How to Get a VPN and Why You (REALLY) Need One in 2021
- Quick Guide: How to Get a VPN
- Do You Need a VPN? Probably, and Here’s Why
- How Do VPNs Work?
- How to Use a VPN to Access Streaming Content
- Are VPNs Legal?
- Can You Install a VPN on Any Device?
- How to Choose a VPN
- The Best VPNs for Beginners
- ExpressVPN – High Speeds Make Streaming and Browsing a Breeze
- How a VPN Keeps You Safe
- Does a VPN Have Any Drawbacks?
- How to Get a Discount on Your New VPN
- The Bottom Line
A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a simple tool that protects your online privacy and keeps your location and traffic hidden. There are many reasons to use one, from staying safe and evading hackers to accessing international streaming content and getting the best prices for airline tickets.
If you’re considering giving a VPN a try, you’re in the right place. After reviewing hundreds of services and analyzing everything they have to offer, I can guarantee that the best VPNs are easy enough for anyone to use – and totally worth the effort. My simple, no-nonsense guide will teach you all you need to know to get started.
Ready to jump right in? The best all-around service is ExpressVPN, with a user-friendly interface, high speeds, and top-notch security. It’s super easy to set up, and you don’t need any advanced tech knowledge to get started.
Quick Guide: How to Get a VPN
- Sign up for a VPN service: I recommend ExpressVPN, as it’s incredibly easy to use and affordable without compromising on speed, security, or features.
- Download and install: Follow the instructions to download and install the VPN software onto each of your devices.
- Launch and connect: Launch the VPN and connect to a server (see below for advice on how to choose one).
Do You Need a VPN? Probably, and Here’s Why
If you care at all about your own security, you definitely need a VPN. The internet wasn’t exactly designed for privacy, and these days it’s full of threats from hackers, tech companies, governments, and advertisers. There are also tons of restrictions on which content you can access and what you can do online. Fortunately, a good VPN can help with all of this.
VPNs Encrypt All of Your Data
When you’re connected to a VPN server, all your internet traffic is encrypted. This means that nobody can see what you’re doing online – not even your internet service provider (ISP). That also means your ISP can’t throttle your speeds, which it may do if you’re streaming or gaming.
Encryption also keeps hackers from seeing sensitive information that you enter into websites, like passwords. This is especially important if you’re using public WiFi, since it’s easy for cybercriminals to monitor your connection on public networks. But a VPN ensures that even if someone were to steal your data, they wouldn’t be able to decrypt it anyway.
VPNs Mask Your IP Address
There are a couple of reasons why this matters. First, your IP address can be used to determine your location, which may threaten your privacy when used in combination with other personal data. Second, many websites – like Netflix – determine which content you see based on the location of your IP address.
The only way to hide your IP address is to mask it with another one, and that’s exactly what a VPN does. This means that no one can see your real location, and you can access whatever content you want, regardless of your region. IP masking is essential if you want to torrent, bypass geoblocks or censorship, and enjoy total online freedom all over the world.
VPNs Block Malicious Websites, Ads, and Trackers
The best VPNs have built-in protection against cyberattacks, and are able to prevent malicious sites from putting malware and trackers onto your device without you knowing. Some of them also block ads and pop-ups, which provides further protection and lets you enjoy streaming platforms like YouTube without annoying ads.
How Do VPNs Work?
From a user perspective, VPNs are incredibly simple. All you have to do is download the software, install it on your device, select a server, and connect. If you’ve chosen a quality VPN service, you can then rest assured that all your online activity is protected.
Pro Tip: For maximum simplicity, choose a VPN provider that automatically recommends the best server for you to connect to, such as ExpressVPN with its Quick Connect feature.
Wondering what’s going on behind the scenes? Essentially, a VPN encrypts your traffic and then routes it through one of its servers around the world. Because of this encryption, your ISP can’t see what you’re doing online. And because your traffic goes through another server, they can’t see your IP address or your actual location (nor can anyone else).
