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How to set up a VPN

How to set up a VPN
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Take a look at just about any VPN provider's website and you'll find big claims about its easy-to-use interface. Simply install the client for your device, they'll say, or follow our nifty tutorial, and you'll be connected and ready to go within a matter of minutes. Regardless, we're here to tell you how to set up a VPN and cut through the marketing jargon.

While in some cases it can be really as straightforward as they say, coming down to a matter of installing and launching the client, entering your username and password, clicking a big 'On' button and you're away. ExpressVPN is an excellent example of this - one of the many reasons it sits at the top of a lot of our buying guides.

As a piece of security software, however, it's possible setting up a VPN can pose more of a complicated task. What is there isn't any custom software for instance, or the client throws up some issues? Perhaps it doesn't work at all? Even the best services can run into problems when it comes to setup and configuration, and sometimes you'll have a job to find them covered by the support section of their website.

Fortunately, there are plenty of tips, tricks and strategies that might help you get connected, and we've listed some of our favorites here to help you set up a VPN.

A word of warning: being able to work around major problems is useful, but shouldn't be a long-term solution. If you find a specific VPN protocol doesn't work, for instance, don't just live with that forever – talk to the support staff at your provider and get them to explain or fix it. And if they can't, try someone else: there are plenty of great VPN providers around.

ExpressVPN - our top choice of VPN
Offering a number of clients across devices, ExpressVPN boasts easy installation, as well as an intuitive and clean interface that's straight forward to navigate. It'll unblock your favorite services, and has fantastic security with military-level encryption, its Lightway protocol, and other great security features.


1. Prepare your device

VPN clients can sometimes conflict with each other or be affected by unusual network setups, particularly on desktops. Taking the time to prepare your system before you set up a new VPN can reduce the chance of problems occurring later.

Start by uninstalling any active VPN clients which you no longer need. This isn't compulsory – clients should be able to run side-by-side, so feel free to keep anything you think you might want – but we've found that doing this often reduces the amount of issues that crop up.

Think about your network configuration, too. More complex setups, for example, systems which can get online via multiple methods at once – Wi-Fi, a separate wired connection, perhaps a 4G modem – are more likely to confuse some VPN clients.

If your network is set up exactly as you'd like, leave it alone: it's the responsibility of the VPN client to get everything working properly.

But if you can simplify your system without causing any issues, for example by unplugging a modem you're not using, then do that. It may save you a lot of troubleshooting hassles later on.


Prepare your device

2. Install a client – any client

The quickest and easiest way to get connected to any VPN is to install one of its own clients.

Unfortunately, providers won't necessarily have software for all the platforms you need. You might want to use a VPN on your Android phone, for instance, but then find your chosen provider only offers its VPN for a Windows PC and or VPN for Mac.

In a situation like this we would always recommend you install one of the custom clients first, if possible, even if it's not on the platform you intend to use long-term.

The benefit of using the provider's own client initially is you can confirm that your account and the basic service is working correctly. If even the client won't let you log in or connect to the service you need, you'll know there's no immediate point in trying to set up any other devices. And as a bonus, when you report the problem to the VPN support team, you're less likely to be hassled with questions asking whether you've configured your device properly.


3. Find a setup tutorial

If your VPN provider doesn't have any software available for your device, check its website for a manual setup tutorial.

There's no telling what you might find. Many providers have detailed and helpful guides, although other efforts are poor, and some barely have any documentation at all.

If you don't find any useful guidance on setting up your exact device, look for something similar which uses the same protocol. If the device can use the L2TP protocol, for instance, check for a tutorial which covers manually setting up an Android L2TP connection.

Browse down the Android tutorial and the first part should tell you where to find necessary VPN setup data. In the case of L2TP connections, this will be your username and password, server names and a preshared key. Follow the steps to find that information and save it somewhere.

With this data available, check the support sites of other big VPN providers (and the web in general) for tutorials covering your device.

If you need to configure a Chromebook, for instance, you might find this ExpressVPN tutorial on how to set it up via L2TP. The first few steps describe how to get ExpressVPN's credentials, server details and more. But the second part of the tutorial explains how to manually create and configure your VPN connection with the data you've collected, and if you follow these steps, but replace the ExpressVPN details with your own, it should work in just the same way.

