secure Your Online Privacy
Have you sent your bank details to friends online? Do you ever use public WiFi networks? If so, you’ve just risked exposing your personal information to hackers (especially if you were using a public WiFi hotspot!).
A quality VPN will use the most advanced encryption to secure your data. It’ll also ensure that any websites receiving your private data can’t trace your device, which keeps you as anonymous as possible.
Bypass Blocks, Restrictions, Censorship, and Firewalls
Networks block access to websites and services for a number of reasons:
- Government censorship: Many countries around the world censor the internet because certain content doesn’t align with political or religious beliefs.
- Network restrictions: Local administrators for networks like schools and offices block access to sites and services that aren’t considered appropriate.
- Location restrictions: Some online services (like Hulu and BBC iPlayer) impose restrictions depending on your geographical location, to avoid copyright issues.
If you’re experiencing restrictions like these, you can use a VPN to provide access to the online content you want to see. For example, if you’re traveling to a country outside the US, you can still stream with your Netflix US account when connected to a VPN. But not every VPN can do this. Popular streaming services, like Netflix and Disney+, can detect VPNs and will block you from viewing their content. However, top-tier services like ExpressVPN can reliably connect you to Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, and more.
Or if you visit a country with government censorship, you can use a VPN to bypass internet restrictions like China’s Great Firewall. Otherwise, simple tasks like Googling or updating your status on Facebook are impossible. You can also use a VPN to connect to different game servers, letting you play online games like Call of Duty: Warzone with friends in other countries.
A VPN helps you unblock these sites and services while keeping your online activity safe from any prying eyes, including the government.
Torrent Files Safely and Anonymously
Torrenting is always risky. You can never be sure if your downloaded files are 100% safe and P2P connections expose your true location, making you vulnerable to hackers and identity theft.
A VPN will keep you safe while torrenting with a suite of security and privacy features. Your online identity will remain anonymous so you’re not at risk from other malicious P2P users. Plus, your ISP won’t be able to detect your torrent activity, so you’re less likely to experience bandwidth throttling if you download frequently.
A top-tier VPN like CyberGhost provides dedicated torrenting servers to keep your download speeds fast, your file-sharing anonymous, and your devices protected from malware.
Improve Your Internet Connection and Speeds
At times, your ISP may deliberately slow down your Internet connection, and it’s legally allowed to do so. This could be because your ISP detects your torrent activity, or because you’ve gone over a certain data limit. Some ISPs even use this strategy to get you to upgrade your connection. The practice is known as “throttling.”
With a VPN, your activity remains private so your ISP can’t see what you’re doing and can’t throttle your connection. This means you may actually see an increase in speeds.
Are VPNs Safe? How to Choose a Secure VPN in 2022
It’s not always obvious which VPN features are marketing fluff and which are truly useful. As I’ve been using VPNs for nearly a decade, I’ve compiled a list of the critical features that you should keep in mind when selecting a VPN.
Strong Encryption and Connection Protocols
One of the main reasons for using a VPN is to make your connection as secure as possible, so don’t skimp when it comes to security. Look for a service with 256-bit AES encryption — the industry standard — and ultra-secure protocols like OpenVPN and WireGuard.
The VPN protocol you choose depends on how much security and speed you need, as well as your device. Below are the most common protocols:
- OpenVPN: Popular open-source protocol that’s supported by nearly all VPNs. It’s the most secure protocol available with no known weaknesses.
- WireGuard: Open-source protocol with excellent speeds and strong security. Predicted to overtake OpenVPN in popularity but is still relatively new, so there could be undiscovered vulnerabilities.
- IKEv2: Fast, secure, and popular with mobile users. The biggest drawback is that it’s not open-source and can’t be audited.
- SSTP: Less popular protocol that works mostly on Windows. Good for bypassing firewalls but speeds are average.
- L2TP/IPSec: Mostly used on iPhones, although it’s outdated so you should avoid it where possible.
- PPTP: PPTP isn’t secure and has been previously cracked by the NSA in the US.
Some VPNs also use their own protocols — ExpressVPN has a proprietary Lightway protocol as its default connection, optimized for fast speeds and strong security.
I recommend choosing a VPN with a proven zero-log policy and a strong privacy track record, like ExpressVPN. In 2017, the Turkish government demanded user logs from ExpressVPN, and the authorities physically seized a server — however, no identifying logs or customer data was found.
Using a VPN can slow down your connection, as your data is being encrypted and routed through another server. With some VPNs, the difference is barely noticeable, whereas others can cause a considerable slowdown. The best VPNs can mitigate the speed loss caused by encryption, ensuring your speeds stay fast on every connection.
Look for a VPN with a lot of servers (ExpressVPN has 3000+ servers in its global network) as this will reduce user congestion, keeping speeds fast. A greater number of servers also means you’re more likely to find a local connection. Generally, the further away the server is, the slower your internet because it will take longer for your data to get there. If you connect to a server nearby, you’ll notice a smaller impact on your speed.
Access to Streaming Services, Torrenting, and More
A big plus of VPNs is that they allow you to bypass censorship and geo-restrictions. By masking your true location, you can access your favorite streaming services when traveling, P2P file-share public domain content without restriction, and more. But not all VPNs are created equal in this regard, and many are easily blocked by VPN detection technology.
