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VPNs 101: The ultimate guide to using a VPN in Australia
A step-by-step guide for all of the critical information you need to know for choosing and configuring a VPN.
With so many devices supporting virtual private network (VPN) software these days and so many advantages to using one, there are very few reasons to not consider sourcing and using a VPN. That said, we can appreciate that the prospect of picking the VPN service and setting it up to use across devices isn’t necessarily straightforward.
That’s where this guide steps in. Our ultimate VPN guide explores everything you need to know about VPNs, from what they are and how they work, to the many different ways they can help you online.
What is a VPN?
Unlike far too many techie things, a VPN actually holds a lot of the meaning in its expanded ‘virtual private network’ name. Let’s tease it out. ‘Virtual’ means that a VPN is a bit of software or an app, so you’re not dealing with hardware or any other physical requirement for your devices. All you need is a compatible device supported by a VPN provider.
‘Private’ refers to one of the key functions—if not the key function—of a VPN: to keep your internet connection anonymous and secure. Finally, ‘network’ refers to the protective barrier created between networks, namely, your private local area network (LAN) and the wide area network (WAN), or internet.
Put it all together and you get software that’s built to shield your internet connection and preserve your online privacy.
How does a VPN work?
We need to dig into a bit of background theory before explaining how a VPN works. Whenever you use a device to connect to the internet, that device uses a specific internet protocol (IP) address to create a back-and-forth flow of uploaded and downloaded data. Unfortunately, this IP address says a lot about your location, which is basically the internet equivalent of browsing stores at a supermarket with your actual address stuck to your forehead.
This is where a VPN steps in, to protect your actual IP address by forcing all incoming and outgoing internet traffic through a VPN server. Whenever you’re connected to a VPN, your IP address will be different from the static (fixed) or dynamic (changing) one used to identify your actual internet connection. This means your internet goings-on are safe from prying eyes, be they your internet provider, government agencies or cybercriminals looking for unprotected connections.
VPNs tend to use military-grade encryption to reroute your internet traffic, which not only protects privacy, it also boosts online security and makes it harder for nefarious online folk to get to your sensitive data. Note that if a VPN connection drops out or you manually disconnect from a VPN, any internet traffic will be sent and received from your actual IP address (this is where a ‘kill switch’ is handy). It’s not enough to have a VPN downloaded and installed; you also have to ensure it’s connected to a server.
While VPN data encryption tends to hang around the same Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) 256-bit level of protection, there are some differences in channel encryption. This is an extra layer of encryption and there are effectively two standards: 2048-bit and 4096-bit. The difference between the two is 4096-bit is a higher grade of encryption. Some call it overkill, including certain VPN providers that offer 2048-bit channel encryption, but it may also be a useful way to separate two close-competing VPN providers.
What can you use a VPN for?
There are a wide range of things you can use a VPN for, but there are popular use-cases that are relevant to most people. As mentioned above, the primary use of a VPN is for greater peace of mind, protecting the internet connection and locational information of a device that’s connected to a VPN server.
Using a VPN for privacy
On the privacy front, it can be a good practice to use a VPN whenever you’re doing internet banking or other privacy-sensitive online tasks. That said, better VPNs are designed to work invisibly in the background so you won’t even notice an impact on regular internet tasks, so they can happily be left on whenever you’re online. Those who work or study remotely may be required to use a VPN to access a secure connection between an at-home computer and an organisation’s network.
Using a VPN for getting around geoblocking
One of the happy benefits of masking the location information of your IP address is that VPNs can be used to sidestep geoblocks. These blocks tend to be on websites or services that are only licensed for use in particular countries. For example, by connecting to a compatible US-based VPN server, you can access streaming services like the Netflix US library, Hulu and HBO Max, all of which are normally inaccessible from any Australian internet connections.
Using a VPN while travelling
Conversely, travellers may appreciate being able to access services like Stan (including Stan Sports) or Kayo while they’re abroad by connecting to an Australian VPN server. Admittedly, in our VPN streaming tests, Stan is a lot easier to access with Australian servers than Kayo, the latter of which is particularly adept at sniffing out VPN connections.
