Can A Wi-Fi Network Track A VPN? (Detailed Answer)

There’s lots of talk right now about VPNs, and what they can and can’t do, but in this article we’re going to tackle a very specific question – can a Wi-Fi network track a VPN in any way? Is it possible for other people on the network, or a network administrator, to see what you’re doing online when you’re using a VPN? Can anyone even see that you are using a VPN on a Wi-Fi network?

There’s a little bit of nuance to the issue, but the basic answer is that the really important stuff – what you’re doing online – is effectively masked and protected when you’re using a proper VPN and can’t be tracked:

The actual traffic being sent over a VPN connection is strongly encrypted and therefore can’t be viewed or tracked. When using a VPN, in theory all that can be tracked on a Wi-Fi network is that an encrypted VPN connection is being used, plus the volume of data being sent over the connection. A VPN anonymizes internet traffic on a Wi-Fi network.

Therefore when you use a legitimate VPN software, it does what it is meant to do and protects your online browsing, preventing it from being tracked or stored over a Wi-Fi network, either by administrators, routers, your internet provider or anyone else.

Let’s take a more detailed look into the issue of what can and can’t be seen when using a VPN over Wi-Fi, plus some theory on how VPNs work, plus some good VPN options for first time users.

What Can Be Tracked When Using A VPN On Wi-Fi

It’s actually very limited what a Wi-Fi network administrator/router/ISP etc. can see and track about you when using a proper VPN connection.

At most, all they can see is:

  • That there IS some kind of encrypted connection (but not the actual contents of that connection).
  • The amount of data being transferred over that connection (Premium VPNs themselves offer unlimited data, but do not allow you to get around any data limit either on home internet or mobile for example. Data caps still apply when using a VPN).

In other words, it can be seen on a very broad, non specific level that someone is using an encrypted connection on a Wi-Fi network if you’re using a VPN. But that’s about all.

What Can’t Be Tracked When Using A VPN On Wi-Fi

Now let’s move onto what CAN’T be seen or tracked on a Wi-Fi network when using a VPN:

  • The actual traffic being sent over that VPN connection (a legitimate VPN will use a strong combination of tunneling and encryption to hide this).
  • Browsing history
  • Your actual, real IP address and location (the VPN replaces these actual details with different ones, giving you a simulated new location and IP address according to whichever VPN server you select from it’s interface.
  • Search engine history (as long as you aren’t logged into your Google account). Search history may be tracked, but can’t be linked specifically back to you if you’re using a VPN connection and aren’t logged in.
  • Personal details – eg. credit card details entered for online transactions. The green standard HTTPS “secure” padlock already offers a very good level of security (but still isn’t bulletproof). Using a VPN adds another very strong layer of encryption around your connection to make 100% sure that any personal details you’re entering online can’t be seen by anyone else.

How VPNs Encrypt User Data

Let’s look a bit more into how exactly a VPN creates a masked, encrypted connection to stop your data being seen or tracked over a Wi-Fi network. A VPN is basically just a powerful piece of software that uses a combination of tunneling and encryption to conceal and anonymize your browsing data.

First, tunneling is a more rudimentary process that hides Internet traffic among other traffic, that is, it hides data packets within other data packets.

Encryption complements this process and consists of a digital form of scrambling or shuffling data into a mixture of bits that is reassembled only at the other end of the connection and cannot be decrypted or read anywhere in between (hence the term end-to-end encryption).

Once encrypted, the data can be decrypted (decoded/unscrambled/deciphered) only by the person who has the encryption key, which acts as a kind of “virtual key” to unlock the connection tunnel that holds the data and keeps it confidential, and decrypt or decipher it so that it makes sense again.

In the case of VPNs, only the end user of the VPN (account holder) and the VPN server possess the encryption key to decrypt the data sent through their servers. No one else possesses this key, including your Wi-Fi network administrator, ISP, router or any other government or private agency. In other words, no else using or managing the Wi-Fi network can see the contents of your connection when using a legitimate VPN.

A VPN connection is a private and totally anonymous connection that cannot be hacked by anything in the commercial world (super-elite intelligence agencies such as the NSA may be able to hack it, but in the civilian world we have less control over this).

How VPNs use encryption


A good basic analogy – using a non-VPN connection is like sending a postcard to someone – the letter carrier carrying it (analogous to your router/ISP/Wi-Fi network administrator/users) can quite easily snoop around and read what it contains. Using a VPN connection is like sending something to someone in a locked box to which only you and the recipient have the key. The mailman cannot see what is in the box and can only forward it to the recipient, but he has no idea what it contains.

And that’s a good analogy as to how a VPN prevents your browsing from being tracked on a Wi-Fi network. It seals your traffic away in a strongly encrypted virtual “tunnel” that effectively insulates it away from any prying eyes, either inside your own network, or elsewhere. External admins or other snoopers can only see that the virtual tunnel is there and is sending/receiving data, but not anything that’s actually in that tunnel.

Can VPN Data Use Be Tracked On A Wi-Fi Network?

Privacy is probably the main reason why most readers are asking this question, but another angle on this general topic is to wonder whether using a VPN can be used to circumvent any data restrictions you might have on your home internet or phone plan.

It’s a nice idea, but the short answer unfortunately is no:

Using a VPN does not allow you to bypass mobile or home internet data limits, since whilst the content of the browsing is concealed by a VPN, your cell provider or ISP can still track the total amount of data sent and received on any device using a VPN.

