Does VPN Slow Down Internet? Can it Also Improve it?

Romj Amon
Romj Amon

Updated · Sep 02, 2022

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You’ve probably heard all about VPNs at this point. They’re useful for connecting to the internet anonymously and securely. This way, prying eyes won’t be able to monitor your online activity.

But does VPN slow down internet?

The answer is a bit complicated, but I’m here to present it in an easy-to-digest way.

How Browsing With VPNs Works?

Without a VPN, your device will send requests directly to web servers.

The problem is that the web server host will know your IP and the region where you’re browsing from. In addition, your internet service provider (ISP) will be able to see which sites you visit.

If you value privacy, you can head straight to the Surfshark VPN download page and start surfing anonymously. 

In order to understand how a  VPN may affect internet speed, you need to know how it guards your data:

  1. The VPN client encrypts your outgoing traffic on the device.
  2. The encrypted data goes to the VPN server where it gets decrypted.
  3. The decrypted data gets routed to the web server.
  4. The web server sends its response to the VPN server.
  5. The VPN server encrypts the incoming traffic before transmitting it to your device.
  6. The VPN client decrypts it upon arrival so that you can understand the data.

The data that travels between the client and server passes through encrypted tunnels. They encapsulate requests so that snoopers like your ISP and hackers are blind to your activity.

If you connect to an obfuscated server, your ISP won’t notice that you’re using a VPN at all. In jurisdictions that penalize it, flying under the radar will let you use the internet in peace.

VPN vendors aren’t supposed to log any data that may be traced back to you. However, some sneakily do.

Unscrupulous VPN service providers may be keeping a record of your activity to see your data to the highest bidder. Or they may be in bed with censors of repressive governments to spy on you.

Does VPN Slow Down Internet?

Yes, it generally does. But it can also improve your online experience when visiting certain sites.

Let me expound further.

One of the lesser-known benefits of VPN usage is internet throttling prevention.

If you notice that some sites don’t load as fast as others, your ISP may be intentionally slowing them down.

Sending your traffic to a VPN server will hide your browsing activity, helping you escape your ISP’s prying eyes.

Unfortunately, using a VPN service will almost certainly lead to connection speed drops. Whether the decline in internet speed is noticeable or not would depend on a variety of factors.

Factors Affecting Internet Speed When Using a VPN

Slow VPN connections can be the result of a combination of many things.

Let’s go over the ones that you have to keep in mind:

Normal Internet Speed

A VPN won’t increase the maximum internet speed your ISP permits. If your internet was slow to begin with, using a VPN might render it unusable.

Network Setup

If your internet speed drops after connecting to VPN, you’re probably connected to Wi-Fi.

No matter how you slice it, wired connections are always faster than wireless ones. Unlike Wi-Fi, ethernet isn’t subject to signal transmission issues due to interference and poor positioning.

Encryption

The stronger the encryption, the more loaded the data stream becomes.

Encryption overhead, the extra data added to your request, negatively affects your throughput or bandwidth. Through an encrypted tunnel, you can only transfer less data per second.

Apart from strength, the number of encryption layers matters too. That’s why double VPN is synonymous with drastic internet speed drops.

Processing Power

VPN usage can be resource-intensive. And less powerful electronic devices may struggle to encrypt data on the fly.

If your computer, smartphone, or tablet has technical limitations, you may have to contend with incredibly slow VPN connections.

Tunneling Protocol

Protocols can be the reason why VPN usage results in slow download speed.

Some VPN protocols are inherently faster than others. However, a fast protocol may sacrifice security.

A good case in point is Point to Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP). It uses an outdated way of encrypting data, making it susceptible to cyber attacks.

Despite this, some of the VPN services we’ve reviewed here on TechJury still support PPTP. So, beware.

Routing Efficiency

VPN service providers route encrypted data to their hardware differently.

If your vendor has multiple geographically close servers, your connection speed may still suffer because of an inefficient routing algorithm.

Server Location

Inevitably, VPN usage increases latency since the traffic makes a detour instead of going straight to the destination web server.

