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What Is a VPN Router and How Do They Work? VPN Routers Explained

Callum Tennent
Callum TennentUpdated
What Is a VPN Router and How Do They Work? VPN Routers Explained

VPN routers can be a great solution for bypassing VPN device limits. Find out about the advantages and disadvantages of VPN routers in this comprehensive guide.

What Is a VPN Router and How Does It Work?

Simply put, a VPN router is a WiFi router with VPN software installed on it. The router encrypts all of the traffic sent or received over your WiFi network. This means you can protect all of your devices at once, without installing VPN software on each individual device.

Using a VPN on your computer or smartphone will encrypt the traffic from that individual device. A VPN router, on the other hand, will encrypt the traffic across your entire WiFi network, reducing your chances of ever being caught without protection.

This means all of the devices connected to your WiFi — computers, tablets, smartphones, and smart TVs — will be able to simultaneously access your VPN’s servers and maintain a secure and private connection.

A VPN router encrypts the traffic of every device on your WiFi network.

Routers can be bought with VPN software pre-installed or you can install the software yourself. It’s important to note, however, that not all routers can support VPN software, and not all VPN providers can run on a router. For more information on this, skip to the section of this guide on How to Set Up a VPN Router.

This guide will cover the advantages and disadvantages of using a VPN router. We’ll explain what to look out for and exactly why a VPN router might be the right solution for you.

If you’ve already decided to purchase a VPN router and just need help setting it up, make sure to read our complete guide to Installing a VPN on Your Router.

What Are the Benefits of a VPN Router?

Investing in a VPN router might seem like a big step, but it can offer several advantages in terms of security, privacy, and convenience.

Illustration showing the advantages of a VPN router.

1Avoid Multiple Device Limits

Most VPN providers have a limit on the number of devices you can connect at once.

With a VPN installed on your router, every device connected to your WiFi network will be protected by your VPN and it only counts as one connection.

This feature is especially useful for game consoles, media players, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices, many of which do not have native support for VPN client software.

2Permanent VPN Protection

Browser-based VPN services require you to activate your connection every time you want to start a new session. If you’re using a VPN router, you never have to worry about turning your VPN on again.

Once your router is set up, your VPN will be running permanently regardless of what device you’re using. This severely reduces your risk of ever being caught without protection.

Over the past few years, certain countries have passed new legislation that forces ISPs to monitor and store your browsing history. This is now obligatory in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, and in certain parts of Europe.

Securing your entire network with a VPN router is one of the best solutions to this problem. All of the traffic on your network will be secured and encrypted between the router and the VPN server, leaving your ISP with absolutely no information about your browsing history.

3Improved Overall Security

Upgrading your router is a good idea from a security perspective. There have been several cases where authorities and criminals have exploited vulnerabilities in routers to spy on people or collect their sensitive data.

If you’re using a VPN router, all of the devices connected to your router’s Wi-Fi will receive the benefits of your VPN. That means if you have guests or want to use several devices simultaneously, all of your traffic will be protected by default.

4Layered VPN Services

It is much easier to run two VPN services simultaneously if you’re using a VPN router. You can install one VPN on your router, and another on your desktop. While this will definitely impact your connection speed, it is a great way of maximising your protection in case one VPN provider is compromised by leaks or crashes.

What Are the Disadvantages of a VPN Router?

VPN routers may seem like a great catch-all solution to internet privacy, and they are, to an extent. But they do come at a cost, and not just the financial one.

Illustration showing the disadvantages of a VPN router.

1Lack of Flexibility

VPN routers are for the privacy-minded. Once they’re set up it’s not as easy to change the settings as when the VPN software is installed at device-level. It’s much harder to quickly switch your VPN on and off or change your server location.

For this reason, VPN routers aren’t ideal for things like geo-spoofing, anti-censorship, or content-unblocking. These situations need much more flexibility in terms of when you’d like to turn your VPN on and where you’d like to connect to.

Likewise, if you’re looking to stream content it might be easier to install the VPN software directly onto your preferred device.

