Does my ISP See when I’m Using a VPN?

SECURITY Updated on: 21 November 2018

The short answer would be yes, your ISP will be able to see that you are using a VPN.

However, it really depends on the VPN you use. For example, the good VPNs out there will absolutely hide your traffic and encrypt it with near-perfect protocols so that your ISP will be left trying to decipher gibberish codes.

You will only leave surface tracks, that you are indeed on the internet, doing things. But the specifics? Those are well hidden behind layers and layers of security channels, encryption protocols so that no one will be able to know what you’re doing.

The ISP will only see that traffic is being transmitted from your device to the VPN server. As for what that traffic stands for, it’s heavily coded so it’s basically undecipherable.

It all depends on the type of encryption that the VPN uses. Generally, the better and stronger these protocols are, the safer you are on the internet. OpenVPN is currently the absolute most efficient and trustworthy security protocol for a VPN.

1. Leaving fingerprints

When you connect to a VPN server, your traffic and online activities are taken through a tunneling process, encrypted and given new shape which can only be deciphered by the VPN itself.

This ensures that no one will be able to spy on you, not the websites you’re visiting or the servers you’re communicating with. At the very most, the ISP will succeed in tracking down your tracks, but that’s it.

Beyond figuring out the vague outlines of your activities, namely the websites that you’re visiting, they will find it impossible to see what you’re doing there.

Basically, there are two traits of a VPN that cannot be hidden from your ISP:

  • That you are connecting to an IP address that belongs to a VPN service
  • That your device or software is connecting to ports related to usual VPN activity

The way your internet connection works is simple. Your ISP will take a packet of data from you and send it to a certain digital location, a predetermined place. Now, in order for it to achieve that, it has to know the actual destination of the data packet.

If you’re using a VPN, the data packets will be retransmitted to one of the many private intermediary servers of the VPN first, before going to the pre-programmed destination. The ISP notices this fact.

Even if the data itself is incomprehensible and deeply encrypted, it is nonetheless moving through the network to a destination that the ISP eventually deduces.

2. What your ISP doesn’t know…

Now, we’ve seen that your ISP will most probably determine that you are using a VPN.

So, what exactly is the problem? They are in no way illegal, and no ISP in its right mind will penalize its clients solely for enlisting the aid of an online security provider.

It doesn’t mean that they can actually track down your specific activities through the VPN, and this is what actually matters.

You will be freer than ever before, independent, in full possession of your own individual free will on the internet. This is especially a good idea for people living in countries known for inhibiting the free use of the world wide web.

Restrictions are put in place, to limit access to certain websites or online content. For these people, a VPN is equal to a skeleton key that unlocks the door to the vast open fields of the digital era.

You want unbridled access to information, and the freedom to use it as you see fit? Use a VPN, a paid one at that.

Moreover, just to put things into perspective. If your ISP has access to your online activities and see what you’re doing, it can throttle your speed. Your bandwidth will be limited if you’ve accessed something you shouldn’t have.

With a VPN, this will no longer be the case because, while your ISP will realize the traffic is encrypted by a VPN, it will no longer have a solid reason to throttle your speed. With no evidence of potential misdeeds, they are powerless.

You can trust a VPN to keep your data confidential, your traffic encrypted, and your private activities anonymous, away from prying eyes. Cyber-criminals, government spooks, your ISP, they will all be left with their mouths agape, scratching their heads.

After all, companies use these online security providers all the time to secure their confidential data, to efficiently and safely transmit information through the tunneling protocols.

3. Are ISPs turning into Skynet?

In 2017, there was a certain bill that was voted by both houses of Congress, and only awaited President Trump’s signature to be turned into law.

It dealt with the power of ISPs over the traffic of their users. They would now be within their right to monitor and control any type of information about your activities on the internet, as well as your confidential data.

Practically, they would track and sell records of your internet history, your e-mails, the websites you visited, the messages you sent, absolutely everything. This bill came in opposition to the Obama-era FCC privacy rule that went against some companies selling customer’s browsing data by their own free will.

Of course, we can’t fully know what will happens if this bill sees the light of day as law. It’s not too far-fetched to say that ISPs would gain total control, they would dominate and dictate over your internet preferences and activities.

