In a perfect world, you’d never have to doubt your VPN, but with the glut of sub-par providers out there, knowing how to check whether your VPN is actually protecting you is a vital skill. Our guide covers everything you need to know about testing your encryption as well as detecting DNS and IP leaks.
You might have heard about an issue in the internet security community at the beginning of this year, when a study came out which looked at the VPN apps available from Android’s Play Store. The study’s findings were shocking, showing a variety of security issues and, most worryingly, that 18% of apps didn’t encrypt traffic at all. That means that users thought that they were safe and protected by their VPNs, but in fact the software claiming to be a VPN wasn’t doing anything at all. If you’re concerned about the health of your VPN, today we’re going to show you how to check if a VPN is working.
For our test subject, we’ll be using the highly reliable ExpressVPN. We’ll start off telling you why we like this service, how to install it, and finally going through a few methods for checking to make sure it is working.
Please note: not all VPN providers offer the same diagnostic tools, though the best ones will include at least one or more of the ones we show you today.
Why Use a VPN?
You might be wondering what all the fuss is about; why would you need a VPN anyway? Well, here are a few good reasons that you might want to use a VPN:
- Improve your security. There are many dangers of going online, especially when connecting to free public Wi-Fi networks like those you find in cafes or airports. When you connect to a public network, it is possible for other users on that network to hack your device and steal your data. If you use a VPN, your data is encrypted so no one else can access it.
- Boost your privacy and download in safety. When you’re on your home network, your ISP can see every site you access and any content that you may be streaming or downloading illegally. If you want to keep your browsing history private or to download safely, then a VPN will prevent your ISP from snooping into your internet usage.
- Get around region locks. If you want to watch content on sites like BBC’s iPlayer, you’ll notice that you can’t access the videos unless you’re based within the UK. Or there’s sites like Netflix which show you different content depending on which location you’re currently in. Using a VPN lets you get around these restrictions by spoofing your location so it appears to be somewhere else – letting you watch content on these sites with no restrictions.
We Recommend ExpressVPN
Here at AddictiveTips, one of our favourite VPNs is ExpressVPN. A strength of this provider is that it is one of the speediest VPNs, with lightning-fast connections which mean no waiting around for pages to load. The network consists of more than 3,000 servers in 160 locations in 94 countries, meaning you’ll have no end of options for finding a server to connect to. The security is excellent, with strong 256-bit AES encryption which is exceptionally difficult to crack, and company-wide no-logging policy to keep your data private.
The software is available for both new and older versions of Windows (that’s Windows RT, Windows XP, Widows Vista, and Windows 7, 8, and 10), it also supports Mac OS, Linux, and Android. Plus, there are browser extensions for the Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox browsers which are some of the easiest ways to use a VPN.
We’ll be using ExpressVPN as an example in this article to show you how you can test out your VPN connection for yourself.
Read our full ExpressVPN review.
- Unblocks US Netflix, BBC iPlayer and other streaming services
- Super fast, reliable connection
- Secure encryption & VPN protocols
- Strict no-logs policy for personal information
- 24/7 Live Chat.
- Slightly pricier than competition.
