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What are obfuscated servers?


Obfuscated servers are specialty VPN servers that hide the fact that you’re using a VPN. That way, you can enjoy access to restricted content without the fear and inconvenience of being detected.

With the increasing use of VPNs to access restricted content, internet service providers (ISP), restrictive governments, and streaming platforms start employing anti-VPN technologies. They use Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to determine and block VPN traffic. This is where VPN obfuscation comes in.

In this article, I’ll explain how obfuscated servers work and how to use them, as well as introduce you to the best VPNs that offer this feature. Keep on reading to find out more!

Best VPNs with obfuscated servers

Here are our top 3 VPNs with obfuscated servers:

  1. NordVPN - our favourite VPN with obfuscated servers
  2. Surfshark - a VPN with advanced obfuscation features
  3. IPVanish - uses OpenVPN Scramble for VPN obfuscation

What is VPN obfuscation?

VPN obfuscation makes VPN traffic look like regular internet traffic by hiding traces of information about a VPN protocol in the data packets. The raw data will stay encrypted, but the DPI won’t be able detect VPN usage, unless the data packet is inspected manually. In turn, the VPN encrypted traffic will be able to bypass VPN blocks and firewalls.

ISPs and governments use Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to see all of your online traffic data and thus monitor what you can access. When a VPN is used, the contents of the data packets become encrypted, but the presence of a VPN does not. By using DPI, interested parties such as streaming websites, governments, or ISPs employ blocking technologies to counter VPN usage. That way, you won’t be able to access websites no matter if you use a VPN or not.

VPN obfuscation is the solution to this problem.

How does VPN obfuscation work?

Before we get into how VPN obfuscation works, there are a few things you need to know to understand the process better.

Any information traveling through the internet pathways does so in data packets. A data packet, aside from the raw information, includes metadata about what kind of protocol is used to deliver the data. This is where the information about a VPN protocol can be seen.

So when a VPN encrypted data packet gets inspected by DPI and it detects the VPN metadata, firewalls and anti-VPN technologies deny you access to websites, which translates to “access denied” or “proxy error” on your screen.

vpn-without-obfuscation-access-denied

Now enter VPN obfuscation. When the obfuscation method is applied, the VPN signature and any traces of it “disappear” from the data packet. Thus, the firewall, not seeing any suspicious metadata, lets the packet pass through a firewall like regular traffic.

obfuscated-vpn-undetected-and-passed-through

The methods of VPN obfuscation employed by VPN providers slightly differ from one another, but they’re essentially doing the same thing - encrypting, exchanging, and hiding the VPN metadata in data packets.

OpenVPN over SSL/SSH

The OpenVPN data in the data packet gets sort of wrapped in the SSL encryption like a protective layer of armor that the DPI cannot get through. In other words, your VPN encryption gets also encrypted, and thus hidden out of sight. Then it’s able to pass as regular HTTPS data, as it also uses SSL encryption. The same applies to using SSH tunnel for encryption, except this protocol is not nearly as popular as SSL and is mainly used in business.

SOCKS5 Proxy or Shadowsocks

Shadowsocks is an open source client of the SOCKS5 proxy created by a Chinese programmer to battle the internet restrictions and censorship in China. The SOCKS5 proxy is similar to the SSH tunnel in the way that it makes VPN encrypted traffic look like HTTPS. Neither DPI nor firewalls are able to see through it.

OpenVPN Scramble

OpenVPN Scramble, also known as the XOR obfuscation, uses the XOR additive cipher to encrypt the OpenVPN signature in the data packet, making it into a bunch of random code that has no meaning and thus goes unidentified by the DPI.

However, the scramble method of VPN obfuscation is a bit controversial, as the XOR cipher itself is relatively simple, and therefore not uncrackable. It may help VPN traffic bypass anti-VPN technologies, but this isn’t completely guaranteed.

Obfsproxy

Obfsproxy is a project that goes parallel with the Tor project and was designed to help bypass blocks on the Tor browser. It works in virtually the same way as the other obfuscation methods - by wrapping VPN traffic in a protective layer and changing its appearance to HTTP traffic.

One difference the Obfsproxy encryption has from other methods is that it uses a handshake that has no recognizable byte patterns. While this adds a certain layer of security, it also has some drawbacks - more advanced DPI technology could detect the unnatural randomness of the handshake and thus not let the encrypted traffic through.

Why should I use a VPN with obfuscated servers?