Now, what can you do in this sense? How can you avoid being locked up in a cage, like a bird? There are two options:

  • A VPN
  • Tor

Tor is among the safest and most secure browsers on the internet. It has fully functional encryption protocols, no-logging, and the network that it operates on is separate from the internet itself.

Let’s just say that it’s a very safe method to avoid dealing with pesky ISPs.

Now, for the first option. I highly suggest using a VPN instead because they are generally faster, more expansive and functional, and they don’t draw as much attention for government authorities and your ISP.

No matter what methods are used, once the VPN goes in full-effect, your traffic will be completely encrypted, becoming untouchable and uncrackable. The ISP will have to satisfy its voyeurism cravings with you out of the game.

Moreover, it will also not be able to send you ads or other adware that you didn’t ask for. This can only be a good thing.

4. ISP tracking – best VPNs that counter this

I’ve previously said that only those quality VPNs will keep you safe and secure at all times, while also preventing your Internet Service Provider from keeping tabs on you. It takes some time to do the research, especially when you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Don’t despair because I’ve done the digging for you. In the following list, we’ll see the foremost VPNs that you can use to escape the ever-present influence of your ISP. The criteria for this classification are:


  • DNS leak protection – a must-have
  • No IP address logs, and no traffic logs either
  • Strong, reliable, and up-to-date encryption
  • Dynamic and shared IPs
  • Extra – not based in the US

1. NordVPN

NordVPN comes infinitely close to the level of excellence and professionalism that ExpressVPN delivers. It is a very high-level online security provider that’s renowned on the market for its incredibly military-grade encryption protocols.

It’s also much cheaper than its competitor based in the British Virgin Islands. It’s fully-featured, comes with many options to choose from, and privacy fanatics will love it.

In terms of privacy and security, NordVPN has IPv4 and IPv6 protection, WebRTC leak protection, a stealth function that lets you go undercover, turning you completely invisible.

In this way, your ISP won’t even be capable of seeing that you are using a VPN anymore. It will all happen seamlessly, with no ripples at all. Throw the smoke grenade on your activities and use the in-built kill-switch as you see fit.

NordVPN’s logging policy is absolutely impeccable as well. Based in Panama, it promises explicit anonymity and guaranteed privacy. The country is known for having a completely uncensored internet access, with no government surveillance either.

If you’re not content with just these measures, NordVPN gives you access to the Double VPN function. What it does is this:

  • You are given two VPN servers at the same time to route your traffic, not just one
  • The resulting combination means double the security and protection

The probability that your ISP will be able to keep up with all these switches and changes of destination is highly unlikely, so it will not be able to keep track of you.

NordVPN also works with a simultaneous Tor connection as well. Just connect first to the VPN client, and then boot-up Tor. This function is called Tor over VPN, as it basically allows your traffic pass through both Tor’s and NordVPN’s own encryption protocols.

Pros:

  • Dedicated IPs that cost some extra money
  • Based in Panama which encourages online privacy and anonymity. The country has no data retention laws in effect
  • Six simultaneous connections
  • Over 4500 connections spread across 60+ countries
  • Allows torrenting
  • The SmartDNS feature and the Obfuscation protocol
  • 30-day money-back guarantee

Cons:

  • IPv6 leak on the macOS IKEv2 application

3. ExpressVPN

When it comes to privacy and online security, you can’t have a discussion without mentioning ExpressVPN. The Titan has been in the business for very long, and it has built up quite a client base.

With professionalism, reliability, and an innovative spirit that keeps on bringing nuance into their services, the team behind this VPN strives to reach the peak, to satisfy all its clients, to tick all the boxes when it comes to user expectations.

In terms of security, since this is what really matters in this particular case, ExpressVPN uses the 256-bit AES encryption. Now, to understand things better, imagine that this security protocol is the very same used by CIA and the NSA when they want to protect some sensitive data.

There is nothing better on the market. The code ensures near-perfect security, an impregnable defense that cannot be forcefully penetrated with brute force by anyone, let alone a meager Internet Service Provider.