Download and Install the ExpressVPN Software
First you need to install the ExpressVPN software. Fortunately, this is very easy. You just need to follow these steps:
- Go to https://www.expressvpn.com
- Go to My Account and sign in with your email address and password. If you don’t already have login information, it’s easy enough to sign up for an account by clicking the big red “Get ExpressVPN Now” button
- You’ll be taken to the My Subscriptions page, where you can download the appropriate software for your device using the Set Up ExpressVPN button which is displayed in green
- This will begin the downloading of an installer to install the program onto your system
- During the installation process, you may be asked to enter an activation code. Copy the activation code from the blue box on the download web page
- Once installation is complete, you’ll see a window saying Installation Successfully Completed and you can click Close
How to Use the ExpressVPN Software
Once you’ve opened up the ExpressVPN software, you can get started by following these instructions:
- You’ll start on the home screen of the application. There is a large round grey button which you can click to quickly connect to a “smart location”–that is, the fastest nearby server as chosen by the application itself
- When you click the button, it will take a second to connect and then the button will turn green, showing that you’re connected
- If you want to connect to a server in a specific location, use the smaller round Choose location button to the right of the main button. This brings up the VPN location window, where you can either search for a server in a particular country or city using the search bar at the top, or browse through the Recommended servers, see All the servers, or see your Favorites. Click on any server location and then next time you connect, you’ll be connected to a server there
- If you’d rather go back to using the automatically detected server location, simply click the Smart location button to the left of the main button to have the application take over making this decision again
- Your selected server will show beneath the large round button. Whenever this button is green, that means your VPN is on and is protecting you
How to Check If the ExpressVPN Software Is Working
Now that your software is installed and your VPN is running, you might want to check whether your connection is really secured or not. Here are several ways that you can check this:
Use ExpressVPN’s Built-in Speed Test to Find the Fastest Servers
One of the advantages of ExpressVPN as opposed to other VPN packages is that it includes an extra speed test feature within its software. When you open up the ExpressVPN application, you’ll see a row of three horizontal lines in the top left. If you click this, it will bring up the app’s options.
RELATED READING: Is ExpressVPN Really As Fast As They Claim?
Included within these options are the following:
- VPN locations
- Speed test
- Get 30 free days
- Quit ExpressVPN
If you click on Speed test, a new window will open. The idea of the speed test is that it will run through the list of available servers and quickly check how fast they respond. You need to run this test on your own system as the speed of servers will depend on your location – servers which are closer to you will respond quicker than ones which are further away.
At the bottom of the speed test window you’ll see a green button that says Run Test. Click on this and the test will begin – you don’t need to do anything more. The test will take a few minutes, and then once it’s done you’ll see a list of results. The results are sorted by speed index, which is calculated by the ExpressVPN software. But you can also sort the list of servers by Latency or Download Speed if you prefer. If needed, you can also save these results in a text file so that you can refer to them later.
When you perform this speed test, it will help you to know which server you can connect to for the fastest and most reliable connections. Make a note of the servers which you want to use–you can easily add them to your favourites by clicking the star next to the server which will save that server for future reference.
Close down the speed test window and go back to the main ExpressVPN window. Click on Choose Location and then go to Favorites to see a list of the servers which you just saved from the speed test. Click the name of a server to be connected to it.
If you’re using a VPN that doesn’t offer a built-in speed test (and that’s most of them), you can check your connection using Ookla’s handy speed test tool. It’ll be a little more work to optimise your setup, but at the very least you can confirm whether your VPN is giving you adequate performance or not.
Use ExpressVPN’s IP Address Checker to Check Your IP
If your VPN is up and running but you want to be sure that it’s working and that you have a new IP address, you can use the ExpressVPN IP address checker. To use this feature, start on the ExpressVPN application and then click the three horizontal grey lines in the top left to bring up the menu. Go to Help and then to IP Address Checker. Clicking on this will take you to a page on ExpressVPN’s website at https://www.expressvpn.com/what-is-my-ip
This site shows you information about your current IP address. If your VPN is working, you’ll see a green banner in the Current IP Status window which says ExpressVPN Secure Connection, so you know that everything is functioning okay. The page will also show you the location which you’re connected to, the IP address you’re currently browsing under, and a map with the location of your current server highlighted.
If your VPN is not active, you’ll see a red warning saying Your private information is not secure in the Current IP Status window. Your IP address will be unmasked and your city and country will be nearby to your location. This means that your VPN isn’t currently working and you need to take action to protect your privacy.
Use ExpressVPN’s DNS Leak Test to Whether Your DNS Queries Are Protected
Another useful feature in the ExpressVPN software is the DNS leak test. You need to check for DNS leaks, as sometimes a VPN will encrypt your traffic but not your device’s DNS queries. This is a major problem as it means that your browsing history will be visible to your ISP, undermining the point of using a VPN. Fortunately, most VPNs have got much better at protecting against DNS leaks in the last few years, but it’s still a good idea to check that you are not experiencing a DNS leak just to be sure.
To check for DNS leaks using ExpressVPN, you can use the leak detection site. You can access this from the ExpressVPN application’s menu by clicking the three horizontal grey lines, then going to Help, then to DNS leak test. This will open up the site https://www.expressvpn.com/dns-leak-test in your browser.
