How to Connect to a VPN on Android

Take a simple step to protect your privacy

Chances are, you've connected your mobile device or laptop to an unsecured Wi-Fi hotspot at a local coffee shop, airport, or another public place. Free Wi-Fi is nearly ubiquitous in most U.S. cities and municipalities, but because these hotspots are vulnerable to hackers who can tunnel into the connection and view nearby online activity. That's not to say you shouldn't use public Wi-Fi. It's a great convenience that can help you reduce data consumption and keep your bill under control. What you need is a VPN

Connecting to a Mobile VPN

Once you've chosen an app and installed it, you'll have to enable it during set-up. Follow the instructions in the app to allow mobile VPN. A VPN symbol (a key) will show up at the top of your screen to indicate when you're connected.

Your app will alert you whenever your connection isn't private, so you'll know when it's best to connect. You can also connect to a VPN without installing a third-party app in just a few easy steps.

The directions below should apply in general, no matter who made your Android phone: Samsung, Google, Huawei, Xiaomi, etc. The instructions below use stock Android and Samsung's custom Android OS.

Adding a VPN to Your Stock Android Phone

  1. On Google Pixel 3, launch Settings, then tap Network & Internet, then Advanced, then VPN.

    Three Android screens from Pixel 3, showing More connedtion settings, VPN, and Plus button
  2. On a Samsung Galaxy S9, tap Connections, then More Connection Settings, then VPN.

    Three Android screens from Samsung device, showing Advanced, VPN, and Plus buttons

    On some phones, you may see two options here: Basic VPN and Advanced IPsec VPN. The first option is where you can manage third-party apps and connect to VPN networks. The latter option also enables you to connect to a VPN manually, and it adds several advanced settings.

  3. On the VPN screen for either phone, tap the Plus button at the top right of the screen.

  4. Next, give the VPN connection a name.

  5. Then choose the type of connection the VPN uses.

  6. Next, input the VPN's server address.

    VPN settings for Android from a Google Pixel 3 XL
  7. You can add as many VPN connections as you want and easily switch between them.

  8. If you have a Nexus device running Android 5.1 or higher or one a Google Pixel device, you can access a built-in VPN called Wi-Fi Assistant. You can find it in your Settings app: tap Google, then Networking. Enable Wi-Fi Assistant here. You can also enable or disable a setting called Manage Saved Networks, which means your device will automatically connect to networks you've used before.

    Google Services & Preferences, Networking, and Wi-Fi assistant toggle ON in three Android screens from a Pixel 3 XL

Using a VPN might sound like overkill, but you never know who could be taking advantage of the extensive usage of free Wi-Fi.

What is a VPN, and Why Should You Use One?

VPN stands for virtual private network and creates a secure, encrypted connection so that no one else, including would-be hackers, can see what you're doing. You may have used a VPN client before to connect to a corporate Intranet or a content management system (CMS) remotely.

If you find yourself frequently connecting to public Wi-Fi networks, you should install a mobile VPN on your smartphone. It's also a good idea to consider encrypted apps to protect your privacy. VPNs use a process called tunneling to give you a private connection on an Internet-connected device. 

A hacker connected to the same public Wi-Fi hotspot could view your browsing activity using sophisticated tools. There have been cases where hackers create a fake network, often will a similar name, such as "coffeeshopguest" instead of "coffeeshopnetwork." If you connect to the fake one, the hacker could steal your passwords and account number and withdraw funds from your bank account.

Using a mobile VPN can also block ad trackers, which are mostly an annoyance, but do infringe on your privacy. You've probably noticed ads for products that you've recently looked at or purchased following you all over the web. It's more than a little unsettling.

Best VPN Apps

There are plenty of free VPN services out there, but even the paid apps aren't overly expensive. The top-rated Avira Phantom VPN by AVIRA and NordVPN by NordVPN ​each encrypt your connection and location to prevent others from snooping or stealing your information. These Android VPNs offer a fringe benefit: the ability to change your location so you can watch TV shows or sporting events not available in your region. Depending on where you are, this behavior could be illegal; check local laws.

Avira Phantom VPN has a free option that gives you up to 500 MB of data per month. You can create an account with the company to get 1 GB of data each month. If that's not enough, there's a $10 per month plan that offers unlimited data.

NordVPN doesn't have a free plan, but its paid options all include unlimited data. The longer your commitment, the lower the monthly price. You can choose to pay $11.95 for one month if you want to try the service out. Then you can opt for $7 per month for six months or $5.75 per month for one year (2018 prices). Note that NordVPN offers a 30-day money back guarantee, but it only applies to its desktop VPNs.

The aptly named Private Internet Access VPN service enables you to protect up to five devices at the same time, including desktop and mobile devices. It even lets you pay your bill anonymously. Three options are available: $6.95 per month, $5.99 per month if you commit to six months, and $3.33 per month for an annual plan (2018 prices).