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How to set up and use a VPN on Windows, Mac, iOS, or Android

Installing a VPN is a fairly straightforward process, no matter what device you're using. We step you through the entire process for four popular VPNs, on the four top platforms -- iOS, Mac, Windows, and Android.
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Written by David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer on

Although not many of us are working out of airports, hotels, and coffee shops these days, thanks to the pandemic, we are working outside of our employer's facilities. That, along with the ever-increasing levels of cybercrime and hacking, is inspiring people to install VPNs on their devices.

In a home environment, VPNs not only secure your connection from home to whatever online service you're connecting to, but they also secure your connection from others on your Wi-Fi network. If you have confidential information you don't want to share with roommates, or you'd prefer your teenager doesn't have access to corporate, health, lifestyle, or financial information, a VPN will keep the connection from your computer, phone, or tablet secure from the prying eyes of the young digital natives in your midst.

In this article, we'll present a few general installation and configuration guidelines. Then we'll walk you, step-by-step, through the installation of four popular VPNs, one for each platform. We'll be demonstrating how to install and setup NordVPN on iOS, IPVanish on MacOS, ExpressVPN on Windows 10, and Surfshark on Android.

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Some quick tips

First and foremost, you must understand that your experience with a VPN will differ from others, especially those of us doing reviews. Every Internet connection performs differently, so even though we explored what VPNs are fastest, keep in mind that where you're connecting from and what you're connecting to will differ from the experience of other users. When choosing a VPN, make sure to take advantage of the trial time or the money-back guarantee. Definitely test before committing.

Second, you'll need to decide if you want your VPN to always be on or only turn on when you tell it. If you want your VPN to be active from the moment the device boots up, make that selection in the preferences for your VPN application. If you want your VPN to be active only on occasion, turn off the enable-on-startup option for the VPN you've chosen.

Most modern VPN services have what's called a Kill Switch. Some apps turn this on by default. Others have an option buried in preferences to enable it. What a kill switch does is disable your network connection if the VPN software fails. I generally recommend turning this on, because if you're using a VPN, you want it to prevent others from seeing your data. You don't want to take the chance that if it fails, your data will suddenly be unprotected.

As with all iOS apps, when it's time to install a VPN on your iPhone or iPad, you'll need to go to the App Store and find the application. For our iOS install example, we've chosen NordVPN. NordVPN scored our top slot in average aggregate scores among a field of nearly a dozen VPNs. It was one of the fastest VPNs, and its score was consistent across most testers on the Internet.

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Now let's look at the steps you'll take installing a VPN on iOS:

  1. When doing an iOS install, first launch the App Store and search for the VPN you want.
  2. When you find the VPN you want, hit Get.
  3. Next, authorize the download using Touch ID, Face ID, or your Apple password.
  4. Once the app downloads, go ahead and launch it.
  5. Most iOS VPN apps are similar from here. You may be asked permission to allow the app to send you alerts. I'd recommend approving this, because if your VPN has something important to tell you (usually about your connection), you probably want to know.
  6. iOS also requires you to approve adding VPN functionality into the operating system. You'll need to give the VPN approval, and also, probably, turn it on in the Settings panel.
  7. Finally, decide whether you want the VPN to launch automatically when you boot up your phone.

If you want to see this process with NordVPN, take a look at the gallery below. We show you screenshot-by-screenshot steps for setting up an iOS VPN.

How to install NordVPN on iOS

Unlike iOS, few popular VPNs are available in the MacOS app store. Instead, you'll need to go to the VPN's website and download the app, open the archive, and install it manually. For our Mac install example, we've chosen IPVanish. While IPVanish didn't score near the top in terms of overall aggregate performance, we liked its relatively low ping time and quick time to make a connection. We also like the depth of control and options IPVanish offers, along with a very slick performance chart that constantly updates.

Also: IPVanish review: VPN delivers a wealth of options and browsing controls

Now let's look at the steps you'll take installing a VPN on a Mac:

  1. When doing a Mac install, go to the VPN's website. You may need to purchase or request a trial, and you may need to create an account.
  2. Download the VPN's installer.
  3. Launch the installer or double-click the archive file. You'll probably need to give MacOS permission to open it.
  4. Installation may require you to run an installer or copy the application into your Applications folder. Do whichever fits your circumstances.
  5. Most Mac VPN apps are similar from here. You may be asked for various permissions, including permission to run an app downloaded from the Internet and permission to install certain features. If you're trying to install an app from a known VPN provider, go ahead and approve those requests.
  6. Finally, decide whether you want the VPN to launch automatically when you boot up your Mac.

If you want to see this process with IPVanish, take a look at the gallery below. We show you screenshot-by-screenshot steps for setting up a Mac VPN.

How to install IPVanish VPN on MacOS

As with Mac, few popular VPNs are available in the Microsoft Store. Once again, you'll need to go to the VPN's website and download the app, open the archive, and install it manually. For our Windows install example, we've chosen ExpressVPN. ExpressVPN was near the top in terms of overall aggregate performance, we liked its wide selection of device support. 

Now let's look at the steps you'll take installing a VPN on Windows:

  1. When doing a Windows install, go to the VPN's website. You may need to purchase or request a trial, and you may need to create an account.
  2. Download the VPN's installer. I prefer to download the installer file and then run it, rather than run it directly. I like being able to keep a copy of my installer files.
  3. Launch the installer or double-click the archive file. You'll probably need to give Windows permission to open it.
  4. Most Windows VPN apps are similar from here. You may be asked by Windows Device Guard for various permissions, including permission to install certain features and send and receive data. If you're trying to install an app from a known VPN provider, go ahead and approve those requests.

  5. Finally, decide whether you want the VPN to launch automatically when you boot up Windows.

If you want to see this process with ExpressVPN, take a look at the gallery below. We show you screenshot-by-screenshot steps for setting up a Windows VPN.

How to install ExpressVPN on Windows

Although you can certainly sideload some Android apps, you're definitely safest (especially with VPNs) when you install a VPN from the Google Play store. For our Android install example, we've chosen Surfshark. Surfshark was a middle-of-the-road performer in our average aggregate scores among a field of nearly a dozen VPNs, but was rated as blazing fast by CNET's review. This is why we always recommend you test to see how a VPN performs for you.

CNET: Surfshark VPN review: Competitive pricing and blazing speeds from this upstart service

Now let's look at the steps you'll take installing a VPN on Android:

  1. When doing an Android install, first launch the Google Play store and search for the VPN you want.
  2. When you find the VPN you want, tap Install.
  3. Once the app downloads, go ahead and launch it.
  4. Most Android VPN apps are similar from here. Android isn't as fussy about permissions as iOS, but it does ask its fair share. You'll need to give the VPN approval as requested during install and first operation.
  5. Finally, decide whether you want the VPN to launch automatically when you boot up your phone.

If you want to see this process with Surfshark, take a look at the gallery below. We show you screenshot-by-screenshot steps for setting up an Android VPN.

How to install Surfshark on Android

And there you go. You've seen it's pretty easy to set up a VPN for all four of the major platforms. Yes, I know I didn't include Linux, but let's face it: If you're already running Linux, you don't need me to tell you how to install a VPN (or anything else for that matter).

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 Are you running a VPN? What service are you using, on what platforms? Let us know in the comments below.


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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