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How many passwords, credit cards, and other personal pieces of data do you store on your phone or send over your mobile network? Your iPhone or Android probably sends and receives more of your secure information than any other device you own.

Regardless of how much you trust your device, there’s no reason to trust all of the networks it connects to. Fortunately, you don’t have to — not as long as you have a VPN. To help keep you protected at home and on the road, here’s everything you need to know about how to use a VPN with a smartphone.

Why Use a VPN on Your Smartphone?

The internet was not built to prioritize security and privacy. Your ISP, advertisers, and potentially even nefarious actors are always tracking your online activity. At best, they are gathering information about your personal browsing habits. The worst cases can involve identity theft, stolen bank account information, and more.

ProtonVPN connected
Using Proton VPN on an iPhone

If you want to protect your online activity, you should be using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). VPNs encrypt your connection and send it through a remote server, preventing anyone — including your ISP — from spying on or tracking your internet activities.

A VPN is particularly important if you use mobile hotspots or unsecured public Wi-Fi networks. You have no control over those connections, and their often poor security standards offer opportunities for hackers to take advantage of unsuspecting victims who are just looking to reduce their mobile data usage. With a VPN, your data is encrypted before it ever leaves your phone, so hackers can’t use the data even if they manage to intercept it.

For cord-cutters, there’s one more reason for using a VPN, and this one is much less doom and gloom than the previous reasons. VPNs let you change your apparent location by connecting through servers in different regions or countries. This feature lets you watch region-locked streaming content from Netflix, Disney Plus, and other providers. If you travel, it’s also a great way to access sites or social media apps that are blocked in your destination country.

Limitations of a Smartphone VPN

A VPN obscures much of your private information, but there are some key exceptions. If you have location services turned on for your smartphone apps, your location will be available to these apps and they may pass the information on to advertising networks. You could solve this by turning location services off, at which point your apps will assume you are in the location of your VPN server.

No matter how good your VPN, it only protects your internet (data) connection. Phone calls and text messages (SMS/MMS) are not protected by your VPN as they don’t use your data connection. You can get around this issue by using voice over IP (VOIP) services like Google Voice for your phone calls and by replacing your SMS usage with non-SMS texting apps.

Choosing a VPN for Your Smartphone

The best VPNs for your Android or iPhone have many of the same features as a good desktop, laptop, or router VPN. There are, however, a few features that you should pay extra attention to for mobile.

First, a kill switch is even more important on mobile devices. Your PC or Mac is always connected to the same network, but your mobile device will often switch from Wi-FI to mobile data or between mobile towers. Each of these switches interrupts your connection for a fraction of a second. You likely don’t notice that tiny interruption, but it introduces a security and privacy risk. Your VPN may temporarily lose connectivity during the switch, leaving your data unprotected until the connection is reestablished. A kill switch fixes this vulnerability by blocking your data connection until the VPN is back up and running.

Second, you should consider an alternative VPN protocol: IKEv2/IPSec. OpenVPN and WireGuard are still excellent options for mobile, but IKEv2/IPSec is better at switching networks. If you aren’t running a kill switch, this protocol limits the amount of time your data is vulnerable. Even if you have a kill switch, the faster connection switching of IKEv2/IPSec can alleviate some of the frustration from frequent network switches or connection losses from poor network signals.

If you frequently travel — especially to countries that aren’t VPN-friendly — you should also look for a provider that has a stealth VPN protocol or some form of VPN obfuscation. These features make your VPN connection look like a standard internet connection, letting you bypass a country or ISP’s VPN blocks.

You can find information about each of these features on the VPN provider’s website, and we have compiled the information for many of the top VPNs on our brand pages. Here are a few providers that offer excellent smartphone VPNs with apps for both iPhone and Android.

How to Use a VPN on an iPhone

If your VPN provider offers an iPhone app, you can just follow these instructions to protect your device.

  1. Open the Apple App Store.
  2. Click the Search button in the lower right and type in the name of your VPN provider.
  3. Press the Get button by the name of the app and follow the confirmation prompt to download it.
  4. Once the download finishes, open the app and sign in.
  5. Configure your VPN.
    1. Select a good VPN protocol like WireGuard, OpenVPN, or IKEv2/IPSec.
    2. If your VPN has a kill switch, you should turn it on.
    3. For now, pick the nearest, fastest VPN, which will be the default option in most apps. You can switch servers later if you want to connect to a different region or country.
  6. Turn on the VPN when you are ready to use it. The first time you turn on the VPN, you’ll probably be prompted to allow the app to create a VPN configuration. If you are using a reputable VPN, you can just click through to confirm those prompts.

How to Manually Set Up a VPN on an iPhone

For VPNs that don’t have their own iPhone app, you’ll need to install the VPN manually by going to Settings > General > VPN > Add VPN Configuration. You’ll need your VPN provider’s server and authentication information for this form. To find that, look for iPhone installation instructions on their website or search google for your VPN name and “iPhone installation instructions.”

Connected to Private Internet Access VPN
Using Private Internet Access on iOS

How to Use a VPN on an Android

If your VPN provider offers an Android app, you can follow the instructions below to protect your device.

  1. Open the Google Play Store.
  2. Select the Search bar at the top of the screen and type in the name of your VPN provider.
  3. Press the Install button to download the app.
  4. Once the download finishes, open the app and sign in.
  5. Configure your VPN.
    1. Make sure you are using a VPN protocol like WireGuard, OpenVPN, or IKEv2/IPSec.
    2. Turn on the kill switch if your VPN has one.
    3. Select the nearest, fastest VPN, which will be the default option in most apps. You can always switch to a different server later if you want to access content from a different country or region.
  6. When you are ready, turn on your VPN. If this is your first time using this VPN, you’ll likely be prompted to let the app create a VPN configuration. This process is safe if you are using a reputable VPN, so go ahead and allow it.

How to Manually Set Up a VPN on an Android

You can probably still use a VPN provider that doesn’t offer an Android app, but you’ll need to manually configure your phone for their VPN server. The exact process for doing this will depend on what version of Android you are using, but it will generally be under the Settings menu.

  1. Open the settings menu.
  2. Open the section called Wi-Fi & Internet or Wireless & Networks.
  3. Click the option called VPN. You may have to hit More to make it appear.
  4. Tap the plus sign in the upper-right corner. If you don’t see one, look for an Advanced Options menu or click on the three vertical dots.
  5. Fill out the configuration information. You’ll need information from your VPN provider for the server and authentication parts of this form. To get that, look for Android installation instructions on their website or search google for your VPN name and “Android installation instructions”.

Safety Everywhere You Go

If your house was on fire, your phone would be one of the first items you would save. I know because I would, too. If you would save it from a fire, shouldn’t you save it from hackers and trackers, too? Installing a VPN is the simplest and most reliable way to bring extra security to everything you do on your iPhone or Android — a device that you trust with your browsing habits, passwords, and probably even financial information.

Once you have your VPN set up, why not reward yourself by trying out some of the region-locked content you’ve been unable to access? If you’d rather continue securing more of your devices, this could be a good chance to install a VPN on your Fire TV.

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