two figures that represent different VPN protocols fighting

VPN (Virtual Private Network) protocols are to a VPN what morals are to society – rules ensuring the entire process’s function, safety, and stability. There is a wide variety of current and outdated VPN protocols,  and we’ll take you through how they compare and which ones are best for every situation.

What is a VPN protocol?

A VPN protocol is a set of rules for creating or participating in a Virtual Private Network (VPN). It determines the authorization, authentication, encryption, traffic capturing, and transportation methods under which your VPN client establishes your connection to a VPN server.

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    What a VPN protocol is not

    Let’s bust some widespread VPN myths to kick us off:

    VPN protocols determine your connection speed: yes, but not directly. This statement is only partially true.

    VPN protocols determine the security of your connection: they don’t. The encryption algorithms they use do.

    You may wonder, what makes VPN protocols important, then?

    Protocols help VPN services build and configure their networks on an existing digital foundation.

    It is possible to develop and use your own protocols, but it would mostly be a waste of time and resources. Most VPN providers use open-source protocols built to support multiple operating systems, audited and trusted by the cybersecurity community.

    A deep dive into the different VPN security protocols

    If you’re already using a VPN, you may have selected a protocol and forgotten about it. Since it works fine, why would you need to know about the others? Let’s hear from the experts at NetBlocks: 

    The underlying protocol a VPN uses affects latency, performance, and reliability of the encrypted tunnel. Tracking connectivity around the world we see that not all protocols are equal, so consumers should get familiar with the options,” says Alp Toker, Founder & Director of independent internet monitoring organization NetBlocks.

    So here’s a closer look at what makes certain VPN protocols shine: 

    1. OpenVPN

    Pros:
    Cons:
    • No known vulnerabilities
    • Top-tier encryption and authentication
    • Open-source
    • Bulky code
    • Software setup may seem daunting

    Verdict: Recommended in most situations.

     

    OpenVPN is an open-source VPN system that comes both as software and a protocol for VPN services. Its encryption and verification processes are based  on the TLS (Transport Layer Security) methodologies.

    It is usually paired with the very secure AES-256-GCM encryption algorithm. The open-source nature of this protocol has made it possible for specialists worldwide to check it for security gaps and other issues. 

    The downside is that it can be hard to set up, but if you’re using a VPN service (like Surfshark), that doesn’t matter to you. 

    2. IKEv2/IPSec

    Pros:
    Cons:
    • Very fast
    • Reliable
    • Works well on mobile networks
    • Speed may vary depending on the device-server distance

    Verdict: Recommended in most situations.

     

    Internet Key Exchange version 2 (IKEv2) is the authentication protocol used with the IPSec VPN protocol. As IPSec (Internet Protocol Security) partly runs in the background on the system’s kernel, it allows IKEv2 to be very fast.

    IKEv2 is implemented on most operating systems, so you can easily use it instead of the slower OpenVPN. While it uses the same grand security tools as OpenVPN, IKEv2 is much easier to scale and maintain on a server level.

    3. WireGuard

    Pros:
    Cons:
    • Secure
    • Only 4,000 lines of code
    • Open-source
    • Exceptional speed
    • Connectionless
    • Easy to set up
    • Still relatively new

    Verdict: Highly recommended in most cases.

     

    WireGuard is a spunky protocol that delivers a connection speed faster than IKEv2 and OpenVPN yet only uses 4,000 lines of code (OpenVPN clocks in at around 400,000). Its lightweight code allows easier auditing and, in theory, improves its stability.

    While it doesn’t have years of experience (and testing) like OpenVPN, WireGuard offers top-tier security and encryption standards at an unmatched speed due to its simplicity. Implemented on Linux and Android, it seems to be here to stay.

    *WireGuard is a registered trademark of Jason A. Donenfeld.

    4. SoftEther

    Pros:
    Cons:
    • Fast, stable, and secure
    • Comes with additional features to protocols like OpenVPN
    • Open-source
    • Has not yet stood the test of time

    Verdict: Good alternative to OpenVPN.