Many services outright block VPNs without paying attention to where the traffic originates from. This can cause issues if your VPN is constantly activated.

You may even struggle to access content that’s normally available in your region. For example, if you’re in the US and connect your VPN router to a UK server, you might not be able to access US Netflix or other local platforms.

2Complicated Setup

Installing a VPN on your home router can be difficult and time consuming, especially for beginners.

Most VPN companies have tutorials to help their customers through the installation process, and many of them have live chat support too. If you’re having trouble, make sure to check out our guide to installing a VPN on your router.

The other option is to simply buy a pre-configured router. This is much easier and will get you browsing privately much quicker, but it will set you back a few hundred dollars. You can find out more about this option in the next chapter of this guide.

3Reduced Connection Speeds

Running all of your traffic through a VPN means your speeds will be permanently lower.

Even if you buy a high-end router equipped with one of the fastest VPNs on the market, there will naturally be some slowdown versus an unfettered (and unprotected) connection. This will be especially true if you connect multiple devices to the same VPN router.

4Security Weak Spots

One downside of using a VPN at the router-level is that the traffic between your devices and the router is not encrypted.

This isn’t too much of an issue if you know and trust everyone that uses your home network. However, it does pose a security risk should a stranger or third party gain access.

Types of VPN Router: Pre-Flashed vs. Unflashed

If you decide to invest in a VPN router, one of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make is whether to buy a pre-flashed, VPN-enabled, or unflashed router.

“Flashing” means to install new firmware, which is the router’s operating system that determines what it can and can’t do.

Illustration showing the different types of VPN Router.

Here are all three options summarised:

  1. Purchase a pre-flashed VPN router. These routers come with a VPN pre-installed. This option is quick and easy, but is usually more expensive.
  2. Purchase a VPN-enabled router. These routers natively support VPN capabilities, so you won’t have to install new, VPN-enabled firmware. However, you will still have to install your VPN of choice.
  3. Flash an existing router with VPN firmware. This is the most complicated option. You might save money on new hardware, but you’ll have to install the VPN firmware manually.

The difference between these options is simple: pre-flashed routers already have the VPN installed on them. Unflashed routers will require you to manually install the VPN. The first option will usually cost you a little more, but it takes all of the work out of your hands – just plug it in and go.

If you got your router as part of your internet package then it’s unlikely you’ll be able to install a VPN on that exact device. Most ISPs now give their customers combined devices that function as both a modem and a router. In this case, you’ll need to buy a new, VPN-enabled router and connect it to your current device.

We’ll now cover each of these options in detail.

1Pre-Flashed Routers

Pre-flashed routers are the simplest option in almost every situation. They come with a VPN pre-installed, allowing you to avoid the complex process of installing new software or firmware.

Buying a pre-flashed VPN router will usually cost a little more, but it takes all of the work out of your hands – just plug it in, enter your login details, and go.

Services like FlashRouters will deal with the installation process for you and provide a device that’s complete with your chosen firmware and VPN service. You can also find routers that are specifically configured for certain VPN providers, which is great if you have an existing VPN subscription.

A screenshot of VPN routers that are configured for specific VPN providers.

A selection of routers that are pre-configured for ExpressVPN.

Both FlashRouters and some VPN providers also provide dedicated apps to simplify the process of connecting your home network to a VPN. These apps create a custom interface that streamlines the configuration process and allows you to switch easily between servers, VPN providers, and configuration options.

These apps will work with leading router models including the Linksys WRT32X, Netgear R6400, and Asus RT-AC5300.

2VPN-Enabled Routers

Your second option is to buy a new router that is already compatible with VPN software. These devices come with VPN-enabled firmware pre-installed, allowing you to configure a VPN of your choice and connect to their servers straight away.

This is the option for you if:

    • You bought a Flashrouter that did not come preconfigured with a VPN server.
    • You want to configure your VPN router with another VPN server.

To find out if your current router will work with VPN software, read the router’s manual or search for the model number online.

Because these routers are already capable of supporting a VPN, you won’t need to install new firmware or link the router to an additional device. Simply purchase a VPN subscription and VPN-enabled router, follow the configuration instructions from your chosen VPN provider and you can then configure the device to a VPN server.