From there, the VPN forwards your traffic to the website or app you’re visiting. The site sees the VPN server, instead of your device, as the origin of your traffic, and sees the VPN server’s IP address instead of yours. To keep sites from blocking them, the best VPNs regularly update their IP addresses and offer thousands of different servers to choose from.
How to Use a VPN to Access Streaming Content
Popular streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video use your IP address to find out where you are and determine which content you can watch. Because licensing agreements vary between countries, you may not be able to see certain movies and series in your region – or even entire platforms, like Hulu – unless you use a VPN.
You can use a VPN to mask your IP address and trick streaming services into thinking you’re in another country, so that you can access content for different regions. For example, let’s say you want to watch Harry Potter on Netflix. That’s not possible in most places, but you can use a VPN to easily connect to a server in a country where it’s available.
Using a VPN to access streaming content is easy. All you have to do is connect to a server in the country where the content you’re looking for is available, then launch the streaming service like you normally would. Check out our step-by-step guide for more details.
However, some streaming services do their best to block VPNs so that users are limited to their actual regions. You might get an error message if they find out that you’re using one. But the best VPNs for streaming know how to prevent these issues by constantly updating their IP addresses and using advanced methods to evade blocks.
Are VPNs Legal?
The short answer is yes! In most countries, you can use a VPN freely without fear of repercussions. As long as you’re not using it to download copyrighted content or for other illegal activities, you don’t have any reason to worry.
There are some exceptions, however. Certain countries, such as China and Iran, have strict censorship laws that forbid the use of any VPNs not approved by the government. The ones they do allow tend to be untrustworthy, since they comply with censorship rules.
But if you’re traveling to a country with heavy online restrictions, you can still use a VPN to access sites that are blocked there. Since VPNs encrypt your traffic, local authorities won’t be able to trace it back to you. Just make sure to pick a premium VPN that’s been proven to work in that country, such as ExpressVPN, and download it (plus at least one backup option) before you go.
Read our article on the best VPNs for China for more recommendations.
Can You Install a VPN on Any Device?
The best VPNs offer versions for Windows, macOS, and all kinds of mobile devices, as well as extensions for different web browsers. They also allow you to connect several devices at once – and some even provide unlimited connections. This means you can install your VPN on just about every device you own, from your laptop to your iPad to your smart TV.
Some VPN providers, like ExpressVPN, are especially good for iOS and Android devices, with intuitive apps that provide all the same features as the desktop version. I always recommend installing a VPN on your mobile devices, since it’ll keep you safe from unknown networks and help prevent malicious attacks over public WiFi connections.
Another option is to install a VPN directly on your router, or even order a router that comes with it pre-installed. This means that every device connected to your router will automatically be protected, eliminating the need to download lots of different apps. It will also allow you to connect as many devices as you want to the VPN, even if the provider limits connections.
For more information, check out our guide to installing a VPN on a router.
How to Choose a VPN
There are a ton of VPNs out there, which can make the choice seem overwhelming. The key is to choose a VPN based on your specific needs, and what you plan to use it for. Of course, there are some basic aspects that everyone should consider. For example, you’ll want a VPN with user-friendly apps and enough connections to install it on all your devices.
It’s also important to pick a VPN that actually protects your privacy; otherwise, what’s the point? Ideally, the service you choose will have industry-leading security features, super-fast speeds, servers all over the world, and awesome customer support. That might sound too good to be true, but some services – like ExpressVPN – really do check all the boxes.
Finally, it’s always a good idea to check the current discounts available and make sure you get the best deal possible. But the final decision should always be based on your own priorities and primary reason for getting a VPN.
What to Look For in a VPN for Streaming
Streaming movies and TV series is one of the most popular reasons to get a VPN. If you want a service that will give you access to content all over the world, look for these features:
- Extensive server network: More servers means more IP addresses, so the more servers your VPN provider offers, the less chance you have of falling victim to IP blocking by streaming sites. Lots of servers in different countries will also give you access to more content that’s available in different regions.
- Servers in specific countries: If you want to access BBC iPlayer, you’ll need to choose a VPN with lots of reliable servers in the UK. The same goes for any content or streaming platform that’s only accessible in a certain location, so make sure there are servers available for the countries where you want to connect.