If everything is okay and you are not experiencing any DNS leaks, you’ll see a green banner in the DNS leak status box that says No DNS leaks detected. Next to this you’ll see information about the DNS server which you are currently using.
If you are experiencing a DNS leak, you’ll see a red banner in the DNS leak status box that says Your DNS is exposed. with information next to it about your current DNS servers, which are probably the default of your ISP. If you see this, you know that you need to turn on your VPN or check your settings to ensure that you’re safe.
If you’d rather use an external site to test for DNS leaks, you can go to https://www.dnsleaktest.com/ and click on Standard test. The test should bring up results of a DNS server in the country you are connected to with your VPN – that means that it’s working okay and you have no DNS leaks.
Use ExpressVPN’s Diagnostics Feature to Identify Any Other Problems
If you’re having an issue using ExpressVPN or it isn’t working for some reason, there is a diagnostics feature built into the software which you can use to look up problems. If you start on the main application screen and bring up the menu by clicking on the three horizontal grey lines in the top left, you’ll see an option for Diagnostics and then for View diagnostics or Save diagnostics.
If you click view diagnostics, you’ll see a text file with the output from the software which will show you any errors. But if you find this too confusing to understand, don’t worry. You can use the save diagnostics option to save the output as a .txt file which you can then sent to ExpressVPN’s support along with a description of your problems and they’ll be able to tell you what is wrong, if anything.
Common Problems When Using ExpressVPN
If you are having problems with using ExpressVPN, don’t despair. There are a number of common problems which are very easy to fix. When troubleshooting, you should start by looking at these issues:
- Is the VPN on? It sounds silly, but it’s easy to forget to turn the actual VPN on. When you open up the ExpressVPN application, it won’t connect to a VPN straight away. You need to click on the big round button to actually start using the VPN. If you’d like to change this so that you are automatically connected to your VPN when the software starts, you can open up the menu and then go to Options, then General, and check the box which says Connect to the last used location when ExpressVPN is launched. Most other VPN software will have a similar feature in its settings, as well.
- Is the server down? Sometimes, a server that you are connected to will go down. It doesn’t happen often, but now and then a server will stop responding for some reason or another. If your internet connection becomes horrendously slow or if you can’t use the internet at all, try disconnecting from your current server in your VPN software and connecting to another server instead.
- Is the kill switch on? You might find that your internet works just fine when your VPN is connected, but the internet stops working when your VPN is disconnected. This is actually an intentional feature called a kill switch, which is designed to prevent you from accidentally using an unsecured connection. This is enabled by default in ExpressVPN. However, if you don’t like this behaviour, you can easily turn it off. Open up the menu in ExpressVPN, then go to Options, then General. Uncheck the box which says Enable Network Lock (internet kill switch). Now you will be able to use your internet unsecured if you want to. Not every VPN provider offers this feature, but the best ones do. Be sure to check your provider’s features on its website.
- Are you using the correct protocol? There are a number of different VPN protocols which can be used to secure your data, like OpenVPN, IPSec, or PPTP. Which one you should use depends on the particular configuration of the network which you are connected to. If your VPN connection isn’t working, it could be because you are trying to use an incompatible protocol. To change the protocol used in ExpressVPN, open up the menu and go to Options then to Protocol. We recommend that you choose the Automatic option which lets the software choose the correct protocol for you.
FULL GUIDE: ExpressVPN not Working with Netflix? Try This
We hope that this guide has helped you to get your VPN connection set up and to test whether it is working to your satisfaction. ExpressVPN makes it easy to test functions with its software features like the speed test, IP address checker, DNS leak test, and full diagnostic information. If you have any tips for testing out your VPN to make sure that it’s safe, then leave them in the comments below.
If you need a VPN for a short while when traveling for example, you can get our top ranked VPN free of charge. ExpressVPN includes a 30-day money-back guarantee. You will need to pay for the subscription, that’s a fact, but it allows full access for 30 days and then you cancel for a full refund. Their no-questions-asked cancellation policy lives up to its name.