There was a time virtual private networks (VPNs) were not part of our lives. Thanks to Edward Snowden's revelations about government surveillance and the NSA, the emergence of streaming services and geoblocking, and the world's population is continuously online, that time is long gone. Add to that the current war between Apple and Facebook on privacy, and your privacy is at risk. Are you ready to jump on the VPN bandwagon with a free VPN?
What Is a VPN?
A VPN creates an encrypted connection (often referred to as a tunnel) between your computer and a server controlled by the VPN company and then passes all network activity through that protected tunnel. Anyone monitoring the network you're using won't be able to see what you're up to.
Even your Internet Service Provider (ISP) will be oblivious to your online activities, preventing them from selling your anonymized user data. Out on the web, advertisers and trackers will have a more challenging time tracking you because the VPN hides your actual IP address.
That being said, you can kiss your anonymity goodbye even with a VPN if you have cookies enabled.
However, once your traffic exits the VPN server, it can be monitored and perhaps intercepted with a man-in-the-middle attack — especially if you're connecting to sites that aren't using HTTPS.
It's even possible, although challenging, to use complicated timing algorithms to predict the time and location of VPN tunnel exit. Naturally, advertisers also have a variety of tools at their disposal to track your online activity.
Anonymity and Privacy
To overcome that, I recommend using a stand-alone tracker blocker such as uBlock Origin or Ghostery and a privacy-focused browser, such as Firefox or even the Tor Browser.
Tor is a free and open-source software for enabling anonymous communication by directing Internet traffic through a free, worldwide, volunteer overlay network consisting of more than seven thousand relays to conceal a user's location and usage from anyone conducting network surveillance or traffic analysis. Combine Tor with a solid VPN service, and your anonymity and privacy will be of the highest standard, as only your VPN provider will
Now, if your search for a VPN is just about having a bit more security on your laptop or smartphone when using public Wi-Fi every once in a while, for instance, on airports, then a free VPN might be good enough for you. A free VPN typically makes a compromise to offer you free service (after all, if it's free, then you are the product). I am not fond of free VPNs; that's why I decided to buy Ivacy VPN and have at least a decent cost-effective VPN solution for five years.
However, a casual user may not need that much. If you are in that category, Firefox's built-in VPN may be good enough if you are looking for privacy. Meanwhile, Opera's VPN can unblock Netflix US, but that's about it; the rest of the streaming services block it. But now, let's talk about other free VPN services and their limitations.
Free VPNs' challenges and limitations
Free VPN services may cost nothing, but there is a reason for that – it means the provider will be turning a profit in some other way. Free VPNs usually come with invasive advertising or by selling your browsing data to third parties.
Moreover, free services tend to limit the volume of data you can use and the available bandwidth you can use it. Such practices render VPNs unusable for streaming service unblocking, torrenting, or as a continuous extra layer of strong security in your day-to-day online life. You will also miss the level of support paid services provide, along with the wide range of servers and locations they offer.
Are you looking to join the premium VPN side?
NordVPN is among the industry leaders in VPNs and one of the very best premium providers that will cover all your privacy and streaming needs. It supports up to 6 simultaneous connections and offers a 30-day money-back guarantee while providing excellent unblocking capabilities and minor download speed dropoffs. It also features a very effective ad and malware blocker.
NordVPN comes highly recommended by Borderpolar. You can also read our full NordVPN review.
CyberGhost VPN comes with a 45-day money-back guarantee. It also supports up to 7 simultaneous connections. While it did not blow us away in terms of performance, and we had several questions about its trustworthiness in the past, it is a low-cost upgrade over free VPNs.
Now, look, I compiled this list with one thing in mind. Five out of the six free VPN providers listed below totally respect your privacy, with one of them even undergoing external privacy audits (and yes, this is vital). The first recommendation, Hotspot Shield, cuts some corners by servicing ads in the free version. I included it because it's a fast VPN that gives you 15GB of data tying it in second place with Windscribe, only losing Proton VPN‘s unlimited data allowance.
The free plan is limited to 500MB per day so, if security is your sole aim, then Hotspot is on the same wavelength, boasting ‘military-grade encryption' – comforting if you do your banking and shopping online or by mobile.
Both the desktop and mobile apps are very user-friendly.
In the free version, you're limited to one US-based location that Hotspot Shield chooses for you, and you'll have to put up with ads if you're using Hotspot Shield on Android and there is a speed limit of 2Mbps. It also does not unblock streaming in the free version.
If the basics are enough for your purposes, then downloading and installing Hotspot Shield without hassle is easy to do, but you won't be able to go too far with it in terms of geo-unblocking.