If you want to use your VPN to access a specific site like Netflix, or use it to unblock a certain country’s firewall, do your research and make sure the provider supports it before subscribing. Many VPNs have details on their support sites, letting you know which services they can access and whether they can get around tough restrictions.
You can also make use of free trials and money-back guarantees to test VPNs. You should note that even the best VPNs can’t always avoid detection, but with regular server updates and refreshes, you’ll soon find a working connection.
Supports Multiple Devices and Platforms
Top-tier VPN services will have native app support for popular platforms, including Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Linux, and router configuration. You’ll also find VPN support for smart TVs, Amazon Fire devices, Roku, Kodi, Chromecast, and other devices that don’t support VPNs directly, such as game consoles. Before subscribing to your VPN, make sure that it works with the devices you want to secure.
You’ll want all your devices to be protected, so look for a provider that allows several simultaneous connections. This way, there’s no need to worry about which devices are protected, and you won’t have to sign in and out of your VPN all the time. A service like ExpressVPN supports up to 5 devices at once, so you can stay connected on any combination of devices.
24/7 Customer Support
If something goes wrong or you have questions, you need to be confident that you’ll get a fast response from your VPN provider. Look for a service with 24/7 live chat available, as well as email support and a comprehensive website with FAQs, troubleshooting, and setup guides. It’s even better if your VPN has step-by-step video guides, like ExpressVPN.
Value for Money
When you’re paying for a service, you need to be confident you’re getting your money’s worth. That doesn’t mean choosing the cheapest available option. Instead, look for a service with all the features mentioned above at a reasonable price. Usually, this means subscribing to a long-term plan to get the best value. However, many VPNs offer discount codes and coupons so you can get a great deal on any subscription plan.
Also, look out for a VPN that offers a money-back guarantee. This lets you fully test the service to make sure it’s right for you — if you change your mind or aren’t totally happy, you can get a full refund.
Are There Disadvantages to Using a VPN?
No VPN is perfect, so there are some potential disadvantages you should be aware of — fortunately, these can be minimized or even eliminated by using one of the top VPNs in 2022.
- You may notice a slight connection speed slowdown: Due to encryption and routing your traffic through a server, you can expect a minor slowdown in your connection speed. However, a top VPN like ExpressVPN mitigates speed loss so effectively that you won’t notice a difference.
- Your data can still leak: If your VPN connection is unexpectedly interrupted, your online activity and personal data (like your IP address) can be exposed. It’s important to make sure your VPN has an active kill switch to prevent data leaks in this scenario.
- Not every server will work every time: Services like Netflix and Disney+ have powerful VPN detection technology that can redirect or block your VPN connection. Fortunately, top VPNs like CyberGhost have optimized servers that are regularly tested and refreshed to guarantee a working connection.
- The best VPNs aren’t free: To get optimal security, you’ll have to pay for a subscription. However, this doesn’t mean your VPN has to be expensive. Longer subscriptions are almost always better value, but if you’re on a budget you can also get a top-tier VPN at an affordable monthly price.
- VPNs aren’t legal to use worldwide: Some countries, like China, Russia, Turkey, and Iraq, heavily restrict or even ban the use of non-government-approved VPNs. If you plan on visiting one of these countries, it’s a good idea to download your VPN before you arrive and make sure you’re aware of local laws and regulations before you connect.
Which Type of VPN Is Right For You?
Take a look at the scenarios below and see which one most closely matches what you want a VPN for, and I’ll share tips on finding the best VPN for it:
If you want to find out whether a VPN has a specific feature (like a kill switch or an app for your smart TV), check the provider’s website. You’ll find a section listing all available features and another listing the apps and supported platforms.
For Streaming Global Content
A VPN lets you access your local streaming accounts when you’re traveling, so you can watch your favorite shows and movies from anywhere in the world. Simply use your VPN to connect to a server in your home country and sign in to Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, ESPN, and more. You’ll need a VPN with:
- The ability to access global content — Not every VPN can access streaming websites and apps, as they’re often blocked to prevent copyright issues.
- Fast speeds — You need at least 5 Mbps for HD quality and 25 Mbps for Ultra HD quality. Any lower than 5 Mbps will result in buffering and lag.
- Global network of servers — Get a VPN with servers in your streaming service locations. The higher the number of servers means you’re less likely to experience overcrowding, slow speeds, or lag caused by high latency.
- Dedicated apps for multiple devices — Look for a VPN that works across all your streaming devices, whether it’s a laptop, smart TV, or Amazon Fire Stick.
Best VPN for Streaming: ExpressVPN
ExpressVPN is the best VPN for streaming because of its blazing-fast global speeds and huge number of servers (more than 3000 in 94 locations).
For Privacy and Anonymity (Especially on Public Networks)
A secure VPN will keep your personal data private. This is especially important if you often use public WiFi networks, which are prime targets for hackers. Look for a VPN with:
- Military-grade encryption — Also known as 256-bit AES encryption, this encryption level is currently unbreakable.
- Multiple protocols — WireGuard, OpenVPN, or IKEv2 offer the best combination of speed and security.
