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Can my ISP know if I’m using a VPN, and do they care?

Can my ISP know if I’m using a VPN, and do they care?


Nicoletta Ionescu/Shutterstock

Using a VPN is a great way to increase your privacy while online: the sites you visit won’t be able to identify you by your IP address, which means you can do so until you’re in a different country. However, you may find yourself wondering if your ISP can see that you are using a VPN, and if so, whether it matters.

Can my ISP know if I’m using a VPN?

The answer to the first part is simple: Yes, your ISP can determine that you are using a VPN if they want to.

This is because of the way a VPN works: when you use the internet without a VPN, you connect from your computer to your ISP, which in turn connects to the site you want to visit – it’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s enough for our purposes. See our guide on how the internet works for more details.

When you connect through a VPN, you go from your ISP to the VPN service server and then to a location. This makes it appear to this site as if you are using the IP address of a VPN server, and hopefully, trick them into thinking you are someone else, somewhere else. Note, however, that without using Incognito mode, it is still easy to identify yourself.

What does my ISP see?

VPNs differ from proxies in that they encrypt your connection through a so-called secure tunnel. This encrypts the connection from your computer to the VPN server, and usually uses an advanced encryption method like AES-256 that can, in theory, only be hacked by someone with a few billion years to spare.

The tunnel makes it so that the site you’re visiting can see the fake IP address (the VPN’s IP address), but it also works in reverse. When your ISP looks at the connection you’ve made and asks to know where it’s going, all it comes back to is some random junk. He can see that you’re making a connection – he can even detect the IP address you’re connecting to – but nothing further.

Of course, recovering random junk is a clear sign of using a VPN. Your ISP can easily find out which connections lead to a VPN: just look at the ones that are sending a lot of encrypted data again. There’s no realistic way to know which VPN is – not without finding out from people who rent server space, and they’ll never tell – or what you’re accessing with the VPN.

Do ISPs Care If You Use a VPN?

This brings us to the second part of the question, whether your ISPs care that you’re using a VPN. The answer is probably that it depends on your geographical location. In most parts of the world, we can assume that ISPs in general don’t care. Whether you connect to a VPN server or to a random location server, they will probably all be the same for them. After all, many people use VPNs to remotely connect to work networks. The VPN you use for privacy looks the same.

However, there is one big exception to this rule: dictatorships like China, Iran and a host of other countries have made VPNs illegal. In those countries, most ISPs will either be state owned or some sort of state control will be imposed on them, meaning there is a chance for someone to check the connections.

We know that the Chinese authorities will impose fines for VPN use, and there are rumors that the government has developed VPN tracking technology. We can speculate that these programs can collect information on communications sending back encrypted data and thus identify them, but we are not sure.

VyprVPN is one VPN service that claims to have connection protocols that can trick the Chinese detection system, we’re assuming by making the VPN tunnel look like a normal connection somehow.

What about ISPs that sell data?

Another set of countries where ISPs may not be happy about customers using VPNs are those in which it is legal for them to track and sell user data, such as in the United States. Although there is no evidence of this, we can imagine that ISPs are not very happy with VPN users as this means that there is little information for sale.

However, since VPN use is legal in the US and there is no way to explain how people use their internet connection, there is little ISP can do to stop customers who choose to use a VPN.

Whatever the case may be, it might be a smart move to use a VPN and deny your ISP the chance to harvest your data. We’ve put together a guide to finding the best VPN out there, but if you want a shortcut, we recommend ExpressVPN for most people, most of the time.

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