Guide to VPN Protocols

VPNs use protocols to reroute all user information and encrypt it to make the data unreadable to hackers, governmental agencies and internet companies. A VPN protocol is what determines the way users’ data is routed between your computer and the VPN server. It dictates the conditions, ramifications, and consequences of the process. In this article, we will examine at depth what a VPN protocol is, how they function and the five most widely used options for encryption: OpenVPN, L2TP/IPSec, SSTP, IKEv2, and PPTP.

What is a VPN?

Virtual Private Networks are online encryption services that can come in the form of free or paid services. The need for an additional layer of online privacy and security that a VPN provides is a result of  a number of growing issues including but not limited to: hackers trying to steal information or identities from naive users; unauthorized crypto miners accessing your CPUs; government and intelligence agencies conducting surveillance on  your online activities.

VPNs encrypt your traffic and IP address and reroute that information through remote servers, masking it so it’s unrecognizable and undecipherable. Implementing a VPN experience gives you gains in privacy, security, and anonymity, – with hackers unable to intervene and intercept connections that they can’t recognize/see.

VPNs are also used to access worldwide content, otherwise geographically restricted, such as non U.S residents wanting to access USA Netflix. Most VPN clients have multiple servers in numerous countries and depending on which location you choose,  you’ll expand your legal online streaming options to connect with that international content.

What is a VPN protocol and how does it work?

Without a VPN an internet connection between user and internet Service Provider (ISP) is unencrypted. With a Virtual Private Network, the connection is encrypted and is between the user and VPN server.

VPN protocol is technology that VPN providers, such as PIA and Ivacy use to make sure their customers’ traffic and personal information, such as their IP addresses, are protected and secure using a tunneling feature. Simply stated, VPN protocols are the combination of transmission protocols and encryption standards. They are the instructions or mechanisms that VPNs use to provide secure, end-to-end encryption of your internet data.

Most paid VPNs have multiple protocols available for their clients, and each one of them has distinct characteristics, features, advantages, and disadvantages.

We recommended to understand the benefits and drawbacks of the major VPN protocols. That way you can choose how to encrypt your data according to your specific needs. Remember, what you require today may not be the same as tomorrow; your needs may change over time.

For example, if you only want the most basic type of encryption that is available on all VPN platforms and is easy to  use, you can use PPTP, the Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol. However, if you want to ensure your online security, then the PPTP is not the best option for you. A better option would be to implement  other safer protocols, such as OpenVPN, the standard for most VPN brands in the industry.

What are the different VPN protocols?

There are several protocols that exist in the VPN universe, but these five are easily the most prominent ones:


OpenVPN is, by far, the most commonly adopted VPN protocol in the market. The vast majority of VPN clients and apps offer it, as it’s widely recognized as the most secure in the industry today. This protocol is ultra safe to use, as it doesn’t allow any leaks of users’ IP addresses. It’s exceptionally secure if PFS (perfect forward secrecy) is used. On top of that, it has great compatibility, so  it can run on almost all known devices and operating systems without much hassle.

OpenVPN is a protocol that is, like its name suggests, open source, which means that it continually improves based on verified and tested contributions from the community. It is a very efficient way to maintain high standards of quality and functionality. With OpenVPN, users can bypass firewalls and access blocked content around the world. OpenVPN’s unique encryption means that users’ IP addresses will remain off-limits to anyone online. Because of that, OpenVPN is perfect for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, BBC iPlayer, and Kodi users regardless of their location.

A minor criticism we could make, if were to get picky, is that one drawback to OpenVPN is that it needs third party software to run successfully. However, it is only a small detail in an otherwise top-end protocol, one that is highly sought after for users in all locations.

OpenVPN is one of the newer VPN protocol market entrants, as opposed to PPTP, considered the grandfather of encryption technologies. OpenVPN uses a mix of other measures, such as SSLv3 and OpenSSL, with the intention of providing the best possible performance. OpenSSL paves the way for implementing encryption for numerous other algorithms, such as AES, Blowfish and Camelia. However, some tech and cybersecurity experts around the globe claim that OpenVPN can be somewhat complicated to install and set up. Additionally, it supports mobile devices but really works best on desktop computers.

There are two versions of the OpenVPN protocol: OpenVPN TCP and OpenVPN UDP. The former focuses on maximizing the reliability of the transmission of data, while the latter prioritizes a low-latency data transmission, with no emphasis on its guarantee delivery. This, therefore, sacrifices reliability. The majority of VPN brands implement OpenVPN as their built-in protocol. For example, ExpressVPN, which is one of the top companies in the market, lets users choose which type of OpenVPN protocol they want to activate, TCP or UDP.


