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Does VPN Use Data?

Does VPN Use Data?

Updated: 08-12-2021

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) encrypts data transferred from your device to the VPN server. The VPN server then fetches data from the website, encrypts the data, and sends it back to your device. Typically, that's how a VPN works.

Most people use VPNs to stay anonymous while browsing the web, but few know how much data a VPN uses. So does a VPN increase or reduce the amount of data used? Well, the answer to this is quite simple.

Given that VPNs provide an extra layer of privacy by creating a secure tunnel for all your online traffic, VPN indeed does add to your data cap. When this happens, your data still travels through the Internet Service Provider's servers before reaching the VPN server. Therefore, your ISP can still see the bandwidth you're using despite the data being encrypted.

Here is an overview of what is to come:

  • How a VPN works
  • How much data does a VPN use?
  • Does a VPN require extra data?
  • Which VPN protocols use the least data?
  • Should I use a VPN on cellular data?
  • How to reduce VPN data usage
  • Do obfuscated VPN servers useless data?
  • Can a VPN get around capped data plans?
  • Data benefits of a VPN

How a VPN Works

Have you ever searched for a certain product on the internet, and moments later, while using your favorite social media app or website, you encounter ads of the same product you searched for earlier? Come to think of it, you may wonder how the browser found out that you might need the product and began showing you relevant ads.

Well, this happens to most people who connect to the internet directly on an unencrypted network. Such individuals become vulnerable to target advertising and online tracking. When you connect to the internet without a VPN, websites, hackers, the government, and your ISP can easily track your online activities.

Here's the kind of information they can collect from your browsing activity:

  • The kind of device used to access the internet.
  • The browser used to visit various web pages on the internet.
  • The sites visited and how long you stay on a particular web page.
  • Your physical location.
  • Your private information, e.g., name, email address, credit card number, etc.

You might think that certain laws protect and advocate for your online privacy, but this is not always the case. There are various ways to avoid website tracking, such as using ad blockers and blocking cookies on your browser, but VPNs offer the most effective alternative.

VPNs mask your IP address and encrypt online traffic, making it impossible for websites, hackers, or ISPs to track what you do on the internet. In addition, when you connect to a VPN, websites will only see the IP address of the VPN server you're using. This makes it impossible for them to know your actual physical location to send you targeted ads.

Whether connected to a VPN in a corporate or home office environment, your privacy is always protected. VPNs are also essential for unblocking geo-restricted content, avoiding government censorship, and torrenting without the need to worry about ISP blocks or bandwidth throttling.

VPNs are also easy to set up; all you need to do is select a server in the country of your choice. When your device connects to the chosen server, your IP address becomes anonymous to third parties.

How Much Data Does a VPN Use?

If you connect to the internet via a mobile internet provider, all your encrypted VPN data must go through the ISP server. For this reason, they'll still be able to calculate the amount of data you're using. So let's say you have a 10GB monthly data cap on your internet plan; VPN traffic will still add to the cap as long as you're using a mobile internet provider.

If you download a large file from the internet, for example, 5GB, over a regular network connection, the data usage will be 5GB, and you'll remain with 5GB data if your monthly bandwidth is capped at 10GB. However, the case is different if you download the same file over a VPN connection.

The data usage for the same file may increase by about 100 MBs. For instance, if you were to use only 5GB in a regular connection, you'll end up consuming like 5220 MBs in total, given that 1GB represents 1024 MB of data. So now, you may use the same calculation for every single file you upload or download from the internet.

Suppose you're a heavy internet user, meaning you usually download or stream several HD or 4K movies daily. In that case, you might end up consuming more bandwidth over a VPN than on a regular connection. For this reason, you might easily reach the maximum bandwidth set by your ISP if you're on a capped data plan.

Using a free VPN is also not ideal if you're a heavy internet user because they limit the amount of data you can use on a single day. Premium VPNs offer the best features and security, but you'll need to spend more on monthly subscriptions.

Does a VPN Require Extra Data?

Yes, it does. Connecting to a VPN increases data usage by around 5% to 15%. This is because of the extra encryption layer needed to protect traffic transferred by the VPN service. Given that a VPN service scrambles data by encryption, it creates an encryption overhead.

An encryption overhead occurs when an encrypted file takes more space than an unencrypted file of the exact nature. For example, if you have 1 MB of plaintext, and you encrypt it to ciphertext, the ciphertext will be slightly larger than its corresponding plaintext because ciphertext includes the following values:

  • An Authentication tag, which helps identify the integrity of the message. Its size ranges from 16 to 64 bytes.
  • Nonce/IV, which provides encryption, ranging from 0 to 16 bytes.
  • Scheme Identifier, which supports multiple encryption algorithms and occupies a few bytes.
  • Data encryption key, which decrypts the content of the message. It occupies a few bytes and leads to encryption overhead.
  • Lastly, auxiliary data contains the protocol version and routing information and occupies a few bytes.

