In the past month or so, VPN services have been shouting about their fantastic new protocols which are going to change your life. What’s actually happening is that they’re now able to use WireGuard, a brand new, lightweight protocol that is finally out of development.
With the exception of ExpressVPN which has built its own from scratch (read about Lightway), everyone else has based theirs on WireGuard. But what’s so special about WireGuard and why should you bother diggin into the settings in your VPN app to manually change the protocol from OpenVPN or IPSec?
What is WireGuard and why is everyone using it for their VPN?
Although existing protocols do the job, they do require a bit of processing power to encrypt the data that’s sent between your device and the VPN server, and this is what contributes to making your connection run slower than when you’re not using the VPN.
WireGuard is a new protocol, released in March 2020, that encrypts data to the same standard as IPsec, OpenVPN and others. The key difference is that it operates in the ‘kernel’ of an operating system - much closer to the hardware than ordinary apps - which is the main reason it can encrypt and decrypt data more quickly. It was added to the Linux kernel earlier this year, meaning VPN providers could easily update their servers (virtually all of which run Linux) with WireGuard capabilities.
- WireGuard is a new encryption protocol
- Simple, open source code
- Requires minimal processing power
- Can cope with switching between Wi-Fi and mobile data
- Less battery drain
- Doesn’t drop VPN connection
There are other advantages of this approach, too. One is that it's more secure and there’s a lower risk of data leaks. Better still, it’s less demanding on processing power so can run on lower-powered hardware and doesn’t use as much battery power, which is a bonus for phone and laptop users.
These are all good reasons to adopt the protocol for VPN use, as is the fact that it’s open source, so is free to use. Plus, although it was released first for Linux, it’s now available for Windows, macOS, Android and iOS.
However, while WireGuard sounds perfect for VPN users, there’s a problem. Because each user is assigned a static IP address on the server, it would be possible for someone to match this with records from the VPN provider (either by stealing them or through a government data request) and figure out that user’s real identity.
Obviously this lack of anonymity is no good for a VPN service, which is why NordVPN, StrongVPN and other companies have had to develop their own versions of the protocol to work around this limitation to ensure that their users remain anonymous.
The final advantage is WireGuard’s ability to handle ‘roaming’. So when your phone moves from a Wi-Fi connection to mobile data, your VPN connection will remain intact. And in testing, WireGuard has proven to be much less likely to drop
How much faster is WireGuard?
In NordVPN’s testing, it has been found to be up to twice as fast as older protocols, but this is when the VPN server is relatively close to your physical location. In other words, you’ll benefit from the speed most when you’re connected to your nearest server.
If you need to pick a server in a far away country to unblock content located there (such as video streaming or a website) then you won’t notice the benefits so much as the physical distance will be a bigger factor in speed.
However, unless you have an amazingly fast internet connection in the first place, you may not notice any speed increases. But on the flip side, where older protocols will slow down an already slow internet connection, with WireGuard, you shouldn’t notice any slowdown at all, meaning you can leave your VPN connected all the time.
How to use WireGuard
You'll have to wait until your VPN provider releases an update that adds a WireGuard option to the list of protocols.
Currently, the following VPNs have integrated it:
IPVanish is working on WireGuard, as are other services. You can check out our roundup of the best VPN services for buying advice.