The Best VPN Protocols Tested, Explained, and Compared for 2024

What Are VPN Protocols

The best VPN protocol will help you establish a secure connection between your device and your chosen VPN provider’s server. VPN protocols form the basis of your VPN connection and employ encryption algorithms to ensure you can securely and anonymously use the internet.

With a number of protocols, though, pinpointing the right one for your use case can be difficult. In this guide, we’ll explore the most common VPN protocols, their strengths and weaknesses, and the VPN protocol that’s best for each use case. Here’s what the best VPN services can do for you.

Key Takeaways

  • A VPN protocol is a set of rules that controls how your data is encrypted and how it’s transferred to a VPN server
  • Different VPN protocols offer varying levels of security and speed
  • OpenVPN is best for security, while WireGuard is best for speed
  • Some VPN providers offer proprietary VPN protocols – for example, ExpressVPN offers the Lightway protocol, and NordVPN offers the NordLynx protocol

Introduction to VPN Protocols

A VPN protocol is a set of rules that define how your device connects to a VPN server. Your protocol determines how data is encrypted before it leaves your device, how it’s passed to the VPN server, and how it’s decrypted once it reaches the server.

The ultimate purpose of a VPN protocol is to create what’s known as a VPN tunnel. This is a secure and private two-way connection between your device and a VPN server. Data inside a VPN tunnel, including your IP address and any information you send or receive, is fully encrypted and shielded from prying eyes and other cyber security threats.

VPN protocol
Secure your connection with a VPN

When choosing a VPN service, it’s crucial to understand the significance of selecting the best VPN protocol for your needs. Different protocols offer varying levels of security, speed, and compatibility, making it important to align your choice with your priorities.

Why Do Different VPN Protocols Matter?

VPN protocols are all designed to create a VPN tunnel so that data can pass freely and securely between your device and the VPN server. However, not all VPN protocols are equally effective at this task.

Here are some of the key ways VPN protocols differ.

Security

Not all VPN protocols provide the same degree of security for your data. Older protocols often have known vulnerabilities that allow sophisticated actors, such as government intelligence agencies and cybercriminals, to break into your VPN tunnel.

They may or may not be able to decrypt data being sent inside the tunnel, but they can still access sensitive information, like your IP address and the website address you’re connecting to.

For newer protocols, it’s important to think about how likely it is that vulnerabilities could exist without security experts knowing. VPN protocols can be broadly divided between open-source and closed-source protocols.

The code behind open-source VPN protocols is public, while the code for closed-source protocols is only known to the companies that built them. Many cybersecurity professionals prefer open-source VPN protocols as they can review the code and ensure there are no flaws or backdoors.

If you use a closed-source VPN protocol, you have to trust the developer when they say their protocol is secure. Protocols like OpenVPN or WireGuard are seen as providing the highest levels of security today.

Speed

Your VPN protocol plays a large part in determining how fast your VPN connection is. Some protocols take longer to encrypt and decrypt data at either end of the tunnel, between your computer or smartphone and the VPN server.

Other protocols create a smaller tunnel with lower bandwidth. Instead of being able to send and receive a firehose of data, you’re limited to a trickle.

If you prioritize fast download and upload speeds, especially for streaming, gaming, or large file transfers, lightweight protocols like WireGuard or proprietary options like ExpressVPN’s Lightway or NordVPN’s NordLynx are excellent choices. They’re designed to minimize latency and offer optimal performance.

Compatibility

VPN protocols aren’t always compatible with a wide range of operating systems. Some only work on Microsoft Windows, for example, or only on macOS and Linux. Other protocols require a lot of CPU power, so they can cause problems if you try to use them on a smartphone.

Protocols like PPTP and L2TP have broader compatibility but are considered less secure and have been discontinued by providers like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and Surfshark.

Others, like WireGuard or OpenVPN, require specific software or apps. It’s essential to select a protocol that’s compatible with your devices. If you have a variety of different devices and want to use the same VPN protocol for each of them, you’ll need to think carefully about protocol compatibility.

