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Understanding VPN Protocols: Which One Should You Use?

Understanding VPN Protocols: Which One Should You Use?

VPN has become a vital part of our digital lives. Every day, millions of people around the globe use VPNs for various reasons - some are trying to keep their internet connections secure, others are looking to get around blocks that limit which websites they can visit based on where they're located, and still others want to browse the internet without being tracked. But it's important to know that not all VPNs are created equal. One big difference between them is the protocols they use. These protocols are like a set of rules and technologies that determine how your data moves from your device to the VPN server and then to the website you're trying to reach.

In this article, we'll break down the details of different VPN protocols like OpenVPN, WireGuard, and some special cases like Shadowsocks, which isn't a full VPN but gets the job done for most people. We'll cover what these protocols are, why they're important for keeping you safe online, and how to figure out which one is the best fit for your needs. We'll also compare the pros and cons of each one to make your choice easier. Our aim is to give you the practical advice and information you need so you can make a smart decision about which VPN protocol to use.

What Are VPN Protocols?

At its core, a VPN protocol is a set of rules that dictate how data is transmitted between your device and a VPN server. Think of it as an architectural blueprint for a digital pipeline: it outlines the security features, such as encryption algorithms, as well as the transport mechanisms that control how data packets are sent and received.

  • Transport Mechanisms
    The transport aspect of a VPN protocol determines how your data is packetized and transmitted over the internet. This includes factors like error checking, data integrity, and how lost packets are handled. It's akin to the logistics behind a mail delivery service: how the packages (data packets) are sorted, routed, and delivered.

  • Encryption and Security
    The security component focuses on encrypting your data to keep it safe from prying eyes. This involves cryptographic algorithms and sometimes multi-factor authentication methods. It's similar to a security system for a vault, specifying the types of locks and safeguards that protect the valuables (your data) inside.

Essentially, the VPN protocol you select sets the stage for your online experience, dictating security levels, data transmission speeds, and compatibility with various devices or operating systems. It defines the limitations and capabilities inherent to any particular VPN service.

Some protocols prioritize robust security features, incorporating advanced encryption algorithms and secure key exchanges. Others are built for speed and efficiency, using lightweight encryption methods to minimize lag and maximize data throughput. Certain protocols are flexible, optimized for a broad spectrum of applications and devices.

Popular VPN Protocols

In the next few sections, we're going to break down the popular VPN protocols you'll often come across. We'll talk about where they came from and why they matter today. We want to give you the basic info you need to pick the right one for you, highlighting what each is good and not-so-good at.

PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol)

Introduced in 1997 by Microsoft, PPTP was one of the earliest VPN protocols to hit the market. It was originally designed to support dial-up connections and has found its way into broader applications over time. While now largely overshadowed by more secure protocols, it remains an option on many platforms due to its simplicity and speed.

  • Technical Underpinnings 
    PPTP operates on the Data Link Layer of the OSI model and encapsulates PPP frames for transmission over IP networks. It relies on the Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) to implement its security features, which include user authentication and optional encryption.

  • Security Concerns and Audits
    Over the years, PPTP has faced extensive scrutiny for its weak security measures. Multiple vulnerabilities have been discovered, some of which allow attackers to compromise the encrypted tunnel. Various experts have publicly discouraged the use of PPTP for any security-sensitive activities. Moreover, being a proprietary Microsoft protocol, it lacks the transparency and scrutiny offered by open-source alternatives. There have been no significant security audits to boost its credibility.

  • Advantages
    High compatibility: Because it's been around for a long time, PPTP is supported on a wide range of older devices and systems. Speed: PPTP is generally faster than more secure protocols because it uses less processing power for encryption.

  • Disadvantages
    Weak Encryption: PPTP relies on the outdated MS-CHAP v2 authentication, which has been compromised.

  • Security Risks
    Due to known vulnerabilities, it's considered insecure for protecting sensitive data.

