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Setting up a virtual private network (VPN) is a whole lot easier than it sounds. Many modern VPN providers work right out of the box, and you can easily tweak them to offer a high level of security at impressively fast speeds.

Do you want to know how to set up a VPN at home? Go ahead and get out your stopwatch, because you aren’t going to believe how quickly you can secure your internet connection and get back to streaming all your favorite shows.

Connecting to ExpressVPN
ExpressVPN

Why Do You Need a VPN?

VPNs provide an added layer of security and privacy to your internet experience. If you are looking to protect your online activity and make it harder for advertisers and nefarious actors to track your browsing habits, a VPN is the best solution. Another reason you may need a VPN is for streaming international content. As we’ll discuss more later in this article, VPNs can provide access to services and websites not available in your current location, including region-locked streaming content.

Do you need a VPN provider?

Not necessarily. You could set up a VPN server on your own, but it’s a much more involved process. For most use cases, using a VPN provider is easier, faster, and just as secure. Plus, most providers will give you access to servers in several countries, which is much harder to do if you are running your own VPN server at home.

Step 1: Choosing Your VPN Provider

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: this first step is more than a bit involved. Here are a few things you’ll want to consider:
How many devices do you need to cover?
What type of devices do you need to cover (PC, Mac, iPhone, Android, Roku, PS4, etc.)?
Do you plan to use streaming services, P2P file-sharing, or torrenting?
What is your budget?

Don’t feel overwhelmed, though: We’ve put together a list of the best VPNs that should help you with this decision. Many of these VPNs have free trials and/or money-back guarantees, which can make your decision less risky. This is still security software, though, so you don’t want to just pick any random provider. Use our best VPNs list and our reviews to choose a reliable option.

Step 2: Creating an Account

Most VPNs will require you to make an account before using their software. Often, they won’t even let you access the download page until you’ve signed up for an account. You can always find the sign-up instructions on the VPN provider’s website, typically through a button that says something like “Get [Brand Name], “Start a free trial” or “Download the app”. This step will typically require a desktop, laptop, or mobile phone, even if you are getting the VPN for a different device.

Step 3: Downloading and Installing Your VPN

Once you have an account, you can download the VPN app on whatever device or devices you want. The process here will depend on what device you are trying to install the app on.

Windows (PC)

You’ll usually need to go to the VPN provider’s website. The download page will likely direct you to the Windows download. If it doesn’t, you are looking for an option that says Windows or a file that ends in the “.exe” file extension. You should make sure that the VPN is compatible with your version of Windows, but that shouldn’t be a problem if you are running Windows 7, 8, or 10. Once the file is downloaded, open it and follow the installation instructions.

Mac

This process will be similar to the Windows instructions. Go to the VPN provider’s website and find the download page. Go to the Mac (or macOS) section if it doesn’t automatically send you there. You are looking for either a “.pkg” file or a link to the App Store. Download the file and follow the instructions to install it.

Linux

The installation process isn’t always consistent for Linux, so if you don’t see a Linux section in your VPN provider’s download page, you should search their site for Linux-specific instructions.

Android and iPhone

Most VPN providers have apps in the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store. If you don’t see the app there, check the VPN provider’s website to see if there is an Android or iPhone section on the download page.

Other devices

Most Smart TVs and streaming devices will have the VPN app in their app stores. If that’s not the case, or if you are trying to install the app on a device that doesn’t have an app store — like a router — you’ll need to check the VPN provider’s website for a section under the download page. If all else fails, search the VPN provider’s support page or contact them directly.

Step 4: Setting Your VPN and Fine-Tuning VPN Settings

VPNs can be used out-of-the-box, but doing so can result in less speed and less security. You’ll likely want to look into all the settings for your particular VPN app eventually, but we’ll focus on what are VPN settings that are common across most apps and particularly important to a fast and secure VPN experience. If you follow the steps below, it will only take a few extra minutes to ensure that you are getting the most out of your VPN.

Private Internet Access VPN - Mac Settings
Private Internet Access VPN – Mac Settings

As a quick aside, you may have come here asking “What are VPN proxy settings?” since some tutorials make the distinction unclear. All VPN servers are proxy servers, so when you see VPN settings or VPN proxy settings, they mean the same thing.

