A beginner's guide to VPNs

NordVPN connected
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A virtual private network (VPN) encrypts your online data and sends it through a tunnel by redirecting your internet connection from your ISP’s server to its own. This way, you remain hidden on the internet and snoopers can’t track your online activities, let alone steal your information to use it against you.

Now, the best VPNs do more than just keep you protected on the internet—you can also use them to enhance your gaming experience, watch live sports, torrent safely, maximize your bandwidth, and sidestep geo-restrictions and content blocks to access restricted movies, TV shows, game sales, and more.

However, there are one too many VPN providers on the market, so how do you zero in on the best one for your needs? That's where the Tom’s Guide experts (who test VPNs day in and day out!) come in. We’ve leveraged their experience and expert views to prepare this one-stop guide for VPN beginners. We’ll tell you how to set up a VPN, whether it’s worth it, what are the top 3 VPNs to get, and how should you choose a VPN.

How VPNs keep you safe online

A VPN anonymizes you on the internet, masking your IP address (your device’s digital signature) by routing your internet traffic through one of its many remote servers in the world—and not your actual location. 

IP masking, combined with the VPN’s ability to encrypt your data as it moves through a safe tunnel to its destination, makes it impossible for nearby hackers, websites that use cookies, your internet service provider (ISP), the hotspot operator (if you’re on Wi-Fi that’s not yours), and even governments to track your online activities.

Almost every high-quality VPN provider comes with security features, such as a kill switch and leak protection. A kill switch is an essential part of a VPN’s security aspect as it blocks your device’s internet access if the VPN connection drops (because of a weak Wi-Fi signal, server problem, overloaded network, etc). This way, it protects you from accidentally revealing your real IP address and your online activities to prying eyes.

Depending on your needs, you may also look for VPNs that offer split tunneling, using which you can decide what part of your internet traffic is routed through the VPN’s encrypted tunnel and what passes through as normal internet traffic.

However, despite all that a VPN brings to the table from a security standpoint, it cannot prevent malware, viruses, or ransomware. If you’re after comprehensive protection from all sorts of cyber threats, we recommend using an antivirus that comes with a VPN built-in or vice versa, such as NordVPN, Surfshark and Trend Micro, among others. 

How to set up a VPN

Here, we’ve taken ExpressVPN to demonstrate the process of setting up a VPN. Ideally, a good beginner VPN will be easy to set up as well as provide detailed guides for installing and activating the VPN on every single device, including PC, mobile, smart TV, gaming console, and router. 

Start by signing up to ExpressVPN on its website following which you’ll be given an activation code. Next, download the VPN app for your particular device type (Windows, Mac, iOS, or Android) and enter the activation code when asked.

It’s worth noting that we recommend downloading the VPN client from the provider’s website directly as it’ll ensure that you don’t accidentally download a malicious copycat app. 

Launch the ExpressVPN app and grant the system access permissions it asks for—don’t worry, it’s absolutely safe to do so. If you are concerned about the app processing your data, there are also a few non-essential permissions you can deny, such as permission to send crash reports to aid the development of the apps and permission to submit user data.

If you want to set up a VPN on a streaming device, you can follow the provider’s setup guide for your particular device. For example, ExpressVPN has comprehensive guides for Samsung Smart TVs, LG TVs, Apple TVs, and more. It's also a top-notch PS4 VPN, Roku VPN, and Fire Stick VPN.

However, if your device, such as Roku, doesn’t support Smart DNS or native VPN connections, you’ll have to take a slightly more complicated route and install the VPN on your router. Still, the best router VPN (ExpressVPN is our top choice here as well) comes with intuitive router apps and meticulously drawn-out guides to simplify the setup process. 

How to use VPNs to stream content online

Netflix, BBC iPlayer, and pretty much every other streaming service offer different content catalogs in different locations and will even change which TV shows and movies are available in different regions' catalogs, meaning you may not be able to access your favorites even if they are technically still available. For example, Silence of the Lambs (previously available on UK Netflix) is now only available on Netflix in Canada—no other Netflix library has it.

