A Virtual Private Networks (VPN) is a clever piece of software that creates a secure, encrypted connection between your device and servers on the web. The upshot of this is that when you turn on a VPN you can become anonymous and no-one can spy on your online activity.
Another benefit is that your location can be spoofed. This means services such as Netflix think you’re in a different country, and therefore offer access to content that might not be available on your normal menu.
Getting one up and running is very easy, so read on as we show you how to set up a VPN in Windows and keep the snoopers at bay.
If the whole concept is new to you then you might want to read our guide which explains What is a VPN?
Should you use a free or paid VPN?
There are two main types of VPN: free or subscription-based. Both have their charms. The free variety is obviously the cheaper option, and you will find a selection of free services in our roundup of the best free VPNs.
While these are a good way to experiment, we do not recommend free VPNs. If a VPN is free, either you are the product being sold (i.e. your email address or some other valuable data will be sold to third parties) or the service is very limited and may not offer the server locations and amount of data (bandwidth) that you need.
A paid-for VPN is the best choice, and they can cost as little as £2 / $2 per month. They often let you trial the service with a money-back guarantee, too. Check out our best VPN services roundup for more details. Our top picks include NordVPN, ExpressVPN and PureVPN.
You'll often see a free VPN browser extension (and there's even one built into Opera). The same sort of thing applies: be very wary of any service that offers a VPN for free, especially with unlimited bandwidth.
For example, Opera's 'VPN' isn't really a VPN at all. It's more of a proxy, which means it's not as secure as a VPN and may well leak your real IP address and therefore your identity. The best use for it is to watch Netflix US and, to be fair, that's a pretty nice perk to have for free.
Also, remember that a browser extension only protects the information sent to the internet from that browser: other apps will communicate over the usual unencrypted connection.
How to set up a VPN in Windows
You may or may not know that Windows has VPN settings built in. This means you can enter the details of your VPN service directly into the operating system and use Windows' own settings to turn the VPN connection on and off.
However, a better way for most people is to simply download the Windows app from your VPN provider as this requires no technical knowledge: just your email address and password.
Hopefully you understand by now that you have to sign up to a VPN provider to access a service: Windows merely facilitates this connection.
You should also be getting the idea that we are firm believers that a paid-for VPN service is the way to go. We'll be using ExpressVPN here, but you can also check out NordVPN and our other recommendations of the best VPN services.
Go to ExpressVPN and click on the Download App button.
When the download is complete, double click on the file and follow the install instructions. When this is complete you’ll be given the option to Sign In or Get Started.
Click on the latter and you’ll be taken to the ExpressVPN site where you’ll need to choose a plan and setup an account.
The company offers a 30-day money-back-guarantee if you don’t want to continue using the service, and each account begins with a 7-day free trial, so there’s no need to worry about the expense just yet.
With that done you’ll receive an activation code. Copy this then go back to the ExpressVPN app and click on the Sign In button.
Paste in the activation code, then go through the options asking whether you want the app to automatically launch when you start your machine and if you want to share performance data.
Finally, you’ll be presented with a big power button that turns the VPN on and off. Beneath this there’s also the option to Choose Location, which allows you to specify the country where your server will be.
This is useful as sometimes one server will get bogged down if it’s experiencing high levels of traffic. Switching to a new one could very well give your connection a speed boost. Should you be using the VPN to watch region locked content on services like Netflix, then you’ll want to choose a server in the same country as the shows you’re trying to access.
With all this decided, all that remains is to click the power button and ExpressVPN will immediately secure your connection. Now, whichever browser you use, you’ll know that spying eyes will find it near impossible to know what you’re doing.
It should be noted that due to encrypting your data and routing it through various servers, there might be a performance hit on your normal browsing speeds. But typically you won't see that with ExpressVPN, NordVPN and our other recommended services.