VPN vs SSH tunnel

Julie Cole
Julie Cole | Contributing Writer
Last updated: April 20, 2021
VPN vs SSH tunnel
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Internet security has become crucial for both businesses and people who care about who might intercept their web traffic data. Hence, the discussion: “VPN vs SSH tunnel – which one is better?” is bound to grow as people seek to establish secure and private internet connections.

At this point, many internet users have heard of VPNs and SSH tunnels. The two terms may be confusing to some, especially among novice tech users, but our SSH tunnel vs VPN comparison will help you understand the most important differences between the two.

VPNs and SSH tunnels can both secure channels for tunneling network traffic over any encrypted connection. Though they are similar in some features and different in others, essentially, they both boost your internet experience by offering a unique degree of security and privacy.

They are competing technologies that are designed to solve different tunneling problems and are configured to function differently. Therefore, when deciding which to use, it helps to understand how each one works, as well as the pros and cons. Read on for a more a detailed SSH tunnel vs VPN explanation.

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and, as the name implies, it is used to facilitate secure connections to private networks over both public and private networks. A good example of common VPN usage is a business using a private network with networked printers and file shares. Employees may travel and need to access business resources while on the road, without exposing crucial business resources to the public.

In such a case, the business sets-up a VPN server, employees connect to it and their computers are integrated to the business’s private network. A VPN client communicates over internet to send a computer’s traffic over an encrypted connection, to their VPN server. This encryption offers a secure internet connection, meaning that business competitors cannot snoop to access confidential business information.

In cases where all the web browsing traffic is sent over a VPN, none of that traffic can be accessed by third parties. This feature offers absolute protection, especially when using public wifi networks. It also allows users to access geographically restricted internet browsing services.

What is an SSH Tunnel?

SSH means Secure Shell. The shell is a command interface tasked with sending commands to computer operating systems. Each time a command line is opened, a shell is used. Note that the Windows graphical interface is a shell. The shell of a computer can be accessed remotely and commands can be sent to it. For instance, you can use a remote shell to manage a Linux server from any location via the internet. As such, SSH is a network protocol that was designed to log into a computer remotely.

SSH is applied to help acquire and use a remote terminal session securely. However, it has other uses. For instance, since it uses very strong encryption, it can be set to act like a SOCKS proxy. Once this feature is in place, you can configure computer applications like the web browser to utilize the SOCKS proxy. Web traffic passes through the SOCKS proxy that runs on your local system, and an SSH client forwards it via SSH connection. This action is referred to as SSH tunneling.


There are fewer SSH tunnel providers to choose from than in the case of VPNs. which means that your options are limited and tend to be pricier. Often SSH tunnel options start at $20 and run up to as much as $100+ per month.

On the other hand, there are numerous VPN providers to choose from, and each offers unique features for a monthly subscription as low as $2.99 a month. Since VPNs are more readily available and they automatically encrypt all computer traffic, they tend to be better priced than SSH tunnels.

Which is better for China and other restricted countries?

Using the dynamic port forwarding function, a highly secure SSH tunnel can be used to navigate the Great Firewall of China or other internet and firewall filtering systems set by other countries. This also applies for VPNs. However, not all VPNs can be used to bypass the Great China Firewall. You must have a premium, proven and tested VPN. Despite the ongoing ban and crackdown on VPNs in China, the established VPN operators respond promptly to such threats and make necessary adjustments to bypass crackdowns.

Torrenting and P2P

Torrenters and P2P file sharers yearn for fast download speeds, no data caps and privacy. SSH tunnels can be a good solution for torrenting on platforms where being anonymous key, though it doesn’t encrypt all traffic.

A great VPN service, on the other hand, can be fast, secure, and reliable, making them a better solution for private torrenting and P2P file sharing, as long as the provider allows for it. They guarantee complete encryption that bars third parties from accessing personal data.

Unblocking Netflix and other Entertainment Platforms

Both VPN and SSH tunnel can be used to unblock Netflix and other entertainment platforms. However, since people have been using VPN for quite some time to unblock entertainment platforms, some VPNs may be blocked by entertainment platforms.

SSH tunneling on the other hand may be used to unblock platforms like Netflix, in cases where the user has their own private IP address. Nonetheless, paid VPNs remain the best and easiest way to unblock Netflix and other entertainment platforms. Simply select a reliable VPN and you are in business.

VPN Security and Privacy

Designed to ensure security and privacy when browsing the web, a VPN offers a similar experience with that of being on a local network; unblocking ISP throttling and encrypting your data, among other helpful attributes. That means you can easily access office files and communicate privately in a manner that leaves colleagues unsure whether you are working from your office or from home. This is a crucial benefit, ideal for people who use public wifi or are performing sensitive online tasks. SSH tunnels are not designed to support such a workflow.

