The easiest way of connecting to any VPN service is by using its clients. You don’t need to go through a tricky setup process, and you don’t have to think about tweaking complicated settings. All you need to do is install the client and start using it.
However, users often run into problems when using dedicated VPN clients. These include non-intuitive user interfaces, incessant notifications, lack of advanced settings, and demand for system resources. Sometimes, a client may malfunction for no apparent reason.
Fortunately, you don’t have to live with these problems because a provider’s clients aren’t the only way to operate VPNs. If the VPN service you use supports the OpenVPN protocol, then it’s likely that you can operate the service using the free open-source clients by OpenVPN. As a matter of fact, the majority of providers use OpenVPN to run their VPNs. In Windows, search for “OpenVPN.exe” in your client folders.
This is not an optimal solution for everyone. Switching to the OpenVPN client likely means that you may no longer have access to some extra features offered by the provider’s client. For instance, if your provider’s client comes out with an application-specific kill switch, Tor over VPN or ad blocking, these features may no longer be available when you switch to a different client.
However, the benefits of using the OpenVPN client include a more intuitive interface and a server list that is completely editable with various filters, including locations from different VPN services. Other advantages are detailed logs that enable troubleshooting, expert-level control of the settings for connections, and less use of system resources.
If you’re still not sure which client to use, you can install both on your device. Use the provider’s clients for simple operations and OpenVPN for complicated tasks and troubleshooting. The process of setting up OpenVPN isn’t as daunting as one might imagine. It can be completed in less than thirty minutes.
Obtaining the Configuration Files
Even though OpenVPN is a powerful client, you won’t be able to start using it to connect to your VPN service until all configuration files are available. These files have settings which determine the nature of each connection. Depending on your provider, these files may or may not be easy to find. Start by checking the website of your provider.
Well-established providers typically have tutorials for setting up OpenVPN. They will provide the configuration files as well as the instructions on how to use them. ExpressVPN, IVPN, IPVanish, Private Internet Access, NordVPN, and VyprVPN are examples of such providers.
Other providers only give the files but don’t offer setup guides. To find these, visit Support pages and search for references to OVPN or OpenVPN files. Some services store the files in a web management console. Once you create an account with the service, log in and search for the setup files.
Once that is done, check your downloads and extract zip files. Look for multiple OpenVPN files. Identify the ones for the servers you want to connect to. Other files may be present. However, once you get the OpenVPN data, you can proceed to the next step.
Starting the Setup Process
Visit the official OpenVPN website to find the latest OpenVPN build: go to OpenVPN.net, click “Community”, and select “Downloads.” At the top of the page, you’ll see the release notes for the latest build. Scroll down to find a link for downloading the setup file for Windows.
This article covers the installation process for OpenVPN on Windows. However, the process for installing it on other operating systems is the same.
When you launch the installer, you’ll see a standard setup wizard. Thereafter, agree to the terms of the license, accept the default “components to install”, select a destination folder, and complete the process by clicking install.
On completion of the setup, a plain text “Quick Start Guide” should pop up in your default text file viewer, e.g., Notepad. Read it if you want to learn the technical details. Otherwise, close it. To read it later you can browse the folder OpenVPN/Doc.
Importing Your VPN Data
Launch the application “OpenVPN GUI” and it will add an icon to your system tray. Even though “GUI” is mentioned in the name of the application, all you get is the icon on the system tray. OpenVPN has no fancy graphics or maps.
Copy the configuration files you downloaded earlier into the config folder for OpenVPN: \Users\Name\OpenVPN\Config or \Program Files\OpenVPN\config.
Bear in mind that OpenVPN has the capacity to support up to 50 servers. For some users, this is a potential problem because their provider has thousands of servers. If you’re not completely sure, just copy a few servers that you think you might need. You can always alter the list later on.
Thereafter, right-click the system tray icon and you should see a menu listing the names of the servers you copied. The names appear in alphabetical order, but you can change the order based on your preferences. For example, you can place the servers you use most frequently at the top of the menu.
Right-click the system tray icon, select the server you want and click “Connect”. A login screen with some status commands will appear, quickly followed by a request for your login credentials: your username and password. If the program works as it should, the login screen will disappear and you will receive a desktop notification that you are connected.
To show when you’re protected, a green screen is displayed by the OpenVPN icon. When you hover your mouse over it, it displays your new IP address and the name of the server to which you’re connected. If you have any doubts, you can check your IP address on whatismyipaddress.com and confirm that there are no DNS leaks on ipleak.net.
Once you’re satisfied with everything, right-click the icon, choose the server and click “Disconnect”.
Adjusting the Settings
There are only a few program settings on OpenVPN, but you may still find them useful. Have a look by right-clicking the icon and selecting “Settings”. If you want OpenVPN to always be available when you need it, check the box for “Launch on Windows startup”. When you check “Silent Connection”, the log screen won’t be displayed when you connect.
If you want to stop all desktop notifications, check “Never”. Be cautious with that setting, though, because you generally want to know when you’re connected. Advanced users can configure OpenVPN to use their preferred SOCKS or HTTP proxy, and can use the “Advanced” tab to set up other settings and important program folders.
Making Further Adjustments
The benefits of the OpenVPN client are immediately apparent upon installation. You don’t have a resource-hungry VPN client running in the background. You can organize the server list to suit your preferences so that you don’t have to scroll endlessly to find your favorite servers. And in case you run into problems with connections, the logs on OpenVPN can help you determine the cause and fix it.
That’s not all. Advanced users that make further adjustments to the connection setting gain granular control of their VPN. To view various OpenVPN commands, open them in WordPad. Examples of commands you’ll see include:
- tun-mtu 1500
- remote us-techradarvpn.com 1194
- proto udp
As you might have surmised, the “proto” command is used to select a protocol. UDP is typically preferred for speed. For reliability, you might want to switch to TCP over VPN. (Performance may diminish, though.)
The “remote” command tells the application which server and port you want to use, which is useful if you’re interested in trying a different port or obtaining more details regarding the destination server. However, you first need to determine which ports are supported by the server.
The “tun-mtu” command sets the value of the Maximum Transmission Unit. In some cases, changing this drastically improves performance, but unless you know what you’re doing, you should not temper with it.
These are but a few of the options that advanced users can take advantage of. They can run scripts on connection/disconnection, for instance, to make sure that certain applications only launch when the VPN service is on. Redirect commands determine which traffic you want to encrypt, and you can even block DNS leaks.
To see what options are available, view the documentation by browsing to the folder \Program Files\OpenVPN\doc.