- Kill switch — This feature blocks all internet traffic if the VPN connection unexpectedly drops or if you’re switching between servers. It ensures that your data is never exposed.
- Leak protection — Your IP address could become visible through DNS leaks, even when you’re using a VPN. This is easily preventable if the VPN has in-built leak protection.
Best VPN for Privacy: ExpressVPN
Every ExpressVPN server is protected by military-grade encryption and data leak protection, plus a kill switch to automatically block internet access if the VPN is interrupted.
For Torrenting Safely
Torrenting can be risky without a VPN. You don’t want to expose your personal data to other torrenters, as this could put you at risk of identity theft, DDoS attacks, and malware. Here’s what you should look for if you don’t want anyone else to know what you’re torrenting.
- Torrenting and peer-to-peer (P2P) support — Some VPNs have dedicated P2P servers (like CyberGhost) or allow torrenting across the entire server network (like ExpressVPN).
- Strong encryption and protocols — Use a combination of 256-bit AES encryption and either WireGuard, OpenVPN, or IKEv2 to keep your torrenting activity private.
- Excellent speeds — Look for unlimited bandwidth and plenty of servers for the fastest downloading and uploading speeds.
- Kill switch — Even if your VPN connection fails, the kill switch ensures your IP address won’t be exposed to fellow torrenters.
Best VPN for Torrenting: CyberGhost
CyberGhost has a network of optimized servers specifically for P2P file-sharing, ensuring you get the fastest download speeds and secure, reliable connections when torrenting.
For Bypassing Censorship
A VPN can help you get around censorship at work, school, or even in countries where internet access is heavily restricted. Using a VPN is illegal in some countries, so be aware of the risks and don’t compromise on security. Below are the key features you’ll need:
- The ability to bypass censorship — Most VPNs should have no trouble working at your school or workplace, but it’s a different matter if you want to overcome the Great Firewall of China. Make sure you download a VPN that’s been proven to work and features server obfuscation to mask your VPN traffic from proxy detection technology.
- Ultra-secure encryption — 256-bit AES encryption is essential, which is a military-grade standard. This is particularly important if you’re in a country where VPNs are banned.
- Secure protocols — Look for advanced protocols like WireGuard, OpenVPN or IKEv2. These are proven protocols designed for the best security on all devices.
- Strict no-logs policy — Secure VPNs ensure that no one (not even the VPN itself) can see what you’re doing online. It’s even better if the policy has been proven in real life or independently audited by a respected third party.
Best VPN for Censorship: ExpressVPN
All of ExpressVPN’s servers have an obfuscation feature that masks VPN traffic, ensuring it won’t be noticed by VPN detection technology — this obfuscation makes ExpressVPN one of the only services that can get through China’s Great Firewall.
How Much Do VPNs Cost?
There are multiple factors to consider when looking at the cost of a VPN:
- The VPN itself — well-known and tested services usually cost more.
- The length of the VPN subscription.
- The number of servers, including specialized servers (for streaming, torrenting, and gaming).
- Extra features, like split tunneling, ad and malware blockers, server obfuscation, and more.
On average, a VPN will cost around $6-7 per month. Very rarely will you find a VPN charging more than $10 per month, and you can definitely find a better service at a lower price. Plus, you’ll always get a more cost-effective deal when you choose a long-term subscription versus a short-term or month-to-month plan — ExpressVPN’s plan has a huge discount of 49% on its standard price.
The price of VPNs varies between services — for comparison, ExpressVPN’s lowest price plan is $6.67 per month for a subscription, while Private Internet Access’s monthly cost for its plan is just $2.03/month. However, price isn’t the only thing you need to consider when choosing your VPN. ExpressVPN offers a better service, with fast, reliable connections and top-tier security, so it’s worth the extra cost.
Free VPN vs. Paid VPN: What Is Better?
You’re only going to get premium security and privacy with a premium VPN — you won’t get the same level of protection with a free service. There are “freemium” VPNs owned by premium services that are safe and secure, but they’re extremely limited. Low data caps, connection restrictions, and speed throttling are common for “freemium” VPNs, so you won’t be able to use the service as much as you want to.
When a free VPN sounds too good to be true, it’s probably a scam. It’s expensive to run a VPN network — and the company still needs to make money even if you’re not paying. That’s why many free VPNs use shady practices to fund their services, whether that’s spamming you with annoying popup ads, tricking you into downloading malware, or even collecting and selling your data.
Instead of wasting time with unsafe free services or limited VPNs, I suggest taking advantage of a premium VPN with a money-back guarantee. You can use a service like CyberGhost risk-free for up to 45 days with its guarantee. This is a great way to test the service, or even use it for free if you only need a VPN for a short time. If you like the service, you can keep your subscription — but you can get a full refund with no questions asked should you change your mind.