The farther your chosen VPN server is from your location, the higher the ping times will be. Also, expect greater latency when the destination web server is far from the VPN one.

Moreover, the more ground your traffic has to cover to reach its destination, the higher the chances of packet loss. Having to resend any lost data could cause your VPN to slow your connection.

Aside from distance, the peering arrangements between owners of the internet's interconnected networks can drive up latency.

Such agreements define which types of data should take priority when they have to travel over several networks.

Server Load

Typically, VPN users connected to a server evenly share its bandwidth capacity.

Therefore, overcrowding has a direct impact on the hardware's speed. No wonder why VPN servers in popular locations are usually overburdened.

How to Speed Up a Slow VPN Connection?

More often than not, a VPN will drive down your normal internet speed. But this doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it.

Actually, there are plenty of things you can do to minimize connection speed drops. The tried-and-true ones are as follows:

Upgrade Your Internet Service

First and foremost, get the best internet service your money can buy. Make your internet so fast that losing 90% of its speed due to VPN usage wouldn’t be a huge deal.

In developing regions where outdated internet infrastructure is still the norm, look for better technologies to adopt.

Many ISPs don’t charge extra to overhaul your system. So, take advantage of this to speed up your normal internet speed without paying extra.

Determine the Suitable Wi-Fi Band

When you can’t use ethernet to go online, at least connect to the right Wi-Fi band. This way, you can maximize the speed your ISP provides you.

By and large, routers use 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies when transmitting Wi-Fi connections. The former is slower but has a wider range. Whereas the latter is much faster but is restricted to a narrow coverage area. 

If your VPN slows your download speed, you may be able to switch between the two bands.

Problem is, older devices may not detect the 5 GHz frequency. If yours aren’t set to pick it up, you may have to get a newer computer, smartphone, or tablet.

Get a More Powerful Device

Speaking of devices, you would want to use electronics with adequate specs to handle on-the-fly data encryption.

When it comes to mobile devices, it can be difficult to determine their processors by just looking at their settings.

To know what’s powering the phone in your pocket, you may have to dig up this information on the internet. Or you can download a third-party app or ask a sales rep from a cell phone store.

If you don’t want to go through the trouble, getting any recently launched device may do.

Don't Go Overboard With Encryption

Strong encryption is among the primary reasons why a VPN makes internet speed slow.

The best VPN service providers scramble data using Advanced Standard Encryption (AES) with a key length of 256 bits.

AES-256 is the standard because it’s currently impossible to crack. Its number of possible combinations is 78 digits long, so no machine can guess it by brute force.

However, the trade-off is that AES-256 eats up more bandwidth. So if you have the option to choose a more lightweight alternative, strongly consider it.

For instance, the count of possible combinations of AES-128 is only 39 digits long. So, it can move the needle in VPN connection speed.

Pick a Fast Secure Tunneling Protocol

The fastest protocols for creating secure VPN tunnels are OpenVPN and WireGuard.

OpenVPN has a long track record of security and supports different types of encryption, especially AES. But implementation issues tend to hamper its speed.

With OpenVPN, you can normally choose between Transmission Control Protocol and User Datagram Protocol. The former is more stable, but the latter is faster because it does less data verification.

WireGuard, on the other hand, is fairly new. That’s why many vendors haven’t adopted it yet. But it has proven to keep VPN services from slowing down internet speed too much.

Unlike more established protocols, it’s less prone to misconfigurations. And WireGuard uses few lines of code, so it renders implementation a breeze.

In contrast to OpenVPN, WireGuard doesn’t use AES. Rather, it relies on ChaCha20 for encryption.

Think About Server Distribution

A good rule of thumb for reducing latency when using a VPN service is to connect to the nearest server.

However, users outside of North America or Europe typically have to settle with servers housed oceans away from them. Usually, these regions have the highest concentrations of VPN servers.

The Asia Pacific hosts a few VPN fleets. And the most common locations are Australian, Singaporean, and Indian cities.

