Run a VPN On Any Device

Want to remain anonymous online and access blocked content even when you’re not sitting at your PC? Here's how to use a virtual private network on any web-connected device

VPN usage has soared during the coronavirus lockdown, with more people than ever turning to virtual private networks to help them work from home or keep themselves entertained. Not only does a VPN protect your internet connection against snoopers and hackers, it lets you access streaming content that might otherwise be unavailable to you, so it’s easy to see why these tools are proving so popular now.

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However, while most VPN users simply download a program to run on their PC, this versatile technology has many more benefits when expanded to other devices. For example, you can encrypt data on your phone, protect every device connected to your Wi-Fi network and watch US-only shows on your smart TV.

In this feature, we explain how to install and configure a VPN on any device that would benefit from it, and reveal the best tools for the job.

Using a VPN on your computer

Installing a VPN on your PC is very simple, and it’s the option people are most familiar with. Essentially, you download and install the VPN just like any other program and enable it when you need it, choosing a server in the location you require. If you want access to a website that’s only available in the US, for example, pick a server from that country. There are lots of VPNs to choose from, both paid and free,

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but our favourites are Windscribe (windscribe.com) and NordVPN (nordvpn.com) because they’re trustworthy and affordable, and offer all the features you’re likely to need. 

Windscribe offers both a paid and a free service. The free VPN gives you a choice of 10 server locations, including the US, and a fairly generous 10GB of data per month, which you can use on an unlimited number of devices. As an additional sweetener, the company has just upgraded its free service to let users stream content from overseas versions of Netflix and Disney Plus in most of its free locations. Don’t get too excited about this, however, because one hour of streaming or downloading from Netflix will quickly eat through your free monthly allowance: SD-quality video consumes 1GB of data per hour, while HD uses up to 3GB per hour and 4K requires a whopping 7GB per hour.

If you need a greater choice of servers (110 cities in 63 countries), unlimited data and a configuration generator to help you install the VPN on other devices, including your router, you can upgrade to Windscribe Pro for £7 a month or £39 a year. There’s also a great value ‘Build a Plan’ option, which lets you add specific locations for 77p each per month and gives you an additional 10GB of data. An impressive DNS-level blocking tool called R.O.B.E.R.T. (Remote Omnidirectional Badware Eliminating Robotic Tool), which kills ads, trackers and bad domains, is available for another 77p a month. You can try Windscribe Pro free for a day by clicking the Team Garry button (the floating green circle) on the website and asking for a Pro trial. 

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Unlike Windscribe, NordVPN doesn’t offer a free version, but you can try it free for 30 days at free.nordvpn.com. The company also offers a 30-day money-back guarantee on full subscriptions, so you’re not tied in if you try NordVPN and then decide it’s not right for you. As well as being easy to set up and use, it offers a whopping 5,200 servers across 59 countries, as well as advanced features such as the optional CyberSec tool, which removes ads from web pages and can help protect your browsing from malware, phishing and other threats. There’s also a Kill Switch, which suspends your internet connection if your encrypted VPN connection accidentally drops, protecting your identity. NordVPN has a strict no-logs policy, offers 24/7 support and can be combined with Tor for extra privacy and security, albeit at the expense of browsing speed. 

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NordVPN costs £9.20 for one month or £5.38 per month on its one-year plan, but if you sign up for three years, the price drops significantly to £2.69 a month, which is a bargain. At the time of writing, a two-year subscription was available for the same discounted price.

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You’ll find a guide for installing and using NordVPN on PCs running Windows 7 and later here – the process is simple, and choosing a server is as easy as clicking on the global map and selecting ‘Quick connect’.

On your Mobile device

Most people use their mobile phone or tablet as their primary method of getting online these days, so it makes sense to install a VPN on those devices, too. All our preferred VPN services, including NordVPN, Windscribe and ExpressVPN offer apps for iOS and Android devices as part of the same subscription as their desktop VPNs.

