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How to set up and use OpenVPN Connect for secure online activities

Verified by Amy Reeves

With the ever-growing reliance on digital networks, secure connections have become a necessity rather than a luxury. OpenVPN Connect is a viable software solution providing users with reliable and private access to the internet, data breach prevention and an exceptionally simple and easy-to-use interface. However, you need to have access to a virtual private network (VPN) server to be able to use it. 

In this article, we’ll explore the primary features and benefits of OpenVPN Connect. We’ll also guide you through the entire process of implementing this solution, including downloading, configuring and using it and troubleshooting common issues.

What is OpenVPN?

OpenVPN is a versatile, open-source technology that serves as a secure VPN protocol and a software solution. As a VPN protocol, it outlines procedures to establish secure, encrypted connections over the internet. It allows users to build their own VPN server and customise security settings according to their preferences.

Benefits of OpenVPN

Powerful encryption

OpenVPN employs AES-256, which is 256-bit symmetric advanced standard encryption, and Blowfish, a 128-bit symmetrical cypher, which ensures top-level data security and prevents data breaches. This means the data is encrypted and decrypted using the same key, resulting in fast and secure transmission. Moreover, users can integrate additional encryption cyphers if they require a higher level of security. 

Authentication mechanisms

OpenVPN uses Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) for key exchange, which creates a secure channel over the internet. This system confirms the identity of the parties communicating and blocks unauthorised access.

Scalability

OpenVPN’s scalability makes it ideal for single workstations or large enterprise networks. Its design can adapt and cover as many devices as users require.

Device compatibility

OpenVPN supports multiple platforms, including Windows, Linux, macOS, Android and iOS. This broad compatibility ensures a secure browsing experience across a range of devices.

Firewall navigation

OpenVPN’s ability to navigate network address translation (NAT) gateways and firewalls ensures secure and uninterrupted connections even when using network security devices, such as firewalls or routers. 

Protocol flexibility

OpenVPN allows users to switch between User Datagram Protocol (UDP) for speed and Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) when security is paramount.

OpenVPN Connect download and installation

Step 1: Visit the official OpenVPN site to download OpenVPN Connect for Windows 7, 8, 10 and 11. If you’re a macOS user, go to OpenVPN Connect for macOS.

Step 2: Click on the “Download OpenVPN Connect v3” button to initiate the download process. 

Step 3: Launch the installer. After the download is complete, locate the downloaded file on your computer and click on the icon to initiate the installation process.

Step 4: Proceed with the Installation. The installer will prompt you to click “Next” to proceed. Confirm by clicking the “Next” button.

Step 5: Accept the EULA. You’ll be prompted to agree to the “End-User Licence Agreement.” After reading it, tick the “I accept the terms in the Licence Agreement” box and click the “Next” button to proceed.

Step 6: Click “Finish” to close the installer.

OpenVPN server configuration

Having successfully installed OpenVPN Connect, the next step is to load an .OVPN profile. This file is required for server configuration and can be downloaded from your VPN provider. Note that most high-quality VPN services offer detailed set-up tutorials that include steps on retrieving these files, so it should be easy to locate the provider’s resources. 

In our case, we’ll be working with what we deem to be one of the best VPNs, NordVPN. Let’s begin by downloading the NordVPN server configuration files. Head over to the NordVPN website and sign in with your credentials. Navigate to the servers section and find the recommended server for the best possible experience. 

Step 1: Click “Show available protocols” under the suggested server to see the different protocol options.

Step 2: Click on the “Download config” link next to OpenVPN TCP or OpenVPN UDP, based on your preference. This will download the .OVPN file for that specific server. You should be able to see the file as an .OVPN.

How to use OpenVPN Connect

Step 1: Launch OpenVPN. In the application, look for an option to import a new profile and drag and drop the .OVPN file that you just downloaded.

