If you’re not the most tech-savvy person, then using a virtual private network (VPN) may be a little intimidating. Don’t you have to know a lot about computers and networking to use one? Will you need to go back to school to get a master’s degree in computer science? How difficult are these things to set up and use on a day-to-day basis? To be honest, setting up a VPN is a cakewalk.

The first step in setting up a VPN is understanding what they are and what they can and can’t do, and selecting a service that’s right for you. If that’s where you find yourself, then keep reading. If you want to jump right into setting up your selected VPN, you can skip to that section.

ExpressVPN's servers and dashboard

ExpressVPN’s Servers and Dashboard

VPN 101

Simply put, VPNs mask your physical location and encrypt your data so onlookers won’t be able to make sense of it. More advanced services have more advanced features, of course, but that’s the gist of it. Using a VPN will dramatically increase your anonymity online, and the best ones can protect you from high-tech surveillance schemes and make you nearly invisible to would-be cyber attackers.

FYI: If you want to know more about how VPNs operate, then check out our VPN resource page. If you want some direct answers in a concise format, then read our What Is a VPN? guide.

There are, however, some limitations to what VPNs can accomplish. They will bolster your privacy online, but they won’t completely prevent cyberattacks or protect you from every online threat. Think of it this way: When you use a VPN, you’re locking your windows and closing your shutters. To be fully protected, you’ll need to lock your doors and keep the gate closed.

Surfshark's Dashboard and UI

Surfshark’s Dashboard and UI

That means you still need to practice good digital hygiene even when you’re using a VPN. Always use strong passwords and two-factor authentication where possible, and stay away from sketchy websites and questionable links. VPNs are an important element in a complete cybersecurity posture, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re completely protected because you’re using one.

Now that you understand their scope, let’s find out how to install a VPN in a jiffy. You may be dreading this step, but trust me — it’s a lot easier than you think.

Setting Up Your New VPN

In the past, you definitely needed to have pretty intimate knowledge of networking to set up a VPN, but that’s no longer the case. Consumer-grade VPNs have prioritized ease of use and user experience in the past few years, so they now offer services as simple as downloading and executing any other piece of software.

Private Interent Access' advanced connection configurations

Private Internet Access’ advanced connection configurations

The setup for individual VPNs differs slightly from provider to provider, and it depends heavily on which kind of device you’re working with and the operating system you’re running. The basic principles are always the same though. Here’s a breakdown:

  1. Register for and purchase the VPN online on the service’s website.
  2. Download and execute the program.
  3. Allow the VPN access to your network settings, either explicitly or implicitly.
  4. Connect to the VPN.
  5. Tweak the VPNs settings to optimize it for your use.

That’s all there is to it. There’s really no need to be wary of using VPNs. They’re simple-to-use, lightweight bits of software that can run in the background. In my experience, it’s extremely rare that setup takes more than five minutes, and I’ve never encountered a VPN that didn’t hold my hand all the way through the process.

Once you connect the VPN on your computer, however, there are a few items you’ll want to test.

Did You Know: Your internet service provider knows what you’re looking at, who you’re communicating with, and what you’re talking about. It gathers all this data and sells it to third-party marketers without your consent. Remember how you Googled “vacuum cleaners” last week and now you’re inundated with ads from Hoover? This is why.

Things to Consider Once You’re Up and Running

First, you’ll want to enable the kill switch. On most VPNs, the kill switch is engaged right out of the box, but there are a few exceptions where you’ll need to turn it on manually.

What does a kill switch do, you ask? Good question. A kill switch is an important — I’d say critical — function of any VPN. If your VPN service is interrupted for any reason, the kill switch will trip and terminate your internet connection. This is crucial to completely protecting your anonymity online, because your IP address can be used to trace you if it is exposed for even a second.