  • Suggested Use Cases
    PPTP is best reserved for situations where maximum security isn't the main concern. This could include activities like casual web browsing or unlocking geo-restricted content for streaming. Given its vulnerabilities, it's advised not to use PPTP for transmitting sensitive information like passwords or personal data.

L2TP/IPsec (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol with IPsec)

Emerging in the late 1990s as a collaboration between Microsoft and Cisco, L2TP/IPsec was designed to address some of the security flaws associated with its predecessors, like PPTP and L2F (Layer 2 Forwarding). As a result, it combines the best elements of these older protocols to create a more secure tunneling protocol. While not the newest or the most secure, it remains a viable option for various VPN services today.

  • Technical Underpinnings
    L2TP/IPsec essentially wraps L2TP packets inside IPsec encryption, providing a double layer of security. This double encapsulation makes it more secure but also requires more processing power, making it slower than less secure protocols like PPTP. It operates on the Data Link Layer and uses 256-bit encryption, making it more secure than PPTP but less secure than OpenVPN or WireGuard.

  • Security Concerns and Audits
    While L2TP/IPsec is generally considered secure for most purposes, its double encapsulation can make it easier to detect and therefore easier to block, particularly in countries with restrictive internet censorship. No major security vulnerabilities have been uncovered, but like PPTP, it's a proprietary protocol, making it less transparent than open-source options. There have been limited independent security audits of L2TP/IPsec.

  • Advantages
    Better Security: More secure than PPTP due to the use of IPsec encryption. Wide Platform Support: Supported on a broad range of devices and operating systems.

  • Disadvantages
    Speed: Double encapsulation means that it can be slower than other protocols. Blockage: More easily detected and blocked by firewalls compared to stealthier protocols like OpenVPN or Shadowsocks.

  • Suggested Use Cases
    L2TP/IPsec is a solid choice for general web browsing and tasks that require a moderate level of security, such as online shopping or checking emails on public Wi-Fi. However, for applications that demand the utmost security, or if you are located in a country with restrictive internet laws, other protocols may be more appropriate.


OpenVPN made its debut in 2001 and quickly rose to prominence due to its strong focus on security and privacy. Unlike PPTP and L2TP/IPsec, which are proprietary protocols, OpenVPN is open-source, allowing for thorough vetting and continual improvements by the cybersecurity community. Today, it is widely considered the gold standard for VPN protocols and is recommended for a range of secure, private browsing activities.

  • Technical Underpinnings
    OpenVPN operates on the Transport Layer of the OSI model, employing SSL/TLS for key exchange. It's capable of traversing firewalls and network address translators (NATs). Additionally, OpenVPN allows for extensive customization, from the type and level of encryption to the use of special plugins, providing a versatile range of configuration options.

  • Security Concerns and Audits
    OpenVPN has undergone multiple independent security audits, further solidifying its reputation for robust security. While no technology is entirely infallible, OpenVPN's open-source nature means that any potential vulnerabilities are more likely to be discovered and patched quickly. It has resisted the most critical forms of cryptographic attacks to date.

  • Advantages
    High Security: OpenVPN uses strong encryption algorithms and has a reliable track record. Customizable: The protocol is highly configurable to fit specific needs and use-cases. Broad Support: Being the industry standard, it's well-supported across most platforms.

  • Disadvantages
    Software Requirement: OpenVPN often requires third-party software, making it less straightforward to set up. Speed: If not configured correctly, OpenVPN can be slower than other, less secure protocols.

  • Suggested Use Cases
    OpenVPN is a prime choice for situations demanding high levels of security and privacy, including online banking, confidential business communications, and secure file transfers. It's also a good option for bypassing aggressive internet censorship in countries with restrictive online policies.

SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol)

Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol, or SSTP, was introduced by Microsoft in 2006. Integrated into Windows Vista onwards, this protocol has been developed specifically for the Windows environment. Though not as universally adopted as OpenVPN, it has carved a niche among Windows users who prioritize secure, seamless internet connectivity.

