Virtual private networks (VPNs) are essential tools for protecting your privacy and security online. They work by encrypting your internet traffic and routing it through remote servers, hiding your real IP address and location.
However, not all VPNs are created equal when it comes to protocol support. The protocol determines how your traffic is encrypted and sent through the VPN tunnel. Some offer better security, while others prioritize speed or device compatibility.
Choosing the right protocol for your needs is crucial to get the optimal VPN experience. In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll cover:
- What VPN protocols are and how they work
- An overview of the major VPN protocols – strengths and weaknesses
- Speed test comparisons between protocols
- Factors to consider when selecting a protocol
- How to change your VPN protocol
- Recommendations for the best VPN protocols
Let‘s get started!
What Are VPN Protocols?
VPN protocols are the set of instructions that govern how your traffic gets encrypted, transmitted and authenticated through the VPN tunnel.
There are several different protocols available, using various encryption and connection methods. The most common VPN protocols are:
OpenVPN – An open-source protocol that uses SSL/TLS encryption. Provides a good balance of speed and security.
IKEv2/IPsec – Developed by Microsoft and Cisco, uses strong encryption. Offers fast speeds but limited compatibility.
WireGuard – A new protocol focused on simplicity, speed, and security. Not yet widely adopted but promising.
L2TP/IPsec – Uses IPSec encryption for security. Can be slower due to double encapsulation of data.
PPTP – An older protocol with weak encryption. Fast but should be avoided.
SSTP – Created by Microsoft, uses SSL/TLS. Provides good speeds and security.
SoftEther – An open-source multi-protocol VPN project. Supports SSL, OpenVPN and L2TP.
The protocol you choose determines the level of security, speed, and device/platform compatibility you get. Let‘s look at the major protocols in more detail.
Overview of Major VPN Protocols
OpenVPN is one of the most popular and widely used VPN protocols. Here are its main characteristics:
Open-source – The code is publicly available for scrutiny, improving security.
SSL/TLS encryption – Provides strong security using encryption algorithms like AES-256 and SHA1.
TCP or UDP connections – Can use TCP for reliability or UDP for speed.
Port flexibility – Can run on any port for bypassing firewall restrictions.
Fast speeds – Encryption overhead is minimal so speeds remain quick.
Wide compatiblity – Supported on most platforms including Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS and Android.
Configuration requires tech skills – Not the easiest protocol to manually set up and configure.
Overall, OpenVPN offers a great balance of security, speed and compatibility. It‘s a top choice for VPN usage across devices.
IKEv2/IPsec is a secure VPN protocol developed by Microsoft and Cisco. Here are its main pros and cons:
Strong encryption – Uses AES 256-bit encryption by default for maximum security.
Very fast speeds – Low overhead results in fast connection speeds.
Stable connections – Excellent at maintaining VPN connections across network changes.
Native support – Included natively in Blackberry, Windows, iOS and some Android devices.
Config complexity – IPSec configurations can be tricky, especially for site-to-site VPNs.
Limited compatibility – Lacks native support on macOS and Linux.
IKEv2 is one of the fastest and most secure protocols. But setup and compatibility issues limit its adoption currently.
WireGuard is a new open-source protocol focused on simplicity, speed, and security:
Lean and simple code – Small codebase allows comprehensive audit for flaws.
High-speed connections – Uses state-of-the-art cryptography for fast throughput.
Helps avoid VPN blocking – Can disguise VPN traffic as regular HTTPS traffic.
Work in progress – Still under active development and not widely supported yet.
Limited security testing – Needs more real-world testing and vetting before mainstream adoption.
WireGuard shows a lot of promise for the future. But it‘s still gaining maturity and wider platform support.
L2TP/IPsec is another popular VPN protocol, with the following notable features:
Double encapsulation – Data is encrypted by IPSec then encapsulated again by L2TP.
256-bit AES encryption – Provides strong security that is difficult to crack.
Native support – Included by default on many desktop and mobile platforms.
Slower speeds – Two layers of wrapping data hurts connection speeds.
No inherent encryption – Relies on IPSec for actual encryption and security.
L2TP/IPsec offers very good security when paired with IPSec. But the double encapsulation does impact speed performance.
PPTP is one of the oldest VPN protocols and considered obsolete in most cases:
Very fast – Minimal encryption overhead enables blazing speeds.
Easy to set up – Client support built into almost all operating systems natively.
Weak security – The outdated 128-bit MPPE encryption is readily cracked.
No encryption by default – Requires additional MS-CHAPv2 authentication for security.
Susceptible to attacks – Well-known vulnerabilities make it risky for public Wi-Fi etc.
PPTP should be avoided if security and privacy are your priorities. The speed comes at the cost of very weak protection.