The best VPNs can help you evade geo-blocks and access region-restricted movies and TV shows by changing your IP address to make it look like you’re physically present in the country whose content you wish to watch (for which your chosen VPN must have a server there—physical or virtual). 

All you have to do is sign up for the best streaming VPN (we recommend using ExpressVPN or NordVPN), launch the VPN app, connect to a server location of your choice, open the streaming site on your browser, and have fun watching your favorite TV show or movie.

Similarly, you can use VPNs to bypass other content blocks as well. For instance, China has banned Whatsapp and Australia & India have banned TikTok, so if you plan on traveling to any of these locations and want to access the platform of your choice, make sure you install a high-quality travel VPN. What’s more, VPNs also give you access international game sales and shopping discounts that may be unavailable in your region. 

How to choose a VPN

One of the biggest considerations when picking a VPN as a beginner is the provider’s ease of use. It must have simple, no-nonsense apps with one-click connectivity and a clearly laid-out list of servers—and other settings should also be easy to access.

Next, look for a VPN with fast and reliable connections. Good speeds mean that irrespective of whether you’re using the VPN for gaming, streaming, or casual browsing, you won’t be bothered by pesky lags and buffering. 

The number of servers under a provider’s belt is just as important—a nicely spread out network of servers around the globe will allow you to connect from and to anywhere, including hard-to-crack locations whose content you may want to access.

Speaking of content, a VPN with powerful unblocking capabilities should be your priority if you want to stream your favorite movies, TV shows, and gaming titles that may be blocked in your region.

VPNs come in all shapes and sizes—and prices—so it’s crucial to strike a balance between the amount you’re willing to shell out and the features you absolutely want. Ideally, these features should include security essentials like a kill switch, leak protection, a strict no-logs policy, and strong encryption, as well as enough simultaneous connections so that you can protect multiple devices.

Also, note that while high-quality free VPNs can give you a great feel of what VPNs are like, they’re restricted in their usage and may be ineffective when trying to protect yourself.

Lastly, make sure there are ample support options—24/7 live chat, email, and/or phone so that you can always receive help the moment you need it.

The best VPN for beginners in 2024

We evaluated and compared dozens of VPN providers and prioritized factors like ease of use, customer support, price, and, of course, security to zero in on the 3 best VPN services for beginners. 

1. The best VPN overall:NordVPN

1. <a href="http://go.nordvpn.net/aff_c?offer_id=564&url_id=10992&aff_id=3013&aff_click_id=hawk-custom-tracking&aff_sub2=hawk-article-url" data-link-merchant="go.nordvpn.net"" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">The best VPN overall: NordVPN
With Nord, you get a world-class VPN, a built-in antivirus, a password manager, and ad-blocking, meaning it’s an ideal choice for those new to cybersecurity and would like an all-in-one solution that keeps their devices and info safe. 

It’s also the <a href="https://www.tomsguide.com/best-picks/best-fast-vpn" data-link-merchant="tomsguide.com"" data-link-merchant="go.nordvpn.net"" target="_blank">fastest VPN and the very best at unblocking Netflix—and there’s friendly 24/7 support in case you get stuck somewhere. Try it out size risk-free with a 30-day money-back guarantee and see how it compares to ExpressVPN. 

2. The easiest VPN to use: ExpressVPN

2. <a href="https://go.expressvpn.com/c/4550836/1330033/16063?subId1=hawk-custom-tracking&sharedId=hawk&u=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.expressvpn.com%2Foffer%2Frecommended-deal%3Foffer%3D3monthsfree" data-link-merchant="expressvpn.com"" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">The easiest VPN to use: ExpressVPN
ExpressVPN not only has rock-solid security and a vast network of servers to 24/7 customer support but also has easy-to-use apps with a one-click connect function that makes it a great VPN for beginners. Plus, it can unblock just about every streaming site.

Yes, it’s admittedly not the cheapest, but a 30-day money-back guarantee will allow you to try the service risk-free—and Tom's Guide readers can also enjoy 3 months of extra protection and a year’s cloud storage Backblaze for free by signing up for a 12-month plan.    

