Internet users with a limited data plan have a difficult time managing their online activities, especially when throwing a VPN service into the mix. In this article, we are analyzing how VPNs influence data usage, finding out if such tools can be used to bypass data capping and bandwidth throttling, then showing you simple tricks for optimizing VPN data usage.
Here are today’s topics, sorted in an orderly fashion (click to jump):
- How VPN affects data usage
- How to optimize data usage when using VPN
- In conclusion
How VPN affects data usage
Whether we like it or not, virtual private network tools are directly tied to data usage. There are certainly differences between staying connected to the public Internet and creating a link through VPN. Let us find out what those are.
Differences between VPN and non-VPN traffic
When you establish an online connection to visit a website, for example, your router sends an HTTP request using a message. A message consists of multiple data packets, which travel separately so that each packet has a better shot of finding a faster route to the destination.
Each packet is individually wrapped in a TCP or UDP packet. But all packets must get past the ISP before reaching the public web. The protocol is essential because it creates the rules that Internet-enabled devices must follow to communicate with each other. TCP ensures that all data packets reach their last stop to recreate the original message. UDP does not make this guarantee, making it speedier but less reliable.
A VPN service is different because it puts each data packet into a second packet that is encrypted. The protected packets are relayed to the VPN server and then decrypted after reaching their destination. Only the VPN provider can see what you do on the web, but not if they adopt a no-logs policy.
Is VPN traffic still deducted from your data quota?
The ISP that supplies you with your Internet connection does not have any control over the VPN service. However, when you set up an online connection via the VPN, your data must go through the ISP server before it can reach the VPN server.
When it comes to the data packets, the Internet service provider cannot see the source and destination IP address, nor the message. But they can tell that you are using a VPN as well as get details about the amount of traffic.
Let us assume that you have a mobile data plan limited to 10Gb each month. You intend to use half of that for VPN traffic and the other half for non-VPN traffic (ordinary connections). At the end of the month, you would have still used up the entire 10Gb data: it does not matter whether or not you used VPN.
Does a VPN use more data than average?
VPN traffic is not only deducted from your data quota, but it also uses more bandwidth than usual. It is because VPN services transfer protected data packets. Encrypted messages take up more space than unencrypted content (encryption overhead).
If you have ever used a file encryption tool to create secret messages to send to your friends, you may have noticed that the size of the encrypted file is larger than its decrypted counterpart. The same principle applies to VPN.
However, the difference is rather small, between 5% and 15%, depending on the VPN protocol and encryption mode used by the VPN client. The stronger the protocol you use, the more data will be used up, the slower the connection will be.
Which VPN protocols should you use?
A wide range of VPN services supports multiple VPN protocols so that you can choose the one that best fits your needs. The default protocol set by the VPN provider is typically optimized for most types of online activities. Nevertheless, you might want to switch to another protocol that favors less data usage:
Here is a list of common protocols and encryption methods, sorted by least to most used data:
PPTP – 128-bit MMPE – Least data usage, the worst security
IPSec (with L2TP) – 128-bit AES
IPSec (with IKEv2) – 128-bit AES
OpenVPN – 128-bit AES – Optimal data usage, great security
Obfuscated OpenVPN – 128-bit AES
IPSec (with L2TP) – 256-bit AES
IPSec (with IKEv2) – 256-bit AES
OpenVPN – 256-bit AES
SSTP – SSL 3.0 + 256-bit AES
Obfuscated OpenVPN – 256-bit AES – Most data usage, best security
In some cases, you might not be able to pick the level of encryption but only the protocol itself. Also, VPN services do not usually display the encryption methods within the graphical interface, so you must look up this info on their website or contact customer support to request assistance. In general, VPN providers dropped weaker protocols and encryption modes in favor of better security, even if it means increasing data usage.
What about using PPTP for least data usage?
