There are two main uses for VPNs: you can use it to remote into a private intranet or you can connect to a network that exists to help filter your internet activity in a way that makes it (theoretically) untraceable to you.
This post focuses mainly on that latter use. If you’re interested in VPNs for activity filtering, then you should stick to these logless VPNs that truly care about privacy.
Either way, VPNs can be finicky. Networking is a complicated beast, which means you’re more likely to run into issues than not — and one of the most common problems is slow internet speed. If your VPN seems slow, here are a few tips that may help you out.
1. Pick the Right Server Location
This is perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind, and it has to do with how VPNs actually work.
Let’s say you want to use a VPN to get around certain routing-related issues that are killing your latency in online video games. Connecting to a VPN can change how your data is routed across the internet, thus bypassing problems like intermediary network outages. (Learn more about how the internet works.)
Suppose you’re in New York and you’re playing a game whose server is also located in New York. Normally your data travels to the server using the fastest path, then returns to you on the fastest path, resulting in a latency of maybe 20 milliseconds.
But now suppose you’re connected to a VPN in France. Your data has to filter through that VPN, which means it must first travel to France, then to the server in New York, then back to France, then back to your device. That extra distance might mean your latency is now 250 milliseconds.
For speed, always pick the VPN location that’s closest to the final destination if you can. Note that this doesn’t really matter for things that aren’t latency-dependent (like browsing the web).
2. Reduce Level of Encryption
VPNs can use different security protocols for encrypting the data that passes through. Not all VPN services support all protocols, but many of the standard ones are supported widely.
The thing about encryption is that it can be computationally expensive. Every single bit of data that leaves your device needs to get encrypted, and every single bit of data that comes back in needs to be decrypted. The stronger the encryption, the more computational power you’ll need.
And if your device’s CPU isn’t fast enough, it could become a bottleneck in how quickly data is processed. Even if your internet can handle 100 Mbps, that won’t matter if your encryption is so strong that it only process data at a rate of 10 Mbps.
Theoretically, the speed hierarchy from fastest to slowest is PPTP > L2TP/IPSec > OpenVPN > SSTP > IKEv2/IPSec. Step down one at a time if your device doesn’t have enough computational power.
Note that this is only advisable if you don’t need maximum security for whatever activities you’re doing through VPN. If you’re using VPN to access region-locked content, for example, then this is fine.
3. Don’t Set Up VPN on Your Router
As a VPN user, you have two choices: you can either set up VPN on your router or set up VPN on each individual device that you’re using (e.g. computer, smartphone, tablet, etc).
Always go with the latter option.
One reason why routers are so affordable is that they don’t need next-gen CPUs to be effective. Unfortunately this means that even last year’s smartphone is faster than today’s router, and this will bottleneck your data speeds for the encryption-related reasons above.
But even if we assume a router with processing power equivalent to a modern smartphone, for example, you still have to consider the fact that this one router would be encrypting/decrypting data for multiple devices. That’s a lot of data to process!
4. Try Both TCP and UDP
Generally speaking, UDP is much faster than TCP. What’s the difference? Well, TCP needs to establish a connection between two endpoints (you and a website, for example) and then constantly check to see that all data was successfully received at the destination. UDP just shoots data into the internet and doesn’t care to check if it arrived where it needed to.
This extra bit of TCP overhead is slower because multiple acknowledgments need to occur between you and the destination when sending data. As such, using VPN over UDP can be much faster. Check your VPN settings to see if manual switching is supported. The process may differ from service to service.
Also note that your ISP might detect and throttle TCP traffic over VPN. This is more common than you might think because a lot of people use VPN for media streaming and torrenting, both of which typically use TCP. Switching to UDP might help with speed, but could result in a more unstable connection. Experiment and see for yourself.
Upgrade Your ISP or VPN Plans
At the end of the day, a VPN will never be able to increase your internet speed beyond what your ISP provides. If your VPN speed is slow because your base internet speed is slow, then you have no choice but to upgrade your internet plan to a faster tier.
Switching from Wi-Fi to wired might help with speeds in some cases.
Note that certain VPN providers might throttle your speed as well, especially if you’re using a free VPN service.
Which VPN providers are you using right now? Are you having speed issues with them? Know of any other tips that might help? Let us know in the comments below!