When choosing the best VPN service, you’ll likely have found that a minority of VPNs use what are called virtual servers for some locations. What are these virtual servers, and are they as secure as physical ones?
What Are Virtual Servers for a VPN?
Virtual servers are VPN servers that don’t exist in the physical world. Like a virtual machine on your desktop computer, the server has been simulated on another device. When you connect to a virtual server, you’re still connecting to a server made of metal and electronics, it’s just not in the location the IP address implies it is.
The way this works is that a VPN provider leases a number of IP addresses from a registrar and then assign them to servers outside of the country they belong to. That’s really all it takes: an updated registry and a suitable virtual environment.
For a recent example, Proton VPN earlier this year announced it would be pulling its servers out of India after a government crackdown on VPN use. However, for people that still need an Indian IP address, the company still offers them. Instead of connecting you to a server on the subcontinent, though, you’re connecting to a server in Singapore that simulates an Indian IP.
This way, Proton VPN and its customers get to have their cake and eat it, too. Users get an Indian IP address, yet they and the company don’t need to comply with Indian law.
Of course, virtual IPs aren’t just used to skirt laws like this, they’re also used for when customers need specific IP addresses, but there are issues with the infrastructure in a location. Good examples are countries like Afghanistan, Syria, or other parts of the developing world that, through lack of economic investment or armed conflict, don’t have the servers VPNs need to route traffic through.
One company that offers virtual IP addresses in countries like these is ExpressVPN. In an email, Shaun Smith, a software engineering fellow with the company, explained it as such:
“In some countries, it can be difficult to find servers that meet ExpressVPN’s standards. Virtual server locations make it possible for users to connect to such countries, while still providing the connection quality they expect from ExpressVPN.”
This is where virtual IPs really shine: they can give people access to online services in a specific country without needing a physical server there. However, if they’re so great, why are so few high-level VPNs using virtual IPs, and only when they have no other choice?
Issues with Virtual IPs and VPNs
For all the benefits they bring, virtual servers have some issues when compared to physical servers. For one, there’s latency, the time it takes a server to respond to your browser’s request for information. When you reroute a connection with a VPN, you increase this time and the further away your server is, the more you increase it.
For example, if you’re in Chicago and you need a Canadian IP, if you connected to a physical server in Toronto just over the border, the latency wouldn’t increase too much. However, if using a virtual IP address, the server could be anywhere. You could be getting your Canadian IP address from a server in the Netherlands or Japan for all you know. This could slow your browsing down to a crawl.
Are Virtual Servers Secure?
There’s also the issue of security. In an email, a Proton VPN spokesperson said the security risks are “next to minimal,” a sentiment echoed by ExpressVPN, though both providers stress that, as with physical servers, a virtual server’s security is determined by the operator. A badly run server is going to be a liability, no matter if it exists in meat space or not.
A more common issue with virtual IPs, and one I’ve run into many times in the course of putting together the reviews of the best VPN services, is that they simply don’t work. This is why NordVPN doesn’t offer them: in an email, a rep for the company said that “virtual servers are a great way to pretend you offer a service where you don’t, but technically it’s not that difficult to check that they are not really there.”
I can attest to this: a good example is when using a virtual IP to unblock Netflix. I connected to a Japanese IP address, but when I checked Netflix, I got the U.S. library. Though I can’t be sure—it’s difficult for end users to check if their server is virtual—that’s a tell-tale sign of a virtual IP address being used.
However, this unmasking isn’t a direct privacy threat. Even if the virtual IP fails, the only thing that’s revealed is the IP address of the physical server, not your original one. The VPN is still doing its job of protecting you, it’s just not connecting you to where you want to be.
That said, it’s important that you’re using a VPN that takes security seriously. Different countries have different rules for when information can be requested. If the physical server that’s hosting your virtual IP is in a country that can easily issue warrants for things like torrenting—like the United States—then you need to be confident your VPN destroys its logs, or you could be in some trouble.
Should You Use Virtual Servers?
As a result of these issues, not all that many VPNs use virtual servers. NordVPN doesn’t, nor did Proton VPN, until the company decided it couldn’t operate in India directly. Most of the more reliable VPNs will also make it clear which servers are virtual and which aren’t: ExpressVPN maintains a list, while PureVPN puts a “V” next to their virtual location.
As a result, it’s very much a consumer’s choice whether or not to use virtual servers. If you trust your VPN, there probably isn’t a real issue with using a virtual server. Even if it fails, you’ll just revert to the IP address of the physical server. Just don’t expect too much of it, and you’ll be fine.
However, if you ever find that you’re using virtual servers without the provider expressly telling you that this is the case, ditch the VPN and find a better one. That’s a sign you’re dealing with an untrustworthy VPN looking to cut corners and save costs, and there’s no saying what it might be doing with your data.