What is a VPN kill switch, and why do you need one?

Green switch in the On position on a pastel yellow background
(Image credit: Javier Zayas Photography)

The best VPN services (Virtual Private Networks) have emerged as a go-to solution for internet users who value privacy and security. These nifty tools act as digital cloaks, safeguarding your online activity by encrypting your data and camouflaging your IP address. 

With increasing cyber threats, demand for VPNs has grown exponentially. According to a 2022 report by Globe Newswire, the VPN market is expected to reach US$77.1 Billion by 2026. 

However, even the most reliable VPNs can falter at times. They may drop connections, exposing your sensitive information. In such situations, a kill switch comes handy. This article explores what a VPN kill switch is, how it works, and why you need one. Read on!

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What is a VPN kill switch?

Put simply, a VPN kill switch is a feature included in a VPN app that automatically disconnects your device from the internet when your VPN stops working. It ensures your privacy remains intact, even if your VPN connection fails. This added layer of protection is vital for users who want to safeguard their personal information and maintain their online anonymity.

Types of VPN kill switches 

There are two primary types of VPN kill switches: system-level and app-level.

  • System-level kill switch: A system-level kill switch works at the operating system level. If your VPN connection drops, the system-level kill switch will block all internet traffic altogether, ensuring your data remains secure. This broad approach provides comprehensive protection for your entire device. 
  • App-level kill switch: App-level kill switches operate at the application level, allowing you to choose specific apps that will be blocked in case of a VPN disconnection. This offers more granular control over which apps are protected by the kill switch, enabling you to secure only the applications that require it. 

When does a VPN kill switch activate?

Picture this: you're enjoying a secure browsing session, and your VPN connection suddenly lapses. It could be due to a pesky network disruption, an unexpected server hiccup, or the VPN application crashing. That's precisely when your VPN kill switch swoops in to save the day. It’s designed to respond quickly to these events, minimizing any potential risk to your data and privacy. 

Modern kill switches typically don’t activate if you intentionally disconnect from your VPN. This allows you to access the internet without a VPN if you choose to, while also keeping you protected when you expect to be.

Graphic of Proton VPN NetShield protection on smartphone

(Image credit: Proton)

How does a VPN kill switch work?

A VPN kill switch works by monitoring your VPN connection status and detecting connection failures. Once it detects a dropped connection, it immediately blocks all internet access, ensuring that your data remains safe and your online activity remains private. Here's a brief overview of how it works:

  • Detection of VPN connection failure: The kill switch monitors your VPN connection status and IP address. It springs into action if it detects any disruption, loss of connection, or unintended change in IP. 
  • Blocking iInternet access: As soon as a connection failure is detected, the kill switch blocks all internet traffic to and from your device. This ensures that your data is not exposed and your online activity remains private. 
  • Reconnection: Once your VPN connection is reestablished, the kill switch resumes internet traffic, restoring your secure connection. 

Why do you need a VPN kill switch?

A VPN kill switch is essential for maintaining privacy and security. Without a kill switch, your data may be exposed if your VPN connection drops, leaving you vulnerable to monitoring, hacking, or data theft. 

A kill switch ensures that your online activities remain private, even if your VPN connection fails. Besides protecting your personal information, a kill switch can also help prevent accidental exposure of your IP address, which could lead to location tracking or targeted attacks.

Graphic representation of Proton VPN's new Stealth protocol

(Image credit: Proton VPN)

Who needs a VPN kill switch the most?

While a VPN kill switch is a valuable feature for all users, it’s especially critical for the following:

  • People who rely on VPNs for secure communication or sensitive data, such as journalists, whistleblowers, and business professionals.
  • People who reside in countries with strict online surveillance and censorship, where maintaining privacy is crucial for avoiding potential repercussions from accessing restricted content or expressing dissenting opinions.
  • People who use public Wi-Fi networks frequently, as these networks are often less secure and more susceptible to cyberattacks.

What VPN providers offer a kill switch?

Most top-rated VPN providers offer kill switches on all platforms. Some of the top VPN providers with kill switch features include:

ExpressVPN: Offers a kill switch (Network Lock) on Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, Linux, and routers. It makes sure there are no IP address or location leaks in case of a connection drop.

NordVPN: Provides a kill switch on Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, and iOS. NordVPN's kill switch is known for its reliability and effectiveness, making it a popular choice among privacy-conscious users.

CyberGhost: Includes a kill switch feature on Windows, macOS, and Android. CyberGhost's kill switch is designed to provide an added layer of protection for your online activities, ensuring data security. 

Bottom line

In a nutshell, a VPN kill switch is like your digital bodyguard, responsible for safeguarding your online privacy and sensitive data. This safety net is poised to protect you if your VPN connection ever falters, defending your information from unwanted exposure. 

So, when choosing that perfect VPN provider, don't forget to watch for this indispensable feature. After all, it's always better to err on the side of caution regarding online security.

Krishi Chowdhary

Krishi is a VPN writer covering buying guides, how-to's, and other cybersecurity content here at Tom's Guide. His expertise lies in reviewing products and software, from VPNs, online browsers, and antivirus solutions to smartphones and laptops. As a tech fanatic, Krishi also loves writing about the latest happenings in the world of cybersecurity, AI, and software.