Why does a VPN slow your internet down and what you can do about it?

Contrary to some bogus information and erroneous statements I’ve seen floating around in various corners of the internet (including from VPN providers themselves), a VPN will not ordinarily speed up your internet connection. In reality, a VPN will slow your connection somewhat. It’s an unavoidable side-effect of using a VPN and it’s due to the nature of how VPNs work. I’m here to let you know why that is and to give you a few of my top tips on how to maximize your VPN speeds and get the most out of your VPN connection. 

Why do VPNs slow your internet down?

Well, there are several factors at play here that contribute to your VPN slowing down your connection. 

First of all, a VPN will need to encrypt and decrypt the data you’re sending and receiving through the VPN tunnel. This is a resource-heavy process, and it takes time. The general rule is that the stronger the encryption you’re using is, the longer the process will take, and consequently, the more it will slow your VPN connection.  

Another major contributing factor to the speed of your connection through the VPN tunnel is the physical distance between you and the server you’re connecting to. Sending your connection to a server located halfway across the world can take time, simply because your data has such a long distance to travel – to the server and back to your device. The further away the server you’re connecting to is, the farther your data has to travel, which will have a corresponding effect on your VPN connection speeds.

In other words, connecting to closer servers will generally result in faster VPN speeds than connecting to servers farther away from your physical location.

The number of users connecting to a single VPN server at once (referred to as ‘server load’) will also have a hand in how fast your VPN connection is. A single server cannot handle an unlimited amount of users, so if too many users are connected to a particular VPN server, that overcrowded server is going to struggle to perform and provide optimal speeds. 

The one instance where a VPN can help speed up your connection

If your ISP is throttling your connection, then a VPN may indeed help you speed up your internet connection. It’s not exceedingly likely that your ISP will start throttling your connection, but if your ISP detects whatever activity you’re engaged in is using up tons of bandwidth and negatively affecting other internet users’ connections as a result, then yeah, your connection may get throttled. ISPs will sometimes do this to manage network congestion and ensure all users are getting adequate performance out of their internet connections. 

But when you use a VPN, all of your internet activity is encrypted and your ISP won’t be able to determine what you’re up to. And because your ISP can’t see what you’re doing, it won’t be able to throttle your connection. In short, with a VPN, you can bypass any ISP throttling efforts and speed up your connection that way. In all other instances, however, you’ll generally see a slight slowdown in your connection speeds when you use a VPN.     

What can I do to speed up my internet connection while using a VPN?

Even though your VPN will tend to slow your connection a bit, there are a few things you can try to boost your speeds when connected to a VPN. Here are my top tips on how to speed up your connection and get the most out of your VPN speeds.

Connect to a server closer to your physical location whenever practical

As I mentioned earlier, the closer you are physically to the VPN server you’re connecting through, the faster the speeds you can expect out of your VPN. This is because the data has less of a distance to travel and can complete the round-trip in a shorter amount of time. It’s as simple as that. Of course, if you’re somewhere in Europe and you want to access US Netflix, then you’ll need to connect to a server located across the ocean.

Even in this case, you’d do better to connect to a US-based server somewhere on the East Coast for the best Netflix streaming speeds from Europe. So, in certain instances, it’s not always necessarily practical to connect to a server in your own country or a neighboring country. If your main concern is protecting your online privacy, however, you’d want to connect to a VPN server that is located as close to your physical location as possible. 

Try switching the port and protocol

Most of the top VPNs out there will offer you the option to select which network protocols and ports you use to connect through. If your VPN provider supports OpenVPN, then you’ll be able to switch between the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the User Datagram Protocol (UDP). While TCP tends to be more stable and reliable, UDP tends to provide better speeds because – unlike with TCP – it doesn’t need to send your data packets in order or re-send any packets that get lost (which is a process that can take some time and, therefore, slow your connection).

So, if you want faster speeds for streaming or gaming, for instance, I’d recommend using UDP. Other VPN protocols like WireGuard and IKEv2 only support UDP anyway, so obviously changing your network protocol wouldn’t apply in cases where you’re using one of those VPN protocols. You can also test out different ports to see if you can boost your speeds a little bit. Just ask your VPN provider how to do so in its client software. The top VPNs are easy to use, so switching your port or protocol shouldn’t be a daunting process, even for VPN beginners.    