The other benefit of global server jumping with VPNs is potentially accessing cheaper prices and avoiding things like the dreaded “Australia Tax”. Note that for international streaming services and cheaper prices, using a VPN to access them may be in violation of user terms and conditions that you agree to when you sign up. Proceed at your own risk.
More benefits to using a VPN
VPNs are a particularly useful tool when connecting to unknown WiFi networks, such as those offered in public places like cafes, hotels and airports. Using a VPN for these public networks means you’re protecting your VPN-connected device from being more easily accessible to anyone else connected to the same network.
Another use for VPNs is online gaming, particularly for people who like to play games with international friends. The benefit here is a VPN connection to, say, a US server may have a more direct pathway, which results in lower latency and better responsiveness than just connecting directly to the server. This is ultimately dependent on the speed of the VPN and how your internet provider routes traffic, so some trial and error is required.
Finally, faster VPNs can also be used to check whether your internet provider is throttling your internet speeds. This also requires a speedy VPN to connect to a nearby Australian server, particularly during the busy evening hours (7:00pm to 11:00pm nightly), to see if your download and/or upload speeds are actually faster when connected to a VPN.
Hola VPN is a popular pick for those seeking a free VPN in Australia, which is understandable because it’s compatible with a lot of popular platforms, including Windows, Mac and a selection of smart TVs. While we haven’t reviewed Hola VPN, our internet sleuthing suggests that it may be good for getting around geoblocked content but it doesn’t do a good job of protecting user anonymity and security. We recommend avoiding Hola and other browser-based VPNs in favour of VPN some of the premium VPN services outlined on this page, some of which offer browser add-ons (which are probably redundant because of Windows, Mac, Android and/or iOS apps).
How much you should expect to pay for a VPN
VPNs range from extremely affordable (even free) to comparatively pricey. Of the 15 VPNs we’ve reviewed, the norm is for US pricing, with only a handful offering Australian pricing. This means the overall cost of a VPN can change month-to-month based on how well the Australian dollar is doing, plus you might also have to factor in associated bank currency conversion fees.
The trend is towards encouraging users to pay for a longer period of time in exchange for cheaper overall pricing. Month-to-month pricing tends to be the most expensive way to access a VPN, while opting for one-year, two-year or even three-year plans equates to the cheapest monthly pricing. It’s also the norm for VPN providers to compare different plan prices in terms of monthly cost, even though they charge for the full duration upfront: either monthly, annually, or some other duration.
Check out the table below for an idea of how VPN prices differ between providers and across different plan types.
Number of VPN servers
|View Plans||AU$2.89/mth $75.14 2-year plan||28,429|
|View Plans||US$3.29/mth US$78.96 2-year plan for new visitors||5,224
|View Plans||US$4.99/mth US$59.88 1-year plan||60+
|View Plans||AU$3.39/mth AU$81.36 2-year plan||3,200+|
|View Plans||US$3.99/mth US47.89 1-year plan||1,600+|
|View Plans||US$8.32/mth US$99.84 1-year plan||3,000+|
|View Plans||AU$11.99/mth AU$143.88 1-year plan||1,800+|
|View Plans||AU$3.19/mth AU$124.41 3-year plan||6,000+|
|View Plans||US$1.38/mth US$49.99 3-year plan||500+|
|View Plans||US$1.99/mth US$53.95 2-year plan||6500+
|View Plans||AU$4.99/mth AU$59.99 1-year plan||3000|
|View Plans||US$3.33/mth US$120 3-year plan||500+|
|View Plans||US$4.08/mth US$49 1-year plan||187|
Data effective of last page update. Offers and availability may vary by location and are subject to change.
Note that certain VPNs have promotional pricing for annual or longer plans, which reverts to a typical upfront fee that’s higher than what you initially paid. Some VPN providers that offer beyond-annual plans may also add a few bonus months for their most expensive plans. VPN Unlimited is the only VPN we’ve reviewed that has a lifetime subscription, which is regularly discounted from its US$199.99 typical once-off fee.
Clicking the connect button on a VPN will usually connect you to the nearest, fastest server, relative to your current location. But certain VPN providers offer specialty servers for different functions. Some VPN specialty servers are optimised for streaming, some for gaming, others for peer-to-peer software and others still for multi-hop connections for even better security (albeit slower speeds).
