There’s a good chance you’ve heard a lot of chatter about VPNs lately. VPNs, or virtual private networks, have often been oriented at technically savvy people, or business workers required to use one for work. Thanks to a recently changed FCC policy, however, VPN usage is reaching new heights as consumers scramble to protect their data from both their internet service providers (ISPs) and advertisers. Due to a change in law, ISPs can sell your data in large, anonymous chunks to advertisers looking for user data to better target their ads. This might sound acceptable at first glance—after all, plenty of other services we use online everyday do the same thing—but for a lot of consumers, this is a bit too far. Effectively, any internet user now pays their ISP to use their internet, while the data they supply to the ISP is also taken and sold, doubling the profit without anything offered in return to consumers. You don’t save any money, or receive free access in exchange for your data; instead, ISPs gain another channel to make profit while speeds and access remain the same.
Enter the VPN to save the day. VPNs are complicated apps, but they essentially work like this: instead of using the standard route from your PC or mobile device to access a web page, video, or anything else online, the VPN creates a “tunnel” that is secured and kept secret from your ISP through the entire process. The data for the VPN is only decrypted at the starting and ending points of the destination (known as end-to-end encryption), so your PC and the web page know you’re there, but your ISP can’t see into your content beyond the standard activity of knowing data is being used. You can also use a VPN to get through to region-locked videos and web pages, by essentially adopting the location of your VPN’s server location. Of course, all of this data isn’t completely anonymous: depending on the VPN you choose to use, you’ll still be tracked by the VPN itself, which can create problems when trying to browse anonymously. Overall, however, you’re in the clear when it comes to both your ISP and advertisers being able to see, read, share, and sell your data.
So whether you’re looking to hide your browsing data from snooping ISPs, you don’t want advertisers to gain access to your information when it’s sold by your internet provider, or you want to access geo-locked websites and services that may be locked out of your country due to copyright or free speech concerns, a VPN can be a great investment—and not just for your PC. Mobile carriers are just as bad—if not worse—about tracking your mobile browsing data, especially if you’re using an Android phone, where it’s easier to pre-install applications on devices that read and track your data and usage. Protecting your phone’s data usage—both from your mobile carrier and your ISP over WiFi—is a great idea, no matter who you are, and on Android, there are a couple different ways to do it.
No matter the reason for using a VPN, you’ve come to the right place. Setting up a VPN on Android takes no time at all, though it’s important to make sure you’re using a safe VPN that won’t track your usage and will keep your data moving fast and without limits. Say no to unprotected browsing: let’s get started with using VPNs on Android.
Using a Company or Business-supplied VPN
For some users, you might just be looking for instructions on how to use the VPN required for use with your business or company’s network. Some companies require its employees to use private networks within the company so as to protect confidential data relating to their business from leaking out into the public or to competitors. If this applies to you, you’ll want to gain the VPN credentials from your company’s network administrator. Once you have those in hand, it’s just a quick trip into your phone’s settings menu to finish setting everything up. Let’s walk through the process together.
Open your phone’s settings app, either by using the shortcut in your notification tray, or by launching settings from the app drawer. Once you’re in your settings app, find the “Wireless and networks” category of your phone and select “More” at the bottom of the menu.
Android has support for VPNs built into the operating system, and it’s under the “More” menu where you’ll find the options to set it up. Tap the “VPN” option to continue to the next menu. Depending on your phone, you may have a few different options for VPN setup; on the Galaxy S7 edge used for testing, options were offered for both Basic VPNs and Advanced IPsec VPN. If you aren’t sure which to use, contact your network administrator for more instruction; below, we display the Basic VPN menu.
In the top-right corner of your display, select “Add VPN.” Some phones or software versions may use a plus sign (+) instead of words.
You’ll receive a pop-up menu that displays areas for you to enter the VPN information, which your company should provide if you’re using this for work. You’ll enter a name, along with a server address, a type of VPN (there are several different types), the encryption method, along with your username and password. If you intend on leaving this VPN on at all times, check the option for an always-on VPN.
You may receive a notification when a VPN is active on your phone; this is normal, and is there to alert you to any suspicious activity on your phone if, for example, you hadn’t set up a VPN and your web traffic was getting redirected through an unknown source. You can enable or disable your VPN at will through this settings menu.
