Which VPN Protocol Should You Use? – Here’s All You Need to Know About PPTP, SSTP, L2TP, IKEv2, OpenVPN, and WireGuard!

VPN (Virtual Private Network) applications have the primary role of hiding your Web browsing data. That is done by changing your IP address, encrypting your data, and making sure your data is undetectable. All of that is possible thanks to VPN protocols. However, that can be a highly confusing topic as we have several protocols out there, each with its set of pros and cons. Therefore, let’s talk about the 6 most common VPN protocols, explaining their strengths, downsides, and benefits.

Tip

If you’re just getting started with VPNs, we have a few interesting resources to help you out. First, make sure to learn the basics of VPN applications/services. Then, you can check how VPNs work, where we talk about the technical side of things. And lastly, here’s what you can do with a VPN.

And now, let’s dive into this topic. Here are the explanations of the 6 most common VPN protocols offered by today’s VPN apps/services in 2021. 

1. PPTP – Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol

VPN Interface Mockup on Laptop

Overview

Platform Compatibility Windows, macOS, Android, iOS, Linux, and more.
Encryption Up to 128-bit.
Security Known vulnerabilities; No longer safe or recommended.
Speed Really fast (due to its low/simple encryption).

PPTP is one of the oldest VPN protocols still knocking about. The first specification for PPTP was published back in the late ’90s. This VPN protocol is easy to set up and has almost universal support (here’s how to set up a PPTP VPN on Windows) but has many caveats you should know about.

Plain vanilla PPTP does not actually have a specific authentication or encryption technology specified. Still, when PPTP is mentioned these days, it almost certainly refers to the version developed and shipped by Microsoft with Windows. It forms a bundle of technologies known as “Windows PPTP stack” and gives various options in terms of encryption strength.

PPTP is very fast in comparison to modern, strongly encrypted protocols. That’s a good thing when it comes to bandwidth-intensive uses such as video streaming. However, the problem with PPTP is that its security measures have been torn to shreds over the years. Many newer protocols exist because the vulnerabilities in PPTP are so serious. While PPTP might keep the average script kiddie out, it’s certainly within the power of a government organization or some other well-resourced entity to break in and take what they want.

When & Why Should You Use PPTP?

PPTP is obsolete as a privacy and security technology. If you’re looking for the best protection for your data, you should stay far away from it. If you are, however, looking only to unlock location-blocked websites, a VPN provider who offers PPTP might be worth a look.

2. L2TP/IPsec – Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol

Overview

Platform Compatibility Windows, macOS, Android, iOS, Linux, and more.
Encryption Up to 256-bit.
Security Strong encryption; Strong data integrity.
Speed Relatively slow due to added CPU processing.

The most common pairing with L2TP is a security protocol suite known as IPsec or simply Internet Protocol Security. It’s IPsec that actually contains the technology that handles the authentication between your own computer and the VPN server. IPsec also contains the technology to encrypt your data with strong encryption levels.

L2TP is actually about as old as PPTP, but it hasn’t been a victim to many vulnerabilities. That especially applies to L2TP/IPsec, which has been bundled into a standard that is still widely used today. However, one of the main problems with L2TP is that it can be blocked quite easily. When you live in a country that completely blocks the use of VPNs, stopping L2TP/IPsec is simple. That’s because it only uses a small number of network ports – so all you need to do is close them off, and your VPN stops working.

Finally, there are only two encryption standards you can choose between with L2TP/IPsec. 3DES is one, but because of known vulnerabilities, no one really uses it anymore. The standard for L2TP/IPsec (and VPNs, in general, these days) is the AES standard. 256-bit AES is essentially impossible to brute force crack with any existing computer technology.

When & Why Should You Use L2TP/IPsec?

In general, L2TP/IPsec is a great choice for average (home) Internet users who want a decent level of security without having to spend time struggling with platform/device compatibility and who are after fast Web speeds.

3. SSTP – Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol

Overview

Platform Compatibility Windows (primarily).
Encryption Up to 256-bit.
Security Strong encryption; SSL encryption included.
Speed Known to be secure but slow and unstable.

You should know right off the bat that SSTP is mainly associated with Windows, so if you want to run it on anything else, you might be out of luck. There is nascent support for macOS and Linux, but your mileage may vary. If you are looking for a Windows-based VPN, then it’s worth reading on.

We first saw SSTP with the release of Windows Vista Service Pack 1. As you might have guessed, SSTP is a proprietary protocol wholly owned and developed by Microsoft. That might be a problem for some people since the internal workings of the standard are closed off. This means there is always a chance that Microsoft could have built backdoors into their standard at the behest of the US government. As usual, there’s no actual evidence of this, but you should keep it in mind depending on why you want VPN protection.