L2TP means Layer Two Tunneling Protocol, and IPSec stands for Internet Protocol Security. These are two different systems that happen to work at their absolute best when they are combined. L2TP is an extension of the old reliable PPTP. The symbiotic relationship works so well because L2TP lacks integrated encryption, something that IPSec can bring to the table. The L2TP protocol is a combination of the PPTP (or Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol) and the Layer 2 Forwarding Protocol (L2F.) It was recently designed by Cisco, a global telecommunications company, and is now one of the favorite encryption measures for use by VPNs.

Secure, encrypted communications are enabled because of L2TP/IPSec 256-bit key, which is significantly better than the 128-bit one implemented by the PPTP. The complexity of the  L2TP/IPSec 256-bit makes it extremely difficult to crack. All mobile operating systems, including Android and iOS, fully support the L2TP/IPSec protocol, and Windows (since the XP version) and macOS (since the 10.3) are also compatible environments for its use.

L2TP needs more overhead for the overly complicated 256-bit encryption and double encapsulation. As with the OpenVPN protocol, this may not be so straightforward to install and use, but it is almost entirely safe to implement, aside from accusations of it being compromised by the  NSA (National Security Agency). In fact, some experts and recent tests have shown that the L2TP/IPSec protocol may be faster than the OpenVPN, so that is another advantage. However, be sure to check its effectiveness with restrictive firewalls.

Theoretically, the L2TP/IPSec protocol hides the user’s VPN traffic via deep packet inspection so it cannot be identified as a VPN connection and therefore be blocked. The L2TP packet itself is wrapped and hidden within the IPSec packet, which means that the IP address’s original source and destination are encrypted within the packet. This protocol implements 3DES or AES ciphers, but the former can suffer meet-in-the-middle and Sweet32 collision attacks. L2TP/IPSec may not be the best measure to use with NAT firewalls because it relies so much on limited ports that it can get easily blocked.

To sum up, L2TP/IPSec is overall a highly desirable protocol that belongs on the list of the best ones, although it seems to be a step behind the OpenVPN option. Most VPN providers and clients have this measure available in their catalog of protocols.


Next on our list is the Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol, better known as the SSTP. This protocol  also creates a secure environment for data to flow from end-to-end (starting from the user’s computer and ending in the VPN server) without any critical issues or flaws. The SSTP Protocol came to public prominence thanks to Microsoft, which created it and included it in their Windows Vista operating system. For that reason, the odds of it ever being implemented by the iOS or macOS environments are slim, at best.

The SSTP protocol implements 2048-bit SSL/TLS certificates for authentication and 256-bit SSL keys for encryption, making it one of the most secure in the VPN world and one that customers all over the globe implement in Windows devices. For those, the SSTP protocol  has native support, and the Linux, BSD systems, Android, macOS, and iOS have support via third-party clients.

Because of its features and attributes, we can conclude that the SSTP protocol is very similar to OpenVPN when we take into account that they both implement the same SSLv3. However, the primary difference is that SSTP is not open source, since it belongs to Microsoft, so it cannot be audited or added to by the public. On a related note, the SSLv3 system was once highly recommended, but recently, it has been especially vulnerable to what is called the POODLE attack, so it would be better for users to consider other options, too.

The SSTP protocol uses SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) 3.0  encryption, including the ability to use to TCP port 443 to evade censorship measures on some pages and services. Another point in SSTP’s favor is that it works very well with most wifi  hotspots, which represent one of the most critical threats to online security these days. It provides stable protection when the user connects to public wifi, which are ideal environments for hackers  to intercept users’ connections to steal personal data.

Generally speaking, the SSTP protocol is considered secure, and it has high compatibility with Windows-based operating systems. One of its primary strengths is that it can surpass even the most robust firewalls on the internet, which makes it a favorite for many internet-savvy users.. However, the fact that it is only suitable for Windows OS hurts its chances to be the absolute best VPN protocol in the market.


IKEv2 means Internet Key Exchange Version 2 and is another robust encryption measure that most VPN service providers offer these days. It is also one of the most versatile, as people can use it for various reasons  with satisfactory results.