There are lots of ‘free’ VPNs in the mobile app stores, too, with secure-sounding (but unfamiliar) names and scores of five-star reviews. However, you should be very wary of installing these, because many of them log your online activities and sell the data to advertisers and other third parties. Some free services request invasive permissions (such as the ability to access your email and text messages), while others fail to secure your traffic in the way you’d expect. While you might get lucky and discover a decent free VPN app, we’d definitely recommend paying for a VPN service from a known organisation.

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The easiest way to set up a VPN on your mobile device is to install a trusted app, but the Android operating system supports VPN functionality, too. You can enable this feature through the Settings app. Open ‘Wi-Fi & Internet’ or Wireless & networks’ and tap VPN followed by the plus sign in the top-right corner. Enter the requested VPN information, such as a server address, username and password, which your VPN service will have provided you.

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Apple iOS also supports VPNs and the setup process is much the same. On your iPhone or iPad, open Settings, then go to General and scroll down to VPN. Tap it, then select Add VPN Configuration and fill in the details.

On your router

Installing a VPN on your router is a great idea because it protects all the devices that connect to your home network – including PCs, phones, tablets, TVs and games consoles –

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and means you don’t need to install individual apps. You can buy routers that have a built-in VPN client mode, but if you’re not ready to upgrade just yet, consider replacing your current router’s firmware with DD-WRT, which adds VPN support. Search for your router’s manufacturer and model in the DD-WRT website’s router database, then follow the instructions provided.

Once you’ve installed the new firmware on your router, you need to install and configure a suitable VPN, such as Windscribe, NordVPN or CyberGhost, all of which use the OpenVPN protocol. Most paid-for VPNs offer guides you can follow on the web. Windscribe provides instructions on setting up a router here (you will need a paid-for account or a one-day free trial of Pro), while NordVPN’s guide is here. Whichever VPN you choose, just search for ‘router’ in the support section of its website and you should find the details you need.

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While there are many benefits to installing a VPN on your router, it can lead to a noticeable performance drop when visiting websites or streaming video. The extent of the slowdown will depend on your VPN, router and devices. Switching the protocol from TCP to UDP (see box below) can speed things up, so it’s worth a try. Open your router settings and locate the OpenVPN Client page. Click the arrow next to Tunnel Protocol and select UDP there.

On your smart TV

There are a number of ways to run a VPN on your smart TV. One is to install a VPN on your router, as we explain above. Alternatively, you can use a VPN app on your Android TV or a device such as an Amazon Fire TV Stick, or share your Windows PC’s VPN. 

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If you have an Android TV, you can access the Google Play store through it. Buy a subscription to a VPN service such as ExpressVPN or NordVPN and download the app. It will come in the form of an Android Package File, or APK, which you can install.

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Then log into your account and connect to a server. If you own an Amazon Fire TV Stick you can install a VPN on that. Open the Amazon Appstore on your TV, search for a VPN and download the app. Sign into the VPN (or create an account if you don’t have one), then connect to it. The Fire TV Stick typically costs around £40, but Amazon regularly discounts it, so you should be able to pick one up for less if you’re patient.

Another option is to share a VPN connection in Windows. Install and set up the VPN on your PC, then connect your computer to your Smart TV using an Ethernet cable. Open the ‘Network and Sharing Centre’ on your PC by typing control panel into the Windows search box and pressing Enter. Open ‘Network and Internet’, click ‘Network and Sharing Centre’ and select ‘Change adapter settings’ on the left. Find your VPN connection (it will be called something like ‘TAP-Win32 Adaptor V9’), right-click it and select Properties. Click the Sharing tab and tick ‘Allow other network users to connect through this computer’s internet connection’. From the drop-down menu, select Local Area Connection and click OK. Restart your PC and your TV, and hopefully your secured connection will be available.

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If you plan to access Netflix from a different country, such as the US, make sure the VPN you choose lets you do this, because the streaming service actively clamps down on such behaviour. This also applies to accessing BBC iPlayer from outside the UK.