SSTP uses the SSL 3.0 encryption standard, which is now an older standard that has several known security issues. In fact, Microsoft itself issued an SSL 3.0 security advisory back in 2014, indicating that there are known issues with the protocol.

One key advantage of SSTP is that it can defeat many forms of VPN blocking since it can use a common port (TCP 443) which is, of course, the common port SSL websites use. Since Windows is common in most parts of the world, there’s a good chance you can access SSTP as a way to get around VPN blocking.

When & Why Should You Use SSTP?

Overall, SSTP is still a reliable VPN protocol, and we recommend using it. Still, it’s not open source, which is always a reason for concern. So, if you are (understandably) a little skeptical of SSTP, then don’t despair! There is another protocol that offers many of the same advantages as SSTP, but without the Microsoft baggage: OpenVPN.

4. OpenVPN

Overview

Platform Compatibility Windows, macOS, Android, iOS, Linux, routers, and more.
Encryption Up to 256-bit.
Security Highest possible security; Digital certification.
Speed Fast performance despite its high level of security.

OpenVPN is one of the most exciting things to happen to the world of online privacy, well, ever. It’s a true, open-source VPN protocol that is constantly growing and keeping pace with the constantly evolving world of cybersecurity.

OpenVPN uses OpenSSL and TLS in the main. Unlike PPTP, SSTP, and most other VPN protocols, OpenVPN has no native support for any operating system or hardware system. In that way, you can think of OpenVPN being a system-agnostic solution. This is both a pro and a con for OpenVPN since it means anyone who wants to use OpenVPN must make use of a third-party VPN client.

OpenVPN is widely used by premium VPN providers since these companies have the resources to develop their own VPN clients. This also means the VPN provider basically determines what devices it supports. If it does not create a client for, say, Android, then you’re forced to look for a third-party solution. Our recommendation is to go with the official OpenVPN app (Android and iOS) – which isn’t the most elegant solution, but it gets the job done.

While OpenVPN performs best on a range of UDP ports, it can be operated over TCP port 443. If you will recall, that lets you piggyback on HTTPS website traffic and evade port-based VPN blocking. Since OpenVPN uses the OpenSSL library, it has access to all the encryption technologies included in that library. However, it’s rare for anything other than AES encryption to be used, which is just fine as long as the key length is sufficient.

When & Why Should You Use OpenVPN?

To bottom line is that OpenVPN is the most flexible and secure protocol you can get today. As long as the VPN provider understands the technology and implements it properly, it’s usually the one to go for. To learn more, here’s our helpful guide to OpenVPN.

5. IKEv2/IPsec – Internet Key Exchange

Overview

Platform Compatibility MacOS, iOS, and Android (primarily).
Encryption Up to 256-bit.
Security Highly secure; Strong encryption.
Speed Fast performance despite its high level of security.

Like L2TP/IPsec, IKEv2/IPsec is a combination of distinct tunneling protocols combined with the IPsec suite of security technologies. This is another protocol that isn’t open in nature. Once again, Microsoft has its fingers in the pie, but in this case, they worked with networking giant Cisco to get the technology ready.

IKE is one of the newest protocols, released in the mid-2000s. The latest version is IKEv2, and if you’re in a corporate environment that still relies on Blackberry technology for security, you’ll love this protocol. Blackberry systems have native support for IKEv2.

Luckily for everyone, it also supports other platforms that are less esoteric. iOS, for example, has support as well. In fact, IKEv2 was created with an eye on mobile security and is capable of letting handsets switch from Wi-Fi connections to the mobile Internet without dropping the VPN tunnel. This is because the protocol supports a technology known as ‘multihoming’ which lets it handle network changes with ease.

A defining feature of IKEv2 is how fast it is. Depending on the circumstances, it’s often seen as one of the fastest VPN protocols available today. Yet, VPN providers have been cagey about supporting it. For one thing, it has very narrow platform support. It’s also a closed system with corporate interests. It’s just not possible to trust that companies like Cisco or Microsoft haven’t built vulnerabilities into their protocols at the behest of government organizations.

When & Why Should You Use IKEv2/IPsec?

Even though this protocol provides great stability and superior speed, it has narrow support, is vulnerable to VPN blocking, and suffers from security doubts. So, in the end, a protocol such as OpenVPN is preferable even if it performs a little worse than IKEv2.

6. WireGuard

Overview

Platform Compatibility Windows, macOS, Android, iOS, Linux, and more.
Encryption ChaCha20 combined with Poly1305.
Security Highest possible security.
Speed Very fast speeds and fast connection setup.

All of the previously mentioned and explained VPN protocols were developed some time ago, which is crucial in the world of VPNs. That means they had plenty of time to show their weaknesses, making them suitable for sensitive tasks such as securing your online privacy. However, that doesn’t stop VPNs from implementing new technologies.

