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How to set up a VPN on your mobile or PC

how to set up a vpn
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Simply put, the best VPN (virtual private network) can give you privacy and peace of mind no matter where you are, where you travel, or what you're browsing.

By providing security and anonymity on your connection – whether that's your desktop PC, mobile device, or even your router or PlayStation – you'll be able to spoof your location to access streaming content, bypass ISP restrictions, and browse safe in the knowledge that no one can track or record your activity. 

For anyone who is curious about a VPN and how it all works, the good news is that the software for running a VPN has become remarkably simple to use. Gone are the days of configuring your own server, and now you can tap into vast networks with locations all over the world in just one click.

Of course, you can still set up your own VPN server, but for the vast majority of users and practicality's sake we'd advise going with an out-the-box solution.

ExpressVPN and NordVPN are two examples of where you can sign up, download, install and connect in minutes. But the best thing? These clients look just like any other app, and are as simple to use as Spotify or Slack – if not simpler.

So, below we'll take you through the process of downloading and installing your VPN, then connecting, and finally what you can do with this incredibly powerful bit of software.

If all you want is the top VPN on the market, head over to ExpressVPN (opens in new tab). With a huge range of servers and incredible functionality, it offers an all-in-one privacy package that is yet to be beaten. Plus, Tom's Guide readers can claim three free months on a 12-month plan.

Signing up to a VPN

In the early days of computing, setting up a VPN was much more difficult. You didn’t necessarily need to know any programming techniques, but configuration was complex and daunting for most. These days, setting up the client takes all of about five minutes, if that.

Once you've headed to the website of your VPN of choice – our top-rated VPN is ExpressVPN (opens in new tab) – the process generally starts by selecting which plan you'd like to purchase. Then you'll set up a username and password, usually verified through email for an extra layer of security.

You may find that different VPNs get you to download the client first, or perhaps you'll set up your account before you pay, but generally these steps are pretty much the same no matter which provider you choose to go with. However it works, the best providers make it as simple as possible and guide you every step of the way.

  • Don't want to pay for a VPN? Here are the best free VPN services
  • Save money with our guide to the best cheap VPN services
  • Need a provider for Apple? Check out the best Mac VPN

How to set up a vpn

(Image credit: ExpressVPN)

Setting up and installing your desktop VPN

Once you've entered your basic details and downloaded the client, you'll need to run the program. You'll probably find it in your downloads folder, and upon first opening it you might be faced with some popups asking you to allow the VPN to change settings on your computer. 

While this can seem odd, and many people are rightfully wary of permissions pop-ups, you'll have to accept these for the VPN to function. If you're worried about the legitimacy of a VPN, make sure to pick a service that features on one of our guides and head to it through a link on that page – that way you can be sure you've got a genuine version of a trustworthy product. We strongly recommend not downloading clients from third-party sources, as they can come bundled with malware (opens in new tab).

Once you've done that, the VPN client will open. Pretty much every service we recommend has a quick-start feature, which means you can press a button – usually a big, obvious one – and get connected right away. Sometimes you'll have to select a server, but that's as difficult as it'll get.

More advanced users might want to investigate any settings available, and something useful to read up on is the function of different protocols. Common protocols include OpenVPN and IKEv2, and these perform better in different situations – think about what you plan on doing with your VPN, and perhaps change to a better-suited protocol.

Installing a mobile VPN client

Much like before, once you've signed up to your chosen VPN, you'll have to download your client. If you're on iOS, you'll have to download your iPhone VPN app from the App Store. For an Android VPN, you can often download the app from the Google Play Store or download the .APK file directly from the provider's website.

However, we'd strongly recommend going to the 'apps' or 'downloads' area of your VPN's website and then following a link to your respective app store. This is because if you directly search the store, you could inadvertently download a copycat app with a very similar name. Going straight from the website ensures you'll download the right app.

Once you've downloaded the app, it's simply a case of allowing permissions and logging in. Then all you'll need to do is connect.

how to set up a vpn

(Image credit: Petter Lagson)

How to choose a server

Many VPNs will give you a wide range of locations that you can connect to. Unless you're looking to stream blocked content from a certain region, you'll probably want to connect to the closest server for the best speeds. 

So, if you're in the Midwest, you could open up the United States tab to see what servers are available. Then you might see a Chicago server, so that would probably be your first port of call.

And now you're connected to a VPN! You've made your internet more secure and protected your personal information in a matter of minutes – but what else can you do?

What to do next

Once you have established your VPN connection, it’s time to start seeing what you can do with it. That could be anything from using it as a Netflix VPN to avoiding blacklisted websites with a China VPN. Find out more in our comprehensive guide to all the VPN uses.

However, it's worth noting that while a VPN can make you and your activity anonymous, it doesn't give you carte blanche to do whatever you want online – illegal acts are still illegal, so don't go torrenting all that software you can't justify buying.

Also, it's worth investigating any restrictions you might face if you travel abroad. Although incredibly unlikely, countries like China and some Middle-Eastern nations have strict rules to do with VPNs and have been known to prosecute. So, for example, even if you might need a UAE VPN to access your favorite sites in Dubai, be aware of the law and how you want to interpret it.

Which VPNs do we recommend?

There are a number of excellent VPNs on the market, but there's one that, in our testing, has proved itself to be head and shoulders above the rest. That VPN is ExpressVPN

The top-rated VPN service available today (opens in new tab)
Simply put, ExpressVPN is the best service, and has been for a long time. With super-simple apps and easy connections for the newbies, but serious power and configuration under the hood for those that want to tinker, it offers the best of both worlds without compromise.

You'll get unlimited access to over 3,000 servers in 94 countries, and you'll also be able to access pretty much every streaming service wherever you are. If you're not sure, Express also offers a generous 30-day money-back guarantee, and Tom's Guide readers can claim three months absolutely FREE when signing up to a 12-month plan. What's not to like?

Incredible value at less than $2 a month (opens in new tab)
Even though it's one of the very cheapest options available, Surfshark (opens in new tab) is also one of the best. It might not quite have the advanced functionality of Express, but it comes close, and also delivers all that the vast majority of users will need. At less than $2 a month it's great value, and it also offers 30 days for you to make up your mind.

Security-focused VPN from the privacy giant (opens in new tab)
If you've only ever heard of one VPN before, it's likely to be NordVPN. With a huge 5,000+ server network spanning 59 countries and incredible 2048-bit double encryption, it's one of the safest bets around. 

Mo is VPN Editor at Tom's Guide. Day-to-day he oversees VPN, privacy, and cybersecurity content, and also undertakes independent testing of VPN services to ensure his recommendations are accurate and up to date. When he's not getting stuck into the nitty-gritty settings of a VPN you've never heard of, you'll find him working on his Peugeot 205 GTi or watching Peep Show instead of finally putting up those shelves.