Does a VPN slow down your internet?

Posted on February 2nd, 2024 by in Privacy basics.

 

Virtual private networks (VPNs) are popular because they keep what you do on the internet private, help defeat censorship, and allow you to watch your favorite streaming content securely. 

Under most circumstances, a VPN will slightly slow down your internet connection, although the chances are you’d never notice this. However, in this article, we’ll look at how you can improve your internet speeds when using a VPN. 

How VPNs work

When you run a VPN app on your laptop or phone, it connects to a VPN server run by a VPN provider (such as Proton VPN) using an encrypted connection (which is sometimes known as a “VPN tunnel”). 

This VPN server acts as an intermediary between your device and the internet. Your internet service provider (ISP) or router host (if using public WiFi) can see that you’ve connected to the IP address of the VPN server. However, it can’t see what you do on the internet after that because its “view” is blocked by the VPN server. It also can’t see the contents of your internet traffic because it’s encrypted by the VPN tunnel.

How a VPN works

In the other direction, websites and other internet resources you visit see the IP address of the VPN server, but the VPN server also blocks their “view” of your real IP address. This means all they can see is the IP address of the VPN server — not your real IP address or who your ISP is.

Your ISP and websites you visit see the IP address of the VPN server

This deceptively simple setup means that when using a VPN:

  • Your ISP can’t see what you do online.
  • And what your ISP can’t see, chances are that your government can’t see either.
  • Websites you visit can’t see your real IP address (this isn’t the only way they can identify or track you, but it is the most important one).
  • Public WiFi hosts can’t see what you do on the internet (and then sell that data to advertisers).
  • You can torrent safely.

Most commercial VPN services run VPN servers in many locations around the world. For example, Proton VPN runs servers in over 70 countries worldwide

Learn more about how VPNs work

This means that using a VPN:

  • Helps you to defeat censorship by letting you connect to a server in a location that doesn’t censor the internet.
  • Lets you stream your favorite shows, movies, and sports events when traveling away from home.

Why does a VPN slow down your internet?

As we can see, VPNs are useful tools. However, some of the core aspects of VPN design that make them so useful also have a (usually small) impact on your internet speeds.

1. Distance to the VPN server

When using a VPN, your data is routed via a VPN server as it travels between your device and the internet. This means it travels further, which takes extra time. And the further it travels, the more time it takes.

So if you live in Australia and connect to a VPN server in the UK, It’s going to take longer for your data to travel from your device in Australia → UK VPN server → website → UK VPN server → Australia than it would to travel from your device in Australia → website →  Australia. This is even more true if the website you’re looking at is hosted in Australia.

The extra distance your data must travel to the VPN server is the most important factor that slows down VPN connections.

Learn more about why distance affects internet speeds

2. Encryption

When you connect to a VPN, it encrypts the data traveling between your device and the VPN server to keep it secure. That is, it’s scrambled in such a way that only your device and the VPN server can unscramble and read it. 

Learn more about encryption

This encryption and decryption process requires your device and the VPN server to perform complex mathematical calculations, which takes time. Still, all but the most low-end modern devices (including smartphones) can perform encryption and decryption for a single connection so fast that any impact on your internet speed will be negligible. 

However, for a VPN server doing this for perhaps hundreds of connections at once, the encryption/decryption overhead can have a meaningful impact on internet speeds and contribute to the overall server load.

3. Server load

VPN servers are computers with finite resources — processing power, memory (RAM), storage capacity, and so on. As more people connect to a VPN server, they use more of these resources. This is known as server load — a measurement of how stretched a server’s resources are, which is itself a direct result of the number of people using that server.  

A VPN server with resources to spare (for example, with a low to moderate load) can handle its tasks (such as verifying accounts, connecting users to their destinations, encrypting and decrypting traffic, and more) quickly and efficiently.

But when a server is struggling to divide its resources among many users (when it has a high load), customers connected to it may experience slower connection speeds. 

4. Quality of the VPN provider

VPN services usually allow their customers to connect to VPN servers located in many locations around the world. To do this, they partner with local server centers to rent use of their servers from them.

