NAT vs. VPN: What’s the Difference?
For a long time, internet users did not even know what an IP address was. But as soon as the general population learned about the identifying capabilities of IP addresses, a race towards masking IP addresses and hiding one’s activity became a gold rush for Tele-tech companies. Two very common acronyms in this trend are NAT and VPN.
NAT assigns the same public-facing IP address to multiple devices in the same network (like an office). In contrast, a VPN connects devices from all over the world to a remote server with a public-facing IP address and provides encryption.
In this article, you will learn about what NAT and VPN are. Moreover, you will learn about each advantages and disadvantages and, finally, which one is the best for you based on your requirements.
NAT: A Brief Overview
You can make hundreds of thousands of email addresses because there are no limits on the address nomenclature of emails. However, for more restricted formats like mobile numbers and even IP addresses, the supply is relatively limited. That is why providers bet on conservation methods that keep the pressure on issuance low enough.
From setting prices when frivolous orders are discouraged from setting hard limits on sales, suppliers have used various methods to keep the formats from running out of capacity to accommodate the market. Thankfully, the NAT technology came around the same time network addresses were introduced to a broader market.
NAT stands for Network Address Translation. From the providers’ perspective, its chief purpose is that multiple devices within a network can use the same limited format IP address when connecting to the internet. Internally, each device can have a different address. Still, as long as millions of devices do not burden the public IP address format, each requiring a different public IP address, the Internet Service Provider is happy.
It turns out that NAT does not just help take the IP numbering system; it also has some privacy benefits. The first of these is the masking of device-identifying addresses. Though the webmaster can identify your WiFi’s IP address, he or she can’t track it to your laptop. This provides some degree of privacy and can give one near anonymity in a more extensive network.
Finally, Network Address Translation can help one retain a prized IP address despite shifting devices or changing connections. Think of this as having access to your mobile number despite changing your devices, thanks to your SIM card access. Though not precisely through the same technical means, you can retain access to the same public-facing network address provided you adequately adjust the translation.
NAT can get confused with a VPN because both mask one’s IP address to some degree. The masking is not of the same kind, and both services cater to different results.
Network Address Translation has become a no-brainer for almost all networks using a router. Your home router is likely to come with NAT enabled, and many internet service providers can only deliver connectivity through NAT. But even if something is widely adopted, it can still have drawbacks alongside its advantages, and below we will cover both.
Pros of NAT
Let us first look at why Network Access Translation is so widely adopted.
Conserve Formatted IP Addresses
This may seem like a benefit to your Internet Service Provider but has pricing benefits for you. There are 4.3 billion IPv4 IP addresses, and the format does not allow the issuance of unlimited addresses. As a result, the more people need IP addresses, the pricier they can become.
But with NAT, a household can rely on one IP address that faces the public while the individual devices can use non-IPv4 addresses. To give you some perspective on the supply limits on IP addresses, consider that mobile phone number formats allow providers to issue trillions of numbers.
On the other hand, there are not enough IPv4 addresses for every person on the planet. This would make access to the internet much more expensive than phone numbers if NAT and similar conservation methods did not exist.
Protects Your Identity From Webmasters
Websites you visit, get a record of your IP address because your public-facing address is used to contact the website’s server. As a result, webmasters would know your identity if each device’s IP address was individually unique.
However, when you access the site from a WiFi network, the webmaster can go as far as identifying the WiFi network (and even its location). But it is usually stopped short of identifying you as the visitor unless you voluntarily sign up or allow cookies that have personality-tracing capabilities.
At this point, one may wonder why webmasters would even bother wanting to identify visitors. It is not like website owners are interested in keeping personally damning records of their visitors. The intention is usually not as malicious and has more to do with advertising in a more targeted manner by modeling its behavior.
For this, the advertising intelligence companies use deep learning analytics tools that require activity to be precisely identified before predicting what to advertise to you.
When you access websites using NAT, your IP address is the same as your colleagues or family members. The advertising analytics can’t use this information to accurately model either you or the other people in the network.
Cons of Using NAT
By now, it may seem like suggesting there are drawbacks to NAT is like saying there are disadvantages to having privacy. That is why you should keep in mind that the disadvantages presented here are compared to using a VPN.
You Are Not Anonymous
Earlier, it was suggested that because you use Network Address Translation, your device cannot be identified. However, if you sign up for a website, you are handing over your name and email address to the website’s administrator. This can quickly help the artificial intelligence advertising trackers like Facebook Pixel and Google Analytics model your behavior and the public IP address.
Furthermore, most websites require that you allow cookies before giving you access to their content. Cookies do more to identify you than NAT does to make you. As a result, you are not as anonymous as you wish to be.
Your Data Is Not Encrypted
Comparing NAT to VPN, what stands out as one of the most significant drawbacks of Network Address Translation is that it is just that: a translation of the address. This says nothing about the website visit requests generated from your computer.
If you are a small household with a single WiFi router, your ISP knows precisely the kind of content your household likes to consume. Even if this does not personally identify you, it is still not the privacy level many people are comfortable with.
