APN vs. VPN? – What’s the Difference?

Updated: 16 April 2021
Updated: 16 April 2021

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In this guide, you will learn about:

  • What is a VPN?
  • What is an APN?
  • The differences and similarities between an APN vs. VPN.
  • Use cases for VPNs and APNs.

Quick Summary

What’s the difference between an APN vs VPN?

An APN, or Access Point Name, is a gateway that allows you to connect to the internet via your carrier network. On the other hand, a VPN or Virtual Private Network is a technology that creates a secure connection to another network over the internet. Usually, you need access to the internet for a VPN connection to work.

Below in the article you will find a description of APNs and VPNs as well as an in-depth elaboration about their differences, similarities and use-cases.

APV vs. VPN

What is a VPN?

A VPN is a technology that provides you with an encrypted connection over the public internet. It does this by securely tunneling your connection through a VPN server – maybe a company server or a private server. The secure tunnel encrypts your data in transit. This ensures that it is safe from prying eyes such as hackers.

The VPN server also assigns you a virtual IP address that masks your actual IP address. This enhances your privacy as internet entities will only see the virtual IP address. Besides security and privacy, you can use a VPN to access geo-restricted content, bypass censorships, unblock online content, and avoid price segmentation.

You can find an in-dept VPN guide here: VPN Beginners’ Guide

If you want to use a VPN, use this guide: Picking a VPN app

What is an APN?

An APN allows you to connect to the internet through your carrier network. Concisely, it is a gateway between your carrier network and the internet. An APN consists of configurations/settings (APN settings) that dictate how your device will connect to the internet. In most cases, your mobile device automatically configures them when you connect to the network.

APNs can be public or private. A public APN is the default one provided by your carrier network. Private APNs are usually associated with corporates. They connect you to the corporates network. APNs are also essential for Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), Firmware Over the Air updates (FOTA), Internet of Things (IoT) connections, and secure connections.

Differences Between APN and VPN

Here is a brief overview:

APN VPN
Acronym for Access Point Name Virtual Private Network
Functionality Allows internet connectivity over the carrier network. Secures connections over the internet.
Compatibility Supported by network carrier enabled devices such as smartphones. Works with most computing devices, from PCs to consoles.
Providence Carrier networks or private corporations provide configuration settings. Commercially available or company-specific.
Account management Many users share APNs. Each user must have an account.
Security Carrier-dependent, private APN allows custom configurations. Very secure, you can also choose the level of encryption.
Scalability and switching Switching is rarely allowed. Because it’s the same APN for the carrier network. Except for private APNs or a custom APN Switching is allowed at the server level. Users can choose to connect to any server they like.
Use cases Internet connectivity for Smartphones, IoT devices, and other carrier-enabled devices. It also supports Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) and Firmware Over the Air updates (FOTA). Security and privacy, unblock online content, bypass geo-restrictions/censorships, and can be used to avoid price segmentation.

 

Let’s take an in-depth look.

Functionality and compatibility.

As mentioned earlier, an APN allows your device to connect to the internet through your carrier network. Smartphones, modems, IoT, and carrier-enabled use APNs. PCs and laptops don’t necessarily need an APN.

VPNs rely on the internet connection to work. They help keep your internet traffic secure and private over the public internet. VPNs are compatible with most computing devices. These include PCs and laptops, smartphones, consoles, routers, and even IoT devices.

Set up and providence.

Your carrier network or private corporation provides APN configuration settings. In smartphones, you do not need to configure them. The process is automatic, and you won’t notice it. In some cases, especially when you need to use other APNs, such as a private APN, you will need to enter them manually. This is the same case with an IoT device.

Each carrier network has a unique APN associated with it. The APN consists of a network identifier and an operator identifier. Hence, the APN must match with the carrier network to allow a connection to the internet.

On the other hand, to use a VPN, you need to download it and install it. You can get it from app market places such as AppStore, Play Store, Microsoft Store, or its official website. You will also need an account associated with the VPN. You can get one from your company or via a subscription for a commercial VPN.

After installation, you will need to log in to access various VPN functionality. These include choosing your encryption level, selecting a server, and some other settings. Some devices such as smartphones have inbuilt VPN functionality. To configure this VPN, you will need a server address/name, a username, and a password.

Account management.

As aforementioned, APNs are network carrier-specific. Hence, the carrier assigns the same APN to anyone connecting via the network. However, when connecting to the internet, they are given a different IP address. For VPNs, things are different. Users have their accounts. Sharing is allowed for devices owned by the user.

Security.

APNs offer a level of protection when transmitting data over your carrier network. By default, this security depends on your carrier network. Custom and private APNs offer you the ability to customize their security. However, an APN won’t necessarily protect your data on the open internet.

With a VPN, your internet traffic is always safe from prying eyes. VPNs are built to offer impeccable security and privacy through encryptions. You can also adjust the level of encryption by choosing a security protocol to use. It is recommended to use protocols with high encryption settings.

Important: Despite what some VPN companies claim, a VPN does not offer full anonymity. If you use a VPN together with any service where your identity is shared (Gmail, Facebook), then your VPN IP and browsing activity can be tied to your identity.

Scalability and switching.

Carrier network APNs allow multiple connections from millions of users. During peak hours, users can overload the carrier, and this might lead to network balancing issues. This can lead to slow and increased connection times. Additionally, carriers don’t offer optional APNs you can switch to, except for private APNs.

VPNs allow you to switch to better options during overloads. If you find one server is slow due to congestion, you can disconnect and connect to another server. This applies to reputable commercial VPNs.

Similarities Between an APN and VPN

Both APNs and VPNs offer a mean you can use to exchange information over a network. They are also compatible with devices such as smartphones and IoT. Despite offering security, each technology offers it at a different level.

Use Cases for APNs and VPNs

APNs are used by applications and devices that require internet connectivity over a carrier network. On the other hand, a VPN is designed to offer privacy and security over the internet. A VPN doesn’t provide internet connectivity.

With an APN, you can connect smartphones, modems, and IoT devices to the internet via a carrier network. Devices can also use APNs to determine their geo-location. In smartphones, APNs facilitate the sending and receiving multimedia messages through the Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS). They also allow Firmware Over the Air updates (FOTA).

You can use a commercial VPN for purposes other than security and privacy. Thanks to the encryption and IP address masking, a VPN can unblock online content and bypass geo-restrictions/censorships. You can also beat price segmentation and buy goods at a lower price, such as airline tickets.

Additionally, you can use a VPN to improve your internet connectivity. This is applicable when your ISP is throttling it during heavy downloads or when it is peak hours.

Wrap Up

APN and VPN are essential technologies we use daily for exchanging information. Despite having nearly the same acronym, APN and VPN are very different, with unique functions.

APNs establish internet connectivity via carrier networks, while VPNs provide security and privacy over the internet.

Written by: Miklos Zoltan

Connect with the author:

Founder & CEO Privacy Affairs

Miklos Zoltan is the founder and CEO of Privacy Affairs. Miklos has long-time experience in cybersecurity and data privacy having worked with international teams for more than 10 years in projects involving penetration testing, network security and cryptography.

Miklos founded Privacy Affairs in 2018 to provide cybersecurity and data privacy education to regular audiences by translating tech-heavy and "geeky" topics into easy-to-understand guides and tutorials.

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