A regular VPN should be enough to keep me safe and grant access to restricted content online, right? Unfortunately, no. There are cases in which a VPN with obfuscated servers will be the only thing that works. Here are some reasons to consider getting an obfuscated VPN:

  • Bypass internet restrictions. Access to the internet and certain websites in countries like China or Iran are heavily restricted and monitored, and VPN usage is illegal and blocked. In countries with more relaxed laws, schools and universities may also block access to certain websites, and monitor VPN usage. Using a VPN with obfuscated servers allows you to bypass these restrictions and gain access to whatever websites and content you want.
  • Avoid ISP throttling. Some ISPs, if they notice you doing some online activities that require high speeds, such as torrenting or gaming, may throttle your internet speed. While using a simple VPN should be sufficient to avoid this, one can never be completely sure. An obfuscated VPN connection will ensure that no ISP will see neither what you are doing, nor whether you’re using a VPN.
  • Unblock streaming websites. These days, streaming platforms get more and more inventive in order to maintain their geoblocking practices and battle the usage of VPNs. Using a VPN with obfuscated servers or protocols is a surefire way to stay undetected and enjoy streaming content that otherwise would be unavailable to you.
  • Increase your privacy and anonymity. This is as straightforward as it gets: obfuscated servers and protocols add an extra layer of privacy to your already encrypted connection, ensuring your complete anonymity online.

How to connect a VPN to an obfuscated server?

Despite obfuscated servers clearly being a beneficial feature, not all VPNs offer them. Some, like Surfshark or IPVanish, instead will have Stealth Mode that includes numerous features, or just the OpenVPN Scramble. Usually, you can find these obfuscation options in the advanced settings of the VPN apps, but the connecting process may differ from provider to provider.

Here’s a short guide on how to connect to NordVPN’s obfuscated servers:

  1. Install NordVPN on your device and login.
  2. Open the app and go to settings in the lower left corner:
nordvpn interface with red arrrow pointing to settings
  1. Go to “Auto-connect” settings and disable “Choose a VPN protocol and server automatically”. Choose the OpenVPN (TCP) protocol:
Disable autoconnect in NordVPN app
  1. Go to “Advanced” settings and turn on “Obfuscated servers”:
Enable obfuscated servers on NordVPN
  1. Return to the main page and find “obfuscated servers” under the “Specialty servers” section:
Nordvpn specialty servers with obfuscated servers
  1. To connect, click on the “Obfuscated servers”. You are now connected:
Obfuscated server in UK in NordVPN app

Obfuscated servers not working? Here's what to do:

If for whatever reason you find that the obfuscated servers and/or protocols of your VPN provider are not working, i.e., access to websites still gets denied, here are some things you can do to fix this problem:

  • Connect to a different obfuscated server. Connecting to a different server may be the only solution you’ll need to fix the problem.
  • Update and relaunch your VPN client. If connecting to a different server didn’t work, try the classic “turn it off and on again”. Log off, update the app, and login again - any temporary bugs should get cleared.
  • Temporarily disable your antivirus or firewall. Your antivirus and/or firewall software can be pretty restrictive with background activities it allows. It could be preventing your VPN client from working properly.
  • Troubleshoot your device. The problem could also be in your device, so be sure to check your VPN provider’s help center for guides on how to troubleshoot your device to see if it’s interfering with the VPN activity.
  • Re-install your VPN client. Something more permanent could have happened to the app on your device. Try uninstalling and reinstalling it on your device - that way, you’ll get a new, fully updated version of the VPN client.
  • Contact customer support. If nothing works, or if you are not sure what steps to take, you can always ask for help. Contact your provider’s customer support agent.
  • Switch to another VPN provider. Maybe your current provider’s obfuscation service is simply not functioning, and it is time to look for another provider. If that is the case, I suggest you take a look at our best VPN page and find a new and reliable VPN.

Final thoughts

A VPN with obfuscated servers is great to have, because it can help you access online content that is restricted by your government, school or workplace, your ISP, or the websites themselves that employ anti-VPN technologies.

By using obfuscated servers, you’ll be able to access geo-restricted content on streaming platforms, bypass social media blocks, and visit other restricted websites. On top of that, obfuscated servers offer a heightened degree of privacy online, as well as extra security.

The best VPNs that have obfuscated servers and other obfuscation features are NordVPN, Surfshark, and IPVanish.

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