This applies more to mobile data on Wi-Fi now, since many home internet packages now are unlimited anyway. But using a VPN will still use up any data allowance you have, despite masking the actual browsing history.

Here are some summary points on this topic:

  1. A VPN app will work perfectly fine on a mobile and using cellular data. Open up the VPN app and connect to a server to hide your browsing and IP address on the Wi-Fi network.
  2. However, data use can still be tracked over a VPN connection.
  3. Some free VPN’s and ALL Premium VPNs do offer unlimited data use on their side. However, you are still bound by any data caps on the internet/mobile provider side.
  4. Using a VPN does also use slightly more cellular data versus not using it, estimated at somewhere between 4-20% higher data use over a VPN connection.
  5. When possible, disable mobile data on your phone and connect to your local Wi-Fi router/network instead for unlimited data, which gets rid of this issue of eating away at mobile data allowances on a VPN.

Can VPNs Be Tracked on Public Wi-Fi Networks?

Most of what we’ve covered above implicitly assumes a VPN is being used on a private home Wi-Fi network. But are the rules any different if you’re using a VPN on a public Wi-Fi network, such as at a college/university, airport, coffee shop, train station, hotel etc?

The short answer is that exactly the same rules still apply over public Wi-Fi networks – as long as you’re using a legitimate VPN program, traffic sent over a public Wi-Fi network is still 100% concealed and anonymized.

Again, a network administrator who knows what they’re doing might be able to see that a VPN is being used, and the volume of data being sent, but not the contents of the connection.

The only difference is that using a VPN is even more recommended when on public Wi-Fi networks, because they have many more security risks than home networks because of the larger number of unknown users that are connecting, plus the often more lax security settings on these networks. Therefore it’s even more beneficial to add another layer of encryption to your connection by using a VPN than when at home.

The only problem when on public Wi-Fi networks can be getting a VPN to properly connect in the first place. Many public networks have awkward configurations that mean you can’t just connect to an access point and open your VPN right away – they have blocks on them that mean you have to go through a sign-up page first before accessing the network.

See our article on troubleshooting VPN connection issues on public Wi-Fi for more help on this. But once you get a VPN up and running on public Wi-Fi, your browsing is protected and masked as it would be anywhere else.

Free VPN Options To Conceal Your Wi-Fi Connection

Now we’ve gone over some very general theory, let’s look at some decent options you can use to encrypt your connection and prevent your online activity being tracked over a Wi-Fi network.

The good news is you don’t necessarily need to always pay to get this level of protection just for one device on a network. There are plenty of good free VPN options available from reputable brands, some even with unlimited data.

See the comparison table below for legit free VPN services:

ProviderFree Server LocationsData LimitMore Info
ProtonVPN3 (USA, Amsterdam, Japan)UnlimitedSee here
AtlasVPN3 (USA East, USA West, Amsterdam)5 GB/monthSee here
TurboVPN4 (USA, Germany, Singapore, India).UnlimitedSee here
ZoogVPN5 (USA, UK, Netherlands)10 GB/monthSee here
Hide.me5 (Netherlands, USA, Germany, UK, Canada)10 GB/month (random server selection)See here
PrivadoVPN10 (USA, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Netherlands, Switzerland, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, New Zealand)10 GB/monthSee here
Windscribe10 (USA, UK, Canada, Hong Kong, France, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Romania, Denmark).10 GB/monthVisit site
Tunnelbear49500 MB/monthVisit site


If any of these options has servers in a location that works for you, they can totally deliver what you need in terms of online privacy. USA users are in luck here as free VPNs always have at least one server in America, sometimes multiple, and a few of them even unlimited.

When going for free VPNs however, if you’re concerned about privacy, stay away from:

  • Free VPN/proxy hybrids
  • Free “shared” or “peer to peer” VPNs like UrbanVPN or DewVPN
  • Free VPNs built into browsers
  • Free proxy services in general.

You don’t really know whether these programs are actually fully protecting your connection, or monitoring your browsing activity themselves. Go instead for a proper, legit VPN application – a separate standalone program that you load up and select a server from, and that also has a zero logs policy.

Premium VPN Options To Conceal Your Wi-Fi Connection

If you’re more serious about VPN usage and want totally unlimited data, more server choice, better speeds, proper customer support and access to streaming services, then upgrading to a Premium VPN is a better option.

Another huge benefit to paid plans is that they also allow installation and use on multiple devices (mostly 5-10 simultaneous connections allowed, though some plans offer unlimited as well). Therefore if you want to make sure not just you but an entire family/office/small business has protection and privacy over a Wi-Fi network, than a paid-for VPN is better.

There are now hundreds of VPN providers, all with very similar programs that do basically the same job with only minor differences. Price is a major concern though for many people checking out this market for the first time, so let’s cut through the noise and list some good budget options and a few top end players that are good for streaming:

Budget Options:

Top end options:

  • ExpressVPN – $8.33/month – Best VPN for streaming, good speeds, 94 server locations.
  • NordVPN – $6/month – Another good streaming VPN, double encryption for extra security.

Bottom line recommendation – All of these are good, but for the best of everything – low cost and good features, including decent access to some streaming services, you can’t go wrong with Private Internet Access. See our full review of it here.

But with all Premium VPNs you’re basically getting the same thing – a powerful piece of software which uses very strong encryption to replace your IP address and stop your online activity being tracked on your Wi-Fi network or elsewhere.


As a regular VPN users for 7+ years, I like providing useful info to help people find free or low cost VPN solutions for online security and privacy.

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