Take a look at any VPN provider’s website and you’ll find great claims about its easy-to-use interface. Simply install the client for your device, they’ll say, or follow our nifty tutorial, and you’ll be connected and ready to go in a matter of minutes. Regardless, we are here to tell you how to set up a VPN and deal with the marketing jargon.
While in some cases it may actually be as straightforward as they say, it comes down to setting up and launching the client, entering your username and password, clicking a big ‘on’ button and you’re on the go. are far. ExpressVPN is a classic example of this – one of the many reasons it tops a lot of our buying guides.
As a piece of security software, however, it is possible that setting up a VPN can make a more complex task. What is for example no custom software, or does the client cause some problems? Maybe it doesn’t work at all? Even the best services can run into problems when it comes to setup and configuration, and sometimes you’ll have a job covered by the support section of their website.
Luckily, there are plenty of tips, tricks, and strategies that can help you get connected, and we’ve listed some of our favorites here to help you set up a VPN.
A word of warning: being able to work around bigger problems is useful, but it shouldn’t be a long-term solution. For example, if you find that a specific VPN protocol doesn’t work, don’t stick with it forever – talk to your provider’s support staff and ask them to explain or fix it. And if they can’t, try someone else: There are plenty of great VPN providers around.
ExpressVPN – Our Top Picks of VPNs
Offering multiple clients across all devices, ExpressVPN boasts of easy installation as well as an intuitive and clean interface that is straight forward to navigate. It will unblock your favorite services, and has great security with military-level encryption, its Lightwave protocol, and other great security features.
1. Prepare Your Equipment
VPN clients can sometimes conflict with each other or be affected by unusual network setups, especially on desktop. Taking the time to prepare your system before setting up a new VPN can reduce the chances of problems occurring later.
Start by uninstalling any active VPN clients that you no longer need. It’s not mandatory – clients need to be able to follow along, so feel free to put in whatever you think you want – but we’ve found that doing so often reduces the amount of problems that can arise.
Also think about your network configuration. More complex setups, for example, systems that can be online in multiple ways at once — Wi-Fi, a separate wired connection, perhaps a 4G modem — are more likely to confuse some VPN clients.
If your network is set up exactly as you want, leave it alone: it is the responsibility of the VPN client to make sure everything works properly.
But if you can simplify your system without any problems, for example by unplugging a modem you’re not using, then do so. This can save you a lot of troubleshooting troubles later.
2. Install Client – Any Client
The fastest and easiest way to connect to any VPN is to install one of your own clients.
Unfortunately, providers don’t necessarily have software for all the platforms you need. For example, you may want to use a VPN on your Android phone, but then have your chosen provider only offer a VPN for Windows PC and VPN for Mac.
In a situation like this we would always recommend that you install one of the custom clients first, if possible, even if it is not on the platform you intend to use for a long time.
The advantage of initially using the provider’s own client is that you can confirm that your account and the core service are working correctly. If the client also won’t let you log in or connect to the service you need, you’ll know there’s no immediate point in trying to set up another device. And as a bonus, when you report the problem to the VPN support team, you’re less likely to get in trouble asking if you’ve configured your device properly.
3. Find a Setup Tutorial
If your VPN provider doesn’t have any software available for your device, check its website for a manual setup tutorial.
There is no one to tell you what you can get. Many providers have detailed and helpful guides, though others try poorly, and some have barely any documentation.
If you don’t find any helpful guidance on how to set up your exact device, look for something that uses a similar protocol. If the device can use the L2TP protocol, for example, check out a tutorial that covers setting up an Android L2TP connection manually.
Browse the Android tutorial and the first part will show you where to find the required VPN setup data. In the case of an L2TP connection, this would be your username and password, the server name, and a previously shared key. Follow the steps to find that information and save it somewhere.
With this data available, check the support sites of other large VPN providers (and the web in general) for tutorials covering your device.
For example, if you need to configure a Chromebook, you may find this ExpressVPN tutorial on how to set it up via L2TP. The first few steps explain how to get ExpressVPN credentials, server details, and more. But the second part of the tutorial explains how to manually create and configure your VPN connection with the data you collect, and if you follow these steps but replace the ExpressVPN details with your own Should work the same way.
4. Try OpenVPN
If your VPN doesn’t provide a client or setup guide for your device, or you can’t get either to deliver, switching to a third-party OpenVPN-compatible client may be a practical option. Assuming your provider supports the OpenVPN protocol anyway, and provides OVPN setup files (check this before you start).
The idea is a simple one. Almost every VPN client that supports OpenVPN will use the open source OpenVPN application to manage their connection. The client should set this up properly so that it connects immediately. But if it doesn’t, you can always install, configure and use OpenVPN yourself.
Hopefully your provider will have an OpenVPN setup tutorial for one or more platforms. If your device is covered, great; If not, look for another supported platform that you can access now. What matters at the moment is how you connect to something – once you do, you can apply that experience elsewhere.
If you can’t find a tutorial, start by grabbing a copy of OpenVPN for Windows, Android, iOS, or the OpenVPN-compatible Tunnelblick for Mac.
Search your VPN provider’s website for the OVPN setup files OpenVPN will require, and download copies to your device.
Launch your OpenVPN client and use its import function to read the OVPN file. It only accepts one file at a time, but on Windows you may be able to import 50 files at a time by copying them into OpenVPN’s configuration folder (Program FilesOpenVPNConfig).
Imported servers appear in your OVPN client’s server list. Choose one, enter your username and password and you should be able to connect.
Some providers work a little differently. For example, if they don’t have the certificate in the OVPN file, you may have to download a separate file. If you need more help, check out the provider’s support site or contact the support team directly.
- We wrote more about how to setup and use OpenVPN here
A VPN provider’s own client usually works right away, but if you’re not so lucky, and your provider’s support site doesn’t help, there are a few things you can try.
Shut down and restart the client. Reboot your device if it makes no difference.
If you have any other VPN software running, make sure you are disconnected, then turn it off.
VPN clients rely on their driver being set up correctly. Some clients have a repair function that effectively reinstalls the driver – check any menu or settings screen to see if a similar option is available.
If you’re having authentication or login problems, check your credentials. VPNs handle these in different ways – many allow you to create them, others generate logins on your behalf, some give you different credentials for regular and OpenVPN logins – and it can be easy to mix up . Re-read any welcome email or beginner’s guide the VPN may have sent you when you signed up.
If you’re having general problems connecting, try switching to another server. Start with those closest to your physical location.
Try connecting with different protocols if your client allows them to change. Start with OpenVPN using TCP (check the settings if you don’t see the TCP option), then switch to L2TP and finally to PPTP. Keep in mind that PPTP has serious security flaws and should not be used for a long time: it is only useful here for testing.
VPN connections can sometimes be blocked by a firewall, antivirus, or other security software. Temporarily disable any potential candidates and try connecting again, but don’t forget to re-enable any critical software afterwards.
If all else fails, support sites from other VPN providers may offer some clues. For example, the ExpressVPN troubleshooting page for Android devices includes several general troubleshooting tips that will work for any VPN provider.
6. Tune and Optimize
Getting your VPN set up and working on a basic level isn’t the end of the story. Take the time to check the client settings and make sure they fit your needs.
Start with the default protocol. For optimum speed and security it should be OpenVPN UDP (OpenVPN TCP is slower, PPTP in particular is less secure).
Check any startup options. If you need security at all times, you may be able to set the client to start with Windows and connect automatically. But if you use a VPN only occasionally, you can free up some resources by launching the client only when you need it.