The Best VPNs in 2022 for Beginners — Full Test Results
- Global network of 3000+ servers in 94 locations to connect from anywhere
- Military-grade encryption, data leak protection, kill switch, and server obfuscation secure your data on every connection
- Easily access Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, BBC iPlayer, ESPN, DAZN, and more
- Supports Windows, macOS, Linux, Chromebook, Android, iOS, Linux, and more
- 24/7 customer support with email ticketing, FAQs, troubleshooting, and setup guides
30-day money-back guarantee
ExpressVPN is the best choice for beginner users, with a host of premium security and privacy features packed into its user-friendly apps. You don’t have to manually configure the settings to get the best protection as its top features are automatically activated when you download the app. ExpressVPN’s security and privacy features are as follows:
- Military-grade encryption: Every server secures your data with AES-256-bit encryption that would take millions of years to crack in a brute-force attack.
- Data leak protection: DNS, IPv4, IPv6, and WebRTC data are all protected when you connect.
- Kill switch functionality: Blocks access to the internet if the VPN connection is unexpectedly interrupted (not on iOS).
- Server obfuscation: Masks VPN traffic to look like regular traffic, avoiding detection technology that could block online access.
- TrustedServer technology: All servers are RAM-based, ensuring they cannot log or store your data — all information is wiped clean during scheduled reboots.
Not only is ExpressVPN secure and private, but it’s also extremely fast. During my tests, I found ExpressVPN to be the fastest VPN I’ve tried. While most VPNs experience slowdowns, ExpressVPN is excellent at reducing speed loss to a minimum.
Even when connecting to servers thousands of kilometers away, my speeds were fast enough for lag-free browsing, streaming, torrenting, and online gaming. My team and I tested multiple servers and found ExpressVPN can access the following streaming services:
|Netflix||Hulu||Disney+||Amazon Prime Video||HBO Max||BBC iPlayer|
|ESPN||DAZN||YouTube TV||Peacock TV||Sling TV||…and more!|
It’s a little more expensive than other services, with plans starting at $6.67 per month for a subscription. However, ExpressVPN’s security, speeds, and reliability make it well worth the price. I suggest you try ExpressVPN risk-free and see if it’s right for you. If you change your mind, the service is backed by a 30-day money-back guarantee.
I tested the guarantee myself and was surprised by how easy the process was. I contacted the 24/7 live chat and requested a refund, which was granted in under 5 minutes with no questions asked. Best of all, I had the full amount in my account in less than 5 business days.
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- 8200+ servers in 91 countries to connect to any location
- Top-tier encryption, kill switch on all apps, and data leak protection
- Optimized servers can access Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, BBC iPlayer, and more
- Supports Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, iOS, Linux, and more
- 24/7 live chat and extensive help website with FAQs, troubleshooting, and setup guides
- 45-day money-back guarantee
CyberGhost’s optimized servers make it a top choice if you want to stream, torrent, and play games online. These servers are regularly tested by CyberGhost to ensure you get a reliable, smooth connection for your chosen activity. It’s easy to choose the best server, too — you can either pick a server for a particular streaming site (like your local Netflix account) or a nearby server for torrenting or gaming.
During my tests, I found CyberGhost’s optimized servers provided the best connection speeds. My speeds only dropped a small amount — less than 30% of my regular internet connection — so I could stream and torrent without lag or interruptions and enjoy buffer-free online gaming with friends. However, I did notice CyberGhost isn’t as good at maintaining fast speeds over long distances, with a more significant decrease of almost 60% using a server 17,000km away.
CyberGhost can access the following streaming services:
|Netflix||Hulu||Disney+||Amazon Prime Video||HBO Max|
|BBC iPlayer||ESPN||YouTube TV||Peacock TV||…and more!|
Alongside fast speeds and optimized servers, CyberGhost offers top-tier security and privacy features:
- Top-tier encryption: Every connection is protected by AES-256-bit encryption.
- Kill switch on all apps: Cuts access to the internet if your VPN connection is interrupted — available on all apps, including iOS.
- Ad and malware blocker: Blocks malicious ads and pop-ups to protect your devices from malware
- Zero-log policy: Strict no-log policy (not independently audited) and RAM-based servers never store your online activity.
- Dedicated IP address: Available for an extra cost, this gives you your own IP address on one of CyberGhost’s servers — making it easier to bypass CAPTCHAs, work remotely, and avoid content blocks due to other user behavior.
One downside to CyberGhost is its expensive monthly plan. But I was impressed by CyberGhost’s low price on its long-term plans, especially for its plan — it’s only $2.03 per month, which is a huge 84% discount.
I recommend that you test CyberGhost for yourself risk-free, and take advantage of its 45-day money-back guarantee. I had my money back in less than a week after contacting the 24/7 live chat, who processed my request promptly.
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- Huge network of 35000+ servers in 84 locations for instant connections
- Military-grade, customizable encryption, kill switch, and data leak protection
- Can access Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, and more
- Supports Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, iOS, Linux, and more
- Live chat, contact form, and online FAQs available
- 30-day money-back guarantee
Private Internet Access (PIA) is ideal for beginners and advanced VPN users, as its security features are easy to use and highly customizable. I was impressed by the layout of PIA’s interface, which clearly explains more complex features — just hover over the “i” icon for detailed information.
The customizable features are unique to PIA, particularly when it comes to encryption. While it has military-grade AES-256 encryption available, you can also decrease the level to AES-128. This won’t compromise your security, but it can provide a speed boost — useful if your internet speed is on the slower side.
PIA also has these security and privacy features:
- Data leak protection: Protects against DNS, WebRTC, and IP leaks.