- Fast speeds: All VPNs will slow down your connection a bit, but you need to make sure yours is fast enough to stream in HD without lagging or buffering. That’s why we’ve run tests to identify the fastest VPNs for streaming.
- Unlimited bandwidth: Streaming takes up a relatively large amount of bandwidth, and it’s important to ensure that your VPN can keep up. Choose one with unlimited bandwidth so you never have to worry about exceeding your limit.
- Streaming-optimized servers: Some VPNs make it extra easy to find servers for streaming by specifically marking the best ones in each country. This is especially helpful if you’re new to VPNs or don’t want to spend too long testing different servers.
What to Look For in a VPN for Privacy and Security
Most people want to protect their privacy to some extent, but if security is especially important to you, you’ll need to be extra careful when choosing a VPN. Look for one with all of these features (at least) to make sure your privacy will never be at risk:
- AES 256-bit encryption: This is the gold standard when it comes to encryption; it’s the same kind that the US military uses. All the best VPN providers use it too, so it shouldn’t be hard to find – but make sure you double-check before subscribing.
- Kill switch: If your connection ever drops while you’re using a VPN, the kill switch will stop your traffic until a secure connection is reestablished with the server. Without this feature, you could be vulnerable to accidental leaks that compromise your privacy. Many VPNs don’t offer a kill switch on all devices, so pay special attention to this.
- Strict no-logs policy: You might think it goes without saying that a VPN shouldn’t record your activity, but unfortunately you can’t take this for granted. When you use a VPN, only your provider can see your activity – so it’s absolutely vital that they don’t keep logs of it under any circumstances.
- IPv6 and DNS leak protection: There are a few different ways that your data could be leaked when using a VPN, and these are two of the most common. Top VPNs have special methods to prevent both IPv6 and DNS leaks, maximizing your security.
Pro Tip: If you want to maintain total anonymity in addition to privacy, consider using a VPN in combination with Tor Browser. This may slow down your speeds, but it’s the best way to ensure that your identity is protected online.
What to Look For in a VPN for Business
Not all VPNs are designed for businesses. If you want to use a premium VPN for your company, you’ll need to carefully consider your needs and then choose a service that has the features to meet them:
- Unlimited connections and users: Unless you’re running a one-person operation, you’ll probably want multiple employees to be able to use the VPN at once. I suggest choosing a service like ExpressVPN, which offers 5 device connections to account for future growth.
- Administrative features: If you have several people connected through the same account, you’ll want to be able to manage them all from one dashboard. Look for a VPN that makes it easy to adjust settings for all connected devices at once.
- Affordability: A VPN subscription is just like any other business expense; it has to provide enough value to justify the cost. While premium VPNs are worth paying a bit more, you don’t have to break the bank. Look for a service that matches your budget.
- Public WiFi protection: It’s important to ensure that no matter where your employees are working from – be it the office, their home, or a café – their security will never be compromised. Choose a VPN with public WiFi protection to cover all your bases.
How to Set Up a VPN
If you pick the right service, setting up your VPN will be a quick and easy process. To demonstrate, I’m going to show you how to set up ExpressVPN, my personal favorite provider. The first step is to download the right app from the list provided on the service’s website:
Once it’s downloaded, you’ll need to install it on your devices. Follow the instructions provided to install it on your desktop, and then do the same for mobile devices. You can also install a browser extension if you want.
After it’s installed, all you have to do is select a server and connect. ExpressVPN makes it easy to choose the country where you want to connect, and then pick a server optimized for downloads, speed, or browsing.
Depending on the activity you’re planning on doing, some servers may be better than others. For example, if your main concern is privacy, I suggest choosing a server close to your actual location. This will maximize your speeds while providing the same level of protection.
If you want to stream content that’s blocked in your region, you’ll need to pick a server in a country where that content is available. For example, in order to access the US Netflix library, choose a server in the US. Some VPNs have lists of streaming-optimized servers as well.
If you’re planning on torrenting, make sure you choose a P2P-enabled server. And in general, check with your provider to see which servers are suggested for different purposes. When in doubt, always go with the server recommended by your VPN.
