Virtual private networks (VPNs) were primarily developed for business use, as a means of allowing employees to access their company network remotely and securely. But the recent rise in cybercrime, government snooping and internet restrictions means that more and more people are turning to VPNs as a way to stay safe and anonymous online – not because they’re doing anything wrong, but because it’s the wisest action to take.

In the same way that antivirus software is no longer an option but a necessity, a VPN has become a tool that no sensible web user should be without. From shopping and banking to photos and chat, we share so much personal data online that our security and privacy have become paramount, and the encryption and invisibility offered by a VPN make it a vital security tool.

In this article, we will explain exactly why you need a VPN, what you can do with one, what to watch out for when choosing a VPN. The sooner you start using a VPN, the better – don’t wait until it’s too late!


What is a VPN?

A VPN – which stands for virtual private network – is a tool that allows you to connect to another network remotely, as if you were accessing it directly.

It’s most commonly used as a way to conceal and protect your personal data when accessing the internet, so you can browse the web anonymously.

What information does a VPN hide?

Most importantly, a VPN conceals the IP address of your computer or mobile device. By default, websites and apps detect your IP address – a unique string of numbers that reveals your approximate location, internet provider, which operating system and browser you’re using, the size and resolution of your screen, and a whole host of other details that could be used to build a profile of you.

Not only that, but when you use an unencrypted connection, you run the risk of any data you send via the web being intercepted, including private correspondence, bank details and other sensitive information.


Most VPNs are straightforward to use, but you can get even more from them by tweaking the following settings

Install your VPN on your router

Some routers can be configured to use a VPN. The advantage of a router-based VPN is that every device in your home that connects to the internet, including computers, phones and tablets, will automatically be secured by the VPN. That said, a router has significantly less processing power than a computer, so you need to decide whether you are willing to compromise speed for convenience.

To set up this combo, log into the setup program by opening a browser and entering your router’s IP address, such as If you’re not sure of the IP address, press Windows+R, type cmd and press Enter. Type ipconfig and look for the Default Gateway.

Follow the instructions provided by your VPN to configure your router’s settings – for example, ExpressVPN has a simple guide at bit.ly/expressvpn443.

Change ports to boost VPN speed

Your VPN software connects to servers around the world using a specific networking port on your computer. Some ISPs deliberately restrict the speed of certain ports, to prevent activities such as file sharing, so if your VPN feels frustratingly slow (especially

if it’s a paid-for rather than free option), try switching to a different port. This can usually be done via your VPN’s settings – check your service’s help pages for details. The most popular option is TCP port 443, which is used by encrypted HTTPS traffic; or UDP port 1194, which is used by open-source VPN service OpenVPN (openvpn.net).

Stop DNS servers leaking data

For a VPN to completely protect your anonymity, it’s essential that all traffic originating from your computer is routed through the VPN network, including DNS requests (which translate domain names into IP addresses). Some devices may revert to their default DNS servers, which means your ISP and other third-parties can potentially see the websites you’re visiting and the data you’re sharing.

To check for DNS leaks, visit www.dnsleaktest.com, run the test and ensure that your real IP address and location aren’t visible through your VPN.

If they are, you’ll need to configure your device to use your VPN’s own DNS servers, by following the instructions it provides in its support pages.


Opera is the only browser to offer a built-in VPN, which is free and unlimited, and easy to turn on and off. However, version 50 of the browser made some notable changes to the VPN, switching its servers from those of VPN provider SurfEasy to Opera’s own data centres and replacing its virtual countries with regions: Europe, Americas and Asia. These improvements haven’t gone down well with some Opera users, who find the updated VPN incredibly slow and all its spoof IP addresses Opera’s built-in VPN has slowed down and switched from countries to regions to be in the same location – this was the UNESCO Biosphere In Switzerland, in our test. The changes make the tool insufferable for private browsing and useless for beating (non- Swiss) geo-restrictions, whereas it used to work quickly and reliably. Despite many complaints in its forums, Opera has yet to respond to the problems, although it has indicated that the VPN is still a work in progress. Hopefully it will be fixed soon.

5 NEW things you can do with a VPN

Access Tubi TV

Tubi TV for Android (bit.ly/tubi458) gives you access to popular movies and TV shows in HD, for free. Thanks to the introduction of GDPR in May, the streaming service is no longer available in Europe, but you can get around this by installing an APK of the app from bit.ly/tubiapk458 and using an Android VPN to make it look like you’re in the US.

