VPN Split Tunneling: What It Is and Why You Might Use It

Here are some of the pros and cons of split tunneling.

Zachary McAuliffe Staff writer
Zach began writing for CNET in November, 2021 after writing for a broadcast news station in his hometown, Cincinnati, for five years. You can usually find him reading and drinking coffee or watching a TV series with his wife and their dog.
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A VPN, or virtual private network, is a great way to boost your privacy online. It hides your IP address and encrypts your internet traffic. However, a VPN could also slow your internet speed and limit your access to local services. But you can alleviate these issues with a feature known as split tunneling.

Split tunneling lets you send some of your internet traffic through your VPN while letting other traffic bypass it. That can help speed up your traffic, but it might also expose your data to a malicious third party.

Here's what you should know about split tunneling.

What is split tunneling?

Split tunneling basically lets you use two different network connections at the same time -- one that is secured by a VPN and one that isn't. You control which traffic does and doesn't pass through the VPN. 

There are different versions of split tunneling, with different ways of dividing your traffic. NordVPN outlines three different types: inverse split, app-based split and URL-based split.

Inverse split is the safest way to enable split tunneling, and it allows only programs you trust to connect directly to the internet without going through a VPN. 

Smartphone with a keyhole lock

There are three different types of split tunneling you might see.

Angela Lang/CNET

An app-based split filters selected app traffic through a VPN while the rest of your internet traffic is unprotected.

And a URL-based split lets you specify which web addresses, such as cnet.com, you want to exclude from your VPN protection. 

Is split tunneling available on all VPNs?

No. Not all VPNs offer split tunneling, and those that do don't always offer the three different types. If a VPN does offer split tunneling, it's likely to be available only through the service's Android or Windows app. Very few VPNs offer split tunneling on Mac and iOS.

Some VPNs call split tunneling something else entirely. Surfshark, for example, calls its split tunneling feature Bypasser. If you want to use split tunneling, check with the different VPN service providers to make sure they offer the feature. Other VPN services, like NordVPN and ExpressVPN, offer split tunneling, but you might have to contact a service's customer support or search for "tunneling" to see if a service offers this feature.

What can you use split tunneling for?

There are a few reasons you might use split tunneling, according to cybersecurity company Fortinet.

Mobile phone showing internet speed test results

Split tunneling can help give you the fastest internet speed if you're streaming high-bandwidth content.

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One is it can help maintain fast internet speeds. Using a VPN can slow your internet speed down a little since it takes time to encrypt your traffic. But you might prioritize speed over security in some instances, such as streaming 4K movies and other high-bandwidth content. So you can set up split tunneling to allow your streaming traffic to connect directly to your gaming network while protecting your other sensitive data. 

Split tunneling can also help you connect to local and geo-blocked services at the same time. That way you can easily find places to eat near your home while watching a show that's blocked in your area. 

Fortinet also says split tunneling can help you connect to LAN devices, like your smart home devices, while using a VPN. Some VPNs might interfere with a device's ability to communicate with others on a local network, and split-tunneling can alleviate this.

What are the downsides of split tunneling?

NordVPN says one of the biggest drawbacks of split-tunneling is that some of your internet traffic is unsecured. Any traffic that's not protected by a VPN could be seen by a third party, intercepted by malicious actors or be monitored by a government surveillance apparatus. 

When should and shouldn't you use split tunneling?

Use split tunneling to connect to LAN devices or with traffic that you don't need to keep private and doesn't contain sensitive data. But don't use split tunneling for any activity where you want maximum security and privacy.

For more, here's what to know about geo-blocking, how to pick the right VPN for you and the best VPNs of 2023.

Watch this: Which VPN should you pick?