Of course, servers with fewer resources to start with will become heavily loaded much more quickly than high-end servers with powerful processors, lots of RAM, and ample storage. 

A good VPN service will rent high-performance servers with high load capacity (that is, they can handle a great many connections before their performance is impaired). They will also rent many of these, as the server load of 1,000 customers spread across 100 servers will be much lower per server than if all customers use a single server at a location. 

Proton VPN offers over 3,000 high-performance servers in over 70 countries. Our high-speed Plus servers offer up to 10 Gbps connectivity in most locations.

Bandwidth

Another factor that affects your connection speeds is bandwidth. Your raw bandwidth is determined by the internet infrastructure available at your location and the broadband or mobile internet packet package you’ve purchased from your ISP. 

However, when using a VPN, your data is routed through a server center, which itself leases bandwidth from ISPs. Much like server load, the more people using that bandwidth, the less bandwidth is available to each person. And if the available bandwidth falls below the raw amount of bandwidth you pay your ISP for (plus the usual bandwidth losses associated with connecting over a distance), your internet connection will slow down. 

How to measure your internet speeds

To understand how much your VPN is slowing down your internet:

1. Disconnect all other devices on your local network that share the same internet connection. 

2. With the VPN disconnected, visit an internet speed testing site such as Speedtest.net by Ookla and run a test.

Internet speeds without a VPN running

3. Now connect the VPN to the VPN server nearest your location and run the test again.

Internet speeds with a VPN running

4. Compare the results. 

If you wish, you can run the test a few times to allow for the usual traffic variations on the network. You can then compare your internet speed with and without a VPN.

If you wish to stream a service that’s based a long distance from you, you can test the raw speed to that location on Spedtest.net by connecting to a test server near that location. 

How to improve your VPN speeds

While some speed loss is almost inevitable when using a VPN, there are steps you can take to minimize it.

1. Choose a nearby server

For the best VPN performance, connect to a VPN server as close to your physical location as possible (while also bearing in mind server load). If you want to use a service a long distance from you, you’ll get the best speeds by connecting to a server as close as possible to where the service is based (such as in the same country). 

Proton VPN offers a unique VPN Accelerator feature that greatly improves speed performance over large distances — it’s up to 400% faster than standard VPN connections (but never faster than your raw internet speed).

Learn more about how VPN Accelerator works

VPN Accelerator is enabled by default for everyone on a paid Proton VPN plan. 

2. Check server load and change servers as needed

Most good VPN services publish how much load each of their servers is under (that is, how many of each server’s resources are being used by other customers — see above). This allows you to choose the best server for your preferred location (the server with the lowest server load).

For example, Proton VPN clearly displays the server load for each server we run inside our apps and on our server locations web page. 

Sever load, as shown on the Proton VPN for Android app

To automatically connect to the fastest server for your location, simply click or tap the Quick Connect button. To automatically connect to the fastest server in a different country, click or tap the Connect button next to that country. 

3. Change VPN protocols

Some VPN protocols process and encrypt your connection faster than others, so changing your VPN protocol can improve your internet speeds on the VPN. For example, the WireGuard is as secure as the older and more established OpenVPN but also much faster. 

With Proton VPN, you can manually select which VPN protocol to use, or you can use our Smart Protocol feature to automatically choose the best option for your needs. 

Learn how to change VPN protocols or select Smart Protocol with Proton VPN

Proton VPN allows you to run both OpenVPN and WireGuard in either UDP or TCP modes. UDP is faster than TCP. We also offer Stealth protocol, which is based on WireGuard and is highly effective at defeating censorship. However, it’s not as fast as vanilla WireGuard (especially in UDP mode). 

Learn more about the difference between UDP and TCP

4. Use a wired connection

Wired connections are generally faster than WiFi connections. One significant factor is that wired connections, like Ethernet, typically offer more stable and consistent speeds. They are less susceptible to interference and signal loss, which can affect WiFi connections. 

WiFi speeds can be affected by distance from the router, physical obstructions, and interference from other wireless devices or networks. Additionally, wired connections often have higher bandwidth limits, allowing faster data transfer rates. Ethernet cables, for instance, can support faster speeds than many WiFi connections

5. Don’t route your connection through extra servers

Proton VPN offers Secure Core, which improves security by routing your connection through two VPN servers. 

