What does your ISP see when you’re on a VPN

Your ISP sees your VPN connection because they can recognize an unfamiliar IP address. However, they cannot see anything specific about your online activity. This includes your search and download history, as well as the websites you visit.

Like it or not, practically everyone has to go through an ISP (Internet Service Provider) to surf the web, watch Netflix, send emails, and do anything else on the internet. That’s why many people use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to keep their online activity hidden from ISPs. 

With this in mind, we can ask ourselves: Can an ISP see a VPN? 

This article will explain what ISPs do and don’t see and how they know you’re using a VPN.

What’s visible to ISPs when you use a VPN? 

While a VPN does keep you anonymous online, your ISP will still be able to see some of the following:

  1. Your VPN connection: Your ISP will see that you connect to a VPN server but won’t know what you are doing. All information is encrypted and illegible.
  2. Your VPN server’s IP (Internet Protocol) address: Thanks to your ISP, you have access to the internet. They are responsible for sending your requests as data packets to a VPN server. So, they’ll always know the VPN’s IP address but not the data packet’s final destination.
  3. Your VPN’s protocol: To provide a safe connection, VPNs use a technology that offers different protocols (visible to your ISP). Even though your ISP sees what protocol you’re using, they cannot take any information from it, so it doesn’t affect you in any way. 
  4. Your connection timestamps: Your ISP can always see when you connect and for how long, but they won’t know what websites you’re on. Whether you use a VPN or not, they’ll see when you connect to the internet.
  5. Your bandwidth usage: When you browse, stream, download large files, or play games, your ISP may see how much bandwidth you use. But they won’t know what you’re using it for. 

What do VPNs hide from ISPs? 

Even though ISPs can identify the information mentioned above, these are some things they can’t see when you use a VPN:  

  1. What websites you visit: Your ISP can see that you are browsing, but they will not see the specific websites you visit.
  2. What files you download: Your ISP can guess what sort of activity you’re doing based on the amount of bandwidth you are using – for example, streaming, torrents, downloaded files, etc. But, they won’t be able to see what exactly you are downloading.
  3. What you search for: The same way your ISP can’t see the websites you visit, they won’t identify what you are searching for. They will see your web traffic, but nothing else.
  4. What you type anywhere: With a VPN, your ISP might see that you are writing, but this information is encrypted, therefore, unreadable.

How does your ISP know you’re using a VPN? 

can isp see vpn

When your ISP is trying to identify a VPN connection, these are some methods they might use to find out. 

VPN server’s IP address

When you connect to a VPN server, your local ISP sees your traffic being sent to a single IP  address that’s different from the one they gave you initially. Therefore, this data might indicate you are using a tunnel to encrypt your information.

VPN protocol 

Your ISP can see or at least guess that you are using a VPN based on the port number. Different VPN protocols like OpenVPN (UDP or TCP), IKEv2, or WireGuard® use specific port numbers. These numbers are part of the process of identifying the message request you are sending to a server. 

DPI (Deep Packet Inspection) 

The Deep Packet Inspection is a process that looks into traffic to find more information about  a user’s web activity. Instead of just seeing general information (IP and protocol), this method enables ISPs to watch the data packet movement, make assumptions about what kind of traffic it is, and more. But, this doesn’t mean your ISP will always know exactly what websites you visit.

Do ISPs care if you use a VPN?

No, generally ISPs don’t care whether you use a VPN or not. However, some ISPs are forced to care, courtesy to their local governments. 

In countries like China and Russia, VPN use is heavily restricted, while in places like Iran and Belarus it’s straight up illegal. Here, ISPs are regulated by the government, and have to report all VPN users to the authorities or block specific websites.

If you’re planning to use a VPN, it’s always a good idea to check their legality. You can find information about it in our blog post: Are VPNs legal?

But wait, all hope is not lost! There are ways to hide the fact that you’re using a VPN from your ISP and it’s called using obfuscated servers. Many VPNs (like Surfshark) have this feature. This makes your internet traffic seem like any other traffic, hiding the fact that you’re using a VPN from your ISP.

Round-up: How much online privacy do you have? 

Does your ISP see it if you use a VPN?
Websites visited
Web searches
Typed information
Downloaded files
Online purchases
Personal information
VPN is in use
VPN server’s IP address
VPN protocol
Connection timestamps

Save the private stuff for yourself – not your ISP

A VPN cannot guarantee you 100% anonymity, but it does give an extensive amount of protection. Your ISP will be limited in what they can see if you use a VPN. They won’t see your personal information (i.e., what you type), your web traffic, your browsing and streaming habits, online purchases, and more. 

Besides, a VPN can also help you avoid bandwidth throttling, get access to blocked websites, and much more. If you are protective of your privacy, using a VPN is the first step into a better internet experience.

Disclaimer: Surfshark does not encourage using a VPN in ways that would potentially violate Terms of Service of streaming service providers.

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