Does a VPN Use Data? What is the Impact on Data Caps?

Data capsThe concept of the unmetered data plan for US mobile carriers is still relatively new. While some users have unmetered plans, a majority still use data caps. In other words, most still pay for the amount of data they use. That leads to constant checking of data usage so you do not go over your cap. That said, protecting your privacy while on the go is very important. No one wants their sensitive data stolen. For those that have an unlimited plan and engage in tethering (using your mobile service as a wifi hotspot), you are vulnerable to theft. If you are familiar with VPNs, you know the positive benefits of using one. If not, we can help you with some of the basics and show you why it is so important. Let’s start with some of the big reasons behind using a VPN and what it does.

Reasons for Using a VPN and How it Works

You may have heard that VPNs will help to protect your privacy, but you may not know how, why it is important, or even if you need to use one. If you are a security-minded person, you may already know the answer to some of these questions. If you are new to the community, using a VPN is a good idea whenever you can.

  • Using a VPN for privacy – When you connect to a server by using the client software, you create a secure tunnel to that server. Then, all of your traffic is re-routed through that connection. What that means is your data is encrypted and much harder to obtain by normal means. If you have paid attention lately, you know that some federal organizations have already taken the opportunity to spy on citizens.
  • Using a VPN to get around restrictions – Whether you are on a metered or capped data plan, there can be restrictions on the way you use the service. With the metered plan, everything counts towards your data cap.

As we mentioned, your data goes through a secure connection when you use a VPN. That means yes, you are using data when you use one. If you are on a plan that has a data cap, you will use an additional amount with a VPN. An increase of 5%-15% over the data you would normally use is common. That is because encrypted data takes more bandwidth than unencrypted data. If you have a cap on your data plan, you will need to monitor it. As an example, if you were going to use 10GB of data, it would only be 9GB + 1GB of encryption. Though we do not want it to discourage you from using a VPN to protect your privacy, you are probably aware how fast your data usage can increase. Keep a close eye on your usage. Otherwise, you could end up paying an additional $10-$15 per GB used, depending on the carrier you are using.

Unlimited Plans are Not Always Unlimited

Even though every US carrier offers some form of an “unmetered” plan, they are not always truly unlimited. No matter what your reasons may be for using an unmetered plan, there are definitely some limitations. Some carriers throttle data based on the way you use the service. As an example, T-Mobile customers are allowed to use up to 7GB before they run into throttling. AT&T’s limit is 22GB. Some start throttling speeds after only 500mb. You can also expect that some throttle certain usage, like using torrenting software, Netflix, or others. By using a VPN and changing the port in the VPN client, you can help to stop those companies from throttling your downloads. Before they start doing that, they need to be able to identify what you’re doing on the internet. A VPN connection on port 443 will stop a lot of the traffic throttling.

Impact of Using a VPN on Your Data Caps

If you find yourself needing to use a VPN over your cell network instead of wifi, different protocols and encryption strengths have varying impacts on data usage. These apply whether you are using a metered or capped plan. Below is a list of the protocols, encryption levels, and the impacts they have. We will start with the least, first.

  • PPTP (128-bit)
  • IKEv2 (128-bit)
  • L2TP/IPsec (128-bit)
  • OpenVPN (128-bit)
  • Stealth/obfuscated OpenVPN (128-bit) (you will see the setting for this on some services)
  • IKEv2 (256-bit)
  • L2TP/IPsec (256-bit)
  • OpenVPN (256-bit)
  • Stealth/obfuscated OpenVPN (256-bit)

Though OpenVPN is the most popular because of its’ speed and security, you may wish to try the other options as well. If you are offered the PPTP option, keep in mind that its’ creator does not feel it offers adequate protection any longer. The others, however, should offer you decent protection. As you may have guessed, the obfuscated 256-bit version is the most secure but it is the slowest. We highly recommend using IKEv2 for iPhone connections. One big advantage over L2TP/IPSec is that IKEv2 quickly reconnects if you’re connection drops or you move between networks.

In looking at the list, you may be wondering what the difference is between OpenVPN and the Stealth/obfuscated versions of the protocols. What the stealth do is make your VPN nearly undetectable. Of course, that is extremely helpful if you are visiting a country where VPN usage is frowned on. It takes up more bandwidth than the standard version of OpenVPN, but it may save you from internet throttling in some cases or stop you from getting in trouble in others.

Now, we will take a look at some standard data items and their approximate bandwidth cost. Keep in mind these are just estimates, so your actual usage may vary. Remember that VPN usage can increase these numbers by 5%-15%. The smll increase is well worth it to secure your privacy.

  • Email (sent or received, text only) = 35KB
  • Email (sent or received) with small attachments = 350KB
  • 1 minute of connected gameplay = 1MB
  • Social media post = 250KB
  • Standard web page = 180KB
  • 1 minute of streaming music = 1MB
  • App/game/song download = 4MB
  • 1 minute of streaming video (SD) = 4.5MB
  • 1 minute of streaming video (HD) = 16.5MB

In conclusion, we hope we have answered some of your questions and made you think a bit more about how to best use a VPN to protect your mobile data. Though it will increase your bandwidth usage by a slight amount, the benefits, security, and peace of mind you gain from using a VPN are well worth it. Please feel free to reach out to use @VPNFan if you have any additional questions.