Router VPNs vs. VPN apps: How to pick the right privacy protection

024-vpn-generic-logo-on-laptop-security-2021

There are distinct differences between using a VPN on your router and using a VPN app.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Though the basic objective is essentially the same, using a virtual private network on a router is much different to using a VPN’s client software on your computer or its app on your mobile device. Both methods have their advantages and limitations, and which path you choose to take will ultimately depend on what you need from your VPN. 

If you’re not sure which one’s right for you, we’re here to dive into the pros and cons of using a VPN on a router versus using a VPN’s client software or app.

What is a VPN?

A VPN is a piece of software that creates a connection between your device and the websites and services you use online. When you connect to a VPN, your internet traffic is encrypted and routed through a secure tunnel to a server in a remote location. 

In doing so, your VPN effectively shields your online activity from your ISP, government agencies, network administrators, potential hackers and other entities looking to snoop on you. And because a VPN routes your traffic through a remote server, you can spoof your location and trick websites into thinking you’re in a different country.

You can use a VPN to protect your privacy online, evade censorship and surveillance, unblock geographically restricted content and more. All of this makes a VPN an incredibly versatile tool, and essential for privacy as well as for unlocking greater potential from your internet connection.

Read more: What you need to know about the basics of VPNs 

What’s the difference between using a VPN router and using VPN apps?

Whether you’re running your VPN through a router or your VPN’s client software, you’re technically doing the same thing: Connecting to a remote VPN server to create a secure tunnel to the internet. The difference is the method by which you complete this process. 

Running a VPN through a router means configuring your VPN manually on your router to establish your secure connection. This way, all of the devices connected to your router will use a VPN connection without you needing to separately install VPN software on those devices.

Running a VPN through VPN software, on the other hand, means downloading the software directly onto each device you want to use while connected to that VPN. Your devices won’t automatically be protected by the VPN just because you have the software installed on your device. You’ll need to launch the app on your device and connect to a server to activate the VPN, though many VPNs now offer features that will allow you to connect automatically upon startup.

What are the pros and cons of using a VPN on a router?

Using a VPN on a router can be advantageous in certain situations, but there are inherent limitations. Still, it can be a good option, depending on what you need out of your VPN

Pros

  • Protect all your devices at once. All your devices that are connected to the VPN router will automatically be protected by the VPN without the need to set up separate software on each individual device.
  • Connect devices that don’t have native VPN support. If your smart TV, gaming console, streaming device or fridge isn’t normally compatible with VPN apps, you can still protect them through your VPN router. This is great if you’re a gamer who wants to connect to gaming servers in different countries or if you want to unblock streaming channels on your TV. Otherwise, you’ll be able to prevent your ISP from monitoring what smart devices reside on your network and what internet traffic they generate.
  • Can be on at all times. You can pretty much set up your VPN and have it active all the time, so you never run the risk of going online without the protection of a VPN.
  • Potentially save money on VPN licenses. VPN providers will usually allow you to connect about five to 10 devices at once. But if you connect through your router, that only counts as one connection even if you have 50 devices connected to that router. If you need to connect a ton of devices at once, you’ll normally need to buy additional subscriptions — or you can save a ton of money and just connect through a VPN router. Some VPNs, like Surfshark, do offer unlimited simultaneous connections, though, so this benefit would only apply in certain cases.

Cons

  • Risk voiding your router’s warranty. For your router to work with your VPN, you’ll need to install third-party, VPN-compatible firmware like DD-WRT or Tomato. But by doing so, you could risk voiding your router’s manufacturer’s warranty. This is typically the case in most situations, though Asus tells CNET that installing the ASUSWRT-Merlin firmware on its routers will not void the warranty. Even so, the best thing to do is check with your router’s manufacturer before proceeding.
  • Not the most user-friendly. You’ll need to configure your VPN manually on your router and won’t be able to switch server locations as easily, nor access the VPN’s full feature suite on a router setup.
  • Can be complicated to set up. Configuring a VPN for your router can be both complicated and risky. Most VPN providers offer step-by-step instructions on how to set up their VPNs on a variety of router makes, models and firmware. But it can still be a difficult endeavor, even if you’ve got some technical know-how. If you botch the setup, you run the risk of “bricking” your router. Many VPNs offer preconfigured VPN routers for those who don’t want to tackle the setup process on their own, though. 
  • Not all routers support VPNs. Sorry to break it to you, but the router you got from your ISP is probably not going to be compatible with your VPN, meaning you’ll probably need to buy a router that is (see above).
  • Routers can be expensive. Sure, you can get a decent VPN-compatible router for about $50, but if you want your VPN performance to be north of mediocre — especially when connecting multiple devices — then you can expect your router to run you around $100 to $250
  • May incur speed issues if many devices are connected at once. If you’ve got tons of devices connecting through your router at once and maximizing its resources, you’ll likely run into issues with slow connection speeds. That can be a real drag if you’re streaming or gaming.
  • Some services won’t work when your VPN is on. You may have trouble sending or receiving emails if your VPN is on. This can happen, for example, if your VPN provider is blocking SMTP port 25 to prevent spamming, or if your email service only allows access to residential IP addresses. Your VPN may also interfere with online banking, streaming sites (if your VPN isn’t able to unblock them), PayPal, Craigslist and government services. It’s not an ideal situation if you have to disconnect the VPN on your router every time you want to send an email or use certain other online services.   
tp-link-archer-ax21-ax1800-wi-fi-6-router-globe-promo

