VPN Protocols Explained

Like most people interested in getting a VPN subscription, you’ve likely encountered the term “protocol” but never bothered to know more about it.

VPN Protocols Explained

The fact is, a VPN protocol is one of the most important features of a VPN service that can help determine the quality of encryption strength and security. Whether using a VPN to change your IP address or using one to change your streaming location, it is helpful to understand what’s going on behind the scenes.

Read on as we discuss what are the different types of VPN protocols and what we recommend if you want to have a good balance of security and privacy without compromising speed and ease of use.

What is a VPN Protocol

Aside from masking your IP address so you can access geo-restricted content from websites and streaming services, a VPN also protects your data through encryption. This process is done to secure the data within the user and the VPN server tunnel so no one can exploit your information — not even your internet service provider (ISP). In other words, each time that you connect to a VPN server, your connection requests are first encrypted before sending to the server. Once it is delivered to the authorized recipient, the data is converted back into readable format.

Remember that VPN encryption does not prevent hackers from carrying out their malicious activities. Instead, it converts your data into an unreadable format so that they cannot be deciphered. With a VPN protocol, the software follows a set of codes so your connection is regulated.

In addition, most VPN providers will connect users to the protocol that best suits the existing network. However, if you decide to control your VPN protocol, you can set it based on your VPN service provider.

The Different Types of VPN Protocols

Different VPN services use various VPN protocols. Below are the most popular types:

1. PPTP

Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) was first introduced in 1999 by Microsoft for dial-up traffic when Windows 95 was still popular. It has since become the most widely used standard VPN protocol. When compared to other protocols, this is the fastest in terms of speed and is already integrated in many platforms including Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS. It’s seldom that you can’t find any device these days that does not support PPTP.

However, the advantage of speed is offset by the lack of security due to its very low 128-bit encryption standard. Many VPN service providers have upgraded to better protocols due to PPTP’s lack of privacy and security when sending data packets. Because of this, it can be easily decrypted.

It also uses the TCP 1723 port and IP protocol 47 Generic Routing Encapsulation (GRE) to allow PPTP tunneled information to pass through the router. If you’re using such a protocol in a facility that blocks VPN connections, then it’s easier to block it using a firewall.

If your intention is just to stream geo-blocked content, then a PPTP protocol will do. However, if you want to maintain privacy and security, do not use this.

2. L2TP/IPSec

The Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) does not provide an encryption capability on its own. Instead, it depends on internet protocol internet protocol security (IPSec) used to authenticate and encrypt packets of data. It is also easy to set up although most systems already have L2TP/IPSec already.

However, it can be slow at most times since it has to encapsulate data twice compared to other protocols that only do it once. 

In addition, the protocol is rumored to be compromised by certain cybersecurity agencies such as the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). Finally, it is easy to be blocked using a firewall since it uses UDP port 500. So, it’s not the best option there is, but it’s better than PPTP.

3. SSTP

Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) is a proprietary standard by Microsoft, so for Windows-based devices, setting it up is fairly easy but can be difficult to get deployed on Linux and macOS too.

SSTP supports the AES-256 encryption specification, which is a publicly accessible symmetric key cipher that is used by both the sender and receiver of data packets. It is the most secure in terms of key length size when compared to the 128-bit and 192-bit versions, which makes it unbreakable by brute force techniques.

Another advantage of SSTP is that it can easily bypass firewalls to ensure smooth connection using TCP port 443. However, similar to L2TP/IPSec, it is rumored to be a bit insecure due to Microsoft’s association with the NSA. As such, many VPN providers advise against using it. Finally, since it uses SSL 3.0 encryption, it cannot be fully audited and may result in slower speeds due to the encryption process.

4. IKEv2

Internet Key Exchange version 2 (IKEv2) is one of the newest VPN protocols available today. Developed by Microsoft and Cisco, it uses IPSec encryption and is mostly available on platforms such as Windows and iOS. You may, however, need adapted versions if you’re using a different operating system.

One of the advantages of this protocol is its fast reconnection when the internet suddenly drops connection if the user switches from mobile to home WiFi through the Mobility and Multihoming protocol. Therefore, mobile devices on 3G or 4G LTE are the best for this protocol.

Security is also not an issue as many tech reviewers can attest to its encryption stability.

5. OpenVPN

This protocol uses the OpenSSL library so users are required to use a third-party software. It is a common default protocol used by VPN service providers. You may also verify if your VPN service provider has a setup requirement for this.