Does Not Give Access to Restricted Services
NAT is standard conservation practices, but it has little potential for leverage because it is the standard.
For instance, Netflix and other websites that restrict access to content based on IP addresses use IPv4 formats to identify networks to block from accessing restricted content. As your US IP address is identifiable as belonging to the States, despite being translated with NAT, it will not give you the same kind of result as masking your IP address using a VPN.
This means that you get only the benefit of hiding your device within a network but do not get to hide your location. For many users, that is not a big concern, but for those trying to access geo-restricted services, a standard NAT is useless.
You Are Vulnerable to Hacking on Public Networks
When you connect with WiFi at the airport or a coffee shop, the NAT is happening between your network and the internet. But the hackers associated with the same WiFi can identify and attack your device without the NAT firewall getting in the way. This is less secure than using proper tunneling to connect to a VPN via the same network.
NAT Can Be Used to Block Services
In an ironic twist, while a VPN can unlock services like Tinder Asia and Netflix Japan, webmasters can ban an IP address from accessing its services. This often happens when one user on the network is abusing his or her access to the website.
For instance, if you try to create multiple accounts on Instagram using the same internet connection, after a certain number of accounts, the website will see the account creation as suspicious behavior and ban the IP address’s access to the app and the Instagram website. This could mean that your son, neighbor, or roommate’s activity on a website can make you lose access to the website.
VPN: A Brief Overview
Comparing NAT to VPN has some logic behind it as both have one common function: they mask your identifiable network address. However, the critical difference is that while NAT masks your device’s address with a public-facing IP address, your VPN connects you to an IP address abroad so that your public-facing IP address is not traceable. Once you disconnect from the remote server, you can no longer be identified with the same IP address.
To simplify this, let us take an analogy of mobile numbers. A NAT would be like an ordinary mobile phone that everyone in the house uses. You use your phone to call the standard phone, which then sends your call outward. Those receiving the calls outside only get to see the common phone number in their caller ID. While your phone number is hidden, the common house phone can still be used to identify your household.
A VPN would be like a burner phone that you use your personal phone to call. The burner then gets in touch with people outside. And even if they remember the number, they can’t trace it to you once you disconnect. By replacing the mobile number with IP address in the above analogy, you get the basic operations of a VPN in relation to a Network Address Translation.
From the overview, you have likely gleaned why NAT does not make VPNs obsolete. But if VPNs are such bastions of privacy, the question remains why Internet Service Providers don’t push VPNs. That’s because, with certain advantages, the service comes with its own set of drawbacks. Below we explore both sides to decide if a VPN is right for you.
Pros of VPNs
If you are researching VPNs, chances are you are aware of some of the benefits provided by virtual private networks but let us see if you have the full picture.
They Encrypt Your Data
When we compare VPNs and NAT, the most significant difference in favor of VPNs is encrypting your website visit data. While your Internet Service Provider may not be able to identify you within the network thanks to NAT, it can see what your network is up to. The websites you visit, and in some instances, even the pages you visit within a website, are visible to your ISP.
A secure tunnel is established with a VPN with a remote server that is used to browse the internet. Since you are using your internet provider to connect with a foreign provider, any activity you engage in through the remote server is outside the reach of your ISP in most instances. And since your remote ISP is usually shared by other users also, even your VPN can’t track what you are doing.
They Bypass Webmaster Restrictions
While a NAT might become a liability if one of your colleagues or friends uses the common IP address to misuse a website, a VPN gives you protection even if you are the one who messed up. When you break a forum’s or a website’s rules, your username or email address can be blocked. But more dangerous is an IP ban that punishes not one user but every user on a network.
But if you use a VPN, you can access a remote IP and still browse websites that have specifically banned your IP address or for any number of reasons. It is not necessary that someone uses your IP address (or WiFi connection) to abuse a website for it to refuse a connection with you.
You may be refused access based on your IP address’s identified location. For instance, many government web pages block foreign IP addresses from accessing their servers. Similarly, platforms with area-contingent rights to distribute content will use IP address formats to make sure only certain countries have access to their content.
A VPN can come in handy when you want to access this content without physically changing your location. All you have to do is connect with a remote IP address that corresponds to a location where the service is not restricted. Provided the VPN is of a reliable quality like ExpressVPN, you will manage to unlock the services.
They Can Bypass Network Administrator Restrictions
More often than not, it is not the webmaster who restricts a user’s access to his or her website. After all, website owners like to receive more traffic, but network administrators can create restrictions by blocking HTTP ports ://.
This usually happens with work WiFi, where the boss wants employees to use ERP, Quickbooks, and Outlook but does not want them visiting Facebook or YouTube. By blocking port 80, the administrator makes sure that internet browsers like Chrome and Internet Explorer are useless. Furthermore, blocking port 80 also means the employer does not need to install software on each work computer to stop employees from web surfing.
Employees can’t even use their mobile phones to browse the web since port 80 is blocked. But if you have a VPN like NordVPN on your phone, you can connect to a remote server. Your tunneling protocol will not use port 80, so you will have the ability to connect, and once you are connected to a remote IP server, you can use it to surf the web without restrictions on port 80.
