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What is a VPN tunnel?

A VPN tunnel establishes an encrypted connection between your devices and the VPN server that will help protect your online activity from prying eyes. Your data is valuable, and there’s no shortage of people who’d like to access it and turn your digital life into a living hell. So let’s learn more about data protection with VPN tunneling, the different protocols these tunnels use, and how to choose the right one.

Karolis Bareckas

Karolis Bareckas

What is a VPN tunnel?

What is a VPN tunnel?

A VPN tunnel is an encrypted connection between your devices, such as computers, smartphones, or tablets, and a VPN server. It hides your IP address and encrypts your data that travels the internet, as well as the data you generate while surfing the web. Snoopers will not be able to gain access to your online data or track your activity because the connection is uncrackable without a cryptographic key.

VPN providers use different tunneling protocols like WireGuard, NordLynx, or OpenVPN. These communication protocols allow the movement of data across the network.

How does VPN tunneling work?

VPN tunneling is the process of transmitting data from a device or network to another device or network and back without compromising the data privacy. To be able to enjoy the advantages of VPN tunneling, you must first start using VPN (also known as virtual private network) services. Once your device connects to a VPN, a safe tunnel is established even if you are using public Wi-Fi.

infographic explaining how VPN tunnel works

This tunnel ensures that:

  • Your traffic is encrypted. It becomes unreadable to third parties.
  • Your IP address is hidden. Your online data passes through a VPN server, which hides your IP address and, in turn, your virtual location.
  • Your connection is secured. You can use public Wi-Fi without worrying about being tracked, monitored, or having your data intercepted.

When you connect to the internet without a VPN, a lot of your data is going to be exposed. Your internet service provider (ISP) can view and log your online activity, while the websites you visit will be able to see your IP address and location. These companies have one big reason to dig around your private life — to sell your browsing data to the highest bidder. They can also throttle your bandwidth if you frequently download large files.

Hackers have their own motives. They use malware, phishing, ransomware, DDoS attacks, and other techniques to intercept data, strip your bank accounts, and ruin your mood. Some governments are also known for monitoring peoples’ online life.

When you connect to the internet with a VPN, your data packets go through an encrypted and secure tunnel. This protects your browsing activity, masks your IP address, and redirects your data to a VPN server. You can also remotely access your data in a safe way. Neither ISPs nor hackers can identify you, snoop around your data, or track your location. The VPN tunnel is one of the most useful online security technologies available.

Types of VPN tunneling protocols

There are many different VPN tunneling protocols varying in speed, level of security, encryption processes, and other features. Let’s explore the most common types.

WireGuard

Wireguard

Security: Very high

Speed: Very high

The fastest protocol, and extremely useful when speed is your priority. It is also highly secure. WireGuard is extremely lightweight because it consists of just 4,000 lines of code, which leaves less room for vulnerabilities and flaws. It’s open source, which makes it transparent, and easy to customize and debug.

WireGuard is still in the development stage and, unlike OpenVPN and IPSec, it requires its own infrastructure to function.

In 2019, NordVPN introduced NordLynx, a protocol that has inherited the speed of WireGuard and took it one step further by enhancing user privacy and the security that everyone strives for.

OpenVPN

OpenVPN

Security: High

Speed: High

This is an open-source protocol that works with all major operating systems. You can download the source code, review it, and modify it however you like. OpenVPN protocol can run over theTCP or UDP internet protocols. It is also considered one of the most secure VPN tunneling protocols and is quite fast.

As secure and fast as OpenVPN is, it proves to be quite complex to set up on your own.

IKEv2/IPSec

IPSec/IKEv2

Security: High

Speed: High

The IKEv2/IPSec protocol boasts the security benefits of IPSec (Internet Protocol Security) and has the high speeds of IKEv2 (Internet Key Exchange Version Two). When your VPN connection is interrupted, or you’re switching between networks, the IKEv2/IPSec auto-connect feature restores everything back to normal.

As good a protocol as IKEv2/IPSec is, it is incompatible with some operating systems.

L2TP/IPSec

L2TP/IPSec

Security: Medium

Speed: Medium

L2TP (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol)/IPSec accepts different encryption protocols, so you can easily customize it. It is also easy to set up with loads of documentation available.

L2TP/IPSec is not a very secure protocol because it is outdated, contains multiple vulnerabilities, and is potentially compromised by the NSA. It is a slow protocol because of the double encapsulation of data. Similarly to SSTP, it is not good at bypassing firewalls.

SSTP

SSTP

Security: High

Speed: Medium

SSTP is easy to set up, and there is accessible support. It’s a secure and relatively fast protocol, good at bypassing firewalls.

Unfortunately, it only works on Windows. It was created by Microsoft, which is known to collaborate with the NSA.

PPTP

PPTP

Security: Poor

Speed: High

PPTP is fast and convenient if you need a quick-use VPN. It is also highly compatible with every system and easy to set up and use.

It is an outdated protocol, which means it’s not secure and contains multiple exploits and vulnerabilities. The NSA is known to decrypt this protocol. Due to its primitive and outdated nature, it is easily blocked by firewalls.

What is split tunneling?

Split tunneling is an advanced VPN feature that lets you divide your internet traffic by encrypting some of it and sending it through secure VPN servers, while the rest is allowed to travel the internet directly. Basically, this feature allows you to connect to two networks simultaneously — a private and a public one.

infographic explaining how split tunneling works

A VPN tunnel encrypts all your traffic, but there are certain situations when you might not want it to. This is exactly what split tunneling is all about — choosing which apps require VPN protection and which don’t. For example, you might want to use a VPN to check your bank account online using public Wi-Fi, but you feel comfortable browsing your favorite websites connected to your home network without a VPN.

FAQ

What is the best VPN tunnel?

Everything depends on your needs, but we strongly recommend using NordLynx — NordVPN’s default protocol — if you need high speeds (e.g. in cases of streaming or gaming) because it is extremely lightweight and fast.

OpenVPN is also a top choice among VPN providers because it is transparent, open-source, highly customizable, safe and fast. It’s a good choice if you need reliable security and high performance.

How do you create a VPN tunnel?

If you are using a VPN service and have downloaded a VPN app, you don’t need to set up a VPN tunnel because your VPN provider does it automatically. But you can choose a preferred VPN protocol or server.

However, if you are using devices that do not support VPN functionality, you can install a VPN on your router to protect your whole network. You’ll have to log in to your router, configure it, and test if the VPN connection is working before you start surfing.

Is a VPN the same as a VPN tunnel?

A VPN is not the same as a VPN tunnel. A VPN provides a secure connection between you and the internet, while tunneling is the process by which your data packets reach their destination.


Karolis Bareckas
Karolis Bareckas Karolis Bareckas
Karolis is a tech geek who writes about cybersecurity, online privacy, and the latest gadgets. When not rattling his keyboard, he’s always eager to try a new burrito recipe or explore a new camping spot.

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