The Ultimate Guide to VPN Tunneling & How To Use It In 2023

You may have heard that Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) use a process called “tunneling” to extend a private network across a public network (the internet). Tunneling is the process of encrypting data and keeping it separate from other traffic on the internet. It enables a VPN to protect the confidentiality (data remains secret) and integrity (data remains unaltered) of messages as they travel over the public network.

But how does the tunneling process actually work? And does it really keep your online activity safer?

For starters, the best way to protect your data would be to never transmit it through the public network in the first place, but you know that’s nearly impossible. That is why we rely on a VPN to enhance our privacy while we engage in online activities.

What is VPN Tunneling?

The term VPN tunneling describes a process whereby data is securely transported from one device or network to another through a non-secure environment (such as the internet) without compromising privacy. Tunneling involves protecting data by repackaging it into a different form.

In reality, no physical tunnel exists, of course; the data has to travel through the same wires as any other data passing through the public network. Rather, VPN tunneling employs the concepts known as data encapsulation and encryption to safely carry data traffic through the non-secure environment. Encapsulation insulates the packet of data from other data traveling over the same network, while encryption makes the data “invisible” (unreadable) even to surveillance agents and criminals who recognize it as encrypted information. So it’s like the data is traveling inside a tunnel. Figure 1.0 below might help you visualize the process.

You can think of VPN tunneling as similar to the process of moving physical cash from one bank location to another using an armored transport van along public highways. The cash in this instance is your data, the public highway is the non-secure public network, and the armored van is analogous to a VPN tunnel (data encapsulation and encryption).

Even if sophisticated spy agencies and skilled criminals recognize the armored van and its contents, they can’t break into it. So there are actually two levels here – encapsulation disguises the van so in most cases it won’t be recognized as a vehicle carrying cash, while encryption ensures that even if the van is recognized, no one can reach the cash inside.

Figure 1.0 VPN Tunneling Diagram

To sum up, encryption makes your readable data (plaintext) completely unreadable (cipher text) by any person that intercepts it, while encapsulation wraps data packets with successive layers of control information so that in most cases it won’t even be recognized as encrypted data. VPN tunneling employs these techniques to obscure your data in order to keep your browsing activities private and confidential.

What Should I Look for When Choosing a VPN?

When choosing a VPN, it’s important for you to consider how you intend to use the service, and which tunneling features are best suited for that use. The table below summarizes some the most popular VPN uses and the corresponding tunneling features to look for. In turn, the features available to you will be determined by which tunneling protocols the VPN offers. Protocols are discussed in detail in the sections to follow.

There are other advanced VPN features that are essential to the effectiveness of tunneling, such as a kill switch and split tunneling.

A kill switch is a mechanism setup to regularly monitor your connection for any changes in status. If it observes any disconnection from your VPN server, it automatically stops your device or terminates specific apps from connecting to the internet through your ISP so that your data and activity are not exposed to prying eyes.

There are times when you do not need all your data traffic to go through your VPN tunnel, however. That’s where the concept of split tunneling comes into play.

What Is Split Tunneling All About?

Split tunneling basically enables you to route some of your online activities through the VPN tunnel while you directly access the internet through your ISP for others. Why is this important?

One of the main functions of a VPN is to provide you a secure and private channel to send and receive information anonymously. But the truth is, not everything that we do on the internet needs to pass through a VPN tunnel. For example, there are times when you want to access foreign movies on a streaming service like Netflix and at the same time access local web services. When the protection of tunneling is not needed, a VPN can be a bottleneck that slows down your connection.

Or suppose you want to carry out online banking activities while also maintaining access to web services in other countries that require VPN use. Changing your IP address (and apparent location) using a VPN could be flagged as suspicious activity by your bank, which could actually lead to more invasions of your privacy.

In such cases, split tunneling lets you gain access to web services for which you want or need the protection of tunneling, without losing direct access to local web services. Otherwise, you would find yourself continually connecting and disconnecting from your VPN service. Besides, split tunneling will help you conserve a lot of bandwidth, as your internet traffic does not all have to pass through the VPN server.

Fortunately, most highly rated VPN service providers include a split-tunneling feature within their apps.

What Do I Need to Know About Tunneling Protocols?

Most VPN providers give users the option to choose from several tunneling protocols. The VPN tunneling protocol you select to use has significant implications for the quality and performance of your tunnel. Some key questions to ask before choosing a tunneling protocol include:

  • How fast is it?
  • How secure is it?
  • How easily can it transverse (get past) blocking software?
  • How easily can I access and use it?

Because your choice of tunneling protocols can be critical, it is important that you have a good understanding of the various protocols so you can make an informed choice.

What Are the Different VPN Tunneling Protocols?

A VPN tunneling protocol is an agreed-upon set of rules for data transmission and encryption. Some of the most commonly used protocols include Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), Layer Two Tunneling Protocol (L2TP), Internet Protocol Security (IPSec), Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP), and Open VPN (SSL/TLS).

Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP)

PPTP was developed by a group of vendors led by Microsoft and has been implemented in Microsoft operating systems since Windows 95. PPTP supports site-to-site as well as remote access VPN over the internet.