Stream free-to-air sport

A lot of sport is streamed live in host countries, but not elsewhere. If you can find a broadcaster streaming a live match, race or other event, you can use a VPN to pretend to be in that country and view the broadcast as it happens. Obviously, this should only be done with legal, free-to-air streams.

Don’t wait for Android updates

When – or indeed if – you receive an updated version of Android depends on your mobile provider, but you may be able to jump the queue by using a VPN. If you know the update has started to roll out in other countries, you can use a VPN to appear to be located elsewhere, then go to Settings.

System Updates and check to see if the update has become available to you.

Download games early

Games often receive a staggered launch across the world, which means that gamers in some countries get to play them before those of us in the UK. A VPN will get around this geo-restriction and. as an added bonus, you might end up paying less for games and downloadable content, and enjoy superior streaming.

Save money on flights

Airlines change their prices based on demand, and dynamic profiling means that the prices one customer sees may be different from those offered to someone else. Using a VPN to change your apparent location can result in you being offered cheaper fares for the exact same flights. When comparing flight and hotel prices using a VPN, make sure you open a new private-browsing window each time.

Use a VPN to trick holiday-booking sites into offering you lower prices



To make sure governments aren’t snooping on your VPN activity, pick a service that isn’t based in one of the so-called Fourteen Eyes countries – see bit.ly/14eyes458 for the full list. These countries share military signal intelligence as part of the SIGINT Seniors Europe (SSEUR), which means VPNs are obliged to hand over collected user data to the authorities when requested.


With a free VPN, your data could be sold to third parties, though that isn’t always the case – see TunnelBear. Always read a VPN’s privacy policy before you sign up, to find out exactly what data it gathers. Free VPNs also offer fewer servers and countries to choose from.

If you want top quality, unrestricted VPN protection, you should be prepared to pay for it.


All VPNs promise strong, reliable encryption, but only consider those that offer OpenVPN, IKEv2, IPSec, L2TP or OpenSSH, PPTP is faster but less secure, so it’s best avoided.


Paid-for VPNs usually let you use their service across a number of devices, five being the standard. If you regularly browse the web on a phone, tablet or games console, as well as on your PC or laptop, you should pay attention to this detail.


If you want to use a VPN to protect file-sharing via BitTorrent or to make VoIP calls, check to see if this is allowed in the service’s terms and conditions, and make sure this type of traffic isn’t throttled by the VPN provider.


Paid-for vs Free

As the saying goes, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. If you’re using a VPN for free, the developer will be making money in other ways, possibly by selling your data to some very unscrupulous companies. That said, there are reputable free services around – our personal favourite is TunnelBear.

A paid-for VPN will typically offer faster speeds, more effective access to restricted websites, and a greater choice of countries you can connect to. Of course, don’t assume a VPN can be trusted simply because it’s charging for the service. We provide a round-up of our favourites below, but if you’re researching online forums and review sites, be wary of fake reviews.

More servers, more speed

The more servers a VPN has in the country you want to connect to, the faster their service is likely to be. Those with fewer servers will usually be slower due to more people connecting to each at the same time. Check on the VPN’s website how many servers it has. NordVPN, for example, NordVPN has 1,834 servers in the US – enough to unblock most restricted content countries.

Find out which sites it unblocks

Most VPNs will list popular websites they can unblock, but the information might be outdated. Contact the VPN before signing up to check the latest status of sites and check forums to see what success other users are having.

Check the number of devices supported

Almost all VPNs offer tablet and phone apps, letting you access blocked content on the move. However, they’ll restrict how many devices you can connect simultaneously (usually between three and six).

Check the small print

When you use a VPN, everything you do online is routed through its servers. It will know your ‘real’ IP address when you access its servers and the IP address it assigns to you. Known as connection data, this can be used to help track your activity. It pays to read your VPN’s small print.

If something is unclear or concerns you, ask the VPN to clarify. If you can’t get a straight answer, go elsewhere. And if anonymity is your top priority, choose a VPN that doesn’t log and store any data (such as NordVPN).

Try before you buy

Trying before you buy is good advice for all software, but particularly for VPNs, some of which can make false promises. While most providers offer money-back guarantees, they may only apply if you haven’t gone over your data limit. For example, Anonymous VPN will only issue a refund it you’ve used under 500MB of data (www.anonymousvpn.org/refund.html).

