I’ve always loved VPNs, and the last few years I’ve had the privilege of watching them become steadily more popular.
But sometimes it’s hard to understand just how much VPNs have entered the mainstream. Is it something that most internet users know about?
Or maybe it’s only most younger people? Or maybe you and I assume people know as much as us, but really VPNs are only of interest to a small number of people.
Well, I’ve done some digging, and I’ve got quite a few interesting stats about VPN usage for you to take a look at.
Ready? Let’s get started with a general sense of scope:
Item 1: In 2018, more than a FOURTH of internet users worldwide had used a VPN.
This statistic is brought to us by the highly reputable Statista:
Before you complain about this not being 2019, note that this was published just a few months ago—it takes time to publish good stats.
The most impressive thing about this survey is that it’s got a MASSIVE sample size: over 109,000 people responded, with ages ranging between 16-64.
So let’s break it down: globally, 26% of respondents (all internet users) had used a VPN within the last month. So this doesn’t really capture depth of use, but it’s still informative.
Plus, as you’ve probably noticed, this percent is NOT evenly distributed by region. Nearly a third of internet users in the Asia Pacific had used a VPN, in contrast to only 18% in North America.
The big takeaway from these numbers is that VPNs are hardly an obscure technology. They’re not only for the extremely tech-literate, but are highly popular services.
And that probably explains part of the following:
Item 2: The global VPN market is going to reach an estimated $35 BILLION by 2022.
Yep, you read that right. But that might not be so impressive unless you see what the market is now.
So let’s take a look at some big numbers, brought to us by Orbis Research (via PCMag and Statista):
Yep, in 2018, the global VPN market was an estimated $20 billion, and the projections hold that 2019’s market size is roughly $23 billion (it will be some time before we get clearer estimates and are able to look retroactively).
To grow from $20 billion to nearly $36 billion in just 4 years is bonkers. When you consider that the market was about $15 billion in 2016, that means it will have doubled in size in just 6 years.
Of course, keep in mind that these are estimates, and predicting the future is always tricky business.
But even if these numbers turn out to be only partly true, the VPN market would still be seeing some insane growth.
Though the growth certainly comes with challenges:
Item 3: New entrants struggle with high advertising costs: from a couple bucks to nearly $40 to get a single customer, in just a few years.
This isn’t going to be a sweeping set of stats, but it’s definitely an insight that a lot of sites and blogs aren’t talking about.
Before I show you the stat, let me explain the background a little bit:
The chart refers to “CPA.” CPA means cost-per-action, which refers to an advertising model that lets advertisers pay for a specific action.
Some common actions would be signups, filling out forms, or most prominently, making a sale.
With the VPN industry, most advertisers only pay commission once affiliates actually land a sale.
The CPA model didn’t really get taken up until late 2015-early 2016, and before that, VPN companies basically used a simple percentage-based commission structure: affiliates would get commissions that are a fixed percentage of the types of plans they sold.
Nowadays though, that simpler commission structure is obsolete and the CPA model is supreme.
The website VPNranks.com contacted its partners and gathered data about CPA prices, and averaged them from 2016 to 2018 (they also explain the context in a more detail).
Okay, let’s take a look at the stats now:
Despite many fluctuations, the cost of advertising actions has significantly increased from early 2016 to late 2018.
What this means is that newer entrants in the VPN market are faced with a much higher average cost of advertising, compared to older names that were able to grow in size and continue affording higher advertising costs.
It’s not the only reason new entrants may have difficulties, but it is certainly a factor!
Item 4: Interest in VPNs hasn’t increased in the U.S. nearly as much as it’s increased throughout the world.
Despite the first stat we looked at, I was still kind of surprised by these figures (the source, by the way, is Google Trends—so you can find the same results for yourself).
Let’s take a look:
This trend shows American interest in VPNs via Google searches between the very beginning of 2011 and the present day.
Yeah, there is a definite increase…but doesn’t it seem a little low? Especially considering the explosive growth of the global VPN market that I already showed you?
Let’s see how GLOBAL interest compares:
Yeah, this is closer to what I expected.
Now, let me make some important qualifications here: this isn’t a trend based purely on the number of searches, or VPN purchases.
This is just how popular the search term has been in Google:
So 100 means that was the most popular point in the term’s history, and all the other numbers are relative to that peak popularity.
