Why does a VPN slow down your internet connection?

Sometimes, after downloading a VPN, users experience a marginal decrease in internet speed. This is quite normal – but why does it happen?

This guide will let you in on why VPNs slow down the internet, and which providers to check out if you want to mitigate this potential loss. 

 

Why do VPNs slow down the internet?

To understand why VPNs slow down your internet, we first need to get to grips with what happens when you connect to a VPN. VPNs are used to create more private browsing experiences via the masking of IP addresses. In order to do this, VPN providers funnel all user traffic through an encrypted tunnel to a private server before it reaches the internet. The path your traffic takes is shown in the diagram below: 

A diagram of how a VPN works

The advantages of VPNs are endless. But in order to provide these, the one downside of a virtual private network is that they send the data and requests from your device on a longer physical route before it gets to the internet. This is plain to see when you connect to a server in a completely different part of the world – even though most things are instantaneous nowadays, it's still a much, much longer distance. These extra steps mean it's inevitable it takes more time. 

Other reasons include the fact that VPNs use extremely robust encryption standards (most providers these days use AES-256, which the US government and military use to secure classified data) which, because of the simple fact encryption takes time, is another reason you might experience a slight loss of speed.

Similarly, congested VPN servers can lead to sluggish speeds. If there's a massive basketball game in the US and everyone wants to connect to a US server to try to watch it, the servers will struggle to accommodate good connections for everyone. This issue is unlikely to affect a premium provider like ExpressVPN or Surfshark with their state-of-the-art server infrastructure, however, but is something that might happen if you use a free VPN

What does it mean to say a VPN service is 'fast'?

You might be wondering why so many VPN companies – and sites like ProPrivacy – refer to VPNs are 'fast' or 'quick' when, as we covered above, they can't help but slow your connection down a little bit. 

The reason is simple. The best VPN providers have such slickly run networks that use the most up-to-date servers, creating a network that has a negligible, insignificant impact on your speed. When you're judging or comparing VPN speeds, it's all about how minimal the impact on the speeds you'd be experiencing if there was no VPN in the picture. 

Can a VPN speed up my connection?

There is perhaps one situation where a VPN could actually improve the speed of your connection. If your internet service provider is currently throttling your bandwidth (a practice that, surprisingly, is called 'bandwidth throttling) then switching to a VPN could be a good shout. 

Bandwidth throttling is when an internet service provider decides to purposefully slow down their network to minimize congestion. It's a reactive measure usually deployed at individuals using a lot of bandwidth or a specific type of traffic that a number of devices on the network are creating. 

With a VPN, however, your ISP can't see what kind of traffic you're creating, because it's all encrypted. This means they can't throttle your bandwidth because, essentially, they don't know what you're using it for. 

Choosing a speedy VPN

We run daily VPN speed tests on a list of top VPN providers so we can provide our readers with up-to-date information on who's the fastest. This way, you can choose a VPN that will have the least impact on speeds. 

Place Provider Average Speed Max Speed Visit Site
1. 64.05 Mbit/s 77.21 Mbit/s Visit Site
2. 53.58 Mbit/s 52.82 Mbit/s Visit Site
3. 53.09 Mbit/s 78.35 Mbit/s Visit Site
4. 49.40 Mbit/s 74.08 Mbit/s Visit Site
5. 37.03 Mbit/s 59.23 Mbit/s Visit Site

Admittedly, the order of these providers does change (we test them three times a day after all) but the same ones – NordVPN, ExpressVPN, Ivacy, Surfshark etc – are almost always near the top. Check out our fastest VPN page for more information and a full list of other the fastest services. 

Configuring your VPN settings for optimal speed

If you already have a VPN and you're feeling like it's way to slow to be worth the trouble, don't make any drastic decisions just yet. You should definitely have a mess around with your VPN's configuration settings first, as this might solve your problem. 

First things first, try connecting to a different server to the one you're experiencing slow speeds on. That'll let you know if it really is your connection or if you happen to have a problem with that specific server. 

If you're using the OpenVPN protocol, switching TCP to UDP protocol could secure you faster speeds. It's not a guaranteed solution, but it's worth a shot!

What's the difference between TCP and UDP?

In short, TCP confirms the integrity of every data packet – meaning that it's best for downloading/torrenting and general web-surfing, whereas UDP doesn't confirm the integrity, and so is generally faster and more suited to online gaming, streaming movies, etc. See our TCP vs UDP guide for more information.

 

Opting for a Smart DNS service

As we've already discussed, VPNs slow your connection down because they're encrypting your traffic and sending it on a longer route through to the internet.

However, if privacy isn't your main concern and you just want to unblock Netflix libraries or something similar, then a Smart DNS service might be a better option. Smart DNS services essentially spoof your location in the same way VPNs do but don't encrypt any of your traffic. They're thus quicker but less private. 

Signing up to a reliable Smart DNS service will cost you roughly the same as a VPN subscription, and nowadays most VPN services actually come with a Smart DNS built-in, so you can just use that instead.  See our best VPNs with Smart DNS page for a list of services and more information about the topic.

How do I speed up my internet connection?

If you're dead set on getting a VPN but you're a bit worried about your internet connection speed, then there may be some other things you can to do help make it a little bit faster. These include:

  • Repositioning your router in your house 
  • Rebooting or restarting your router 
  • Removing unnecessary files and programs from your device
  • Clearing your browsing history and cache 
  • Downloading the most recent computer update 
  • Installing an ad-blocker to stop media, gifs, and ads from loading 
  • Disconnecting any devices you're not currently using
  • Changing your internet service provider 
  • Scanning for and removing any malware or adware on your device

Check out our how to speed up a VPN page for more tips and tricks.

Written by: Aaron Drapkin

After graduating with a philosophy degree from the University of Bristol in 2018, Aaron became a researcher at news digest magazine The Week following a year as editor of satirical website The Whip. Freelancing alongside these roles, his work has appeared in publications such as Vice, Metro, Tablet and New Internationalist, as well as The Week's online edition.

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