Your ISP can see your VPN connection because they recognize an unfamiliar IP address. However, they cannot see anything specific about your online activity, like your search and download history or 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.

Table of contents

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

    While a VPN offers you some degree of anonymity online, your ISP will still be able to see some of the following:

    1. Your VPN connection: Your ISP can track your VPN use by seeing that you’re connected to a VPN server but won’t know what you are doing. All information is encrypted and illegible.
    2. Your VPN’s IP address (Internet Protocol address): Thanks to your ISP, you can access 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 protocol: VPNs use a technology that offers different protocols (visible to your ISP) to provide a safe connection. 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 internet provider can see when and for how long you connect, 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 internet service providers can identify the information mentioned above, there 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 or your browsing history.
    2. What files you download: Your ISP can guess what 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 you are downloading.
    3. What you search for: The same way your ISP won’t be able to see the websites you visit, they won’t see what you search for on the internet. They’ll know you’re generating web traffic but nothing else.
    4. What you type anywhere: With a VPN, your ISP might see that you are writing, but they won’t be able to read it as the information is encrypted.

    Why should you hide your data from ISPs?

    There are three main reasons to use a VPN to hide your data from the ISP:

    1. Bandwidth throttling: some ISPs are legally allowed to slow down your internet speed when streaming or gaming to lessen network congestion. 
    2. Data sales: in the US and a few other countries, it’s legal for the ISP to sell the data gathered on you to advertisers. 
    3. Censorship: if you live under an oppressive government, the ISPs are one of the main bodies making sure you don’t visit forbidden sites. 

    There are more benefits to VPN use, but those are the main ones when it comes to hiding traffic from the ISP. 

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

    When your ISP is trying to identify a VPN connection, they might use some of the following methods.

    VPN server’s IP address

    When you connect to a VPN server, your local ISP sees your traffic going to a single IP address different from the one they initially gave you. Therefore, this data might indicate you are using a VPN 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) 

    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 what websites you visit.

    Are there VPN alternatives that hide you from ISPs?

    Broadly speaking, there are two VPN alternatives: Tor and proxies

    Tor (The Onion Router) is run by the Tor Project. It was built with secure communications in mind, and its functionality is based upon that. To use it, you need to download a special Tor browser. Check our guide how to use Tor more safely and easily. 

    When you surf the internet on the Tor browser, it bounces your data via three nodes (run by volunteers) before it reaches the website you were aiming for. The data is bundled in three layers of encryption (like an onion – hence the name) – but each node can only decrypt one of them. No node sees the full picture of what’s going where – they only see their neighbors. 

    Proxies are a bit more generic and widespread. They also operate on a simpler principle: they’re just routing your data via a single proxy server. That way, the website or service you visit thinks you’re connected from the location of the proxy. That’s it – no encrypted data, no frills.

    Tor

    Encrypts your data three times and bounces it via three volunteer relays before reaching its destination

    Pros
    Cons
    Free
    You have to install a new browser
    Encrypted
    The Tor browser is too slow for anything but reading text

    Proxy

    Bounces your data via a proxy server

    Pros
    Cons
    Likely cheaper than VPN
    Most often unencrypted and hides very little from the ISP

    As you can see, neither proxies nor Tor are good VPN alternatives when it comes to maintaining secrecy from the ISP. Proxies don’t hide much, and while Tor is a lot better, it’s unfit for everyday use as it is very slow. 

    You may also be thinking about free VPNs at this point. 

    Can you use a free VPN to hide data from ISPs?

    You can use a free VPN, but you shouldn’t. As we outline in free VPNs vs. paid VPNs article, the free option has several disadvantages:

    1. “Free” means the VPN providers have an interest in selling your data
    2. They are usually slower and more annoying to use since the goal is to sell you a premium version.
    3. Some free VPNs don’t even encrypt your data, which is what you need to hide traffic from ISPs. 

    Data privacy is one of the main reasons not to choose a free VPN. As a free product, a free VPN has to make money somehow. This makes collecting and selling your data to advertisers and such a much more lucrative proposition. 

    Therefore, any data you hide from your ISP by using a free VPN could still reach the advertisers. Not via an ISP, but out of the hands of a VPN developer. Meanwhile, premium VPNs make their money from subscriptions, so such revenue streams are unnecessary. 

    Free VPNs have a few other disadvantages:

    1. No stable source of income means fewer funds for research and development.
    2. Some free VPNs don’t even encrypt your connection.
    3. Some free VPNs contain malware and adware. 
    4. Free VPNs don’t rely on reputation as much, so they are unlikely to have independent audits. 

    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. 

    For example, using a VPN in China and Russia is heavily restricted, while in places like Iran and Belarus, it’s downright illegal. There, ISPs are regulated by the government and must 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 if they’re legal in your region. 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 you’re using a VPN from your ISP by using obfuscated servers. Many VPNs (like Surfshark) have this feature. This makes your internet traffic seem like any other traffic, thus hiding the fact you’re using a VPN from your ISP.

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

    Content
    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

    In conclusion: keep your data to yourself, not your ISP

    A VPN cannot guarantee 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), web traffic, 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 toward a better internet experience.

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    FAQ

    Can my VPN provider see my data?

    Technically, a VPN provider can see your data if it’s not under HTTPS encryption. But if it’s using HTTPS, then a VPN provider can only log your activities: what pages you accessed, when, and for how long. 

    Can the government track a VPN?

    The government may see (by asking your internet service provider) that you’re using a VPN. However, they still can’t see the websites you’re using while you’re connected to a VPN. To avoid such dangers posed by the governments, Surfshark VPN has an obfuscation called “Camouflage mode.”

    Can my ISP see what sites I visit?

    Yes, as the ISP handles all your web traffic, they can see what sites you visit.  

    What is ISP vs. VPN?

    ISP stands for “Internet Service Provider,” the company providing you with internet access to the world wide web. A VPN is a “Virtual Private Network,” which encrypts your data and forwards it to its server before it goes to the website you had in mind, thus hiding what you’re doing online from your ISP and obfuscating your IP address from the website. 

    An ISP is vital to accessing the internet. A VPN isn’t, but it makes using the internet more private and handy.