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How to set up a remote access VPN: A step-by-step guide for remote workers

Verified by Nick Jones Editor-in-Chief

As the trend towards remote work continues to gain momentum, remote access virtual private networks (VPNs) are rapidly becoming a crucial tool for employees needing to access company resources outside the office securely. To help you better understand the importance of VPNs in today’s work environment, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide covering everything you need to know about remote access VPNs.

In this guide, we’ll provide a detailed overview of VPNs, including their components and purpose. We’ll also explore their critical role in maintaining cybersecurity for remote workers and offer practical advice on implementing a VPN for your organisation. By the end of this guide, you’ll have a comprehensive understanding of how VPNs work, why they’re important and how to use them effectively in remote work scenarios.

What is a remote access VPN?

A remote access VPN is a technology that establishes an encrypted tunnel from a remote location to a private network. Its primary purpose is to provide employees with secure access to their organisation’s resources while working outside the office. In general, a remote access VPN can serve anyone needing a safeguarded connection to a private network from a remote location or public space.

A remote access VPN comprises two key components: the network access server (NAS) and VPN client software (often called an app). The NAS enables users to connect to the remote VPN and could be a separate server or software installed on a shared server. It only provides users with access to the network if they enter valid credentials authenticated by NAS or a dedicated authentication server incorporated in the network.

To connect to the remote access VPN, users must also have a VPN app set up on their device. This client software is needed to establish and maintain the encrypted tunnel to the NAS. Note that although current operating systems come with built-in remote access VPN connectivity, some providers require a proprietary application to operate.

A remote access VPN uses strong encryption protocols, such as Advanced Encryption Standard 256-bit  (AES-256) encryption, to keep data transmitted between the user and the private network private and secure. It creates a virtual tunnel between the user’s device and the private network.

Encryption makes the data unreadable to anyone who tries to intercept it without authorisation. This ensures a secure remote connection that is safeguarded against potential cybercriminals or unauthorised users.

Benefits of a VPN for remote workers

Remote work scenarios and using a VPN

Remote work is a hot trend that benefits employees and employers alike. A staggering 87 per cent of workers report increased productivity when working partly remotely. Almost two-thirds of employees worldwide report their organisations provide work flexibility. However, this global shift to hybrid and remote work increases the risk of cybercrime, such as unauthorised access to sensitive data or passwords.

A VPN can protect remote workers by encrypting connections and providing secure access to company networks. Whether you’re a freelancer, virtual assistant or employee, using a top-rated VPN service, such as NordVPN or ExpressVPN can ensure your work remains confidential and secure, thus promoting productivity.

Enhanced security and data privacy

When remote workers use a VPN, their data is encrypted and securely transmitted through a virtual tunnel, protecting it from potential cyberthreats. Even if a remote worker’s device connects to public wifi, a VPN shields their online activity, preventing unauthorised access and data breaches.

Secure access to company resources

A VPN provides secure access to company resources. Employees often need to access sensitive data and applications on the company’s private network. A VPN enables this access seamlessly and securely as if the employee were physically present at the office.

You can use tools such as Secure Shell, Virtual Network Computing and the widely used Remote Desktop Protocol with a VPN to create a secure tunnel for remote access. This allows you to connect to your work computer as long as it’s powered on and your company’s policy permits VPN access. This can boost productivity and efficiency without compromising security.

Bypass geo-restrictions

Remote work often means working from different locations – sometimes even from different countries. In such scenarios, workers might encounter geo-restrictions preventing access to specific resources, websites or services. A VPN can bypass these geographical limitations by masking the user’s location, providing the freedom to work unhindered from anywhere.

Protection against public wifi vulnerabilities

Public wifi networks, while convenient, are often fraught with security risks, such as wifi sniffing software and deceptive networks recording your online activities. However, using a VPN can safeguard you from these threats.

Whether you’re working from a café or using the free wifi at a mall, a VPN encrypts your data, protecting your login credentials and sensitive information from potential eavesdroppers. So, whether it’s free or paid wifi, you should always connect through a VPN to ensure your data is secure.

Implementing remote access VPNs

Implementing a remote access VPN requires a few essential components:

  • A router that supports VPN connections, typically a business-class router
  • A device, such as a computer or a smartphone, to connect to the router, equipped with the necessary VPN client software
  • An internet connection for connecting your device to the router and subsequently to the VPN server
  • A VPN server provided by your employer or set up using specific software such as OpenVPN or SoftEther VPN

Select the right VPN

Choosing the right VPN should be based on several factors, including scalability, robust security features and compatibility. We recommend the following VPNs:

  • NordLayer by NordVPN: known for robust business VPN services with secure access to multiple sites and cloud platforms
  • ExpressVPN: recognised for its speed and extensive VPN locations worldwide
  • Surfshark: appreciated for its multitude of servers and reliable encryption

Configure and deploy the VPN

The setup process includes the following steps:

  • Install the VPN client software provided by your chosen VPN service on your device. This software will establish a secure connection between your device and the VPN server
  • Upon successful installation, open the VPN client and connect to the VPN server. This usually involves entering the server address, your assigned username and password and any other required settings
  • Once connected, you can access resources on your organisation’s network as if physically connected. This includes shared files, printers and other internal resources

When you finish your work, disconnect from the VPN server and close your VPN client. Doing so ensures your connection stays secure and your device isn’t linked to the organisation’s network when unnecessary

Best practices for remote access with a VPN

Several best practices can ensure a safe, secure and efficient experience when using VPNs for remote access. Implementing these tips can protect your data, increase productivity and reduce the risk of cyberattacks.