Free vs premium VPNs
Because VPNs are such popular tools these days, there are dozens of viable options. We have our own preferred best VPN providers, all of which are premium options. But it begs the question: is it worth saving money with a free VPN in Australia or paying the price for a premium VPN?
Like the many quality premium VPNs, there are actually plenty of decent free VPNs out there, but they tend to compromise in at least one area. For example, free VPNs may limit the number of simultaneous connections, throttle overall speeds, restrict server choices and/or be lacking in enhanced functionality. The free VPNs we wouldn’t recommend are those that compromise on security and/or privacy, including services that use ads to make ends meet.
That’s why we think the best ‘free’ VPNs are the trials you can get for premium VPNs. You do have to pay upfront to access the trial, but the industry standard is for 30 days before you’re actually charged. Basically, set a calendar reminder to cancel the trial if you’re gun shy. But what you get with a 30-day trial is a proper taste of all of the features of a premium VPN service.
Short of that, it’s best to stick with a free VPN that’s associated with a known brand. ProtonVPN has the best free VPN version we’ve come across, but you can also consider alternatives from PureVPN, Windscribe VPN, TunnelBear, Hotspot Shield or PrivadoVPN.
How much do you care about your privacy? The answer to this will determine how much you should scrutinise a prospective VPN provider’s logging policy. A logging policy dictates which personal information, if any, a VPN provider stores. The gold standard is a zero-logging policy, which means a VPN provider keeps nothing, and this is bolstered by VPNs that are open to independent audits. If privacy is paramount to you, it’s absolutely worth reading into a VPN provider’s history to see if there have been any data leaks or instances of user data being volunteered. Additionally, consider VPN providers that use RAM servers, as these are incapable of storing any user data long-term.
VPN device compatibility and simultaneous connections
These days, it’s safe to assume that most major VPN services will offer a healthy range of device support, covering computers and mobile devices as standard. Other VPN services offer even greater versatility, with apps for devices like smart TVs and streaming sticks or installation guides for routers.
Installing a VPN on a router is more of an advanced move than straightforward software or app installation, but it does have the added benefit of bypassing a VPN provider’s simultaneous connection count, as long as the router is VPN compatible. The number of simultaneous connections determines how many devices you can use with a single VPN account at any one time.
The bottom end of the industry standard hangs around five simultaneous connections. This is made slightly more complicated when certain VPN providers also limit the number of devices you can install software on, meaning you may have to unlink older devices to add new ones. Because two of the biggest names in VPN-ing, NordVPN and ExpressVPN, only offer six and five simultaneous connections, respectively, more VPN providers are competing on this front. For those contenders, 10 simultaneous connections is a common upgrade, while others like Surfshark VPN, IPVanish and Windscribe boast unlimited simultaneous connections.
Basically, more simultaneous connections means you can protect more compatible devices in your home under a single account. For reference, here’s a list of VPNs that we’ve reviewed, ranked by the number of simultaneous connections they allow (also cheapest to most expensive when VPNs share the same numbers):
- Windscribe: unlimited simultaneous connections
- IPVanish: unlimited simultaneous connections
- Surfshark: unlimited simultaneous connections
- PrivadoVPN: 10 simultaneous connections
- Norton Secure: one, five or 10 simultaneous connections
- ProtonVPN: 10 simultaneous connections
- PureVPN: 10 simultaneous connections
- Private Internet Access: 10 simultaneous connections
- CyberGhost: seven simultaneous connections
- NordVPN: six simultaneous connections
- Mullvad: five simultaneous connections
- VPN Unlimited: five simultaneous connections
- TunnelBear: five simultaneous connections
- ExpressVPN: five simultaneous connections
- Hotspot Shield: five simultaneous connections
Another important privacy consideration for those who care most about privacy is where a VPN provider has its headquarters. Why? Certain countries have surveillance and data-sharing agreements or are part of groups that mean personal data can be shared under certain conditions. That’s why certain VPN providers base their headquarters outside of countries with data-sharing agreements, boosting the overall privacy of its users.
