Virtual private networks (VPNs) have become an essential tool for protecting online privacy and security. With growing concerns over data collection and cybercrime, it’s no surprise that VPN usage has exploded in recent years. The global VPN market is projected to reach $106 billion by 2027, and much of that growth is being driven by mobile.
Developing a VPN app for iOS or Android offers huge business potential, but also involves tackling some complex technical challenges. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll provide an expert look at key considerations for building a successful VPN mobile app.
In the year 2023, our smartphones continue to be our constant companions, connecting us to the online world. However, this convenience comes with risks, from data-hungry tech giants to potential cyber threats.
To safeguard our privacy and security, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have evolved significantly. In this article, we’ll explore the main features of VPN app development for both iPhone and Android devices.
Growth of the Mobile VPN Market
The VPN market is anticipated to grow from $31.1 billion in 2020 to over $106 billion by 2027 according to Grand View Research. Driving this growth is the surge in mobile usage:
|Year||Mobile VPN Users||Growth|
Statista projects over 1 billion mobile VPN users by 2025. Factors fueling adoption include:
- Increasing mobile device and public Wi-Fi usage exposing threats to security and privacy.
- Growing awareness of how companies like Google and Facebook collect user data.
- Expanding regulation like GDPR giving users more control over their data.
- Rising workplace mobility with more employees working remotely.
- Continuous expansion of streaming content libraries.
The demand is clearly there. Developing a quality VPN app gives you a chance to grab a slice of this multi-billion dollar market.
How can VPN be used for apps?
Our daily lives now primarily center on smartphones, providing constant online connectivity.
However, this reliance poses significant privacy and security challenges. Mobile apps often request access to our personal information, including sensitive data such as location, contacts, and even access to our camera or microphone. Furthermore, many of these apps connect to the internet, opening up our data to tracking and surveillance.
This is where VPN mobile apps play a crucial role. Here is what they offer.
Enhanced data security
Using a VPN transforms your data into a complex secret code, making it extremely challenging for unauthorized individuals to decrypt. This robust encryption significantly heightens the difficulty for hackers or prying eyes attempting to access your information. Consequently, your data remains secure and confidential.
A VPN conceals your actual IP address and substitutes it with one from their servers. This intricate maneuver “confuses” applications attempting to ascertain your real-world location or identity. As a result, your online identity and physical whereabouts are shielded, preserving a heightened level of privacy and anonymity.
Public networks protection
VPNs act as a strong protective barrier for your data when you connect to public Wi-Fi networks, which are frequently targeted by hackers. They establish a secure tunnel, guaranteeing that your information remains safe from interception or eavesdropping while you use these less secure networks.
Crucial features in Android VPN app development
Ad and malware blocker
A built-in ad and malware blocker can enhance a user’s online experience by blocking intrusive ads and protecting you from malicious software.
An important element of any reliable Android VPN app is robust data encryption. Industry-standard encryption, like AES-256, is essential for safeguarding user’s data against unauthorized access and ensuring the highest level of security.
The ability to connect multiple devices simultaneously is a convenient feature for users with multiple gadgets seeking unified VPN protection.
A kill switch is a vital fail-safe mechanism that disconnects the device from the internet in the event of a VPN connection drop, preventing data exposure during such instances.
Crucial features in IOS VPN app development
This feature is also essential when developing an IOS VPN app. As said, this level of encryption is considered highly secure and is crucial for safeguarding user data and online activities.
This feature blocks ads, pop-ups, and potentially harmful websites, enhancing not only security but also the user’s browsing experience.
A well-developed IOS VPN app should minimize buffering when streaming content or engaging in online activities that require real-time communication.
Global server coverage
A large number of servers spread across various countries ensures that users can easily change their virtual location, access geo-restricted content, and maintain optimal connection speeds.
Mobile VPN Protocols
There are various protocols used to establish the encrypted VPN tunnel. Selecting the right protocol involves tradeoffs between speed, security, and device compatibility.
Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol is one of the oldest and least secure protocols still in use. The main advantages of PPTP are:
- Compatible across most devices and VPN servers.
- Fast connection speeds.
However, encryption strength is poor and it’s vulnerable to monitoring. PPTP also lacks built-in data compression.
Layer 2 Tunnel Protocol paired with IPsec is a more secure alternative. All data is encrypted and decrypted through the IPSec suite of protocols. Pros of L2TP/IPsec include:
- Enhanced security versus PPTP. Uses strong AES 256-bit encryption.
- Native support on most modern client devices.
Drawbacks are slower speeds compared to PPTP and no compression support.
