How to Connect to a VPN on Android

Take a simple step to protect your privacy

A padlock on a laptop keyboard.
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Chances are, you've connected your mobile device or laptop to an unsecured Wi-Fi hotspot, whether it be 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 and help you reduce data consumption and keep your bill under control. No, 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 your chosen app to enable 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 specifics will be different, of course, so we will focus on Google's latest stock Android phone, Pixel 3 and a Samsung Galaxy S9.

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 manually connect to a VPN, but it adds a number of 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 of the Google Pixel devices, you can access a feature called Wi-Fi Assistant, which is essentially a built-in VPN. 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

This may all sound like overkill, but mobile security is serious, and you never know who may be taking advantage of the wide availability of free Wi-Fi. And with many free options, there's no harm in at least trying one out.

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 further protect your privacy. VPNs used a process called tunneling to give you a private connection on an Internet-connected device whether you're accessing confidential work data, doing some banking, or working on anything you'd like to protect from prying eyes. 

For instance, if you're checking your bank balance or credit card bill while connected to a public Wi-Fi hotspot, a hacker sitting at the next table could view your activity (not literally look over, but using sophisticated tools, they could capture the wireless signals). There have also been cases where hackers create a fake network, often will a similar name, such as "coffeeshopguest" instead of "coffeeshopnetwork." If you connect the wrong one, the hacker could steal your passwords and account number and withdraw funds or make fraudulent charges with you none the wiser until you get an alert from your bank.

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. Both of these Android VPNs also offer a fringe benefit: the ability to change your location so you can view content that may be blocked in your area.

For example, you can watch a show broadcast on the BBC that won't make its way to the U.S. for several months (think Downton Abbey) or view a sporting event that isn't typically broadcast in your area. Depending on where you're located, this behavior may 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 free 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 plans get cheaper the longer you make your commitment. 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 plans.

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 plans 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).