Which VPN protocol is best?

A lot of what a VPN does is automated, but switching VPN protocols may help eke out extra speed.

Nathan Lawrence
May 22, 2023
Icon Time To Read3 min read

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The best thing about virtual private network (VPN) services these days is they tend to be very user-friendly. Effectively, a lot of the technical stuff is automated. Clicking on the connection button is all most users should have to think about, but there’s one feature behind the scenes that warrants some consideration: namely, VPN protocols.

VPN protocols are typically set to automatic for single-click connection convenience, but not all VPN protocols are created equal. Let’s take a closer look at the different VPN protocols and which ones are best in different situations.

What is a VPN protocol?

VPN protocols dictate the speed, stability and security of a connection between a device and a VPN server. They work invisibly in the background to encrypt your data, ideally so it’s difficult to see, albeit in such a way that it’s fast enough to not noticeably slow your internet connection.

By default, most of the best VPNs automatically choose an appropriate protocol or they default to one that’s unique to the service. You can generally change a VPN protocol by digging into the connection settings of your VPN.

There are a handful of available VPN protocols, but three of them are particularly popular: OpenVPN, WireGuard and IKEv2. Unique VPN protocols are also a trend with some of the VPNs we’ve reviewed. NordVPN uses NordLynx, ExpressVPN favours Lightway, Proton VPN has Stealth, Hotspot Shield VPN offers Hydra and VPN Unlimited includes KeepSolid Wise as a unique protocol.

What are the different VPN protocols?

There are several VPN protocols that are used these days or have been used in VPNs in the past. Of those, the most popular options have different strengths and weaknesses.

OpenVPN TCP

Overall, OpenVPN is an open-source VPN protocol that has great platform availability and is highly configurable. For peace of mind, it’s been widely audited to ensure its security, and it does a great job of bypassing network filters and firewalls. The TCP version of OpenVPN doesn’t have the best speeds but it is reliable.

OpenVPN UDP

The UDP version of OpenVPN has pretty much all of those aforementioned perks, and is similarly renowned in the VPN community as its TCP sibling. Compared to OpenVPN TCP, OpenVPN UDP offers faster speeds but is less reliable.

WireGuard

WireGuard is one of the newest VPN protocols around, and you’ll find it in many popular VPNs. It’s an open-source protocol that doesn’t have the best platform compatibility, but it does offer plenty of speed.

IKEv2

Like WireGuard, IKEv2 is a comparatively new VPN protocol that offers a speedy connection. IKEv2 is based on the IPsec framework for encryption and is being developed by Cisco and Microsoft. While it’s fast and secure, IKEv2 is trickier to audit and isn’t supported on all platforms.

Other VPN protocols

There are other less popular VPN protocols that you may occasionally come across. ExpressVPN uses L2TP, noting it’s made to prioritise user anonymity over security. That said, L2TP’s speeds aren’t great compared to options like WireGuard and IKEv2. SSTP is another VPN protocol owned by Microsoft, which reduces platform compatibility.

PPTP is renowned as a very fast VPN protocol, but that speed comes at the expense of encryption and security. The other VPN protocol worth mentioning is SoftEther, which is an in-development open-source alternative designed to work with most platforms with a fast, reliable and speedy connection.

Below is a breakdown of the different protocols for the VPNs we’ve reviewed.

VPN provider
OpenVPN TCP
OpenVPN UDP
WireGuard
IKEv2
Unique
Nord VPNNordVPN
YesYesNoNoNordLynx
ExpressVPNExpressVPN
YesYesNoYesLightway
SurfsharkSurfshark
YesYesYesNoNo
CyberghostCyberGhost
YesYesYesYesNo
ProtonVPNProton VPN
YesYesYesYesStealth
Hotspot ShieldHotspot Shield
NoNoYesYesHydra
PureVPNPureVPN
YesYesYesYesNo
Ip VanishIPVanish
YesYesYesYesNo
Tunnel BearTunnelBear
YesYesYesYesNo
Mullvad VPNMullvad
YesYesYesNoNo
VPN Unlimited - Hero CardVPN Unlimited
YesYesYesYesKeepSolid Wise
WindscribeWindscribe
YesYesYesYesNo
Private Internet Access VPN logoPrivate Internet Access
YesYesYesNoNo
Privado VPNPrivadoVPN
YesYesYesYesNo
atlasvpnAtlas VPN
NoNoYesYesNo
Info Box
What about the unique VPN protocols?
We haven’t gone into depth about the unique VPN protocols because they’re exclusive to specific VPN services. In this respect, it’s more difficult to separate marketing talk from noteworthy security or speed features. Still, if any of the specific features of a unique VPN protocol does make you want to buy the corresponding service, you’ll have to stick with it to take advantage of that unique protocol.

Which VPN protocol is best?

The best VPN protocol is ultimately determined by what’s available with your preferred VPN provider. New users should keep the VPN protocol setting on automatic and let the VPN service decide. For those who want to tinker, WireGuard is a great all-rounder, which includes being great with streaming and peer-to-peer software.

If you want more platform options, OpenVPN is the better choice: pick between UDP for speed and TCP for reliability. Otherwise, IKEv2 is available for Windows, MacOS, Android, iOS and Linux devices as a reliable alternative.

VPN protocols FAQs

The three most common VPN protocols are OpenVPN (TCP and/or UDP), WireGuard and IKEv2. These protocols are found in popular VPNs like NordVPN, ExpressVPN, CyberGhost and Proton VPN.
OpenVPN TCP is considered to be more reliable but OpenVPN UDP is the better choice for video streaming, online gaming or voice/video calls.
Most VPNs will default to automatically selecting a connection protocol or use their unique protocol. To change your VPN protocol, head into your VPN connection settings to manually change it (where supported).
Nathan Lawrence
Written by
Nathan Lawrence
Nathan Lawrence has been banging out passionate tech and gaming words for more than 11 years. These days, you can find his work on outlets like IGN, STACK, Fandom, Red Bull and AusGamers. Nathan adores PC gaming and the proof of his first-person-shooter prowess is at the top of a Battlefield V scoreboard.

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