Am I using a VPN? - Tips and tricks to check if your VPN is working as it should

VPNs are great – but sometimes, it's not always abundantly clear that they're 'on', and there are cases of VPNs leaking their user's IP addresses. 

This guide will show you how to check is turned on and working as it should do, so you can keep yourself safe. 

 

How can I check if my VPN is working?

When you're connected to a virtual private network, none of the websites you visit should be able to see your device's true IP address. All of your traffic is funneled down an encrypted tunnel to a private server before it gets anywhere near the internet. Instead of your IP address, they should actually see the IP address of one of the VPN servers.

The easiest way to tell if your VPN is working as it should do is with the ProPrivacy VPN leak test tool. It's super easy to use, only takes a couple of minutes, and checks for IPv4, IPv6, DNS, and WebRTC leaks. Just follow the steps on the screen. 

If you test out your VPN and you discover that you do in fact have a leak, then have a look at our article on the IP leaks, where one of our writers sets out exactly what you should do depending on what type of leak it is. 

What should you not do whilst using a VPN

If you're reading this article because your VPN isn't working – or you're worried it might not be – there's every chance you are in a country where VPNs are frowned upon or banned, or somewhere where the government censors a lot of content.  

Even though VPNs greatly improve your privacy online, they essentially decouple your internet traffic from your device and, in turn, you. If you're using a VPN to read BBC News articles, for example, it would be possible to 'see' that this traffic is coming from somewhere, just not trace it back to yourself or your computer. However, if you were to log into your BBC account with your name, then that would blow your cover – the BBC, for example, would know you've logged in. Remember, if your connection dropping could put you in imminent danger:

If you don't want someone to know you're even using a VPN, then make sure you pick a provider that offers obfuscated (stealth) servers. This will make your traffic look like normal traffic to an entity like your internet service provider, for example, that can usually see what websites you visit. Most of the elite VPN companies you might have heard of offer this feature, but some may only offer it on a select few servers, or not at all. You can view any given provider's server locations – along with things like whether they're obfuscated – on your current/prospective VPN's website. If that information isn't readily available, contact their customer support team. 

Obviously, there are many more features VPNs often provide to keep you safe, but the two mentioned above – plus an element of self-policing – is essential if you want to make sure your browsing experience remains private. Other considerations – like how much control a VPN provider has over its own server network – are also things you might want to take into account. 

Other things to watch out for 

Two important, related points to make here are that free VPNs – any VPN that doesn't command some sort of subscription fee – tend to not put your privacy or safety first either because they don't have the financial resources to or it simply isn't one of their priorities. Subscription VPNs like ExpressVPN, CyberGhost VPN, and Surfshark can charge money – and hundreds of thousands of people pay up every month – because they have proven track records of doing what they say on the tin.

If you're unsure whether your VPN is working and it's a free one, it's very likely that your provider is leaking your IP. In fact, free services are notorious for bad privacy practices. Just last year, it was revealed that seven free VPNs leaked over 20 million customer IP addresses. We found in our own study that free VPNs on Android Google play store users leak IPs and don't provide proper encryption. Their shared servers also had tonnes of data of their user internet activity saved. 

Another thing to remember is that Proxy and Smart DNS services are not VPNs. Although they let you spoof your location in a similar way, they do not provide the same level of privacy or protection because they do not encrypt your traffic. To make matters worse, some free VPNs that advertise themselves as such are actually proxy services, so be sure to do your research and change your provider if you find out this is the case. 

Other considerations

The aim of this article is to show you exactly what to do if you want to check your VPN is working, and then some related concerns that tend to rear their heads alongside that question. However, if you've made up your minds on security measures, you can start to be selective based on other factors, such as speed, unblocking ability, and various other factors.

If you're a gamer – or like to stream high-definition movies every night on the same Wi-Fi the rest of your family are using – you're going to need a VPN that won't buffer and ruin your playing or viewing experience. With speed, the best VPNs that consistently top our daily speed tests yet also provide security services are Ivacy, PureVPN, and NordVPN. My personal favorite is NordVPN just because it's so quick but also has great security features like CyberSec (a state-of-the-art ad and malware blocker) that set it apart from the pack. 

A lot of people use VPNs to unblock different Netflix catalogs from around the world. Netflix has millions upon millions of subscribers worldwide, and if you're one of them, then be sure to check out which VPNs work with Netflix.

Written by: Aaron Drapkin

After graduating with a philosophy degree from the University of Bristol in 2018, Aaron became a researcher at news digest magazine The Week following a year as editor of satirical website The Whip. Freelancing alongside these roles, his work has appeared in publications such as Vice, Metro, Tablet and New Internationalist, as well as The Week's online edition.

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