Does a VPN service use up your data? Can you use a VPN to get around limited data plans?

Many people wonder if a VPN uses data and also, if it is possible to use a VPN to get around data caps. It can be difficult to understand how data usage works, but here, we will try to clarify things and help you to get an answer to the most common questions regarding VPNs and data usage. We’ll get more into detail in this article, but let’s start by saying that using a VPN does have an impact on your data cap. All data has to pass through your mobile provider’s/ ISP’s servers before it gets to the VPN server. There are times when a VPN can help you to circumvent some caps or avoid throttling, but that is not always the case.

How does a VPN works?

A VPN encrypts all the data that is transferred between two end points: your computer and the VPN server. The VPN server then receives or forwards the data, handling websites, videos and other online content. This data is encrypted and sent back to your device.

Does a VPN count against data caps?

The short answer is yes. While a VPN server is not run by your broadband or mobile ISP, all the data has to go through the internet so that it can reach the VPN server. Your ISP opens the door to the internet and all the VPN data passes through their servers first. When your data is encrypted, your ISP is not able to find out what websites you visit, or see anything else that you do online. However, they can see the size of the data that is being transmitted. If you use your data while connecting to a VPN to protect your traffic, the VPN traffic will count towards that cap.

Does a VPN use additional data?

Yes, when you use a VPN, your data usage is slightly increased. You will notice an increase between 5 to 15%, caused by the encryption that is applied to keep your data protected. Encryption scrambles the data to ensure that only your computer and the VPN server are able to read it. This prevents third parties from seeing what you are doing. When a file is protected with encryption, it takes more space than the unencrypted data would take. This is known as encryption overhead.

What are the VPN protocols that use the lowest amount of data?

There are multiple VPN protocols available and the most used options are OpenVPN, PPTP and L2TP. The majority of VPN providers support a variety of protocols, meaning that you have different options to choose from. Usually, when stronger encryption is applied, the encryption overhead is increased. If you are using a VPN protocol that uses stronger encryption, you will notice that more data is used for the same file than what is used when weaker encryption is applied. This also has an impact on VPN speed. Every VPN protocol uses a different encryption algorithm, which affects impact on overhead. Let’s take a look at the list of VPN protocols and their data usage

PPTP (128-bit)
L2TP/Ipsec (128-bit)
OpenVPN (128-bit)
Stealth/obfuscated OpenVPN (128-bit)
L2TP/IPsec (256-bit)
OpenVPN (256-bit)
Stealth/obfuscated OpenVPN (128-bit)
VPN overhead is usually between 10 to 20% of the total packet size, meaning that PPTP can be closer to the low end of the range, while 256-bit OpenVPN can be closer to the top. PPTP and OpenVPN (128-bit) are closer in terms of overhead, which means that for the majority of users, OpenVPN is the best choice since it is by far, more secure that PPTP.

Is a VPN capable of getting around capped data quotas?

If you have a capped broadband or mobile data plan and you want to use more free data than what is allowed by your plan, you may be wondering if a VPN can help to get around the limits. In general, a VPN would not be an effective solution for this purpose, but this depends on the provider and terms.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at data quotas. The majority of mobile providers in the industry have applied soft or hard caps on customers’ monthly data limits. Hard caps means that no more data is available, once you have gone over the cap. If you use more, you will need to pay an extra fee. Soft caps provide unlimited speeds for the first 20GB of data, but the speeds are slower for all additional data used.

The reason why a VPN can’t be an effective solution, is that regardless if your data is encrypted or not, it still has to pass through your ISP’s servers. If you use a VPN on your mobile device, all the data has to be routed through the cell towers on your provider’s network. Even if your ISP can’t read your encrypted data, it can still see how much data is used.
A VPN won’t allow you to exceed the data cap, and as we previously mentioned, you can reach the data cap faster when you use a VPN due to encryption overhead. That being said, if your ISP gives priority to specific types of data (for instance, if it throttles video), a VPN may come handy and may help you to circumvent a cap. Let’s say that your ISP limits speeds on video streaming platforms after a specific amount of GB has been reached, it is likely that you can get around the soft data cap. When you use a VPN, your entire data traffic is encrypted and your ISP won’t be able to see if you are watching a video, which means that they can’t throttle it.

How to use a VPN to increase speed

In general, a VPN is not able to avoid hard data caps, but in many cases, it increases your speeds and video resolution. This is due to the fact that many mobile providers would slow down specific kinds of traffic, particularly HD video. It is likely that users in the United States experience this even more, since Net Neutrality was rolled back, which gives ISPs and mobile carriers freedom to handle traffic in any way they want. For instance, they can slow down streaming services like Netflix and charge more for improved speeds. If your ISP focuses on placing caps or throttling downloads, HD video and other data, a VPN can help you to get better speeds, since it hides the traffic from your ISP. After all, in order to be able to slow down traffic, the ISP needs to be able to identify and organize the data. When you use a VPN, your traffic is encrypted, which prevents your ISP from seeing your traffic. They simply won’t be able to slow down specific data and in most cases, slowing down the entire traffic is illegal.

Conclusion

With a VPN you can add strong security to your connection and bypass online restrictions. However, you can’t expect to be able to get around hard data caps using a VPN, since all the data that the VPN encrypts is routed through the servers and it counts against the caps. Still, in some cases, you may be able to get around soft caps or specific throttling. In addition, a VPN can also help to unblock or speed up streaming or VoIP traffic. While there is no guarantee that a VPN can help you to get around caps or prevent throttling, it is worth to give it a go. There are many affordable VPN services and the advantages of this technology will improve your online experience, even if you are not able to avoid data caps. A VPN allows you to overcome geographical restrictions and it protects your privacy. We recommend services like NordVPN, ExpressVPN, IPVanish, Private Internet Access and PureVPN.