Advanced VPN Settings
In most cases, you don’t need to worry about advanced settings; you can absolutely use a VPN without ever needing to adjust the default settings. But it may also be helpful to explore all the options.
For example, some VPNs allow you to enable or disable the kill switch feature. In general, you should always keep the kill switch on for optimal security. But if you need to make sure that your traffic isn’t halted (even if it puts you at risk of data leaks) you can turn it off.
Most VPNs also allow you to manually change your security protocol. You might be able to choose between WireGuard, OpenVPN, IPSec, L2TP, PPTP, and more. Changing your protocol is one way to bypass VPN blocks, and it’s among the first things you should try if your VPN stops working.
There may be an option for split tunneling, which allows you to pick and choose what traffic goes through your VPN. This is useful if you’re downloading large files and don’t want to use up your bandwidth on other activities. But remember: only the traffic that goes through your VPN will be encrypted, so choose wisely.
If you want more details on how to use your VPN’s advanced features, check out the help section. I always recommend providers with plenty of step-by-step guides and good customer support to walk you through these processes.
The Best VPNs for Beginners
Here are my top three recommendations for beginner-friendly VPNs. If you’re totally new to the cybersecurity world, these services will make it super easy for you to get started.
- 3,000 servers in 90 countries
- Fast enough to stream content from anywhere in the world
- Super easy-to-use apps
- Strict no-logs policy and high-end security
- Up to 5 simultaneous connections
- 30-day money-back guarantee
- Works with: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, BBC iPlayer, Disney+, HBO GO, Fox, Sky TV, and more
- Compatible with: Windows, Android, macOS, iOS, Chrome, Firefox, Linux, and some routers
When it comes to choosing my favorite provider, ExpressVPN is always a top contender. It’s incredibly fast and super secure. It also has tons of streaming-optimized servers that can easily unblock Netflix, Hulu, and all the other major platforms, according to our thorough tests.
ExpressVPN’s servers are fast enough to ensure that you won’t have to suffer through buffering or endless loading times. On top of that, they’re also secure; AES 256-bit encryption and a strict no-logs policy guarantee that your personal data stays totally safe.
Additional security features include a kill switch and TrustedServer technology, which provides extra protection through RAM-based servers. In other words, ExpressVPN goes above and beyond to protect your online privacy.
All of these advanced features might sound complicated, but the user experience is anything but. ExpressVPN is super easy to use, with intuitive apps that make it accessible for everyone – even those without any prior VPN experience.
If you’re interested in torrenting, you’ll be happy to know that P2P sharing is supported on all of ExpressVPN’s servers. This means you can easily and safely share files with other users without exposing your IP address.
One ExpressVPN subscription includes up to 5 simultaneous connections, meaning you can use it on all your devices at once. There’s 24/7 customer support through live chat, which is incredibly accessible and helpful – and there’s a 30-day money-back guarantee so that you can try ExpressVPN out and see if you like it before fully committing to a paid plan.
How a VPN Keeps You Safe
A VPN keeps you safe by masking your IP address so that no one can see where you’re located or what you’re doing online. It does this by routing your traffic through a server somewhere else in the world before sending it to the website you want to visit.
Beyond this basic function, the best VPNs have several other advanced security measures in place to make sure your data never falls into the wrong hands. When it comes to privacy, not all VPNs are created equal – so make sure you choose one that offers the following features.
Strict No-Logs Policy
When you use a VPN, no one has access to your data except the provider itself. That’s why it’s essential that your VPN doesn’t record your activity or personal information. The top VPNs have strict no-logs policies that guarantee they’ll never store any of your data.
This is important because even if the VPN’s servers are compromised, there’s no chance that your private data will be released or stolen. And if government authorities demand that the VPN turns over user data, they won’t have anything to show them.
There are a few different ways your personal data could be compromised while using a VPN. It could happen through a DNS leak or an IPv6 leak, both of which involve accidentally sending data through your ISP instead of the VPN.