- Automatic kill switch: Secures your data in the event the VPN loses connection by blocking internet access until the connection is restored.
- Automation settings: Configure specific apps to run only when connected to the VPN — ideal for activities like torrenting.
- Zero-log policy: Strict zero-log policy means no user activity is logged or stored while you’re connected to the server.
It boasts an enormous server network (more than 35000 servers in 84 locations) so you should be able to find a local server easily. This reduces the need to connect to distant servers to prevent speed loss. In just one click, I managed to get a new IP address in no time, and each server I tested gave me reliable connections so I could stream and browse for hours.
On long-distance servers PIA can be slow, which may be a problem for those who travel long distances. A connection to an Australian server had a drastic 99% reduction from my regular internet speed. However, on local servers my speeds were fast enough for HD streaming, torrenting, gaming, and browsing online, so depending on your location this may not be a problem for you.
Overall, PIA is a solid choice if you want greater customizability with your connections — and it’s one of the lowest-priced VPNs available. Plans start at $2.03/month for the subscription, which is hard to beat. Plus, the service is backed by a 30-day money-back guarantee, so you can try PIA completely risk-free and get a full refund if you change your mind.
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Easy Setup Guides: How to Install a VPN on Any Device
Most VPNs are extremely easy to install and use — the whole process can take less than 5 minutes! All you need to do is sign up for a VPN service, install the app, and log in. Here are some simple step-by-step guides below for popular devices.
- Desktops and laptops. Jump to the guide for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
- Smartphones. Follow the steps for Android and iOS devices.
- Routers. Jump down for detailed instructions.
- Smart TVs. Learn how to install a VPN even if there’s no native VPN support.
Bear in mind that the steps involved may vary depending on which VPN and operating system you’re using. If you’re having problems, you can check out the guides on your VPN provider’s website.
How to Install a VPN on Desktop (Windows and Mac)
Many VPNs offer native apps for Windows, macOS, and even Linux. The installation process is similar across all operating systems:
- Subscribe to a VPN using the official website. I recommend ExpressVPN as it’s the top choice service for both Windows and Mac devices.
- Download the VPN to your device. After subscribing, you can install the software. Click on the download from your browser to start installation.
- Sign in with your VPN account details. This could be your username and password, or an authentication code provided by your VPN.
- Connect to a VPN server of your choice. That’s it! You’re ready to start using the internet securely.
Smartphone (Android and iOS)
Nearly every VPN offers dedicated apps for Android and iOS devices. Make sure you download the VPN from its website rather than an app store, as this ensures you get full access to the money-back guarantee. Here’s how you install a VPN on your phone:
- Download a VPN from the official website. ExpressVPN’s mobile app is lightweight and easy to use on both Android and iOS devices.
- Open the VPN app and log in. You’ll need the account details you created on signup.
- Connect to a server. Tap on a server of your choice or let your VPN choose the best option.
- You’re done! Your smartphone is now protected by a VPN.
Most people use VPNs on individual devices such as laptops and smart TVs, but you can also install a VPN on your router to protect any device that’s connected to your WiFi network. Once you’ve done this, you won’t need to install a VPN on your individual devices unless you plan on using them outside your home.
Before buying a VPN subscription, make sure it’s compatible with your router by visiting the manufacturer’s website. The installation process depends on the model of your router and which VPN you’re using, but it typically looks something like this:
- Get a quality VPN that supports router configuration. ExpressVPN supports multiple routers, including Linksys, Asus, and Netgear models.
- Download the VPN firmware for your router to your computer. The exact firmware will depend on your router — your VPN will have various options available.
- Connect your router to the internet and to your computer.
- Access the router dashboard to create a username and password.
- Sign in to your router. You’ll need administrative access to install the new firmware.
- Upload the VPN firmware to your router. This will be in your recent downloads folder.
- Enter your VPN’s activation code. You’ll find the code in your VPN account settings.
- Click Activate. That’s it! You may need to reboot your router to complete the installation, and then you can connect to a VPN server.
Since methods can vary, it’s best to check the steps outlined on your VPN provider’s website before you begin.
Most smart TVs on the market don’t have native VPN apps available. If you want to use a VPN with them, you have to first install the VPN on your router. Then, connect your smart TV to your router and it will automatically connect to the remote VPN server.
You can also create a WiFi hotspot from your VPN-protected computer and connect your smart TV to the hotspot. This sharing connection will let your smart TV benefit from the VPN encryption — and you can easily disconnect your TV when you’re done.
A third option is to set up Smart DNS with your smart TV. This changes the DNS server your smart TV uses, so you can access your local streaming services. However, this doesn’t provide the encryption of a regular VPN connection. ExpressVPN has a MediaStreamer feature designed for smart TVs, with easy step-by-step setup instructions on its website.
If you have a smart TV running on Android OS, ExpressVPN has a native Android TV app that might save you the hassle of connecting through a router.
Quick and Easy Setup Guides for Your VPN
Here are some quick download guides (for a variety of devices) to help you set up your VPN.
Alternatives to VPNs
Here are some of the most popular VPN alternatives and the pros and cons of using them.