  • Technical Underpinnings
    SSTP operates at the Application Layer of the OSI model and employs SSL 3.0 for robust security. One of its standout features is its ability to traverse firewalls by using the HTTPS port (Port 443), making it effective in environments with restrictive internet censorship.

  • Security Concerns and Audits
    SSTP is considered secure due to its high-grade encryption. However, it has not been as extensively vetted by the cybersecurity community as open-source protocols like OpenVPN. Being a proprietary protocol developed by Microsoft, it lacks the level of transparency that comes with open-source solutions.

  • Advantages
    Strong Encryption: SSTP uses SSL, providing robust security measures. Firewall Evasion: Effective at bypassing most firewalls due to its use of HTTPS traffic.

  • Disadvantages
    Platform Limitation: While there are some implementations for Linux and macOS, SSTP is predominantly a Windows-only protocol.

  • Suggested Use Cases
    SSTP is most suitable for Windows users who require a high level of security and for those who need to bypass restrictive firewalls, such as those found in corporate networks or countries with stringent internet regulations.

IKEv2/IPsec (Internet Key Exchange Version 2)

Introduced in 2005 as a joint venture between Microsoft and Cisco, IKEv2/IPsec is a protocol that has gained prominence, particularly in mobile VPN solutions. It's the successor to IKEv1 and is part of the IPsec protocol suite, which is often used for setting up a Virtual Private Network.

  • Technical Underpinnings
    IKEv2 operates at the Internet Layer and employs IPsec for the key exchange, offering both integrity and confidentiality. This protocol is particularly agile in handling network changes, which is why it's favored for mobile devices that frequently switch between Wi-Fi and cellular networks.

  • Security Concerns and Audits
    IKEv2 is considered a secure protocol, employing robust cryptographic algorithms. However, like SSTP, it's not open-source, meaning it doesn't benefit from the extensive community auditing that protocols like OpenVPN do. Nonetheless, it is widely regarded as secure and efficient for most applications.

  • Advantages
    Speed: Generally faster than other secure protocols like OpenVPN. Stability: Highly stable, especially when changing networks or re-establishing a lost connection. Security: Uses IPsec for secure key exchange, providing a strong layer of security.

  • Disadvantages
    Limited Support: While it's getting broader acceptance, it's not as universally supported as protocols like OpenVPN.

  • Suggested Use Cases
    IKEv2 is highly recommended for mobile users who frequently shift between different types of networks - such as moving from a Wi-Fi hotspot to cellular data - or those who experience regular interruptions in connectivity. Its quick connection recovery makes it ideal in these scenarios.


WireGuard was introduced in 2018, making it one of the newest entrants in the world of VPN protocols. Developed with an eye towards modernity, speed, and simplicity, WireGuard has rapidly gained a following among those who prioritize these features. It's increasingly being integrated into consumer VPN services as an alternative to older, more cumbersome protocols.

  • Technical Underpinnings
    WireGuard is designed to be straightforward and efficient, operating in the Linux kernel, which contributes to its speed and low latency. It employs state-of-the-art cryptographic methods, such as Curve25519 and ChaCha20, for secure communications. With a codebase of under 4,000 lines, it's easier to audit and maintain, theoretically reducing the potential for security vulnerabilities.

  • Security Concerns and Audits
    Since its debut in 2018, WireGuard has undergone various security evaluations and audits, successfully passing them to date. The protocol's more streamlined codebase, smaller in size compared to longstanding protocols like OpenVPN, facilitates easier auditing and vulnerability checks. While its recent entry to the field means it hasn't been subjected to the long-term, extensive testing that older protocols have, the audits it has passed since its introduction serve to boost confidence in its security and reliability.

  • Advantages
    Speed: Designed for maximum performance, WireGuard outperforms many existing protocols in terms of speed. Modern Cryptography: Utilizes the latest cryptographic techniques for secure communications. Simplicity: A lean codebase makes it easier to audit and reduce potential security risks.

