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What is VPN split tunneling and how does it work?

Graphic displaying VPN split tunneling
(Image credit: Da-Kuk/Getty Images)

When you’re picking the best VPN for your needs, many providers can seem very similar, and decisions end up being made on small features and functions that separate it from the crowd. One of these is split tunneling – but what is it, and how does it affect you?

Useful for those who torrent often, need to use applications or websites that don’t play nicely with VPNs, and even those who stream on platforms like Twitch, split tunneling often makes it to the front page of VPN reviews and a provider's marketing despite the fact that a significant amount of users may never have used it before.

So, here we’ll be exploring exactly what VPN split tunneling is, why it should (or shouldn’t) be a defining factor in your choice of VPN, and what real-world uses it offers users.

What is VPN split tunneling?

When you connect to your VPN without split tunneling enabled, every single bit and byte of your internet traffic is routed through your selected VPN server. Whether it’s YouTube streaming in Chrome, the video game you’re playing, or the torrent you’re currently downloading, everything is fed through the VPN.

In day-to-day use, this is perfect – there’s no risk of you leaking your personal IP, and if you’re using a quality VPN that allows activities like streaming, you won’t usually notice any difference.

However, in some cases you’ll want some of your internet traffic to route through the VPN, and some to use your unprotected connection. This is where split tunneling comes in.

Different VPNs have different implementations of the tech, but in almost all cases, you’ll see a ‘split tunneling’, ‘whitelist’, or ‘per-app’ section in the settings of your app. Here, you can choose which apps and, sometimes, which websites you want to allow to bypass the VPN. 

Why is split tunneling useful?

While VPNs have come on leaps and bounds in the past decade, there are still some situations where you just don’t want to use one. This might be because you need the absolute fastest ping time possible, because you find your VPN often makes you answer CAPTCHAs, or your favorite sites and apps simply don’t like your VPN.

Let’s look at an example. It’s highly recommended that anyone uses a torrenting VPN when sharing P2P, but you might decide that you want to browse the web in the meantime without your VPN active. In this situation you would head to your VPN’s split tunneling section in its settings, and whitelist Google Chrome. 

That means that all of your internet traffic that’s coming from Chrome will be associated with your real IP address, but all other traffic – including that from your torrent client – will go through your VPN.

Another common use case for split tunneling is for maintaining good ping. While there are tons of fast VPN services, one inevitable consequence is slightly increased ping time – your connection is traveling further to your VPN’s server, and there’s nothing you can do about that. 

If you don’t want to use a gaming VPN and would rather get as low a ping as possible, just whitelist the game you’re playing rather than switching off your VPN. The rest of your traffic will stay protected, but your game will use your regular connection, and be as fast as possible.

Conceptual image representing digital software VPN computing technology

(Image credit: Vertigo3d/Getty Images)

Is split tunneling secure?

Our biggest piece of advice for anyone using a secure VPN is to keep it switched on all the time. This ensures you’ve got maximum protection, and in most cases, you won’t notice a thing. It could be argued that using split tunneling goes against this advice, by offering an easy way of exposing a portion of your traffic.

However, if there’s something you need to do that doesn’t work when your VPN is active, selectively choosing to reroute a single app rather than switching off your VPN entirely is definitely the better choice. 

So, while split tunneling does allow users to put themselves at a little more risk, it’s much better than the alternative.

Does split tunneling work on all devices?

If your VPN boasts split tunneling, you can be fairly sure it'll offer a Windows 10 VPN app. These are usually the best outfitted of all VPN applications. Android is flexible and allows a lot of features, so a quality Android VPN will likely have split tunneling on offer, too. 

Mac VPN services may or may not offer split tunneling. While it may not be impossible, even premium VPNs like ExpressVPN and Private Internet Access don't offer the feature on macOS 11 and higher due to the removal of Network Kernel extensions. If you're using an older iteration of the operating system, though, you'll likely be able to use it.

On iOS, it’s just about impossible for VPNs to use split tunneling, since the operating system has strict rules on which apps can separate internet traffic. This means that while iPhone VPN apps are just as powerful as those on other platforms in most areas, they're very unlikely to offer split tunneling.

Do you need VPN split tunneling?

When it comes to choosing the right VPN for you, it’s essential to consider what you’ll be using it for. If you’re just in it for improving general privacy, then split tunneling probably won’t be a priority. However, if you can envisage yourself switching off your VPN for a particular activity, using split tunneling instead will likely come in handy.

And, thankfully, almost all the best providers offer the feature, so if you go with one of our favorites like ExpressVPN or NordVPN, you’ll have access to it, whether you need it or not.

Which VPN do we recommend?

The top-rated VPN service available today

The top-rated VPN service available today
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 you'll get a huge selection to choose from, the apps are super simple to install and use, and you can even try it risk-free for 30 days. What's more, Tom's Guide readers can claim three months FREE on any 12-month plan – what's not to like?

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.