The smart phone in your pocket, and the tablet device in your bag, are powerful computers (to a degree unimaginable but a few short years ago) that are always connected to the internet. As traditional PC sales continue to decline (although there will always likely be a market among dedicated games enthusiasts – at least for the time being), these mobile devices are increasing becoming our preferred means of consuming online content.
As such, it is as important to protect your online identity with a VPN service as it is when using a mobile device as it when using a desktop or laptop computer. Unfortunately, many VPN providers have been somewhat slow to fully support mobile devices.
iOS and Android
Nearly all iOS and Android phones and tablets (accept those such as the Kindle Fire where it has been deliberately removed) have a VPN built-in client which supports the PPTP and L2TP/IPsec VPN protocols (for a discussion on the different VPN protocols please see our article here), and nearly all VPN providers supply instructions for setting up using one or both of these protocols in both iOS and Android. This is an acceptable solution, but PPTP, while easy to set up is very insecure, and L2TP/IPsec, while secure, is frankly a bit of a pain to set up.
While support for PPTP and L2TP/IPsec is ok, there is a reason why almost all VPN providers have chosen the OpenVPN protocol as standard for desktop devices – namely that it is quicker and more secure, and if a custom VPN client is supplied, extremely easy to set up (using a generic client is not hard, but does involves some extra steps to get up and running). It is therefore something of a disappointment that mobile support for VPN has been patchy to say the least.
In fairness, until December last year for Android (when OpenVPN for Android was released) and February this year for iOS (when OpenVPN Connect was released), OpenVPN was not possible on these devices unless they were unlocked/ jailbroken. Some VPN providers have now begun to support mobile OpenVNP use, and some have even released their own custom apps, although for reasons unknown to us these are, to our knowledge, available exclusively for Android.
Other mobile operating systems and devices
Support for mobile operating systems other than iOS and Android is virtually non-existent, although this is mainly the fault of the OS vendors, rather than the VPN providers:
Windows Phone – The now ageing Windows Phone 6 (WP6) does have a PPTP and LT2P/IPsec client built-in. Configuration instructions are available here, and you just need to enter the settings supplied by your VPN provider for iOS or Android. However, for WP7 Mango and WP8, Microsoft has decided to withdraw support for VPN, citing that SSL is more secure
Blackberry – older versions of Blackberry support PPTP, but newer versions, such as that found in the PlayBook, do not.
Flashed VPN routers
One VPN solution for mobile devices that do not themselves support VPN, is to buy a router that can be flashed with DD-WRT or Tomato firmware. This firmware replaces the routers’ original built-in programming, allowing it (among a number of other groovy things) to be configured for VPN (PPTP, L2TP/IPsec or OpenVPN).
This means that every internet enabled device, including all mobile devices, Xboxes, Playstations, PSPs, Kindle Fires, Smart TVs etc. in your house (or wherever) that connect to the internet using the flashed router (which just plugs into your modem) can connect with the benefit of VPN.
You can flash a compatible router yourself, or buy one pre-flashed. For the absolutely easiest setup possible, you can also buy pre-flashed routers that have also been preconfigured for a specific VPN service, making them truly plug-and-play.
We have an article dedicated to choosing a good DD-WRT router, together with links for setting it up, available here, and an article on choosing a good VPN provider for DD-WRT available here
For Tomato, a full list of compatible routers can be found here, information on installing and configuring Tomato can be found here, and a guide to setting up OpenVPN can be found here.
Sharing VPN WiFi
Another alternative is to set your desktop or laptop computer up as a WiFi hotspot, and to share your VPN connection with all connecting devices. This has most of the advantages of buying a flashed router, but it’s free! It does require leaving your PC running whenever you want to use VPN on a mobile device however.
We included some quite detailed instructions for sharing your VPN using WiFi in our article on Best VPNs for PSP.
Number of simultaneous connections
An often neglected point when choosing a VPN provider is the number of simultaneous connections allowed. Most people will need, at a minimum, two – one for their desktop or laptop computer, and one for their smart phone. However, the more the better, especially if you have tablets and/or other family members that you also want to connect.
Unfortunately, this is an area where VPN providers can be very stingy. While most are keen to point out that you can install and use their service on any number of devices, it is also very common to see that only one such device may be connected at the same time.
Of course, using a flashed router, or setting up a PC to act as a WiFi hotspot, only counts as one connection, and so neatly sidesteps this problem.
VPN for WiFi Hotspots
While it is always a good idea to protect your on-line activity with VPN, this is especially true when using a mobile device to access the internet via public WiFi hotspots (as, for example, you may do a lot when travelling abroad in order to avoid exorbitant roaming charges).
Public hotspots are notorious magnets for hackers, who need no real skll to use readily available packet snooping software to ‘listen in’ on unencrypted data traffic between the hotspot and connected devices, giving them easy access to bank details and other personal information that is entered.
Android users are blessed with a number of BitTorrent clients that let them P2P download on the move. The official µTorrent app is probably the most notable, although tTorrent, aTorrent, FrostWire and aDownloader are also popular options. As we discuss at some length here, it is vital when using P2Psoftware to always connect through a VPN.
