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What is VPN obfuscation and do I need it?

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

If you're looking to get one of the best VPN services, it's likely that you've come across the concept of obfuscation technology or obfuscated servers. However, what is it and do you really need this feature?

As VPNs grow in popularity as tools to bypass geo-restrictions on streaming platforms, circumvent online censorship and simply staying more private online, it's not so surprising that these parties are trying hard to prevent their use.

That's where VPN obfuscation comes in. By hiding the fact you are connected via a virtual private network, it makes sure you can benefit from the protection a VPN offers without being caught in the act.

Below, we're explaining better what VPN obfuscation is, how it works and its relevance in an ever-changing digital world. 

What is VPN obfuscation?

Browsing through software's specs, it's likely you'll bump into different names describing VPN obfuscation. From 'stealth VPN' to 'cloaking technology', some providers have even their own customized version - like Camouflage Mode for Surfshark, and VyprVPN's Chameleon Protocol. 

Despite these differences in appearance, the concept remains the same: a technology responsible for making VPN traffic look like a normal connection in order to bypass VPNs blocking. 

ISPs often use a technique known as Deep Packet Inspection to determine whether or not you're using a virtual private network. 

This is why all the data packets moving inside the encrypted VPN tunnel are characterized by some metadata describing such encryption protocol. And, even though your data cannot be accessed, your ISP can easily differentiate this traffic from an usual unencrypted information flow to prevent you from accessing your final destination.  

Graphic explaining VPN traffic with a feature breaking the wall between user and open internet

(Image credit: VyprVPN)

How does VPN obfuscation work?

There are different techniques for successfully applying VPN obfuscation. It can be done by applying an additional layer of encryption able to mock regular HTTPS traffic, for example. Or, the software may scramble the data so that the algorithm would fail to recognize it.

However, without going into too much technical detail, the aim is always masking any traces of a VPN connection from the data packets traveling on the net. 

Notably, only two VPN protocols are able to support these obfuscation techniques. These are OpenVPN and WireGuard. Good news though, these are the standard across the VPN industry in terms of security and performance. So, all the most secure VPN providers include such encryption protocols into their offer. 

Why is VPN obfuscation useful?

VPN obfuscation is a very useful feature to have for all types of users. But, for some of those, it's actually a necessity. 

Below, we walk you through some specific use cases: 

  • Successfully unblocking streaming content: Using a VPN to unlock foreign streaming libraries is a very popular practice among users. This is why major platforms, like Netflix or BBC iPlayer, apply geo-restrictions to their content. Despite the fact that using circumvention software for eluding these restrictions is not a crime, it's against streaming providers' terms and conditions. For this, they try hard to prevent their customers from using such tools. And, if your streaming VPN fails, a solid VPN obfuscation feature may be of help. 
  • Bypassing network restrictions: Similarly to the above-mentioned use case, your workplace or school's network might block VPN traffic for security or any other reasons. Here, you may want to use a stealth VPN to elude any type of restrictions. 
  • Bypass VPN bans: In countries where strict online censorship is enforced - like China, for example - authorities are actively striving to prevent VPN users from accessing banned websites or apps. It is also worth mentioning that using a VPN is actually a crime in some of these nations - and it will be at your own risk deciding to do so. These include Russia, Turkey and North Korea. 
  • Boost security: As a rule of thumb, an additional layer of encryption is beneficial in terms of privacy protection. That's why VPN obfuscation can also mean better security for your data. This might be useful for users whose anonymity is paramount, like activists, politicians and journalists. 

Man holding a tablet with streaming services logos on screen

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Do you need VPN obfuscation?

As explained above, you very much need VPN obfuscation in certain situations.

You might want to enjoy better privacy and security as you live in a heavily controlled country, for example. Or, you find yourself not being able to use your VPN service for accessing certain sites under a specific network. For any of these scenarios, VPN obfuscation can come very handy. 

However, for day-to-day usage, VPN obfuscation doesn't offer a huge benefit - and in fact, it's likely to slow down your connection a little.

So, when speed is critical - like for a gaming VPN - or your connection is slow, we recommend you switch to your normal VPN traffic instead. 

Which VPN do we recommend?

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The top-rated VPN service available today (opens in new tab)
ExpressVPN is our top choice for just about any use, be that staying private online or watching overseas streaming content. With over 3,000 servers in 94 countries, all of them are integrated with obfuscation technology by default. What's more, the apps are super simple to install and use, and you can even try it risk-free for 30 days. Tom's Guide readers can even claim three months FREE on any 12-month plan – what's not to like?

Chiara Castro
Staff Writer

Chiara is a multimedia journalist, with a special eye for latest trends and issues in cybersecurity. She is a Staff Writer at Future with a focus on VPNs. She mainly writes news and features about data privacy, online censorship and digital rights for TechRadar, Tom's Guide and T3. With a passion for digital storytelling in all its forms, she also loves photography, video making and podcasting. Originally from Milan in Italy, she is now based in Bristol, UK, since 2018.