An Overview of Different VPN Protocols

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most widely used types of VPN protocols, their advantages and drawbacks, and how they work. We’ll also offer step-by-step guidance on how to set up these different VPN connections.

OpenVPN

OpenVPN is the most widely used VPN protocol today. It’s open-source, available with almost every major VPN software platform, and works on most operating systems.

OpenVPN is popular because it provides fast connection speeds and is considered highly secure. It uses 256-bit Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption by default. To make OpenVPN even more secure, VPN providers can configure this protocol to encrypt your data using the AES, Blowfish, and Camellia encryption ciphers, among others.

ExpressVPN OpenVPN

The OpenVPN GUI for WindowsAnother benefit of OpenVPN is that it enables you to connect to the internet using either the transmission control protocol (TCP) or user datagram protocol (UDP). TCP traffic is slower but ensures your internet service provider can’t detect you’re using a VPN. This makes OpenVPN a great choice of protocol in countries with internet censorship.

OpenVPN is known for its flexibility and adaptability to different use cases, from securing public WiFi connections and bypassing censorship to establishing secure remote access for businesses.

The only major drawback to OpenVPN is that it can be slow compared to other protocols, especially if you configure the protocol to connect over TCP and use an advanced encryption algorithm. It also requires more CPU power than other VPN protocols.

How OpenVPN Works

OpenVPN relies on a custom security protocol that employs SSL/TLS for key exchange. This combination of encryption and authentication methods ensures your data remains confidential and secure during transmission.

The basic workings of OpenVPN are as simple as you’d expect – it establishes a VPN tunnel between your device and the VPN server, then routes your internet traffic through this. OpenVPN uses AES-256 encryption, which changes your data 14 times before sending it through a VPN server, ensuring your data doesn’t get into the wrong hands.

Pros of OpenVPN

  • Works with a wide range of encryption algorithms
  • Can connect to the internet over TCP or UDP
  • Open-source and has been in use for 20+ years
  • Compatible with most devices
  • Large and active user community, enhancing its reliability and security

Cons of OpenVPN

  • Relatively slow connection
  • Uses more CPU power than other VPN protocols
  • Frequently drops connection when switching between networks

WireGuard 

WireGuard is a recently introduced VPN protocol. Speed tests have shown that WireGuard delivers higher bandwidth and shorter data transfer times than OpenVPN.

WireGuard uses 256-bit SSL encryption by default and can be configured to work with even stronger encryption algorithms like ChaCha20 and SipHash. However, it doesn’t work with nearly as wide a selection of encryption algorithms as OpenVPN.

A major benefit to WireGuard is that it can maintain your connection when your devices switch wireless networks. This is a big deal for mobile devices, which may switch frequently between WiFi and cellular networks while you surf the web.

In addition, WireGuard is open-source and built with only 4,000 lines of code compared to more than 70,000 lines for OpenVPN. Therefore, it’s a lot more likely that security researchers will spot vulnerabilities in the smaller codebase. It also consumes relatively few system resources.

How WireGuard works

WireGuard creates a secure point-to-point connection between two devices, typically a client and a server, through a virtual network interface.

It uses state-of-the-art cryptography techniques to establish this secure tunnel, ensuring the confidentiality, integrity, and authenticity of data exchanged. One of its standout features is its ability to maintain a stable connection even when switching between different networks, such as WiFi and cellular data.

Pros of WireGuard

  • Faster connection speeds than OpenVPN
  • Works with multiple encryption algorithms
  • Compatible with most devices, including smartphones
  • Open-source with a small codebase for easy auditing
  • Consumes less CPU and battery power

Cons of WireGuard

  • Not yet available with all VPN software providers
  • Doesn’t automatically change your IP address throughout your session
  • Doesn’t support TCP connections

IKEv2 – Internet Key Exchange version 2

IKEv2/IPsec combines two protocols – the Internet Key Exchange version 2 (IKEv2) and Internet Protocol security (IPsec). IKEv2 is a protocol for encrypting data using the Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange algorithm. IPsec is a protocol for establishing a secure VPN tunnel.
ExpressVPN IKEv2
Adding ExpressVPN IKEv2 VPN configurations

It was developed by Microsoft and Cisco and was originally intended to be a part of the IPSec suite of VPN protocols.