Tor (The Onion Router) browser is a free alternative that significantly improves your privacy online. It works like a regular browser, but instead of sending your traffic requests directly to the destination, it routes your traffic through several different volunteer computers, or “nodes.” Your data is encrypted, and a layer of encryption is stripped away between each node — they can see where your data is coming from and going to, but not the entire connection.
The result of a Tor browser connection is almost complete anonymity. It’s nearly impossible to trace online activity back to you directly, making it useful for accessing the dark web or sending and receiving highly sensitive information.
However, the Tor browser has its limitations — it’s extremely slow, easily blocked by ISPs and other networks, and it only secures your browser traffic, not your entire device. This makes it vulnerable to data leaks, and you’ll find Tor traffic is a target for surveillance, too.
The only way to mitigate these risks is by using a VPN with Tor. By connecting to a VPN server before the Tor browser, you secure your entire device (preventing data leaks) and you don’t expose your true IP address to Tor. This eliminates the risk your location or identity will be discovered through deanonymizing attacks by compromised nodes.
VPN Browser Extensions
VPN browser extensions are a great way to improve your online privacy, and some (like CyberGhost’s Chrome and Firefox proxy) are even free. These browser extensions make it easy to add a layer of privacy to your browser traffic, hiding your IP address so you can anonymously browse, stream, and more. You’ll usually have access to a handful of server locations, and the top VPN browser extensions can connect to your favorite streaming services.
However, the majority of VPN browser extensions are proxies that don’t encrypt your connection, so they’re not ideal for sending sensitive data or preventing spying eyes from viewing your online activity. Plus, a browser extension only covers your browser traffic, not your entire device.
I recommend using a VPN browser extension that has full VPN capabilities, like ExpressVPN. With ExpressVPN’s browser extension you get the same top-tier encryption and data leak protection as the app conveniently from your browser. Plus, you can connect to any of its 3000+ servers, so you’re not limited to a handful of locations.
A proxy service passes your traffic through a third-party server, hiding your IP address and location. This can help provide access to restricted websites and allow you greater anonymity on the internet.
However, you won’t get any extra security with a proxy server. There is no encryption, no kill switch, and no data leak protection. Some proxies even tell your destination website that you’re using a proxy service, which increases the chance your connection will be blocked.
A VPN is a much better option if you value your online security and privacy, as it encrypts your entire internet connection and routes your traffic through secure servers. All your data is encrypted, so nobody can see which websites you visit, what files you’re torrenting, or even the shows you’re streaming.
FAQs on VPNs
- What should I know before using a VPN?
- How does a VPN work for beginners?
- How can I start my own VPN?
- Is it legal to use a VPN?
- Does a VPN make me anonymous online?
- How do I know my VPN is working?
- What’s the best VPN for Netflix?
- Which is the best VPN for torrenting?
- Can you trust a free VPN?
- Can I be tracked while using a VPN?
- Do VPNs protect against hackers and malware?
- Do VPNs keep logs?
- Should a VPN be left on at all times?
- Does a VPN slow down your internet connection?
- Which devices do VPNs work on?
- What’s the most secure VPN protocol?
What should I know before using a VPN?
There are a few things you should consider before using a VPN:
- Not all VPNs offer the same level of security and privacy: There are hundreds of VPNs all claiming to be the best, but only the top VPN services will protect your online activity and keep your data safe.
- A VPN doesn’t make you completely anonymous: Your VPN connection provides a layer of anonymity, but your activity can still be traced if you log into your online accounts, make purchases, and other similar actions.
- A VPN doesn’t give you the right to break the law: You cannot use a VPN connection to commit illegal activities, like sharing copyrighted content, online harassment, hacking, or distributing malicious software.
- VPNs aren’t legal to use in every country: Make sure you’re aware of your local laws and regulations surrounding VPN use before connecting, as some countries ban or heavily restrict VPN software.
How does a VPN work for beginners?
A VPN works by encrypting your data within a secure tunnel before it reaches its online destination. High-level encryption stops anyone — such as your ISP, hackers and spies, or government bodies — from seeing what you’re doing online. Your data can only be unencrypted by the VPN server you connect to, which then sends your traffic to the website or service you want to access.
When your traffic reaches its destination, the website or service can only see that the data has come from the VPN server — it can’t trace the traffic back to your device or your true location. This lets you access restricted content, visit websites and online accounts securely, bypass tough firewalls, and more.
How can I start my own VPN?
Creating your own VPN is a complex process, which can end up being more costly than using one of the premium services recommended above. However, if you’re technologically-minded, here’s a very simplified method for starting your own VPN:
- Create an account for Amazon Web Services. This will give you access to the cloud storage and services you’ll need to operate your VPN.
- Download the required scripts for an encrypted connection to the cloud server. There are lots of options available, with Algo VPN being one of the most popular.
- Install the VPN dependencies. This takes several steps and lets the VPN install itself on the cloud server.
- Set up your devices to connect to the VPN. You’ll need to perform setup on each device you want to connect.
For a more detailed look at making your own VPN, you can check out the step-by-step guide here. Bear in mind that running a VPN isn’t free — Amazon Web Services is only free for the first year, after which prices vary depending on how much data you use, how much storage you need, and other variables. Most cloud hosting options, like DigitalOcean, have a monthly fee that is less than a premium VPN. However, these services come with limitations like data and hour caps, so you’ll have to carefully monitor your VPN use or pay overages.
