A VPN on your Android device can transform your privacy and open up new ways to use your phone, tablet or Android TV
While looking around the settings for your Android device, or the Google Play Store, you may have noticed mention of a “VPN”, but what do these three letters mean, and is this an important feature for you?
We’ll explain what VPNs are, how they work on your Android device, and highlight a few great examples to get you started.
What is a VPN?
A VPN or Virtual Private Network is a special type of computer network method that uses encryption to securely move data across a public network. Think of it as a tunnel that’s been dug through a big network such as the public internet. No-one can see what’s being transferred inside the tunnel other than the two people at either end.
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How does a VPN work?
When you send something over the internet, such as a photo, the information that makes up that photo is split up into “packets” which are sent individually into the network, so that they can find their way to the correct destination. The receiving device takes all the packets, and re-assembles them back into the original photo, file or whichever format the original took.
Each packet is stamped with its origin, destination and also contains information about what type of data it is (such as BitTorrent traffic, for example). Any network device that these packets have to pass through on their way to their final destination can plainly see this information. They may not be able to see the contents of the packet, but they will know who sent it and where it’s going – as well as various other bits of private information.
When you use a VPN, those packets are put inside another packet. This packet still has information anyone can read, but all it tells them is that your computer is connected to a VPN server. They don’t know what sort of packet is inside this additional layer of encryption, or where it’s actually going.
The VPN receives these packets, strips the encryption and then sends them into the internet as regular packets. However, anyone looking at these packets will only see that they come from the VPN, with your original location and identity obscured.
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What is a VPN used for?
As the “P” in VPN would suggest, the main use for a VPN is privacy. If you don’t want your ISP (Internet Service Provider), the government or the sites you visit to know who you are or where you’re located, a VPN will hide that information.
Since the destination computer sees the internet packets as originating from the VPN, another interesting use of VPN technology is to obscure where you are in the world. This is why most commercial VPN services have servers all over the world.
This is what makes geo-unblocking possible, where you can access content that’s restricted for your region by using a VPN server that’s physically located in another part of the world.
VPNs can also be an effective remedy for ISP throttling. This is when your ISP limits certain types of internet traffic. For example, torrent traffic, video streaming or downloads from video game services. By using a VPN, your ISP has no idea what sort of traffic you’re using, and unless they throttle all VPN traffic, you’ll get faster speeds than the throttled limit.
Another critical use of VPNs has to do with unsecured networks such as public Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi password you use to access a network is also its encryption key. This means that anyone on a public network has the key to capture and inspect all the data packets on that network.
So if you’re relaxing in a coffee shop and using the Wi-Fi, someone on that same network could be extracting private information about you right under your nose. If you’re using a VPN, they will get no useful information out of your network traffic.
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How to get a VPN on your Android device
Generally, in order to use a VPN on your Android device, you need a VPN client. Android has a built-in VPN client that can be accessed via Settings. The exact path depends on the Android version and phone brand, but on our Samsung S22 Ultra you can add VPN profiles under Settings > Connections > More Connection Settings > VPN .
Here you can add a VPN profile by entering its details as provided by the VPN operator. However, it’s rare for VPNs to be used this way on Android these days.
Most commercial VPN services have their own mobile app, and you’ll do virtually all of your VPN-related stuff there. Likewise, if you’re using a VPN provided by your employer, they probably have their own VPN client (for example, Cisco AnyConnect) and the configuration will be done by your IT department.
Activating or deactivating the VPN happens within the client app, and you can tell your VPN is running thanks to a small key icon at the top of your phone screen. You can also double check that your VPN is running by visiting a site like whatismyip.com which should reflect the IP address and location of your VPN rather than your real information.
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The best VPNs on Android to get you started
There are a wide range of VPN services vying for your money as an Android user. However, not all of them are equal. Some have poor privacy policies, or fail to properly secure your data on a technical level. Others may not offer decent network performance, or won’t have servers in parts of the world you need them to be. You should definitely check out our best Android VPN roundup to get an idea of what’s out there. But here are some great choices to get you started.
1. ExpressVPN: Fast, easy and secure
Price when reviewed: From £5.42/mth (15-month contract) | Check price at ExpressVPN
ExpressVPN is quite possibly the best known VPN on the market today, but it’s not simply a question of brand-recognition and good marketing. The service offers a mind-numbing number of global VPN server locations (over 3,000) and offers some of the best network performance we’ve seen from a VPN.
One of the best features, at least for the Android version of the client, is “split tunnelling”. This is a VPN feature where some traffic goes through the VPN and some goes out normally. This is often quite hard to set up, but the ExpressVPN app for both Android and Android TV devices lets you easily pick which apps go through the VPN and which don’t.
Some apps (such as Netflix) may detect a VPN and refuse to work. Other apps, such as your banking app, might raise the alarm if you are apparently trying to use them from the other side of the world. With the ExpressVPN split tunnelling feature, it’s really simple to do.
ExpressVPN also has an airtight policy against keeping user logs, and their servers are set up in a way to make it infeasible anyway. It’s a little more expensive than other VPN services and only offers a core VPN service, but it’s hard to recommend anything else for most people. This is the VPN this article’s author uses on a daily basis.
Read our full ExpressVPN review
2. CyberGhost VPN: Great for geo-blocked streams
Price when reviewed: From £1.78/mth (26-month contract) | Check price at CyberGhost
CyberGhost VPN may not be the best known VPN service, but it’s developed a reputation for being a great option if you want to access geo-blocked streaming content. Many streaming services have put measures in place to prevent this, and the only solution is to pay for a more expensive private VPN server that can’t be blacklisted.
CyberGhost offers specialised streaming VPN servers at a competitive price, so if that’s your main reason for using one, it’s well worth a look.
Read our full CyberGhost VPN review
3. SurfShark VPN: Budget price, not-so-budget protection
Price when reviewed: From £1.59/mth (28-month contract) | Check price at Surfshark
While SurfShark hasn’t been around for as long as the more established VPN services, aggressive pricing and clever use of sponsorships on platforms like YouTube have made the name stick out, but is it any good?
While testing this VPN we were impressed by its fantastic privacy and that it has legal protections thanks to being based in the British Virgin Islands. Despite being so affordable, you still get user friendly split tunnelling and you can activate an automatic kill switch in case the VPN connection drops.
Read our full Surfshark VPN review
Everyone needs street smarts on the modern internet, and using a VPN at the right time and place is perfectly sensible. Just remember that some VPNs don’t offer you the protection you need, so be sure to refer to our VPN reviews where we test every aspect of VPN performance and security.