Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are a useful way to protect yourself from digital snoopers, as well as accessing forms of entertainment previously unavailable in your country.
With most of us now conducting the majority of our online lives via smartphones and tablets, it’s good to know that there are a number of VPN apps and services such as NordVPN and ExpressVPN available for Android. (Find more in our round-up of the best VPN apps for Android).
We show you how to get one up and running on your device.
If you’re concerned with the lawfulness of Virtual Private Networks then put your mind at ease by reading Are VPNs legal?
What is a VPN?
As the name suggests, a Virtual Private Network is a software-based connection between two points which encrypts all data sent and received.
People often use VPNs to create ‘private tunnels’ that allow them to use public WiFi spots, hotel connections, or other potentially unsecure networks without the threat of hackers stealing their information.
Another benefit of VPNs is that they disguise the location of your computer and can make it look like you’re logging in from Budapest when you’re in fact sitting in a coffee shop in Brixton.
This can be useful in a couple of ways, firstly in that it provides you a level of privacy because it’s much harder to track your online activities, and secondarily because it means you can circumvent regional restrictions on services like Netflix.
For more information on the latter read our How to watch American Netflix in the UK feature.
Choosing a VPN
Getting a VPN up and running on your Android device is very easy. First of all, you’ll need to choose one to download. There two main types of service available – free or subscription based.
While free might sound more tempting, there are some risks involved where research has found some to be less secure than you might hope. That being said, if you find the right one then it’s a good way to get started with Virtual Private Networks.
For a list of the ones we’d recommend check out our Best free VPN chart.
Our preferred route is that of a paid service. While it might cost you money, we think the security and performance is often better than the free alternatives, plus most of them usually offer trial versions. Again, we have a chart listing the best offerings, so read our Best VPN services 2018 guide.
For this article we’ll use ExpressVPN , but the setup and user experience will be very similar on other VPN apps.
Setting up the VPN
Go to the Google Play Store and search for Express VPN. Download the app and then tap the Open button when the installation process has been completed.
You’ll need to set up an account, so choose the Free Trial option and enter your details. This will last for 30-days, during which time you have access to all the services on offer. After that you’ll need to pay either £9 / $£12.95 per month or £70.00 / $99.99 per year to continue using the app.
Most paid VPNs cover multiple devices, and in the case of Express VPN you can use the service simultaneously on a combination of three smartphones, tablets, or PCs.
You may be asked to configure your VPN, but this only requires tapping the OK button and then agreeing to the Connection request as the process is mostly automated.
A final option is to let the VPN share crash reports and other technical data to the developers. This is anonymous and is only there to help them monitor how the system is performing. You can tap Allow if you’re happy to send this information, but there’s also a Don’t Allow option just below.
With the account created you can now start your adventures in Virtual Private Networks.
Using the VPN
There’s not a hell of a lot to do when it comes to actually using a VPN on your device, as you tend to set it and forget it.
Open the app and you’ll be presented with a minimalist layout dominated with a big button in the centre. As you might guess, this turns the VPN on and off. Beneath it you’ll find a section stating where your current server is located. This can be changed by tapping on the Choose Location button.
The latter is important if you want to watch things like Netflix from other countries, as you simply select a server based in that location. It’s also handy if you find that your connection is slow, as sometimes a particular server can experience problems due to heavy traffic or technical issues.
See our How to speed up your VPN feature for more details.
When you’re in the list of servers you can also test how fast the connection is by tapping the speed dial shaped icon in the upper right corner. This opens up the option to test the Ping rate. Essentially this measures how long a signal takes to leave the device, reach the server, and then return.
It’s only really important in things like online gaming where you need instant responses to commands, but for watching videos or general browsing it’s not something you’ll need to worry about.
Most VPNs will offer a default server, and this will usually be the best available at the time. When you’re happy with the choice, tap the On/Off button and the VPN will kick into action.
Now you’re free to use your normal browser, in the knowledge that any activities are hidden from prying eyes. In the notification bar you’ll see the icon of a key, which represents that the VPN is running and encrypting your connection.
Of course, if you log onto Facebook or YouTube then the sites themselves will know it’s you and record your actions, but for surfing and general online entertainment you’re practically anonymous.
You might notice a slow-down in the speed of your connection, which is inevitable due to the encryption and re-routing of your data, but hopefully it should be only minimal.
If you do find it too slow, then try switching servers. Otherwise you can restrict the use of the VPN to only certain activities that you want to remain private, or for catching up on Season 3 of The Expanse.
When you’re finished, go back to the app and tap the On/Off button once more and your handset will revert back to its normal connection.