What Is a VPN Kill Switch?

By Jayden Andrews. April 30, 2020

If you are familiar with a virtual private network, or a VPN, you’ll understand that there are times when the connection drops unexpectedly. It happens. No matter how reliable your VPN service is, there will be times when the speeds go too low or the service gets disconnected.

And when your VPN gets disconnected, your traffic is not encrypted anymore and you are no longer protected by your VPN. You get connected to the internet server directly instead of being routed through a VPN server. This is dangerous because it means that anyone can track your activities and the website you are visiting will know your real IP address.

This can be risky, especially if you are dealing with sensitive information. For example, if you are a journalist who needs to share confidential information with someone over the internet, revealing your identity because of a disconnected VPN can be dangerous for you.

And this problem affects not only journalists but everyone who uses a VPN. If you are downloading or streaming videos from a geo-restricted service or website, the downloading or streaming will automatically stop as soon as the website detects your real IP address.

If the VPN network connection drops, your device defaults back to the original public IP address assigned by your internet service provider. If this happens, your identity will be exposed and your activity can be easily tracked.

The most dangerous part is that if you don’t take the proper precautions, you may not even be aware if or when that happened.

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Why VPNs Get Disconnected

You might be thinking that your VPN is so reliable that your connection won’t drop. Unfortunately, no matter how good your VPN service is, connections do go down sometimes. Disconnections are often due to the network congestion that happens when there are too many users connected to the server. This is completely unrelated to the VPN service because it has more to do with users choosing the same server to connect to.

If you select a VPN server that quickly becomes overloaded, your connection to that server might drop and expose you to the public. Dropped connections can also be caused by unstable internet connections due to bad weather. This is especially true for satellite and cellular connections.

There are also instances of dropped connections resulting from your poor choice of protocol. For instance, UDP is known to be unreliable and cause frequent disconnections, while TCP is more stable. Switching to a different protocol can also help you get a more stable VPN connection.

An overactive security feature on your device could also cause your VPN connection to drop frequently. This includes your firewall, antivirus, or anti-malware settings that are too restrictive. To check, try to disable these features first and reconnect. If your connection stabilizes with these features disabled, then you should add your VPN network as an exception before you turn them on again.

But if you really want total protection against accidental exposure caused by VPN drops, your best bet is to use a VPN service that has a built-in kill switch feature.

What Is a Kill Switch?

Generally, the reasons why users need a VPN are usually the same reasons why users would want a VPN service that has a kill switch.

A VPN Kill Switch comes in different names, depending on the VPN service you are using. Internet Kill Switch and Network Lock are just some of the names that this feature goes by.

A Kill Switch is a special VPN security feature that disconnects the device – computer, phone or tablet – from the internet and provides a safe exit for the user in case of a lost VPN connection. If your VPN is equipped with a kill switch, there is no chance that your IP address will get exposed accidentally or that the security and anonymity of your connection will be compromised.

In most cases, the VPN’s kill switch is under the user’s control and it can be enabled or disabled as needed. If the switch is turned on, your VPN connection gets an extra layer of protection and you don’t have to worry about getting disconnected. You also have the option to turn it off if you think you no longer need that extra protection.

Types of VPN Kill Switches

This useful feature comes in two different types:

● Application-Level Kill Switch
● System-Level Kill Switch

Application-Level Kill Switch

Based on the name, this type of kill switch is limited to various applications using the VPN, including torrent clients, messaging apps, email clients, streaming apps, games, and others. The user has the option to choose which apps will trigger the kill switch feature in case of a VPN connection failure. VPN providers using this feature call it an App Killer because it kills the connection of the affected app. This kind of kill switch is very handy if you want to hide your IP address when doing certain activities, such as downloading torrents, for example.

However, take note that using an application-level kill switch might prevent your app from updating to the latest version. If this is the case, you need to ensure that apps like anti-malware and antivirus software and password managers are not restricted from being updated to newer versions.

System-Level Kill Switch

The system-level kill switch is the more common type of switch available for most VPN services. It is also commonly referred to as an internet kill switch. It simply freezes your internet connection once the VPN service detects a connection failure from the VPN server. Your internet traffic is disabled until the VPN server is able to re-establish its connection.

Most VPN providers have begun to add this feature to their packages as a mandatory security feature. This is due to the fact that even the best VPN connections can fail, accidentally exposing your identity and internet traffic. Having such a security feature keeps your connection safe from prying eyes.

A system-level kill switch is better than an application-level kill switch because it disconnects your device entirely from the internet, preventing your IP address from being revealed.

An Internet kill switch is a good option to quickly terminate specific programs or even the entire internet connection when you notice internet traffic leaking outside the secure VPN tunnel.

But aside from these two categories, there are also some VPN services that categorize kill switches as Active Kill Switch and Passive Kill Switch.

● Active Kill Switch – This is designed to detect when you get disconnected from the VPN service, forward that information to your device, and stop it from connecting to unsecured networks.