Of course, the best VPNs have strategies in place to make sure this doesn’t happen. Look for a provider that offers both DNS and IPv6 leak protection – and check our reviews to make sure they’re actually effective.
When you use a VPN, your security relies completely on the connection to the VPN server. If that connection drops for any reason, your privacy could be threatened – and that’s why you need a kill switch.
The purpose of a kill switch is to prevent this from happening by automatically stopping your traffic in case of connection issues. It will wait until you’ve established a secure connection again to let you continue browsing, streaming, or downloading.
Pro Tip: Not all VPNs automatically enable the kill switch, so make sure it’s turned on to ensure total security (you can easily do this by navigating to your settings in the VPN).
If you’re planning on using the internet outside of your home (and who isn’t?) then you should seriously consider finding a VPN with extra WiFi protection. This means that even when you’re connected to a public WiFi network – for example, at a café – your data will be safe.
All of the top VPNs are designed to protect you on public networks, but some have additional features that go above and beyond. For example, some will automatically connect when they detect a public WiFi connection, or send you notifications about unsecured networks.
Does a VPN Have Any Drawbacks?
First of all, you should know that the benefits of using a VPN strongly outweigh any potential disadvantages. That said, there are a few things you should be aware of before connecting to a VPN server.
Your connection speed will decrease slightly.
It takes time for data to travel, and when you’re connected to a VPN, your data has to travel even farther to reach a VPN server somewhere else in the world. It also takes a few seconds to encrypt and decrypt your traffic. As a result, you should expect your connection speed to decrease a little bit. But with the fastest VPNs, the difference will be minimal!
Untrustworthy VPNs can compromise your privacy.
If you use a less reputable VPN provider, there’s no way to be sure that it won’t access your browsing activity or share it with third parties. If your VPN is based in a country that’s part of the 5/9/14-Eyes Alliance, it could even be forced to turn over this information to the government.
Luckily, it’s easy to avoid this problem by choosing a reputable VPN with a strict no-logs policy and other measures in place to protect your privacy. When in doubt, go for one with RAM-based servers and/or headquarters in a country with favorable privacy laws. For example, ExpressVPN is based in the British Virgin Islands, which has no mandatory data retention laws.
Some websites work hard to block VPNs.
This is a common problem when it comes to streaming sites like Netflix. Because of licensing laws, it’s in their best interest to keep you from seeing content that’s unavailable in your region. That’s why they check users’ IP addresses to see if they match known VPN servers.
If your IP address is flagged as belonging to a VPN, the streaming site will immediately block your connection. To get past this problem, try connecting to different servers until you find one that works (and choose one of the best VPNs for streaming, with updated IP addresses).
VPN blocks can also be an issue with PayPal and some online banks, which might flag your activity as suspicious if you log in from a foreign IP address. Their intention is noble; the goal is to keep international fraudsters from logging into your accounts.
However, if you’re using a VPN, you might get blocked from your own account. You’ll probably have to contact your bank to clear up the issue, which is a hassle. To avoid this, you can either temporarily turn off your VPN or just connect to a server in your own country.
For more details and tips, read our guide on how to bypass VPN blocks.
How much does a VPN cost?
With all the advanced features that VPNs offer, you might think that they’d be way too expensive for the average person. In reality, all of the VPNs recommended above are super affordable – especially when you consider all the discounts and coupons available.
My top choice, ExpressVPN, is available for as little as $6.67/month. For the price of a Starbucks latte, you get access to thousands of lightning-fast servers, advanced security features, and every streaming service you could ever want.
Are there any free VPNs I can use?
Sure; there are plenty of free VPNs out there. But I don’t recommend using one, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, most of them are full of loopholes that are designed to trick you. They promise a high-quality service, only to fall short in the areas that matter most.
Free VPNs have a highly limited number of servers, slow speeds, data limits, and seriously lacking security measures. They usually can’t get past geoblocks, making them useless for streaming. And they could even threaten your privacy, which totally defeats the purpose.
Not every free provider is a total scam, however. We’ve found a few free VPNs that offer a safe and reliable service with only a few restrictions – but not on privacy or security, so you’ll only have to put up with limits on data, bandwidth, servers, and other features.