µTorrent for Android. Note the key icon in the taskbar which lets you know that a VPN service is running.
Positives: Easy-to-use software, excellent speeds, good customer service
Negatives: Bit pricey, but worth it for the features
With apps across all platforms and a mobile clients that blows the competition away, ExpressVPN secures our vote as the Best VPN for mobile security. The download speeds are impressive and the software is straightforward to use. We really love some of the features like automatic protocol selection and server location recommendations.
ExpressVPN boasts round-the-clock customer support and an ultra reliable VPN network spanning 78 countries and hundreds of servers. They are also adding new locations all the time. These guys have done a pretty awesome job in building what we believe to be the best VPN service out there.
The pricing is not the cheapest, but you do get what you pay for. ExpressVPN also offers unlimited bandwidth and supports your mobile device (Android/iOS) for no extra charge.
Positives: no logs, 256-bit AES encryption, accepts Bitcoins, very fast, UK servers, P2P: yes, 5 simultaneous connections, Android app, pre-configured routers available
Negatives: asks for too much information during registration, keeps that info for marketing reasons, some connection problems, no free trial, we’ve received reports of poor customer service
TorGuard provides an incredibly feature-rich no logs service, covering everything from accepting Bitcoin payment to using 256-bit AES encryption, having built-in DNS leak protection in its client, and scoring blazingly fast speedtest.net results. On the mobile front, it allows up to 5 simultaneous connections, has an Android app, and can supply pre-configured routers. Manual setup guides are provided for Android (PPTP, L2TP/IPsec and OpenVPN), iOS (PPTP, L2TP/IPsec and OpenVPN) and DD-WRT ((PPTP, L2TP/IPsec and OpenVPN).
It is a shame then that we have heard reports of poor customer service, and bad DNS leakage on TorGuard’s servers (a claim backed up by our own experiences when we first used the service).
Positives: cheap, no logs (but many caveats), accepts payments via Bitcoins, P2P: yes, iOS app, pre-configured routers available
Negatives: painfully slow on a regular basis, many caveats to ‘no logs’ claim, no simultaneous connections
We are not huge fans of ibVPN, as we think it’s ‘no logs’ policy is a bit too loose, and we found the network could grind almost to a halt at peak times, making it totally unusable. It does however provide the best support we have seen for iOS devices, including the only dedicated iOS VPN app we have yet seen (albeit only for PPTP and L2TP).
Detailed manual iOS setup guides are also available (PPTP, L2TP/IPsec and OpenVPN), as well as guides for Android (PPTP, L2TP/IPsec and OpenVPN) and DD-WRT (PPTP and OpenVPN). ibVPN normally allows only one connection at a time, but has (quite expensive) family and business packages that allow more. It also sells pre-configured routers, which are a more economical solution to this problem.
Positives: no logs, great attitude to privacy, very fast, accepts Bitcoin, VPN client has some great features, P2P: yes, 3 simultaneous connections, Android app, pre-configured routers available
Negatives: no OpenVPN support for iOS
Private Internet Access is not only one of the best VPN providers in terms of privacy (no logs, shared IPs, and will take anonymous Bitcoin payments) and desktop software (Windows and OSX, and includes DNS leak protection, VPN disconnection protection and port forwarding), but it also provides some of the best support for mobile devices.
In addition to manual setup guides for iOS (PPTP and L2TP/IPsec), Android (PPTP, L2TP/IPsec and OpenVPN), DD-WRT (PPTP and OpenVPN), and Tomato (OpenVPN), Private Internet Access has a dedicated Android app (OpenVPN), and a range of pre-configured routers is also available. The only weak point is no support for OpenVPN in iOS, although generic OpenVPN config files are available, which should make setting up OpenVPN Connect simple enough. PIA also allows a fairly generous 3 simultaneous connections.
Click the button below to sign up to PrivateInternetAccess now, you really can’t go wrong with them!
Positives: great VPN client (especially for Android), logs only kept for 3 days, 15 day free trial, UK servers, P2P: yes
Negatives: logs kept for 3 days, not amazingly fast
Kepard is a small Moldovan VPN company that distinguishes itself by having an excellent, and easy to use, Android app (and also a quite smart desktop client), which comes with a generous 15 days free use. Other than that, Kepard run an unremarkable service that gets the job done with minimum fuss, with mobile support (other than the app) coming in the form of manual setup guides for Android and iOS (PPTP and L2TP/IPsec). A point to note is that Kepard keep logs for three days. This is not long, and Moldova is likely outside the reach of many international government and copyright enforcement bodies, but we have no idea how much of a security threat it actually poses.
Which provider you choose depends, of course, on what mobile devices you want to connect, as well as other factors such as the overall quality of the service (see our article on 10 Best VPN services). Private Internet Access has by far the most comprehensive support (plus being a great all-round service), but is a little weak when it comes to iOS. ibVPN provides great support for iOS, and is fully featured in many other regards, but we cannot recommend it thanks the slowness of the service. TorGuard look nearly perfect on paper, but is let down by a couple of nagging doubts.