The best VPN protocols for iOS

Hello, dear readers. This blog is run by me, Nicholas Cuts, an employee of Switcherry VPN. In this article we will talk about VPN protocols again. This time I will tell you which ones are most suitable for devices running iOS – iPhones and iPads.

In the article about installing and configuring VPN on iPhone and iPad I have already told you what advantages the use of VPN on Apple mobile devices brings. Protection from tracking, anonymity, security, circumvention of censorship and blocking – that’s what the use of VPN on an iPhone gives. But the security and reliability of a VPN connection largely depends on the correct choice of VPN protocol. Which VPN protocols should be used in certain cases, and which are not recommended to use at all, will be described in this article. But first I will briefly remind you what VPN and VPN protocols are and why you should use VPN on iPhones and iPads in general.

What is VPN

Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a technology that protects data transmitted on the Internet and other open networks from unauthorized access. Any VPN network is a set of secure connections – «VPN tunnels» laid over (over) an insecure network. You can learn more about VPN by reading my article «What is VPN and why is it needed».

How does vpn work
How does vpn work

What is VPN-protocol

VPN protocols are a type of network protocols. A network protocol is a set of rules and instructions that determine the order of data transmission over a network. Unlike «ordinary» transport protocols, such as TCP/IP and UDP, which only ensure the delivery of data packets from the sender to the recipient, VPN protocols additionally encrypt and encapsulate (repackage) the transmitted information.

It is the VPN protocols that determine the resistance of VPN tunnels to hacking and attacks by intruders.

Different VPN protocols have different technical characteristics: some of them are considered «strong» because they use modern encryption standards, others are less strong because they use weak encryption or even do not encrypt the transmitted information at all. Some VPN protocols are very fast, they have almost no effect on the data transfer rate, others slow down the speed of the Internet connection to one degree or another. Some protocols are «heavy» because they increase the load on the processor and the amount of data transmitted, others are «light», they almost do not consume additional system resources; some are able to disguise themselves as other, «ordinary» network protocols, so they are able to circumvent any censorship restrictions, others are easily detected and blocked, etc.

Here is a list of the most popular VPN protocols with a short description:

  1. PPTP – an old, insecure VPN protocol. It uses only weak 128-bit encryption or even does not apply encryption at all. This protocol has its advantages: it has a high data transfer rate, does not create additional load on the processor, can work on the oldest devices. But still, use this protocol only if you have no alternative.
  2. L2TP/IPSec – this is an improved PPTP protocol using strong IPsec encryption. This protocol slows down the speed of the Internet and is quite «heavy» and therefore is not suitable for mobile devices.
  3.  IKEv2/IPSec – modern secure VPN protocol. Fast and «easy». Thanks to the MOBIKE (Mobility and Multihoming protocol) extension, which is part of this protocol, the VPN connection does not break when the mobile device moves from one Wi-Fi network to another.
  4. SSTP – this VPN protocol is the property of Microsoft Corporation, which is why it is mainly used on devices running WindowsOS. In order for this protocol to work with iOS, you need to use third-party software. The SSTP protocol is reliable and secure, but too «heavy» for a mobile device. However, this protocol has a very interesting feature – its traffic is indistinguishable from HTTPS traffic, so it is best suited to overcome censorship restrictions.
  5. OpenVPN – the most common VPN protocol. This is a free protocol, open source. The most reliable and secure. However, it places increased demands on the processing power of the processor and significantly increases the volume of traffic.
  6. Wireguard – the best alternative to the OpenVPN protocol. The new free, very fast, undemanding to system resources and at the same time reliable and secure VPN protocol.

You can learn more about VPN protocols if you read my articles about cryptographic protocols of VPN.

Why iPhones and iPads need to be connected to the Internet via VPN

In the article «What is a VPN and why it is needed» I described in detail what advantages VPN provides to ordinary and corporate users. But mobile device owners should pay even more attention to their network security than other users for the following reasons:

  • in megacities, most owners of iPhones and iPads access the Internet almost daily through free Wi-Fi access points. The danger of free Wi-Fi is well known, which is why it is important to have a constantly working VPN client on a mobile device;
  • on business trips, it is necessary to have a reliable and secure connection to communicate with business partners and company management. VPN is a ready solution to this problem;
  • the need to use a VPN is especially acute when traveling abroad to countries such as China and Iran, where all popular Internet resources in the West are blocked: social networks, messengers, streaming services, all Google services, etc.
It is important to have a working VPN client on any mobile device at all times
It is important to have a working VPN client on any mobile device at all times

