You might be looking to set up the best VPN software to make sure your online activity is protected, but they can also be hugely useful for unblocking streaming content, restricted sites, and for evading advertiser tracking on Google and elsewhere.
However, if you aren’t hugely techy, working out how to set up a VPN can seem daunting – so much so that it could put you off using them entirely. So, here we’re going to demystify VPN setup, and quickly run down the process of setting up a VPN on any device, be it on your smartphone, PC, streaming box or router.
If you want to skip down to the section detailing how to set up a VPN on your relevant operating system or device, the links below will take you straight there. If you want to take your time and absorb every last drop of information, though, all you need to do is keep scrolling.
- How does a VPN work?
- How to setup a VPN on Windows and Mac
- How to setup a VPN on mobile
- How to setup a VPN on a streaming device
- How to setup a VPN on a router
- How to setup VPN advanced settings
- How to choose between different VPN protocols
- Which VPNs do we recommend?
How does a VPN work?
Briefly, a VPN reroutes your Internet connection away from the server owned by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and towards its own. That server is fully encrypted, and the primary function is to keep your online activity hidden from your ISP. That means your ISP can’t filter or block what content you watch, or slow your Internet down when you use too much bandwidth.
A VPN’s servers and IPs are also shared between all users, so your traffic is anonymous to anyone watching. This is useful as it evades targeted advertising and keeps you more private.
One of the most popular VPN uses is to access geo-blocked streaming content. This is possible by connecting to a VPN server in a different country, which will subsequently trick sites like Netflix into showing you the library of a different country. Not every VPN can do this, but there are plenty of Netflix VPN services that are very effective.
- 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
- Read up on how to watch HBO Max from anywhere
How to setup a VPN on Windows and Mac
In this article, we’re going to be using ExpressVPN as an example, but the process will be much the same to setup a VPN from any reputable provider.
After signing up to ExpressVPN on its website, you’ll be given an activation code. Once you’ve downloaded the client, you’ll be prompted to input your activation code to get started – this is the same for the ExpressVPN Windows 10 VPN and Mac VPN.
When you first launch ExpressVPN, you’ll be prompted to allow some system access permissions. You’ll need to accept these permissions for the VPN to function properly, but if you downloaded the app from the ExpressVPN website, you can be sure that it’s safe to do so.
You’ll also be asked to accept a couple of non-essential things like whether the client launches on start-up, and if you want to send crash reports to aid the development of the apps. You can accept or deny these with no detrimental effects on the VPN.
If you don’t want to adjust any other settings, ExpressVPN will now be ready to go. If you do want to adjust more settings to tailor your VPN setup, you’ll find our quick guide further down the page below our advice on individual operating systems.
How to setup a VPN on mobile
Firstly, you’ll need to sign up to ExpressVPN and receive your activation code. We then recommend heading to the ‘Setup’ page on the ExpressVPN website, which will direct you to the app store to download the app. We recommend doing this for any VPN you choose rather than directly searching the App Store as it avoids the chance of you downloading a malicious copycat app that uses a similar logo and name.
Once you’ve downloaded the app from the App Store, all you need to do is open it. When you first connect you’ll be asked to accept some system permissions which are essential, and you’ll also be asked to submit user data, which you can deny.
After that you can connect and close the app, or adjust your settings to tailor your experience – we explore this more further down the page.
- More: Get fully protected with the best mobile VPN
How to set up a VPN on a streaming device
If your device supports Smart DNS, and you VPN does too, you can follow the steps on your VPN’s website for setup on your particular device. ExpressVPN, for example, offers comprehensive guides for Samsung Smart TVs, LG TVs, Apple TV, and more
The VPN setup process depends on what OS your device uses. So, if you’re installing a VPN on your Fire Stick, Fire TV, Android TV or any other device that runs on Google’s Android OS, the steps will be much the same as setting up on an Android smartphone above. The only difference is that you may have to navigate to the VPN on the App Store yourself – so be careful which app you choose to download.
If you’re using a Samsung or LG Smart TV, or an Apple TV, you won’t be able to use true VPN connections. That’s why when running down the best Smart TV VPN services we prioritise Smart DNS as well as excellent VPN connections.
All VPNs should have fairly in-depth guides on how to get Smart DNS up and running. For example, ExpressVPN provides a detailed guide on using Smart DNS with Apple TV, and plenty more besides.
How to set up a VPN on a router
Unfortunately, though, some devices such Roku don’t support VPNs or Smart DNS. In this case, you’ll need to install a router VPN. While having a VPN on your router can be very useful if you’ve got a lot of devices to cover or want to protect a device that doesn’t support VPNs natively, they can be much harder to install, and aren’t as easy to adjust.
We’d only suggest using one if it’s your only option and you fully understand what you’re doing, but it's a great way to get VPN protection at the source.
You first step will be to sign up to your VPN as usual. ExpressVPN is again our top choice here, as it has a relatively intuitive router app that makes the process much simpler. Then, it’s worth making sure your router device can support a VPN – if not, you’ll need to buy a new one.
Once you’re signed up and know you router is supported, we strongly suggest you follow the router setup instructions on your chosen VPN’s support site. ExpressVPN has comprehensive guides, and another provider that has detailed walkthroughs is IPVanish.
How to set up VPN advanced settings
Once you’ve got your VPN up and running, you may well want to set up more advanced features like split tunneling, a kill switch, and change protocols.
If you’re using ExpressVPN, even the most complex task is fairly simple. All you need to do is head into the Options screen (found by tapping on the three lines in the top-left of both the mobile and desktop apps).
Most other consumer VPNs operate in the much the same way, but it may be trickier with some than others to access more in-depth settings. Remember, you can always browse the support site or contact the live chat (if available) for assistance.
How to choose between different VPN protocols
Protocols are one of the least-understood aspects of VPNs, so we’ll briefly run down what options may be on offer, and why you might use them.
OpenVPN is the industry standard, and is widely regarded as a good compromise between absolute security and connection speeds. In the right hands it’s capable of speeds well over 200Mbps, but only the top fast VPN services can reach that – others lag far behind.
If you use mobile devices, you may notice your default protocol is IKEv2. This is thanks to the fact that IKEv2 is better suited to changing network – switching from Wi-Fi to mobile data, for example. It can also deliver marginally faster speeds than OpenVPN, but it’s more easily blocked by a network administrator.
WireGuard is the new kid on the block, having been developed from the ground up in the past few years. While it was previously seen as a somewhat experimental protocol, it’s now being more widely adopted by leading VPNs like NordVPN and Surfshark. WireGuard’s main advantage is that it’s written in very concise code, which means it’s able to deliver far faster speeds compared to OpenVPN while maintaining top-tier privacy.
Some VPNs have developed their own protocols. ExpressVPN has recently launched its LightWay protocol, and Hotspot Shield’s Catapult Hydra protocol delivers the fastest connections on the market. These range in efficacy, but for top provider like the two just mentioned, you can expect them to deliver good privacy alongside excellent speeds.
In general, we’d stick with your VPN’s suggested protocol, but when you need maximum privacy we’d recommend going with OpenVPN TCP – it’s proven to be extremely secure, and still delivers good performance.
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
ExpressVPN is our top choice for just about any use, be that staying private online or watching overseas streaming content. With over 3,000 servers in 94 countries you'll get a huge selection to choose from, the apps are super simple to install and use, and you can even try it risk-free for 30 days. What's more, Tom's Guide readers can claim three months FREE on any 12-month plan – what's not to like?
Incredible value at less than $2 a month
Even though it's one of the very cheapest options available, Surfshark 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 $2.50 a month it's great value, and it also offers 30 days for you to make up your mind.
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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.