Its AES-256 encryption specification is also regarded as its main advantage. And since it’s an open-source protocol, auditing the code is easy. Like SSTP, it uses TCP port 443 to make it much harder to block when going through firewalls.

However, the speed that OpenVPN has is not the fastest available, although it isn’t slow either. In addition, it is difficult to set up unless the user is knowledgeable on using such a solution.

6. WireGuard

This is another new protocol that uses best-in-class cryptographic technology for better security. Like OpenVPN, it is free and open-source so auditing the code and debugging it is easier.

The codebase only consists of 4,000 lines so it’s one of the most lightweight and simplest options available. OpenVPN, in contrast, has almost 400,000 lines of code. Speed is also not an issue since several tests confirm that it is faster than the IPSec protocol. 

Finally, its key routing protocols use Curve25519, SipHash24, ChaCha20, BLAKE2s, and HKDF, among others instead of the AES-256 encryption specification, making it one of the most secure VPN protocols today.

However, some security experts have observed that WireGuard always assigns the same IP address each time a user connects to a VPN service, although many VPN service providers have already assured that even with such an issue, they have a no-logs policy.

7. Lightway

ExpressVPN has developed this newest VPN protocol, which is inspired by WireGuard. Lightway has fewer lines of codes at around only 2,000 lines so it’s relatively faster and uses less power on your device. And with less code, users can then easily audit it to troubleshoot any vulnerabilities that they may encounter.

Security is also top-notch with an easy-to-configure WolfSSL cryptography library being employed to support Secure Socket Layer/Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) protocols. The NSA uses these to better protect its online communications against unauthorized access and tampering, and ensure integrity, message privacy and better authentication. Lightway has also been tested and verified by an independent security agency regarding its security potential.

If you’re using a mobile device and want to have faster loading without draining your battery, you may opt for ChaCha20, a cipher that is much faster than AES-128 GSM. 

Finally, Lightway offers the fastest speeds. If your connection suddenly drops, it automatically connects you back, whereas other VPN protocols can take at least 15 seconds to execute the same process. Our independent tests also revealed that it is much faster than WireGuard and other protocols with a difference of around 2 Mbps for download and 3 Mbps for upload.

Comparing Different VPN Protocols

[table]

PPTPL2TP/IPSecSSTPIKEv2OpenVPNWireGuardLightway
PlatformWindows, macOS,
iOS, Android
Windows, macOS,
iOS, Android
WindowsWindows,
iOS
Windows, macOS,
iOS, Android
Windows, macOS,
iOS, Android
Windows, macOS,
iOS, Android
SpeedVery FastSlowerModerateFastFastVery FastVery Fast
EncryptionBasic encryptionIPSecSSL 3.0IPSecAESCurve25519, SipHash24, ChaCha20, BLAKE2s, and HKDFAES
SecurityWeakGoodGoodGoodSecuredSecuredTop-notch wolfSSL
FirewallCan be blockedCan be blockedDifficult to be blockedNADifficult to be blockedDifficult to be blockedDifficult to be blocked
P2PAcceptableAcceptableGoodGoodGoodGoodGood

Which VPN Protocol is the Best

Based on the comparison above, there’s no doubt that the Lightway protocol is the best VPN protocol that uses advanced technology to let you connect instantly when switching to servers or restoring your connection. It also drains your battery much less compared to other protocols because it only contains features that a consumer VPN is supposed to have, making each online experience efficient and secure.

Aside from Lightway, ExpressVPN also offers IKEv2 and OpenVPN for users to choose from.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is a VPN protocol important when selecting a VPN service?

A VPN protocol controls how your connection to a network is secured using encryption methods. It also helps determine how much of your speed will be affected when using a VPN.

Do all VPN services provide the same level of encryption?

No. Many VPN service providers claim to offer best-in-class encryption technology but cannot even use pre-shared keys (PSKs) to create an even more complex encryption key with other information that can resist brute force attacks. 

Why does my connection speed drop when I use VPN?

Aside from the quality of your internet connection and your distance to a chosen server, having your connection encrypted will require time and more power. This means that you trade off speed each time you want higher security by using a more reliable VPN protocol.

What should I look for in a VPN service?

Aside from speed, security, privacy and customer service, research about the VPN protocol that is being used. The better encryption it provides, the more secure your online browsing will be. Today, the Lightway VPN protocol used by ExpressVPN is considered one of the best since it ensures you’ll be able to pick up your connection much faster when you switch networks or you suddenly lose your connection.

Which VPN protocol is best for gaming?

Lightway is a great choice for gaming because it offers blazing speeds and is highly reliable.

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