It means that at the beginning of 2011, global popularity for the term “VPN” via Google was less than 50% of its peak popularity.
In contrast, in the United States, the term “VPN” via Google was less than 75% of peak popularity.
Here in the U.S., we’ve always been pretty close to our peak moment of interest. In other words, we haven’t significantly increased our interest in the search term.
But globally, Google has seen the popularity of the term increase over time.
Item 5: It sucks that NordVPN and TorGuard got hacked. BUT, only ONE server and NO users were affected.
We recently learned that NordVPN and TorGuard were hacked, controversial news in the VPN world.
I actually think that a couple of the numbers to come out of this mess are very informative! So let’s get a sense of things.
NordVPN put out this timeline on their blog:
Easy to get freaked out:
Someone on 8chan said they hacked NordVPN and TorGuard in 2018, and it went unnoticed for about a YEAR.
In fact, TorGuard and NordVPN only acknowledged it once the incident started getting talked about.
Well, I definitely agree that both VPNs should have immediately notified customers. I also absolutely agree it sucks that a hacker was able to compromise two of the most famous and reputable VPNs.
But when two highly reputable VPNs get hacked, what we learn in the aftermath is really informative:
The NordVPN hack affected only one server, in Finland—no others. No user credentials were affected. So far, there are no signs user traffic was monitored.
NordVPN estimated 50-200 customers used the breached server.
This is an extremely rough estimate, so don’t cling to it too much. But this is in comparison to Nord’s 12 MILLION customers.
And again, even of those customers, it’s not clear at all that they were affected.
Best of all? The server that was affected did NOT contain activity logs. This basically proves that NordVPN is one of the VPNs that keeps its word about not logging customer activity.
With TorGuard, things might seem worse: the hacker stole a key.
…And that key was already outdated, and TorGuard terminated service with that server host quickly.
Okay, I might be too optimistic for you. I’ve got a more sobering takeaway:
This hacking controversy goes to show, more than anything, the problem with VPNs that use third parties for servers.
To be fair to them, that takes a lot more resources to run servers directly. So MOST VPNs use third party hosts.
It’s more affordable, makes customers happier, and for the most part VPNs can still be overall secure while using third parties.
But as the hack highlights, adding a third party increases the amount of parties you’re putting your faith in, and the amount of parties that can screw up.
To sum up:
We learned from this that the effect of the hack was VERY limited: barely any users affected, if any, and neither VPN had user logs to be compromised. But third parties are still a risky business.
Item 6: WireGuard, a new protocol in development gives 3x the throughput and 3x speed of OpenVPN.
This statistic is also a little unusual: it doesn’t cover thousands of users or big surveys.
Instead, it involves a thorough performance test of different VPN protocols. Before I show you the figures, let me explain briefly for the unfamiliar:
VPN protocols are the sets of rules that affect the connection between a VPN client and VPN server. Most VPNs offer at least 2-3 VPN protocols, and you can switch between them to increase certain aspects of your connection.
One protocol might have high speeds but low security. Other protocols may be more or less easy to configure, more or less stable, secure, fast, and so on. You can read more about the differences here.
Lately, a new contender has entered the field. This protocol is still in development, so don’t expect to see it for a while.
But it shows a lot of promise. Have a look:
It comes from this highly detailed report about WireGuard by the team developing it. There’s a lot of stuff going in the report, but here are the basics of this test:
WireGuard here is competing against three other common protocols, with OpenVPN being the most popular.
All of them were set to a high level of encryption (256-bit, the highest level most VPNs offer) and on Ethernet cards.
In the first box, the throughput of each protocol (the rate of data transmission) was measured in terms of megabits per second. In the second box, the ping time (how long it takes to get from a client to server and back) was measured in milliseconds.
The result showed that WireGuard processed more data per second than the other protocols and also was the fastest.
Moreover, WireGuard is thought to be more secure than the other protocols, or at least no less secure.
IF WireGuard works as well in widespread use as it seems to have worked so far in development, it could easily become the most popular VPN protocol, or one of them.
In other words, I’m not showing you a VPN usage statistic of the past—but a hint towards what VPN use may look like in the future.
Item 7: A third of people use VPNs for privacy…but at least HALF use it for entertainment.
This is a stat hard for me to admit, because I like VPNs for the privacy (though I also use them for Netflix).
