If your connection to the internet isn’t secure, then there’s no telling who’s spying on your browsing habits. What sites you visit, who you’re talking to, what you’re purchasing — it’s all essentially open record.

Who exactly is doing the snooping? Your internet service provider, for one. It compiles data based on your browsing habits and sells it to third-party marketers without your consent. You know those annoying targeted ads you see everywhere hawking new vacuum cleaners after you google how to fix yours? That’s why.

FYI: Attention Mac users! If you’re looking for the best VPN for your platform, then you may want to check out how our two favorites stack up in our head-to-head ExpressVPN vs. NordVPN showdown.

But there are far more troubling interlopers out there. Even though you’re using a Mac — which are known for never getting viruses — you can fall victim to other forms of hacking and identity theft just as easily as your PC-using friends.

What you need to bolster your cybersecurity is a robust virtual private network (VPN). But what exactly is a VPN, and how do you set up one on your Mac? We’re sharing everything you need to know about VPNs on Macs right here.

What Is a VPN?

A VPN is a computer program that routes your internet traffic through encrypted channels, effectively making you invisible online. VPNs do this in two ways: They mask your true IP address, making it difficult to pin down where your internet connection originates, and they scramble your data so it’s totally unreadable even if it’s intercepted.

ExpressVPN Dashboard

ExpressVPN Dashboard

Essentially they make it so you can access the internet without anyone snooping on what you’re doing.

Now that you know how they work, you may be wondering how you can select the best service for your needs. Let’s dig into that.

How to Find a VPN That Works on a Mac

You want the most bang for your buck, so keep a few things in mind when you’re shopping for a VPN for your Mac.

First, you want speed. The unfortunate reality of VPN use is that it will slow your connection slightly. How significant the slowdown is, though, is wholly dependent on the size and sophistication of your service provider’s network. Many modern VPNs have adjusted for speed issues so much that any latency you experience will be negligible.

ProtonVPN's Dashboard

ProtonVPN’s Dashboard

To make sure you’re selecting for speed, pick a VPN with a large network of servers — preferably in the thousands. That’s one of the best indicators of how nimble the service is. Or you can cut to the chase and read our review of NordVPN, one of the fastest I’ve ever tested.

Next, make sure the VPN you’re using doesn’t — or preferably can’t — log your data. An emerging trend in the industry is to use a network of RAM-only servers, meaning that anything written to them is gone forever once they’re powered off. This is the gold standard in privacy, and you can read more about it in our review of Express VPN.

Most VPNs will not offer this cutting-edge technology though. If the VPN company you choose uses standard servers, then review its privacy policy to know exactly what information it keeps about its users and how it guarantees your privacy. Ideally it will have been vetted by a third-party security auditor and be located in a privacy-friendly jurisdiction. Our in-depth look at ProtonVPN has more information on that.

You should then prioritize the features you want. Do you travel a lot for work and need access to online features from home? What about picking a provider with a great mobile client for your iPhone? These are options you need to weigh when selecting the VPN that’s right for you.

Now that you have a good idea of what you’re looking for, it’s time to choose your VPN and get it installed and set up. I promise it’s a lot easier than it sounds.

How to Set Up a VPN on a Mac

Back in the early days of VPNs, you’d need an IT department to configure your network and set you up to run what was likely a proprietary VPN. It involved a lot of technical know-how that not many people possessed. But those days are long gone. If you can purchase a book from Amazon, you can download and set up a VPN on your Mac.

Connected in Germany using NordVPN

Connected in Germany using NordVPN

There may be slight differences from service to service, but the gist is always the same. Start by heading to your provider’s website, where you’ll set up a user account, select which subscription plan you’d like — generally, the longer you sign up for, the more you’ll save — and enter your payment information. Once that’s done, you’ll download the .dmg file to your Mac.

Open the file, and the program will begin running. You’ll likely be asked to click through a few prompts (depending on which service you choose), but they’re usually very straightforward. You’ll then drag the icon to your applications folder — something you’ve probably done a million times already. You may have to allow the VPN access to your network configuration, but it takes no advanced technical knowledge. You’ll just click “yes” when prompted.

Here’s a tip though: If your Mac has been connected to multiple networks or if you’ve used other VPNs in the past, then you may need to disable those connections for your new service to function properly. Go to your system preferences, then Network, and disable any connections you no longer use.

The network settings of a Mac

The network settings of a Mac

Once that’s done, open the VPN and you’re off to the races. That was easy, right?

But hang on. Before you get too excited, there are a few additional steps you’ll need to take. You have to make sure everything is configured correctly. Remember those features we talked about? It’s time to make sure they’re on. Click through the settings of your VPN until you find what functionality you’re looking for, or, if you want to stream Netflix or start torrenting, then make sure you’re connected to a server optimized for those activities.

FYI: If you’re streaming or torrenting from your Mac, you’ll want to use a VPN. A VPN will unblock geo-restricted streaming content, and the privacy provided will keep you anonymous while you’re sharing files.

It may be easy to turn on the VPN, minimize the window, and forget about it, but I recommend playing around with it for a while to make sure you have everything dialed in. Try a few server combinations and run some speed tests to ensure you’re not experiencing major latency. Run a DNS leak test to make sure all your traffic is routing through the proper channels.

And, finally, make sure your kill switch is on. This will terminate your internet connection if your VPN service is interrupted, which means your IP address will never be exposed. This is critical functionality in my opinion.

A DNS Leak test of ProtonVPN

A DNS Leak test of ProtonVPN

So there you have it. You’ve set up a VPN on a Mac. Easy, right? Before we’re done, though, let’s wrap up with some final thoughts.

VPNs on Macs: A Final Word

Macs are great machines. They’re extremely well-designed, intuitive, sleek, and secure — but they do have limitations when it comes to cybersecurity.

To stay safe online, it’s important to practice good digital hygiene. That means using strong, unique passwords for every account, avoiding sketchy online marketplaces, and being extremely discerning about who you share information with. As our privacy erodes and cyber threats proliferate, it’s also becoming increasingly important to use a VPN.

Mac VPN FAQs

Do I need a VPN on a Mac?

You don’t need one for your Mac to function properly, but a VPN will dramatically increase your safety and privacy online.

Are VPNs hard to set up on a Mac?

No. Most modern VPNs are extremely intuitive and user friendly. If you’re comfortable with the surface-level functionality of your computer, you shouldn’t have any issues.

What’s the best VPN for a Mac?

“Best” is a subjective term that depends heavily on what exactly you plan to use the VPN for, but our favorites are NordVPN and ExpressVPN. They’re both fast, well-rounded services with a lot of features.

Are VPNs expensive?

As with most things, you get what you pay for. Even the most expensive VPNs are surprisingly affordable though. If you’re looking for a dollar figure, expect to pay between $3 and $15 per month.

Are VPNs safe?

Yes. If you’re using a reputable VPN from an established software company, you don’t have anything to worry about.