Moreover, the tunneling protocols that ExpressVPN uses to secure their servers and the traffic of the users are based on OpenVPN, another extremely popular and reliable protocol.

They also support SSTP, L2TP/IPsec, and PPTP protocols, just to add extra layers of protection.

For those of you who have something in mind and want to fool around with the settings, you can do that, and create your own personalized server connection, perfectly customized to your own tastes.

As for IP or DNS leaks, throughout the many tests that were made, both by suspicious users and work-a-holic reviewers, there were no positive results. All of them scored a negative, meaning that the VPN is cyber-proof, and it doesn’t let anything escape its grasp.

Your information and confidential data are safe with it.

Even more, keeping in mind that more security is always a good idea, you can also use Tor with ExpressVPN. They are actually fully compatible. Your traffic information will be encrypted across multiple servers, those of your VPN and those of Tor.

It literally becomes impossible for anyone to ever decrypt your traffic or to track your actual location down, even less to keep an eye on your online activities.

Pros:

  • Incredibly secure AES-256 + OpenVPN encryption
  • Unlimited downloading
  • Very fast, ideal for streaming and downloading
  • 24/7 customer support that’s currently winning out against all the competition
  • 30-day money-back guarantee
  • Kill-switch
  • 3 simultaneous connections

Cons:

  • Prices are not for all pockets
  • IPv6 leaks that can be fixed with the browser extensions
  • The base company is located in the British Virgin Isles, and this is not exactly ideal for privacy purposes

3. IPVanish

On the front pace of the official IPVanish website, it says that they are The World’s Best VPN Service. This is no mere praising either, seeing as though their services are top-notch, and they always listen to customers.

It’s based on Florida, US, and it provides you with a surge of speed that you’ve never experienced before.

Some free VPNs out there, and even some of the premium ones will have a very confusing and intentionally tricky privacy policy. They aren’t so anonymous as you might have thought.

The wrong provider can retain your confidential data, keep information about your online activities, track your traffic, and use it to whatever purpose they see fit or even sell it to the highest bidder.

However, IPVanish is certainly not one of those VPNs. It operates under a strict no logging policy.

If IPVanish took second place in terms of online anonymity and privacy, nobody would dare to take first place. That’s how serious this is.

In terms of security, it uses the exact same AES-256-bit encryption that’s at the very core of the world-leading online security providers out there.

In recent times, there were quite a lot of cases where hackers would force their way into a system and screw around with it so hard it would become unrecognizable. This brute-force attack is very hard to handle, but IPVanish does it marvelously.

Your device will literally become cyber-proof, out of range, untouchable. Your ISP will be left guessing as to what exactly you’re doing, and it will become impossible for them to keep track of your traffic as well.

The level of security and encryption required to achieve this can only come from one place, and it will quickly determine your to be using a VPN, but since it can’t see the specifics, it becomes powerless against you.

Pros:

  • Servers in more than 60 countries
  • Kill-switch and DNS leak protection
  • Incredibly fast speeds that leaves the competition in the dust
  • Zero-logging policy and very strong encryption protocols
  • SOCKS5 proxy
  • Seven-day money-back guarantee
  • Supports PayPal payments
  • Easy-to-use interface
  • Five simultaneous connections allowed

Cons:

  • Based in the US
  • Unfortunately, it doesn’t unblock Netflix

5. Conclusion

Just to reiterate – your ISP is indeed capable of seeing whether you’re using a VPN or not.

However, this doesn’t mean that it can actually do anything to you. Other than knowing your traffic is redirected to stealthy, encrypted servers that inaccessible, it fails to discover anything else like exactly you’ve been doing on the internet.

Even if the DMCA comes complaining about illegal torrenting, your ISP will not be able to pinpoint you as the cause of this incident. They might find out you visited BitTorrent websites, but not that you actually downloaded anything in particular.

There is a catch, though. If you don’t want you Internet Service Provider spying on you, you’d better choose a well-round VPN, one of the few leaders on the market that have a reputation to defend.

Surf the internet safely, be anonymous and keep your privacy tightly guarded with ExpressVPN, NordVPN or IPVAnish.