Subsequently, you’ll be presented with a few key fields: 

  • Profile Name (editable)
  • Server Hostname (locked)
  • Username (editable)

Step 2: Click on the “CONNECT” button to establish a connection.

A prompt will appear, asking you to input your VPN credentials.

Should you need to verify your credentials, navigate to your VPN provider’s dashboard or user settings page. This is typically found on its website after you log in. Here, you’ll be able to view, verify or even change your account details.

You can retrieve your NordVPN service credentials (service username and service password) via the Nord Account dashboard. To do this, you’ll need to click “Set up NordVPN manually.”

Step 3: A verification code will be sent to the email address associated with your NordVPN services. Make sure to input this code in the provided field.

Step 4: Once verified, you’ll see your service credentials. Use the copy icon buttons on each credential’s right side to conveniently copy these details.

Step 5: Now, head back to the OpenVPN application. Paste the copied NordVPN service username and password into the respective fields and proceed to connect. The application should establish a connection to the NordVPN server within a few seconds.

And with that, your OpenVPN Connect is fully set up and you can enjoy a secure and private browsing experience.

Troubleshooting common OpenVPN issues

As with implementing any technology, users can face difficulties during the OpenVPN Connect set-up or usage phases. To help address potential challenges, we’ll offer key insights into some of the most common issues, along with practical solutions to resolve them.

  • Access issues: If you’re struggling to reach the web interface or the VPN tunnel, ensure your network settings align with OpenVPN’s requirements. Verify that you’ve correctly configured firewall settings and your routing protocols
  • Authentication problems: These can emerge from lost credentials, accounts tied to defunct external authentication systems or account denial and lockouts. In most cases, these can be resolved by resetting the local administrator account using root user access. If facing an “Incorrect Credentials” error, carefully re-check the entered username and password
  • Server crashes: Reboot the server if it crashes or stops responding to input. Verify that you can connect to VPN and web services after the reboot
  • Loss of access: If you’ve lost Secure Shell Protocol (SSH) access or server credentials, try resetting them. Cloud providers may have procedures for this, or you can perform a root password reset on Linux systems (specific steps provided). Contact provider support if you’re unable to access the console
  • Software licensing issues: Make sure your licence key matches the OpenVPN Access Server version you’re using. Invalid or expired keys can lead to software malfunction
  • Client VPN tunnel connectivity: Ensure the client’s configuration aligns with the server’s configurations, particularly for security protocols and VPN tunnel settings
  • Domain Name System (DNS) resolution problems: Check if your DNS settings are properly configured and synced with your network infrastructure. If problems persist, consider using different DNS servers
  • SSL web certificates: If your certificates are lost or corrupt, recover them from the configuration management database and then re-install them correctly
  • Database and logging: If you encounter issues with SQLite3 files or need extensive debugging, ensure your logging settings are correctly configured and that you have a robust data recovery strategy in place

To better understand these issues, you might consider exploring some basic networking fundamentals, consulting the dedicated support resources available or submitting a ticket to technical support.

Best practices for OpenVPN usage

Ensuring security while maximising the performance of your OpenVPN Connect set-up and usage should always be a priority. Here are some vital best practices that promote a highly secure and efficient VPN environment.

Regular software and configurations updates

Regularly update both your OpenVPN software and configurations to capitalise on the latest security patches and performance improvements. Neglecting updates can leave your system vulnerable to newly identified security threats and may cause functionality issues.

Strong credentials for secure authentication

Employ a strong username and password policy. Passwords should be complex, combining letters, numbers and special characters. This makes it difficult for unauthorised users to guess or hack your credentials. Furthermore, consider enabling multi-factor authentication (MFA). Regularly updating passwords and implementing MFA adds an extra layer of security that substantially improves account safety.

External authentication systems

Consider integrating an external authentication system, such as Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) or Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service (RADIUS), as it provides an additional level of security. These systems often have built-in security features that further protect your network, which is particularly useful in large organisations where managing a vast number of users can be challenging.