Learn more about Secure Core

Some other VPN services offer a similar “double VPN” feature. However, since these double VPN features route your connection over additional distance and through additional VPN servers (each with its own load), doing this compounds the reasons that VPNs slow down internet connections. 

What are good internet speeds?

The following internet speeds, as recommended by popular streaming services, are useful real-world references for the speeds you’ll find useful. 

Streaming serviceSDHD4K/UHD
Netflix3Mbps5Mbps15Mbps
Amazon Prime1Mbps5Mbps25Mbps
YouTube1.1Mbps5Mbps20Mbps
Disney+5Mbps25Mbps
Apple TV+8Mbps25Mbps
Google Play Movies & TV15Mbps
BBC iPlayer1.5Mbps5Mbps24Mbps

SD = SD standard definition (720p), HD = High definition (1024), UHD = Ultra high definition (4K)

Can a VPN help with buffering issues?

A VPN usually slows down your internet, so it won’t help with buffering issues (and could make them worse). However, ISPs have been known to deliberately slow down internet traffic from streaming services. This is known as bandwidth throttling

In some cases, this is because ISPs operate rival streaming services and are discriminating against their competition. Other ISPs blame streaming services such as Netflix for unfairly “hogging” their bandwidth (while conveniently ignoring the fact that their customers pay for that bandwidth precisely so they can access services such as Netflix). 

A VPN prevents ISPs from knowing what you do online. It therefore prevents them from knowing that you’re streaming, so they can’t target your internet speeds on those grounds.

Can a VPN speed up your internet?

In general, using a VPN will slow down your internet. However, there are some specific (and limited) circumstances where using a VPN can actually speed up your internet.

If you’re being throttled

We’ve discussed how ISPs sometimes throttle their customers’ bandwidth to discriminate against streaming services (see above). Another reason they might throttle your connection is that they detected P2P (BitTorrent) traffic on your network, which is often (and in many cases erroneously) associated with copyright violations. 

A VPN prevents your ISP from knowing what you do online, preventing them from targeting your bandwidth because of it. 

Poor ISP peering arrangements

ISP peering happens when multiple ISPs mutually agree to exchange internet traffic between their networks without charging each other. ISPs usually enter such an arrangement to enable direct traffic exchange at an internet exchange point (IXP). 

Peering is usually beneficial because it can reduce the distance data has to travel, potentially leading to lower latency and better speed. It also allows ISPs to directly handle traffic bound for each other’s networks, bypassing third-party networks, which can improve efficiency and performance.

However, peering arrangements are sometimes suboptimal. When you use a VPN, your internet traffic is routed through the VPN’s servers. If the VPN provider has better peering arrangements or routes than your ISP, this can lead to improved speeds, especially for international traffic. 

It should be stressed that this situation is highly unusual (and is often overstated by some VPN services). But it can happen. 

Final thoughts

Under usual circumstances, a VPN will slow down your internet connection a little. However, this speed loss will be minimal if you connect to a nearby VPN server using a fast VPN protocol like WireGuard. In exchange for this small speed loss, you gain privacy on the internet, the ability to bypass censorship, and the ability to stream your favorite content securely.

At Proton VPN, we offer a great balance of speed and privacy. We are a Swiss, open-source, fully audited, no-logs VPN service that offers up to 10 Gbps high-speed servers in over 70 countries worldwide. And our unique VPN Accelerator technology goes a long way towards mitigating the speed losses incurred when connecting over long distances.

Starting with ProPrivacy and now Proton, Douglas has worked for many years as a technology writer. During this time, he has established himself as a thought leader specializing in online privacy. He has been quoted by the BBC News, national newspapers such as The Independent, The Telegraph, and The Daily Mail, and by international technology publications such as Ars Technica, CNET, and LinuxInsider. Douglas was invited by the EFF to help host a livestream session in support of net neutrality. At Proton, Douglas continues to explore his passion for privacy and all things VPN.

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