Is it legal to use a VPN?
In most cases, using a VPN to boost your online privacy and security is legal. You are well within your rights to protect your personal information when online, and using a VPN is the best way to secure your data.
In terms of legality, what matters most is your physical location. While VPNs are legal in most countries, there are a handful of locations that heavily restrict or outright ban the use of VPNs that aren’t approved by the government. The countries listed in the infographic below are locations where non-government approved VPNs are banned.
I strongly recommend you check your local laws and regulations surrounding VPNs before connecting to a server, as you could potentially face severe repercussions if you’re caught using a restricted service. My team and I don’t condone participating in any illegal activity.
Does a VPN make me anonymous online?
While many VPNs claim to offer complete anonymity when browsing the internet, the truth is that a VPN provides privacy, not total anonymity. A VPN will assign you a new IP address from a server in a different location, but no VPN can operate without seeing your online activity — otherwise it can’t address DNS requests or troubleshoot connections.
Despite this, a good VPN service won’t keep logs or store identifiable data that can be traced back to your online activity. This makes a VPN connection much more private (and anonymous!) than your regular ISP connection.
The difference between privacy and anonymity is simple: privacy is like a shield, blocking prying eyes from seeing what you’re doing, while anonymity is like a mask — others can see your actions, but can’t see that it’s you performing them. A VPN provides layers of privacy and anonymity, but it can’t keep you completely unidentifiable online.
How do I know my VPN is working?
The quickest and easiest way to tell if your VPN is working is to run an IP leak test after you’ve connected to a server. A VPN should always mask your true IP address, replacing it with one from the server you’ve chosen. If the IP leak test shows a different IP address than your regular IP, the VPN is working. If you can still see your true IP address, your VPN connection is leaking your data and isn’t working correctly.
What’s the best VPN for Netflix?
The best VPN for Netflix is ExpressVPN. Its fast speeds, global server network, and top-tier encryption mean you can easily access your local Netflix account when connected to ExpressVPN.
Bear in mind that only the best VPNs can give you access to your local Netflix site when you’re traveling. Using a VPN with Netflix doesn’t go against the terms and conditions of the site. However, Netflix will restrict your viewing to global content rather than regional content if it detects a VPN or proxy. Using a service like ExpressVPN masks your VPN traffic, so you can access your local Netflix content library when you’re abroad.
Can you trust a free VPN?
You can’t fully trust free VPNs. The only VPNs you can truly trust are premium services like the recommendations listed above. These VPNs have strong security and strict privacy policies, ensuring your online activity and personal data are safe while you’re connected. Plus, these premium VPNs are trustworthy — they haven’t been embroiled in scandals and won’t sell your data to shady third parties, advertisers, or the government.
There are some safe and secure free VPNs, which are free versions of premium services (or “freemium” VPNs). These free VPNs won’t log or store your data either, but you’ll find they may be missing security features like a kill switch, split tunneling, or server obfuscation. They also have other limitations, like data caps, server restrictions, and speed throttling, which means you can’t use them as much as you want to.
Instead of a limited free service, I recommend using a VPN with a money-back guarantee, like CyberGhost. You can take advantage of CyberGhost’s 45-day refund policy to use the service risk-free — ideal if you only need a VPN for a short time. Once you’re done, you can claim a full refund and have your money back within a week.
Can I be tracked while using a VPN?
Yes, you can be tracked while using a VPN. A top-quality VPN will protect your privacy to a certain extent — but there are other ways you can be tracked even if you’re connected to a VPN server:
- Logging in to your personal accounts: If you access your Netflix account, Gmail, or Facebook profile, the service will know it’s you. It will track your activity while you’re using it, even if you’re using a VPN.
- Data leaks: DNS requests, IP data, and WebRTC can all leak despite your VPN’s encrypted connection. Make sure you use a VPN with its own DNS servers and built-in data leak protection.
- Cookies and digital fingerprinting: These are methods for websites and advertisers to track your online habits, regardless of your VPN connection.
- Malware: Malicious software like keyloggers, ransomware, and spyware can track your activities, login details, and more.
A VPN will keep your browsing activity secure from your ISP, hackers, or anyone else watching. However, it can’t stop you from being tracked entirely. If you download a VPN with poor privacy practices, it’s possible to get caught even if you’re connected through Tor or using advanced features (like multi-hop or obfuscation).
You can’t always trust the VPN’s marketing claims either — many “no-logs” VPNs have been found to be the opposite. I recommend choosing a VPN with a proven no-logs policy and a strong privacy track record, like ExpressVPN.
Do VPNs protect against hackers and malware?
A VPN can help to defend your devices from hackers and malware. By disguising your true location and encrypting your data, a VPN can stop hackers from finding out who you are. This protects you from identity theft, fraud, and even issues like DDoS attacks when gaming online.
Most VPNs don’t block malware. Some have malicious ad blockers, like CyberGhost, which won’t display marketing content if it detects malware. However, a VPN isn’t an effective tool against viruses, spyware, ransomware, and other malware — VPNs simply aren’t designed to block these kinds of threats. Instead, you should subscribe to a top-tier antivirus service to use alongside your VPN, as this is a more comprehensive solution.
