How to set up a VPN on a Chromebook
Chromebooks and all Chrome OS devices have a lot to do with security. Installing malware on it is very difficult, and scanning it to start over from scratch is quick. But there is one major area where Chrome OS can present a problem, and that is VPN support. If you’ve ever wanted to secure your VPN connection, but struggled to make it work on your Chromebook, you’re not alone. We’ll explain why it’s a problem, as well as ways to (possibly) fix it.
Does Your Chromebook Need a Virtual Private Network (VPN)?
A VPN, or VPN, creates an encrypted tunnel between your Chromebook and a server operated by a VPN company. By passing your internet traffic through this tunnel, you ensure that it will not be spied on in transit. You need a VPN because when it’s active, anyone on the same network as you, anyone with access to that network’s router, your ISP, and rogue intelligence agents will all remain in the dark. This is critical on public Wi-Fi, but is important in every context.
Once your data reaches the VPN server, it is no longer encrypted. But since it appears to be coming from the VPN server and not your computer (or smartphone), your IP address is hidden. It is also difficult to associate online activities directly with you. Additionally, if you connect to HTTPS websites, your data will be encrypted at every step of your web browsing.
You can also use a VPN to spoof your location. You just need to connect to a VPN server in a remote area and suddenly your web traffic seems to be coming from the other side of the globe. This is useful for bypassing oppressive online censorship or just tricking the streaming service into letting you watch movies from a different part of the world. However, using Netflix with a VPN can be tricky, because the company works hard to block VPNs. Note that using a VPN in these ways may violate the terms of services you’ve agreed to, and even local laws.
What is the best way to set up a VPN on a Chromebook?
In general, there are three ways to protect your Chromebook with a VPN: You can use the Chrome browser extension, use an Android app, or manually configure the client in Chrome OS to use the VPN of your choice. Surprisingly, going the Android route is probably your best option. However, each method has potential drawbacks, ranging from lack of support to lack of documentation, as I will explain.
Chrome VPN Extensions
Using a Chrome browser extension is probably the easiest way to secure your web traffic. Several VPN services (including Editors’ Choice winners NordVPN, Private Internet Access, and TunnelBear) offer browser extensions for Chrome. Simply install one from the Chrome Extensions Webstore and it will appear next to the omnibox wherever you’re signed in to Chrome.
The downside is that Chrome VPN extensions only secure web browser traffic. Web traffic from everyone apps On your Chromebook, it won’t have the security of VPNs. Sometimes, that’s a good thing. If you want to secure your web traffic but don’t want your VPN to spoil your video stream, you can protect your browser and use, for example, an Android app to view Netflix that won’t be passed through the VPN. But it can also lead to confusion about what is and is not safe on your device. Generally, we advise people to use a VPN as frequently and as widely as possible.
Android VPN Apps
The best way to secure Chromebook web traffic is to use an Android VPN app on your Chromebook. Running a smartphone app on a laptop may seem simple, but more and more Chromebooks support Android apps, giving you the full fruits of the Google Play Store. Simply download the VPN app of your choice, log in and launch it. Easily, Android VPN apps appear as connection options in the network settings menu on your Chromebook.
There is a lot of confusion about whether or not Android VPN apps actually secure all web traffic on your Chromebook or just the traffic of other Android apps. However, Google assured me that Android VPN apps actually secure everything on your Chromebook. This is great news, as it is the easiest way to set up a VPN on your Chromebook.
Many of the VPN companies I’ve spoken to for this article are under the impression that this is not always the case. This only adds to the confusion surrounding Chromebooks and Android apps on Chromebooks. It seems that at some point, Android VPN apps may not have secured all Chrome OS web traffic, and people may not realize that they are doing so now.
Adding to this confusion is the fact that not all Chromebooks can or will ever run Android apps. There is a growing list of Chrome OS devices that will support the Google Play Store, but if your device isn’t there, you won’t be out of luck. If yours is being In the menu, you will need to be running the latest version of Chrome OS and activate the Google Play Store from the Chrome OS settings menu. Just open the Settings app, search for Google Play, and launch it. However, if you are using a corporate Google account, you may not be able to activate Google Play without approval from your system administrator.
While Android VPN app mode is the best option, manual configuration is the second best option — and it might be your only option, if your Chromebook doesn’t support Android apps. Doing so requires a bit of legal work, much of which will be handled by the VPN app if you’re using macOS or Windows. It’s the equivalent of setting up a VPN manually on Windows, if you’ve tried it before.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the issue with manually configuring your Chromebook. It turns out that many VPN services simply won’t work with Chrome OS. And those that require you to use a less secure connection method, as I’ll explain.