Keep your software up to date

Using outdated VPN software can expose your system to unnecessary risks. Developers often release updates to patch security vulnerabilities or introduce new features. So, make sure to install updates as soon as they become available.

Use strong authentication

Two-factor or multi-factor authentication adds more security to VPN access. Users must verify their identity through two or more methods to access the system. This could be a combination of something you know (password), something you have (hardware token or phone) or something you are (fingerprint). This method significantly reduces the risk of unauthorised access to your data.

Avoid public wifi

It’s risky to use public wifi networks because they’re not secure and can expose your data to hackers. If you must use public wifi, ensure you connect to your VPN before accessing sensitive information or performing critical operations.

Educate remote workers on VPN usage and security practices

Knowledge is one of the best defences against cybersecurity threats. Educate your remote workforce about the following:

  • The importance of using a VPN
  • How it works
  • Best practices
  • How to recognise and avoid common cybersecurity threats such as phishing attacks

In addition, a well-defined remote work policy can assist in ensuring compliance and keeping everyone informed.

Secure your device

Use strong, unique passwords, install a reliable security suite and keep your operating system and all applications updated. Remember, a VPN protects your internet connection but can’t defend against threats already on your device.

Remote access VPN FAQs

Yes, you can – in fact, using a remote access VPN on a public wifi network is highly recommended. A VPN provides a layer of encryption that shields your internet activity from potential threats.

Although not all remote jobs require a VPN, it is strongly advised to use one for tasks that involve sensitive data or accessing company resources.

SmartDNS, zero-trust network access (ZTNA) and proxy servers are viable alternatives to remote access VPNs. However, each of these options has its drawbacks. For instance, SmartDNS provides faster connection speeds and bypasses geo-restrictions, but doesn’t offer data encryption or Internet Protocol (IP) masking, making it less suitable for privacy-focused users. While ZTNA focuses on security and privacy by providing brokered access to data within a network and operating on a zero-trust principle, it can be costly and complicated to set up. Proxy servers act as intermediaries between the user and the internet, obscuring the user’s IP address at an application level but without encrypting data.

Summary

As remote work trends continue to rise, implementing VPNs and adhering to best practices are becoming increasingly important. Remote access VPNs play a crucial role in protecting a company’s digital assets and enhancing the privacy of remote workers. These tools provide secure access to company resources, bypass geo-restrictions and offer a vital protective layer when using public wifi networks.

To fully benefit from the remote access VPN technology, regularly update software and VPN passwords, adopt robust authentication protocols and use a VPN on all work devices. Strike a balance between speed and security without compromising your work efficiency. When remote workers follow the best practices discussed, remote access VPNs significantly improve productivity and effectiveness.

Round up of today’s best VPN deals
NordVPN 2 year £2.49 /Month
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Surfshark 24 month £1.79 /Month
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ExpressVPN 12 month £6.77 /Month
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CyberGhost 2 year £1.78 /Month
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Proton 2 year £4.27 /Month
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PIA 2 year £1.57 /Month
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Atlas 2 year £1.34 /Month
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PrivadoVPN 2 year £1.99 /Month
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Windscribe 12 month £4.53 /Month
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IPVanish 2 year £3.58 /Month
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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.

Nick Jones

Editor in Chief

Nick Jones is a highly experienced consumer journalist and editor, who has been writing and producing content for print and online media for over 25 years.

He has worked at some of the UK’s leading publishers including Future Publishing, Highbury Entertainment, and Imagine Publishing, with publications as diverse as Homebuilding & Renovating, TechRadar, and Creative Bloq, writing and editing content for audiences whose interests include history, computing, gaming, films, and science. He’s also produced a number of podcasts in the technology, science, gaming, and true crime genres.

Nick has also enjoyed a highly successful career in content marketing, working in a variety of topics such as health, technology, and finance, with market-leading global companies including Cisco, Pfizer, Santander, and Virgin Media.

Now the Editor-in-Chief of the Independent Advisor, Nick is involved in all aspects of the site’s content, where his expertise in finance, technology, and home products informs every article that’s published on-site. He takes a hands-on approach with our VPN content, penning a number of the articles himself, and verifying that everything we publish in this topic is accurate.

Whatever the area of interest he’s worked in, Nick has always been a consumer champion, helping people find the best deals and give them the information they need to make an informed buying decision.