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How Does NAT-T work with IPSec?




    This document describes details on how NAT-T works.





    ESP  encrypts all critical information, encapsulating the entire inner TCP/UDP datagram within an ESP header. ESP is an IP protocol in the same sense  that TCP and UDP are IP protocols (OSI Network Layer 3), but it does not  have any port  information like TCP/UDP (OSI Transport Layer 4).  This is a difference from  ISAKMP which uses UDP port 500 as its transport layer.


    PAT (Port Address Translation) is used to provide many hosts access to the internet through the same publically routable ip address.  PAT works by building a database that binds each local host's ip address to the publically routable ip address using a specific port number.  In this manner, any packet sourced from an inside host will have its IP header modified by the PAT devcie such that the source address and port number are changed from the RFC 1918 address/port to the publically routable ip address and a new unique port.  Referencing this binding database, any return traffic can be untranslated in the same manner.


    Q1: Why can't an ESP packet pass through a PAT device?

    It is precisely because ESP is a protocol without ports that prevents it from passing through PAT devices.  Because there is no port to change in the ESP packet, the binding database can't assign a unique port to the packet at the time it changes its RFC 1918 address to the publically routable address.  If the packet can't be assigned a unique port then the database binding won't complete and there is no way to tell which inside host sourced this packet.  As a result there is no way for the return traffic to be untranslated successfully.



    Q2: How does NAT-T work with ISAKMP/IPsec?

    NAT Traversal performs two tasks:

    1. Detects if both ends support NAT-T
    2. Detects NAT devices along the transmission path (NAT-Discovery)


    Step one occurs in ISAKMP Main Mode messages one and two.  If both devices support NAT-T, then NAT-Discovery is performed in ISKAMP Main Mode messages (packets) three and four.  THe NAT-D payload sent is a hash of the original IP address and port. Devices exchange two NAT-D packets, one with source IP and port, and another with destination IP and port. The receiving device recalculates the hash and compares it with the hash it received; if they don't match a NAT device exists. 

    If a NAT device has been determined to exist, NAT-T will change the ISAKMP transport with ISAKMP Main Mode messages five and six, at which point all ISAKMP packets change from UDP port 500 to UDP port 4500.  NAT-T encapsulates the Quick Mode (IPsec Phase 2) exchange inside UDP 4500 as well.  After Quick Mode completes data that gets encrypted on the IPsec Security Association is encapsulated inside UDP port 4500 as well, thus providing a port to be used in the PAT device for translation. 


    To visualize how this works and how the IP packet is encapsulated:

    1. Clear text packet will be encrypted/encapsulated inside an ESP packet
    2. ESP packet will be encapsulated inside a UDP/4500 packet.


    NAT-T  encapsulates ESP packets inside UDP and assigns both the Source and Destination ports as 4500.  After this encapsulation there is enough information for the PAT database binding to build successfully.  Now ESP packets can be translated through a PAT device.


    When a packet with source and destination port of 4500 is sent through a PAT device (from inside to outside), the PAT device will change the source port from 4500 to a random high port, while keeping the destination port of 4500. When a different NAT-T session passes through the PAT device, it will change the source port from 4500 to a different random high port, and so on. This way each local host has a unique database entry in the PAT devices mapping its RFC1918 ip address/port4500 to the public ip address/high-port.

    Q3: What is the difference between NAT-T and IPSec-over-UDP ?


    Although both these protocols work similiar, there are two main differences.


    • When NAT-T is enabled, it encapsulates the ESP packet with UDP only when it encounters a NAT device. Otherwise, no UDP encapsulation is done. But, IPSec Over UDP, always encapsulates the packet with UDP.


    • NAT-T always use the standard port, UDP-4500. It is not configurable. IPSec over UDP normally uses UDP-10000 but this could be any other port based on the configuration on the VPN server.











    In above diagram, how does the device with PAT make unique identifiers in the PAT Table for both users if NAT-T sets the source and destination UDP ports 4500 ?


    If client A sends a packet, the packet will have the form:

    src:  dst:         - >       src:  dst:


    If client B sends a packet, the packet will have the form:

    src:  dst:         - >       src:  dst:


    the response from the server will have the form to each Client:

    src:  dst:                    - >       src:  dst:
    src:  dst:                    - >       src:  dst:







    Here is the RFC for the IPSec aware NAT (NAT-Traversal) for your reference:

    (It includes the full explaination of the negotiation for your reference)

    Document was create from the following discussion thread----


    Community Member

    Thank you for this article.  

    With this information, I was able to solve the connection to another customers asa/pix devices.    This has been a problem for me since 5 years.   Life gets easier because of your help!



    Hi Athukral,

    The is an excellent article on NAT-T.

    In the  above example, we understand that the client is trying to establish a connectivity to the server over port 80 i.e. as per the interesting traffic defined.

    I would really appreciate if the below points could be cleared:


    Datagram flow with IP and port modifications when 10000 tries to establish connection to


    NAT-T functionality in case we have overlapping subnets wherein we have to NAT the traffic at one end before sending it to the other.

    @Experts: Please help.



    very nice article . I have got better understanding of NAT-T, anyway I would like to ask you, when VPN peer2 got a hash of source IP adress and the port of VPN peer1 which don't match, at this point will VPN peer2 start to use public IP address of VPN peer1 for another communication with him or the process is little bit different? (let's say that DNAT is used to reach VPN peer1).

    Thank you in advance,


    Thank  alotzzzzzzz


    Very detailed, yet briefed and useful. Great explanation. 

    Fabrizio Chessa

    Brief, clear and very great explanation!!!


    Daryl Allen

    Thank you. You have explained this much better than the Cisco CCNA Security OCG. They should take the money they gave to the writers of that book and redirect some of that to you!

    Hi all, This is an excellent and illuminating discussion.  But, I have 2 questions: 1)  Does Nat-T have to be explicitly configured on routers or the ASA? 2)  if so, how would that be done on a Cisco router or ASA? Thanks in advance, Jim
    Cisco Employee

    Nice article Athul. Before coming across your article I did not know there was is something called "IPsec-over-UDP" which is different from NAT-T.


    Could you please let me know if there is any RFC or more detailed documentation on "IPsec-over-UDP"which has details on -

    1) The need for "IPsec-over-UDP"

    2) Its advantages

    3) How it works




    Musaab Hamzah

    Network Address Translation-Traversal (NAT-T) is a method for getting around IP address translation issues encountered when data protected by IPsec passes through a NAT device for address translation. Any changes to the IP addressing, which is the function of NAT, causes IKE to discard packets. After detecting one or more NAT devices along the datapath during Phase 1 exchanges, NAT-T adds a layer of User Datagram Protocol (UDP) encapsulation to IPsec packets so they are not discarded after address translation. NAT-T encapsulates both IKE and ESP traffic within UDP with port 4500 used as both the source and destination port. Because NAT devices age out stale UDP translations, keepalive messages are required between the peers.


    Great Explanation! Thanks!


    Awesome and simple explanation. Thank you.

    Osman Salah

    Thanks a lot

    Cisco Employee

    very nice document,

    Cleared my doubts related to NAT-T.

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