Does a VPN work on mobile data?

Nearly everyone has a smartphone these days: it’s not a luxury but a modern life necessity. And as with every necessity, you want to make sure it’s protected. One of the ways to do that is to get a VPN. You might be asking yourself: does VPN work on cellular data? You’re in luck: yes, it works pretty much the same as on Wi-Fi, though the full answer is a bit more complex.  

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    Does a VPN work on mobile data?

    If your smartphone supports VPN apps, then a virtual private network will work on mobile data

    Let’s be clear: mobile data isn’t a special type of internet. It’s just a different way of delivering data, like fiber optic wire or Wi-Fi. Sure, mobile carriers usually track every megabyte of use and charge you a pretty steep sum for it, but it’s all the same internet. Think of it as Wi-Fi, but one that trades bandwidth for longer reach.

    As most of us have seen a car in our lives, imagine your data is a car. It needs fuel (internet connectivity) to go places. A VPN is like motor oil: it makes your car (data) move better. However, if you don’t have fuel, you can slather your car in motor oil as much as you want – it will still not move.

    So if VPNs work on a regular cable connection (not really a thing on smartphones) and on Wi-Fi (it does, though it can be dangerous), then it works on mobile data as well. 

    Does using a VPN give you unlimited mobile data?  

    In short, a VPN cannot magically give you unlimited mobile data

    Think about it – a VPN works by simulating a physical connection between two devices over the internet. It still uses the internet infrastructure to do that. So, it needs to access the internet in the first place, which is provided by your ISP (Internet Service Provider) – a telecom, a mobile carrier, etc. All of the same rules apply to mobile networks and mobile data.

    If a VPN could establish some super connection without using existing internet infrastructure, it would literally be magic. Then you could use it to give online connectivity to other devices that aren’t connected, but that’s not how it works.

    To go back to the car analogy, motor oil is not a replacement for fuel. No amount of oil lubricating your engine will magically compensate for an empty gas tank (or a battery if you’re an electric car-driving person). 

    What is a VPN data cap? 

    A VPN provider – usually a free one – can have a cap on how much data you can use with a VPN for free. This is usually done to force users to upgrade their plans. 

    Premium VPNs (like Surfshark) rarely have a data cap. In other words, you can use them as much as your heart desires. However, a VPN data cap does not influence any other data caps. To use a VPN, you still need to use the internet. And when using the internet, you will still be dealing with your cellular data limit. 

    Again with the car analogy: winning a lifetime supply of motor oil will keep your engine lubricated forever, but it will not put gas in your fuel tank.

    So while the terms sound similar, it’s very different in practice.

    VPN data usage: does it use more data?

    Yes, using a VPN will increase your data usage – including mobile data – and anyone who says otherwise is a liar. 

    It’s all thanks to something called “encryption overhead.” You see, a VPN operates by:

    1. Encrypting your data, which means scrambling the contents, chopping it up into packages, and adding a necessary wrapping for the VPN server to know what’s what;
    2. Routing that data via a VPN server;
    3. Decrypting the data, reconstructing it into the original chunks, and forwarding these chunks to a website or service;
    4. Repeating this process the other way around once it gets a reply.
    VPN data usage: does it use more data?

    That being said, your data gets chopped up into packages for transmission even without a VPN. The difference is that a VPN connection repacks it to keep you safe, and encryption overhead helps the server reconstruct that structure after description. Just how big the overhead is depends on the VPN protocol in use. Generally, the more secure protocols incur a larger overhead. 

    It’s typically said that, depending on the protocol, you can expect a 5-15% increase in data use, with the biggest glutton being OpenVPN working in TCP mode. 

    What VPN protocol is best for mobile data?

    The simple answer is IKEv2 but let’s take a closer look. 

    • PPTP: uses the least data. However, that also makes it the least secure. By now, it’s pretty outdated and should be avoided in general; 
    • OpenVPN TCP: often considered the most secure protocol. However, it also consumes a lot of mobile data and can be a bit slower than the others; 
    • OpenVPN UDP: faster than and just as secure as TCP. The connection may be less stable but not enough that it would hinder what you’re doing. A decent option; 
    • WireGuard: the newest security protocol. Uses very little mobile data and is very fast. A great option for anyone; 
    • IKEv2: our winner. Great at conserving mobile data. Fast, efficient, and has no issues dealing with network changes. 

    How can I make a VPN use less mobile data?

    There are a few ways you can minimize VPN data usage:

    1. Use split tunneling 

    Split tunneling (Bypasser on Surfshark) allows you to make exceptions for which apps use VPN protection. For example, you can choose to encrypt everything except your Steam account. In this case, Steam would not have an encryption overhead because it’s not encrypted. That way, apps you do not want to protect will not use data. 

    1. Turn off the VPN when not in use

    When you don’t need the VPN to hide your IP and encrypt your data, you can turn it off. Of course, we recommend keeping the VPN on all the time, as you never know where threats lurk. Still, if you’re not using your phone for a bit, you might want to turn your VPN off to reserve data. 

    1. Avoid free VPNs

    There are many reasons you shouldn’t use free VPNs. One of them is data usage. As free VPNs often stay afloat by showing you ads and pop-ups, you will likely end up using more data. Loading these ads and pop-ups takes more resources than loading a regular VPN app. 

    Get your mobile VPN right here 

    Now that we’ve established that a VPN works over cellular data and the impact it has on data usage, you can start thinking about getting a VPN that’s right for you. With that in mind, ensure your security and privacy with a VPN service that cares about mobile users too. 

    Give the mobile VPN a spin

    Get Surfshark

    FAQ 

    Do I need a VPN when using cellular data?

    Yes. Although cellular data is generally safer than Wi-Fi, it still has many threats you can be subjected to. 

    Does a VPN work without Wi-Fi? 

    Yes. VPNs work with any internet connection type, not just Wi-Fi. 

    Can you connect to a VPN without an internet connection? 

    No, a VPN only works if you have an internet connection. Any sort will do: land wire, Wi-Fi, mobile data, etc.

    Does using a VPN on your phone use more battery? 

    Yes. The same is true with any app you leave running. For example, if you use Spotify to listen to music for three hours, it will use more battery than listening to one song and turning it off. It’s the same with a VPN. If you only run it to check your email, it won’t use too much battery. But if you want to keep your data encrypted for longer, your battery will have to pay the price.