The IKEv2 was also developed by two of the most prominent tech companies in America and the worldwide: Microsoft and Cisco Systems. It is implemented to provide a safe key exchange session, so it is only a tunneling protocol. It is for that reason that it pairs best with the Internet Protocol Security (IPSec,) which provides authentication and encryption.

What IKEv2 may lack in popularity, it more than makes it up for it with its usability and efficiency while implemented in mobile devices. This is because it is good at reconnecting in cases of connection losses and network switches from, for example, the users’ data plan to wifi connection and vice-versa. However, users need to be very alert when using the IKEv2 protocol, because the NSA  seems to be regularly taking advantage of flaws in the system to locate users’ IPSec traffic. The NSA is continuously adjusting to new security measures, and VPN brands alter theirs  in a never-ending back-and-forth battle.

IKEv2 is compatible with several operating systems, such as Windows, iOS, and even Blackberry devices. There are open source implementations for the Linux community, and there are also third-party services that allow full Android support. IKEv2 implements 128-bit encryption, which is not bad but does not quite have the 256-bit strength and security.

IKEv2 is fast and stable, especially when performing essential but necessary activities such as switching networks or reconnecting after a lost internet connection. It is also very secure if AES encryption is in place, and unlike some protocols, it is very straightforward to set up and use. However, the system has a disadvantage in that implementing IKEv2 at the server-end can be a hassle, and you should only trust open source implementations.

This option may not have the worldwide reach and popularity of OpenVPN and L2TP/IPSec, but it compares favorably to the later in speeds, performance, security, stability, and the ability to reestablish a lost connection. You should know that BlackBerry operating system users may not have any other option than to execute their VPN encryption through the IKEv2.


PPTP’s origins are tied to Microsoft. An engineer working with the company  invented and developed the Point-to-Point, or Peer-to-Peer  Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) as a way to securely exchange data and traffic in an encrypted manner. This protocol is actually faster than OpenVPN, but that’s not a good reason to use it.

While there is a sense of nostalgia when it comes to the PPTP protocol since it’s the oldest one around, it’s  clear that most respected VPN brands and providers have long moved on from it as their preferred measure for encrypting traffic and information. Initially, the PPTP system was a massive success. It was created in 1995 to work with the newly launched Windows 95 to serve as a security complement to dial-up connections. At that time, it was incredibly cutting-edge and useful. However, governments with massive surveillance interests and other motivations to look into what their citizens were doing online started to crack this security system and its not-so-strong encryption. Today, every bit of data you send through a PPTP tunnel is not even remotely hidden.

Not only is it not secure, but it’s also unsurprisingly easy to block. Nevertheless, numerous VPN services and clients active in today’s market still implement this type of encryption for essential purposes. The fact that it doesn’t need additional software or third party apps is a plus. The PPTP protocol is now considered not secure and very slow, at least when compared to OpenVPN, L2TP and some of the other major systems implemented in our online security-hungry universe. The PPTP protocol uses 128-bit encryption keys nowadays. The chance of being a victim of non-encapsulated MS-CHAP v2 Authentication is a significant security vulnerability that users should avoid at all costs. The NSA can easily intercept and crack this system.

Overall, PPTP is stable on NAT supported devices, and it is compatible with all platforms, something that not every protocol can brag about. However, the PPTP protocol is now insecure, vulnerable and slow, and it is no longer suitable unless you have compatibility issues with other options.

Which protocols do our preferred VPN options implement?

ExpressVPN: IPSec, OpenVPN (TCP and UDP), L2TP, PPTP, and SSTP

PureVPN: IKEv2, L2TP, PPTP, OpenVPN, and SSTP

CyberGhost: OpenVPN, PPTP, and IPSec

NordVPN: IKEv2, OpenVPN TCP and OpenVPN UDP

Hotspot Shield: IPSec OpenVPN, L2TP, PPTP, and SSTP


In order to encrypt user’s data and traffic and send it through remote servers successfully, VPN clients implement different protocols to fulfill their objectives. VPNs guarantee high levels of privacy, security, and anonymity for customers, making a user nearly invisible to all the threats and hazards lurking around the internet world.

These VPN protocols discussed here vary in their effectiveness, specifications, and benefits. Some are safer but slower than the average encryption method, while some are speedier than most.

We hope you use this VPN protocol comparison the next time you need to choose an encryption measure for enhanced privacy, security, anonymity, accessibility. Remember, there is no perfect option: every protocol has their advantages and drawbacks, but the most crucial thing is to identify your needs and requirements in order to choose the right VPN protocol for you.