Open-source OpenVPN protocol is considered the most secure and flexible option. Benefits include:
- Uses TLS/SSL protocols to provide AES-256 bit encryption. Highly secure.
- Supports both UDP and TCP transports for reliability.
- Compatible with most VPN providers.
- Excellent speed performance with compression support.
The main limitation is lack of native support on mobile devices. Requires installing OpenVPN client app.
Internet Key Exchange version 2 is a next-gen protocol developed by Microsoft and Cisco. Key advantages:
- Very fast connection times.
- Efficient mobility and reconnection capabilities.
- Uses strong encryption like AES-256.
- Supported natively on modern mobile OSes for easy deployment.
However, IKEv2 compatibility remains limited with VPN providers.
For the best balance across speed, security, and compatibility – OpenVPN and IKEv2 are recommended for most VPN apps.
Implementing VPN Servers
A defining choice in VPN app development is whether you want to operate your own VPN infrastructure, or use servers hosted by a third-party provider.
Building your own VPN network gives you full control, customization, and user data access. But it also comes with high costs:
- Requires purchasing, configuring and maintaining servers in data centers globally. Significant hardware expenses.
- Complex server and network management. Need staff with expert DevOps and network security skills.
- Must architect network for high uptime, capacity and speeds.
- Licensing costs for commercial VPN software like Windows Server + Routing and Remote Access Service (RRAS).
This option only makes sense for well-funded startups willing to make major infrastructure investments.
Alternatively, you can source VPN servers through a wholesale vendor. Top players in the space include NordVPN, ExpressVPN, CyberGhost, PIA, TunnelBear, etc.
This approach significantly reduces time and costs to market. Benefits include:
- Instant global server network. No need to configure own data centers.
- Leverages providers’ network management expertise.
- Usage-based costs instead of massive fixed expenses.
- Faster development without backend infrastructure distraction.
Downsides are less control, flexibility, and reliance on supplier. But the advantages make third-party providers ideal for most VPN app entrepreneurs.
Mobile VPN Permissions
Accessing VPN features on mobile platforms requires specific user permissions. These need to be configured properly during development to avoid problems publishing the app.
Creating VPN connections on Android requires the BIND_VPN_SERVICE permission. This should be declared in the app manifest file:
<uses-permission android:name="android.permission.BIND_VPN_SERVICE" />
Some VPN protocols like PPTP also need the INTERNET permission:
<uses-permission android:name="android.permission.INTERNET" />
These permissions must be approved by users at runtime for API Level 23+ apps. Prompting users and handling responses properly is important.
The Apple Developer Portal is used to enable the Network Extensions entitlement for iOS apps. This allows creation of VPN tunnels using supported protocols like IKEv2 and the NEPacketTunnelProvider API.
Enabling this entitlement requires a valid developer account and costs $99 per year.
Handling VPN Sessions
Once permissions and entitlements are configured, VPN sessions can be started programmatically:
VpnServiceclass is used to initiate and manage VPN connections in Android apps.
- iOS requires using the NEPacketTunnelProvider API to instantiate a tunnel provider object.
It’s important to properly handle Connect/Disconnect events and tunnel status changes within the app’s code. Session persistence is also crucial – your app should be able to automatically re-establish the VPN when the device sleeps and wakes.
Key aspects to handle:
- Auto-starting VPN on app launch.
- Allowing users to manually connect/disconnect the VPN.
- Switching between different server locations.
- Keeping the VPN active when the device sleeps.
- Reconnecting VPN automatically if the tunnel gets disconnected.
Efficient session management is vital for a smooth VPN experience. Failing to reconnect reliably will frustrate users.
Optimizing Connection Speeds
Speed is one of the most important metrics VPN users care about. A slow VPN tunnel provides a poor experience.
Factors impacting connection speeds:
- Protocol – PPTP is fastest, but least secure. OpenVPN and IKEv2 offer best blend of speed and security.
- Encryption – Higher encryption like AES-256 reduces throughput compared to lower security options, and you can learn IPSec Vs. SSL.
- Server location – Users must connect to geographically nearby servers for fastest routes.
- Server load – High-traffic servers slow down due to bandwidth congestion.
- ISP throttling – Some ISPs deliberately throttle detected VPN traffic.
You can optimize connection speeds for your app in several ways:
- Use protocols like OpenVPN and IKEv2 that offer great speeds.
- Enable compression in the VPN tunnel to improve throughput.
- Let users pick nearby server locations to reduce latency.
- Continuously monitor server load and stand up more capacity when needed.
- Use obfuscation techniques (see below) to avoid throttling.