     

    SoftEther is an open-source multi-protocol VPN client and server software. It adds advanced functionality features – GUI (Graphical User Interface) Management and RPC (Remote Procedure Calls) – over HTTPS (Hypertext Transport Protocol).

    It is faster than OpenVPN and can use the same security tools. However, it hasn’t been around that long, so it’s not as tested as OpenVPN.

    5. Tunneling protocol: PPTP

     

    Pros:
    Cons:
    • Easy setup
    • Fast
    • Awful security
    • Known to be exploited
    • Severely outdated
    • Easily blocked by firewalls

    Verdict: Not recommended. Ever.

     

    Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) is an old and obsolete tunneling protocol that no VPN service should ever use. It only supports encryption ciphers up to 128 bits and has several known exploits revealed by the US government and the NSA (National Security Agency).

    As internet security and privacy advocates, we cannot recommend PPTP under any circumstances.

    6. Tunneling protocol: SSTP

    Strengths:
    Weaknesses:
    • Easily bypasses firewalls
    • Can use industry-standard encryption
    • Not bad at negotiating and checking internet traffic
    • Easy set up on Windows OS
    • Code was never revealed/audited
    • Difficult to make compatible with other OS apart from Windows
    • Code is unavailable for VPN developers to tinker with

    Verdict: Secure-ish but not recommended.

     

    Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) is a tunneling protocol that can send PPP (Point-to-Point Protocol) traffic. SSTP can run over port 443, which is often left open in many firewalls allowing the user to bypass them. 

    However, SSTP’s downfalls are twofold: there’s a lack of compatibility with other operating systems besides Windows, and its code remains unaudited, raising concerns that it might have in-built backdoors. 

    7. L2TP/IPsec

    Pros:
    Cons:
    • Relatively secure
    • Outdated
    • L2TP does not encrypt itself
    • Bad authentication
    • Slow

    Verdict: Not recommended.

     

     

    Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) is a tunneling protocol that does not provide security on its own and uses IPSec for encryption.  L2TP encapsulates data twice, which slows down the connection speed. Also, L2TP, as rumored by John Gilmore, one of the founders of the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), has been deliberately made less secure during its development stages.

    8. What about Shadowsocks?

    Shadowsocks is a tunnel proxy based on SOCKS5, and while it can run through a VPN application, it is not a VPN protocol. 

    It’s an open-source project that was specifically designed to bypass the Great Firewall of China.  However, it’s not the most graceful protocol to implement and run. For our Chinese users, our NoBorders mode should help meet that need. 

    What is the best VPN security protocol?

    Is there such a thing as the best VPN protocol at all?

    Truthfully, “best” is a strong word, and it’s impossible to pick one protocol that’s the best for every situation. The two protocols that form today’s crème de la crème are WireGuard and IKEv2/IPSec

    OpenVPN is a close third as, on paper, it delivers the same results but is more difficult to work with. However, many routers are made OpenVPN-compatible, and it’s handy if you want to set up a VPN on your home network!

    There’s also a bit that depends on the circumstances. A protocol that’s great for one thing might be bad for another. So what are the main things you might want to know?

    The best protocol for gaming
    WireGuard
    The best protocol for streaming
    IKEv2
    The best protocol for torrenting
    OpenVPN

    Now look at this handy table:

    VPN protocols explained

    VPN Protocol
    Security
    Speed Potential
    Stability
    Encryption
    Set up
    Good for
    OpenVPN TCP
    Very secure (No known vulnerabilities)
    Very fast
    Depends on server configuration
    AES-256-GCM
    Easy with a VPN, difficult on its own
    Router compatibility, any and everyday use
    OpenVPN UDP
    Very secure (No known vulnerabilities)
    Very fast
    Depends on server configuration
    AES-256-GCM
    Easy with a VPN, difficult on its own
    Router compatibility, any and everyday use
    IKEv2/IPSec
    Very secure (No known vulnerabilities)
    Very fast
    Depends on server configuration
    AES-256-GCM
    Easy with a VPN, difficult on its own
    Short-distance connections, mobile networks, and everyday use
    WireGuard
    Very secure (No known vulnerabilities)
    Very fast
    Depends on server configuration
    AES-256-GCM
    Easy
    Any and everyday use
    SoftEther
    Very secure (No known vulnerabilities)
    Very fast
    Depends on server configuration
    AES-256-GCM
    Client setup
    Everyday use
    Tunneling Protocol PPTP
    Bad
    Very fast
    Depends on server configuration
    128 bit
    Very easy
    Nothing but outdated hardware and old devices
    Tunneling Protocol SSTP
    Average
    Average
    Depends on server configuration
    AES-256-GCM
    Easy on Windows
    Connecting windows devices
    L2TP/IPsec
    Secure
    Fast
    Depends on server configuration
    AES-256-GCM
    Easy on Windows
    Nothing that IKEv2/IPSec cannot offer

