Using a VPN is a great way to unlock websites and maintain your online privacy, but even the very best services are likely to reduce your internet speeds.
Some level of performance hit is to be expected. A VPN is routing your traffic through an extra server, maybe half way around the world, and encrypting and decrypting it along the way. That's very likely to slow you down.
Individual services might have additional problems of their own. If you sign up for a budget VPN with a huge number of users, overloaded servers and no spare bandwidth, speeds are going to suffer.
You don't simply have to live with this state of affairs, though, and there are ways to boost the initial performance levels you might see with a VPN. And to that end, we've put together eight ideas that could help you squeeze out a little extra speed from your VPN connection.
1. Choose another server
Connecting to your nearest server will usually offer the best performance, but there are occasional exceptions. If your server is in a popular location, such as London, it could be overwhelmed by traffic from other users, and you may get better speeds from other locations.
Don't trust your client to choose the fastest server, either. Many VPN apps have 'Quick Connect' buttons which claim to pick the best server for you, but we've seen these make spectacularly bad decisions, including connecting our UK test location to the US rather than Europe.
The best approach is to test servers in your current location and several neighbouring countries. Don't be put off by your client showing higher ping times or latency – that doesn't necessarily mean download speeds will be lower.
For example, we've found that cities in the Netherlands or France will typically show twice the latency of our closest UK locations, yet download speeds can be almost identical, and occasionally faster. Even Swedish servers have been good alternatives to the UK with some providers.
There are no fixed rules and your experience may be different, but try a few nearby servers anyway. You might be surprised at the results.
2. Refresh your system
If speeds are notably worse than unusual with several servers, the problem could be closer to home.
Check your network traffic. Do you have any other apps using your internet connection, or are other devices connected to your router? Close down or pause whatever you can. The more bandwidth they're hogging, the less is left for you.
Give your system a thorough refresh and reset, too. Close down your router and devices (that's a full shutdown where you close all open applications, not just turn the device off). Restart your router and wait for 60 seconds, then restart your devices. This may free up some RAM and restore a few system resources, perhaps improving your speeds.
3. Switch protocol
VPN clients and servers communicate using a protocol which defines how the devices connect, and the level and type of encryption used.
Most servers use the OpenVPN protocol for its strong security and high performance, and this should be your first choice in most situations. Check your client settings and if you can select a protocol, choose OpenVPN.
OpenVPN may be restricted or throttled on some networks, and if that's the case, switching to an alternative may solve the problem.
L2TP/IPSec is probably your second-best option. Its 256-bit encryption does a reasonable job of keeping you safe, although it does have some potential security issues (we talk about these, and give you a full rundown on all VPN protocols in this article).
SSTP is a highly secure protocol developed by Microsoft. It's closer to OpenVPN in security terms and unlikely to be much faster, but if it's an option with your client (and it usually isn't) you might want to give it a try.
PPTP is your simplest choice, but it's also extremely insecure, with a host of security issues leaving it vulnerable to hackers. The protocol might help with simple tasks, like streaming YouTube on the library Wi-Fi, but don't use it for online banking, shopping or anything where there's any need for security or privacy.
4. Tweak protocol settings
If your chosen protocol isn't delivering the speeds you need, tweaking its settings could help.
OpenVPN can run over the TCP or UDP protocols. UDP is the simplest and would be our choice for performance. But TCP's built-in error correction improves reliability. If you're having connection problems, switching to TCP could make sense.
By default your OpenVPN client will connect to a server using port 1194. That normally works without any issues, but some networks might block or throttle that port, reducing performance.
If your client allows it, try switching to port 443. That's relatively safe as it's the default port for HTTPS, and most networks will leave it alone.
Some VPNs try to address these issues with their own protocols. VyprVPN says its Chameleon protocol "scrambles OpenVPN packet metadata to ensure it’s not recognizable via deep packet inspection" and that it's "ideal for users worldwide experiencing VPN blocking and speed issues related to bandwidth throttling."
These technologies are often complex, adding extra layers to OpenVPN's 256-bit protocol and reducing performance for most users. But they can make a huge difference for users on networks that are attempting to block or throttle VPN use, and they're well worth trying.
- Check out the best free VPN services of 2017
5. Use a wired connection
Wi-Fi is hugely convenient, but speeds can be unpredictable, especially when your neighbour's wireless networks all start competing for the same channels.
If you have the option, try using a wired connection. There's less contention for bandwidth, the maximum speed will probably be higher and performance should be more consistent, too.
Having both wired and wireless connections can cause odd network access issues in a small number of situations, for example if they have different DNS settings. If you experience any problems, try temporarily disconnecting from your wireless network for just long enough to run any wired tests.
6. Try split tunneling
By default most VPN clients send all network traffic through the encrypted tunnel. That's simple and ensures there's no chance of any identity leaks, but it could also be an unnecessary drain on your VPN bandwidth. If you only need a VPN to unblock a video streaming site, for instance, why route your browsing, email and everything else through the same connection?
Split tunneling gives more control over the applications that use the VPN tunnel. At its simplest, you could pipe your browser traffic through the VPN to facilitate site unblocking, while allowing everything else to use your regular connection. Reducing VPN traffic may improve speeds, while allowing other apps to work outside the tunnel reduces the chance of conflicts (you won't have local network access blocked while the VPN is active, for instance).
If you're interested, check your VPN client to see if there's split tunneling support. ExpressVPN, ibVPN, PureVPN, Ivacy and a few others all allow the feature, although they implement it in very different ways. PureVPN's is one of the simplest implementations, as this blog post explains.
7. Use a different client
Using a VPN provider's own client is the quickest and easiest way to get started, but these apps are often very basic and they won't always give you the best results.
OpenVPN is the most powerful option, giving you access to many features and settings you won't find in bundled apps, but it's also more complicated as you'll have to set it up manually. Check your VPN provider's support site to see if it has any setup guidance, or explore OpenVPN clients for Android, iOS, Windows and more.
SoftEther is a highly configurable open source client with a host of innovative features. VPN providers are less likely to have setup guides for this, but experienced users won't take long to figure it out. Take a look at this HideIPVPN page to get a feel for what's involved.
8. Try another VPN
Stuck with poor performance, no matter what you do? Maybe the problem isn't your current VPN, but your device, network, ISP or something similar.
One way to test this is to try another VPN. This won't always tell you much, especially if the new VPN is already slower than the first, but if you're suffering with extreme problems – can't connect here, sluggish speeds there – it may give you a clue as to the cause.
Ideally you should choose one of our highlighted best VPN services, as that will give you the best idea of how your current service compares to the quality competition. Check any trial and refund details, though – you may have to pay for the service initially, then claim your money back later once your tests are complete.
Some VPNs make life simpler by allowing users to sign up without any credit card details at all. CactusVPN gives you 24 hours for free, ideal for some quick testing.
If you need more time, consider a service like ProtonVPN Free. Speeds can be decent for a free service, and if nothing else, it's handy to have around as a free backup.
Just one warning here: some VPN clients can become confused if you install multiple VPNs on your system. Sometimes VPN providers include a Repair option to reinstall their drivers, but if that doesn't work you may have to reinstall the full client to get it working.
Incidentally, we’ve got a guide on how to fully uninstall VPN software the correct way.
- It’s also worth bearing in mind the good reasons why a VPN isn't enough