The main benefit of IKEv2/IPsec is that it provides fast connections. Only WireGuard is faster in speed tests. Like WireGuard, the IKEv2/IPsec protocol can maintain your VPN connection when your device switches between networks.

There are a few drawbacks to IKEv2/IPsec. Unlike OpenVPN, it can’t connect over TCP, so your internet service provider will know you’re using a VPN. In addition, IKEv2 doesn’t work natively on Linux operating systems.

It’s also important to note that the IKEv2 protocol is proprietary. However, there have been no reports of major security vulnerabilities since it was introduced in 2005.

How IKEv2 Works

IKEv2 operates by establishing a secure channel through “key exchange.” It uses a combination of cryptographic algorithms to negotiate a secure connection between your device and the VPN server.

One of its notable features is its ability to quickly re-establish a connection if it’s interrupted, making it ideal for mobile devices that frequently switch between networks.

Pros of IKEv2

  • Very fast connection speeds
  • Maintains connection when switching networks
  • Considered to be highly secure
  • Available in most VPN software
  • Broad compatibility

Cons of IKEv2

  • IKEv2 protocol isn’t open-source
  • Setting it up can be complex
  • Difficult to use on Linux systems

L2TP/IPSec – Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol

The Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) is an encryption protocol used in combination with IPsec. This protocol combination was developed in the 1990s to replace the then-common point-to-point tunneling protocol (PTPP), which had known security flaws.

However, L2TP/IPsec has since fallen out of use because it’s less secure and slower than either IKEv2/IPsec and OpenVPN. In addition, there are rumors that the National Security Agency has developed a backdoor to breach the L2TP encryption protocol.

Most VPN providers no longer offer L2TP/IPsec as a connection option.

How L2TP/IPSec Works

L2TP creates a tunnel to transmit your data. Your data is broken down into packets, which are then encrypted by IPSec, and turned into L2TP packets, ready for transmission. At the receiving end, IPSec decrypts the data to complete the process.

expressvpn-account-manual-configuation-click-pptp-l2tp-ipsec
Selecting PPTP & L2TP/IPsec

When you connect to a VPN server using L2TP/IPsec, your device establishes a connection with the server, and all data passing between your device and the server is encrypted and encapsulated within the L2TP/IPSec tunnel.

Pros of L2TP/IPSec

  • Compatible with most operating systems
  • Moderate connection speeds
  • Known for its stability

Cons of L2TP/IPsec

  • No longer offered by most VPN software
  • L2TP protocol may not be fully secure
  • Drops connection when switching networks
  • Some firewalls can block traffic

SSTP – Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol

The Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) is a VPN protocol developed by Microsoft in 2007. The protocol is specific to the Windows operating system. It can also be configured for Linux but doesn’t work on mobile devices, so it never gained as much traction as OpenVPN.

SSTP uses SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) encryption, so it’s considered to provide similar security to OpenVPN when using this encryption method. However, SSTP is not open-source and has never undergone a public security audit.

This VPN protocol is known for its ability to pass through firewalls and Network Address Translation (NAT) devices.

How SSTP Works

SSTP establishes a secure tunnel between your device and the VPN server. It uses SSL encryption to ensure the confidentiality and integrity of your data.

The protocol encapsulates network traffic within SSL packets. As SSTP uses an SSL/TLS channel, it’s more secure than PPTP and L2TP/IPSec protocols.

