A VPN kill switch is an in-built VPN feature that prevents your device from connecting to the internet if your VPN connection is lost. This ensures that your data remains secure and confidential, even if your VPN connection is interrupted.
In this article, I’ll explore how VPN kill switches work, what triggers them, the types that exist, and how to test them to ascertain if they truly work.
I’ll also briefly look at some popular VPNs that use VPN kill switches and how to activate them.
Read this quick guide if you’ve always been curious about VPN kill switches.
Functions of a VPN Kill Switch
These are the 4 main functions of a VPN kill switch:
- Monitoring changes in the VPN connection. When a VPN kill switch is activated, it monitors changes in the VPN connection.
- Detecting sudden changes in the VPN connection. The VPN kill switch closely examines how the internet connection behaves to detect the slightest changes that could harm the user’s privacy.
- Disconnecting the Internet when the connection drops. The kill switch will block all internet traffic if the VPN connection is lost. This ensures that your data isn’t exposed.
- Reconnecting the Internet when the VPN reconnects. The VPN won’t stay offline forever; the kill switch will restore the Internet when the VPN connection is restored.
What Causes VPN Connection Drops?
Switching networks, power blackouts, and network congestion are common causes that lead to VPN connection drops. Here’s how these events and others trigger the VPN kill switch.
1. Switching Between Networks
Switching between networks can trigger the VPN kill switch when you’re using a VPN. This is because the kill switch interprets that as an interruption.
When you switch networks, your device will try to connect to the new network and may inadvertently connect to the Internet without the VPN, exposing your real IP address and putting you at risk of being tracked or monitored.
The kill switch is designed to prevent this from happening.
2. Switching VPN Protocols
When you switch protocols, the VPN client will usually try reconnecting to the same server using the new VPN protocol. However, if that particular server doesn’t support the new protocol, the connection will fail, and the kill switch will be triggered.
3. Switching Between Servers
When you switch servers, your IP address changes, and this causes the VPN to be temporarily suspended as it tries connecting to the new server.
That momentary suspension of activity triggers the kill switch, which blocks all traffic until the new IP address is verified.
4. Network Congestion
There are several reasons network congestion can trigger a VPN kill switch.
The most common reason is that the VPN is trying to send more data than the connection can handle. This can cause the connection to slow down or even disconnect entirely.
Another reason for this is if the VPN server is too far from the user’s physical location. This can cause the connection to be slower than usual, and if the server is located in a congested area, it can also trigger the kill switch.
Finally, some VPN providers may have a setting that automatically triggers the kill switch if the connection isn’t used for a certain period.
5. Power Blackout
Most internet connections rely on electricity to run; therefore, if there’s a power outage, your internet will also go down. This can be a problem if you’re in the middle of using a VPN, as it will cut off your connection to the VPN server. This automatically triggers the VPN kill switch.
6. No or Low Signal Strength
When using a VPN, one of the most common issues that can trigger the kill switch is no or low signal strength. This can be for various reasons, but it’s often because the VPN is trying to connect to a server through an unstable internet connection.
As a result, the connection is unreliable and eventually times out, triggering the kill switch.
7. Accidental Disconnections
You may accidentally turn off your VPN connection or get disconnected from your VPN server for various reasons. Maybe you hit the wrong button on your VPN client.
Maybe your computer went to sleep and disconnected from the VPN.
Any accidental disconnections can trigger the kill switch and block all internet traffic until the VPN connection is restored.
8. Device Startup With Auto-Connect Active
If you have a VPN service enabled, it’s important to know that starting your device with the auto-connect feature active can trigger the VPN kill switch.
When you start up your device with the auto-connect feature active, the kill switch will detect that the VPN connection isn’t yet established and will block your device from connecting to the Internet.
9. Firewall & Router Settings
Using firewalls and antivirus software that conflicts with VPNs can trigger the kill switch feature, causing the VPN connection to drop. In some cases, users may not even be aware that their firewall or antivirus program is causing problems until the kill switch activates and they lose their internet connection.
