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Understanding VPN custom DNS settings: Enhancing privacy and security

Verified by Nick Jones Editor-in-Chief

The escalating wave of cybercrime has given rise to alarming global security concerns. This is where sophisticated virtual private network (VPN) services with custom Domain Name System (DNS) settings step forward as an essential tool, safeguarding digital interactions from various cyberthreats users may fall victim to. 

Cybercrime statistics speak for themselves. With nearly a third of UK businesses reporting weekly attacks and a predicted annual damage cost of up to £8.4 trillion by 2025, taking robust cybersecurity measures is vital. Utilising the custom DNS option of your VPN is an effective strategy to enhance security and speed up your internet connection. 

This article will provide an in-depth explanation of VPN custom DNS settings, exploring their functionality and how they can effectively improve the privacy and security of your online activities. You’ll also learn when to use VPN custom DNS settings and, most importantly, how to adjust them correctly.

What are VPN custom DNS settings?

VPN custom DNS settings are an advanced feature that allows you to use a specified DNS server while the VPN connection is active. The main purpose of these custom settings is to give you greater control over your DNS queries, which can enhance your privacy, security and overall internet experience.

To fully understand this, let’s first explore what DNS does. It acts as a directory for the internet, changing human-readable website names into the corresponding Internet Protocol (IP) addresses used by browsers. Your internet service provider (ISP) typically manages these requests and may track your internet activity, and VPN custom DNS settings can prevent this transparency of your online interactions.

A VPN manages DNS independently and establishes a secure, encrypted tunnel between your device and the server you’re connected to. This protects your internet traffic from being observed or intercepted. Some VPN services have separate DNS servers to handle DNS queries, maintaining the security and privacy shielded by the VPN.

In addition, many VPNs offer custom DNS settings, allowing you to choose a different DNS provider instead of using the VPN provider’s DNS servers. This capability is beneficial when the VPN’s default DNS servers are slow or unreliable, or users have specific DNS preferences, such as using a DNS server with enhanced privacy features or malware blocking.

Benefits of VPN custom DNS settings

Utilising custom DNS settings within a VPN offers many advantages related to privacy, security, performance and flexibility.

Privacy enhancement 

Custom DNS settings significantly boost user privacy. Choosing a reliable DNS provider prevents you from being monitored by your ISP and other outside trackers. This extra privacy protection helps keep your online actions private and secure.

Improved performance

Custom DNS settings enhance your online browsing experience. By switching to a faster and more efficient DNS server, you can improve your browsing performance and enjoy faster speeds overall.

Bypassing censorship and geo-restrictions

Your ISP may prevent you from accessing certain websites based on content or geographical location. A custom DNS server helps you bypass these limitations and access a broader range of online content.

Enhanced online safety and control 

Certain custom DNS servers have added features that improve online safety, such as blocking ads, preventing tracking attempts and filtering out malicious websites. Some even provide parental control features, limiting access to inappropriate content.

Prevention of DNS leaks 

DNS leaks are security flaws when DNS requests, which should be protected within the VPN’s secure tunnel, are accidentally sent to an ISP’s DNS servers. This could expose all your browsing activities, including your IP address, location and web searches, to your ISP.

There are a few situations that might result in a DNS leak:

  • Improperly configured VPN
  • Ineffective VPN service
  • Lack of Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) support
  • Transparent DNS proxies

You can choose a DNS server that provides better leak protection by using custom DNS settings. This ensures your online privacy and security remain intact, which is particularly vital when using networks you don’t control. Examples include public wifi or when dealing with ISPs that force the use of their own DNS servers.

When to use VPN custom DNS settings

As we suggested, while VPNs are robust privacy tools, custom DNS settings can enhance their performance further, particularly under specific conditions. 

You may opt for custom DNS when your primary goal is to accelerate browsing. Renowned DNS providers like Cloudflare, Google Public DNS, Quad9 or OpenDNS often surpass the speed of regular ISPs’ DNS servers, resulting in a faster VPN experience.

Custom DNS settings are extremely advantageous in web filtering, acting as a protective shield against various online threats. Custom DNS offers parental control for families with young children by restricting access to inappropriate online content.

Moreover, in scenarios where a VPN’s DNS server malfunctions and restricts access to certain websites, switching to a custom DNS might prove beneficial for resolving such problems. Hence, a custom DNS is a viable solution for individuals and businesses encountering browsing issues or seeking enhanced control over web content.

However, it’s crucial to note that employing custom DNS might add a layer of complexity and potential pitfalls. Users must weigh the trade-off between gaining new features against potentially losing those offered by their VPN’s DNS. Additionally, there could be privacy concerns if the DNS provider logs browsing history, though choosing a non-account-based DNS service can mitigate this risk.

So, using custom DNS settings within a VPN is recommended for advanced users and businesses with specific needs and a sound understanding of the implications. The VPN custom DNS option offers a more nuanced, customisable VPN experience but requires careful selection and handling to avoid unforeseen complications.

