Do VPNs Use Data? Here's What You Should Know

If you’re using cellular data to access a VPN, be ready for higher usage. Here's what to know about VPN data usage and how to use less data.
Andrew Adams, Author
Catherine McNally, Editor
Last updated Aug 15, 2022

Virtual private networks (VPNs) are great tools to help keep your data and device secure. You may need a VPN in a public library to keep your browsing private or maybe you’re traveling internationally and need to use a VPN to circumvent blocked social media. In some cases, you may find yourself without Wi-Fi or an internet connection and you want to use your cell phone’s data plan with a VPN.

Mobile data isn’t cheap — especially if you go over your limit — so it is important to know how much data you’re using, and more importantly, if using a VPN is going to increase the amount of data used. If you’re traveling outside of your network, you may also encounter roaming data fees which can increase your monthly bill.

Choosing the right VPN and the best encryption protocol for your situation will help you control your data usage while keeping your data adequately secure.

In this article
Does a VPN use data?
How much data do VPNs use?
VPN protocols that use less data
Other ways to use less data with a VPN
FAQs
Bottom line

Does a VPN use data?

The easy answer is yes. VPNs will use additional data whether you use it on a cellular network or on your Wi-Fi. There’s no exact number for how much data a VPN uses, but some estimates show that VPNs can use up to 15% more data.

When looking for a VPN, some providers will publish the estimated amount of data that will be used. Since there is not a clear-cut percentage, you may not know how much additional data is being used until you get your next bill.

If you don’t want to use your cell phone’s data plan, logging onto a Wi-Fi connection is the best way to avoid using your data.

However, if you have a limited amount of data available for your Wi-Fi connection, you could run into the same issues. Depending on the plan with your internet service provider, you may have a data cap for Wi-Fi internet usage as well. A VPN connected to Wi-Fi will still use additional data, just like a cell phone data plan.

Heads up: Some internet plans have data caps

You may think your Wi-Fi comes with infinite data, but some internet service providers (ISPs) limit your usage with a data cap. If your data consumption exceeds your data cap, your ISP could end up throttling your bandwidth, which means your internet speed will start to crawl at a snail’s pace. 

Make sure you know how much data you get each month so you don't run into a nasty surprise after leaving your VPN on.

How much data do VPNs use?

VPNs use additional cellular data to complete the encryption process and protect your personal data. Let’s say you’re traveling for business and you need to access confidential documents but your company requires you to sign in to a VPN before you can access them.

You hop on your cell phone and sign in to the VPN to gain access — that original sign-on uses data to connect to the VPN server. Then you use data to access the files, and all the while the VPN is working in the background to encrypt your activity and hide your IP address, which uses additional data.

In comparison, if you weren’t on a VPN, you would have only used data to access the files.

Let’s use that same example and say you’ve just downloaded a PowerPoint presentation that was 10 megabytes (MB). You had to download it using a VPN connection and your VPN uses 10% more data when in use. In this case, downloading that document would use 11 MB of data. That doesn’t include any of the data needed to sign in and access the file prior to downloading.

If you’re using a VPN to download large files or stream Netflix safely over public Wi-Fi, the additional data needed from the VPN will grow exponentially with the size of those files.

VPN protocols that use less data

When using a VPN, there are several different encryption protocols or security options available. Each protocol uses different amounts of data, but those protocols also offer different levels of security. When you set up your VPN, you can decide on the level of encryption needed.

  • 128-bit PPTP: This protocol uses the least amount of data, while also offering a minimal amount of security.
  • 128-bit L2TP/IPSec: MInimal security and minimal data usage.
  • 128-bit OpenVPN: This offers low data usage but also minimal security.
  • 128-bit Stealth OpenVPN: With this protocol, you will get moderate security with increased data usage compared to the other 128-bit options.
  • 256-bit L2TP/IPSec: Higher security with moderate data usage makes this protocol one of the best options.
  • 256-bit OpenVPN: OpenVPN is one of the most secure protocols and uses a moderate amount of data.
  • 254-bit Stealth OpenVPN: This protocol uses the most data and provides the highest level of security.

If you’re looking for a moderate amount of data usage with higher security, the 256-bit L2TP/IPSec is one of the best options.

Other ways to use less data with a VPN

Choosing the best protocol is one way to reduce unnecessary data usage. There are also several other ways to avoid increased data when using a VPN.

One of the biggest ways of minimizing data usage is only using the VPN when necessary. You may do this by turning off the VPN when you don’t need to encrypt your internet traffic or using a VPN with split tunneling. Both of these options can reduce your overall data usage.

Check out these ways to reduce data usage with a VPN:

Turn off your VPN service when you’re not using it

One of the easiest ways to conserve data is by only using a VPN when necessary and ensuring that the VPN is turned off when you do not need it. You may need to use a VPN to access work files or you’re using it to avoid internet censorship when traveling internationally. However, you do not need to use the VPN when casually browsing the web.

Don’t use free VPNs

Like many apps, free VPNs can come with pop-up ads that will cost you additional data. When data usage is a concern, using a paid VPN may be better so you can avoid unnecessary data usage.

Choose a VPN with split tunneling

Split tunneling is a great feature to reduce unnecessary data usage when using a VPN. Split tunneling allows you to use the VPN for some online content while other content can be accessed directly on the internet. This means that your VPN could route confidential work documents through the VPN but allow common web browsing directly through the internet.

Some of the best VPNs with split tunneling include:

Switch to a different VPN protocol

VPNs use a variety of encryption protocols to protect your data. Each protocol uses a varying amount of data to maintain the necessary level of encryption. To reduce data usage, select a protocol that gives you the necessary amount of encryption.

FAQs


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How much data does a VPN use?

There’s no concrete answer to how much additional data a VPN uses. Some estimates are between 5% and 15%. Other VPN providers suggest that their VPNs use 1% or 2% of additional data.


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Does a VPN work without Wi-Fi?

Yes, you can use a VPN without Wi-Fi access. You will need to rely on cellular data to access the VPN and use its services when you don’t have access to Wi-Fi.

Bottom line

Using a VPN is a great way to increase your online security but it does come with a price, especially if you’re using your phone’s data plan.

When using a VPN on cellular data, you will see an increase in data usage — that’s the VPN working behind the scenes to encrypt your online presence. However, don’t put yourself at risk by not using a VPN just to avoid the data fees. There are several ways to minimize the amount of data used by the VPN, and you can also implement easy steps to use the VPN only when necessary.

Whether you’re using a VPN to access confidential information, accessing blocked sites, or protecting your personal data in public settings, the extra data usage is worth the added security.

Author Details
Andrew Adams
Andrew Strom Adams helps businesses with a variety of marketing and communication efforts including content strategy and writing, branding, marketing, and more. He holds an MBA from Westminster College in Salt Lake City and a bachelor's degree in Journalism from Oklahoma Baptist University.