Try a different encryption protocol if available

The VPN protocol I generally recommend and the one I tend to use most of the time is OpenVPN. Why? Because not only is it super-secure, but it can also provide excellent speeds for VPN users. But if you’re after speeds that are even more excellent, then you can try switching to a VPN protocol like IKEv2 or WireGuard, which offer high levels of security paired with fast speeds. The only thing is that although these newer protocols appear to be totally secure, they’re still not quite as battle-tested in the wild as OpenVPN is. They are promising nonetheless and should offer VPN users superb speeds and security, so give them a shot to boost your speeds if they’re supported by your VPN provider.  

Try a wired connection

If you’ve got several different devices connected to the same Wi-Fi network at once, it could result in your connection getting noticeably sluggish. In this case, you can always try switching to a wired connection to see if that improves your speeds. 

Close unused applications

If you’ve got tons of apps running on your computer in the background using up all kinds of resources, then that could very well be what’s holding your computer back from performing optimally. Try closing any apps that you’re not using and you’ll likely see a boost in your VPN connection speeds.

Restart your router/computer

If your computer and/or router have been running nonstop for days, weeks, months on end, then they may need a little rest and refresh. Try shutting your router and computer down completely, waiting a minute, then restarting them. This could help free up some resources, helping to boost your computer’s performance, and thus your VPN speeds. A little R&R never hurts from time to time, even for your tech devices.  

Have you tried turning it off and on again?

Try on a different device

If you’ve got other VPN-capable devices, why not give it a shot on one of those to see if another computer or mobile device performs better and yields faster VPN speeds? Especially if you have an aging device, that is not performing optimally, trying your VPN on a different, newer device could help you achieve faster VPN speeds.   

Try enabling split tunneling if available

Your VPN provider may offer a split-tunneling feature that will allow you to send only the traffic you want through the VPN tunnel while sending the rest through your regular internet connection unencrypted. This can be an effective way to boost your VPN speeds because you won’t be sending excess traffic through the VPN that may be putting an unnecessary burden on your bandwidth. Let’s say you’re streaming video or downloading torrents, for example. With your VPN provider’s split-tunneling feature enabled, you can optimize your speeds for streaming or torrenting by sending only your streaming or torrenting traffic through the VPN, and everything else through your regular connection. Essentially, this is a simple way to boost your VPN speeds for the tasks you specifically want to use your VPN for.   

Try temporarily switching off your firewall and/or antivirus software

This one’s obviously risky, but you can try to temporarily switch off your firewall or antivirus software to see if you can boost your VPN speeds. In some cases, these types of software can be responsible for slowing down your VPN connection, so you can try disabling them to determine whether that’s the case in your particular situation. Obviously, be extremely mindful of what you’re doing online when your firewall or antivirus software is disabled because your VPN connection won’t protect you against viruses and malware. 

If none of that helps, try a different VPN

If you’re still not quite where you want to be speed-wise after trying the tips I highlighted above, then you’ll need to consider switching up your VPN provider altogether. 

Some VPNs are faster than others. The fastest VPNs typically invest heavily in large networks of tier-1 servers that can handle the demands of their users and offer excellent speeds. These VPNs will have tons of servers available all over the world to ensure that no single server ever gets over-congested and that users always have access to fast, reliable servers regardless of where they’re located. Indeed, when you get yourself a fast VPN, you’ll probably hardly even notice any difference in your internet speeds. So you can unblock all the content you want and stream in full HD, you can download torrents in a flash, and you can connect to family, friends, and colleagues back home over Skype and Zoom reliably worrying about encountering connection issues. 

The two VPNs I’d personally recommend for the task, as an expat myself, are ExpressVPN and NordVPN. Both of these providers offer outstanding speeds, on top of being super-secure. 

With ExpressVPN, you’ll even have access to its brand-new proprietary Lightway VPN protocol, which promises even faster speeds while offering greater security. It’s a bit on the pricier side, but it’s totally worth it considering it’s a world-class VPN product with everything you need to stay secure and enjoy lightning-fast connection speeds.

What I like about NordVPN (besides, obviously, the excellent speeds and security offered by the provider) is its innovative user interface. When you fire up your NordVPN client, you’ll get a map of the world showing where each of the provider’s VPN servers is located. It’s a nice visual and can help you easily find servers located close to your physical location and optimize your speeds. NordVPN also offers an awesome feature called “Quick Connect” which will automatically connect you to the most optimal server at that moment. This is a feature that can help you get the most out of your NordVPN connection speeds. 

Whichever one you go with, you really can’t go wrong because they’re both first-rate providers that are so fast that you’ll barely even notice a difference in your speeds. And when you combine these providers with the tips I mentioned above, then you’ll do well to boost your speeds when connected to your VPN. 

Let me know in the comments below if you have any additional suggestions that can help your fellow expat reader!

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