Does a VPN use data? Does it help you to get around capped data plans?

Many people wonder if using a VPN has an impact on your data cap and if it is possible to bypass data caps with the help of a VPN. There are many misconceptions regarding data usage, particularly when it comes to VPNs. In order to clarify things, we’ll take a closer look at the most common questions related to VPNs and data usage. We can start by saying that a VPN does impact the data cap as all the data has to go through the ISP/mobile provider’s servers before it gets to the VPN server. While the data is encrypted, it still has to use bandwidth. Now, when it comes to VPNs and getting around specific caps or throttling, the short answers is that although a VPN may help in some cases, it is not always an effective solution. We’ll explore these questions further in this article.

How does a VPN work?

You may be already using a VPN or may be familiar with the technology, but it is still worth going through a brief explanation of what a VPN is. In short, a VPN is a piece of code that is installed on two machines: your computer (that is the client) and the VPN server. A VPN encrypts all the data that passes through the two endpoints, the client and the server. The VPN servers sends/receives data on your behalf, gathering websites, media content and more from around the web. The data is then encrypted and sent back to you.

Do VPNs count towards data caps?

The simple answer is yes. While the VPN server is not operated by your Internet service provider, the data still has to be transferred online so that it reaches the VPN server. The ISP is the gateway to the internet and all VPN data goes through its servers first. While your ISP won’t be able to check your online traffic since it is encrypted by the VPN, it can calculate the size of the data that is being transferred. That means that when you use a VPN, it will count towards your data cap, if you are not using public WiFi.

Does using a VPN consume additional data?

The answer in this case is also yes. When you use a VPN, your data usage is increased slightly. Generally, the increase is between 5 and 15%, due to the encryption used to secure the data transferred by the VPN. Thanks to the encryption applied, the data is scrambled, which means that others won’t be able to read it. It should be noted that when a piece of data is encrypted, it takes more space than when it hasn’t been encrypted. This is known as encryption overhead. Some VPN services negate this with data compression.

VPN protocols that use the least data

There are many different VPN protocols available, but the most popular ones are OpenVPN, L2TP and PPTP. The majority of VPN providers support a variety of protocols, giving you flexibility to choose the one that better suits your needs. In most cases, using stronger encryption increases encryption overhead, meaning that a VPN protocol that applies higher encryption requires more data than a level of encryption that is not that strong. Using higher encryption also has an impact on speed. In addition, every VPN protocol uses a different encryption algorithm, which also affects overhead. Since PPTP (128-bit) is the weakest protocol, it uses the least amount of data. It is followed by L2TP/IPSec (128-bit) and OpenVPN when it also uses 128-bit. Next in the list are Stealth/obfuscated OpenVPN (128-bit) and L2TP/IPSec when it uses 256-bit. The protocol that uses more data is OpenVPN 256-bit, but it is also the most secure option. There is not a significant overhead difference between PPTP and OpenVPN (128-bit), so the majority of people will opt for OpenVPN due to its higher security

Can a VPN bypass capped data quotas?

Another frequent question regarding VPNs and data usage is if it possible to use a VPN to use more data than what a capped plan offers. In general, a VPN won’t help in this case, but this depends on the provider and conditions of service. The majority of mobile providers place hard or soft caps on monthly data limits. A hard limit means that you don’t get more data once you have gone over the cap, or you may have to pat additional fees per MB. A soft cap means that with unlimited plans, you may get unlimited speeds for the first 20GB of data and then you will get slower speeds for any extra data used.

Why a VPN may not be effective to get around data limits?

Encrypted and unencrypted data go through your ISP’ servers and when you are using a VPN on your smartphone, all the data will still go through the cell towers on the provider’s network. Even if they can’t read your encrypted data, they can count how much data us used. This means that if you get 10GB of all purpose data, a VPN won’t allow you to go over the cap. You will get to the cap faster using a VPN due to encryption overhead. The 10GB is actually only 9GB of data payload and 1GB of encryption padding.

When is a VPN able to get around data cap?

If a VPN gives priority to certain types of data, it may actually be able to bypass a data limit. If your ISP places limits speeds on streaming services after a set amount of GB, it is likely that you can avoid that soft data cap. With a VPN, all data transfer is encrypted so your ISP won’t be able to see that you are watching videos, which prevents them from slowing down the traffic. People in countries like India have also been able to get around data caps with the help of a VPN. A high quality VPN is more affordable than a monthly mobile plan so it is worth to give it a try.

How to use a VPN to increase speed

While VPNs may not always be effective when it comes to getting around hard data caps, they may work when you want to increase speeds and get better video resolution. This is due to the fact that a lot of mobile providers slow down HD video and other types of traffic. Since in the US, Net Neutrality was recently rolled back in the United States, ISPs and mobile providers have the power to slow down streaming traffic and charge higher fees for better speeds, for example. In this case, a VPN can help since it prevents ISPs and other parties from seeing what you do online.

Even if they want to place limits or slow down certain types of data, a VPN will prevent them from identifying the traffic. To be able to throttle specific traffic, they need to identify it and if they can’t do this in the first place due to the fact that it is encrypted, then they won’t be able to slow specific traffic. In order to throttle streaming for example, they would have to slow down everything, which is against the ;aw in most locations.

Conclusion

A VPN is a convenient solution to protect your privacy, add security to your connection and bypass censorship or geographical restrictions. However, it is not guaranteed to help you to get around your ISP’s hard data caps since all VPN-encrypted data is still routed through their servers and they can still count it. Still, a VPN may work when you want to circumvent soft caps or selective throttling. This technology also allows you to unblock apps, websites and services that are not be available in your location. Even if a VPN doesn’t help you to circumvent data caps, it is worth getting one since it offers protection for your internet traffic thanks to the encryption applied. A VPN also gives you flexibility to access more content on the internet.

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