There are a few things users can do to avoid this issue.
- Make sure the firewall and antivirus software are both up to date.
- Add your VPN IP address to the firewall and antivirus software exception list.
- Try using a different VPN protocol than the one causing conflicts.
Types of VPN Kill Switches
There are two main types of kill switches; the System Kill Switch and the App VPN Kill Switch. However, sometimes there’s a third (Advanced Kill Switch).
Here’s a quick breakdown.
System VPN Kill Switch (Active Kill Switch)
An Active Kill Switch, also known as a System VPN Kill Switch, is a feature in most premium VPN apps. It protects your privacy by preventing your device from connecting to the Internet if the VPN connection drops.
Advanced Kill Switch
Some VPNs come with an Advanced kill switch that shuts down the internet even when the VPN app isn’t open. It’s an extra measure to ensure no accidental leaking of IPs when you forget to launch the VPN when accessing sensitive websites.
VPNs with System Kill Switch:
ExpressVPN, NordVPN, Surfshark, PureVPN, Private Internet Access, CyberGhost, AtlasVPN
Application VPN Kill Switch (Passive Kill Switch)
An Application VPN Kill Switch (Passive Kill Switch) prevents any internet traffic from being sent outside of the encrypted VPN tunnel for a specific app or apps designated by you.
A Passive Kill Switch is different from an Active Kill Switch since it only blocks traffic from being sent outside the VPN tunnel for the designated apps.
This is a gentler way of ensuring the VPN protects your traffic without interrupting unrelated activities that rely on the same Internet.
VPNs with App VPN Kill Switch:
Surfshark (Android), NordVPN (Windows), Private Internet Access (macOS)
When Is It Necessary to Use a VPN Kill Switch?
Using a VPN kill switch is necessary for websites with the highest risk of being hacked. The following are examples of high-risk activities that require a VPN with an active and reliable kill switch.
1. When Torrenting
It’s necessary to have an active VPN kill switch when torrenting.
This is because when your VPN connection drops, your device is still connected to the internet through your regular connection. Your IP address and activities are still exposed, which can lead to serious consequences.
For example, your ISP could see what you’re doing and throttle your connection or even hand over your information to copyright holders. Additionally, IP addresses are usually visible to other peers torrenting on the same network. That could be a problem if hackers are lurking.
2. When Using Public Wi-Fi
When you connect to a public Wi-Fi network, you’re putting your data at risk.
Any hacker on the same network can intercept your traffic and steal sensitive information like passwords and credit card numbers.
A VPN kill switch helps protect your data by terminating your internet connection if the VPN connection drops. This ensures your traffic is always encrypted and protects you from data leaks.
3. When Using an Unstable Mobile Network
Mobile networks are never constant. Depending on the signal strength or your location, the Internet may come and go. If you happen to be browsing risky sites with an active VPN, the kill switch will keep terminating your session by interpreting those interruptions as threats to your Privacy.
4. When Using Tor
Tor isn’t 100% secure; there are ways for someone to find your real IP address.
Additionally, you might lose connection to the Tor network for many reasons.
This can happen if your internet service provider (ISP) blocks access to the Tor network or if the exit node you’re using is down. Triggering the VPN kill switch ensures that your real IP address remains hidden.
5. If You Feel Your Connection Is Being Monitored
If you feel your online activities are being monitored, use a VPN with a reliable kill switch. This will prevent your internet service provider or anyone else from seeing what you’re doing online.
When connected to the Internet, your ISP can see everything you do.
The same applies to public networks where hackers may be watching your moves.
6. For Activists in Heavily Censored Regions
Activists in heavily censored regions need to be able to express themselves without fear of reprisal freely, but at the same time, be able to protect their anonymity and privacy.
One way to achieve both goals is to use a VPN with an active kill switch.
It will keep authoritarian governments from figuring out their exact locations.
