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Common mistakes to avoid when using a VPN

Man with glasses and beard rests head in hand as he stares wearily at laptop screen.
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As we become more aware of personal privacy online, the best VPN services are becoming more and more widespread and are no longer the preserve of techies. In fact, VPNs have become so mainstream that August 19 is now officially International VPN Day, part of a cybersecurity awareness project led by NordVPN

While that might seem a little over the top, getting people understanding the benefits of VPNs is important, especially in this age of data mining, geo-blocking, and working from home.

But simply switching your VPN on isn’t enough to keep you truly protected – even though they might be marketed that way. Plus, for those new to the area and just dipping their toes, there can be a lot of jargon to wade through before you get to any worthwhile advice.

So, here we’ll be running down how to make the most of your VPN by outlining six common mistakes both new and experienced users make – and how to avoid them yourself.

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1. Assuming a VPN is a silver bullet

Like we mentioned above, a VPN isn’t a one-stop shop for Internet privacy. While they hide your IP and in the process can help you avoid trackers and other malicious parties looking to identify you, the way you behave online is arguably even more important. Plus, many people feel invincible online when using a VPN, when in reality they’re putting themselves at risk.

So, for example, social networks like Facebook are often used to log in to sites and apps, and by doing that you immediately identify yourself – your IP is really of no concern. Going further than that, logging into social media at all is an easy way to identify you, no matter what network you’re connected to.

Almost every site on the web uses cookies, and one of their main uses is to identify you and link you to previous activity. They’re rarely malicious – they’re used for saving passwords, remembering what’s in your cart, or targeted advertising – but their purpose is antithetical to true privacy, and unless you delete them, they'll still be there when you switch on your VPN.

Using incognito mode and setting up ‘burner’ emails for logging in to sites is a quick fix, and using a VPN gives an effective layer of separation between you and your activity, while also hiding it from your ISP. There are further steps you could take – like using Tor Browser, or even an OS like Tails – but for the everyday user, just taking the time to consider what you’re inputting online should be enough.

2. Not keeping it on at all times

Another common mistake is only using a VPN ‘when you really need to’. So, for example, if you’re using public Wi-Fi for general browsing and then want to log on to your online banking, many users might just switch on the VPN for the inputting of sensitive banking details, and switch off when they’re done.

If you’re genuinely concerned about keeping your information private on public Wi-Fi, you should be have your VPN active before you connect and only turn it once once you’ve disconnected. As we outlined above, social media is a simple and effective identifier, and if you’re unlucky to be subject to a man-in-the-middle attack, there’s plenty more juicy information available than your banking details.

However, we do understand that in some cases a VPN can make it less convenient to do daily tasks, so if there’s an occasion you might be tempted to switch off your VPN for a particular reason, we’d use the common split tunnelling feature available in most top-tier VPNs. This way, you can whitelist a certain website or app while still maintaining VPN protection for every other connection.

3. Not checking your settings

Many VPNs are perfectly serviceable out the box, but when you’re first getting started it’s important to check out the settings to make sure all the features you signed up for are activated.

For example, the kill switch – which disconnects you from the Internet in the event that your VPN drops out – is a simple and effective way of avoiding any unwanted data breaches. In many apps, though, this is disabled by default. A quick trip to the settings menu will get you access to everything you VPN can do, including the essential kill switch and the aforementioned split tunnelling.

A router beaming our a VPN connection

(Image credit: Anton Shaparenko/Shutterstock)

4. Using a free service

Free VPN services have their place – for those not looking to invest any money they can get around basic restrictions on some networks and should keep your data safe in a pinch if you’re starting to get concerned about public Wi-Fi networks.

However, if you really want to make the most of what a VPN can do, a paid service – even just a cheap VPN – will do the job far better.

Unlike most free options, many of the top paid providers have been verified as zero-logging, meaning that they don’t store any data on your activity, and if forced by a government to hand over intelligence, there won’t be any beans to spill.

Plus, you won’t be able to keep most free services active all the time thanks to data limits and restricted speeds, and the fact that by design they’re unable to access streaming content.

5. Not using support

When things go wrong, you can often hit a brick wall if it’s not a simple fix – don’t worry, we’ve been there too. However, if you’re using a top quality VPN, you’ll also have comprehensive support in the form of email, a knowledgebase of articles and, most importantly, live chat.

As well as being another benefit over free services, having access to immediate support from a real human who you can describe your issue to is hugely helpful. While VPNs have come along leaps and bounds in recent years, things do still go wrong, so having an effective way to fix them is essential.

Don’t feel guilty for bothering the support team with small issues, either. You’re paying a certain amount of money for your VPN, so you’ve got every right to get in touch with the support team, no matter how small your issue seems.

6. Paying monthly

Now, this is going to vary from person to person, but we highly recommend signing up to longer-term contracts to get a massive discount on price. Many people do prefer the flexibility of a monthly VPN, but in most cases committing for at least a year is the best way to go.

For those on the fence, it’s worth noting that all our recommended providers offer at least a 30-day money-back guarantee, so while you do have to pay upfront, you effectively get a VPN free trial for a month. If you don’t like it, it’s usually very simple to claim back your money.

Mo is eCommerce Editor at Tom's Guide. Day-to-day he oversees privacy and security content, and his product guides help his readers find the best software and products for their needs. When he's not testing VPNs, you'll find him working on his classic car or plugged into a guitar amp.