You have two options to manually set up a VPN connection on your Chromebook: OpenVPN and L2TP/IPSec. Both are VPN protocols, and they are two different styles for establishing a VPN connection. OpenVPN is my preferred protocol. Since it is open source, it has been selected for any potential security vulnerabilities. Additionally, it has a good reputation for being fast and reliable.
Unfortunately, you probably won’t be able to successfully establish an OpenVPN connection on your Chromebook. When manually configuring my OpenVPN connection, I found that my connection would expire, or Chrome OS would simply not accept my credentials. A representative from TorGuard suggested that Chrome OS requires OpenVPN to work with compression disabled, which is not an option with VPN services. In the case of TorGuard, I was finally able to connect successfully via OpenVPN, but it required a lot more configuration than most people might expect.
What about L2TP/IPSec? This protocol dates back nearly two decades, and several VPN companies have told me that they do not consider it secure. In fact, I found several pages of documentation from different VPN services that warn against using this protocol, even as they provide instructions on how to configure your Chromebook to use it. When I asked TorGuard about it, a representative said the company already plans to phase out its use. This is in line with most other VPN companies, many of which only include L2TP and PPTP for legacy support. These protocols work, but I don’t recommend using them unless you absolutely must.
For a step-by-step guide to the procedure, see the “Manually Configure a Chromebook VPN” section below.
Chrome OS VPN Apps
Another option to get your Chromebook online with a VPN is with Chrome OS apps. Chrome apps used to live alongside Chrome extensions and could be accessed anywhere the Chrome browser lived, but they were discontinued in 2016 due to a lack of interest. Most of the Chrome apps you come across today are actually progressive web apps, but Chrome OS still supports custom apps even if they are dead on other platforms.
The bottom line is that you’ve downloaded an app that configures your Chromebook to connect through a VPN. As with the manual option, you can turn the VPN on and off from Chrome OS’ built-in network menu, not from the app. The app is simply there to set things up for you, just as you set up your VPN connection using the VPN app on Windows or macOS.
The catch is that most consumer VPN companies do not provide Chrome OS apps. Instead, it’s enterprise-grade software solutions like Cisco AnyConnect and PulseSecure. If you have a Chromebook at work, or ever need to connect to a work network on your Chromebook, this is probably what you used.
TorGuard offers quite a few servers that work with the Cisco AnyConnect environment mentioned above. Simply download the free Cisco AnyConnect Chrome OS app, enter your TorGuard AnyConnect server name into the app, and you’re ready to go online. Click your user icon in the lower right corner, select Configure AnyConnect, and enter your credentials in the windows that appear.
Note that AnyConnect servers are at the bottom of the TorGuard server list, all ending in “anyconnect.host”. For example, I used la.usa.anyconnect.host to create a local connection. AnyConnect’s limited number of servers means you’ll have fewer options for location spoofing, and you’ll likely experience lower speeds when using a VPN connection. This is because your bandwidth will be shared with everyone else on these few servers.
Will your VPN work on a Chromebook?
If you decide not to use the Android VPN app on your Chromebook, you may be wondering if you can manually configure your Chromebook to work with the VPN of your choice. Fear not, dear reader, for I have already made my way before you and I am here to share with you the fruits of my labor.
There are many VPNs that may work on Chrome OS; I checked Chrome compatibility with 10 of my favourites. For each, I searched for documentation on how the company recommends Chromebook owners to go online. Then I tried to connect to the Internet using that information.
NordVPN provides instructions and warnings about using L2TP. I was able to use these to access the internet successfully. Notably, NordVPN has an excellent tool on its website for finding a server that meets your needs. NordVPN also offers a Chrome extension and an Android app.
Private Internet Access is particularly focused on security, and using L2TP on a Chromebook requires you to create a private username and password. Fortunately, the company provides a guide on this process, which I was able to use to get online. Private Internet Access also provides an Android app and Chrome extension.
I could not find the information needed to connect TunnelBear via L2TP. Specifically, I could not find the URLs of the VPN servers to complete the manual configuration. The company representative said that despite its limitations, they are recommending that Chromebook users install TunnelBear’s Chrome extension instead. The company also offers an Android app.
Unsurprisingly, privacy-focused CyberGhost provides comprehensive documentation on how to use L2TP to get your Chromebook online. However, I couldn’t get it to work. A CyberGhost representative told me that the issue is under investigation, and recommends users to look for its Android app or Chrome browser extension.
I was able to get my Chromebook online using server information I found on the IPVanish user pages, but the company doesn’t provide specific documentation for Chrome OS users. This is frustrating. However, the company provides an Android app and Chrome extension.
KeepSolid VPN Unlimited has a handy build tool that you will need to connect to the internet using L2TP, which I was able to do after following the company’s documentation. As with any VPN, if you are already at device limit, you may have to remove an existing device. With VPN Unlimited, you can only switch one device license per week, so think ahead and make sure you have available slots before setting up…