  • Disadvantages
    Adoption Rate: Being new, it's not as widely supported as other more established protocols. Potential Risks: Its newness means it hasn't been as thoroughly vetted as older, more established protocols.

  • Suggested Use Cases
    WireGuard is an excellent choice for users who prioritize speed without wanting to compromise on security. This makes it ideal for activities like trading crypto, gaming and streaming, where low latency and high speeds are crucial.


Shadowsocks originated in China as a means to bypass strict internet censorship measures. While not a traditional VPN, this proxy-based protocol has gained significant popularity, particularly in countries with heavy internet restrictions. It's essential to note that Shadowsocks is primarily designed for bypassing censorship, not for providing end-to-end anonymity or security.

  • Technical Underpinnings
    Unlike full-scale VPNs that tunnel all internet traffic, Shadowsocks works as a SOCKS5 proxy. It reroutes only specific traffic, which makes it more lightweight than most VPN protocols. While it does offer some level of encryption, its primary function is to obfuscate your data to slip through firewalls rather than to provide robust encryption.

  • Security Concerns and Audits
    Shadowsocks lacks the comprehensive encryption and security features found in full-scale VPNs. While it is effective in bypassing censorship, it's not built with the same focus on privacy and security. As far as public records indicate, there haven't been any formal security audits for Shadowsocks, which may be a concern for some users.

  • Advantages
    Effective for Bypassing Censorship: Highly proficient at circumventing internet firewalls and restrictions. Lightweight: Consumes fewer resources compared to a full-scale VPN, providing lower latency. Easy Setup: It is extremely easy to build a private ShadowSocks VPN with Outline.

  • Disadvantages
    Limited Security: While it does offer some level of encryption, it's not designed for full anonymity or robust security. Specialized Use: Primarily intended for bypassing internet censorship, not for general-purpose secure browsing.

  • Suggested Use Cases
    Shadowsocks is particularly useful for bypassing strict internet censorship in countries with heavy restrictions. It's also advantageous for users seeking low-latency browsing in restricted areas. However, if your primary concern is security or anonymity, a full-scale VPN with robust encryption would be a better choice.

VPN Protocol Use-Case Comparison Table

Choosing the right VPN protocol can be challenging given the variety of options and specific use-cases to consider. While each protocol has its unique advantages and disadvantages, it's essential to pick one that aligns with your needs - be it for bypassing geoblocking, ensuring maximum security, or optimizing speed for gaming and streaming.

The table below aims to provide a detailed comparison of major VPN protocols based on several common use-cases. We hope this will make it easier for you to decide which protocol best suits your requirements. In this table, the symbols have the following meanings:

  • ✗ signifies that the protocol is not recommended for the specific use-case
  • ± indicates that the protocol offers tolerable performance but isn't the best option
  • ✓ represents that the protocol is highly suited for the given use-case
Use-Cases PPTP L2TP/IPsec SSTP Shadowsocks OpenVPN IKEv2/IPsec WireGuard
Maximum Security ±
Speed ± ±
Streaming ± ± ±
Bypassing Firewalls ± ±
Ease of Use ± ± ± ±
Compatibility ± ±
Mobile Stability ± ± ±
Bypassing Censorship ± ± ±
Anonymity ±
Gaming ± ± ±
Torrenting ± ±
VoIP Calls ± ±
File Sharing ± ±
Crypto Trading ± ±
Remote Access ± ±

WireGuard: The Default Option?

When it comes to picking a VPN, you'll come across a lot of options and technical jargon. Each type of VPN has its pros and cons, depending on what you need it for. Some are fast but not that secure; others are really safe but might slow down your internet speed.

But if you're not sure which to pick, WireGuard is a pretty safe bet. It's fast, it's secure, and it's not too hard to set up. You don't need to be a tech wizard to get WireGuard VPN going, and it's reliable for most things you'd need a VPN for, like keeping your data safe or getting around website blocks.

