Nearly everyone has a smartphone these days: it’s not a luxury but a necessity of modern life. Unfortunately, smartphones aren’t always in range of a Wi-Fi signal you can use, so sometimes, you bite the bullet and use mobile data. But does a VPN work on it?
In short: Does a VPN work on cellular data?
Yes, but the whole answer is a bit more complex.
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 form of internet, it’s just a different form 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.
To use a car analogy as most of us have seen a car in our lives, your data is like 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 anywhere.
So if VPNs work on 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.
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.
Can you use a VPN without Wi-Fi?
A VPN works on any internet connection, not just Wi-Fi. So if you don’t have a Wi-Fi connection but have mobile data or just a wire, you can use a VPN.
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: a telecom, a mobile carrier, etc. All the same rules apply to mobile networks and mobile data.
If a VPN was able to 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. Needless to say, 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 convince 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 to use 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.
Does a VPN 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:
- 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.
- Routing that data via a VPN server.
- Decrypting the data, reconstructing it into the original chunks, and forwarding these chunks to a website or service.
- Repeating this process the other way around once it gets a reply.
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 quoted that, depending on protocol, you can expect to see 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?
IKEv2 (technically IPsec/IKEv2, but let’s not get nitpicky) is the best protocol for mobile data because:
- It only has medium encryption overhead.
- It is really good at maintaining a VPN connection even when you’re switching actual connections (when moving from one cell phone tower’s radius to another).
At the same time, WireGuard, the new kid on the block, is also great for reducing overhead without compromising security. Plus, switching VPN protocols on a VPN app is as easy as pie.
Are there protocols that use even less overhead? Yes, PPTP and such, but they’re obsolete and unsafe to the point where you might as well not use them.
How can I make a VPN use less mobile data?
There are a few ways you can minimize VPN data usage:
- Use split tunneling: Split tunneling allows you to make exceptions for which apps use VPN protection or not. The unprotected stuff will not have an encryption overhead because it’s not encrypted.
- Turn off the VPN when not in use: When you don’t need the VPN’s functions of hiding your IP and encrypting your data, you can turn it off.
- Avoid free VPNs: Among many reasons not to use a free VPN is that it might be monetized via ads and pop-ups, and those eat up mobile data like crazy.
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 thinks of mobile users as well.