So if you’re in the Middle East, Africa, or Latin America, you may have fewer options to minimize ping times.

So, will a VPN surely slow down internet speed if you’re in a place most vendors ignore?

No, it won’t.

The key is choosing a company that distributes its global server network well. If you look hard enough, you’ll find VPN service providers that have a footprint across all continents.

Be Mindful of VPN Network Size

A higher server count can reduce the chances of overcrowding. That’s why it’s not uncommon for VPN service providers to keep a great amount of hardware in sought-after locations

Ideally, there should be a healthy balance between server distribution and network size to ensure minimal VPN connection speed drops.

Not all vendors have the means to pull it off, so do your homework before committing to one.

Connect to the Least Crowded Server

Be aware of the ebb and flow of VPN server usage. VPN vendors market themselves to a global audience, so their users are in diverse time zones.

Naturally, this makes it hard to determine how much bandwidth each user can have at a given time. Even your favorite locations aren’t going to transmit your data fast at all times.

Fortunately, many VPN vendors have a service status page that shows which servers are overloaded.

So, if you’re thinking - why is my VPN so slow?

That page can show you which servers are running low in resources for all connected users at a given time.

Split Your Traffic

With split tunneling, you can select which traffic to encrypt.

If you don’t need to use a VPN service on all of your apps, this feature will come in handy. It allows you to connect to the internet as normal when using certain programs.

The bad news is that not all VPNs support split tunneling. If this is a must-have capability for you, make sure that your prospective service has it. 

Choose Premium Over Free

The temptation to use freeware can be strong. After all, not everyone has a budget for another subscription just to use the internet incognito.

However, using a premium VPN service has plenty of merits. One of them is super fast hardware.

Building a fleet of powerful VPN servers isn’t cheap. In most cases, the VPN vendors that can afford to invest in top-of-the-line infrastructure have the largest subscriber bases.

These companies may charge top dollar for their advanced VPN servers, but they generally can deliver.

How to Test VPN Connection Speed

To test how much a VPN slows download speed, here’s what you ought to do:

Use Reliable Speed-Testing Tools

Web-based speed testers are left and right, but only a few have had a reputation for being accurate.

Some of the most trusted ones are SpeedOf.Me and Speedtest by Ookla. Many VPN vendors have developed their own speed-testing tools too.

As far as browsers are concerned, Firefox and Chrome should be at the top of your list. For best results, minimize the number of tabs open.

However, browser-based internet speed testing may not speak volumes if you intend to use a VPN for torrenting.

For this use case, rely on a torrent client instead. The changes in transfer speed will indicate how much your VPN usage slows down your connection.

The accuracy of this testing method depends on how well seeded the torrent is. So, download the file shared by as many users as possible.

Establish the Baseline

Logic dictates that you should test your regular internet speed first before measuring how fast your VPN connection.

It’s the only way to quantify how your VPN makes your internet slow before and after encrypting your traffic.

Pay Attention to Units of Measurement

Speed-testing tools can display internet speeds in megabytes and megabits. Confusing one for the other can ruin your tests altogether.

To avoid comparing apples to oranges, use just one unit of measurement for all results. If necessary, make the necessary conversion.

Run Multiple Tests on Frequently Used Server

To accurately determine your internet speed before and after connecting to a VPN, use more than one tool.

Results become more credible when they come from various independent sources.

Wrap Up

VPNs can be internet speed boosters, but that’s not their primary purpose.

So, does VPN slow down internet?

A resounding yes!

So, is it worth it?

Only you can decide for yourself.

But what I can say for certain is this:

If you apply the tips from this guide, you’ll be able to maximize a VPN’s advantages and minimize its disadvantages.

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Romj Amon

Romj Amon

Romj is a veteran copywriter who used to be a Jack of all trades. Now, he's trying to be a master of one: technology. He jumps down the rabbit hole to size the latest innovations up. As a content contributor for TechJury, he hopes to help you keep up in our fast-paced world with his discoveries.

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