So, if you're scratching your head about all these options, WireGuard makes for a good default choice. It covers all the bases for the average user and then some.

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Article Summary

What is a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a service that allows you to create a secure and encrypted connection over the internet. It hides your IP address and encrypts your online activities, providing more privacy and security when you're online.

What are VPN protocols?

VPN protocols are sets of rules that dictate how data is transmitted between your device and a VPN server. They outline the security features and transport mechanisms that control how data packets are sent and received.

Is PPTP safe to use?

PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol) was introduced in 1997 and is one of the earliest VPN protocols. It is now considered outdated due to weak security measures and multiple vulnerabilities. It's best avoided if security is a primary concern.

What makes WireGuard a good option?

WireGuard is known for its speed, simplicity, and strong encryption, making it a great default option for most use cases.

Why is OpenVPN considered the gold standard for VPN protocols?

OpenVPN is open-source, has undergone multiple independent security audits, and offers high levels of security and customization. It is recommended for a range of secure, private browsing activities.

Is speed compromised when using a VPN?

Using a VPN can slow down your internet connection, but the impact varies depending on the protocol and server you choose.

What is the best protocol for streaming?

OpenVPN and WireGuard often provide the best balance between speed and security for streaming.

Can I use a VPN for gaming?

Yes, IKEv2/IPsec and WireGuard are often recommended for a smooth gaming experience.

What VPN protocols should I use to bypass firewalls?

Shadowsocks and SSTP are typically the best options for bypassing firewalls.

How do I ensure maximum security when using a VPN?

For the highest level of security, protocols like OpenVPN, SSTP, and WireGuard are highly recommended.

What VPN protocol is best for torrenting?

OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPsec, and WireGuard are often recommended for secure and fast torrenting.

What is L2TP/IPsec good for?

L2TP/IPsec is generally used when moderate security is sufficient and speed is a priority.

How does Shadowsocks work?

Shadowsocks is a proxy-based protocol. It is not a full-scale VPN and does not provide end-to-end anonymity or robust security. Shadowsocks works by using SOCKS5 proxy to transfer encrypted data, and is particularly effective at bypassing internet censorship.

Why is SSTP generally a high-security option?

SSTP uses SSL/TLS encryption which is considered highly secure for data transmission.

What is IKEv2/IPsec and why is it good for mobile users?

IKEv2/IPsec is a VPN protocol suite that provides a secure and efficient means of data communication. It excels at adapting to network changes, making it particularly well-suited for mobile devices that often switch between different types of connections, such as Wi-Fi and cellular networks.

How easy is it to set up different VPN protocols?

Ease of setup varies, but PPTP and L2TP/IPsec are generally easier to set up than OpenVPN or WireGuard.

Can I switch between different VPN protocols easily?

Yes, most VPN services allow you to switch between different protocols, although you may need to disconnect first.

Do all devices support all VPN protocols?

No, device compatibility varies. It's best to check the device specifications for VPN protocol support.

What is the best VPN protocol for VoIP calls?

IKEv2/IPsec and WireGuard are often recommended for high-quality VoIP calls.

How do I choose the right VPN protocol for my needs?

The choice depends on your specific use-cases, such as bypassing geoblocking, ensuring maximum security, or optimizing speed for gaming and streaming.

Which VPN protocol is best for crypto trading?

For crypto trading, WireGuard is often considered the best choice for several reasons. WireGuard offers a blend of speed and security that is optimal for high-frequency activities like trading. It's faster than OpenVPN because of its lightweight codebase, making it less prone to slowdowns. Additionally, its modern cryptography standards offer robust security, crucial for financial transactions. Finally, it's easier to set up and maintain, giving traders more time to focus on market trends rather than technical configurations.

Why is WireGuard a good default VPN option?

WireGuard offers a great balance of speed, ease of use, and security, making it a strong choice for most general use cases.