Pros of SSTP

  • Comparable speed and security to OpenVPN
  • Works on Windows and Linux computers
  • Delivers stable connections

Cons of SSTP

  • Doesn’t work on macOS or mobile devices
  • Code has never undergone a public audit
  • Moderate connection speeds

PPTP – Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol

Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) is an outdated VPN protocol developed by Microsoft in the 1990s. It’s no longer considered to be secure and is significantly slower than the other VPN protocols we’ll discuss. PPTP isn’t available with most modern VPN software.

It’s relatively easy to set up and will work on old devices with weak processors. It can only really be used where security isn’t a priority, though, and that’ll hardly ever be the case if you want a VPN.

How PPTP Works

PPTP establishes an encrypted tunnel for your data, places data packets in an IP envelope, and sends them to another router or machine. At the destination, it’ll then be decrypted.

It combines the Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) and the Generic Routing Encapsulation (GRE) protocol to encapsulate and encrypt data packets. Encryption is made possible using Microsoft Point-to-Point Encryption (MPPE) that relies on an RSA RC4 stream cipher.

The responsibility for authentication lies with the MS-CHAP protocol, which could be replaced by the more secure AEP-TLS – but that would strip PPTP of its many advantages.

Pros of PPTP

  • Compatible with legacy devices, such as computers running Windows 95
  • Easy to set up
  • Low CPU and memory usage

Cons of PPTP

  • Considered to be insecure
  • Not available with most VPN software
  • Slower connection speeds than most modern protocols
  • Often fails firewall restrictions as it lacks standardized VPN port numbers

What is a Proprietary VPN Protocol?

Some VPN software providers have built their own protocols. For example, ExpressVPN offers a protocol called Lightway, and NordVPN offers a protocol called NordLynx.

They’re exclusive to the VPN service that developed them, offering a unique selling point that sets them apart from competitors.

ExpressVPN’s Lightway

Lightway is only available through ExpressVPN and seems to offer the best of both OpenVPN and WireGuard. It connects quickly over either UDP or TCP. It’s nearly twice as fast as OpenVPN, but still slightly slower than WireGuard. A major improvement compared to OpenVPN is that Lightway won’t drop connections when switching networks, and you’re able to obfuscate traffic.

ExpressVPN Lightway
ExpressVPN’s Lightway protocol

Lightway’s code is open-source and has undergone multiple security audits. It’s also written in just 2,000 lines of code, even less than WireGuard, and uses less battery than any other major protocol.

NordVPN’s NordLynx

NordLynx is only available from NordVPN and, like Lightway, offers faster speeds than OpenVPN over both UDP and TCP connections.

NordLynxNordVPN’s NordLynx protocol

One of the key benefits of this protocol is that it automatically changes your IP address at regular intervals during your session, which WireGuard is unable to do. This makes it more difficult for you to be identified even if your IP address were to leak.

NordLynx uses ChaCha20 for encryption, while Lightway uses AES-256. The code for NordLynx is open-source, although it hasn’t undergone the same degree of public security testing as Lightway.

While it features around 4,000 lines of code – more than Lightway – it’s still streamlined. For more details, read our full ExpressVPN vs NordVPN guide.

Best VPN Protocols for Different Purposes

Each VPN protocol has unique strengths and weaknesses, so it’s important to match your choice to your needs. Here, we’ll explore the best VPN protocols for different purposes, providing you with insights into which best suits your online activities.

Fastest Protocol for Streaming and Gaming

If you’re looking for the best VPN protocol for gaming or streaming, having a VPN protocol optimized for speed and low ping is crucial to ensure a seamless and lag-free experience. Among standard VPN protocols, WireGuard is often considered the best VPN protocol for streaming and gaming, and here’s why:

  • Consistent speeds: WireGuard consistently delivers high-speed performance, going as high as 950 Mbps, as opposed to OpenVPN’s 200 Mbps, making it ideal for streaming HD or 4K content without buffering and for online gaming without lagging.
  • Community support: WireGuard has a strong user community and a wealth of resources, including forums and guides, making it easier to troubleshoot issues and optimize your setup for streaming and gaming.
  • Trustworthiness: WireGuard is an open-source protocol, which means its code is open to public scrutiny, contributing to its reputation as a reliable and transparent choice for online activities like gaming and streaming.
  • Wide compatibility: WireGuard enjoys broad support across various platforms and devices, making it accessible for most users without requiring advanced technical skills.
It’s generally important that you choose a VPN provider capable of bypassing geo-blocks on streaming channels and gaming libraries, and there are few better at this than ExpressVPN and its high-speed Lightway protocol.