VPNs also provide a way to access online services that may not be available in certain geographical regions. Therefore, using a VPN is more about making a decision to utilize a private internet connection that simulates being somewhere else at a given time.

Additionally, using a VPN does not require terminal commands and though the initial set up can seem a little complex, in reality, non-technical users can connect to the VPN with ease. In this area, VPNs do come out a little ahead.

SSH Security and Privacy

SSH allows you to interact with your computer without having to bypass the extra overhead. It allows immediate access of files and if you are knowledgeable about scripts, you can easily set up a file syncing solution using sync. SSH also allows file access through a browser. IT admins use SSH tunneling to manage servers, developers use it to test software on mobile gadgets while casual users may use it to manage their files from different locations or create home networks for internal file sharing.

SSH is a great way of performing computer operations that would not be available to regular users. SSH connections allow you to tunnel your passwords through a secure network, especially when working away from home. Alternatively, you can replace your passwords with keys.
Either way, your passwords are protected from prying eyes. Note that Windows offers the most convenient way of creating SSH tunnels and deploying information through the connection. You can imitate a VPN connection through setting up an SSH tunnel but it may have a number of limitations.

Speed and Performance

The greatest difference between VPN and SSH tunneling is the level of TCP/IP stack each operates on. What part of network the tool is operating on, is described by the TCP/IP level they operate on? VPN operates on a lower level as compared to SSH. It operates on layer four, also known as the transport layer.

This explains why a VPN app must install a virtual network adapter after installation. Such that, when a computer is connected to the internet, all traffic passes through the VPN tunnel.
On the other hand, SSH tunnel works on the network’s application layer. It is designed to connect a computer directly to another computer and later encrypt traffic from the app to the connected computer.

All traffic going over your computer may not be protected, since you only secure a tunnel to a specified computer and not your entire internet connection as is the case with VPN. However, it is possible to configure SSH to work as effectively as a VPN, but the process may be technical and daunting.Nonetheless, there is not much difference in the security level offered by the two solutions, when they are set-up correctly, of course.

But, SSH tends to limit usage to TCP connections and it may be prone to DNS leaks. Therefore, it may not be the best solution, especially when you want to hide traffic source and destination.
VPNs, on the other hand, are great at doing all that. SSH are more expensive to run but are ideal in situations where VPN encryption affects performance negatively.

Ease of Use and Installation

There are other considerations as well. Non-technical users can connect to a VPN with ease but setting up the VPN server can be quite complex for them.

SSH tunnels are more complicated to configure for non-technical users but their set-up process is actually simpler in nature. As a result, many larger businesses opt for an SSH server that they can connect to remotely. In the presence of an SSH server, it is simpler to utilize it as an SSH tunnel as opposed to setting up a VPN server.

Evidently, a VPN works effectively at the operating system level as opposed to the application level. This means that, once you have set up a VPN connection, your operating system is able to route all network traffic passing through it from different applications.

However, this capability varies from one VPN to the other based on how the VPN has been configured to work in your operating system. But, configuring it to each application is not necessary. VPN is common among businesses with remote offices to facilitate use of LAN over WAN.

Which is Better: VPN or SSH Tunnel?

While both SSH tunnels and VPNs provide pretty much the same level of security (if configured properly), there are still some aspects setting them apart. SSH is generally harder to configure requiring a good deal of technical knowledge. Added to this, is the lack of providers.

VPNs have a plethora of options available, each built to automatically encrypt all traffic. In this area, SSH once again falls short, only encrypting certain browsing and email use. Both can be used together, but users should be aware that this can compromise overall speed.

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  1. monkeyfish

    If you’re worried about which is more secure for business use, the answer is clearly a VPN — you can force all network traffic on the system through it. However, if you just want an encrypted connection to browse the web with from public Wi-Fi networks in coffee shops and airports, a VPN and SSH server both have strong encryption that will serve you well.

    Also, VPN is more user friendly while setting up SSH tunnel requires a bit more knowledge and effort.

  2. katsiad.nikos

    There is a reason why SSH Tunnel is called a poor man’s VPN, because it can provide some of the same features as a VPN without the more complicated server setup process and also has some limitations.

  3. technerd127

    I have to say that VPN had worked fine for me while I was at China. There weren’t any major issues that couldn’t be resolved using the paid VPN services. It’s good to learn about SSH though.

  4. Walter Grant

    Although I have heard of SSH and all the features it offers. I still insist that paid VPNs remain the best and easiest way to unblock Netflix and other entertainment platforms and that is exactly what I use with no regret

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