Speed is important. There’s no denying it. And speed is one of the biggest factors you consider when choosing a VPN provider. But what makes one VPN service fast and another one slow?
In this article, I’ll walk you through the most important factors of VPN speed, as well as give you tips on how to make your current VPN service even faster.
And just in case you don’t feel like reading all 1800+ words, here are the tips first 🙂
Tips to make your VPN Faster:
- Use the closest server (to you) that works for your intended VPN use.
- Choose the least crowded server (if your VPN provides that info)
- Use PPTP protocol as long as maximum security isn’t the priority
- Use OpenVPN UDP protocol for best blend of security/speed
- Choose lower encryption strength (128-bit encryption is faster than 256-bit)
- Connecting to your router via LAN cable will be faster than wifi
- Upgrade your own connection speed (through your ISP)
Now if you’re ready to look even deeper. Read on…
What affects VPN Speed?
The upload/download speeds you get while connected to a VPN server depend on a bunch of factors. Some of these are controlled by your VPN provider (server speed, server load, routing, available locations, etc). However, your home network and connection choices also make a big impact on speed (available bandwidth, server choice, protocol, router speed, etc).
So let’s rank them in the approximate order or importance:
- The speed of your normal connection: No matter how fast the VPN service may be, it will always be limited by the speed of the connection that you’re using to access the VPN server. You can’t expect to get 50mbps speeds if you only have a 10mbps home connection.
- Server location: Nearby servers will almost always be faster than far away ones. With a 100mbps internet connection, you could easily get 95+mbps on a nearby VPN server and only 5-10mbps on a server on the other side of the world.
- Server bandwidth/crowding: How crowded a VPN server is directly affects the speed of the server. If 100 people are sharing a 1000mbps server, then as a group they can average no more than 10mbps per person. This is why more expensive VPN services are usually faster, because they can afford more server bandwidth per user.
- Encryption Strength: Encrypting a data stream actually requires adding extra data (this known as encryption overhead). This means adding encryption eats up some of your available bandwidth. So weaker encryption = faster speed.
- VPN Protocol: The choice of protocol directly affects encryption strength but it can also affect your speed separately. The UDP (OpenVPN) protocol is almost always faster than TCP (OpenVPN) because it doesn’t force the server to verify the receipt of all data packets and resend lost packets. The protocol also determines the encryption algorithm that is used, which can have a big impact on speed and latency.
- Routing: The way your data is routed the VPN server directly affects speed. Also they way your VPN provider routes your connection between multiple servers in the same physical location can have a big impact. Newer/less experienced VPN services may do this very inneficiently. On the other hand, major companies like: IPvanish, VyprVPN and Private Internet Access have extremely efficient routing algorithms.
- Your network setup: Connecting directly to your router with a LAN cable will give you way faster VPN speeds, especially if you have a 50mbps+ connection. I often see a speed boost of up to 100% by using a cable connection. The only reason I mention this last is most users prefer the freedom of a wifi, even if it means slower speeds.
We’re going to look at each of these in more detail, but let’s look at the two components of speed.
The two components of speed (Throughput vs. Latency)
When I refer to ‘Speed’ in this article, I’m generally talking about bandwidth or throughput which is the amount of data (in bits or bytes or MB, GB, etc) that can be transferred in a specific amount of time (usually per second).
So typically this will be expressed as: MBps (Mega Bytes Per Second) or Mbps (Mega Bits Per Second). These days, server speed is often measured in even larger units; typically Gbps (Giga bits per second). That’s 1000 Megabits (300 3-minute MP3 songs) every second. That’s pretty fast.
Latency is the other component of speed. Latency is the amount of time it between sending a request and receiving a response from a server you’re trying to access (like a website). A VPN will always add latency because it requires your data to be routed to the VPN server before reaching the destination webserver.
Most people won’t even notice latency because:
- It’s measured in milliseconds (1/1000th of a second)
- Your data packets will have approximately the same latency so if you’re streaming something it will all still be in sync, the stream will just reach your device a fraction of a second later that it would without the VPN.
The one area where latency really does matter is real-time gaming, such as FPS (First Person Shooters). If you’re using a VPN for gaming, always try to pick a server location as close as possible to your location or the location of the game server to minimize lag.
VPN Speed Factors: In-Depth
Here’s a more detailed look at the most important speed factors, as well as some tips to improve your own speeds.
The further your data has to travel to reach the VPN server (or to from the VPN server to your intended website/service) the slower speeds will be. Long distances created a number of issues:
- Longer distance = more lost data packets = slower speeds
- Complex peering relationships between countries/networks = slower speeds
- Limited bandwidth of international data tunnels
Lost Packets – Not every bit of data you send will reach its intended destination. Over long distances (1000’s of miles/kilometers) the chance of losing a packet goes up. Lost packets = slower speeds if they need to be resent.