● Passive Kill Switch – This is actually more secure than the active kill switch because the VPN app does not have to wait for any information from the VPN server. The moment the device stops receiving a signal from the VPN server, the kill switch automatically stops your device from sending your traffic.

Why Do You Need a Kill Switch?

Using a VPN with a kill switch feature is a personal decision. This usually depends on what you use the VPN for and whether you can afford to have your real IP address exposed. If you download or stream torrent content, access restricted websites or services from another country, or deal with sensitive information, protecting your real IP address and your anonymity is a must.

A kill switch provides the best security for your sensitive data, even if your VPN connection drops for a few seconds. It keeps your IP address safe from being exposed when the server is offline until you get reconnected.

Is a VPN Kill Switch Always Turned On?

Most kill switches are not active by default. You need to go to the VPN app’s settings to activate this feature. There are also some VPN providers that provide options for users to optimize their kill switch feature. For example, some users can choose what type of kill switch to use or whether the app should try to reconnect when the VPN gets disconnected. However, ExpressVPN’s Network Lock is automatically activated once the user clicks the Connect button.

How do you check if your VPN’s kill switch is working? This is kind of tricky because you don’t notice when the connection drops and you don’t know if you’re still being protected. You might not be aware that your traffic has defaulted back to your original IP address while torrenting or streaming, subjecting you and your anonymity to risk.

To determine if your VPN’s kill switch feature is really working, you can follow this simple test:

1. Open the VPN app you are using and sign in with your login details. Connect to the best server location or let the app decide which server to connect to. Just make sure that the VPN server is active.

2. On the app’s dashboard, head to the Settings section and turn on the kill switch feature. The name varies depending on the VPN you are using, but you should look for Internet Kill Switch, Kill Switch, Network Lock, or other names associated with the kill switch feature. You can ask your VPN provider if you are not sure.

3. Once the kill switch has been enabled, open your browser and try to visit a random website. Check if the website loads perfectly with the kill switch feature enabled.

4. Next, disconnect your VPN app but keep the kill switch feature turned on. Go back to the website you previously visited and try to reopen it. If the traffic does not go through even if you have a good internet connection, then your VPN’s kill switch is working fine. This means that the feature has blocked your traffic from accessing the website because it is not being protected by your VPN.

But if your traffic goes through and you are able to load the website just fine, then you need to consider getting a better VPN.

Top VPN Providers with the Kill Switch Feature

Some might consider a kill switch to be an advanced VPN feature, but a lot of VPN providers have realized that it has become a core feature that every VPN provider should offer. With the rising concern about privacy, many VPN services are already offering the kill switch feature for round-the-clock anonymity and encryption.

Here is a list of the top VPN service providers that are equipped with the kill switch feature:

NordVPN (Kill Switch)

NordVPN offers this feature as a kill switch that automatically blocks your computer or device from accessing the World Wide Web outside the secure digital VPN tunnel. NordVPN offers two versions of its automatic kill switch feature, including:
● An application-level kill switch for the app’s desktop version for Windows and macOS.
● A system-level kill switch for the app’s mobile version for Android and iOS.

IPVanish (Kill Switch)

The kill switch feature offered by IPVanish is a system-level kill switch that is available for macOS and Windows devices. When you connect to the internet with this feature turned on, you don’t have to worry about accidentally revealing your IP address when the VPN connection fails.

Surfshark (Kill Switch)

Surfshark might be considered a new player in the industry, but it does not lag behind when it comes to security features. Surfshark users are able to enjoy maximum internet protection because of this Kill Switch option. Surfshark’s kill switch feature is considered a system-level kill switch, which means that it completely stops all internet traffic in case of a VPN failure. The feature is available for all major operating systems, including Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows.

PureVPN (Kill Switch)

PureVPN is one of the oldest VPN providers in the industry, and it is no surprise that it is packed with the most advanced and useful features. PureVPN’s kill switch feature keeps the users safe from accidental exposure. This feature is only available on the desktop version of the app for Windows and macOS devices.

ExpressVPN (Network Lock)

ExpressVPN’s kill switch is known as Network Lock, and this feature is available for Linux, macOS, and Windows devices. Network Lock is a type of system-level kill switch that stops your network traffic from traveling outside the encrypted connection tunnel.

CyberGhost (Kill Switch)

CyberGhost VPN provides an automatic internet kill switch that blocks off all outgoing and incoming internet connections in case of a server connection failure. This kill switch feature is available on all the major platforms, including Windows, Android, iOS, and macOS.


Summary

The main reason why people use a VPN is to protect their privacy. Most of the time, VPNs do protect their users’ identity and anonymity through a combination of security features. However, this protection is not as airtight as users believe it to be, even when it comes to reliable VPN service providers. When the VPN connection fails, your internet traffic is at risk of being exposed to the public. This is where the kill switch feature becomes crucial. It automatically disconnects the user’s connection so that his or her identity and activities don’t get exposed when the connection fails. Therefore, it is important to use a good VPN connection with a kill switch feature for maximum online protection.

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