A virtual private network (VPN) allows you to browse the web anonymously and securely by routing your traffic through an encrypted tunnel. VPNs mask your IP address so your online activities can‘t be easily traced back to you. They are commonly used to access blocked content, avoid geography-based restrictions, and protect your browsing on public Wi-Fi.
While there are some free VPN options, most robust and unlimited VPN services require a paid subscription.
What is a VPN and why use one?
A VPN routes your internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel to a server controlled by the VPN provider. This hides your IP address, making it appear you are browsing from the VPN server location rather than your actual location.
Benefits of using a VPN:
- Encrypts data to protect against snooping on public Wi-Fi
- Masks location to access region-blocked content
- Prevents ISP from tracking browsing history
- Adds layer of anonymity for secure connections
VPNs are recommended when accessing public Wi-Fi, torrenting, streaming geo-restricted content, protecting sensitive online transactions, and any other scenario where extra privacy is desired.
Free vs paid VPNs: What‘s the difference?
- Offer limited bandwidth, usually 500MB to 10GB per month
- May log/sell browsing data and online activities
- Have fewer server options, often leading to slow speeds
- Limited features and technical support
- Provide unlimited bandwidth with no throttling
- Strict no-logging policies for privacy protection
- Large server networks optimized for speed
- Offer advanced features like malware blocking and ad removal
- Provide 24/7 customer support
Paid VPNs invest heavily in infrastructure and security, while free VPNs cut corners and recover costs by logging/selling user data or displaying ads.
Pros of using a free VPN
Some pros of using a free VPN include:
- Adds basic encryption to protect public Wi-Fi sessions
- Masks IP address to obscure location
- Allows access to some geo-restricted content
- Provides entry-level privacy for casual browsing
- Option to try before committing to paid service
Free VPNs offer a modicum more security than no VPN at all. They can be suitable for basic, light usage.
Cons of using a free VPN
Some notable cons of free VPN services:
- Data limits as low as 500MB per month
- Speeds can be extremely slow due to congested servers
- They log, track and sell your browsing data
- Lack advanced security features like a kill switch
- No guarantee the service will remain free indefinitely
- Questionable reliability and technical support
Free VPNs recommend upgrading to a paid plan to get the full experience. They cost money to operate and need ways to generate revenue, which leads some free VPNs to exploit user data.
Is a free VPN better than no VPN?
Experts generally recommend avoiding free VPNs in favor of reputable paid services or no VPN at all. Here‘s why:
No VPN: Browsing is unencrypted but you aren‘t sending data to an unknown third-party VPN company. Internet activity remains between you and your ISP only.
Free VPN: Adds basic encryption but some log/sell your activity and data anyway, creating additional exposure. You must place blind trust in the VPN provider.
Paid VPN: Offers robust encryption, guaranteed privacy, and performance optimized for your needs. The drawback is the monetary cost.
A free VPN can sell your data just like ISPs do, but have even less oversight. Proceed with extreme caution when choosing a free VPN.
6 examples of reputable free VPNs
If you do opt to try a free VPN, go with an established provider with a proven no-logging policy. Here are some better options:
ProtonVPN – No logs policy. Unlimited data on one device. Servers in 54 countries.
Windscribe – No logs. 10GB monthly limit. Servers in 63 countries.
Hide.me – No logs. 10GB monthly limit. Servers in 80+ countries.
TunnelBear – No logs. 500MB free each month. Servers in 20 countries.
Atlas VPN – No logs. Unlimited data. Servers in 19 countries.
RiseUp – Privacy-focused provider for activists. Unlimited data. 70+ servers.
These providers offer reliable basic privacy within the limitations of a free service. Make sure to check the monthly data limits.
|Provider||Data Limit||Server Locations|
|ProtonVPN||Unlimited 1 device||54 countries|
|Atlas VPN||Unlimited||19 countries|
Security: Free VPN vs paid VPN
Most free VPNs use basic encryption like AES-128 and TLS 1.2 or 1.3. These protocols are reasonably secure for everyday web browsing.
