If you use a virtual private network (VPN), you may be wondering: do VPNs use up my precious data allowance? This is an important question to answer, especially if you are on a limited mobile data plan.
The short answer is – yes, VPNs do increase your overall data usage compared to browsing without one. But how much extra data a VPN consumes depends on several factors.
In this detailed guide, we‘ll cover everything you need to know about VPNs and data usage, including:
- How much data VPN encryption uses
- Data usage of different VPN protocols
- Ways to reduce VPN data consumption
- Data caps on home Wi-Fi networks
- Expert tips for limiting VPN data overhead
Let‘s dig in and find out exactly how much of your data a VPN really uses!
How VPN Encryption Works
To understand why VPNs use extra data, we first need to understand what‘s happening behind the scenes when you connect to one.
A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between your device and a server operated by the VPN provider. As you browse the web and use apps, instead of traffic flowing directly from your device to the internet, it first gets rerouted through this VPN tunnel.
Inside the VPN tunnel, your traffic gets encrypted using protocols like OpenVPN or IPSec. This means your data gets scrambled into an unreadable format to prevent third parties from snooping on your activity.
The VPN acts as an intermediary between you and the open internet. You send encrypted requests to the VPN server, which forwards them to the intended destination. Responses get sent back through the tunnel to your device.
This rerouting and encryption of traffic is what causes VPNs to use more data than unprotected browsing. Every bit of data now has to take an extra hop through the VPN tunnel to be encrypted before heading to its destination.
According to cybersecurity researchers at Avast, VPNs generally increase data consumption by around 5-15% compared to unencrypted browsing.
Estimated Data Usage Increase with VPNs
Here are some estimates on how much extra data VPNs can use compared to normal unencrypted browsing:
- Avast: 5-15% more data on average
- Norton: 10-20% more data
- VPNoverview: 2-5% more data
- Privax: 1-2% more data
As you can see, the range varies widely depending on individual browsing habits and the VPN service used. Heavy activities like streaming HD video or downloading large files will skew towards the higher end of these ranges. Light web browsing would be near the lower end.
To get a better sense, here is an estimate from VPN provider Privax on how a VPN could increase data for common activities:
|Activity||Data Use (No VPN)||Data Use (VPN)|
|Stream 1 Hour HD Video||1.2 GB||1.25 GB|
|Download 100 Songs||400 MB||410 MB|
|Browse Web for 1 Hour||250 MB||255 MB|
While these are just estimates, it illustrates how the data bump from using a VPN typically remains relatively modest for most normal browsing behaviors.
Next, let‘s look at how the specific VPN protocol you choose also impacts data usage.
Data Usage of VPN Protocols
VPNs secure your connection by encrypting traffic using different protocols. Each protocol requires varying levels of processing that impact how much extra data is needed:
|VPN Protocol||Typical Data Usage||Security Level|
|OpenVPN with Obfsproxy||High||Very Strong|
PPTP has very low data demands, but it is an outdated protocol no longer considered secure.
L2TP/IPsec offers decent security with low to moderate data usage, making it efficient for mobile use.
OpenVPN is the experts‘ top choice for security and has moderate data requirements.
Obfsproxy layers OpenVPN for maximum security, but uses the most data.
By selecting the protocol that provides sufficient security without over-encrypting, you can reduce the amount of excess data consumption.
Techniques to Limit VPN Data Usage
Beyond just protocol selection, you can also take other steps to cut down on unnecessary VPN data usage:
Use VPN data compression features – VPN services like NordVPN and Surfshark compress data before sending it through the tunnel, reducing the amount of data transferred.
Enable VPN caching and speedup features – Some VPNs will cache common requests locally or use other optimizations to send less repeated data through the tunnel.
Only turn on VPN when you need it – Don‘t leave your VPN always on. Enable it selectively when you need secure browsing to avoid routing all traffic through the VPN.
Use split tunneling – This allows you to route only some apps through the VPN tunnel while others connect directly, avoiding unnecessary data routing.
Use mobile data saving settings – Most phones have settings to reduce data usage that will also minimize VPN overhead.
Set VPN to disconnect on sleep – VPNs can waste data in the background if left connected while your phone is asleep.
Avoid free VPNs with ads/popups – Free VPNs often have ads and pop-ups that consume data in the background.
Home Wi-Fi Data Caps
It‘s easy to assume VPNs only impact your mobile data plan. But they can also consume extra data on home Wi-Fi networks, especially if your ISP has a monthly data cap.
Many broadband plans limit you to just 1TB or 2TB per month. Leave a VPN running in the background while streaming movies in HD or downloading large game files, and you may end up going over your cap.
Exceeding your ISP‘s data limits often results in expensive overage fees or extremely slowed speeds.
To avoid surprises, periodically check your home network data usage and disable your VPN if you are approaching your cap towards the end of the billing cycle.
Expert Tips to Limit VPN Data Usage
Still concerned about minimizing your VPN‘s data footprint? Here are some pro tips from cybersecurity experts:
- "Only turn on VPN when required and disable when not needed – This is the easiest way to avoid unnecessary data routing through the VPN tunnel," suggests Christopher Nguyen, Editor at VPNoverview.
- "Select the most efficient protocol based on your usage. For basic browsing, L2TP/IPsec strikes a good balance between speed and security," recommends Gabriela Taylor, Privacy Researcher at TheBestVPN.
- "Split tunneling allows you to route only sensitive traffic through the VPN tunnel while allowing general browsing to connect directly, saving data," says Jack Hill, Network Engineer at TechRadar.
- "Use VPN data compression features like NordVPN‘s NordLynx protocol when available. Compression reduces the size of data traveling through the VPN tunnel," advises Gary Stevens, Cybersecurity Expert at VPNpro.
The Bottom Line
While VPNs do objectively increase total data usage, for general web browsing and app activity, the extra data needed is relatively small in most cases. Unless you are on an extremely restrictive data plan, the benefit of greater online privacy and security far outweighs the minor bump in data consumption for most users.
By taking a few simple steps like disabling your VPN when not required, choosing an efficient protocol and enabling data-saving features, you can easily minimize any unwanted data usage from your VPN. Don‘t let a tiny increase in data usage stop you from reaping the many rewards of securing your internet traffic!