A VPN is a virtual private network and it has several uses. One is to prevent people spying on you when you use the internet and this is useful if you travel with a laptop, smartphone or tablet and access Wi-Fi hotspots in public places. A VPN encrypts the data communications to prevent anyone seeing what you are accessing or what information is being exchanged.
A VPN can also be used to make it appear as if you are located in another country. This can unlock services that are blocked from your real location, for example, you can watch catch-up TV like BBC iPlayer while on holiday or a business trip abroad. There are many VPNs and many require a subscription, but here we look at two that have free plans as well as paid ones.
How to download, install and use a VPN
Step 1. Go to www.hotspotshield.com in your web browser and on the home page there are two choices. You can use the free service if you don’t mind seeing a few adverts, or you can buy a subscription and go ad-free. Try the free version, you can upgrade later.
Step 2. After downloading the software to your disk, open the Downloads folder (or wherever you saved the file) and run the Hotspot Shield setup program. At the end of the installation, you can choose how Hotspot Shield is activated. Our preference is for manual mode, so we can turn it on and off when we like.
Step 3. HotSpot Shield starts and the control panel is displayed. You can see that your PC is protected and that your virtual location is the United States. The data uploaded and downloaded is displayed on the control panel if you need to keep an eye on it.
Step 4. Close the Hotspot Shield control panel and any browser window that is open, and open Chrome, Firefox or whatever your favourite browser is. Hotspot Shield Free puts an advert at the top of the window, but clicking the cross in the top right corner closes it.
Step 5. Is it working? This is easy to test and if you go to browserspy.dk in a web browser and then click the Geolocation link in the left-hand panel, it displays what it thinks is your location. In this case we are somewhere south of Los Angeles.
Step 6. Your location can be discovered from the IP address the computer uses, so select IP address in the links list on the left and see what it is. Now the website thinks the country is the US, the region is Milpitas and we are somewhere near San Francisco.
Step 7. No one knows who we are or where we are, which means our privacy is ensured. This is not an open invitation to access content you shouldn’t, like Hulu shown here, but appearing to be a local often results in different web content, such as news and services.
Step 8. Go to the right side of the Taskbar, click the little triangle to show the notification icons and click Hotspot Shield. The control panel appears and you can select your location from the list. Note that only subscribers can do this and it’s not for free users.
Step 9. You might want to turn off Hotspot Shield (the free version can be slow) and use the web normally. Click the red Pause Protection button in the control panel and choose from 15 minutes, one hour or ‘Until I ask to resume’, which puts it in manual mode.
How to use VPN software on Android
Step 1. VPNs are not just for PCs: you can secure your tablet and smartphone too. If you have an Android device with access to Google Play you can download SurfEasy VPN in the Google Play Store. It’s a free app providing 500MB of data a month, with upgrades to paid plans if you need more bandwidth.
Step 2. Install the app, start it and then create a free account. You can select the country you want to appear to be located and then switch it on. You are then anonymous and can access the web privately without anyone knowing who or where you are.