What is AES encryption?

Julie Cole
Julie Cole | Contributing Writer
Last updated: June 11, 2021
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When it comes to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), there are so many technical terms regular users may not know. AES encryption, otherwise known as Advanced Encryption Standard, is probably one of them. Used by a whole host of VPNs out there on the market, it’s been relied upon for many years to prevent data from getting seen by the wrong set of eyes.

Despite the fact it’s now over 20 years old, AES is still going strong even today. But, just what is it? And how does it protect your data?

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What is AES encryption?

AES is currently the industry-standard encryption cipher. It the most basic level, it is used to scramble data into chunks that cannot be read by those with no access to an appropriate key.

DES (Data Encryption Standard) was used heavily throughout the 1990s. But it only offered 56-bit encryption – something that can be cracked in a matter of minutes using modern computers. A more robust method of encryption was needed to keep opportunistic data thieves at bay.

Eventually, AES came into being. It is a symmetric key encryption system that was developed by a pair of Belgian researchers. Government agencies like the NSA and large corporations such as Microsoft had adopted the new encryption method by 2005, and it soon became mainstream for use on firewalls and VPNs.

AES-128 encryption

Now that we’ve touched upon what AES actually is, the following section will delve deeper into the 128-bit version. With AES-128, the key is 128 bits long, hence the suffix. Without using a cryptographic key, the encrypted data is completely incomprehensible.

Undergoing ten rounds of encryption during a data compression process, AES-128 takes chunks of data and mixes them up according to a recipe that is determined by the cipher subtype. At this point, a key is generated, allowing anyone receiving the data to untangle the web of encryption.

Symmetric key algorithms (including AES-128) work using the same key to both encrypt and decrypt the message. This makes them faster than asymmetric ciphers and hence perfect for use in VPN data encryption.

AES-256 encryption

Brought in to replace AES-128, AES-256 is essentially a far more secure version of its predecessor. Utilizing 14 rounds of encryption instead of the 10-round encryption process adopted by AES-128, the current 256-bit encryption standard makes it far more difficult for hackers to decipher the information.

Utilized by the US government to protect sensitive data, it’s safe to say that AES-256 is one of the most secure methods of securing data (within the bounds of reason, of course). While it isn’t quite as fast as AES-128, AES-256 is most definitely the more secure cipher.

Which is better – AES-128 or AES-256 encryption?

Anyone looking to invest in a VPN will no doubt have come across the AES-128 and AES-256 encryption ciphers – both are seeing a lot of use. But, just which one is better?

The answer is context-dependent. In terms of security, both AES-128 and AES-256 are considered practically unbreakable using widely-available computers. However, the 256-bit version is naturally the more secure one and should protect users even from the most resource-rich adversaries.

With that said, more encryption also means more time spent encrypting, which makes AES-128 the faster option (although the difference is not extreme). Hence, the tradeoff is between speed and security, with neither suffering particularly much in the current technological landscape.

Best VPNs with AES encryption

Now that you’ve found out everything you need to know about AES encryption, you’re probably wondering – which are the best VPNs that make use of this particular security protocol?


With an incredible server list that consists of 5,700+ servers in 60 countries, the value for money that you get with NordVPN is hard to deny. With prices starting from just $3.49/month, you can benefit from decent speeds, flawless privacy practices, and excellent security without breaking the bank.

Awesome for Netflix and suitable for torrenting purposes, you can rest safe knowing that your personal information will be kept safe – all thanks to the AES-256 cipher, which is also used by the US government.

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Despite the fact ExpressVPN isn’t the most cost-effective VPN out there (with prices starting from $8.32/month), you’ll find that it often comes out on top in many VPN reviews across the web. With a fantastic 3,000+ servers based in over 90 countries around the world, you’re certainly not short of options when it comes to enjoying safe and anonymous browsing, unblocking Netflix, and so much more.

ExpressVPN boasts top tier encryption: AES-256-CBC combined with a 4096-bit RSA handshake and a hash that is authenticated using SHA-512. This makes your personal information safe at all times.

Windscribe VPN

With prices starting from just $1.00/month, Windscribe VPN proves that you don’t need to spend a pretty penny to keep any would-be data thieves and snooping eyes at bay.

Protecting multiple devices simultaneously while also including an ad and malware blocking feature, you can get the service up and running on all the major platforms, and it even works for unblocking Netflix. With military-grade AES-256 encryption, you’ll be able to browse the web in full confidence knowing that your data will remain protected.

Astrill VPN

Complete with a decent list of servers (300+ in 60+ countries), Astrill VPN is one of the most well-respected VPNs available on the market today. With excellent speeds, superb security protocols, and custom applications available for all of the major platforms as well as devices such as routers, it’s safe to say that Astrill VPN is a worthwhile investment for those looking to browse the web safely and anonymously.

Combined with the fact it has AES-256-bit military-grade encryption, you can rest assured that your personal information will be kept well away from any prying eyes. Just be aware that like ExpressVPN, this particular VPN isn’t the most affordable around, with prices starting from $10.00 a month.

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  1. tunisha

    I’m using ExpressVPN and I am happy user. I think it offers great encryption. Yes, the it’s slightly heavier on the pocket, but still, it works great

  2. Jewel Allaire

    AES sounds pretty bad-as*. I know this article states it’s practically unbreakable (which means at some point I imagine someone could break it with the right resources and time) but do any governments have backdoor keys that they can use to sneak in and snoop? That’s always been one of my worries because I’ve heard rumors the U.S. government works with software firms to backdoor their way into so-called secure networks. Anyone know about this?

  3. 67879Bobby_Lawrence

    AES also does end to end encryption of data. It means AES encryption is useful to VPN users, securing VPN data from leaking to the outside world or eyes of the surveillance agencies and hackers

  4. CohenIngram890

    I can tell you that AES is one of the most reliable encryption tool for online users. It’s amazing and recommended for use. I can tell you why… It’s a time tested tool spanning for over 20 years and it keep evolving with time. Never relegated by speed of technological advancement

  5. Ben Campbell

    Ok great to know AES support salt of hash or cipher, but does it support custom hash funcs like “sha1(md5(…))”
    Also does antivirus have the potential to access information stored inside AES?

  6. 1445Betty

    Never heard of Advanced Encryption Standard before now. I am glad to know that it is a reliable encryption tool with high level of security, speed and support, available to users of the internet.

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