The reality of VPN server, country and location counts
Given the level playing field between military-grade encryption, it’d be easy to think that picking the right VPN is just about price. But there are plenty of other factors to consider, and the ones most readily compared are all about the numbers: specifically, servers, countries and locations.
Check out the table below for a breakdown of the VPNs we’ve used and reviewed in terms of their server, country and location counts.
|Private Internet Access||Not disclosed||84||106|
|TunnelBear||Not disclosed||49||Not disclosed|
|Norton Secure||Not disclosed||Not disclosed||Not disclosed|
There are two types of servers when it comes to VPNs: physical servers and virtual servers. While physical servers are dedicated devices, virtual servers may be one of many on a single machine, which means resources could be shared so they can be slower and less reliable than physical servers. Virtual servers are cheaper for VPN providers to run and can help plug potential gaps in a network of physical servers.
While we’re conditioned in the wonderful world of tech to lean towards bigger numbers, we’re of the opinion that the actual server count is less important than the number of countries and locations a VPN provider supports in its network. That said, a larger server network does show a VPN provider’s willingness to invest and means there’s a better chance of backup servers, particularly in popular locations, in the event that servers are overloaded or go down.
Country count and locational count have fundamentally equal weighting for us, but this is an important case-by-case consideration depending on what you want to do with a VPN. For example, a larger country count may matter more for a globetrotter who visits many parts of the world. Conversely, a location count may be more important for another user who wants the versatility of connecting to different parts of a specific country, particularly for places like the US and the UK, which tend to have more server locations than other parts of the world.
If you intend on primarily using a VPN in Australia, sniff out the server page of any prospective VPN provider and have a look at the locations. In our experience, most VPN providers we’ve reviewed offer servers along the east coast of Australia, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, but those in the northern, central and western parts of Australia are less likely to have nearby servers. VPN download speeds and upload speeds shouldn’t be overly different from users connecting in the same place as the server locations, but latency may take a noticeable hit.
VPN upload, download and latency speeds
Whenever you connect to a VPN server, even one that’s in the same city as you, there’s going to be some level of speed degradation to your internet connection. That’s because your internet connection is being routed via a new server (or multiple servers for multi-hop connections), which creates an additional stop for data being sent and received from a VPN-connected device. Additional stops mean slower speeds.
While some sort of slowdown is inevitable, better VPNs limit the impact on download, upload and latency speeds to negligible, barely noticeable, or acceptable levels (for faraway servers). When a VPN has a minimal impact on your internet speeds, it means it’s a more seamless experience online. It also matters when it comes to streaming content, especially when streaming higher-fidelity videos (like 4K content) from geoblocked streaming services, as the impact on your download speed can lead to buffering and quality degradation during a stream.
As an example, the table below shows how NordVPN performed in recent speed tests on a Superloop NBN 100/40 Fibre-to-the-Curb (FTTC) internet connection.
|AU VPN||76.54Mbps (~12% slower)||36.12Mbps (~5% slower)||5ms (1ms slower)|
|US VPN (auto, fastest)||75.64Mbps (~13% slower)||31.71Mbps (~17% slower)||155ms (151ms slower)|
|US VPN (manual, closest)||62.69Mbps (~28% slower)||32.63Mbps (~14% slower)||186ms (182ms slower)|
|UK VPN (auto, fastest)||59.91Mbps (~31% slower)||33.57Mbps (~12% slower)||251ms (247ms slower)|
This is a good example of a faster VPN service that has a minimal impact on internet speeds. But the farther away the server (like those in the US or UK), the bigger the impact to overall speeds. When it comes to streaming services, those percentage differences can really start to add up, particularly for those homes with download speeds under 50Mbps.
The table below uses the percentage differences from the NordVPN table above to give an indication of the impact on the average NBN typical evening download speeds (TEDS), relative to two popular US streaming services (Netflix and Hulu) and one UK-based alternative (BBC iPlayer), all of which offer 4K streams. Note that while Netflix has four max 4K streams on its top-tier plan, Hulu and BBC iPlayer have options for unlimited 4K streams. We know nobody is really going to want to necessarily have 13+ streams, but it’s illustrative of how many streams are available after a VPN download speed hit.