Delivering excellent connection speeds is critical for VPN apps. Performance testing helps identify capacity needs and bottlenecks.
Bypassing Network Restrictions
Many restrictive networks deliberately block or throttle VPN traffic:
- Corporate and school networks prevent access to bypass firewalls.
- ISPs throttle VPNs which reduce revenue from users exceeding data caps.
- China and other countries block VPNs to censor internet access.
VPNs use various evasion tactics to get around these restrictions:
- Obfuscating – Manipulate VPN traffic to look like regular HTTPS data. Fools firewalls.
- Port Forwarding – Use common ports like TCP 443 to bypass port blocking.
- WS over TLS – Wrap VPN data in WebSocket headers, then encrypt with TLS.
- SSH Tunnels – Route VPN traffic through remote SSH connections.
Implementing these obfuscation techniques requires advanced network programming skills. Fortunately, wholesale VPN providers offer ways to integrate these capabilities so you don’t have to build them from scratch.
Expanding Privacy Features
VPN apps can provide additional privacy protections beyond just tunnel encryption:
- Ad blocking – VPNs can block ads and tracking domains via DNS filtering.
- Tracker / Malware blocking – Block known malicious sites and onion routing.
- Onion Routing – Using infrastructure like Tor to further anonymize traffic.
Integrating these features improves your app’s privacy value proposition. But it also adds development and maintenance overhead. Partnering with a VPN provider that offers enhanced privacy services is an easier path to gain these advantages.
There are several effective monetization approaches for VPN apps:
- Freemium – Free limited plan + premium monthly/yearly subscription unlocks full features and speeds.
- In-app purchases – Sell monthly, quarterly, or annual access as one-time IAPs.
- Limited free data – Basic free plan with low monthly data cap to upsell unlimited.
- Ads – Place banner/interstitial ads on free version only. No ads on paid.
The freemium model is a popular approach – offer a compelling free plan with restrictions to entice users to upgrade to premium. This enables building a large install base for monetization.
Consider limiting factors like lower speeds, smaller data allowance, fewer server locations, or lack of advanced features for the free version. But don’t be too restrictive or users may simply uninstall your app.
Getting Published on App Stores
Mobile platform app stores have specific policies and requirements around VPN apps that must be considered:
Apple App Store
Apple allows VPN apps but has an extensive review process to ensure strict compliance with their guidelines:
- Transparent Privacy Practices – Clearly disclose what user data is collected and how it is used.
- Legal Compliance – Confirm the app does not enable illegal activities.
- Network Extensions – The Network Extension entitlement must be enabled by Apple.
- Server Location – List the countries where your VPN servers are located.
App submissions will be rigorously reviewed to validate adherence before getting published on the App Store.
Google Play Store
Google also permits VPN apps but has imposed stricter policies in recent years:
- No user tracking – VPN apps cannot collect or sell user data for surveillance.
- Metadata limits – Only collect minimal metadata like rough location and timestamps.
- No ads in app itself – Ads must be in separate ad SDK, no incentivized ads.
- No root cloaking – Don’t try hiding root detection.
- Clear logging disclosures – explain what event data is logged for how long.
Google also offers a dedicated Developer Policy Center explaining proper VPN app behavior. Rigorously following these rules is required for Play Store approval.
Marketing Your VPN App
Gaining users comes down to effective marketing highlighting these core benefits:
- Security – Communicate how your VPN app protects from hackers, malware, and other threats.
- Privacy – Raise awareness on how you safeguard users’ personal data and online activity.
- Content access – Unblock geo-restricted platforms and content.
- Speed – Emphasize your high-speed infrastructure and performance optimization.
Some proven marketing strategies include:
- SEO content targeting keywords like “VPN”, “virtual private network”, “secure WiFi”, etc.
- Social media ads focused on security and privacy concerns.
- Reviews and mentions of your app on reputable cybersecurity blogs.
- Building trust and credibility by being transparent about operations, logging policies, etc.
Given heightened concerns over VPN ethics and user privacy, building genuine trust is prerequisite to success. Avoid any shady practices that sacrifice user protections for revenue.
Developing a VPN service for mobile platforms comes with substantial technical challenges and security considerations. But solid execution that prioritizes user benefits over data collection can lead to tremendous growth, revenue, and positive societal impact.
By partnering with established VPN providers, app developers can shortcut much of the backend infrastructure complexities and speed time-to-market. Focus engineering resources on your app’s UX and network handling.
Follow industry best practices around privacy and transparency. And market your VPN app’s unique strengths like speed, security, and enhanced privacy controls.