On the plus side, Lightway is more secure and easy to use – it comes built into ExpressVPN apps for routers, making it extremely easy to use on devices like Xbox and smart TVs that people typically use for gaming and streaming.

As an alternative, IKEv2/IPsec is also fast and is considered to be highly secure. For information, check out our guide to the fastest VPNs.

The Most Secure Protocol for Data and Privacy Protection

OpenVPN is one of the best VPN security protocols. Its design prioritizes robust encryption and efficient key management, ensuring your data remains confidential. Its efficiency and speed further enhance security by reducing exposure to potential threats.

The fact that it’s trusted and used by entities such as the military and NASA is proof enough of how secure and reliable it is. It supports both UDP and TCP, unlike WireGuard, allowing you to use TCP Port 443, which is top-tier for being able to bypass firewalls and censorship.

This gives OpenVPN unrivaled customizability, and it’s suited for use in a wide range of scenarios, including in privacy-invasive countries like China and Russia.

Speaking of versatility, OpenVPN is open source, unlike protocols like NordLynx and IKEv2, meaning it’s constantly being updated and patched by cybersecurity experts around the world.

It’s also compatible with both old and new cryptographic algorithms, including ChaCha20 and AES, whereas WireGuard only supports the former.

The only area where OpenVPN is perhaps not the best for security is auditing – it sports over 70,000 lines of code, whereas WireGuard, NordLynx, and Lightway are all well under the 5,000 mark.

This means that OpenVPN is more difficult to audit for vulnerabilities. That said, it’s been around for over 20 years, and there are no known vulnerabilities, so you should be good to go if you opt for the ever-available OpenVPN.

It’s not advised to use the L2TP/IPsec and PPTP protocols as they may not be fully secure. Most VPN providers no longer offer these protocols today.

The Best Protocol for Torrenting and P2P File Sharing

When it comes to the best VPN protocol for torrenting and P2P file sharing, ExpressVPN is a great choice with its proprietary Lightway protocol.

This renowned VPN provider offers a P2P-friendly environment on all servers worldwide, making it an ideal solution for those seeking a secure and high-speed experience while torrenting.

ExpressVPN allows users to configure it on routers, which can extend P2P support to all devices on your network, enhancing convenience and privacy. Here are a few reasons why it’s considered the best:

  • Safety measures: ExpressVPN’s Lightway employs industry-standard AES-256 encryption, bolstered by a reliable kill switch and IP and DNS leak protection. Its audited no-logs policy and British Virgin Islands location ensure your online activities remain confidential.
  • Server fleet: ExpressVPN’s 3,000+ servers span some 105 countries. Its exclusive use of RAM-only servers sets it apart, guaranteeing user data confidentiality at all times.
  • Speed: Lightway is fast, retaining an average of around 77% of the upload speed during testing – tailor-made for P2P performance.
  • TrustedServer technology: ExpressVPN’s TrustedServer technology, which runs exclusively on RAM and not on hard drives, further enhances security by eliminating any risk of data being stored.
  • Additional features: With additional features like split tunneling, bypassing firewalls, and protection against Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), ExpressVPN ensures a seamless and secure torrenting and P2P file-sharing experience.

The Best VPN Protocols Compared

Let’s go into a comprehensive VPN protocol comparison across the best VPN services available today.

Whether you’re looking for top-tier security, blazing-fast speeds, or optimal compatibility, we’ll now compare VPN protocols to help you make an informed decision to safeguard your online privacy and enhance your internet experience.