NBN speed tier
Average NBN TEDS
Netflix US 4K (25Mbps)
Hulu 4K (16Mbps)
BBC iPlayer (24Mbps)
|NBN 12||11.72Mbps||10.19Mbps (US), 8.09Mbps (UK)||Too slow||Too slow||Too slow|
|NBN 25||24.42Mbps||21.24Mbps (US), 16.85Mbps (UK)||Too slow||1 stream||Too slow|
|NBN 50||48.84Mbps||42.49Mbps (US), 33.7Mbps (UK)||1 stream||2 streams||1 stream|
|NBN 100||97.68Mbps||84.98Mbps (US), 67.4Mbps (UK)||3 streams||5 streams||2 streams|
|NBN 250||244.2Mbps||212.45Mbps (US), 168.5Mbps (UK)||4+ streams||13 streams||7 streams|
|NBN 500||488.4Mbps||424.9Mbps (US), 337Mbps (UK)||4+ streams||26 streams||14 streams|
|NBN 1000||976.8Mbps||849.82Mbps (US), 673.99Mbps (UK)||4+ streams||53 streams||28 streams|
One of the reasons VPNs are popular is for use with peer-to-peer software. While torrenting is one example of peer-to-peer software, it’s not the only one. This is important because certain VPN providers offer specific peer-to-peer servers, while others block the use of peer-to-peer downloads in particular regions. For those that block, it not only means torrenting software won’t download or upload files when connected to these VPN servers, it also means that other everyday peer-to-peer software won’t work as expected, including certain instant-messaging apps.
VPN advanced features and extended functionality
Most people should be okay with the core functionality of a VPN: namely, privacy and security as well as the option to access geoblocked content. But for those who want more from VPN of choice, there are some great advanced features to keep an eye out for.
For starters, several VPN providers offer smart DNS functionality, which is a speedier way to access streaming content in other countries albeit without the privacy and security advantages of a regular VPN server. Smart DNS features can also be trickier to use than simply hitting the ‘go’ button on a VPN.
Speaking of content that isn’t protected by a VPN connection, certain providers also offer split tunnelling. This may be limited to specific devices for VPN providers that offer the feature, but split tunnelling lets more advanced users determine specific apps or online services that work outside of a VPN connection. This means those apps and services aren’t made private or secure by the VPN connection, but it does mean they function as though a VPN isn’t connected, which is a great option if a VPN is interfering with particular online tools that you want to access while your VPN is connected.
Finally, the other major advanced feature to look out for is VPN providers that include ad-blocking, antivirus and/or anti-malware tools. As the names suggest, an ad blocker can help block pesky ads when a VPN is connected, while antivirus and anti-malware tools can add an extra layer of security to a VPN connection.
If you want a fully featured VPN, we’d advise avoiding VPN add-ons that are part of antivirus plans. Antivirus providers like Avast, Norton and AVG bundle VPNs with their software, but they tend to feel more like an afterthought than standalone VPNs.
VPN installation and ease of use
Whether you’re using a free VPN, signed up for a trial or paying for an ongoing plan, VPN software and apps are free to download across compatible devices. For mobile devices, search for the VPN provider name in the App Store or Google Play Store. Visit a provider’s website to find computer software.
Certain VPN providers make life easier by offering direct download links across supported devices or scannable QR codes for easier acquisition. Generally speaking, mobile apps are a lot more straightforward to install than computer software, but the VPNs we’ve tested have guided installations on PC. After the initial download, you should be up and running in minutes.
The trend is for VPN services to offer an obvious connection button that will automatically connect to the closest server. Alternatively, all VPNs should let you peruse a list of countries and/or cities to connect to, and some of them make life easier by remembering recent or regular connections. Others give you the option to add servers to your favourites.
While not essential, VPNs like NordVPN give you the option to manually connect to thousands of servers, which can be handy if the automatic server selection for a particular location isn’t working as you’d expect. Switching servers is usually as easy as clicking on a new one and waiting a few seconds for the changeover, and disconnection is generally as simple as clicking the same big connection button.
A VPN kill switch is something that blocks your entire internet connection. This tends to be an opt-in feature that’s available in one or both of two varieties. The first type of kill switch is more user-friendly and will only block your internet connection if VPN server disconnects. The other type of kill switch is stricter, meaning you need to always have the VPN software open to even use the internet.
