How to set up a VPN to access any website

By Harriet Piercy

Published Oct 23, 2020 at 09:30 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes

Have you ever tried watching a TV programme, movie or video but ended up getting stopped by the unwelcoming message ‘not available to watch in your country’? What about a specific website or platform you wanted to check out but never did for the simple reason that it had restricted access in specific countries?

If you’ve ever found yourself in those situations, we have the perfect solution for you, and you don’t have to be a tech wizard to figure it out, even if you might feel like one after discovering it. Here’s everything you need to know about VPNs, from how to use them to what they can give you access to exactly.

What is a VPN?

The term VPN stands for virtual private network, which basically gives you online privacy as well as anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection and masking your internet protocol (IP) address. Because your IP address is the unique number that identifies you and your location to the rest of the world through your internet service provider (ISP), hiding it gives you complete anonymity online.

Usually, your ISP automatically assigns you to your IP address, which then identifies you to the website you go on. In other words, by using a VPN, your online actions are virtually untraceable simply because any of the websites and platforms you might visit can’t trace you back to your location.

Why would I need a VPN?

If you ever use an unsecured Wi-Fi network (a public network that doesn’t have a password) in a coffee shop or an office, you might be exposing your private information or browsing habits. Without a VPN, your internet service provider has access to your entire browsing history, and nobody likes to be snooped around, am I right? Third parties that you don’t know of can then watch what you do online. Big corporations, governments and even illegal organisations such as hacker accounts are constantly monitoring the web to fish through the data that we, mostly unintentionally, give over to them as we browse the web.

From that, governments may restrict your access to content they don’t want you to see, and corporations have the ability to target adverts or practice price discriminations against you. However, if you do have a VPN, you not only place yourself in a safer situation online from what is stated above, but it is also a great way to gain access to any platform you desire. Are you a cinephile with a special interest in French movies? If so, I bet you’ve always wondered how you could access Netflix France in order to watch the best French movies. Well, it’s easy to do so with a VPN.

How does a VPN work?

A VPN server acts like a proxy (an intermediary for requests). VPNs create what is like a data tunnel that is encrypted between your local network and an exit node (which is the technical term to describe a VPN server and where the final layer of encryption on your data is removed) in another location, making it seem like you are accessing your web browser or app from another place. In turn, this gives you some freedom to access sites and services that might otherwise be restricted.

For example, when you want to watch a newly released movie on Netflix from the UK but it seems to only be available in the US, you’ll need a VPN to hide your IP address and instead localise you in the US. If you are in a part of the world that restricts access to Google, Wikipedia or other sites, using a VPN will grant you access from wherever you are.

There are benefits to often changing your VPN. By assigning a new IP address to your online self, you can browse the internet as if you were in any other country in the world if the VPN service you choose has servers there. So when you change your IP address with a VPN, not only can you access any different platforms with restricted access but you are most and foremost protecting yourself from hackers of many different kinds.

Different types of VPN

There are a few different kinds of VPNs. A commercial VPN (or a consumer VPN) is a private service that is offered to individuals, usually for a fee, like ExpressVPN, which directly caters to the privacy needs of customers.

Then there are corporate VPNs, also known as a business VPN, which allow organisations to securely grant access to remote employees that work for the same business as if they were physically present in the office. As most of us are starting to work from home, home can really be anywhere quite easily now. Unlike commercial VPNs, these are meant to protect the privacy of the company and not necessarily the individual, so extra precautions are still advised for private use.

Self-setup VPNs are usually set up by tech experts and DIY hobbyists that choose to install their own VPN with their equipment. These do not provide the protection of shared IP addresses and server locations in multiple countries, so many of the features often enjoyed by commercial VPN users are not included in a self-setup VPN, which are more useful for people who want to be completely in charge of their data.

As a private user, you’ll probably find what you’re looking for in a commercial VPN. Once you’ve picked which type of service you need depending on the specific criteria mentioned above, then all you need to do is set your VPN up, which as tricky as it sounds, is actually quite simple.

How to set up a VPN and unblock websites

Pick the specific VPN service company you’d like to go for, I tend to recommend ExpressVPN, which is one of the safest out there when it comes to online anonymity. After you’ve done that, all you have left to do is visit the order page and select the VPN option that is right for you. You will then be invited to download the app that comes with the service onto whatever device you use, then, simply hit the ‘on’ button, which will automatically connect you to the best location for your connection, but you can also pick one from Express VPN’s global network of 160 server locations.

Once you’re all set up, get ready to gain access to any website you want from the comfort of your sofa, even if you’re thousands of miles away! Not only can you access Netflix’s restricted foreign content, but you can also access other platforms such as BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime video, Disney +, HBO, Hulu or even Spotify.

I know what you must be thinking right this moment: how did I not hear about VPNs before? Well, there’s a first time for everything—now you know. Get watching!

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