PPTP is therefore one of the oldest, fastest, most widely used, and easiest-to-setup VPN tunneling protocols. It is easy to configure because it requires only a username, password, and server address to establish a tunnel to the remote server. It’s one of the fastest protocols because of its low level of encryption. For that reason, PPTP is useful for applications in which speed is more important than complete security.

If security is your main concern, however, you should be aware that many serious security vulnerabilities have been found in PPTP. Most networks that use PPTP have to apply additional security measures to make up for the protocol’s security lapses. Unfortunately, doing so means that you to some degree lose the benefits of the protocol. We therefore recommend PPTP only in cases where legacy support is required and security isn’t a priority.

Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP)/Internet Protocol Security (IPSec)

The L2TP tunneling protocol does not provide data confidentiality by itself, but instead relies on another protocol to wrap the data again, creating two layers of encryption to protect data going through the tunnel.

Because of its lack of complete confidentiality, L2TP is often used in combination with Internet Protocol Security (IPSec) to create a more secure tunneling protocol than PPTP. This combination is referred to as L2TP/IPsec.

However, the double encapsulation process makes L2TP/IPsec a little slower than PPTP. It can also struggle with bypassing restrictions because it uses fixed ports that VPN-blocking software can detect, making connections with L2TP easier to block. Many content providers like Netflix use VPN blockers nowadays, so if you use a VPN to access content in other countries, a tunneling protocol that makes you vulnerable to blocking might be a problem.

Internet Key Exchange (IKEv2)/Internet Protocol Security (IPSec)

To be precise, IKE is not actually a tunneling protocol. However, since it functions like one, we have included it here.

Generally seen as an improvement upon the L2TP protocol, IKEv2 uses some of the most sophisticated encryption methods currently available. It is also significantly faster than L2TP and allows for swifter and easier reconnection after a service interruption.

Like L2TP, IKEv2 is usually used in combination with IPSec. Its primary advantages are speed, stability, and ease of use. Its major drawback is that like L2TP, it is fairly easy to block.

Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP)

Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) was developed by Microsoft to help protect your online activities. It is supported by default on Windows 7, 8 and 10 platforms, making it easy for Windows users to set up. It transports internet data using the Secure Socket Layer (SSL) – the same protocol used to power secure web connections (HTTPS).

SSTP uses strong encryption procedures, making it the most secure VPN protocol available by default in Windows operating systems, and can be used instead of PPTP or L2TP/IPsec. The advantage of SSTP over PPTP and L2TP is that it cannot be easily blocked, since the traffic is transmitted over the popular HTTPS web connection.

This is good news for those who use VPNs to access content like Netflix in other countries. However, because SSTP is a proprietary Microsoft technology, it is difficult to perform independent examinations of the codes behind the protocol to identify potential flaws.


OpenVPN is VPN tunneling protocol developed using open-source software (software with codes that anyone can inspect). It uses the well-known Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption protocol to ensure that all data traffic passed between your device and any other user’s device or any website remains private. It also supports a great number of other strong encryption procedures.

OpenVPN is fast and capable of traversing VPN-blocking software. Because of the open source nature of the protocol, security experts have been regularly combing it for potential security flaws and making improvements, boosting user confidence in the protocol.

Although not included by default, Open VPN is supported on Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems, but requires third party client software to configure it. However, if you subscribe to a reliable VPN service provider, you won’t need to worry about all the configuration hassles, as OpenVPN will be readily available for use once you install the VPN app.

Table 1.0 below provides a detailed comparison of the various tunneling protocols.

Table 1.0 Comparison of VPN tunneling protocols

The 3 Best VPNs that Use Tunneling

Now that you understand what VPN tunneling is, how it works, and why it’s so important, you know a lot about what separates the best VPNs from all the rest. At vpnMentor, we research and test hundreds of VPNs to determine which ones will keep you and your data protected while delivering the speed and content access you want. Here are our choices for the best available VPNs.

1. ExpressVPN

We have spent hours testing this VPN’s claim of being the fastest premium VPN in existence, and it has never let us down. That’s just one of many reasons why users rate ExpressVPN so highly, even though it costs a little more than other VPNs. Features like military-grade encryption and an automatic kill switch prove that this VPN didn’t achieve its speed by sacrificing privacy protection.


View ExpressVPN Deals

2. CyberGhost

Best known for its intuitive, easy-to-use interface that users of all levels of experience love, CyberGhost also delivers fast, reliable connections through an extensive global server network. A verified no-log policy and an option to purchase a subscription anonymously with digital currency are just two of the many ways CyberGhost safeguards user privacy.

View CyberGhost Deals

3. PrivateVPN

PrivateVPN has climbed up the VPN ranks by providing excellent network speed and reliability along with some unique features, including a Team Viewer option that allows you to work directly with the provider’s tech team during setup. However, general customer service is neither as responsive nor as knowledgeable as it is with the VPNs listed above. Still, PrivateVPN remains a strong user favorite.