What’s the best VPN?
We’re constantly researching and ranking VPNs based on a set of rigorous standards. Our current tests show that ExpressVPN has the most consistent performance in all areas, whether you’re looking for high speeds for streaming or the ability to break through the toughest restrictions – it even works in China.
How do I choose a VPN?
You should choose a VPN based on your own specific needs and what you plan to use it for. For example, if you want to access streaming services, look for a wide server network and fast connection speeds. But no matter where your priorities lie, make sure you choose a VPN that’s reputable, user-friendly, and secure enough to entrust it with your data.
How do I set up my VPN?
Setting up a VPN is easy. All you have to do is download the software from the provider’s site, install it on your device, launch it, select a server, and connect! The most user-friendly VPNs have an intuitive setup process that should only take a few minutes at the most.
Should I leave my VPN on all the time?
In a perfect world, all of your online activity would be protected by a VPN. That’s why I always suggest keeping your VPN connected as much as possible. Realistically, though, you may need to turn it off sometimes. At the very least, just make sure it’s connected whenever you’re using public WiFi or an unfamiliar network.
Do I need a VPN at home?
Yes! VPNs aren’t just for when you’re traveling or using public WiFi. When you’re connected to your home network, your IP address is visible and easily accessible to others—which could put your privacy at risk. That’s why you should always use a VPN to shield your location and activity, no matter where you are or what you’re doing online.
Do I need a VPN on my phone?
Yes. I always recommend installing a VPN on every device in order to cover all your bases. Phones and other mobile devices can be especially vulnerable, since they tend to automatically connect to public networks that could be dangerous. However, the VPN will have to reconnect every time you lose and regain coverage, so it may slow you down a bit.
Do I need a VPN for my business?
If you care about protecting your company and your employees’ privacy online, then you need a VPN for your business. Luckily, some of the top services offer unlimited device connections so that you can use one subscription for the whole company.
Can my ISP see my browsing history if I use a VPN?
No; a VPN hides your browsing history and activity from your ISP (and everyone else). Your ISP will still see some information, like the time you connected and the amount of data you’re sending or receiving, but it won’t be able to see the websites you visit, the files you download, or anything else you do online.
How can I access Netflix with a VPN?
Accessing Netflix with a VPN is super simple, as long as you choose a quality provider. All you have to do is choose a VPN server in the country where you want to access the Netflix library, and then proceed as usual. For more recommendations, check out our list of the best VPNs for Netflix.
Is it legal to access Netflix with a VPN?
Yes, it’s totally legal to use a VPN to access Netflix. Some content is only available on Netflix in certain countries due to different licensing agreements. That’s why Netflix tries so hard to block VPN users. But bypassing those blocks isn’t a crime – it’s just not in the best interests of the streaming service.
How to Get a Discount on Your New VPN
I’m a bit of a bargain hunter, so I spend a lot of time online searching for ways to save money. I’ve discovered that VPN providers regularly release new coupons and special offers, but thanks to scam sites, it can be hard to work out which ones are real and actually work.
To solve this problem, my colleagues and I have created a comprehensive database of current VPN coupons, which we constantly update. We’ve tested each and every offer to verify that it’s still working in February 2021.
The Bottom Line
More and more people are starting to realize that VPNs are absolutely essential for online security. In addition to protecting your privacy, they can allow you to bypass georestrictions – whether you’re fighting online censorship or just trying to stream your favorite series.
If you’re ready to take the leap and invest in a premium provider, I recommend ExpressVPN above all others. It’s super fast, secure, and easy to use, making it the perfect choice for anyone who’s new to the world of VPNs.
To summarize, here are the best VPNs for beginners in May 2021:
Your data is exposed to the websites you visit!
Your IP Address:
Your Internet Provider:
The information above can be used to track you, target you for ads, and monitor what you do online.
VPNs can help you hide this information from websites so that you are protected at all times. We recommend ExpressVPN — the #1 VPN out of over 350 providers we've tested. It has military-grade encryption and privacy features that will ensure your digital security, plus — it's currently offering 49% off.