Paid VPNs tend to provide stronger encryption like AES-256 or ChaCha20 combined with protocols like OpenVPN, WireGuard, and IKEv2. This makes it much harder for hackers to decrypt traffic.
Paid services also typically offer advanced security features missing from free VPNs like:
Kill switch – Blocks all internet if the VPN connection drops to prevent IP exposure
Split tunneling – Choose which apps send traffic through the VPN and which don‘t
Ad blocking – Block ads, trackers and malware domains for safer browsing
Custom DNS – Use secure DNS servers to prevent spoofing attacks
Privacy: Free VPN vs paid VPN
The main privacy concern with free VPNs is that they log user activity and sell data to third parties to turn a profit. Paid VPNs can promise much stronger privacy protections because they earn revenue directly from customer subscriptions.
Several factors that indicate strong privacy:
No logs policy – Does not record browsing data, IP addresses or connection timestamps
No leaks – Passes IP/DNS leak tests to ensure no traffic exposes real IP
Secure protocols – Uses OpenVPN, WireGuard and other highly secure protocols
RAM-disk servers – Stores no data on persistent disks, only in temporary RAM
Onion over VPN – Adds Tor encryption layer for maximum anonymity
Speed: Free VPN vs paid VPN
Free VPNs often have congested, underpowered servers located in only a handful of countries. This leads to slow connection speeds as multiple users compete for bandwidth on the same overloaded servers.
Paid VPNs invest in servers optimized specifically for speed:
More servers – More choice means less competing users per server
More locations – More countries means servers closer to you physically
Tier 1 network access – Top-notch internet backbone providers
Unlimited bandwidth – No throttling or high-speed data caps
Multihop connections – Link through multiple servers for greater obfuscation
A reputable paid VPN offers plenty of uncongested servers near you for consistently fast speeds. Try a free trial to test speed vs your normal connection.
Are paid VPNs worth the cost?
For maximum security, privacy, speeds, and unlimited access you need a paid VPN. Prices range from about $3 to $10 per month, with discounts if you pay annually.
Here are the main advantages a paid VPN provides over free options:
- Stronger encryption and expanded security features
- Guaranteed zero-logging for privacy
- Unlimited bandwidth on fast servers located worldwide
- Reliable connections and technical support
- Often allow 5+ device connections
For power users who rely on a VPN, the subscription fee brings obvious benefits over limited, potentially sketchy free services. But even for casual users the enhanced security and privacy of a premium VPN can be worthwhile.
When to use a free VPN
While paid is strongly recommended, here are some instances where a trustworthy free VPN could make sense:
- Add basic encryption to a public WiFi session
- Quickly access a geo-restricted website
- Keep your browsing obscured from prying eyes on a shared or borrowed device
- Try out VPNs before buying a long term subscription
Think of free VPNs as a light privacy veil. They‘re handy in a pinch but lack robust protection. Proceed with caution and low expectations on speed.
VPN protocols: Differences between IPsec, OpenVPN, IKEv2
IPsec – Native VPN protocol built into most devices. Medium security and speed.
OpenVPN – Open source VPN protocol focused on security and speed. Uses SSL/TLS encryption plus authentication. Considered very secure.
IKEv2 – Created by Cisco and Microsoft to securely connect through firewalls. Fast connection speeds. Found in Blackberry and Windows devices.
OpenVPN and IKEv2 are generally regarded as the most secure protocols and offer good speeds. Free VPNs typically use slower protocols like PPTP, L2TP/IPsec or SOCKS5 that are less secure.
Approach free VPNs with healthy skepticism, and only use reputable providers that admit to no logging or selling of user data. Paid VPNs deliver faster speeds, robust security, unlimited access and guaranteed privacy for a reasonable subscription cost. But free services can add a small privacy boost in limited scenarios for casual users.