How to Test the Speed of a VPN

by Adam Gill

VPN services are awesome.  There’s no denying that they offer a great deal of security, privacy, and anonymity online.  Many people swear by them to limit their potential exposure online, in terms of having their activity tracked, information collected, or be subject to throttling or legal risks with their ISP, copyright holders, and similar.  There really are many and varied reasons to use a VPN to enhance your online experience, both in-browser and in terms of other online services. 

However, one downside of all this security is that speed can take a hit.  Because VPNs encrypt traffic between the user and the VPN server, there are several extra computations that need to take place for each packet of data that makes the round trip to a destination server and back.  This can add latency to the connection, as well as decrease maximum download speed.  The best VPNs tend to work on very high-speed networks with top-quality servers, and have minimal impact on speed when used.  Lower-end providers can take away upwards of 90% of your maximum download speed.  So, it’s important to be able to benchmark and test the speed of any VPN you may choose.  This is especially true because many VPN providers offer limited-duration money-back trial periods – so you want to be able to test your speed reliably and easily.  That’s what we’ll tell you how to do in this guide.

Step #1 – Research and Choose a VPN Provider

The first step, of course, is researching the different VPN provider options that are out there, and choosing one that seems like it would do well to suit your needs.  There are upwards of 300 global VPN providers today, and it can be a bit overwhelming to know where to start.  We recommend checking out the VPN comparison from https://bestvpn24.com/vpn/comparison/.  You can also check out the rest of the site for more detailed information (as well as speed benchmarks) for all the different VPNs that are featured.

Step #2 – Perform a Speed Test Without a VPN

Once you have a VPN provider chosen, and can identify the nearest server to you, note the location (city, state).  Then, without the VPN active, navigate a web browser to a reputable speed testing website – preferably one that lets you choose your server location manually.  We recommend www.speedtest.net or www.meter.net, though there are plenty of others you can find through a search engine.  Once on the speed test site, you want to select a server as close to the location of your VPN server as possible.  This ensures you’re testing a “like for like,” “apples-to-apples” travel distance for your connection.  If you are in northern New Jersey, for example, and the nearest VPN server is in New York City, you’ll want to set your speed test server manually to New York City.

You should not be doing anything else with your connection when running a speed test – e.g., no download, peer-to-peer file sharing, video streaming, automatic system updates, virus scans, etc. should be running, that could negatively impact your results.  Then, we suggest running the speed test two or three times, with short breaks in between.  Note down the resulting information – ping/latency time (in milliseconds, or ms), download speed, and upload speed, both of which are usually reported in Mbps.

Step 3 – Repeat Tests with VPN Turned On

Now, you can turn the VPN on, and connect to your nearest server (the same one you identified earlier, nominally in the same location as the test server you used for the speed test).  Again, with nothing else running, being downloaded, and so forth, load up the same speed test site.  Select the same test server, and run the speed test again.  We recommend doing this two to three times, just like in step 2, and recording the information.

Step 4 – Easy Math to Get Results

Then, we just need to do some simple math and we can get the results, as to how much latency increases and download speed decreases when using the chosen VPN.  Average the latency, download speed, and upload speed from the first series of tests, so you’re left with three numbers, for example, 40 ms, 112 Mbps Down, 26 Mbps Up.  Do the same for the second series of tests (the one with the VPN on), for example, 70 ms, 72 Mbps Down, 16 Mbps Up.

Now, we can look at the difference, using simple subtraction and division.  The data table from our above example, and the results calculations, can be seen below.

TestPing/LatencyDownload SpeedUpload Speed
Average No VPN40 ms112 Mbps26 Mbps
Average VPN On70 ms72 Mbps16 Mbps
Difference+30 ms40 Mbps10 Mbps
% Change30/40 = +75%40/112 = -35.7%10/26 = -38.5%

 

So, in this case, our latency increased 75% with the VPN on (the percentage matters less in this case than the overall time – under 100 ms and it’s generally not noticeable).  The download speed is the main concern, as the upload speed is (almost) always affected proportionally.  It also matters far less for most online activities, which are downstream-heavy (video streaming, browsing, etc.).  In this case, our maximum download speed took a hit of around 35%.  This is about typical of most mid-range VPN providers, and is not noticeable in all but the most extreme bandwidth-heavy applications (e.g., peer-to-peer file sharing).  Over 50%, you may start to notice with video streaming or normal browsing activities.

Step 5 – Do More Tests

If the results from the above seem like you’re download speed hit or latency are extremely high when using the VPN, you may want to try another VPN server location.  Usually, how close the server is to your physical location is one of the main factors for latency.  Download speed can vary, however, based on factors beyond geographic distance – the quality and bandwidth of the Internet backbone location that serves the VPN servers, for example.  Just remember, if you try a different VPN server location, to change the speed test server location in your before-and-after testing.

Final Notes

Here are just a few things to keep in mind when testing the speed of a VPN:

  • Speed results may vary based on the number of users on a given VPN server at any particular time.
  • Generally, connecting to servers in other countries will be noticeably slower than connecting to servers nearby, based simply on distance and the speed of light, in addition to the number of server hops happening behind the scenes.
  • Top VPN providers typically have only a 15-25% decrease to max download speed, and 30-40 ms additional ping/latency time, for users with good internet connections, connecting to servers in the same geographic area as they are physically located.
  • Mid-tier VPN providers usually clock in with similar or slightly higher latency times added to your “no VPN” ping, with 30-60% decreases to maximum download speed.
  • Smaller or free/ad-supported VPNs may add as much as 100 ms to ping time, and run with a maximum download speed hit of 60 to 90% or more.

Despite all this, VPNs can sometimes offer a speed boost.  Even though they can’t physically make your connection faster, they can overcome artificial speed restrictions, known as throttling, that may be imposed by ISPs on certain online activities (like video streaming or file sharing).  The throttling doesn’t apply when connected to the VPN, since the ISP cannot see what kind of traffic you are sending, or what site(s) you are accessing.  So, even though download speed may take a hit, if you have been throttled, you’ll likely see a net increase in speed for those activities and applications.

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