What Is a VPN Protocol, and Should I Change Mine?

Your VPN protocol balances speed and security, but which one should you use, and how can you tell the difference?
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A virtual private network (VPN) encrypts your information so no one can see what you’re doing online. It helps keep you safe while using public Wi-Fi and can improve your experience on your home Wi-Fi by stopping internet service provider (ISP) throttling, among other things.

The driving force behind the encryption power is the protocol the VPN uses to tunnel your traffic. The best VPNs have a few different protocols that balance security and speed.

If you want to know more about VPN protocols, follow along as we break down which are the best and what situations call for each.

In this article
What is a VPN protocol?
Popular VPN protocols
Protocol comparison
Which VPN protocol is best?
Bottom line

What is a VPN protocol?

A VPN protocol determines how your data is encrypted and moves between your device and the VPN server. It combines security and speed, and different protocols offer higher priority for one or the other of those options.

For instance, you may want a fast protocol that optimizes streaming but then switch to one that favors heavy encryption when you check your mobile banking app.

Robust VPNs usually have an automatic option to identify what you’re doing and which protocol is best for that situation. If you aren’t getting the results you want to control your experience, switching protocols may help.

Protocols that keep you encrypted but prioritize speed are great for streaming, large file downloads and uploads, and scrolling video-heavy sites like social media or YouTube.

Protocols that prioritize encryption might be a moment or two slower but can keep you more secure on public Wi-Fi while checking sensitive information like online banking and medical sites.


OpenVPN is one of the most popular options. It’s open-source and can utilize either the transmission control protocol (TCP) or the user datagram protocol (UDP). TCP is more secure, but it sacrifices speed a little.

UDP is faster, but it sacrifices security a little. Both are excellent, and you shouldn’t worry about your data being leaked.

  • Open source
  • Secure
  • Has options of TCP or UDP
  • Bypasses firewalls
  • Options may be confusing
  • UDP can lose or disorient data packet transfers
  • Not offered by every VPN

Recommendation: Definitely use


Layer 2 tunneling protocol (L2TP) isn’t actually an encrypted tunnel. It relies on pairing with Internet Protocol security (IPsec) for AES-256 encryption. Combining the two means stronger security, but you won’t get the fastest speeds.

  • Upgrade from previous protocols
  • Secure due to pairing
  • Widely available
  • Great anonymization
  • Slower speeds
  • Doesn’t bypass all firewalls
  • Requires pairing for effective encryption
  • Not supported by all VPNs

Recommendation: Good to use


Internet Key Exchange version 2 (IKEv2) is newer and does great with mobile devices because of its speed. Microsoft and Cisco, two tech giants, made it quick, stable, and secure. It’s often paired with IPsec for security.

  • Newer technology
  • Fast and secure
  • Good for mobile
  • Stable when changing internet connections
  • No native Linux support
  • Strict licensing makes it hard to audit
  • Complex configuration
  • Not always available

Recommendation: Definitely use


Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) is one of the first VPN protocols created in 1999 and was made specifically for dial-up traffic. It’s not very secure, but it’s really fast. Due to its outdated nature, the encryption is light and easy to crack.

  • Fast
  • Compatible with almost everything
  • Not secure
  • Outdated
  • Easy to hack encryption
  • Blocked by firewalls

Recommendation: Avoid unless you know what you’re doing


WireGuard is one of the newest protocols and is lauded for its light coding, which makes it fast and secure. It’s showing a lot of promise in becoming the protocol front-runner, but it’s still experimental and not completely adopted. Still, it outperforms both OpenVPN and IKEv2/IPsec.

  • Lightweight and secure
  • Showing better results than other protocols
  • State-of-the-art cryptography
  • Free and open-source
  • Still in development
  • Not adopted by all major VPNs

Recommendation: Definitely use


Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) was introduced alongside Windows Vista and is primarily a Microsoft product. While it’s old, it’s fairly secure. Unfortunately, Microsoft developed it and didn’t really share it, so SSTP wasn’t widely adopted by a variety of internet-connected devices.

  • Secure
  • Bypasses firewalls
  • Now compatible beyond Windows
  • Not widely adopted
  • Microsoft hasn’t allowed security research on SSTP
  • Older technology
  • May have NSA connections

Recommendation: Best to avoid if you can find it

Protocol comparison

Protocol Speed Security Encryption Best for
Open VPN Fast Good Very Good Configuration
L2TP/IPSec Medium Good Good Secure connections
IKEv2/IPSec Fast Good Very Good Mobile devices
PPTP Fast Poor Poor Speed
WireGuard Fast Good Good Anything
SSTP Medium Medium Medium Microsoft connections

Which VPN protocol is best?

The two best overall are OpenVPN and WireGuard, although IKEv2/IPsec has advantages for mobile devices moving from one internet connection to another.

Your needs will most likely determine your protocol, but choose OpenVPN or WireGuard when in doubt.

Which VPN is the fastest?

WireGuard is praised so highly because it’s built for speed. While others may compromise some speed for security, WireGuard promises to do both.

Since its introduction into the Linux kernel in 2020, it’s been adopted worldwide as the best compromise between speed and security.

Which VPN is the most secure?

OpenVPN is often considered one of the most secure VPN protocols, and we recommend OpenVPN TCP for the most secure connection while maintaining usable speeds. TCP prioritizes security, meaning you’ll have a powerful encryption tool working in your favor.



What are the three most common VPN protocols?

OpenVPN, WireGuard, and IKEv2/IPsec are the three most common VPN protocols. OpenVPN and WireGuard are the most highly favored, but IKEv2/IPsec does well with mobile, so it’s usually invited to the party.

If you have any of these three options, you really shouldn’t need anything else.


Which VPN protocol is best for gaming?

IKEv2/IPsec is commonly used for gaming because of its speed and security. We also recommend trying WireGuard, which was built to be light and fast — essential features for online gaming.


Which VPN protocol is best for beginners?

In our opinion, OpenVPN is the best protocol for beginners. As long as you’re using it in conjunction with a reputable VPN, you won’t need to worry about configuration. It’ll bypass firewalls but also keep you secure.

We do suggest that you leave your VPN protocol configuration on automatic if you’re a beginner and your VPN has that option. If it doesn’t, choose OpenVPN when it’s up to you to decide.

Bottom line

Your VPN protocol dictates the speed and security with which your internet traffic is transported across the web. Choosing a fast, secure, and modern protocol means you likely won’t need to worry about data theft.

If you’re just starting out, OpenVPN, WireGuard, and IKEv2/IPsec are your best options and they’re included with plenty of VPNs. If you still aren’t sure, use the auto feature in your VPN’s protocol settings. While it might not be optimized every time, you’ll still get a great balance of security and speed.

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  • Unlimited bandwidth, DNS and IP leak protection, and automatic kill switch available for up to 7 devices
  • Configurable with your router, smart TV, Amazon Fire TV stick, or gaming console
  • No split tunneling feature on desktop

Author Details
Mary is a seasoned cybersecurity writer with over seven years of experience. With a B.S. in Liberal Arts from Clarion University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Point Park University, she educates audiences on scams, antivirus software, and more. Her passion lies in educating audiences on helpful ways to protect their data.