    VPN protocol comparison table

    As you see, most protocols are fairly similar. Surfshark employs WireGuard, IKEv2, and OpenVPN to give you a trustworthy alternative depending on your needs. By that metric, you could say that we consider these protocols to be the best in the world *wink*.

    The 3 most secure VPN protocols

    A figure holding a shield

    Just like with the “best” category, there’s no such thing as “the most secure” VPN protocol. WireGuard, IKEv2, and OpenVPN all achieve about equal levels of security – and they’re really secure.

    But even with secure protocols, it’s how a provider builds and configures their VPN network that matters the most – you probably shouldn’t trust a free VPN even if it runs WireGuard!

    Which VPN protocol is the fastest?

    A car driving on the road, showing a speedometer above

    Contrary to popular belief, VPN protocols themselves don’t have a dramatic impact on your connection speed. Here’s what really matters:

    • The speed of your internet connection. (Great impact)
    • VPN server load and throughput. (Moderate to great impact)
    • Your device compatibility and quality. (Great impact)
    • The geographical distance between you and the VPN server. (Moderate impact)

    Most of our tests and user feedback show that the connection speed competition comes down to the wire between WireGuard and IKEv2 (pun fully intended).

    Which VPN protocol is the most stable?

    OpenVPN TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) tends to be the most stable protocol, especially when dealing with unreliable networks. Still, that comes at the price of speed as to relay every bit of information, TCP takes a bit longer than, say, UDP (User Datagram Protocol)

    OpenVPN TCP vs. UDP: what is that? 

    OpenVPN TCP and OpenVPN UDP are not two separate VPN protocols.

    TCP and UDP are essentially different transport layer protocols that OpenVPN can use to establish a VPN connection. 

    TCP ensures a stable connection by making sure all data packets arrive in order. UDP does it faster by throwing everything at you and then arranging them to work. 

    While UDP works best for most users, the general advice is to try them both out and use the one that provides you with a smoother connection.

    Why WireGuard, OpenVPN, and IKEv2 are the best VPN protocols

    Most older protocols outside of WireGuard, OpenVPN, and IKEv2 are outdated full of vulnerabilities, and obsolete. There is no real reason to use any other VPN protocols outside The Big Three. In truth, one protocol would be enough to provide a good VPN service, but due to the differences in compatibility for routers and different OS (operating systems), we provide all three.

    Experience VPN protocols in action

    You now know everything about VPN protocols a VPN user might need. The most important thing is to pick one that best suits your needs. We recommend using WireGuard or IKEv2 for general use and OpenVPN if you need to set up a VPN on your router. Incidentally, Surfshark offers all three!

    Put this theory to practice

    Get Surfshark

    FAQ

    Is IKEv2 faster than OpenVPN?

    In general, yes. The speeds of protocols often depend on your network. So it’s not an exact science, but many people report that IKEv2 works faster for them compared to OpenVPN. 

    What protocol should I use for a VPN?

    Most VPNs will decide this for you as they set their apps to apply the protocol best suited for your connection automatically. Still, as it’s not an exact science, it’s always best to test them yourself. 

    What type of VPN is best?

    The best VPN is a reliable, no-logs service with the resources to keep up with the newest security innovations. 

    What is the latest VPN protocol?

    WireGuard

    Is UDP good for a VPN?

    Yes. UDP is one of the best protocols for a VPN as it’s stable, reliable, and offers good speeds.