On today’s internet, having at least some level of protection is essential.
A VPN or virtual private network is a tool to get an extra layer of protection — it essentially masks your connection while encrypting your data. The best part is you don’t need to get any physical hardware to use one; using a VPN is usually as simple as downloading and launching an app
Once you have a VPN setup, you can use it on your home WiFi, public networks, over LTE, and even while traveling.
Certainly, the internet is a great way to connect with others, but users need to be careful now more than ever. A VPN will mask your IP address and give you a bit more security, especially for your viewing history — not to mention it makes using public WiFi networks much safer and can stop hackers from accessing data.
Here are the basic steps to take when choosing and setting up a VPN.
Plenty of options
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VPNs feel like a dime-a-dozen. There are plenty of options for consumers to pick from, but not all are equal. You’ll want a provider that doesn’t sell your information or store it so there’s less risk of your data getting into the wrong hands. Your ISP (internet service provider) logs your data and could use it for marketing purposes, or be compelled to give it up. One of the big reasons for using a VPN is to avoid that.
Getting started with a VPN
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Once you’ve downloaded your VPN, installed it on the device, created an account, and logged into it, you’re ready to go.
The app is command central. It lets you turn the VPN on and off, change settings (like speed limits), and pick your server location. Chances are it will suggest a location for you, maybe somewhere in the U.S. or another country. Depending on what you want to do, such as accessing your home Netflix library while traveling, you may want to change this.
Many VPNs can be set to auto-connect when you turn the device on and, on a PC or Mac, can even live in your menu or status bar. The menu-bar interface lets you change the location quickly, or even shut off the VPN immediately if need be — handy when you need to make a VoIP and FaceTime call, which are sometimes not supported by various VPNs since they use a lot of data. This easy access is available across most VPNs, including the three mentioned above.
Image: screenshot by jake krol/mashable
For many, it’s as simple as downloading the VPN app to your device. NordVPN has an app for most common platforms and even supports a few uncommon ones. Native apps support macOS, Windows, iOS, Android, Chrome, Firefox, Linux, and Android TV.
Image: screenshot by jake krol/mashable
The typical experience within the application is signing in and choosing the location of your VPN. With Nord, you get a simple white and blue map (decorated with some boats), that provides you a visualization of the connection. Click the location of your choosing from the map or the sidebar to start the VPN. You can also choose from a list of specific VPN servers designed for different uses. For instance, if you need a dedicated IP address or want to route your traffic through two different servers instead of just one (called a double VPN — more on that in a sec), there is likely a preset in the application for that.
A double VPN is useful if you want an extra layer of security by masking what you’re doing behind two different servers. While nothing is ever truly untraceable, this can make it pretty hard to track the activity.
Once you’re signed in to the VPN and connected, you can minimize the app so it runs in the background. A significant benefit of these VPN services is that the processing power needed for them is minimal and it doesn’t need to be front and center.
NordVPN also provides instructions for running it on specific routers. The advantage of running your VPN directly through your router is that it will cover all of your connected devices. However, going this route means you’ll need to make changes on the router side, which can be a little cumbersome for novice users. And while there’s a long list of routers that NordVPN provides instructions for, it doesn’t cover all models.
Image: Christopher Gower/Unsplash
While you’ll usually want to use a VPN on a computer, many services offer apps for iOS, Android, and even some streaming devices. However, keep in mind a VPN doesn’t mean you get to bypass usage limits on LTE or a cellular network. If anything it will use more data.
On an iOS or Android device, the setup is relatively easy, but you’ll need to download the respective app and sign on. You still get most of the settings of the desktop app, but just how many features translate to mobile will vary depending on both the VPN and your OS.
For those who rely on an iPad or Android tablet for traveling, and if you frequent public WiFi networks, a VPN lets you protect your data and stop bad actors from accessing your data, even on an open network, thanks to the VPN’s encryption.
In other words, a VPN can stop you from becoming a statistic, plus many of these apps offer kill switches. So, if you lose the VPN and your IP address is at risk of being exposed, it will stop internet access all together until you reconnect.
Set it up before you travel
Before traveling, you should already have the VPN set up and working. In some countries, like China, you will have problems even downloading a VPN.
You should also definitely check with the VPN provider to make sure it works in the country you’re visiting, and that there are multiple servers available (We have a handy list of recommendations here).
So, a VPN shouldn’t be that frightening. These services provide a considerable level of value and protection. Moreover, for novices, setup should be as easy as logging in, downloading an app, and clicking go. More advanced users will cherish the ability to customize the experience through advanced options. Either way, you’ll be able to sleep a little easier knowing your internet activity is more secure than before.