Picking the right VPN
There are lots of viable VPN options out there, which is why it can be tricky to narrow it down to a single choice. When starting out, it’s okay to use a free VPN or a free trial for a premium VPN that ticks the right boxes for your VPN needs.
VPNs aren’t particularly tricky to use, but not having to pay is a great way to familiarise yourself with what you do and don’t want. When you are ready to go premium, price is an important consideration, but it’s relative in terms of value. For example, a bargain-priced VPN may be lacking in country or location choices, or it may not allow too many simultaneous connections.
We recommend evaluating price in terms of how many simultaneous connections you get, ensuring the VPNs you’re appraising support the devices you want to protect. VPNs aren’t compatible with all connected devices, but more popular options tend to support a wide range of platforms. It may be worth paying for a VPN that supports more devices even if it doesn’t have massive server, country or location counts because it means you can protect all of the devices in your home.
Base your VPN preferences on what matters most to you. Faster VPNs are great for streaming, low-latency VPNs are good for videoconferencing and online gaming, and VPN providers that champion auditable zero-log policies are big on user privacy.
Which VPN provider is best for me?
We recommend starting with the two popular names in VPNs as a basis of comparison: NordVPN and ExpressVPN.
NordVPN is easy to use, has solid speeds, tends to work with the most popular international streaming services (when it’s not being targeted by streaming providers) and has some great advanced features.
ExpressVPN has the same pros and is even better for VPN newcomers, thanks to a great range of helpful articles and video guides on the official website that encourage tinkering. Still, ExpressVPN is comparatively pricey, while both of these top-tier VPN providers offer limited simultaneous connections: six for NordVPN and five for ExpressVPN.
For those who want to start their VPN journey a bit cheaper, ProtonVPN is a great place to start. ProtonVPN has great free and cheap versions, and the full-priced version has some worth-using advanced features and allows for up to 10 simultaneous connections. The connection speeds weren’t particularly fast in our tests, though.
Alternatively, PrivadoVPN is a smaller VPN with cheap pricing that also allows for 10 simultaneous connections.
If you do want a VPN that’s all about speed, have a look at Hotspot Shield. It may not have heaps of servers, it’s not cheap, and it’s limited to five simultaneous connections (and installations), but it’s great at unblocking international content and extremely fast.
For families and those who don’t want to worry about connection restrictions, go with either Surfshark, IPVanish or Windscribe.
All three of these VPN services offer unlimited simultaneous connections, albeit Surfshark didn’t have the best speed results in our tests. IPVanish wasn’t very impressive overall next to its peers in our tests, but Windscribe proved to be a speedy streaming powerhouse.
If you’re the kind of VPN user that loves big numbers, consider CyberGhost. This VPN has stacks of servers alongside healthy counts for countries and locations. While we did have some issues with apps and servers occasionally being overloaded, CyberGhost also had fast connection speeds.
While it is restricted to five simultaneous connections, VPN Unlimited has one ongoing advantage that the others listed on this page don’t have: a lifetime subscription. It’s regularly discounted, too, and it means you only have to pay once for a VPN that’s easy to use and good for international streaming services even if it doesn’t have a lot of servers in a lot of countries. Conversely, if you care more about an epic server count and less about streaming, consider Private Internet Access, which has great annual pricing for 10 simultaneous connections.
For no-nonsense pricing, Mullvad VPN is worth a look. It has a flat €5 monthly fee and no other plan options, plus a great emphasis on user anonymity. That said, it’s not great for streaming, it’s restricted to five simultaneous connections, and it doesn’t have servers in a lot of countries. PureVPN boasts stacks of servers in a lot of countries, alongside 10 simultaneous connections and some great advanced features. It used to have restrictive peer-to-peer blocks that interfere with everyday software, but that’s been updated in recent times, meaning PureVPN is a reasonably priced VPN that’s well worth considering today.
TunnelBear is also worth considering as a back-of-the-pack runner-up, mostly thanks to a decent free version and a cutesy personality. That said, it didn’t really stand up to most other choices above, while the main reason to use Norton Secure VPN is if you get it as part of Norton antivirus software.