ExpressVPN - support

(Image credit: ExpressVPN)

4. Try OpenVPN

If your VPN doesn't provide a client or a setup guide for your device, or you can't get either to deliver, switching to a third-party OpenVPN-compatible client could be a workable alternative. Assuming your provider supports the OpenVPN protocol, anyway, and provides OVPN setup files (check this before you start).

The idea is a simple one. Just about every VPN client which supports OpenVPN will use the open source OpenVPN application to manage its connection. The client should set this up properly so it connects right away. But if it doesn't, you can always install, configure and use OpenVPN yourself.

Hopefully your provider will have an OpenVPN setup tutorial for one or more platforms. If your device is covered, great; if not, look for any other supported platform which you can access right now. All that matters for the moment is you discover how to connect with something – once you've done that, you can apply that experience elsewhere.

If you can't find a tutorial, start by grabbing a copy of OpenVPN for Windows, Android, iOS, or the OpenVPN-compatible Tunnelblick for Macs.

Search your VPN provider's website for the OVPN setup files OpenVPN will need, and download copies to your device.

Launch your OpenVPN client and use its Import function to read an OVPN file. This only accepts one file at a time, but on Windows you may be able to import up to 50 files at once by copying them into OpenVPN's configuration folder (\Program Files\OpenVPN\Config).

Imported servers appear in the server list of your OVPN client. Choose one, enter your username and password and you should be able to connect.

Some providers work a little differently. If they don't have a certificate in the OVPN file, for instance, you might have to download a separate file. Check the provider’s support site or contact the support team directly if you need more help.


5. Troubleshooting

A VPN provider's own client usually works right away, but if you're not so lucky, and your provider's support site doesn't help, there a few things you can try.

Close down and restart the client. Reboot your device if that doesn't make any difference.

If you have any other VPN software running, make sure you're disconnected, then close it down.

VPN clients rely on their driver being set up correctly. Some clients have a Repair function which effectively reinstalls the driver – check any menus or Settings screens to see if there's a similar option available.

If you're getting an authentication or login problem, check your credentials. VPNs handle these in different ways – many allow you to create them, others generate logins on your behalf, some give you separate credentials for regular and OpenVPN logins – and it can be easy to get mixed up. Re-read any welcome email or beginner's guide the VPN might have sent you when you signed up.

Settings

If you're having general problems connecting, try switching to other servers. Start with those closest to your physical location.

Try connecting with different protocols, if your client allows them to be changed. Start with OpenVPN using TCP (check the settings if you don't see a TCP option), then switch to L2TP, and finally PPTP. Keep in mind that PPTP has serious security flaws and shouldn't be used long-term: it's only useful here for testing.

VPN connections can occasionally be blocked by firewalls, antivirus or other security software. Temporarily disable any likely candidates and try connecting again, but don't forget to re-enable any critical software afterwards.

If all else fails, the support sites of other VPN providers might offer some clues. For example, this ExpressVPN troubleshooting page for Android devices includes several generic troubleshooting tips that will work for any VPN provider.


6. Tune and optimize

Getting your VPN set up and working at a basic level isn't the end of the story. Take the time to check out the client settings and make sure they suit your needs.

Start with the default protocol. This should be OpenVPN UDP for optimum speed and security (OpenVPN TCP is slower, PPTP in particular is less secure).

Check any startup options. If you need protection all the time, you might be able to set the client to start with Windows and automatically connect. But if you only use the VPN occasionally, you could free up a few resources by only launching the client when required.

Many VPN clients have favorites systems where you can highlight commonly-used servers for easy access later. If your client supports this, give it a try and it could make your life a little simpler.

Browse any other settings on offer, and check the VPN support site for explanations of what they're for. Client default settings aren't always sensibly chosen, and you may well find interesting features you didn't even know existed.


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Mike began his career as a lead software developer in the engineering world, where his creations were used by big-name companies from Rolls Royce to British Nuclear Fuels and British Aerospace. He now covers VPNs, antivirus and all things security for TechRadar, although he still has a secret love of quirky open-source and freeware apps which find brand new ways to solve common problems.