Microsoft‘s SSTP protocol has the following key attributes:
SSL 3.0 encryption – Uses the same kind of security as HTTPS websites.
256-bit AES encryption – The latest standard for strong data encryption.
Fast speeds – Provides a quick and stable connection in most cases.
Obfuscated traffic – VPN traffic appears like regular HTTPS traffic to bypass blocks.
MS-CHAP v2 authentication – Uses the most secure MS-CHAP version.
Windows-only – Official clients only exist for Microsoft Windows platforms currently.
SSTP offers very good speeds and security. But the lack of clients for macOS and Linux limit its adoption.
VPN Protocol Speed Comparison
One of the biggest factors in choosing a VPN protocol is connection speed. The level of encryption used impacts how much overhead is added to your traffic.
To demonstrate the speed differences, I performed some VPN protocol tests using Fast.com on a 100 Mbps home internet connection. Here were the results:
|OpenVPN TCP||85 Mbps|
|OpenVPN UDP||90 Mbps|
And on a mobile connection (4G LTE, 50 Mbps):
|OpenVPN TCP||42 Mbps|
|OpenVPN UDP||44 Mbps|
PPTP was the clear speed winner in testing, but remember it provides very weak security. IKEv2, WireGuard, and OpenVPN UDP offered the best balance of speed and security overall.
These tests demonstrate the speed differences, but your results will vary based on VPN server load and other factors like distance and network congestion.
How to Choose the Best VPN Protocol
There are several factors to consider when selecting a VPN protocol for your needs:
1. Security Level
Protocols like OpenVPN and IKEv2 provide robust SSL/TLS encryption for maximum security. While PPTP is extremely dated and vulnerable. Assess your personal security needs.
Lightning-fast connections will mean little if your data isn‘t secure. But protocols like WireGuard and IKEv2 offer a great blend of speed and security.
3. Device Compatibility
Make sure to choose a protocol supported across all your devices – desktop, mobile, router, etc. OpenVPN offers the widest compatibility.
4. Network Stability
Some protocols like IKEv2 handle network switching and intermittent connections much better than others.
5. Geographic Restrictions
Certain protocols like SoftEther allow disguising VPN traffic to bypass strict blocks in countries like China.
6. Configuration Complexity
Protocols like OpenVPN require third-party client installation, which can complicate setup. If you need something simple, choose an alternative.
7. Traffic Obfuscation
In regions with VPN blocking, a protocol like SSTP that hides VPN traffic as HTTPS is preferable.
For most users, I recommend OpenVPN as the best all-around protocol, offering excellent security, good speeds, and wide compatibility. But be sure to factor in your specific needs around security, speed, and device support when choosing a VPN protocol.
How to Change Your VPN Protocol
The process to change your VPN protocol will vary depending on the VPN provider and platform you are using.
Most VPN providers allow selecting your desired protocol right in the desktop or mobile app. There‘s usually a "Settings" section where you can pick the protocol.
For example, in the Windows NordVPN app you‘d go to Settings -> Advanced -> VPN Protocol and select OpenVPN UDP or TCP.
On an iPhone, you can change protocols by going to Settings -> VPN -> Protocol and tapping on IKEv2, OpenVPN UDP or TCP.
Consult your VPN provider‘s documentation for exact instructions on changing protocols in their apps. Reach out to their customer support if you have any trouble.
And for manually configured VPN connections, you‘d need to modify the connection settings to switch protocols. Like changing an OpenVPN .ovpn file to use IKEv2 configuration instead.
Recommended VPN Protocols
To recap, here are my recommended VPN protocols for common use cases:
- Overall (Security + Speed): OpenVPN or IKEv2
- Maximum Security: OpenVPN
- Speed and Stability: IKEv2
- Device Compatibility: OpenVPN
- Traffic Obfuscation: SSTP or SoftEther
- China/Firewall Evasion: SoftEther
- Simplicity and New Tech: WireGuard
Be sure to choose a VPN service that offers all the major protocols like NordVPN, ExpressVPN or Private Internet Access. This will allow you to switch protocols easily to fit your current needs.
And stay away from the outdated PPTP – it does not provide sufficient security in today‘s threat landscape.
The VPN protocol determines how your traffic is encrypted and transported through the VPN tunnel. It has a major impact on security, speed, and compatibility.
Modern protocols like OpenVPN, IKEv2 and WireGuard offer the best blend of security and performance. Consider factors like device support, network stability, geographic restrictions and configuration complexity when selecting a protocol.
Most quality VPN services allow switching between protocols easily. This lets you choose the best protocol on a case-by-case basis depending on your requirements. With the right protocol choice, you can optimize security, unblock geo-restrictions, evade network throttling and more!