BitTorrent is an easy way to move big files across the internet by sharing the burden among peers. However, its reputation as piracy’s go-to tool has caused a few VPNs to kibosh torrenting on their platforms. We look at the best VPN services that explicitly allow BitTorrenting and let you know which is best.
What Is Torrenting, Anyway?
BitTorrent (the technology that allows one to “torrent”) has an unsavory reputation, one that is both unfair and well deserved. At its best, BitTorrent addresses the logjam created when too many people try to download large files from a single source at once—be they bootlegged tv shows, hot music tracks, DRM-free books, or terabytes of cat photos.
BitTorrent turns a file’s popularity into a benefit, instead of a bottleneck, by having each of the downloaders distribute pieces of the file to every other downloader. The whole system is designed to be decentralized, with no main server to choke under the burden of traffic. It’s a brilliant idea but its decentralized nature also makes it perfect for illegally sharing copyrighted content online, too.
Given its reputation, some ISPs and network managers block BitTorrent traffic altogether. To circumvent these barricades, and to protect your privacy when torrenting, using a VPN is a sensible choice. With a virtual private network, or VPN, all your internet traffic is encrypted to ensure that no one can see what you’re up to—even when you’re torrenting. The catch is, not every VPN service allows BitTorrent on its servers.
Using a VPN can help improve your privacy by preventing your ISP from monitoring your traffic, making it harder for advertisers to track you online. But when it comes to security, we often say that it’s better to think of tools like VPNs as increasing the amount of work required to successfully attack you. If someone is willing to invest the time and money in targeting you specifically, such as a record label or law enforcement, they will eventually get what they’re after.
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A VPN needs to be part of a layered approach to security and can’t take the place of critical tools, such as good antivirus software, a password manager, and multi-factor authentication that’s enabled wherever possible.
Do I Really Need a VPN for Torrenting?
We often receive emails asking about the interplay between VPNs and BitTorrent. Some of them have included admissions of piracy, and they even offer justifications for it. One reader bemoaned the difficulty in finding legal avenues for material that is not available for sale in a given locale. We sympathize. The state of the public domain has been woefully neglected, keeping countless works entangled in complicated (but lucrative) distribution deals.
But no matter how just the reasoning, the law (however problematic) is the law. ISPs and other tech companies are sometimes compelled to answer when rights holders come with a list of offenses carried out on their infrastructure.
If you are going to use BitTorrent for whatever reason, good luck to you. If you are going to use a VPN, more power to you. But be sure that you take the time to read the VPN’s terms of service before you start. Be aware of the local laws and possible penalties, too—whatever your willingness to obey them. “I didn’t know the law,” or “I don’t agree with the law,” won’t hold up as defenses in a court, so make sure you can live with any potential punishments, should you choose to do something legally dubious.
Will a VPN Hide My Torrenting From My ISP or the Police?
The short answer is that, yes, a VPN can shield your online activities from your ISP. It should also make it much, much harder for someone on the outside to identify particular traffic as belonging to you. That’s a good thing, not only if you have legally iffy torrenting habits, but also because it protects your privacy in general.
That said, there are always exceptions. Time and time again, user error and efforts by law enforcement have undermined the protection offered by services like Tor or VPNs. Timing attacks, for example, can correlate packet traffic at a VPN server with activity on your own network, thus linking you to online activities.
In some cases, the problem may be the VPN itself. If the VPN company keeps copious logs about user activity (specifically, the identity of the user, which server they connected to, and when) that information could potentially be obtained by law enforcement. In our reviews, we always ask VPN services what information they collect and how they interact with law enforcement requests for information.
Can I Use BitTorrent on My VPN?
Most VPN services are completely fine with you using BitTorrent or P2P services while using their products. None of our top-rated VPN services prohibit file sharing.
Even the services that allow torrenting often have restrictions, however. Some, for example, may require that you only use BitTorrent when connected to specific VPN servers. NordVPN labels the servers on which torrenting is acceptable. Note that pretty much every VPN service that allows torrenting also explicitly forbids breaking copyright law or otherwise abusing the service.
