Types of VPNs and when to use them

Sure, you may be using a VPN (Virtual Private Network), but do you know what kind of VPN it is? And no, we don’t mean the brand, like Surfshark — we mean the type of VPN. Remote access VPNs, site-to-site VPNs, personal VPNs — the list goes on. Let’s dig deeper into all of them and see how they differ. 

Table of contents

    VPN types sorted by use-cases

    VPN types are not the same as VPN services. Let me make a car analogy. If VPNs, in general, were cars, types of VPNs would be like types of cars: hatchbacks, sedans, SUVs, and so on. They differ in implementation and function. 

    VPN services would be like car manufacturers: so if your car may come from Hyundai, Ford, or SsangYong, your VPN may come from Surfshark, Nord, or some other company. 

    In this metaphor, a free VPN is a box with four wheels. One of those wheels is loose. 

    Also, our tech nerds up to the CTO level say that there is no hard sorting of VPN types and no SI-system-approved table. But people love doing it anyway, so we’re doing it. Here’s our take:

    Remote access VPNs — for businesses and individuals

    A remote access VPN allows a user (you) to access a network securely and remotely. The most likely application of this in a business setting is accessing your work network from home. 

    How do remote access VPNs work? 

    With a remote-access VPN, you are likely to have a client (app) on your device. This client establishes a secure VPN tunnel to the VPN server. Any data passing between the client and server is encrypted, so it’s hidden from observation even when you use regular public internet to maintain the connection.

    What does this mean?

    For businesses, this means keeping your data – and the corporate secrets of your scented candle manufacturing plant – safe. 

    For individuals, this also means keeping your data safe. Many commercial types of VPNs operate the same way. You, the user, connect to a VPN server, allowing you to access their network… which just turns out to be the internet!

    As a result, you get benefits like:

    • Websites and services record the server’s IP address and consider the server’s location yours
    • Firewalls and other blocking mechanisms see that you’re connecting to the VPN server, not YouTube or Roblox, so they let the connection go through.

    Site-to-site VPNs — for large-scale businesses

    Site-to-site VPNs are the big chungus brother of the remote access VPN. That’s because they connect the private networks of two organizations

    When the same company joins its own networks, it could be a company office in Kiribati connecting the office in Warsaw. This is called an intranet-based site-to-site VPN. In an extranet-based VPN, one company could allow another to access only specific data needed for their partnership. A site-to-site VPN is also sometimes referred to as a router-to-router VPN.

    The complexity of setting up site-to-site VPNs means that it’s mostly used by large businesses

    How do site-to-site VPNs work?

    To connect the private networks of two organizations, a site-to-site VPN often uses routers.
    One router acts like the client, and the other one – like the server the client connects to. This is already more complicated than the remote access model, in which the client is simply a phone or computer app. 

    Personal VPNs — for individual consumers

    A personal VPN is a VPN you, the user, set up to securely access your home network. Say you want to order a printer at home to start, well, printing – this could be accomplished via a secure personal VPN connection.

    On the other hand, the spirit might move you to call consumer VPN services like Surfshark a  personal VPN because it’s meant to be used by individual customers – persons, if you will. 

    How do personal VPNs work?

    You, the user, download the VPN app and connect to your chosen server. As far as you’re concerned, your work is done. All the data encryption and decryption are sorted by the server and the client on your device. 

    So the function of a personal access VPN is similar to that of a remote access one… except that while a remote access VPN opens up into a fairly small corporate network, a personal VPN goes out into the internet. 

    Business VPNs — for all types of businesses

    Business VPNs largely overlap with remote access and site-to-site VPN categories. After all, they provide features that are attractive to businesses – and their setup requires resources often only a business can muster. However, the access control VPN is another VPN type that falls under the business VPN umbrella. 

    How do business VPNs work?

    Access control VPNs exist to silo off access to certain company data. For example, a VPN created for the marketing department would only let the users reach data marked useful for marketing. Meanwhile, the engineering department would have its access control VPN branch that would only let them see materials related to engineering. 

    VPN types sorted by price — premium, budget, and free VPNs

    Welcome to the wild-west of VPNs! We’re talking about consumer-grade VPNs, like Surfshark or whatever else a person reading this article (that’s you) is using. Premium VPNs, just like budget VPNs and free VPNs, are classed by nothing else but the price. This type of VPN can combine some of the features described in the previous sections, depending on their attempts.

    The real difference only exists between premium VPNs – which encompass basically any VPN that charges a subscription fee – and free VPNs. Considering how cheap premium VPNs are these days, budget VPNs aren’t exactly a thing. 