If you come across PPTP within a VPN service, you might be tempted to use it since it delivers the lowest data usage (around the lower end of the 5-10% difference we mentioned). But that does not mean you should. Although it has not been yet discontinued by all companies specializing in VPN, PPTP is now widely regarded as obsolete due to its high-security risks.
It is not ideal for downloading illegal torrents because you risk exposing your real IP address in the torrent swarm. It is also not a good fit for Netflix because PPTP servers can be easily detected and blocked.
So, which protocol should you use?
Although it is on the higher end of the data usage spectrum, the OpenVPN protocol is the best choice you have to benefit from both speed and security. However, you should not go for Obfuscated OpenVPN either (best for security, worst for data usage) unless you live in a country like China, where you absolutely must hide the fact that you are using VPN.
Many VPN providers set OpenVPN via UDP as default. UDP is faster than TCP but less reliable because it does not check to make sure that all data packets have reached their destination. It means that OpenVPN via UDP uses less data than OpenVPN via TCP.
But there is a cost: firewalls have a better shot at blocking UDP connections. Thus, if you are experiencing issues with OpenVPN – UDP connections, you should switch to OpenVPN – TCP.
Can a VPN bypass data capping and throttling?
No for capping, but yes for throttling (sometimes).
Allow us to elaborate.
ISPs can choose between two models for limiting data usage: hard or soft caps. A hard cap means that your data is capped and that you cannot exceed it or must pay a fee to exceed it. A soft cap means that you can benefit from an unlimited data plan, but your bandwidth might be throttled once you go beyond a certain point.
Data capping is a limit set by the ISP to the amount of data that you can use. It is usually set on a monthly basis. Both home and mobile users may experience data capping. Some VPN providers practice capping, too, limiting bandwidth in their free editions, such as Speedify, TunnelBear, and Windscribe.
Whatever you do on the web does not matter for data capping. All that counts is the amount of data usage. And we have already established that VPN traffic flows through the ISP servers before getting to the VPN server, which means it adds to the counter. As soon as you hit the threshold, game over.
Bandwidth throttling occurs when the ISP intentionally slows down your Internet speed. It can do this without discrimination. For instance, some ISPs operating within college campuses slow down connections regardless of the online activities employed by students. But it is more common to throttle the bandwidth by filtering activities by type like torrenting and streaming, which use a significant amount of bandwidth.
If the ISP throttles your bandwidth no matter what you do online, then a VPN will not help (it is the exact situation as with data capping). But you have a shot at enjoying regular connection speed by using a VPN to mask the activities that generally trigger bandwidth throttling, like torrenting and streaming. ISPs will still see a massive amount of data usage, but not what it is used for.
If you have a limited data usage plan, you should not worry about bandwidth throttling since it often applies to unlimited plans only. The bad news is that a VPN cannot help you get around data caps. On the contrary, you will use up your data faster when connected via VPN due to encryption overhead.
How to optimize data usage when using VPN
There are various ways to reduce data usage when connected through a virtual private network application. Here are our suggestions:
Turn off the VPN connection when not in use
It may sound as redundant as fixing your computer by turning it off and on again. Nonetheless, a lot of Internet users forget to disable their VPN connection when it is not absolutely necessary. The 5-10% difference we talked about earlier might not seem to have a significant impact on data usage. However, Internet-enabled applications work in the background all the time.
An example is web browsers because they always download and update their files. If you are using Windows, check the status of your current connection to see what we are talking about. Make sure you have no active programs and observe the amount of sent and received bytes. The counter is always running. Thus, there is no use in hitting the data usage threshold even faster with the encryption overhead of VPN.
Filter applications by VPN traffic
To follow up on the previous topic, you can disable VPN traffic for programs that do not require data encryption. For instance, if you want to use a VPN only to browse securely, you can route a web browser through VPN using a browser extension or split tunneling. Any other Internet-enabled apps, like your torrent client, will remain connected through non-VPN traffic.