Using a VPN on a router can be advantageous, but it comes with challenges.


Ry Crist/CNET

What are the pros and cons of using a VPN app?

Using a VPN’s client app on your computer or mobile device will have its own set of advantages and disadvantages. 

Pros

  • Typically user-friendly. VPN providers generally design their client software with the average consumer in mind, which means you don’t need to be a tech wizard to use it.
  • Easy installation and setup. If you’ve ever installed an app on your phone or software on your computer, you’ll be able to install a VPN onto your device. Even if you haven’t, VPNs apps are so easy to install and set up on your computer or mobile device that you shouldn’t have any issues as long as your operating system is up to date.
  • Access all your VPN’s features. Features are what VPNs try to differentiate themselves with. And if you use your VPN’s client software, you’ll have access to its full suite of features, including many that you simply wouldn’t have when using the same VPN on your router.
  • Easily switch server locations. With your VPN’s client software, switching between server locations should be something you can accomplish with a single click. Need to hop from Singapore over to Canada? No problem, just give the VPN app a quick tap and you’re all set. Switching server locations on a router setup can be significantly more cumbersome. 
  • Protect only the devices you need to protect. Sometimes you only want to protect certain devices with your VPN connection. With a VPN client, you can easily pick and choose which devices you connect to the VPN and which not to.
  • Connect different devices to different server locations. The devices you connect to your router will all be accessing the internet through a single VPN server location. Not so when you use your VPN client software. You can connect one device to Australia, another to the US and another to Germany if you want.
  • Connect on the go. You can connect to your VPN client software from literally wherever you are. Even if you’re on the go, you can connect to your VPN on your phone, or laptop, as long as you have access to an internet connection or cellular data. 

Cons

  • Not compatible with all devices. Not all internet-connected devices will have native VPN support. For instance, your smart TV and your gaming console may not ordinarily be compatible with your VPN’s client software. To connect those devices to your VPN, you will need to connect through your VPN router.
  • Need to connect each device separately. Yes, one of the pros here is also a con, depending on how you look at it. If you find it a burden to have to connect each individual device to your VPN separately, you’ll probably find it to be one of the disadvantages of using VPN client software. With a router connection, you can connect all your devices at once (but to a single server location).
  • May need to buy multiple subscriptions. If your VPN provider doesn’t allow for unlimited devices to be connected at once, then you may need to buy additional licenses if you intend to surpass the allotted simultaneous connection limit. That could get expensive.

Read more: These are the best cheap VPN services

Which one should you use?

That depends on what you need your VPN to do for you. If you need constant, automatic VPN protection for all of your devices at once — or if you need to connect devices that aren’t ordinarily compatible with VPN software — then the router method would be the way to go. But if you prefer the flexibility and general ease of use that comes with VPN apps, then that would be the way forward. 

You could even do a combination of the two with a dual-router configuration, if that works best. You can certainly allocate only specific devices to go through your VPN router, while others remain off the connection and instead go through your primary router. The other option would be to go with router firmware that allows for split tunneling, which would give you the ability to run certain devices through the VPN and others through a non-VPN connection on the same router. Going the hybrid route may require some additional technical elbow grease, however. Or you could always go with the router method at home and use the client software when you’re on the go.

For most general use-cases, you’re probably going to be just fine using your VPN’s client software. This will offer you the most flexibility, convenience and usability overall. Unless you have a specific need to use a VPN on your router — like for console gaming or streaming on your smart TV — attempting to go with the router method for simple, everyday VPN use may be more of a hassle than it’s worth in the end. More and more VPNs these days are bumping up the number of simultaneous connections they allow anyway, so you don’t necessarily even need a VPN router connection anymore to connect all your devices at once. Ultimately, though, the choice is yours.