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Published: Sep 15, 2023 13 min read

*Content includes branded mentions of our sponsor, Norton Secure VPN.

A VPN connection is a popular way to use the internet safely by ensuring your identity and personal details remain private. VPNs allow you to more securely connect to the internet on your mobile device, computer or other internet-enabled device. Read on to learn what a VPN connection is and how it works.

What is a VPN connection?

A virtual private network (VPN) is a type of technology that encrypts your internet traffic and reroutes it through a remote server before connecting you to another device, website or online service. This process creates a secure data tunnel between your device and the VPN provider’s server or your target network.

While you navigate the internet, the VPN conceals your IP address, a unique string of numbers that identifies a device on the internet or a local network. This makes it appear as though you’re accessing the internet via the address of the VPN server rather than that of your own device.

Your location and browsing activity are also masked when using a VPN, which helps protect your identity, personal information and activity from leaking — including to others sharing your network. Moreover, if you connect to a server in a different country, it’ll appear as if you’re accessing the web from that location. This means you can use a VPN to access geo-blocked content (although doing so may breach your streaming service’s user agreement).

You may need a VPN with a secure connection if you want to:

  • Improve your internet security when using a public connection
  • Avoid being logged and tracked online
  • Bypass censorship and access geo-blocked content
  • Avoid price discrimination by accessing prices reserved for certain nationalities and regions

Types of VPN connections

There are four types of VPN connection: remote access VPNs, site-to-site VPNs, personal VPNs and mobile VPNs.

  • Remote access VPNs: These allow users from different locations to remotely access the private network of an organization. For example, your company can create a remote access VPN to allow its employees to safely access the company network from any location. Whenever a user sends an access request, a remote access VPN will check to see if they’re allowed access to the network. It then authenticates the user and establishes a secure connection with the server.
  • Personal VPNs: Designed for individual users, personal VPNs allow you to connect to virtual servers created and maintained by VPN providers. These services usually require you to install VPN software on your device. When you use a personal VPN, it masks your IP address and encrypts your data. As a result, it appears as if your traffic is coming from the VPN’s server and not your personal device.
  • Mobile VPNs: These VPNs enable you to switch between internet connections while maintaining the same session. In other words, a mobile VPN keeps you connected on the same IP address, allowing you to keep using your apps via the VPN even if you change from one Wi-Fi or cellular network to another.
  • Site-to-site VPNs: With site-to-site VPNs, multiple networks on different sites can connect and communicate securely. For example, you can use a site-to-site VPN to link various departments and offices within an organization.

How to add a VPN connection

Adding a VPN connection to your device is a simple and straightforward process that you can complete in four steps.

1. Find a reputable VPN service and choose a plan

Choose a VPN provider with services that match your needs. Some of the key factors to look at when picking a VPN service provider include:

  • Device compatibility: Before you pick any VPN provider, make sure its client is compatible with the devices you wish to secure. Some VPNs work across multiple operating systems, including MacOS, iOS, Windows and Android, while others only support a limited number of them.
  • Encryption: Choose a VPN provider that uses a reliable encryption algorithm. While there are many encryption standards on the market, AES-256 is the current gold standard.
  • Protocols: A VPN protocol is a set of rules responsible for moving data between your device and a server. Choose a VPN company that offers secure and stable protocols, such as OpenVPN, WireGuard and IKEv2. VPN providers may have multiple protocols and allow you to switch between them at will.
  • Coverage: A good VPN provider will have multiple servers in many different locations. Having a high number of servers reduces the strain, enabling faster connections. A greater variety of locations may also allow you to route your internet traffic through a specific country of your choice.
  • Privacy policy: Find a VPN provider that doesn’t log your online data and activity or share it with third parties. Read through each company’s privacy policy to see the kind of data it collects, if any.

Once you've selected a reputable VPN provider, proceed to create an account. Many VPN companies offer free trials and have money-back guarantees. Some even offer free versions of their software, but because these are more likely to have poor privacy standards and security protocols, we can’t guarantee that all free VPNs are safe.

2. Download and install the VPN app or software

From the VPN provider’s website, download and install the correct VPN client for your operating system.

3. Sign in to the app or software and adjust your settings and preferences

Launch the VPN client and sign in using the provided credentials. Check the default setting and preferences and adjust them as necessary. The extent to which you can customize your VPN connection varies from one provider to another.

4. Choose a server location and wait for a connection to be established

Set your preferred server location and wait for the VPN to connect to it. Once a connection is established, you can browse the internet and use your apps as you normally would.