Using an Application-based VPN
For most of our readers, you’ll probably be looking to setup and use your own VPN, to ensure private data browsing and transfers while using your phone. A search for VPN apps returns hundreds of results on Google Play, and not all of them are trustworthy-enough to handle your private data connections. It can be tough to find a VPN program that is safe and usable, without sacrificing stability or speed. Thankfully, we have a full list right here. Our examples below use TunnelBear, but our current favorite pick is ExpressVPN.
In our tests, we found TunnelBear to be great for beginners and experts alike, for a multitude of reasons. While some very advanced users might find the app a bit simplistic, we found TunnelBear to accurately define and explain what the app was doing in layman’s terms, using a cute bear animation to show the system of “tunneling” we described above. The app promises to side-step geo-locks for your favorite programs and websites worldwide, hide your IP address and location information from every website you browse, and even keep your public WiFi browsing safe and secure from prying eyes and hackers.
Upon opening the app (and creating a new account, if you don’t already have one), the main app display will load, showing a map of your current country, along with several illustrated tunnels running to different countries. At the top of the display, you’ll see a switch; at the bottom, you’ll find a list of countries to which you’re able to connect. Select the country of your choice—or just leave the app on its default connection—and flip the switch. Android will prompt to alert you that you’re connecting to a VPN, asking for your permission. Allow the app to activate, and that’s it: the bear will “tunnel” its way to a nearby country, and you’re now connected to a VPN. We told you—easy and quick.
Testing the VPN
Using TunnelBear, both on WiFi and Verizon’s LTE network, we didn’t see any noticeable lag or drop in connection quality. Downloads and video both continued just fine, even as we chose to connect to other countries farther away than the US. Most apps, including Chrome and some assorted news applications, worked fine within the app, not delivering any problems or notifications to use, even as we “browsed” in other countries. The one exception to this rule was Netflix: though the video-streaming service used to turn a blind eye towards VPN users utilizing their private networks to gain access to different libraries of movies and TV shows in different countries.
This changed a couple of years ago, when Netflix began implementing software to detect these programs and networks, due to their rise in popularity. When I first tried using TunnelBear to connect to Netflix from a Canadian location, I was able to load their Canadian library—the availability of titles like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World proved that. But selecting any title returned a network error, and I wasn’t able to get any farther in the app.
The second time I tried using Netflix, I had enabled “GhostBear,” designed to make my encrypted connection appear more like standard data. This time I was able to load information about both my account and the movie I selected, but when I hit the “Play” icon, Netflix had different plans for my evening:
It seems that the encryption TunnelBear was offering was a bit too much for Netflix to figure out what to do with, and once I had disguised the VPN as a standard data connection, they were able to identify the VPN connection. Netflix is known to be one of the toughest services to crack with a VPN, so this really says more about their detection software than TunnelBear itself, but it’s something to keep in mind before paying $60 a year and expecting to use it for Netflix streaming. Luckily, TunnelBear’s free tier means you lose nothing by actually testing the VPN before you use it.
So, while VPNs might not be the perfect services for streaming entire Netflix libraries from different countries, it is a great way to privatize your data, and to ensure that advertisers aren’t learning additional information on you than they should. While the user information being sold by ISPs to advertisers is technically anonymous data, it isn’t hard to imagine a world where this data is hacked and unscrambled. Even if that unfortunate situation never comes to light, there’s still the ever-relevant question about how ISPs should be handling your data.
While some users might not have a problem with their data being accessed and sold by ISPs and advertisers, other users might want to be a bit more careful with their browsing services, and a VPN—whether on your PC or a mobile phone—guarantees you anonymous usage so long as you use a safe and secure VPN. For most users, TunnelBear is exactly what they need in a VPN app, and nothing more. While the 500MB tier of free data can be used up rather quickly by most users, some may only want a VPN active while browsing an unsecured wireless connection. Unless you need something with additional options and settings not offered by TunnelBear, it’s our go-to recommendation for easy-to-use VPNs on both desktop and mobile.
Did you decide to start using a VPN? Along with your remaining questions on VPNs, tell us your thoughts and opinions in the comments below!