A temporary solution is to kill processes that use the Internet and piggyback on the VPN. Just fire up the task manager and terminate unused processes (web browsers use a lot of these). You might also consider disabling software tools that run at system startup automatically (e.g., the Stream client bootstrapper, Java update scheduler, Skype).
Connect to public Wi-Fi whenever possible
It is the sort of advice that seems too obvious to mention: to reduce data usage on your mobile plan, connect to free hotspots whenever this is possible. Most devices are smart enough to detect and connect to Wi-Fi as soon as a signal is detected. But you can go beyond that with a VPN.
CyberGhost VPN has a valuable feature related to Wi-Fi protection. You can instruct it to always connect, disconnect from VPN, never protect, or prompt for action as soon as you connect to a new hotspot. Rules can be created separately for open and encrypted Wi-Fi, as well as for any known Wi-Fi networks (that you have already connected to).
Pick the nearest VPN server
Most VPN services recommend a particular server to connect to. It is not the same for all VPN users but changes depending on your location. If you live in the United States, for instance, you might see a US server recommendation. And if the tool has servers in multiple states, it will suggest the nearest state to your location.
Data travels faster when it does not have to go through many checkpoints to reach your VPN server. It is the same principle as connecting to a closer Wi-Fi hotspot: the signal is stronger, and the connection is faster. There is a lower risk of packet loss, so the VPN sends fewer data packets, which means minimal data usage.
Be mindful about the VPN protocols
We have already covered this topic. Just because you see the PPTP protocol option, it does not mean that you should pick it to lower your data usage. We suggest opting for OpenVPN with UDP whenever this is possible. In fact, it is the default settings of many VPN services.
And if you are experiencing issues, you can switch to OpenVPN with TCP. But do not obfuscate OpenVPN traffic unless you must circumvent government censorship. Obfuscation techniques slow down your Internet speed considerably and add to the encryption overhead.
Use custom DNS servers
DNS servers are used to associate domain names with IP addresses. For example, if you enter “google.com” in your browser, the DNS server looks up the domain name in its database, finds a match for the 22.214.171.124 IP address, and redirects you to the Google homepage. There are multiple DNS servers, and your ISP assigns your default one. But it may not be appropriately optimized.
If the DNS server takes too long to load a page, it might be a sign that it makes too many requests. Multiple packets must be sent, which negatively affects your data usage plan. Therefore, you should optimize the DNS servers. A lot of VPN providers have private DNS or let you specify custom DNS. If the first option is not possible, you can go with public DNS servers known for improved speed and reduced latency, such as Google Public DNS, OpenDNS and Cloudflare.
Configure VPN settings to reduce data usage
It is not a foolproof plan, and we cannot give you precise indications. Every VPN service is unique, which also applies to any settings related to data compression it may have. Feel free to explore the set of options supplied by the VPN provider, and do not hesitate to contact customer support and ask for clarifications.
ExpressVPN has an option that optimizes Windows networking to maximize VPN speed. Plus, it comes with a tool for ranking VPN servers by speed. CyberGhost VPN has a data compression setting that compresses images and other elements to reduce Internet usage.
Avoid shady free VPN services
It can be challenging to set apart decent free VPN services from shady products. Nevertheless, some signs stand out. For example, if you received an email out of the blue to try out a “new, totally free, and super fast” VPN service, you should raise your eyebrows right away.
Companies that promise free VPNs are making money in other ways, like showing you ads during runtime or trying to sell you third-party products. A malicious VPN client could use your connection to spam other illegal activity. Without even realizing it, you will run out of data in no time.
Virtual private network utilities have an impact on data usage plans because of encryption overhead. The stronger the VPN protocol and encryption method, the weaker speed and more data will be used. Also, VPN services cannot sidestep data caps. Nevertheless, there are simple steps you can take to optimize data usage when using VPN.
We would love to hear your tips and tricks for reducing VPN data usage, so please do not hesitate to drop us a line in the comment section below.