Choosing the best VPN protocol for iPhones and iPads

First of all, let’s formulate the most important requirements for the VPN protocol for a mobile device:

  • it should not create a large additional load on the processor, since intensive processor work accelerates battery discharge;
  • it should not greatly increase the volume of traffic, since the Internet traffic of mobile users is often limited;
  • it should not negatively affect the data transfer speed, since the speed of the mobile Internet without a VPN is much lower than a cable connection. Why the VPN connection can slow down data transfer and how to check the speed of the secure connection, read in this article;
  • the VPN connection must be stable, work steadily and in case of deterioration of the cellular signal and Wi-Fi.

The above requirements determine our choice:

  1. IKEv2/IPSec – currently the best VPN protocol for mobile users: the reasons for this are obvious: IKEv2/IPsec is a lightweight and fast VPN protocol, its main advantage is stable operation in Wi-Fi networks, the ability to switch from one Wi-Fi network to another without losing a VPN connection using the MOBIKE extension (Mobility and Multihoming protocol). You should also pay attention to the Wireguard protocol – it is also very fast and lightweight, it may eventually come out on top, but now it is still under development and therefore it should be used with caution.
  2. How to overcome the Great Chinese Firewall: IKEv2/IPSec  and Wireguard have very good VPN protocols. The problem is that they are easily identified because they use unusual ports: IKEv2/IPsec ports UDP 500 and UDP 4500, and Wireguard port UDP 51820. For this reason, VPN connections running on these protocols are blocked in China. Therefore, to circumvent censorship in China, you will have to use one of two protocols – SSTP or OpenVPN over TCP. Read more about how website blocking works in China and how to bypass it here.

Is it possible to create your own VPN connection

There is often a need to log into your home network from a mobile device. If your Internet provider provides you with a static IP address, you can easily set up a secure VPN connection between your iPhone and your home router or computer. The easiest way to do this is to use the free SoftEther software. You can also install a VPN on the router, it is not difficult to do it yourself.

App Switcherry VPN for iOS

So, you have decided to protect your iPhone or iPad with a VPN. The easiest way to do this is to install our VPN client for iOS. You won’t have to mess around with your device settings, we’ve already set up the best VPN connection for you. Go to the section of our website dedicated to iOS or directly on our page  in App Store. Download, install and run our app. You will immediately get a fast, reliable and secure VPN connection.

FAQ

1. Which VPN protocols are supported by iOS at the operating system level?

1. Which VPN protocols are supported by iOS at the operating system level?

The built-in VPN client of the modern version of iOS supports only two protocols – IPsec and IKEv2. Support for the PPTP protocol was discontinued in the 10th version of iOS, the situation with L2TP is not clear, but, according to user feedback, Apple developers, starting with the 14th version of iOS, stopped supporting this protocol. Thus, if you want to configure your iPhone to work with any other VPN protocol other than IKEv2/IPsec, then you will have to download and install third-party VPN clients.

2. Does VPN increase traffic volume?

2. Does VPN increase traffic volume?

Yes, if you decide to access the Internet via VPN, be prepared for the fact that the volume of traffic will increase slightly (usually not much).

3. Which VPN protocol has the least impact on traffic volume? And which one is the most?

3. Which VPN protocol has the least impact on traffic volume? And which one is the most?

As testing shows, the Wireguard protocol has the least impact on traffic volume, it increases traffic volume by less than 5 percent. Most of all, the traffic size increases the OpenVPN protocol, and OpenVPN working over UDP increases traffic by 15-17 percent, OpenVPN working over TCP – by about 20 percent.

4. Does using a VPN increase power consumption?

4. Does using a VPN increase power consumption?

Yes, using a VPN speeds up the battery drain, since additional (and sometimes quite significant) CPU work is needed to encrypt/decrypt data. Therefore, when using an iPhone with a VPN, the power consumption increases by about 5-15 percent.

5. VPN protocols have the least impact on power consumption? And what are the largest?

5. VPN protocols have the least impact on power consumption? And what are the largest?

The PPTP protocol without encryption has virtually no effect on power consumption, but also does not provide any protection. Of the modern reliable VPN protocols, the Wireguard protocol accelerates battery discharge the least. Most of all, the use of the OpenVPN protocol, which works via (over) TCP and uses 256-bit encryption, increases power consumption.

Author: Nicolas Cuts

Product Managers at SwitcherryVPN. Have 5 years background in management and marketing. I never stop learning!

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