Available on: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Chrome, Firefox, Opera
Servers available: 26 (26 different countries)
Data limit: 500MB per month, 1.5GB if you tweet
24/7 live chat support: No
Unblocks: YouTube & Spotify
Annual independent audits
Friendly, approachable design
Browser extensions, including stand-alone ad blocker
Good speed test results
Lack of geographic diversity in server locations
Few advanced features
Bears are adorable, and they take your privacy very seriously. However, Tunnelbear wants to convert you to a paid user.
The free plan's significant restriction is that you are limited to 500MB of traffic each month. That is a tiny amount, so you have to neat pick the extra protection times. You won't be able to keep it on all the time, and you can forget to use this VPN for torrenting and streaming. Going for a provider like ExpressVPN or NordVPN alleviates this pain point entirely.
3. ProtonVPN Free
Supported on: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Linux
Servers available: 3 (US, Japan, Netherlands)
Data limit: Unlimited
Unblocks: YouTube, Spotify, Kodi
24/7 live chat support: No
Great free subscription features
Focus on privacy and physical security, no-log policy, and protection by Swiss laws
Fewer servers and available sites than most (US, Japan, Netherlands)
The server limit will lead to a lot of throttling
ProtonVPN is another provider that offers a free VPN alongside a paid option, but the former has some solid points. The most notable of which is that it doesn’t impose any data restrictions. That's highly rare for a free VPN provider and immediately makes it one of my favorite options for free privacy.
There are, naturally enough, limitations for the free plan to incentivize upgrading to a paid-for offering. And ProtonVPN Free’s restrictions include limiting you to only one device, only three locations, and free users are getting a lower priority when it comes to speed than paying subscribers. There’s no P2P support either, and you may have to live with throttling at peak times due to the few server options. I don't think talking about Quick Connect is a biggie since you have just three servers to choose from anyway.
But if you can live with that, this is an impressive provider with a strict no-logging policy, and you can sign up with nothing more than your email address. ProtonVPN free is as clean as it gets. While there is no external audit for ProtoVPN, it has a firm no-log policy, and it is tightened to it by Swiss law policies.
Supported on: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Linux, Firefox, Chrome
Servers available: 10 ( US, UK, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, and Switzerland)
Data limit: 10GB per month (15GB if you tweet and mention @windscribecom, didn't work for me, though)
24/7 live chat support: No
10GB, or even 15GB of monthly data limit
Unblocks Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go
Inherent ad blocker
Inconsistent performance, decent overall
Windscribe‘s generous data allowance and commitment to protecting your privacy make it one of the best free VPN options around. You get 5GB bandwidth per month as standard and choose from ten remote server locations with the Windscribe VPN free version. You only need to create a username and password to sign up (an email address is optional, but validating it gets you from 5GB to 10GB). A tweet about them gets you to 15GB/month, so we have the runner-up in that regard.
Windscribe doesn’t store connection logs, IP stamps, or visited sites; when you’re actively connected to a server, it keeps your username, the server you’re bound to, and the amount of data transferred, but this is erased within three minutes of the session ending.
If that isn’t enough to tempt you, there’s even a built-in adblocker and firewall. Windscribe is one of those services that aim to convert you to a premium user.
Interesting speed-boosting technology
The app does not allow many tweaks.
Streaming is a no-go with this one.
Speedify uses all available internet connections to get the best possible performance by combining, for instance, an Ethernet connection with a tethered mobile connection. Even if you only have one type of internet connection, the firm claims its speed-boosting technology will still help speed things up while providing excellent privacy.
The free plan provides complete access to Speedify's servers, only restricting the amount of data you can download. Free users get 2GB of data each month, which is okay-ish compared to other providers on this list. It pretty much makes Speediy a decent option for free monthly browsing and emails.
But if you were hoping for a free option that would also be a good option for streaming and geo-unblocking, then you'll need to try other options on this list. Speedify is not a service that aims for streamers. It is a service that aims to convert those who look for privacy and top speed to premium users.
Supported on: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Linux
Servers available: 50+
Data limit: 2GB per month
24/7 live chat support: No
Interesting and beneficial performance-boosting technology
The software has few low-level controls
The low monthly cap of 2GB
Lack of 24/7 support
Speedify, as you would expect, aims to both keep your connection private and speedy.
To that end, this provider will use all available internet connections to get the best possible performance, potentially combining, say, an Ethernet connection (fixed broadband) with a tethered mobile connection. We have already seen similar technologies in the past in smartphones.
Even if you only have one type of internet connection, Speedify claims its turbocharging technology will still help speed things up.
The free plan boasts full access to those servers (just as with the subscription options), the only restriction of the free offering being that you’re limited in the amount of data you can download. Free users get 2GB of data each month.