That’s precisely where the story about WireGuard comes into play. It was first developed only 5 years ago, and it became stable enough just recently. However, there are many reasons why commercial VPN services such as Surfshark, TorGuard, NordVPN, Private Internet Access, and IVPN have already started offering WireGuard.

First and foremost, WireGuard is highly secure and open-source, just like OpenVPN, which is the VPN’s industry gold standard. However, it is also much faster than OpenVPN and works great with any type of Web connection. So, you can expect to connect to servers instantly, and if you switch between 4G/5G and Wi-Fi while using WireGuard, you won’t notice a single disruption. That’s something that no other VPN protocol offers.

However, also know that WireGuard doesn’t use AES-256 but instead relies on a somewhat untested encryption component in encryption called ChaCha20. In theory, that should not be a problem, even if you’re paranoid about your online privacy. Still, because this is a brand-new protocol, only time will tell how much we can trust it.

When & Why Should You Use WireGuard?

If you don’t have the fastest Web connection, you’ll want to use WireGuard because it brings incredibly fast speeds – while still managing to keep you safe and sound online. However, know that WireGuard can’t unblock every single website, and it’s still brand-new, so we don’t recommend it for protecting highly sensitive data. If you do want to use it, here are the best VPNs that support WireGuard.

FAQ

What Are VPN Protocols?

A VPN protocol is a set of instructions regarding how your device communicates with the VPN server in terms of encapsulating and encrypting your data.

With encapsulation, your data packets that are at the very core of Internet communication are wrapped inside another type of packet. This hides certain types of information, such as the type of packets used, their final destination, and similar.

Encryption is the technology used to encode and decode the data itself. So even if someone intercepts your packets, they can’t do anything without a decryption key.

While all VPNs do those two things, they don’t all use the same technology to do it. There are various VPN protocols that a VPN provider can use to perform the transformation of your data into encapsulated and encrypted.

Is VPN a Protocol?

No, a VPN is not a protocol, per se. Instead, VPNs are applications that grant you access to various protocols, as explained in this article.

Which VPN Protocol Should I Use?

At the moment, the most reliable VPN protocol would be OpenVPN, which we highly recommend using, no matter what kind of device or platform you rely on.

However, always keep in mind that there are many VPN protocols out there. With that said, here’s a quick summary of the VPN protocols explained in this article.

  • PPTP is a very old technology that has proven to be quite vulnerable. However, it’s incredibly easy to set up, and it’s present on all popular operating systems.
  • L2TP/IPsec has been the most secure protocol for a very long time. However, security vulnerabilities were discovered during the last few years, which posts a question of whether you should use it. Still, it’s easy to set up and it’s efficient, and a better option than PPTP.
  • SSTP can be a good solution – as long as you use Windows. It’s easy to get started with this VPN protocol and it’s more secure than PPTP. Also, due to its pairing with AES encryption, it’s more secure than L2TP/IPsec.
  • OpenVPN is one of the most popular VPN protocols at the moment. It can be used across different types of devices, and almost all hugely popular VPNs rely on this protocol.
  • IKEv2/IPSec is one of the newest VPN protocol standards that never really reached its full potential. It allows for secure connections and high performance – but it’s not present on all currently popular operating systems.
  • WireGuard is a brand-new VPN protocol, which comes with great promises. However, it’s still untested and we don’t recommend using it to encrypt highly sensitive data.

Which One’s Better – OpenVPN or IPSec?

OpenVPN is believed to be the most secure VPN protocol available. Even though it doesn’t offer the fastest possible speeds, it can safeguard your data in a secure way.

When it comes to IPSec, this protocol comes with capable encryption but is still not fully explored in terms of its security and potential vulnerabilities.

What’s the Most Secure VPN Protocol?

The most secure protocol is the OpenVPN protocol. However, keep in mind that you can choose from two different variants, called ‘OpenVPN TCP’ and ‘OpenVPN UDP.’

If you need the highest possible level of encryption, we recommend going for ‘OpenVPN TCP.’ The ‘UDP’ variant is recommended when you need fast performance and want to prioritize that over the stability of your Web connection.

What’s the Fastest VPN Protocol?

The fastest VPN protocols are PPTP and IKEv2/IPSec. You can also get fast performance by utilizing SSTP and OpenVPN UDP.

Our strong recommendation would be to stick to the OpenVPN protocol – as this one currently brings the highest level of security without sacrificing the speed of your Web connection in a dramatic way. So, a worthy compromise, overall.

VPN protocols are only a small part of what you need to consider when choosing a VPN. To make things easier, we’ve put together a VPN buyer’s guide that covers the most important questions. We’ve also listed what we think are the best VPNs of this year. So, you should be well-covered when it comes to finding the best VPN for your needs.

That would be all there’s to know about the currently used VPN protocols. In case you have any questions, let us know via the comments section below. And lastly, thanks for reading!

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