All in all, a ciphertext may occupy a few hundred bytes more than the plaintext, depending on the type of encryption algorithm used. But this does not mean that you choose an encryption algorithm based on the overhead size; instead, opt for an algorithm that offers the best security.

To reduce the encryption overhead, it's advisable to compress the data before encrypting it. Note that you can still compress encrypted data, but you will achieve negligible compression results due to the nature of encrypted data. Uncompressed encrypted data consumes lots of bandwidth when compared to compressed, encrypted data.

If you choose to browse the internet anonymously using a VPN, you need to be prepared to use extra data than when you're connected to a regular network. This is because a VPN won't reduce its functionalities or prevent you from using up your allocated bandwidth. In fact, it may add about 10-15% more overhead, which means you'll use more data in a short period.

If you're on a limited data plan, the best thing to do is limit the amount of data you upload or download per month. If you don't do this, you may end up paying extra bandwidth charges or being cut off from the internet by your ISP.

 

Which VPN Protocols Use the Least Data?

Various VPN protocols are in use today. These protocols contain a set of instructions that determine how data is routed in a VPN connection. They all have different specifications and functions; for this reason, it is always advisable to choose a protocol that best serves your needs.

When it comes to the size of data used, a VPN protocol with stronger encryption has more encryption overhead compared to a VPN protocol with weak encryption. If you choose a VPN protocol with stronger encryption, you'll use more bandwidth to transfer data between endpoints, affecting the overall VPN speed. A VPN protocol with lower encryption strength is faster compared to a VPN protocol that uses strong encryption.

Below is a detailed overview of VPN protocols and their data usage:

OpenVPN

This is a common VPN protocol known for its securityand works with popular platforms such as Windows, Android, and Linux. It supports various algorithms and uses both TCP and UDP protocols. The downside of OpenVPN is that it uses strong encryption ciphers that consume more bandwidth.

Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP)

Microsoft developed this VPN protocol back in the '90s. It is one of the best VPN protocols to use if you want to minimize bandwidth usage because it uses lower encryption standards. Lower encryption standards mean higher speeds, but it is less secure than the other protocols.

L2TP/IPSec

This protocol extends the PPTP protocol but uses double encapsulation to hide internet data packets within other data packets, making it impossible to detect information on the internet. It has an extra layer of security that significantly slows down its speed and consumes more bandwidth than PPTP. One advantage of this protocol is that it's already built into popular platforms and is easy to configure.

IKEv2

IKEv2 uses the IPsec tunneling protocol to handle request and response actions. It's best used in cellular devices and ensures the VPN connection remains stable even when a user switches from mobile data to Wi-Fi.

Here's a list of VPN protocols sorted by the amount of data they consume from the least to most:

  • PPTP (128-bit encryption)
  • L2TP/IPsec (128-bit encryption)
  • OpenVPN (128-bit encryption)
  • Stealth/obfuscated OpenVPN (128-bit encryption)
  • L2TP/IPsec (256-bit encryption)
  • OpenVPN (256-bit encryption)
  • Stealth/obfuscated OpenVPN (128-bit encryption)

When you compare the VPN overhead between PPTP and obfuscated OpenVPN, you may find a 10% VPN overhead difference of the total data packet size. For example, if PPTP VPN overhead is 10% of the unlimited bandwidth, then obfuscated OpenVPN is about 20%.

Should I Use VPN on Cellular Data?

Using a VPN on cellular data is not recommended because VPN traffic does count toward the data cap set by your ISP. However, if Wi-Fi is available, that's a better option than data. Only switch to mobile data when you're connected to a VPN if you can't access Wi-Fi.

 

How To Minimize VPN Data Usage

It is possible to minimize VPN data usage while you're connected to cellular data, as explained below:

 

Select a VPN Protocol That Uses the Least Data

For smartphones, the most popular VPN protocols on mobile are IKEv2 and IPsec.

IPsec has the strongest security and uses two types of encryption block sizes; 128-bit and 256-bit encryption. It is advisable to opt for the 128-bit IPsec over the 256-bit IPsec if you want to use as little data as possible.

Note that 128-bit IPsec does not offer the strongest security unless combined with other protocols.

For Personal Computers (PCs), you can opt for PPTP protocol which uses the least amount of data but isn't secure compared to protocols such as L2TP.

Avoid VPN Protocols That Use a Lot of Data

The 256-bit Stealth OpenVPN is one of the most popular and secure VPN protocols, but it uses the most data compared to the other VPN protocols. If you want to minimize cellular data usage, avoid this type of VPN protocol and opt for a VPN protocol such as PPTP that's less secure but will save you a lot of bandwidth.

 

Turn Off the VPN When Not In Use

To minimize data usage, connect to a VPN service only when necessary. An idle VPN connection will still consume your cellular data unless you switch it off. For instance, you may decide to only switch on the VPN while doing work-related tasks, online financial transactions, or when dealing with confidential files.