7. For Networks Handling Sensitive Information/Documents
If the VPN connection unexpectedly drops while networks are handling sensitive information, the kill switch immediately cuts off all internet traffic to prevent unencrypted data from being transmitted. This ensures your sensitive information stays safe and secure at all times.
How Can You Test a VPN Kill Switch?
The test to see if a VPN kill switch works is easy. Follow these steps:
- Launch the VPN and connect to a server.
- Start browsing the Internet.
- Disconnect the VPN. You should get a connection error alert when you open your browser.
How to Activate a Kill Switch?
Assuming you already installed a VPN client on your device, here’s how to activate a VPN kill switch. I’ll use ExpressVPN for demonstrative purposes.
- Launch the VPN client and sign in using your credentials.
- Look for the option to enable the kill switch on the main interface. This is usually found under the “Settings” or “Preferences” section.
- Toggle the kill switch to the ON position or checkmark the applicable box.
VPNs With the Best Kill Switches
Almost every premium VPN is equipped with a kill switch. However, the following are three popular VPN providers with the most reliable kill switches.
For demonstration purposes, I’ll use macOS, but the location of the kill switches isn’t that different across devices.
Surfshark has a system kill switch for macOS, Windows, iOS, and Android.
Additionally, Android users get an extra app kill switch that works even when the VPN isn’t active.
- Launch Surfshark and tap Settings.
- Click on VPN settings and tap the button next to Kill Switch.
NordVPN has a system kill switch for Android, Windows, macOS, and iOS.
Windows also gets an extra app kill switch.
- Launch NordVPN and tap on the three stripes in the bottom left corner.
- Tap Kill Switch and toggle the button next to the Kill Switch option to activate it.
Private Internet Access
Private Internet Access has a system kill switch for Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows. It also offers an advanced VPN kill switch for Windows and macOS.
- Launch Private Internet Access and open Settings.
- Scroll down to Privacy to open the kill switches. Toggle the VPN Kill Switch or the Advanced Kill Switch.
Is Your VPN Kill Switch Not Working? Troubleshooting Guide
Sometimes, the VPN kill switch may fail to work, exposing you to tracking and snooping. If that happens, try the following quick solutions:
- Restart the VPN. Disconnect from your VPN and reconnect. This will often reset the kill switch and get it working again.
- Update the VPN. When you update your VPN, it often includes updates to the kill switch. This can fix the problem and allow you to use the Internet normally again.
- Switch to another server. If you can connect to another server without any issues, the problem is likely with the server you originally tried to connect to. However, if you still can’t connect after trying another server, the problem is likely with your VPN kill switch.
- Switch to another protocol. Different protocols behave differently, so switching to a new one may help troubleshoot the issue.
- Disable your firewall. The firewall may block the kill switch from working correctly, so disable your firewall to see. If the firewall is the issue, add a VPN exception in your firewall configuration to eliminate conflicts between the two.
- Contact support. If the above solutions fail, contacting support is your last resort. Support can provide information on how to troubleshoot the issue and get the kill switch working properly. In some cases, they may even be able to help you configure the kill switch so that it works more effectively.
Whether you should leave the kill switch on all the time depends on what you’re doing If you’re using a VPN for security or privacy reasons, enabling the kill switch 24/7 can help protect your data. However, if you’re only using a VPN for occasional tasks like streaming or downloading content, keeping the kill switch enabled all the time is unnecessary.
You can disable a VPN kill switch, but it’s not recommended.
A kill switch is a critical security feature that ensures the VPN protects your traffic.
If you disable it, your traffic could be exposed if the VPN connection drops.
You can temporarily disable the VPN kill switch if it’s interfering with what you’re doing and not at risk of exposing your IP address to dangerous parties.
Now you understand what a VPN kill switch is, how to configure it on different VPNs, and how to troubleshoot when you run into problems. Now go forth and browse the Internet without worrying about accidental IP and DNS leaks.
You can also check out this detailed guide on how to hide your IP address.