On your games console

The most obvious benefit of running a VPN on a games console is that you can access games that aren’t currently available in your country. However, you can’t simply install a VPN on your Xbox One, PS4 or Nintendo Switch, because it’s not something providers offer, and the consoles don’t support it. That said, there are some ways round this. The best option is to install a VPN on your router because your console traffic will go through it. Another option is to set your console to use your VPN provider’s DNS servers, which will help you avoid some geographic restrictions. The process for this varies, but you’ll find your VPN’s DNS server addresses on its website. NordVPN users should go to bit.ly/norddns504, for example. Once you have the DNS addresses, check your console’s manual to find out how to change its DNS settings.

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ExpressVPN offers a MediaStreamer service which, while not a full VPN, lets you watch online content that wouldn’t otherwise be available to you, and works by faking your location. Before you can use it, you have to create a dynamic DNS hostname using a service such as Dynu. Register this name with ExpressVPN, then configure the DNS on your console. You can find guides for setting everything up here. Select your console from the options.

On a USB stick

The main advantage to running a VPN from a USB stick is that you can use it to browse the web anonymously from any computer that has a spare USB port. That sounds useful, right? Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as you might imagine, because you need administrative rights to the PC you’re using. The VPN requires system access to change the PC’s network configurations, which includes installing new network interfaces. This means you can’t simply run the VPN from your stick – you need to install it.

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An easy way around this problem is to use a portable browser, such as Firefox, with a VPN add-on installed. Simply install the browser on your memory stick, launch it and then install a VPN add-on and create an account or sign in using your existing account details. Alternatively, you could install the portable version of Opera, which comes with its own VPN built in.

The downside of this approach is that the VPN/proxy only protects any browsing you do. You can’t use it to hide other forms of internet activity on the computer you’re using, such as system activity and apps.

In your browser

Unless you need a VPN to hide your location while downloading content over BitTorrent, the chances are you’ll mostly use it to browse the web anonymously. If so, installing a VPN add-on in your browser makes a lot of sense. You could even have a browser for everyday use and another purely for accessing geo-blocked sites or those you don’t want snoopers to know you visit. All the major VPN services provide browser add-ons, including NordVPN, ExpressVPN, Windscribe and TunnelBear. The latter is particularly easy to use and offers extensions for Chrome (and therefore Edge), Firefox and Opera, although the free version limits you to just 500MB of data per month. Once you’ve installed your preferred VPN add-on, sign in and activate your protection by clicking its button on the browser’s toolbar.

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Some browsers have a VPN built in. The best known of these is Opera, which introduced a free VPN with unlimited data four years ago. While most users appreciate its inclusion, it has attracted criticism from people who point out that because it only anonymises browser traffic, it’s actually a secure proxy rather than a VPN. Worse still, it collects data (connected to a unique device ID) for “promotional campaigns and advertising” and to help the developers make improvements. There are other downsides to bear in mind, too. The location categories it offers are very broad – Americas, Europe or Asia – which isn’t particularly helpful if you want to use a server in a particular country. What’s more, while Opera was originally a Norwegian company and still has its office in Oslo, it’s now owned by a Chinese firm, which might set alarm bells ringing. Opera is not alone, however. A recent survey discovered that more than half of the top free VPN apps in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store (both the UK and US versions) have Chinese owners.

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If that doesn’t bother you and you simply want to disguise your browsing to access geo-blocked sites, for example, Opera’s VPN/proxy will be more than adequate. To enable the feature, press Alt+P to open Settings, then select Advanced in the sidebar and click Features. Toggle on the Enable VPN setting under VPN.

Opera’s VPN feature is also built into the company’s Android browser. This replaces the standalone VPN app, which was available for free on iOS and Android but was discontinued in April 2018.

Epic Browser for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android is another option with a built-in VPN, and offers servers in eight countries. Firefox doesn’t come with its own VPN built in, but Mozilla is testing one called the Firefox Private Network. This costs $4.99 (£3.85) a month and looks promising, although it’s currently available only to users in the US who sign up to a waiting list.

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It’s possible that the service will be available globally in the future.

Finally, although it’s not a VPN, Tor Browser offers a great way to safeguard your web browsing by routing traffic through the Tor network. Unlike a VPN, Tor’s main advantage is that its network is run by thousands of volunteers, so you’re not putting your trust in one single organisation. This means there’s no danger that your browsing activity will be logged or sold

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