The truth is, the priority for VPN users is more often to access entertainment than to enhance privacy.
Take a look:
This stat is from the Global Web Index.
If we look closely, privacy doesn’t lose out too badly. Nearly a third of users have VPNs for anonymity, which is higher than I expected.
And it’s not even a majority of users who primarily use VPNs to access better entertainment—it’s just barely less than half.
Also interesting is how preferences break down by region. In the Asian-Pacific, a simple majority prioritize entertainment.
This is less true in Latin America and the Middle East and Africa, but still close to half.
The amount of people seeking privacy is roughly consistent across regions, but in Europe and North America, people use VPNs for the purpose of entertainment just as much as for privacy.
It makes sense considering that people in Europe and North America would likely have some of the most robust content libraries.
Of course, entertainment and privacy are not the only reasons for VPN use…
Item 8: Accessing social media is the second highest priority for VPN customers.
This also comes from the Global Web Index, but the figure isn’t broken down by region and covers both desktop and mobile VPN users.
Here it is:
Note that this study involved over 33,000 desktop users and 25,000 mobile users. The previous study “only” used over 24,000 VPN users, without distinction between platform (that’s still a MASSIVE number of people).
But generally you do get the same results: entertainment is the single largest reason, while privacy concerns represent roughly a third of the respondents.
However, the other most popular reason is to access social networks or news services—a pretty striking reason that doesn’t apply to most Americans.
There are also a lot of people who use VPNs’ added security for their profession, and many who use VPNs to communicate with people in other parts of the world.
Of course, these reasons are far from mutually exclusive: the percentages wouldn’t add up if that were the case.
So a lot of people are using VPNs for more than one reason—it just so happens that a majority of VPN users are using VPNs for entertainment but only 34-36% are using them to access other websites.
Item 9: Your VPN needs to be at least 5mbps to stream in HD.
We all know a lot of people use VPNs to access streaming services—Netflix foremost among them.
But some wind up unable to enjoy Netflix because of slow speeds.
This may happen if your VPN is generally slower, and especially if you already have low speeds to begin with.
But it can also happen with a good VPN, if the server you’re on is overtaxed—in that case, you need to switch servers.
But how do you know what the base level of speed you need is to stream, especially if you’re trying to save money with a free or cheap VPN plan?
Luckily, Netflix itself provides us with the numbers we need:
As you can see, most people will need at least 3 mbps to get standard quality, and 5 mbps to get HD.
And while this may be just for Netflix, most streaming services will be roughly on par with this.
Yes, I know…technically, this isn’t a stat about VPN usage itself, but it IS a stat that is extremely important for people using VPNs. You’re welcome! 😉
Bonus: Beware VPNs on your phone’s app store–nearly one in five aren’t encrypting!
This is a bonus because it’s old (2016). But as I haven’t seen any other similar studies since then, I thought it was worth including.
Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) did an in-depth analysis of 283 VPN apps on the Google Play store.
What they found was horrifying:
In brief, 18% of the VPN apps did NOT encrypt their private tunnels, failing the core purpose of a VPN.
There’s more: 75% used third-party data-tracking libraries, and 82% asked for permission to access other device data like text messages.
I know it’s not a happy note to end on, but don’t worry:
The VPN market has grown a lot in the last three years, and while that means there are more bad apples, it also means standards are higher and there are more good options!
Plus, there are people (cough, like me) who are trying to find the good apples.
Ready to wrap things up?
Hopefully you’ve learned some interesting things about VPN use by now.
Because I didn’t want to copy every other VPN statistic article, which all use the same numbers, my choices here are a little odd.
That being said, they’ve covered a lot of ground:
We know VPNs are incredibly popular and the market is growing rapidly.
We talked about why they’re used, where VPNs have seen shortcomings, what future VPN use could look like, and more.
And the best part?
This story isn’t finished, as VPNs will continue to evolve.
But I’ll leave it here. If you want to learn more, or check our claims, just take a look at our sources:
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The specific Web Index figures I did use:
Here are some of the other sources used:
6. Google trends on the term “VPN” (you’ll have to switch between the United States and Worldwide for the location):
7. NordVPN hack (timeline, server details, and how users were affected)
8. NordVPN hack (affected user estimate)
9. TorGuard hack (timeline, key details, how users were affected)
10. WireGuard test report (PDF)
12. Full report on Android VPN apps (PDF)