VPN protocol

The VPN protocol is the most important VPN configuration, containing the instructions your VPN uses to maintain its security. You’ll probably find this setting either under the “General” or “Connection” settings on your VPN settings page. If you don’t see an option for it, it’s possible that your VPN only has one protocol available — you can find that information on the provider’s website (or on CordCutting.com’s brand pages).

If your app allows for OpenVPN or WireGuard, those are your most secure options in nearly all cases. For mobile devices, IKEv2 (also known as IKEv2/IPSec) is also an excellent option because of its ability to reliably switch between mobile and Wi-Fi networks without dropping the connection. These three protocols should cover the needs of all but the most advanced VPN users.

Encryption cipher

The encryption cipher tells your VPN how to encode your data. Without a strong cipher, your private information is no longer private. Most modern VPNs use AES-256, which is a very secure standard and the one that you should be using.

If there is an option to switch ciphers, it will usually be under your “General” or “Connection” settings near the VPN protocol. It might be called encryption standard instead of a cipher — they are the same thing. Many VPNs don’t let you change the cipher, so don’t worry if you can’t find a setting for it. If that’s the case, you should at least check the VPN provider’s website to make sure they are using AES-256 or a comparably strong cipher.

Kill switch

Kill switches solve one of the biggest vulnerabilities in a VPN — when your VPN is interrupted, your data can leak out over your regular internet connection. Kill switches stop that from happening by killing your internet when the VPN fails. We strongly suggest turning this feature on most of the time. The only exception is if keeping your internet connection active is more important than keeping it secure.

Not all VPNs have kill switches, so you may have to check the provider’s website or our brand pages to figure out whether yours does. Most of the time, this setting will be either on the main interface of the app or in the “General”, “Connection”, or “Security” pages of the settings.

Auto-connect

Most VPNs have an option to have the app start and auto-connect when your device boots up. This can be a great way to avoid accidentally browsing the internet without protection. Of course, you may prefer not to use your VPN by default, in which case you can leave this setting turned off.

VPN server

Most VPNs will have a server list or country list or map right on their main interface. That should give you some idea of how important this setting is. If all you need is a secure connection, most VPN apps will have an option to just pick the fastest or closest server. If in doubt, that’s usually a good way to go.

Connecting to NordVPN
Connecting to NordVPN

If your needs are more specialized, there are a few additional considerations to keep in mind. Many VPN apps have specialized servers for streaming, P2P file-sharing, and/or torrenting. Sometimes those servers just include additional optimizations, but often P2P and torrenting are only allowed on the specified servers.

You may also want to pick a server in a specific country or region. VPNs can allow you to bypass regional blocks on certain services and websites, including accessing services in your home country when traveling abroad or viewing international content on your favorite streaming services.

Speed is another important consideration when picking a server, but it’s also the hardest to gauge in advance. Even within a single region, some VPN servers will provide much faster internet speeds than others. Some VPN apps will give you an indication of which servers are likely to be fast, but you’ll generally just have to figure it out via trial and error. You can use an online speed test to determine whether your VPN is slowing down your connection. Run the test with the VPN off and again after connecting to the server. You can gauge what is fast enough for your needs, but a VPN that runs at 80-90 percent of your regular internet speeds is typically good.

Step 5: Turning On Your VPN

After you’ve finished setting things up, you are ready to get going. Most VPN apps have a big button that says “Start” or “Connect” or has the power symbol. Clicking that should get you going. Some VPNs also allow you to start them by double-clicking one of the servers from the server list. The easiest way to verify that your VPN is running is to check your IP address before connecting and again after the VPN is on. If your IP hasn’t changed, your VPN isn’t turned on or isn’t working properly.

Private Internet Access VPN - Connected on Mac
Private Internet Access VPN – Connected on Mac

Enjoy the Security of Your VPN

Congratulations! You’ve set up your own VPN. I bet you thought it would be a lot harder, right? Now it’s time to enjoy a secure and private browsing experience.

If you are looking for a fun way to test out your new connection, you could always take a look at some of Netflix and Disney+’s international content. Your newly protected computer might also be a good candidate for conversion into a media center PC.