Hide Your Location
Finally, VPNs can be used to mask one’s location, and this has a set of benefits that hold different priorities to different people. For instance, for someone who wants to visit a different country and would like to make some connections beforehand, using a VPN to connect to a remote server in the country would allow him to access that country’s Tinder and Meetup in addition to other similar networking apps in the region.
On the other hand, someone who wants to connect to a marketplace while appearing to be in a country with cheaper currency may want to get online services for a smaller price. It is no secret that online services like games and software subscriptions are priced differently based on where you visit a website/platform. Regardless of your reasons to want to hide or mask your location, you can use a VPN to do so.
Cons of Using a VPN
Compared to NAT, VPNs provide better privacy and even encrypt your data. Then why have not they become the norm? That is because of a few drawbacks. Below are the disadvantages that keep VPNs from becoming mainstream.
VPN Qualities Vary Drastically
VPNs have many advantages, as chronicled above. But please note that these benefits assume that you are using a high-quality VPN like ExpressVPN or NordVPN. Because the term VPN is not patented nor a trademark, anyone can claim to be a VPN provider. Many “VPN” providers give access to proxy IP addresses (masking your location) but do not encrypt your data (so your ISP can see what you are up to).
Other VPN apps require access to your contacts upon installation and can later use this data for marketing purposes. There are hundreds of VPNs powered by displaying ads, and advertising companies are notorious for playing fast and loose with privacy. How can one trust service for privacy when it relies on advertising?
How to fight this drawback: Opt for a premium VPN with at least a few hundred thousand subscribers. Such VPN providers have to keep many people happy for their bottom line.
They Cost Money
While paying for a service you find worth the money is not a drawback, it is still worth mentioning that while NAT comes free with your WiFi router, you have to pay for a VPN (at least the good ones). This can be a drawback for people who do not wish to pay a premium and can explain why the services have not become as mainstream as DuckDuckGo and similar free tools.
Your Speed May Be Affected
One of the issues with a VPN is that you do not rely just on your internet line’s speed but also that of the server abroad. As a result, you may spend a lot of money getting high-speed internet from your internet service provider and then be disappointed because your VPN provider has slow servers.
This can be a problem if you use shared servers and connect to a high-demand IP address to which many users are connected. If you are in the States, you do not have to worry about this because users from all over the world want to connect to US-based remote servers.
How to fight this drawback: You can opt for a higher cost dedicated server provided by your VPN subscription as an upsell. Alternatively, you can connect to different servers until one has reliable speed.
What Should You Use?
Now that you are familiar with both NAT and VPN, and know the advantages and disadvantages of each, let us see which one you should opt for. Since Network Address Translation and VPN are not mutually exclusive, it is recommended that you use both so you get the benefits of both. After all, one can never be too cautious when securing their identity and activity online.
Not everyone uses a router or a shared network, nor does everyone use a VPN. So it is possible that you currently have neither of the two options. If that is the case and you insist on selecting one, please refer to the sections below to decide which one is best for you.
Who Should Use a NAT?
If the descriptions below match you or your requirements, you should get a NAT device to assign you a public-facing IP address.
You Have a Large Enough Network
One of NAT’s features is that it hides what individual users are accessing by preventing people from tracing it to an individual device. But if you are the only user of a network and all devices belong to you, then your activity is plain as day, at least to your ISP. Therefore a NAT is ideal if your network has many users.
You Have an Important IP Address
If you have a corporation or a business with a public-facing IP address that you cannot part with despite a change in location or a new branch opening, you will need a NAT device to help assign the same IP to newer devices on your network.
Who Should Use a VPN?
If the following match your requirements, then you should consider getting a premium VPN.
You Are an Individual User
It does not make sense to invest in a router if you only use mobile data on a single device. Even if you have multiple devices but are the only person using the network, a NAT will assign the devices a common IP address, but that will still identify you. Instead, a VPN can allow you to use different IP addresses for each of your devices and sessions—a much better option for your privacy.
You Do Not Trust Your Internet Provider
If you are comfortable with your ISP seeing a list of all the websites your WiFi is used to visit, then you are free to skip VPNs altogether. Still, if you do not trust your internet provider with this knowledge, a premium VPN will help you encrypt your data so that people can’t snoop in and see what you have been up to.
You Want to Use Restricted Services
It is no secret that VPNs allow you to access geo-restricted services. From bypassing country-level firewalls to getting cheaper online services from location-specific marketplaces, the world opens up when you use a VPN and can mask your location to seem like you are in a place of your choice. If that is what you want, then a NAT is not nearly as useful as a remote access VPN.
While NAT and VPN both mask your IP address, the level of privacy offered by each varies drastically. While NAT is used to conserve IPs, VPN is more suitable for encrypting one’s online activity data.
If you want low-cost internet access where your network can be identified but your device remains relatively private, opt for a traditional WiFi router with NAT enabled. If you wish to not only hide your IP but also keep your web browsing activity hidden from your ISP and webmasters, then you should get yourself a premium VPN.