Popular brands that provide VPN-enabled routers include ASUS, Linksys, and Netgear. The Linksys WRT3200ACM and Netgear R6400 are both popular models that offer great value for money.

If you choose this option, you should also consider which VPN protocols the router supports and whether it can be flashed with new firmware if necessary. The latest VPN-enabled routers typically support the OpenVPN protocol, which means you can install any VPN service that also uses OpenVPN. Luckily, this protocol comes as standard with any worthwhile VPN service.

3Unflashed

If your router isn’t currently compatible with VPN software, but is compatible with VPN firmware, you will need to flash it. This is a longer process that will depend on the type of router in question. You can find out exactly how to do this in our guide to installing a VPN on a router.

Manually flashing your router with new firmware will enable you to install the VPN software of your choice. This can save you money, but requires a little bit of technical knowhow.

The two most popular types of VPN router firmware are Tomato and DD-WRT. These are independent, open-source systems that you can download for free online.

Screenshot from the Tomato firmware website.

Tomato is an open-source, VPN-enabled firmware for routers.

Both DD-WRT and Tomato provide an interface for you to control your bandwidth, increase the range of your WiFi, use different VPN protocols, and much more. You can learn more about the differences between these custom firmware options in this article.

It’s worth remembering that flashing router firmware yourself is not for the faint of heart. It could result in a broken router with a voided warranty. To find out more, read our guide to manually installing a VPN on your router.

What Specifications Should You Look For?

If you decide to buy a new router — pre-flashed, VPN-enabled, or otherwise — it’s important you understand exactly what each model has to offer. If you’ve already got a VPN router and need to choose a VPN, you can skip straight to How to Choose a VPN for Your Router.

Just like laptops and smartphones, every router model comes with different capabilities that will affect its performance. Consider the following specifications:

WiFi Standard

The ‘WiFi standard’ of every router will appear as a code on the device beginning with 802.11 and followed by a letter. These standards refer to a set of protocols that decide how your WiFi network will act, and are updated every few years.

What really matters here is the letter that comes after the ‘802.11’. Older routers will have a ‘b’ or ‘g’: these should be avoided as their age means they won’t be capable of the latest speeds.

Newer models have an ‘n’, which means that they support a top speed of 300Mbps. What you really want, though, is a device that supports 802.11ac. This is the latest consumer standard, allowing for transfer speeds of 1.3Gbps.

Even if your internet provider doesn’t offer speeds this great, a higher top speed on your router means that all of your devices will deliver downloads that are as fast as your connection allows.

Frequency Bands

Most routers will offer a wireless frequency band of either 2.4GHz or 5GHz. This number represents the speed at which data is sent and received by the devices connected to your network.

The main difference between these two frequencies will be the connection range and speed that each band provides. Put simply, 2.4GHz offers slower speeds over greater distances, while 5GHz offers faster speeds over shorter distances.

You’ll still be limited by your overall broadband speed regardless of which band you’re using. That said, 5GHz will probably deliver that broadband faster than 2.4GHz.

It’s worth noting that the 2.4GHz frequency can also suffer from interference if there are lots of devices on the network. This is because there are fewer devices out there capable of using 5GHz, which causes overcrowding on the 2.4GHz band. You can learn more about wireless frequencies in this article.

Maximum Speed

The WiFi standard and frequency aren’t the only factors that will determine a router’s speed.

More often than not a router will state its maximum speed outright. Nothing technical to take in here – look for the highest number possible within your price range. If you’d like to learn more about wireless router speeds, read this useful guide.

Number of Ports

Just because your router is wireless doesn’t mean that you can’t still get online the old-fashioned way.

Most VPN routers will come with ethernet ports for wired connections. This is the easiest way to guarantee speed and reliability — if not always the most convenient one.

They’ll also usually have a USB port or two. You can use these to turn an otherwise wired printer into a WiFi one, or connect an external storage device to create a shared network drive.

How Much Does a VPN Router Cost?

