A virtual private network (VPN) has grown to become an essential tool for protecting personal privacy and security in the digital age. By encrypting internet traffic and routing it through a secure tunnel, VPNs prevent prying eyes from spying on online activities and sensitive communications. But not all internet traffic necessarily needs to flow through a VPN at all times. This is where split tunneling comes in handy.
Split tunneling allows you to designate which apps and web services send data through the encrypted VPN tunnel, while allowing other less sensitive traffic to take the default unsecured internet pathway. With split tunneling properly configured, you get the best of both worlds: security and privacy when it matters most, coupled with faster speeds across your daily general web browsing and streaming.
Definition of VPN Split Tunneling
VPN split tunneling refers to the ability to simultaneously route some internet traffic through a VPN server while other traffic goes outside the VPN tunnel on the open internet. It essentially splits your connection into two tunnels – private and public. The traffic that goes through the VPN tunnel to access the private network benefits from the security, encryption and anonymity provided by the VPN. Meanwhile, the public traffic bypasses the VPN tunnel completely and is accessed directly without encryption and security.
The key benefit of VPN split tunneling lies in being able to designate which apps make use of the VPN and which ones don’t. For example, you may want to route your online banking and shopping traffic through the encrypted VPN tunnel to keep your financial information and transactions secure and private. But something like streaming Netflix may be fine to send over the open internet, bypassing the VPN.
Importance of VPN Split Tunneling
There are several key reasons why VPN split tunneling features have become so important in modern VPN services:
- Improved Speed: Routing less intensive internet traffic outside the VPN tunnel reduces load and congestion on the VPN server, providing better connectivity speed for the apps that use the VPN tunnel.
- Avoid Data Limits: By only sending select traffic through the VPN tunnel and keeping bulk traffic like video streaming outside, users can avoid hitting their VPN provider’s monthly data limits too quickly.
- Tailored Security: Split tunneling allows users to customize their VPN security and privacy around their specific needs rather than having a one-size-fits-all tunnel handling all traffic. Users can determine what they deem critical to encrypt through the VPN while leaving other traffic untouched.
How VPN Split Tunneling Works
VPN split tunneling leverages the ability to have two distinct tunnels or routes that internet traffic can flow through – one private going through the VPN server, and one public which bypasses the VPN and goes directly onto the open internet. Here’s a closer look at how this dual routing functionality is made possible.
Two Different Traffic Routes
The core enabler of split tunneling is the capacity to simultaneously access both a private network tunnel as well as a public internet connection on the same local network. The VPN client software on your device has the logic built in to divide traffic between these two routes based on user configuration.
Your device is typically connected to your local Wi-Fi or cellular data network. This provides the public route to the open internet. Meanwhile, the VPN client sets up an encrypted tunnel from your device out to the VPN server on its own private network. Accessing resources on that VPN provider’s private network requires transmission through the encrypted VPN tunnel, while other internet traffic can bypass that tunnel.
Types of Split Tunneling
There are a few common ways split tunneling can be configured to divide traffic between the VPN tunnel and open internet:
● App-based: The VPN tunnel versus public route can be designated on a per application basis. For example, a banking app would be configured to transmit only through the VPN tunnel while a streaming video app traffic would bypass the VPN and take the public route.
● URL/Website-based: Websites and web URLs can also be directed to either pathway. For example, all traffic to Facebook.com may bypass the VPN while traffic to a shopping payments page would go through the VPN for security.
● Inverse Split Tunnel: An inverse split tunnel configuration means that only SELECT traffic goes through the VPN tunnel while ALL other traffic is sent outside the VPN. This is useful for a targeted secure connection without slowing down everything else.
Choosing Which Traffic Goes Through the VPN
The split tunneling settings within the VPN client software allow users to actively select which apps, websites or network connections get routed through the VPN tunnel versus bypassing the VPN. This allows customizing security and privacy needs to map to how the applications and websites are being used.
Criteria to consider when mapping traffic to the VPN tunnel or public route:
● Privacy sensitivity – Financial, medical, and account access traffic warrant VPN encryption
● Unblocked access needs – Streaming sites often detect and block VPN traffic
● Speed priority – Video calls perform better without VPN limitations
● Data usage – Bulk downloads and video streaming consume service data limits quicker through VPN
Properly categorizing traffic based on priorities around privacy, access, speed, and data usage allow users to route each type of connection in the optimal pathway – secured VPN tunnel or unencrypted public internet traffic.
Benefits of VPN Split Tunneling
While routing all of your internet activity through an encrypted VPN connection has its merits, there are certainly some solid perks to leveraging split tunneling configurations instead for selectively determining what goes through the VPN tunnel versus not.
Improved Internet Speed
One of the biggest advantages in sending only some of your traffic through the VPN tunnel is avoiding bottleneck slowdowns that can occur when every bit of traffic is routed through VPN servers. Streaming large videos or downloading big files at fast speeds can be hindered when confined to the bandwidth limits of the VPN connection. So allowing that type of heavier traffic to bypass the VPN alleviates congestion and results in faster loading and crisper quality, while still sending more sensitive activities through the secure tunnel.
