Two hands, one holding a shield with VPN written on it, the other holding a computer with RDP written on the screen.

Whether you are a friendly tech helper troubleshooting for a customer or Iron Man trying to save Earth from aliens, remote access is a necessity. It lets you connect to another network reliably and safely. Both RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) and VPN (Virtual Private Network) help you get remote access in a way.

Although they differ in functionalities, it is easy to get confused. So what exactly is the difference, which one is better for you, and why should you care? Here’s an article that will clear it all up.

Table of contents

    What is a Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP)?

    RDP is a protocol by Microsoft that gives you remote access to another computer over the internet or other network. You can gain control of the mouse and keyboard of a device that could be anywhere in the world (or space, if you have the authentication).

    In simpler language, RDP is like a magic portal that transfers a computer directly to your screen. It is typically used in tech support to troubleshoot issues, but it’s also handy for transferring files or remotely harnessing the power of a more capable computer.

    It establishes a secure connection between two computers, a client, and a host. The client does all the work while the host has just to authenticate and provide access to the client. Be careful while using RDP, especially as a host, because if the wrong person gets access to your remote desktop, they can move around and read anything on your computer.

    What is a Virtual Private Network (VPN)?

    A VPN encrypts your internet traffic and hides your IP address to make your connection private and secure. It ensures all information stays hidden behind a code when accessing anything online. You need a VPN to act as a safety net so private information like your location, browser history, and cookies data is secure.

    RDP vs. VPN: what’s the difference?

    VPN traffic traveling through a VPN tunnel to the internet, and RDP traffic traveling through the cloud to a host device.

    The main difference between RDP and VPN is the functionality. RDP is designed for managing a remote desktop, essentially giving you control from a distance. In contrast, a VPN ensures the security of your connection while also masking your true location, creating the illusion that you’re connecting from a different server location.

    Both RDP and VPN encrypt your traffic and grant you remote access to a server or a device. While they might seem alike, they serve completely different purposes. Let’s explore the difference between RDP and VPN from two key perspectives.

    For remote access

    RDP is your go-to solution for managing a remote desktop in any situation. It was designed specifically for this purpose. It lets you get inside anyone’s desktop and get secure remote access.

    However, picture this scenario: you’re a business and need your remote employees to securely access a confidential file stored on your office network. Here’s where a remote access VPN, like Surfshark, steps in. It creates a VPN tunnel that encrypts any data passing between the client and server. This means your information is hidden from observation even when you use the regular public internet to maintain the connection.

    For privacy and security

    If you’re all about privacy, VPN is your superhero. Not only does it make your browsing private, but you can also access secure networks and stop your internet providers from snooping on your personal data.

    Even if you use RDP and browse the internet from another computer, it doesn’t fully safeguard you. It lacks additional security measures to protect you from malware and data breaches, especially on public Wi-Fi.

    VPN or RDP: which is the best for you?

    The right choice really depends on your specific needs, but here are some scenarios that’ll help you get clarity.

    • Accessing a remote computer from home — when you’re using a private home network and need to control remote desktops, RDP is the way to go. It’s fast and straightforward once you’ve established a connection. Since your home is a trusted network, there are lower chances of online threats.
    • Using public Wi-Fi — public Wi-Fi, like the one at your local café or McDonald’s, can be a hotspot for potential data breaches. Protect yourself with a VPN on Wi-Fi and add an extra layer of security to surf the internet.
    • Accessing sensitive information over the internet if you are accessing your bank accounts, health records, or other sensitive documents online, use a VPN. It masks your real IP address and location, making it more challenging for malicious actors, advertisers, and even your internet service provider to track your online activities.
    • Working collaboratively — RDP is a no-brainer here. It allows multiple users to collaborate on one computer, making it invaluable for projects where you need remote access and control. For instance, a video editor can use RDP to tap into the rendering power of a computer across the globe.
    • Accessing private work networks — if you need to access work-related files, a combination of VPN and RDP is your best bet. Start with a VPN to enter your private network securely, and then use RDP to control other computers within the same network. This dual approach ensures both network security and remote desktop control.

    Why use a VPN?

    A VPN is not only important while you are accessing remote desktops, but it’s like an all-encompassing safety net at every step of your browsing.

    Everything you like and everywhere you go online is tracked and stored in a sort of open digital book. No wonder there is a growing concern about constant surveillance, as all that openly stored information makes tracking your behavior pretty easy. But you can lock and encrypt your digital book with a VPN as it hides your location, IP address, and browsing habits. 

    A straightforward VPN connection should suffice unless you have any specific requirements. You can read about different types of VPNs in case you want to nerd out. 

    Closing remarks: choosing between VPN and RDP

    In this changing digital landscape, the choice between RDP and VPN is not a matter of one versus the other. It’s about being aware of their functionalities and knowing when to use what.

    Whether you are providing customer support or helping your friends troubleshoot their drivers, both RDP and VPN are indispensable. So, remember that it’s not a question of RDP vs. VPN but rather how to harness the powers of both to your advantage.

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    Can I use RDP with a VPN?

    Yes, you can use a VPN to securely access a local network and then start RDP for remote desktop control. This is highly recommended when you are remotely accessing other computers and security is your priority.

    Why use a VPN with RDP?

    When connecting to a remote desktop over a public or unfamiliar Wi-Fi network, using a VPN with RDP will ensure your data stays secure. So, the next time you find yourself in a coffee shop or airport Wi-Fi hotspot, don’t forget your VPN connection before starting the RDP.

    Also, some companies use VPNs for remote workers to access sensitive files. Using a VPN with RDP becomes inevitable in these scenarios.

    Why do hackers use RDP?

    Hackers use RDP as it is one of the fastest ways to gain access to your computer. Once they are on your remote desktop, they can sneak in, take control, and mess around freely inside your computer. They use it for multiple malicious activities ranging from petty crimes like installing malware and injecting viruses to serious ones like reading your passwords and opening bank accounts to transfer money.

    Which is faster, VPN or RDP?

    In most cases, RDP is faster because it’s optimized for quick remote desktop access, while VPNs encrypt your IP through remote servers, potentially impacting speed. The actual speed of either depends on multiple factors, including your specific usage, internet quality, and the performance of the VPN or RDP service you’re using.

    What is the difference between VPN and RDP?

    A VPN gives you access to secure networks by hiding your IP address prioritizing, whereas RDP allows you to remotely access another computer or system. Despite the confusion, a VPN and RDP are completely different and serve separate functionalities. A VPN is used for the security and privacy of data, RDP is simply a remote desktop software.