Using a VPN is a great way to increase your privacy while online: websites you visit can’t identify you from your IP address, which means you can make it so that you’re in a located in another country. However, you may be wondering if your ISP can see that you’re using a VPN, and if so, whether it matters.
Can my ISP see if I’m using a VPN?
The answer to the first part is simple: yes, your ISP could detect that you are using a VPN if they wanted to.
That’s because of how a VPN works: when you use the internet without a VPN, you connect from your computer to your internet service provider’s system, which in turn connects to the website you want to visit – it’s a bit more complicated. but for our purposes it is sufficient. For more information, see our guide to how the internet works.
When you connect through a VPN, you go from your ISP to the VPN service’s server, and then to a site. This makes it appear to this site as if you are using the IP address of the VPN server and hopefully making them think you are someone else, somewhere else. Note, however, that without enabling incognito mode, you can still be identified very easily.
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What does my ISP see?
VPNs differ from proxies in that they encrypt your connection through what is called a secure tunnel. This encrypts the connection from your computer to the VPN server, usually using an advanced encryption method like AES-256, which in theory can only be cracked by someone with a few billion years to spare.
The tunnel ensures that the website you are visiting can only see your fake IP address (the IP address of the VPN), but it also works the other way around. If an ISP looks at the connection you’ve made and wants to know where it’s going, all they get back is random junk. It can see that you’re connecting – it can even determine the IP address you’re connecting to – but nothing beyond that.
Of course, getting random junk back is a telltale sign a VPN is in use. It’s pretty easy for an ISP to figure out which connections lead to a VPN: just look at the ones that send back a lot of encrypted data. There’s just no realistic way to find out what VPN — not without finding out from the people renting out the server room, and they’ll never tell — or what you’re accessing through a VPN.
Do ISPs care if you use a VPN?
That leads to the second part of the question of whether ISPs care that you use a VPN. The answer is likely that it depends on your geographic location. In most parts of the world, we can assume that ISPs generally don’t care. They probably don’t care if you connect to a VPN server or that of a random site. Finally, many people use VPNs to connect to work networks remotely. A VPN you use for privacy will look about the same.
However, there is one major exception to this rule: dictatorships like China, Iran, and a number of other countries have made VPNs illegal. In these countries, most ISPs are either state-owned or subject to some form of government control, which means there is a chance someone is checking 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 gather information about which connections are sending back encrypted data and thus identify them, but we’re not sure.
VyprVPN is a VPN service that claims to have connection logs that can fool the Chinese detection system, we assume, by somehow making the VPN tunnel look like a normal connection.
What about ISPs selling data?
Another group of countries where ISPs might not be so happy about customers using VPNs are countries where it’s legal for them to track and sell user data, like the United States. While we don’t have any evidence of this, we can imagine that ISPs aren’t too happy with VPN users as it means there’s a lot less information to sell.
However, since VPN use is legal in the US and there is no way to dictate how people can use their internet connection, there is little ISPs can do to discourage customers from using a VPN.
Whatever the case, it can be a smart move to use a VPN and deny your ISP the ability to harvest your data. We’ve put together a guide to finding the best VPN, but if you want a shortcut, we recommend ExpressVPN for most people most of the time.
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