Avoid Data Limits
In addition to speed advantages, limiting what traffic gets pushed through the VPN tunnel can help avoid hitting monthly data caps too quickly. Most VPN providers enforce limits on how much data bandwidth each user can consume while connected to their servers. Streaming videos, playing online games, and browsing media-rich sites end up eating through a lot of megabytes quickly. So reserving the VPN tunnel for lighter traffic like email, messaging, and website access enables staying under data restrictions.
Secure Remote Access
Split tunneling configurations are also very useful for securely accessing office networks and documents remotely. The VPN tunnel can provide encrypted access to the corporate network with remote login capabilities, remote desktops and safe document sharing between office locations. Meanwhile, other internet activity wouldn’t cause slowdowns on that corporate network tunnel yet employees could still access them directly. This makes split tunneling very useful for safe telecommuting arrangements without performance issues.
VPNs that Offer Split Tunneling
Split tunneling has evolved into an increasingly common feature among leading VPN providers. Based on the added flexibility and performance benefits this offers users, more VPN services have invested in integrating robust split tunneling capabilities into their apps and software. Here are some top VPNs on the market today that enable effective split tunneling usage:
As one of the most established elite VPN services, NordVPN offers a full suite of split tunneling configuration settings. App-based tunnel routing means you can designate which apps send data through NordVPN’s encrypted tunnels while allowing all other traffic to go outside their private network. There’s also a whitelist to only force selected apps to route through the VPN, while blacklisting other specific apps you don’t want utilizing the tunnel at all.
Similarly, ExpressVPN has invested substantially into split tunneling flexibility for their users around directing traffic between VPN and open internet routes. Like NordVPN, ExpressVPN tunneling allows splitting connections based on specific apps or even websites to customize what gets routed into their private network versus bypassing their servers. This makes it simple to tweak VPN protection and performance as needed on the fly.
As a fast-rising newcomer VPN, Surfshark has focused intently on providing whitelists and blacklists so customers can explicitly control which apps do and don’t transmit their traffic through the Surfshark VPN tunnels. Users can easily whitelist banking and finance apps to encrypt transmissions, while blacklisting streaming and social media apps to not bog down bandwidth. Their split tunneling options readily open up better security without sacrificing connection speeds.
How to Activate and Configure Split Tunneling
Once you have a VPN service that supports split tunneling, making the most of its advantages requires diving into the settings and properly configuring which apps route through the VPN tunnel versus off of it. Here’s a step-by-step guide to enabling split tunneling and customizing it to your specific connectivity needs:
Open VPN Client App Settings
The first step is to ensure your VPN provider’s application is downloaded and installed on the device(s) you want to use their service on. Once launched, open the app’s Settings section which contains the split tunneling configuration options. Look for it under names like Connection, Networking, or Advanced settings.
Turn On Split Tunneling
You’ll find the master toggle to enable Split Tunneling functionality. This activates the underlying capacity to divide traffic between VPN and public internet pipelines. Often when you trigger split tunneling, it eliminates a “Kill Switch” failsafe so be aware that the app can’t kill internet if the VPN disconnects. But the added flexibility is worth it.
Manage on Per-App Basis
Now you can white-list or black-list apps to route through the VPN or outside of it. Common options include selecting apps manually or sorting by categories like Media, Social, Finance etc to mass whitelist media to route outside the VPN to avoid throttles while keeping finance traffic securely routed through the VPN .
Disable VPN for Selected Apps
Prefer to just call out a few specific apps to bypass the VPN tunnel while everything else connects through it? First enable split tunneling, then navigate to Exclude Apps section and individually select apps like Netflix, YouTube etc that you want to completely avoid routing through the VPN, leaving them on normal internet.
Enable VPN for Selected Apps Only
Inversely, if your priority is to isolate just a handful of apps like Gmail, Skype etc to go through the VPN tunnel securely while allowing everything else to behave as normal non-VPN internet access, scroll down within split tunneling settings to Add Apps or Whitelisted Apps and individually select only those apps you want to send traffic through the VPN tunnel. This exclusive VPN access while keeping your broader connection fast and unlimited.
Split tunneling functionality represents the modern evolution of VPN services – accessible security and privacy when you need it without negatively impacting connection performance and user experience. By intelligently segmenting access between secured VPN tunnels and open internet routes, split tunneling allows customizing encryption and anonymity to your specific app needs instead of a blanket dragnet approach slowing everything down unnecessarily.
As more VPN providers integrate robust split tunneling options, this paves the way for consumers to tap into the tailored protection of VPN services while still preserving the full speed and accessibility of the public internet based on their priorities. And the ability to actively pick and choose which apps route traffic in which direction unlocks more granular power to find the right balance of security, unblocked access and quality of performance.
With breaches and privacy erosion accelerating across today’s digital platforms, leveraging split tunneling configurations ensures you encrypt and secure what matters most to you without introducing frustrating speed throttles or data usage limits on other activities. Getting split tunneling properly configured may require some trial and error to land on your ideal mix of VPN and non-VPN traffic – but once optimized it can form the foundation for safely and confidently engaging across the internet’s full potential while keeping your sensitive connections firmly secured.