Peering – The internet isn’t one network. It’s actually a series of interconnected networks owned by governments, businesses, and organizations. When data must travel over several of these networks to reach its destination, speeds/latency may decrease due to the peering arrangement (terms/priority by which data is exchanged).
International Bandwidth Limitations – Ever wonder why VPN speeds are so much slower on Australian servers? (if you’re based in the USA or Europe). Sure, it’s due partly to the long distance, but it’s also impacted by the data capacity of the underwater fiberoptic cables linking Australia to other major data networks. The cables can carry a finite (as opposed to unlimited) amount of data at once, which can drop speeds and increase latency.
Server Bandwidth/Server Load
When you connect to a VPN server, you are allocated a certain amount of bandwidth. How much depends on the server setup, and how much data you’re transferring. Some VPN services will cap bandwidth/user at a specific amount. Others will split 100% of the available bandwidth as efficiently as possible between all connected to that server.
Server Load is the amount of total server bandwidth that is currently being used. This is directly correlated to the number of users sharing the server at once.
The avg bandwidth available per user can be estimated by this formula:
Avg bandwidth = Server capacity / # of users
So if you’re connected to a server with a maximum bandwidth capacity of 1000Mbps and you’re sharing the server with 200 other people, there average allocation per user is only 5mbps.
This doesn’t mean you’re actually limited to 5mbps speeds. A VPN that uses ‘smart’ bandwidth allocation will give the most bandwidth to the users that need it most, and since not all users will be using the full 5mbps at all times, there is extra bandwidth available to share among those that need more.
The bottom line: The more bandwidth capacity available in a given server location and the fewer people connected to that server location, the faster your speeds will be.
VPN Protocol: (PPTP vs L2TP vs OpenVPN TCP or UDP)
The VPN protocol you choose has a big impact on your speeds. Most proprietary VPN software uses OpenVPN as the default protocol. This is because it offers the best blend of speed vs security.
Not all software will give you the choice of other protocols, but you can usually choose between OpenVPN UDP and OpenVPN TCP which we’ll explain below.
If you want to use one of the other protocols your VPN service offers (if not included in the software) you will have to configure the connection manually using either built-in utilities for your operating system, or by using 3rd party software like Viscosity.
Protocol choice affects speed in 2 ways:
- The efficiency of the protocol itself
- The encryption strength used
PPTP (128-bit encryption) – PPTP is a very lightweight encryption protocol. It is fast but vulnerable (Bruce Schneier estimates a targeted attack can break it within a day). As a result it’s best suited for low-security uses that need fast speeds. Unblocking American Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, or BBC iPlayer would be good examples of acceptable usage for PPTP.
L2TP/IPSEC (256-bit) – L2TP uses very strong encryption, but is generally a slower protocol. OpenVPN will almost always be faster when using the same encryption strength. As a result, most users will opt for OpenVPN instead.
OpenVPN (TCP or UDP)
OpenVPN is the most popular VPN protocol because of it’s flexibility, ease of implementation, and Open Source roots. It is also the easiest protocol to build a desktop VPN app around.
OpenVPN allows multiple encryption strengths (customizable by the VPN adminstrator) but commonly uses either 128-bit or 256-bit encryption algorithms. Some VPNs, like Private Internet Access, give the user full optional control over the encryption algorithm and strength used by their proprietary VPN software.
Most VPNs will give you the choice of TCP or UDP when using OpenVPN:
TCP – Short for Transmission Control Protocol, TCP includes error checking and confirms delivery of all packets. This means it is a more reliable protocol if the delivery of every data packet is essential. It’s also slower.
UDP – User Datagram Protocol is the FASTEST option for OpenVPN, because it doesn’t confirm the delivery of any data packets. It is well-suited for high-bandwidth VPN uses like HD video streaming, or P2P file-sharing with BitTorrent.
Bottom line: When in doubt go with UDP unless you’re having connection issues.
Wrap-up and additional resources:
As we learned, there a bunch of factors that impact the speeds you experience when connected to a VPN. Some of them are controlled directly by your VPN provider, but you also a lot of control over how fast your VPN operates.
If you’ve optimized your connection based on this guide and still aren’t getting the kind of speeds you want, you have a couple choices:
- Upgrade your internet speed – Unless you already have a 100mbps+ connection, you can probably get faster VPN speeds just by paying for faster internet service through your ISP. Yes, upgrades are expensive but until we get free unlimited internet access beamed from outer-space you’re at the mercy of your local internet provider.
- Switch to a faster VPN – Some VPN services are just plain Faster than others. Whether it’s their users/server ratio or their network, optimization, not all VPN services are equal. Fortunately we’ve tested the fastest VPNs for you already!