3. The best cheap VPN on the market: Surfshark
Surfshark is an excellent buy for beginners who don’t want to splurge on a premium provider. You get unparalleled speeds, powerful unblocking, excellent security, and easy-to-use apps across the board all for less than $2.50 a month

3. <a href="http://get.surfshark.net/aff_c?offer_id=61&aff_sub3=i%3Dbest&aff_id=1691&aff_click_id=hawk-custom-tracking&aff_sub2=hawk-article-url" data-link-merchant="get.surfshark.net"" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">The best cheap VPN on the market: Surfshark
Surfshark is an excellent buy for beginners who don’t want to splurge on a premium provider. You get unparalleled speeds, powerful unblocking, excellent security, and easy-to-use apps across the board all for less than $2.50 a month.

A big selling point is Surfshark’s unlimited simultaneous connections, meaning you can install the app on every one of your devices. There’s also a 30-day money-back guarantee so that you can try it out without risking a single penny.

Using a VPN FAQs

Are VPNs safe?

Yes, VPNs are generally safe to use. If you don't want to second-guess your choice of a secure VPN, make sure you pick one from our list of the best VPN services—all of them follow a strict no-logs policy, support the most secure protocols (WireGuard, OpenVPN, and IKEv2), offer industry-standard AES-256 encryption, and come with security features like a kill switch and leak protection.

Is it legal to use a VPN?

In most countries around the world, using a VPN is legal as long as you use it for legitimate purposes such as protecting your privacy. However, if you use a VPN for illegal activities, such as sidestepping a game provider's Ts&Cs or downloading copyrighted content, it can be considered a crime regardless of your location.

It's also worth noting that there are countries like North Korea, China, Russia, Turkey, UAE, and Oman that do not allow VPNs to operate freely—they've either banned all VPNs or allowed only government-approved providers.

Are VPNs easy to use?

Most leading VPN services, especially the best beginner VPNs, are all very easy to set up and use on various devices, including Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, Smart TV, and router. 

For instance, our top recommendation ExpressVPN boasts an intuitive one-click connect function so that you connect once and you're always protected. Also, its proprietary Lightway protocol automatically picks the best server and encryption for your needs. 

What is the best VPN for beginners?

ExpressVPN is the best VPN for beginners, thanks to intuitive interfaces and clean, simple designs across all its clients. You get a one-click connect functionality wherein you just tap the power button and you're instantly protected.

It also shows a list of suggested servers so that you can quickly establish a fast and reliable connection—and its 24/7 customer support that's always ready to help you out should you run into any issues is a much-needed perk that makes it a must-have for those new to VPNs.

How we test VPNs

To make sure that we only recommend the best VPNs, Tom’s Guide experts get hands-on with every single VPN provider (popular and unpopular) every 6 months or so, conducting a series of tests to evaluate their ease of use, performance, usability, security, and value for money.

We follow our VPN testing methodology and begin at the provider’s website where we evaluate its claims and privacy policies. Next, we install the provider’s apps on all mainstream operating systems (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and Linux) and evaluate whether security essentials like kill switch and leak protection work as advertised. 

While we’re fiddling with the apps, we also conclude whether the VPN is easy to use and value for money—to gauge if we can recommend it to beginners.

Additionally, we also test the VPN’s speeds across various devices, apps, and locations to get an accurate reading. Lastly, we put the provider’s unblocking capabilities under the scanner by throwing multiple big-name streaming services like Netflix and Disney at it.

Disclaimer

We test and review VPN services in the context of legal recreational uses. For example:
1. Accessing a service from another country (subject to the terms and conditions of that service).
2. Protecting your online security and strengthening your online privacy when abroad.
We do not support or condone the illegal or malicious use of VPN services. Consuming pirated content that is paid-for is neither endorsed nor approved by Future Publishing.

Olivia Powell
Tech Software Commissioning Editor

Olivia joined Tom's Guide in October 2023 as part of the core Future Tech Software team, and is the Commissioning Editor for Tech Software. With a background in cybersecurity, Olivia stays up-to-date with all things cyber and creates content across TechRadar Pro, TechRadar and Tom’s Guide. She is particularly interested in threat intelligence, detection and response, data security, fraud prevention and the ever-evolving threat landscape.

With contributions from