How to choose the right VPN for your mobile device

Using a VPN to protect your online privacy extends beyond your home computer. A VPN for your phone or tablet protects you while you’re on other networks, traveling, or simply catching up on social media during your commute.

A mobile VPN can protect your data and browsing history, just like the VPN on your home computer; it can also simulate being “home” so you can access the same content even when you’re traveling. This article will help you pick a VPN provider that is sound and reputable, and has features geared toward mobile use.

New to VPNs? Learn what they are and how they work.

What are the main features of mobile VPNs?

A mobile VPN for your phone or tablet offers all the same protections as a VPN for your computer. It can hide your IP address and thus your true location. By encrypting your transmitted data, including the URL of the site you’re visiting, it hides your browsing activity from everyone other than your VPN provider. And it can help to navigate around restricted access associated with censorship or geographic limitations. Two specific things to consider are the VPN’s encryption and security protocols.

VPN encryption

When reviewing VPN providers, you’ll probably see a few encryption methods mentioned. AES-256 is considered the standard; you’ll find this with most reputable VPN providers. AES-256 is recognized as an industry standard for encrypting data. It’s also efficient—the encryption and decryption steps won’t affect performance in most devices since they have hardware acceleration designed for AES.

Note: Though AES-256 is a well recognized standard, there are several other modern encryption algorithms that are just as appropriate.

Mobile device security protocols

In addition to encrypting your Internet traffic, the other main aspect of a VPN is how your traffic is routed to and from its final destination (this aspect is called the tunneling protocol). Many VPN providers use the OpenVPN configuration that combines AES-256 with routing via SSL/TLS. This is a fine choice—it’s reliable and probably the most common protocol in use by reputable providers.

Mobile phones, VPNs, public Wi-Fi, and cellular networks

Although public Wi-Fi has garnered a reputation for being unsafe with your data, it’s actually not as bad as it might seem. Most of the Internet traffic that flows through a browser is encrypted via HTTPS, and this same protection also extends to data transmitted to and from a browser over a cell network. This can help even on public Wi-Fi.

However, this protection still isn’t perfect. While HTTPS encrypts most of the data you generate when browsing, it doesn’t fully encrypt a website’s URL. This means an ISP or cellular provider (for example) can see what specific site you’re visiting. A VPN encrypts all your traffic—including URLs—to keep your browsing details private. A VPN also covers the occasional gaps in the default HTTPS coverage, like if you land on an HTTP site before being redirected to an HTTPS version; it can also help if a site has poor HTTPS configuration, or none at all.

Finally, while HTTPS is a solid baseline encryption applied to most traffic in your Web browser, there’s no equivalent universal encryption applied to data moving to and from mobile apps. Unless the app and associated Web server have taken steps to encrypt their transmissions, app-based data could remain exposed and vulnerable to interception. A good VPN encrypts all data to and from your mobile device—whether you’re using a browser or a mobile app.

For all these reasons, HTTPS plus a VPN is often the best way to go.

Risks and limitations of mobile VPNs

Although not unique to mobile VPNs, some problems are more common on mobile versus desktop VPNs. Here’s a quick overview of what to watch out for.

Dropped connections

If you lose your connection to the VPN server, your traffic will automatically default back to using the ISP or cell carrier, which means they’ll be able to see your browsing activity. A killswitch feature protects against this risk by detecting when a VPN connection is lost, and then instantly stopping all Internet activity until the connection is back up.

Split tunneling

Split tunneling is a feature where you can assign some Internet activity to be routed through the VPN tunnel and let other activity travel through the default routing. This can be handy, for example, when you’re traveling: split tunneling would allow you to access some content through a VPN in order to appear as if you’re still “home,” but access other material based on your actual location. Split tunneling allows you to create rules that determine which apps (or websites) automatically use or bypass the VPN tunnel.

Note that one risk of split tunneling is making a mistake while using it, and transmitting data through non-VPN channels that was meant to go through the VPN tunnel.

What to check in a mobile VPN’s privacy policy

A core factor of finding a VPN you can trust to keep your data private is to find one that doesn’t log any of your data. Whether you need a VPN for your home computer, your mobile devices, or both, it’s best to choose one that has a true no-logs policy, like Brave’s VPN. A good place to verify the details of a provider’s no-logs policy claim is to read their privacy policy.

A privacy policy will state what user data is collected, how long it’s stored (if at all), and how that data is used. VPNs in certain locations may be required to collect data for legal purposes. Therefore, a privacy policy should also disclose if the provider is subject to any government-dictated data retention requirements, and any other third parties (including law enforcement) they might give, sell, or be legally compelled to supply your data to. Government requirements regarding data collection and retention are particularly important to consider if you’ll be traveling internationally.

Will a VPN slow down my mobile Internet speed?

When using a VPN, a slight drop in Internet speeds is not uncommon. This is due to the simple fact that a VPN is routing your Web traffic through different servers in between the destination website and your device. If the VPN server you’re connecting to is crowded with other traffic, or located very far away from your physical location, you may see further slowdowns.

When this happens, switching to a different server usually solves the problem. In order to switch VPN servers, you’ll need a provider that has servers in a variety of locations, and allows you to select what server you’re connected to. This switching is usually done via a button in the VPN settings.

If performance is an important criteria, some VPN providers will share details on their servers (e.g. if they’re 1 GB or 10 GB servers). A more powerful server isn’t a guarantee of faster performance, but it may handle periods of high traffic without service degradation.

Of course, the (slight) drop in speeds is often not noticeable; if the drop is noticed, it’s more than made up for with increased privacy and security.

Two important notes:

  • In some cases a VPN will actually improve speed. Using large amounts of data while connected to certain websites (like while streaming or gaming) can trigger a cellular carrier or ISP to throttle your bandwidth. With a VPN, the cellular carrier or ISP can still see the data usage but not the website. Masking the website with a VPN can avoid triggering any throttling procedures.
  • Third-party ads and other junk can also eat up bandwidth or mobile data, and lead to slower browsing speeds. Using a browser with a built-in adblocker—like Brave—can help recover some of the lost speed associated with a VPN.

How do I set up a VPN on my iPhone or Android device?

Setting up a VPN is straightforward. Third party apps are basically ready to go once they’re installed—you download the app from Apple App Store or Google Play Store, sign up for an account (or sign in if you already have one), and start using the VPN. A good VPN provider can support all major operating systems, both for computer and mobile devices. However, you will need separate downloads of the appropriate software or app on every device on your account.

This whole process is even easier with Brave: If you have the Brave browser installed, you’re ready to go. Brave VPN is integrated into the Brave browser, so there’s no additional software or app to download and log into. Just open the browser, turn on the VPN, and you’re done.

On-the-go privacy and security With Brave VPN

There are many factors to consider when selecting a VPN provider. You want to make sure your data is safe, but you don’t want performance to suffer. You want protection regardless of where you are, what content you’re accessing, and what platform you’re using. And of course, you’d like all this to be easy. This article covered some of the most important factors to consider; the Brave browser—with its built-in Brave Firewall + VPN—ticks the boxes for privacy, reliability, and ease of use.

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