Do Macs have their own built-in VPN?

Do Macs have their own built-in VPN?
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The answer to this question depends on what is meant by a VPN. Typically, when somebody refers to a VPN - which stands for virtual private network - they mean a service provided by a company that allows you to securely and anonymously browse the web, check email, stream video, share files and much more.

However, the best VPNs have many uses. For example, they can also refer to the private network put in place by a business or institution to grant users remote access to local files and computers. 

VPNs are also commonly used by colleges and universities to provide access to on-campus services, such as library databases, for researchers, professors, and students working remotely. 

In this article, we’ll look at different ways you can use a VPN to explain how it differs from commercial VPN services. Then, we’ll discuss these services and the security advantages that the best Mac VPNs provide.   

iCloud Private Relay

First let’s address the elephant in the room: iCloud Private Relay.

If someone’s told you that Apple Mac’s already have a VPN built-in, this is probably what they meant.

Apple’s “Private Relay” service is available to anyone with a compatible device and an iCloud+ subscription.

In simplest terms, Apple uses two separate proxies to manage your traffic with Private Relay. The ‘ingress’ proxy authenticates you to the service, then swaps out your unique IP address with a more general location. 

In this way it is quite similar to a VPN, it that it can help conceal your IP address and therefore your real location.

This ‘ingress’ proxy then makes an encrypted connection to an ‘egress’ proxy, which will fetch your content for you. As this is managed by a third party, in theory Apple has no idea what you’re accessing. Whoever manages the ‘egress’ proxy knows what you’re accessing but not who or where you are. 

This separation of your identity from the content you access is actually more secure than a VPN, as usually when you connect to a VPN server they know both your real address and which websites or online services you’re accessing. 

So, Macs do have their own VPN?

The short answer is no. iCloud Private Relay isn’t the same thing as a VPN. There are a lot of differences between a virtual private network and the Apple Private Relay, including:

The Mac VPN interface

Even though iCloud Private Relay isn’t the same thing as a VPN, your Mac does support connecting to certain types of VPN out of the box.

If you’re running the latest version of macOS (Ventura), then switch on your Mac and  choose Apple menu  > System Settings.

Next, click “Network” in the Side Bar. Click the menu underneath “Other Services” to add a new VPN configuration. 

This interface allows you to connect to the virtual private network of your employer, school, or other institution, which will have provided you with all the details you need. 

If you’ve signed up to a third-party VPN service, you can also connect to it here, provided they’ve given you the necessary log on information.

Sometimes your VPN provider will actually give you a settings file, which has all the necessary information to connect inside it. If it has been correctly designed for macOS, all you need to do is double click it: the system will recognise it as a network settings file and ask if you want to import it. 

Once the VPN is active, all your online activity will be rerouted through the host’s servers. For businesses, this is used to ensure secure remote access and facilitate file sharing and collaboration. 

If you’ve set the connection up correctly, you should see the VPN icon in your notification bar at the edge of your screen. 

If you can’t set up the connection, make sure to double check with your VPN provider that they allow you to connect using the built-in tools in macOS. The operating system only supports connecting via the IKEv2, Cisco over IPSec  and L2TP/IPSec VPN protocols. 

Technically you can also configure a PPTP connection but remember that there’s no built-in support for encryption, so don’t send or read any sensitive information when using this kind of VPN.

If your VPN uses a more modern VPN protocol like OpenVPN or Wireguard, you’ll need to install third-party software to connect to the VPN service.

Your VPN provider will usually offer the necessary software for download. For extra peace of mind, consider using open source clients like OpenVPN Connect or SoftEther. These support modern protocols but as the source code is freely available over the internet security experts can check it for flaws.  

Using a VPN to securely and privately access the internet

When most people talk about VPNs, they are referring to VPN providers that enable users to securely and privately connect to any one of their servers located throughout the world.

VPNs offer a number of advantages to users. They work by providing a highly secure, encrypted connection between your device and the provider’s servers. All the information that passes between the VPN and your computer is encrypted and cannot be easily read by external parties, including hackers, your ISP, or the government.

There are a few advantages to this. First, it enables you to access sensitive information, like bank accounts, private emails, and personal files, in a more secure fashion, especially when doing so over public Wi-Fi. In fact, with a good VPN service, public Wi-Fi can be just as secure as your home connection. 

Second, with a VPN, your online activity stays private and anonymous. Providers like ExpressVPN go one step further with audited zero-logging policies. Not only do they hide your identity and location from any websites you visit, but they also never make any record of it. If they are coerced by governments or hackers to share their logs and servers, the former will find nothing of value. Browsing the web, sending emails, and torrenting are all much more secure this way - there are dozens of VPN uses that a third-party service can help you with.   

VPN Vulnerabilities

If you are using macOS’ own built-in tools to access your VPN, you won’t benefit from some of the extra features of VPN software. Whether or not this matters to you depends on how private your data is.

For instance, most VPN software these days comes with a built-in VPN kill switch. VPN connections sometimes don’t succeed or drop out. If this happens your Mac will usually revert to accessing the internet directly, while you carry on unaware that your information is at risk.

A “kill switch” is designed for this scenario. If the VPN connection fails for any reason, the kill switch blocks all network activity until you’re using the VPN again.  

The Mac also won’t support automatically connecting to the VPN when you log in. You’ll need either to create a custom ‘shell’ script for this if you’re comfortable with programming or just use a third-party app which does have an ‘auto connect’ feature.

Do Macs have their own built-in VPN?

Macs do not have their own built-in VPN. Neither iCloud Private Relay nor the built-in network settings features are a VPN in themselves. 

The System Preferences interface does enable you to establish a connection to a VPN server but the actual service itself has to be delivered by a VPN provider.

If you find a provider you like but who doesn’t offer a ‘client’ app for your version of macOS, don’t be afraid to ask if you can connect using open source VPN software as we outlined above. This is actually better for your security in any case. 

If your router supports connecting via a VPN, you may also be able to configure connecting to it this way. If set up correctly, that means your Mac and any other devices connected to the router will automatically use the VPN without needing any extra software.

Just remember through using non-official software, you may not be able to benefit from all the VPN features offered by your provider, such as NordVPN’s private VPN “mesh net”. 

Whichever VPN service you choose, see if they either offer a free trial or offer you a no-questions refund on your first month’s membership. That way you can test-pilot the service on your mac to see if it performs correctly. 

Christian Rigg

Christian is a freelance writer and content project manager with 6+ years' experience writing and leading teams in finance and technology for some of the world's largest online publishers, including TechRadar and Tom's Guide.

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