Protocol  Speed & Performance Security & Encryption Compatibility Ease of Setup Best For TCP Support Supports Network Switching
WireGuard Excellent Excellent All devices Easy Class-leading speeds and security
OpenVPN Good Excellent All devices Moderate Unblocking geo-restricted content, privacy
Lightway Excellent Excellent All devices Built-in ExpressVPN users
NordLynx Excellent Excellent All devices Built-in NordVPN users
PPTP Slow Moderate All devices Very easy Old devices
L2TP/IPSec Moderate Strong All devices Moderate Privacy-focused users
SSTP Good Strong Windows, Linux Moderate Windows users
IKEv2/IPSec Excellent Excellent Windows, macOS, Android, iOS Easy Mobile devices, speed, and privacy

Having talked in detail about the best VPN protocols on the market, it’s about time we shed light on what’s ultimately the best VPN provider that will match your requirements for the ideal VPN protocol. Our table here aims to do just that:

Top VPN Services Protocols on Offer Starting Price Free Version Money-Back Guarantee Server Count
Surfshark OpenVPN, WireGuard, IKEv2/IPSec $2.29/month – 2-year Surfshark Starter plan 7-day trial on Android, Mac, iOS 30 days 3,200+ in 100 countries
ExpressVPN Lightway, OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPSec $6.67 – 12-month plan 30 days 3,000+ in 105 countries
NordVPN NordLynx, OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPSec $3.09/month – 2-year Standard Plan 30 days 6,200+ in 111 countries
CyberGhost VPN OpenVPN, WireGuard, IKEv2/IPSec $2.03/month – 2 year plan Trials for all devices 45 days 11,500+ in 100 countries

We’ve tested, analyzed, compared, and reviewed countless leading VPNs, and these are the best on the market for various needs and budgets.

Whether you want a cheap option with decent power under the hood or a premium provider, we have something for you.

Our Other Core VPN Guides

Check out our other VPN guides, which cater to specific use cases and can help you find the best VPN for your requirements:

How We Tested the Best VPN Protocols

Our analysis of VPN protocols is rooted in a rigorous and comprehensive testing process, ensuring our insights are based on real-world performance and user feedback.

With an extensive history of evaluating VPN types, we’ve honed our expertise to understand what truly matters in this field, from user interfaces across apps to the speed and security features that make or break a VPN’s reputation.

Our testing methodology encompasses many criteria, including user-friendliness, compatibility with various devices and platforms, speed and performance, and, most importantly, security and privacy features.

By putting VPN protocols through their paces in controlled environments, we can make accurate comparisons and pinpoint where each one excels and where it may need improvement. But we don’t stop there.

To provide a well-rounded overview, we integrate our testing results with user feedback from various sources, such as Reddit and TrustPilot. This allows us to capture long-term experiences and potential issues that may not surface during our limited testing period.

Our commitment to transparency and trustworthiness means you can rely on our assessments, knowing the process we follow. We don’t simply take VPN protocols at face value – instead, we dive deep, test thoroughly, analyze user feedback, and draw conclusions based on real-world performance and experiences.

This dedication ensures that the VPN protocols we recommend are the ones we believe in and trust for your online privacy and security.

Conclusion – What’s The Best VPN Protocol Available Today?

VPN protocols are essential for establishing a secure, fast connection between your device and a VPN server. Different protocols use unique data encryption techniques and have different performances in terms of speed, reliability, and resilience against attacks.

For the most secure connections, we recommend using the OpenVPN or IKEv2/IPsec protocols, and for the fastest connection speeds, WireGuard or IKEv2/IPsec.

FAQs

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Krishi Chowdhary
Tech Expert
Krishi Chowdhary
Tech Expert

Krishi Chowdhary has half a decade of experience writing buying guides and product reviews for numerous leading technology websites. He spent two years writing for Business2Community.com before joining Techopedia.com. He has a degree in Commerce and extensive experience in the technology industry. He's also the key driver behind TechReport.com's news content, delivering expertise insight into the latest tech and cybersecurity news daily.