Does a VPN slow down your internet connection?

Conceptual image representing digital software VPN computing technology
(Image credit: Vertigo3d/Getty Images)

There’s nothing quite as annoying as having a slow internet connection, and if your Wi-Fi’s moving at a snail’s pace it’s near-impossible to work, watch videos, or even message your friends and family.

It should come as no surprise, then, that a major concern for many when picking the best VPN service is that it could slow down your internet connection. But is that true, and if it is, by just how much can you expect to be held up?

Here, we’ll explain how VPNs have the potential to slow down your connection, and we’ll draw on our first-hand testing data to see whether any modern providers will actually have an impact on your internet speed.

Can VPNs slow down your internet connection?

In short, yes, they can – but it's rare these days.

We’ll start with the basics. A VPN works by routing your traffic through its own servers – essentially becoming a middleman between you and the website you want to visit. That adds extra physical distance that your internet traffic has to travel. This step is usually the step that can cause a higher ‘ping’. 

Ping is the delay between you taking an action and that action happening, and while a very high ping will be annoying in any situation, a very low ping is only essential if you’re doing something like gaming, which requires your reactions to be as fast as possible. 100 milliseconds is perfectly acceptable day-to-day, and by selecting a server geographically near to your current location, you can avoid any substantial ping increase.

A VPN also encrypts your data, making it unreadable to anyone who may manage to intercept it – be that a hacker or simply your ISP. This is the step that may contribute to lower upload and download speeds, since it takes to time encrypt and decrypt data. Low download speeds especially are what contribute to having a ‘slow connection’ – pages will load slowly, videos will buffer endlessly, and you’ll basically just be having a crummy time.

Finally, VPN servers have a finite throughput. That means that if a lot of people are using an individual server, speeds can be slower if the server’s not up to task. Many providers are upgrading to 10Gbps or even 20Gbps servers now, meaning that overcrowded servers are largely a thing of the past when it comes to the biggest and best providers.

So, a poorly optimized VPN can definitely have an effect on your internet speeds, but in recent years advances in encryption tech have meant that the impact has become negligible – we’ll get onto the numbers to back this up very shortly.

Graphic displaying a VPN being used on a smartphone

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How have VPNs got faster?

There are a number of reasons why quality VPNs don’t often slow down internet connections any more. Firstly, the apps that your chosen VPN service provides are generally small, efficient packages that put a minimum of load on your device.

More importantly, though, VPN protocols have advanced. VPN protocols are how a VPN encrypts your data and sends it to its destination – there’s more to it than that, so check out our what is a VPN? guide to learn more.

Up until a few years ago, the dominant VPN protocol was OpenVPN. OpenVPN replaced a number of older, less secure protocols, and is still widely regarded as safe, secure, and reliable. However, as a piece of code it’s quite large and carries many updates and modifications, and connection speed was never a priority in its original design. Different VPNs often delivered wildly different speeds when using the same protocol, and years ago it was definitely true that a VPN slowed down your connection.

However, new protocols like WireGuard and proprietary tech like ExpressVPN’s Lightway are becoming the go-to protocols, and have been designed from the ground-up to deliver great speeds as well as excellent privacy. Now, even VPN providers not known for great speeds in the past can match up with the big guns if they’ve implemented WireGuard efficiently.

Which VPNs are the fastest?

You don’t have to take our word for it, either. In our review process we record the connection speeds of every VPN we test, and there are some incredibly fast VPN services on the market today. Our tests are undertaken on a superfast 1Gbps connection, and if the speeds we recorded are faster than your home connection, you can safely assume that you won’t be held up by that VPN.

Big name NordVPN uses a modified version of WireGuard it calls NordLynx, and in our testing it was the fastest provider. It reliably delivered speeds of up to 880Mbps when using NordLynx, compared to around 190Mbps when using OpenVPN.

When testing ExpressVPN’s Lightway protocol, we also saw excellent results, with speeds of up to 580Mbps. However, OpenVPN speeds were much better than Nord’s, reliably reaching over 300Mbps.

ProtonVPN didn’t used to be much of a sprinter, but when using WireGuard it regularly topped out at around 740Mbps. OpenVPN speeds were also impressive, with maximums of over 500Mbps. If you’d still prefer to use OpenVPN, ProtonVPN would be our choice for top speed.

Even smaller VPNs can deliver excellent speeds when using WireGuard, though. Atlas VPN, best known for its free VPN, soared near the top of our chart with speeds of up to 800Mbps, and ZenMate maxed out at a respectable 500Mbps. 

Conceptual image representing digital software VPN computing technology

(Image credit: Vertigo3d/Getty Images)

Will a free VPN slow down your connection?

Unlike uncapped paid-for VPN, free services impose limitations on users – mostly in the hope that they'll upgrade to a paid plan to avoid them.

Alongside data limits, one of the most common restrictions is a speed limit. For example, Hotspot Shield's free version limits users to a very slow 2Mbps, which won't cope with much more than simple browsing of text-based websites. You won't be watching many 4K YouTube vids with that.

While it's probably the best free option out there, ProtonVPN's free plan also caps speeds, and while it's not quite a brutal as Hotspot Shield, you certainly won't be seeing speeds reach triple figures.

So, yes, free services are very likely to slow down your connection – but that's because the provider's chosen to cap speeds, rather than a limitation of the tech.

Does a VPN slow down your internet connection?

In the past, the answer to that would’ve been yes, but in today’s market, VPNs simply can’t afford to slow down connections. WireGuard has been instrumental in this, and even if you’re using a superfast connection of 1Gbps or more, if you pick the right provider you won’t have any issues. 

Which VPN do we recommend?

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Mo Harber-Lamond
VPN Editor

Mo is VPN Editor at Tom's Guide. Day-to-day he oversees VPN, privacy, and cybersecurity content, and also undertakes independent testing of VPN services to ensure his recommendations are accurate and up to date. When he's not getting stuck into the nitty-gritty settings of a VPN you've never heard of, you'll find him working on his Peugeot 205 GTi or watching Peep Show instead of finally putting up those shelves.