To avoid this, look for a VPN that offers a genuine free trial without requesting payment details.

Now that you’ve got a VPN up and running, it’s time to put it to good use and make sure everything is working properly. Remember, if you connect to a VPN server in a different country, you’ll see versions of websites intended for the local audience. If you want to revert to seeing the BBC’s UK website, for example, you’ll need to switch back to a VPN server in the UK.

Connect to Wi-Fi hotspots safely

Using free Wi-Fi hotspots is convenient, but they are notoriously unsecure. If you’re unlucky enough to have a hacker connected to the same hotspot, you could end up becoming the victim of a cyber-attack. By activating your VPN as soon as you connect, any data you transfer will be encrypted so you can make use of free Wi-Fi without risk.

Use VPNs to save money

It’s not uncommon for companies to set prices based on where you’re located (particularly for holidays, flights and car rentals), which can mean customers in the UK paying more when purchasing online. With a VPN, you can now find out the price differences for yourself. Like most VPNs. NordVPN includes a kilt switch to protect you if your VPN fails.

Simply choose another country and reload the website you’re buying from. If the price drops significantly and you’re tempted to take advantage, it’s a good idea to check the terms and conditions before buying – some sites prohibit buying through a VPN and may cancel your purchase or invalidate a warranty.

Beat ISP speed restrictions

ISPs will sometimes slow down connections to certain sites – particularly those that stream video or transfer large amounts of data. If your VPN is running, your ISP won’t be able to tell which sites you’re visiting, and therefore won’t be able to apply those speed restrictions.

Activate the kill switch

If your VPN fails, your internet connection will revert to using the IP address given to you by your ISP, removing your cloak of anonymity. Using a tool called a kill switch, you can ensure you’ll only be connected to the internet through your chosen VPN. Most major VPNs include a kill switch, but it’s often

Look for the VPN icon on your iPhone or iPad

Make sure the Request IP doesn’t shows your VPN IP address, not the one provided by your ISP disabled by default so you’ll need to switch it on in the settings. Should your VPN fail, the kill switch will protect your privacy by stopping all internet activity. When your VPN connection is reestablished, your internet connection will be restored.

Use your VPN on a phone and tablet

All good VPNs have iOS and Android apps. As mentioned earlier, your VPN will limit the number of devices you can connect to a VPN at any given time, so be sure to choose one that can cater for all the devices you want to use.

To make sure your VPN is active, look for the ‘VPN’ icon at the top of your tablet or phone screen (iOS) or a key symbol (Android). If you try to connect two devices to the same VPN server, you’ll probably experience a drop in speed. However, this is only likely to happen if you specifically fell your devices to use the same server. Instead, let the software choose a server in any given country, because it should ensure all your devices connect to different servers.

Is your VPN leaking?

When using a VPN, it’s a good idea to periodically check your actual IP address isn’t being revealed (or ‘leaked’). First, disconnect your VPN and go to https://www.doileak.com/. This site runs tools to determine how your VPN is performing. Click the ‘Start test’ button. When the results appear, note down the Request IP address at the top and the two DNS Request Source servers a little further down the page – these details are assigned to you by your ISP.

Now connect to your chosen VPN and run the test again. If any of the results match the IP address and DNS servers you noted down in the first test, your VPN isn’t doing its job. If this happens, you should contact your VPN for assistance or choose a different VPN provider (we’d recommend the latter).



Some VPNs will help you avoid sites that contain malware, but they can’t offer complete protection against downloading infected programs or accessing dangerous sites. Even with a VPN, you still need to have antivirus software installed.


While data sent from your computer to the VPN server is encrypted, the same can’t always be said for traffic sent on your behalf by the VPN server. If you use a VPN to connect to a banking website, for example, the connection will only be encrypted if the bank’s web address starts with the secure https://’, not ‘http://’. If your bank’s address starts with the latter (and it’s highly unlikely to), it’s time to move your money elsewhere.


Your VPN won’t clear your existing cookies and you’ll still collect them as you browse. This means you won’t be signed out of online services, such as Gmail, when you connect to your VPN. If you want to avoid cookies, switch to your browser’s private or incognito mode.


If you use a VPN to access banned sites or undertake illegal activities, you’re still breaking the law.

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