Robust certificate management

Managing your SSL/TLS certificates effectively is a cornerstone of VPN security. Ensure certificates are current, and meticulously revoke those associated with unused or compromised devices. This prevents potential unauthorised access, significantly enhancing the security of your VPN network.

Restricted user access by minimising user permissions

Grant users only the minimum necessary access rights. Limiting the reach of each user within the system significantly reduces the potential damage that can be caused by a compromised account.

Network segmentation 

Implement network segmentation to confine traffic to its necessary limits. This helps prevent lateral movement of potential threats and ensures optimal performance by reducing unnecessary network congestion. 

Logging and monitoring 

Enable logging to track user activities and network events. Regular log reviews can help identify any abnormal patterns or potential security threats early, allowing for prompt action and threat mitigation.

Following these best practices helps ensure a secure, high-performing VPN environment, reducing potential threats and enhancing user experience.

Final takeaways

OpenVPN Connect offers an effective solution for ensuring online privacy and security. Its robust security features, including strong encryption and versatile authentication mechanisms, make it a choice worth considering for individuals and businesses alike. Setting up and configuring OpenVPN correctly is essential for its proper operation and a seamless experience. 

The installation and use of OpenVPN Connect might involve common hitches, such as authentication, connectivity and server problems, which can be resolved using the troubleshooting tips discussed above. Moreover, the performance and security of OpenVPN can be maximised by following best practices, including using strong passwords, managing certificates, implementing network segmentation and keeping the software up to date. 

To take full benefit from implementing OpenVPN Connect, you should customise and refine these practices based on your specific needs. Staying informed and proactive will ensure you get the most out of OpenVPN Connect, promoting secure and efficient online operations.

Frequently asked questions

OpenVPN is a versatile open-source technology that serves two primary purposes. First, it’s a robust VPN protocol that establishes guidelines and protocols required to create secure, encrypted internet connections. 

Second, it refers to OpenVPN Connect: a software application that enables users to construct their own VPN server and modify security configurations as per their specific requirements.

Yes, OpenVPN Connect is secure. It employs a strong security model with SSL/TLS for session authentication and Internet Protocol Security (IPSec) Encapsulating Security Payload (ESP) for secure tunnel transport. It also integrates with OpenSSL for advanced cryptographic capabilities.

Troubleshooting OpenVPN Connect errors involves addressing common issues such as network access, authentication problems, server crashes, lost access, licensing issues, VPN tunnel connectivity, DNS resolution, SSL certificate issues and database and logging troubles. Solutions range from resetting credentials and rebooting servers to verifying configurations and consulting dedicated support resources. 

For a more detailed answer, please refer to the troubleshooting section above. If problems persist, contact technical support.

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Mariana is an experienced technology writer specialising in web and internet technology. She writes about cyber security, including VPN; web development; and software engineering. She has been writing since 2006 and held a position of English lecturer at Technical University of Varna in Bulgaria until 2022, working in a variety of educational fields.

For the Independent Advisor, Mariana writes about the usefulness of VPNs and how people can protect themselves and their data online.

Amy Reeves

Editor

Amy is a seasoned writer and editor with a special interest in home design, sustainable technology and green building methods.

She has interviewed hundreds of self-builders, extenders and renovators about their journeys towards individual, well-considered homes, as well as architects and industry experts during her five years working as Assistant Editor at Homebuilding & Renovating, part of Future plc.

Amy’s work covers topics ranging from home, interior and garden design to DIY step-by-steps, planning permission and build costs, and has been published in Period Living, Real Homes, and 25 Beautiful Homes, Homes and Gardens.

Now an Editor at the Independent Advisor, Amy manages homes-related content for the site, including solar panels, combi boilers, and windows.

Her passion for saving tired and inefficient homes also extends to her own life; Amy completed a renovation of a mid-century house in 2022 and is about to embark on an energy-efficient overhaul of a 1800s cottage in Somerset.