View PrivateVPN Deals

Concluding Remarks

A VPN relies on the concept of tunneling to protect your privacy by hiding your internet activity from your ISP and spying agencies, while also helping you navigate to blocked websites. The degree of protection, speed, and ability to get past blocks and restrictions depends greatly on your choice of tunneling protocol.

Among all the tunneling protocols, Open VPN is the most highly recommended, especially for anyone with serious security concerns. Its open source code, stability, strong encryption, and ability to bypass blocking software make it the finest tunneling protocol currently available, and one you can trust.

Finally, we should add that selecting a VPN with secure tunneling protocols is just one of many steps you should be taking to protect yourself online. See our complete guide to protecting your online privacy for more helpful tips to stay safe on the internet.

— Update: 27-03-2023 — found an additional article VPN tunnel: What is it and how does it work? from the website for the keyword what is vpn tunnel tunneling protocols.

A VPN tunnel is an encrypted link between your computer or mobile device and an outside network.

A VPN tunnel — short for virtual private network tunnel — can provide a way to cloak some of your online activity.

How? A VPN tunnel connects your smartphone, laptop, computer, or tablet to another network in which your IP address is hidden and all the data you generate while surfing the web is encrypted.

By connecting to websites through a VPN tunnel — and not directly — you can help keep businesses, government bodies, hackers, or other snoops from tracking your online activity or viewing your IP address — which, like your actual address, identifies your location — while you’re online.

A VPN tunnel is useful when you’re logging onto the internet using public Wi-Fi at hotels, coffee shop, or library.

How does VPN tunneling work?

To connect to the internet through a VPN tunnel, you’ll first have to sign up with a virtual private network service, better known as a VPN. The VPN is the key to hiding your IP address and shielding your online activity from snoops.

Before visiting websites, you’ll log into your VPN provider’s service. When you then start searching online, the websites you visit and your own internet service provider — ISP, for short — won’t see your IP address. Instead, they’ll see the IP address of your VPN provider, helping to protect your privacy.

In essence, when you click on links or download files from a site, no one will know it’s your activity. It’s as if your VPN provider has built a tunnel around your online activity, providing a barrier between it and everyone else.

Using a VPN alone may not be enough to protect your online privacy, though. That’s why VPN providers take one more step to encrypt the data you send and receive while you are online. When your data is encrypted, it is scrambled so snoops can’t intercept and decipher it.

When you enable this added layer of protection, hackers, businesses, governments, or others won’t be able to track what sites you visit, files you download, videos you stream, or online games you play.

Hiding your IP address and encrypting the data you send and receive is a powerful combination to help keep your online browsing sessions private.

VPN tunnel protocols

Not all VPN tunnels are equally effective in protecting your online privacy. The strength of a tunnel depends on the type of tunneling protocol your VPN provider uses.

Some protocols are outdated and may not provide data encryption that is strong enough to deter online snoops so it’s a good idea for you to work with a VPN provider that relies on the strongest possible tunneling protocol.


Point to Point Tunneling Protocol — better known as PPTP — is one of the oldest versions still in use today. The strength of this protocol is its speed: It features extremely fast connection speeds.

This speed comes at a cost, though. PPTP is fast partly because its level of data encryption is weak by today’s standards. This means it’s easier for outsiders to crack the encryption provided by this protocol. If you want more protection, investigate a stronger form of protocol.


Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol, when used with Internet Protocol Security, is a step up from basic PPTP. That’s because this level of tunneling protocol offers two stages of protection: Both the L2TP and IPSec portions of this protocol create their own encryption. This results in two layers of protection for your online data.

The downside? This type of tunneling protocol, because of the two layers of encryption, can result in slower online connection speeds. L2TP/IPSec sometimes gets blocked by firewalls, too. That’s because this type of VPN tunneling uses fixed ports.


Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol is unusual because it is only available on Windows operating systems. This type of tunneling protocol is very secure, making it a safe choice. It also doesn’t use fixed ports, so it’s easier for SSTP to get through firewalls.

The problem, of course, is that this protocol isn’t available for operating systems other than Windows. That shuts out many potential users.


If you’re looking for the strongest protection while online, you should consider investing in a VPN service provider that relies on the OpenVPN protocol.

This protocol works with all the major operating systems, Linux, Window, and Mac, on the mobile operating systems of Android and iOS.

Maybe you prefer an independent operating system? OpenVPN might have you covered, because it works with such systems as FreeBSD, NetBSD, Solaris, and OpenBSD.

OpenVPN is currently considered the top form of VPN tunneling protocol. That’s because its encryption is especially strong. It’s also adept at getting past firewalls.

Protecting your privacy while online

The key to VPN tunneling is to actually use the service. A VPN can’t keep your identity private or encrypt the data you send and receive if you skip that extra step of connecting to your VPN provider first before you access the internet.

Remember, too, that to truly protect your online privacy, you’ll need to enable VPN protection on any device you use to reach the web from public locations. It doesn’t help to have your laptop protected by a VPN only to log onto the internet with your smartphone while you’re relaxing at the coffee shop.

The bottom line? VPN tunneling is a must for online privacy. Just make sure you use your VPN service once you sign up with it.


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