Like any gadget, the price of VPN routers can vary depending on your needs. There’s always options for advanced users and professionals, but we would recommend going for an option that matches the size and demands of your network.

Bear in mind that, as inherently advanced pieces of equipment when compared to standard WiFi routers, VPN routers are more expensive from the get-go. The cheapest options will cost around $130, while high-end models can cost upwards of $500.

Once you’ve bought a VPN router, the price of a monthly VPN subscription is very reasonable, even when using a leading provider like NordVPN or Private Internet Access. It’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.

How to Choose a VPN for Your Router

Illustration of a VPN router with different VPN providers.

Even if you buy a pre-configured router, you will still need to purchase a VPN subscription.

Once you’ve decided how to set up your VPN router, you’ll need to decide which VPN provider you plan to use. If you’re already paying for a VPN subscription, you’re a few steps ahead. If not, you’ll need to do some research.

Popular VPNs like ExpressVPN or NordVPN can easily be installed on Tomato or DD-WRT routers. Other providers, like TunnelBear or Hotspot Shield, aren’t quite so simple. Always check if a VPN service supports router connections before you purchase a subscription.

Once you’ve checked that your VPN provider supports router connections, it’s worth making sure that the rest of the service is up to scratch.

Consider the following criteria:

  • Connection speed
  • Online support
  • Logging Policy
  • Server Locations

Start by researching the provider’s connection speeds and support network. Your VPN will take care of everything from streaming to gaming — often on multiple devices at once — so it’s important that you pick a provider that offers the performance you need. Likewise, strong online support will help take care of any issues you have with installation.

Next, it’s worth taking the time to understand exactly what data your VPN provider logs and how long it’s stored for. Some VPN logging policies can be misleading, so it’s worth reading their privacy policy in full.

Finally, check the VPN provider’s list of server locations. It’s important that you’re able to connect to the locations you need. If you’re struggling to find this information or you don’t have time to do this research yourself, you can read our reviews of the best VPNs of 2019.

Choosing a VPN for a Pre-Flashed Router

A surprising number of big-name providers offer their VPNs on pre-flashed routers. Popular options include:

You can find in-depth reviews of all of these VPN services — including information about their logging policies, server locations, and maximum speeds — in our VPN reviews section.

If you have an existing subscription to one of these services then you’re already at an advantage. All that you need to do once you purchase and connect your pre-flashed router is login to your account.

If you would rather use another provider, that’s not a problem. The DD-WRT firmware allows you to manually configure almost any VPN that uses OpenVPN or PPTP protocols. That means if you buy a router from a service like FlashRouters but don’t want to use one of the VPNs listed on its app, you can install a different one instead.

Remember though, in this situation you will need to manually configure your VPN, and you won’t be able to use any of the additional app features like changing your server location or powering your VPN on and off. For more information on how to manually configure your VPN router, read our VPN router installation guide.

Choosing a VPN for a VPN-Enabled Router

If your VPN provider of choice doesn’t offer a pre-flashed router, that’s fine. Make sure the VPN supports OpenVPN and then purchase a router with firmware that also supports the same protocol. You can then set it up yourself from there.

It’s worth noting that certain VPN services will only work with specific router models. Visit your chosen provider’s website or contact its support service for more details.

Some VPN providers offer a streamlined installation process with easy guides online. NordVPN, for example, has detailed router tutorials for every router and firmware that they support.

If your router is already compatible with your VPN, all you have to do is login and configure it to connect with your VPN provider’s servers. For more detailed instructions on this, read our VPN Router Installation Guide.

Are VPN Routers Worthwhile?

Choosing to install a VPN router might feel like a big step if you’re used to simple applications or browser-based VPNs. That said, if you have a lot of devices and really care about the privacy of your home network, it could be the right option for you.

About the Author


  • Headshot of Top10VPN.com Site Editor Callum Tennent

    Callum Tennent

    Callum is our site editor and a member of the IAPP and the EC-Council's Knowledge Review Committee. He oversees all our VPN testing, reviews, guides and advice. Read full bio