Some VPNs have tools that are particularly useful for torrenting. Several companies offer static IP addresses for purchase, which can be desirable in some circumstances. New technologies, like WireGuard, may provide better speeds than older VPN protocols. Our VPN reviews cover the available features in depth, so you’ll find something that works for you.
How Will a VPN Affect My Torrenting Speeds?
When you use a VPN, your web traffic is usually traveling through more fiber and more machines. You should expect slower upload and download speeds and higher latency regardless of the VPN you choose. For large torrents, this can mean a longer wait before you get the completed file.
In our latest round of testing, we record the median from 10 tests with and without a VPN running, and then find a percent change between the two. For measuring speeds, we use the Ookla speed test tool. In the past, we tested all the VPNs we reviewed at the same time. Unfortunately, COVID-19 restrictions have limited our access to the PCMag Labs, so we’re opting for a rolling testing model where we test new products throughout the year. The latest results are presented in the chart below.
(Editor’s Note: Ookla is owned by PCMag’s publisher Ziff Davis.)
Networks are finicky things, and we don’t claim our work to be the be-all and end-all of VPN speed testing. Instead, this is a snapshot of how a particular service performed on a specific day. We also don’t think that speeds should be the only metric used to evaluate a VPN, but it’s clearly one that’s of concern to BitTorrent users.
To make this list, we looked at the best download scores across the services we’ve tested thus far. The VPN services in the chart at the top of this story are the ten services that had the least impact on download speed test results. We’ve arranged them in descending order, meaning the VPN on the far left had the least impact on download speeds. Note, however, that not all of them beat the median results for upload and latency testing.
Previously, TorGuard VPN was this list of noble torrenting VPNs. While the company allows torrenting outside the US, a legal settlement now requires the company to block torrents on US servers. We may return TorGuard VPN to the list in the future, if this changes.
VPN Reliability and Accessibility Issues
The extra stops and processes for your data and the distance introduced by VPNs can make a normal browsing experience somewhat hiccup-y. Suddenly losing connectivity while the VPN resets is mildly annoying in day-to-day life, but we could see how such interruptions could slow down or even halt a large BitTorrent download.
If you plan on using a VPN while torrenting, consider the ramifications of the Kill Switch. This feature, found in most VPN services, prevents apps from sending data via the internet when the VPN is disconnected. The idea is that it prevents any information from being transmitted in the clear. The avid BitTorrent downloader needs to decide if they want total and complete protection or would rather not have their download interrupted.
Location, Location, Location
While VPN services have servers all over the world, each company’s headquarters do have to be based somewhere on the planet. And that somewhere might have data retention laws that require the VPN company to collect and maintain user data for a set time.
Understanding what kind of information a VPN service collects, and how long it is maintained, can be hard to figure out. To get the answer, you may have to wade through unending FAQ pages and opaque terms of service written in arcane legalese. If the VPN company you’re considering can’t clearly explain what information it gathers and how long it will be kept, it’s probably not a great service.
When we review VPNs, we make a point to ask service representatives about what efforts they take to secure customers’ privacy. We also read those hefty tomes of service (you’re welcome). You can read through our full reviews to see their answers.
Note that national and international law as it relates to data storage and whether that data can be turned over to law enforcement is complicated and constantly changing. A good service today might choose or be compelled to alter its policies tomorrow, so pay attention to any updates to the terms of service.
Use a VPN to Encrypt Your Torrent Traffic
Perhaps you’ll decide that all this effort isn’t worth it just to secure your BitTorrent downloads. But even so, you should keep in mind that a VPN is still an easy way to improve your privacy. Whether you decide to spring for a premium account, you’re looking for a cheap VPN, or you want to dip your toe in with a free VPN, it’s about time you started living the encrypted lifestyle.
Looking for more information about Torrenting and how to get started? You can read our story on how to use bitTorrent.
(Editors’ Note: While they may not both appear in this story IPVanish, and StrongVPN are owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag’s parent company.)