How to configure VPN custom DNS settings

Although configuring custom DNS settings within your VPN or router varies by provider, it usually is a straightforward process:

  • NordVPN, for instance, provides a custom DNS feature accessible via the settings on its Windows application
  • Proton VPN offers a custom DNS server option in the “Connection” tab on its platform
  • Hide.me goes a step further by allowing the input of both Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) and IPv6 DNS server IPs, which can be found in the “Network” section of its settings

For other providers, try exploring areas titled “Connection”, “Network”, or “Advanced” within the settings to find DNS-related options. Irrespective of the specific interface, configuring custom DNS typically involves two steps: 

  • Enabling the custom DNS feature
  • Inputting the DNS server IP addresses

Let’s look at the custom DNS configuration process for NordVPN. Follow these steps to adjust your VPN custom DNS settings on the Windows application:

  1. Start your app and select the settings icon. In the settings window, select “Connection”
    VPN custom DNS settings 1
  2. Once the “Connection” settings appear, toggle the “Use custom DNS” button to enable the option
    VPN custom DNS settings 2

  3. Insert the preferred DNS server address. For example, you can use the OpenDNS servers, which are 208.67.222.222 and 208.67.220.220. Click on the check box to save your settings
    VPN custom DNS settings 3

To configure custom DNS on a Windows device, follow the steps below: 

  1. Open the “Network Connections” settings by pressing + R, then typing “ncpa.cpl”
    VPN custom DNS settings 4
  2. Right-click on your active internet connection
  3. Then, select “Properties” and double-click IPv4
    VPN custom DNS settings 5

  4. Select “Use the following DNS server addresses” and input your desired DNS server addresses in the respective fields
    VPN custom DNS settings 6

  5. Click “OK” to confirm and complete the configuration

Most DNS services provide two IP addresses: primary and secondary. For instance, Cloudflare employs 1.1.1.1 and 1.0.0.1 for its primary service. You can find these addresses in your DNS provider’s setup guide.

After changing settings, reconnect to your VPN and visit DNSleaktest.com, selecting the extended test. Your change is successful if the custom DNS IP addresses you entered appear. 

Otherwise, troubleshooting may involve switching browsers, trying a different site such as DNSleak.com, or rebooting your device. 

This granular control over DNS settings enables users to optimise their VPN experience, enhancing security, privacy and performance.

Final takeaways

Navigating today’s internet landscape necessitates robust privacy measures, such as using VPN services with custom DNS settings. These settings empower users with enhanced control, privacy and security, bypassing censorship, improving browsing speed and eliminating DNS leaks. 

Custom DNS configurations can significantly optimise VPN performance and offer reliable solutions when default DNS servers limit access. However, it’s critical to comprehend the trade-off between added complexity and potential benefits. Thus, custom DNS settings are ideal for users who understand these aspects and have specific needs related to their internet connection privacy and security.

Frequently asked questions about VPN custom DNS settings

Yes, you can use any DNS server with VPN custom DNS settings, provided the VPN service allows you to configure the DNS settings manually. Remember to choose a reliable and trusted DNS server that meets your privacy and speed requirements.

Custom DNS settings can significantly impact browsing speed, particularly if the DNS server you’re using takes longer to to resolve your query and look up the website you’re trying to access. By choosing a DNS server known for its speed and efficiency, such as Cloudflare or Google Public DNS, you can enhance your browsing experience and potentially reduce page load times.

Yes, VPN custom DNS settings can help prevent DNS leaks. A DNS leak occurs when DNS requests are inadvertently routed outside the secure VPN tunnel, exposing your browsing data to your ISP. Using a reliable DNS server can bolster the protection against such leaks.

While a basic understanding of VPNs and DNS settings is beneficial, most VPN services offer a straightforward process for customising DNS settings. Additionally, many provide detailed guides and customer support to assist with the setup.

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Mariana is an experienced technology writer specialising in web and internet technology. She writes about cyber security, including VPN; web development; and software engineering. She has been writing since 2006 and held a position of English lecturer at Technical University of Varna in Bulgaria until 2022, working in a variety of educational fields.

For the Independent Advisor, Mariana writes about the usefulness of VPNs and how people can protect themselves and their data online.

Nick Jones

Editor in Chief

Nick Jones is a highly experienced consumer journalist and editor, who has been writing and producing content for print and online media for over 25 years.

He has worked at some of the UK’s leading publishers including Future Publishing, Highbury Entertainment, and Imagine Publishing, with publications as diverse as Homebuilding & Renovating, TechRadar, and Creative Bloq, writing and editing content for audiences whose interests include history, computing, gaming, films, and science. He’s also produced a number of podcasts in the technology, science, gaming, and true crime genres.

Nick has also enjoyed a highly successful career in content marketing, working in a variety of topics such as health, technology, and finance, with market-leading global companies including Cisco, Pfizer, Santander, and Virgin Media.

Now the Editor-in-Chief of the Independent Advisor, Nick is involved in all aspects of the site’s content, where his expertise in finance, technology, and home products informs every article that’s published on-site. He takes a hands-on approach with our VPN content, penning a number of the articles himself, and verifying that everything we publish in this topic is accurate.

Whatever the area of interest he’s worked in, Nick has always been a consumer champion, helping people find the best deals and give them the information they need to make an informed buying decision.