VPNs, or “virtual private networks,” can be used safely with phones, but there are risks if you don’t choose a good, reliable VNP service. We explain how a VPN app works on a phone, the legal implications for using one, and everything else you need to know about pairing phones with VPNs.
VPNs add an extra layer of security to your internet, so it makes sense that you would want one on your phone. After all, we’re increasingly relying on mobile devices as our main connection to the world around us, whether via social media, email, or messaging colleagues.
We tell you what you need to know about using a VPN safely on your phone, plus how to choose the best VPN to use on a phone or tablet.
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How Choose a Safe VPN for Your Phone
VPN encrypt the data that leaves your internet-connected device, giving you the benefit of a private network even while you’re on a public one.
As a result, you can access websites and services that are geo-locked to certain regions, you’ll avoid wi-fi spoofers while on unsecured coffee shop networks, and you’ll mask your own IP address, giving your search history more anonymity. VPNs work whether you have a desktop, laptop, or mobile phone.
For mobile devices, the VPN must be in the form of an app. Here’s how to protect your phone:
- Check with your favorite VPN service in order to confirm that they do use a mobile app.
- Download it — The Apple App Store has VPN apps listed for iPhone or iPad, and the Google Play store for Android phones. Only use the official Google Play store for Android, as alternative app stores can contain malware or unvetted apps.
- Install it — You then need to create an account, and might need to agree to certain permissions, or specify which region you’d like to browse from. For a paid-for VPN service, you’ll need to submit payment details, too
- Check for an icon on the status bar at the top of your phone screen — if the VPN app is running, you should see a key icon on Android or a VPN one for iOS.
For more, see our handy guide on how to set up a VPN for the first time.
That’s how the process of installing a VNP on your phone works. But don’t start installing the app yet – there are potential risks involved if you choose the wrong service.
Are VPNs Safe to Use on a Phone?
So, if a VPN is designed to make your internet connection more safe, what risks could it bring?
- Fake VPN scams
- VPNs that log your data
- VPNs selling your browsing details to advertising partners
- Significantly reduced browsing speeds
Your main concern is simple – you need to trust the VPN provider itself to look after your data. You also need to be certain that the app you are using is a genuine VPN, and not itself a scam.
In an ironic twist, many online hackers rely on scamming those who are working the hardest to avoid scams. This means that consumers should be wary of free anti-virus installers, fake ‘alert’ pop-ups, and, yes, VPN software.
Even legitimate VPNs can get up to some pretty shady practice, such as monitoring your browsing data or selling it to advertising partners. You may be bombarded with unwanted ads while using the service, for instance.
Plus, a poor quality VPN can cause appalling slowdown. By nature, a VPN has an impact on your browsing speeds. However, the best VPN services (inevitably, paid-for) invest to ensure this isn’t an undue impact.
Always check and double-check a VPN provider before committing to it, and only use the ones you trust.
Is It Legal to Use a VPN on Your Phone?
Yes, it is legal to use a VPN on your mobile device. At least, in most countries.
Anything that would be illegal without a VPN is still illegal with one, so don’t buy drugs, stalk someone, or torrent copyrighted material
Those in the U.S. or the U.K. are legally in the clear. A few countries — Iraq, North Korea and Belarus — don’t permit it, while a few more — China, Turkey, Russia and the United Arab Emirates — restrict VPN use.
However, even if you’re following the letter of the law, you should keep a few caveats in mind. First, anything that would be illegal without a VPN is still illegal with one, so don’t buy drugs, stalk someone, or torrent Game of Thrones with your smartphone.
Also, using a VPN to watch a geo-locked YouTube video or Netflix show is against the company’s terms and conditions. It can’t take legal action against you, but they’re definitely within their rights to ban you from using their service if they associate your account with attempts to access it over a VPN. It’s unlikely, but the rights are on Netflix’s side.
Best VPNs for iPhone and Android
You should expect any high-quality VPN service to offer a mobile app for Android and iOS devices. Smartphones are essential to modern life, and the best VPN services are prepared for the fact that most users want to browse on their phone as often (or more) as they do on their desktop.
Which VPNs should be at the top of your mind? Tech.Co has crunched the numbers in the past to figure out a definitive list of 2018’s best overall VPN services. You can read our full guide to the best VPNs, or see our top choices, below:
Free VPNs for Phones
The above services are all available for a small monthly fee. But, are there any great mobile VPN options that won’t cost a cent? The answer’s yes, but your options are limited (and the risks are higher). After all, the biggest risk to installing a mobile VPN is finding an off-brand one that turns out to be a virus.
Opera Software, a company you may know due to its browser, used to have a stand-alone VPN app specifically for mobile devices. It was free to use, as the company sold anonymized user data in order to support it rather than charge a fee. Unfortunately, it was discontinued in April 2018 and can’t be used.
Another commonly used free option, Hola, made the news recently as the weak link in an effort to steal cryptocurrency. Our own Hola VPN review sums up the service’s pros and cons succinctly: “Free, but with security concerns.” You’ll need to carefully check the reviews of any VPN service or browser extension that you’re interested in using for free.
Ultimately, paying a small monthly price for a VPN is likely the option that most aligns with a VPN user’s values. After all, you want a VPN that won’t be interested in selling your data: Retaining anonymity is the whole point.
Thanks to our guide to the best VPNs, you’ll find plenty of fairly priced, high-quality brand-name services to choose from.