NordVPN's dashboard, connected through Europe

NordVPN’s dashboard, connected through Europe

You’ll want to make sure you’re on the right server. Most modern VPNs offer dozens of locations with thousands of servers, and some even offer specialized servers for certain activities such as P2P file sharing and streaming. Check out our review of CyberGhost to see what I mean. Also make sure the server you’re on is in close physical proximity to you and is optimized for the task you’ll be using it for.

Pro Tip: Beware of VPNs’ “quick connect” functionality. Most offer some sort of “one-tap” feature that is supposed to connect you to the fastest server available. In my experience, these are questionable at best. You’re better off manually selecting a server near you.

Finally, make sure the features you want to use are turned on. If you selected your VPN for its multi-hop functionality, make sure you turn it on. If traffic obfuscation is important, figure out where that feature is. These features usually will be intuitive, but sometimes they are a little difficult to find. If you’re having problems, most providers offer extensive resources to help you tweak and toggle your service to your liking.

Now that everything is set up and running properly, there’s one last step to complete the process.

Trust but Verify

By its nature, it’s difficult to tell whether your VPN is working. One of the fastest ways to make sure you’re secure is by running a DNS leak test. There are several tools available to do this, but they all basically do the same thing. They’ll show you where your traffic appears to be originating from and if your DNS requests are traveling outside the VPN’s encrypted tunnel.

Start by switching off your VPN and running the test, which will give you a baseline.

Leak test without VPN enabled.

Leak test without VPN enabled.

You should see your real IP address as well as the DNS servers you’re connecting through. Once you switch on your VPN, though, the test results should look a lot different.

Leak test with VPN enabled

Leak test with VPN enabled

Now your IP address should be masked, and your DNS requests should be traveling through one connection. If this is the case, then you’re in good shape. Your VPN is working and masking your movements online.

That’s all there is to say on VPN setup! Simple enough, right?

Now that you know how to set up and use a VPN, let’s cover the all-important topic of finding the right VPN for your needs.

Selecting the Right VPN Service

There are two main factors to consider when selecting a VPN: features and budget. First, consider how you’ll be using your VPN. Do you want to prevent ISP snooping? Are you going to use it to protect yourself while traveling? Do you want it for streaming foreign movies and shows? Are you torrenting or trying to access the dark web? These are all important factors to consider when selecting a VPN, and the answers will help inform your decision.

FYI: A great place to start your search is our list of the top 10 best VPNs. If you want to cut to the chase, then you can see how our two favorites stack up against each other in our comparison of ExpressVPN and NordVPN.

You’ll also need to consider your budget. Most VPNs operate on a subscription basis with monthly plans, and the monthly costs decrease as you sign up for longer durations. Check out our VPN pricing guide for more information, but expect to pay between $3 and $15 per month depending on the service and subscription package you choose.

Did You Know: There are tons of ways to save when you’re shopping around for a VPN. Before you pull the trigger, be sure to read our guide to VPN deals and sales.

Final Thoughts

Like I said, there’s no reason to be intimidated by modern VPNs. These services pride themselves on their user-friendliness, and most are easier to use than your average word processor.

When you consider the potential consequences of not using a VPN, the simplicity of their setup is thrown into sharp relief. They are such easy-to-use programs, and they cost pennies a day to operate. The real question is: Why wouldn’t you use one?

FAQs

Do I need a VPN?

Simply put, it’s best practice to use a VPN if you want to protect your privacy online.

Are VPNs hard to use?

Modern VPNs require almost no knowledge of networking to use effectively. They are easy to set up and use on a day-to-day basis, even for people who aren’t tech savvy.

What is the best VPN?

It’s difficult to say which VPN is the best — different providers prioritize different features — but our favorites are ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and ProtonVPN.

Are VPNs illegal?

In the U.S., VPN use is not illegal. Using a VPN to engage in illegal activity such as digital piracy, however, will not shield you from legal consequences.

Are VPNs expensive?

Most VPNs are extremely affordable, depending on the service you select and the duration of your subscription. Generally, you can expect to pay between $3 and $15 per month for a VPN.