How to speed up a VPN connection

If you notice a slow VPN connection, there are several things you can try to speed it up.

  • Change the VPN server: Connecting to a VPN server that’s too far from you may result in lower speeds due to latency. Try switching to one that’s geographically closer to your current location.
  • Change the VPN port and protocol: VPN clients connect to servers using a port and a protocol. If your VPN connection is slow, it may be because your network is restricting your connection speeds. Try changing the port and protocol until you find a combination with no speed restrictions.
  • Switch to a wired connection: Try using a wired connection like ethernet instead of Wi-Fi. Wireless connections are usually slower because they use a shared channel to transfer data between devices, increasing latency.
  • Restart your device: Devices accumulate removable files over time. These files eat into the system’s available memory, slowing down your connection. Try rebooting your device to clear memory and free up resources. A reboot can also feed the device new programming instructions that can make the VPN connection faster.
  • Restart the router or modem: Your router or modem may slow down as it accumulates junk and experiences memory leaks over time. Restarting it can clear unnecessary data, reset the connection and increase VPN speed.
  • Install device updates: Check if there are new software updates for your device. New firmware updates may come with fixes for quality issues like lower connection speeds.
  • Turn off your local security software temporarily: Your local antivirus or firewall can slow down your VPN connection as it scans and filters packets of data. Disable it temporarily and test the VPN connection to see if your local security software is responsible for the slower connection.
  • Change your physical location or ISP: Your VPN may be slow because of the connection between your device and the ISP you use. Try connecting to the internet using a different ISP. If this isn’t an option, take your device to a new location — such as a restaurant or coffee shop — and use its network (and ISP).
  • Use a different device: Some devices like routers and Android devices use heavy encryption, which can slow down a VPN connection. Try connecting to the VPN with a different device and see if the connection improves.

Troubleshooting VPN connection issues and failures

VPNs aren’t completely flawless. Common issues with VPNs include low speeds, failure to connect, inability to hide your IP address and dropped connections. If you’re experiencing one or more of these problems, try troubleshooting the VPN connection by taking the following steps:

  • Restart the VPN.
  • Use only one VPN software to avoid conflict between different VPN clients.
  • Switch to a new VPN server to see if the problem stems from the server you’re currently connected to.
  • Change your VPN port and protocol to check if the VPN server is restricting your current port or protocol combination.
  • Check that your firewall isn’t blocking essential data packets necessary for the VPN to function correctly.
  • Check the VPN’s help and support section for fixes to common connectivity issues, or call the provider for personalized assistance.

Best practices for maintaining a secure VPN connection

Maintaining a secure VPN connection involves configuring it to avoid or combat potential digital attacks. Below are some things you can do to maintain a secure VPN connection:

Regularly update your VPN software or app

VPN software updates are designed to protect your connection and device from emerging threats. Because of this, VPN companies update their software and features regularly. Many VPNs will send you update alerts, but if yours doesn’t, you can check its website for new software updates.

Use VPN protocols that offer strong encryption

There are several VPN protocols and some — notably, PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol) — are easier to breach than others. To maintain a secure VPN connection, use a protocol that provides strong encryption. OpenVPN, WireGuard and IKEv2 are among the best in the industry.

Monitor your VPN connection logs for suspicious activity

VPN monitoring refers to tracking your activity while using a VPN connection. There are several VPN monitoring tools that can pull your VPN’s logs, including OpManager, Juniper and SentinelTrails. If you know how to read the logs, you can easily identify suspicious activity. Many of these monitoring tools also come with predefined rules that automatically detect and report suspicious VPN activity.

Enable multi-factor authentication

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) adds an extra layer of protection to your primary VPN authentication method. For example, you can set a username and password as a primary authentication method and then add a text message alert as your multi-factor authentication method. Even if a hacker gets your VPN username and password, they won’t be able to access your account without the information from the text alert.

Summary: What is a VPN connection?

Adding a VPN connection to your network can help protect your privacy, secure your data and give you access to content from different locations. However, VPNs still have problems like slowing your connection speeds. If you’re experiencing these issues, you can try changing your VPN server, restarting your device, updating the VPN client’s software or using a more up-to-date VPN protocol.

You can also take steps to ensure your VPN connection is always secure. These include installing the latest software updates, using protocols with strong encryption algorithms, monitoring your VPN logs for suspicious activity and using multi-factor authentication.