That’s not a huge allowance, and certainly not as much as some other rivals you’ll see elsewhere on this page, but it’s more than some and still enough for covering some basic surfing and email duties.
And this provider is worth a look on the performance front, as, during our testing, the aforementioned speed-granting technologies did prove themselves to have a positive effect.
Servers available: 5 (Canada, Netherlands, Germany, 2 US servers)
Data limit: 10GB per month
24/7 live chat support: Yes
Strong speed performance, no throttling
Unblocks: Hulu, iPlayer, Amazon Prime Video, HBO GO
Automatic kill switch
Only one device is allowed
Hide.me offers both paid and free VPN providers, with the latter giving you 10GB of data per month. There are other limits: you can only connect a maximum of one device and are limited to five server locations rather than the 50+ locations paying subscribers to get.
However, this Hide.me won’t throttle the connection speed for free users. It further promises that it keeps no logs and stores no user data, so it won’t pass on any data to third parties to make a profit. There are no adverts here, either.
You get native software for Windows PC and Mac, Android, and iOS. There is also plus there’s 24/7 technical support, even for the free version. Overall, then, this is a more-than-solid free offering that tries to maintain your privacy without too many restrictions.
Is a free VPN a good idea?
Honestly, there isn't one easy answer to this question. It depends on what you want to use your free VPN for. If it's just about having a bit more security on your laptop or mobile when using public Wi-Fi, they can be just the right candidate.
In that regard, Proton VPN free and Windscribe come highly recommended due to their strong privacy policies, but you compromise performance. Speedify is fast, but you don't get a lot of data.
Hotspot Shield is fast, but you lose privacy due to ads. Finally, Tunnelbear is a VPN for those looking to convert to the premium version, as it offers speed, external privacy audits, and excellent privacy, but 500MB per month is not enough for your needs. Consider its free version a test drive around the neighborhood.
But if your primary purpose is to have a streaming VPN say, or want to use it while downloading terabytes of torrent files, a free VPN just isn't going to do the trick. For starters, most of them limit you to a daily or monthly data allowance that you'll rinse through in no time at all. Simultaneously, most don't have comfortable access support or server range required to make those activities easy with a virtual private network.
How to Choose a Free VPN
Virtual private networks are not the panacea to being safe, secure, and confidential on the internet; it is an essential component of the arsenal for individuals inclined to seek these liberties.
If you don’t have one yet, you can grab one for free without having to pay a single penny for one. Just be careful, though, as not all free VPN providers are created equal, and some might even compromise your security.
Here are five questions you need to ask yourself before you download and install one.
1. What is its business model?
Providers are in for the money, and running such a business does cost a lot, especially if it is a popular one. Some will use their free version, just like Dropbox, as a marketing tool to entice potential customers to move to a paid version once they are happy with the free one. However, most will sell user data or provide something to a third party or advertisers that will, again, compromise your privacy.
This is the reason you should follow verified lists like this one or others by credible sources. To put it simply, some free VPNs are advertisers' back-door to your private data, and you know they are crazy for them.
2. How does it protect my PC?
Most providers usually use a desktop application that encrypts your data while surfing the web in the background. However, that only solves part of the problem. Third parties can still fingerprint your computer because of the permissiveness of tracking solutions found on almost all websites online, such as third-party cookies and trackers that follow you everywhere. A few, including Windscribe, have a more holistic approach by integrating the equivalent of a super ad-blocker and privacy protector.
3. What features are missing in free versions?
Some VPNs offer more free bandwidth than others, more connection locations, adblocking, P2P, and firewall with an easy paid upgrade path that unlocks unlimited bandwidth with more locations and VPN protocol configurations and extra features. With the best VPN services, you are not going to encounter such limitations.
4. Does the VPN provider log my activity?
You can never know 100% unless they go through an external audit that confirms no-log policy claims. You can usually check that in the terms and conditions page or the end-user license agreement, commonly known as EULA. Sadly, many providers prefer to frustrate end users with long T&Cs or very obscure privacy statements. On the other end of the spectrum are providers that will erase everything after your session closes, don’t keep logs, and even undergo external privacy audits.
5. Can I sign up completely anonymously?
Having a provider that you can subscribe to without an email address and one that accepts Bitcoin payments for maximum privacy is pretty much the best you can expect online. Some providers also offer double hopping, where you can obfuscate your traffic further by nearly doubling down on privacy.
How Safe are Free VPN Services?
The main critique against free VPNs is that they aren't half as helpful as the paid-for alternatives. However, usefulness is not the only problem. A study from 2020 suggested that around 40% of the free Android VPNs available on the Google Play Store do not protect their users' privacy to an adequate level. This list does not include such VPN providers.