Do VPNs keep logs?
Yes, most VPNs do keep logs. However, the best VPNs won’t log any identifying data. This means none of your online activity while connected to the VPN is linked to your personal information.
Should a VPN be left on at all times?
You can leave your VPN on at all times, but you don’t have to. The best VPNs have unlimited data and won’t slow your internet speeds, so you don’t have to worry about switching them off — you won’t even notice it’s on. Plus, your VPN should have a kill switch to cut access to the internet, protecting your data if the VPN connection is interrupted.
If you’re very concerned about your online privacy or live in a country with tough internet restrictions, it makes sense to leave your VPN connected at all times. I’d also recommend keeping your VPN on or using a VPN with an auto-connect feature with your mobile devices — this will ensure your data security when you switch between networks, especially if you connect to public WiFi.
Does a VPN slow down your internet connection?
A VPN will cause a minor slowdown to your internet connection. The best VPNs won’t noticeably slow down your connection as they are designed to mitigate the speed loss caused by encryption. But you can expect some reduction in speed because your data has to travel via the VPN server, rather than directly to its online destination. Plus, the VPN is encrypting and decrypting your data for safety, which takes a little longer.
However, different VPNs experience different speed reductions, so it’s important to make comparisons. Despite slight drops in speed, ExpressVPN and CyberGhost were consistently able to stream, torrent, game, and browse without delays.
Your internet speed will also vary depending on the server you choose. Distant server connections increase the amount of time it takes to send your data and receive a response. Connecting to a local server will always result in a faster connection, so make sure you choose a VPN with thousands of global servers like ExpressVPN.
Which devices do VPNs work on?
The best VPNs will support multiple operating systems and devices. All of the recommended VPNs above work on Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Linux, Chrome, Kodi, smart TVs, routers, and more. You can also configure a VPN with your Samsung smart TV, game console, and other devices that don’t natively support VPN apps. Your VPN will have detailed setup guides available on its help website.
You can also use your VPN on multiple devices at the same time. For example, CyberGhost supports up to 7 simultaneous connections, so you don’t have to worry about choosing which devices to secure.
What’s the most secure VPN protocol?
Overall, the most secure protocol is OpenVPN. All of the top VPNs support OpenVPN, which has long been known for its security, speed, and reliability. Many VPNs now also support the WireGuard protocol, which is designed for speed and security and is much more lightweight than OpenVPN — just 4,000 lines of code compared to OpenVPN’s 600,000.
Other secure protocols include ExpressVPN’s proprietary Lightway protocol and IKEv2 (good for mobile devices).
In Summary – What is a VPN and How Can it Help You?
The most common reason for using a VPN is to protect your privacy each day while you’re browsing the internet. All great VPNs have military-grade security and privacy features to keep your information safe from prying eyes. VPNs can also help you to access servers in your country while you travel abroad, allowing you to retain access to your favorite streaming libraries and local news sites.
After testing 30+ VPNs, I found that the best VPN overall is ExpressVPN. It has a global network of reliable servers, superfast speeds for streaming and file downloads, and top-level security. You can even test ExpressVPN out completely risk-free as it’s backed by a 30-day money-back guarantee — if you don’t like it, you can easily get a full refund.
Glossary of Common VPN Terms
- 5/9/14 Eyes alliance: International security alliances that work together to collect and share mass surveillance data. Any provider based in a country that’s part of one of these alliances could record and pass on your online activities. Here are the countries in each alliance:
|5 Eyes||9 Eyes||14 Eyes|
- Encryption: Scrambling data with a code so it can be transmitted safely.
- Global Content: Content which is blocked in some countries but can be accessed with a VPN.
- IP Leaks: When your VPN fails to hide your IP address.
- ISP: Stands for Internet Service Provider. Your ISP is the company you pay to provide you with Internet access.
- Kill Switch: A VPN feature that automatically kills your internet connection if it isn’t secure. This makes sure your data is always encrypted and helps you avoid IP leaks.
- Logs: Data your VPN provider keeps about you and your online activities.
- Multi-Hop: A VPN feature that routes your internet connection through 2 VPN servers (instead of 1), making it even more difficult to trace your device.
- Proxy Server: A server that acts as an intermediary between your device and the rest of the Internet. This increases your privacy as you aren’t directly communicating with other servers, meaning your IP address isn’t visible.
- Router: A device that sends data between computer networks. Your ISP usually provides you with one to allow you to access the Internet.
- TOR: A piece of software that allows you to communicate anonymously online. It sends your data through a volunteer-run worldwide network to make it very difficult for anyone to find out where it came from.
- VPN Client: A program you install on your device which allows you to connect to a VPN server.
- VPN Protocol: The set of processes used by VPN clients and servers to communicate securely with each other. Some protocols are more secure than others.
- VPN Server: A computer managed by your VPN provider which you can connect to using your VPN client. Your data is routed through the server, hiding your true location and IP address.
- VPN Service: A service that increases your security by encrypting your Internet traffic and masking your IP address. It also allows you to bypass censorship by appearing to be in a different location.