If you don't need to be anonymous when browsing the internet, you can opt to switch off the VPN when visiting sites, checking the news, or researching products. Or, for example, if you live in the United Kingdom and you want to watch content on the BBC iPlayer, you don't need to be connected to a VPN because the content is not restricted in your location. Instead, you can go ahead and disable the VPN and watch content on BBC iPlayer.

Disconnecting the VPN in such scenarios might save you some bandwidth and reduce your overall data usage. But this may not be the case if you want to access blocked streaming content or torrent sites. All in all, it will be helpful to know the amount of data you want to spend daily and keep tabs on your total for the month. This will help you stay within your data plan and help you avoid paying your ISP for extra bandwidth.  

Use Split Tunneling

Split tunneling is a feature that lets you route some of your internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel while the other traffic is sent to the internet unencrypted. It's a great feature if you want to access foreign networks and local networks simultaneously, but it has security risks.

Split tunneling can also save you some bandwidth compared to sending all your data through an encrypted VPN tunnel.

For instance, you may choose to encrypt BitTorrent traffic and ignore other types of traffic. This means that your online traffic will only be encrypted when you access BitTorrent, but it will be unencrypted for other websites like YouTube.

Types of Split Tunneling

URL-Based Split Tunneling involves using a VPN browser extension to choose specific URLs that you want to encrypt through the VPN. URLs not included in the VPN browser extension send unencrypted traffic over the internet.

App-based split tunneling lets youchoose apps that you want to route their traffic through the VPN. The other apps are allowed to send unencrypted traffic through your regular network

The above two types route all traffic through your regular network unless you select specific apps or URLs whose traffic should pass through the VPN. On the other hand, inverse split tunneling does the opposite and routes all traffic through the VPN unless you specify apps or URLs whose data should be sent over the open network.

Connect to the Closest VPN Server

If you connect to a VPN server close to you, your traffic travels over less distance than when connecting to a distant VPN server. Therefore, you will end up using less bandwidth, and your traffic will travel much faster.

Avoid Free VPNs

Free VPNs cannot be trusted to keep your data safe and may end up consuming more bandwidth than you initially anticipated. They often include pop-up advertisements, video ads, and banner ads that consume a lot of bandwidth.

Do Obfuscated VPN Servers Use Less Data?

Obfuscated VPN servers use special algorithms to hide the fact that a user is connected to a VPN. They make it appear as if you're browsing using regular internet traffic and assign you a regular IP address instead of the VPN-enabled IP address.

Sadly, even after hiding your IP address, obfuscated VPN servers can't reduce bandwidth usage in the eyes of your ISP. Your bandwidth usage will remain the same as using a VPN or, worse still, it may use more data than when connected to a regular VPN server. To minimize data usage, it's advisable to avoid stealth or camouflage servers.

Can a VPN Get Around Capped Data Plans?

Data caps are artificial restrictions set by your ISP on the amount of bandwidth you can use in a given period, usually a month. If you use more than your allocated bandwidth, you will most likely be charged an extra fee or experience a slower than normal connection. If your current ISP has imposed data caps, you may wonder if using a VPN service removes the data cap and enables more bandwidth usage.

Unfortunately, there's no way that a VPN can get around data caps, and even if it were possible, ISPs would still see that you're consuming more than allocated bandwidth and may even block you.

Data Benefits of a VPN

Even though you'll need slightly more data when using a VPN on a cellular network, there's one benefit of a VPN related to data usage. Given that a VPN hides your online traffic from your ISP, it prevents your ISP from knowing what you're doing on the internet. For this reason, there's no way your ISP can enforce bandwidth throttling on your connection.

Bandwidth Throttling

Bandwidth throttling is when the ISP intentionally slows down your internet connection to regulate network traffic and reduce bandwidth congestion. But with a VPN, you can stream videos online or download torrent files without worrying about internet throttling.

Instead of your online traffic going through the ISP, it is encrypted by the VPN and sent over a privately maintained network. So ISPs will still see that you're consuming a lot of bandwidth but won't see the kind of content you're accessing.

Buffering

This is the momentary delay in transmitting data caused by a slow network or other factors that affect media playback. It usually happens when streaming content over the internet, and you experience a disruption or delay because the stream has not downloaded the amount of data needed. Buffering can be a result of ISP throttling, packet loss, high ping, or network congestion.

Some people believe that VPNs can cause buffering, but this is not really true. In fact, using a VPN might solve some of the issues that cause buffering. To avoid or prevent buffering, switch to a VPN server close to you, with a lower ping and low latency.

Alternatively, you can pick a VPN server with the lowest load value because they're the least congested.

Conclusion

A VPN connection is necessary for ensuring online privacy and anonymity. The belief that VPNs require less data or can circumvent data caps is incorrect. If you have no choice other than to use cellular data while connecting to a VPN, you'll need to find ways to minimize data usage. Consequently, the best way to minimize data usage is by optimizing your VPN connection, as discussed in this article.

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