    But for the consumer, the choice isn’t obvious: they may be free, but free VPNs are worse than the premium ones in every way. When it comes to functionality like the number of servers, server locations, speed, whether or not speed limits exist, the usability of the app, platforms supported, and so on, premium VPNs win every time.

    Limitations of the top free VPNs (according to data by Techradar):
    Paid VPN for contrast (Surfshark):
    Server countries
    Data limits
    500MB/month* – 10GB/month
    24/7 support

    *One provider offers 500MB/day limits
    **One provider offers unlimited data but engages in speed throttling
    ***4 out of 6 VPNs in question

    Surfshark VPN is among the premium VPNs - why not give it a spin?

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    Types of VPN protocols and which one is best for you

    No matter what type of VPN you use, it still relies on a VPN protocol. If we were to extend the car metaphor, a VPN protocol is like the engine – it’s what makes it work. And just like with engines, several VPN protocols were developed, improved, superseded by others, and declared obsolete. 

    IPSec – Internet Protocol Security

    IPSec, very technically speaking, is not a VPN protocol by itself. It can create a secure tunnel that a VPN needs to work, but it can’t establish secure communication. That’s why IPSec/IKEv2 – almost always called IKEv2 – is more popular: the former does the tunneling, and the latter sets the groundwork for establishing it. 

    The takeaway: IKEv2 isn’t the newest, but it’s still OK and sees some utility with mobile users.

    L2TP – Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol

    L2TP isn’t the newest kid on the block but it isn’t the oldest, either. And while it is rumored to have been compromised by intelligence agencies, the issue only seems to arise when the users use a weak pre-set password. VPN services are usually smarter than that.

    The takeaway: L2TP is generally outdated, especially when it comes to speed. Any of the really modern VPN protocols are superior.

    PPTP – Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol

    PPTP is not much older than many of the protocols mentioned in this article. It was developed with the cooperative effort of several companies – including Microsoft. As such, PPTP was bundled with Windows as part of the native VPN capability.

    The takeaway: In 2023, PPTP is a downright bad choice. It’s both outdated and riddled with security issues. There is no solid use case that any other protocol wouldn’t fulfill.

    SSL – Secure Sockets Layer and TLS – Transport Layer Security

    SSL and TLS aren’t exactly VPN protocols, though if you’re tipsy, squinting, and it’s dark, you could mistake it for one (or be convinced to use it when building a VPN). SSL and its successor TLS are used to secure your everyday internet use. 

    As such, you don’t really get to choose whether to use them. SSL is on the way out, but some legacy systems still cling to it. TLS is the new hotness, and any decent website you visit should be securing the connection with it.

    The takeaway: neither SSL nor TLS are VPN protocols, and SSL is rapidly fading out of use.


    OpenVPN is one of the mainstays of the VPN protocol business. It has been relentlessly tested over years and years of use in all sorts of settings. It may not be the freshest design ever, but it is reliable, and that counts for a lot.

    The takeaway: OpenVPN is a good alternative to other VPN protocols you may use.

    SSH – Secure Shell

    SSH is very close to what you could consider a VPN protocol. It operates on similar principles, with one key difference: it only protects one connection to a specific target, while a VPN can encrypt all your traffic. 

    Nevertheless, SSH is very popular among high-tech nerds doing computer engineering tasks we can’t fathom.

    The takeaway: SSH is kind of like a VPN but beyond the reach of the usual consumer.


    Wireguard is one of the hippest happening VPN protocols out there. It’s faster and smoother than others, even OpenVPN. Over the past few years, it has steadily claimed more and more space in the consumer VPN space.

    The takeaway: Wireguard is so good that we at Surfshark have set it as the default protocol for our users.

    In conclusion: get the type of VPN you need

    In the wondrous techno future that we live in, you have a choice when picking a type of VPN. And only when you’re fully informed about what the VPN does can you get the one that fits your needs. For most people, a premium VPN is all they need. Hey, Surfshark is a premium VPN, why not get Surfshark?

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    How many types of VPNs are there?

    While there is no hard classification of VPNs, the main types are:

    • Remote access VPNs – for employees in far-off places accessing the company network;
    • Site-to-site VPNs – for company intranets accessing each other; 
    • Personal VPNs – for individual customers to securely access their home network;
    • Business VPsN – for all types of businesses to access company data.

    What is a VPN and what are the types of it?

    A VPN is a virtual private network, a technology used to imitate the security of connecting two computers by wire but over the public internet. 

    Nobody has made an effort to meaningfully classify VPN types, but many people talk about remote access VPNs and site-to-site VPNs as the largest types.

    What is the best type of VPN?

    The best type of VPN depends on the way you sort VPNs into types. If we sort by price, premium VPNs are best. If we sort by use cases, it would depend on your needs.