A free VPN sounds like the perfect solution — total anonymity online, unblocked streaming sites and the freedom to browse what you want without the fear of being tracked, all without spending a penny. However, is that what you can realistically expect?
Before you trust a service with protecting your online activity, it's important to understand how a free VPN works, how providers can afford to offer a free service in the first place, and what sacrifices you'll have to make in terms of functionality and privacy to save yourself that money.
You won't be surprised to hear that no free VPN can match the very best VPN services, but for casual users they can be a useful tool to have at your disposal. While it's unlikely they'll be getting you access to worldwide Netflix libraries, they can work in a pinch if you want to securely access your email on public Wi-Fi, or do a search you'd rather no one find out about.
Is a free VPN worth it?
If you're going to get a free VPN, you need to know the facts. Firstly, they can come with hidden costs – you might get ads injected into your browser or, even worse, end up having your data sold or your device used as an exit node for other users.
If you want the best service possible, we'd recommend signing up to a paid provider. Our top-rated VPN is ExpressVPN, but if you're looking to save some money we'd recommend Surfshark. For less than $2.50 a month you'll have unlimited data and simultaneous connections, as well as in-depth features not available with free VPNs.
If you're dead-set on testing out a free VPN, though, below we've rounded up the best five which manage to avoid compromising usability too much, and offer viable alternatives to paid services for casual users.
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1. ExpressVPN – use the best VPN risk-free for 30 days
ExpressVPN is our top-rated VPN, and it's the best service on the market. If you're on the fence about paying, Express offers a 30-day money-back guarantee so you can test it out with no risk.
2. Surfshark – easily the best cheap VPN
If you want a world-class VPN but can't afford to splash out, Surfshark is a great option. It unblocks all streaming sites and has great privacy features, and at just $2.49 a month, it's great value. What's more, it also offers a 30-day risk-free money-back guarantee.View Deal
3. NordVPN – security-focused VPN giant
Probably the most famous VPN on the scene, NordVPN provides a seriously secure option. It can unblock just about all streaming sites, including Netflix, and it's not bad value, either. Plus, you'll be covered by a 30-day money-back guarantee.View Deal
The best free VPN services you can download today
We've tested a whole bunch of free services, and our ProtonVPN review found that none overall can match the Swiss provider's seriously impressive feature list and performance.
First up, what sets ProtonVPN apart from the pack is the fact it delivers unlimited data – this is the only free VPN you really can set and forget without worrying about how much data you're using.
While ProtonVPN's free option can't access exclusive regional Netflix content (you'll have to upgrade for that), we've found it able to watch Netflix Originals, and YouTube doesn't appear to be an issue, either – upgrading will, however, get good streaming performance across the board.
Of course, there are some limitations – the provider does want you to start paying at some point, after all. At peak times you'll find that speeds drop as paying users have priority over bandwidth, you'll have access for only one device at a time, you'll get no P2P or Secure Core support, and only three locations to play with.
However, compared to the competition, ProtonVPN's zero-logging policy, excellent unlimited data plan, and support for a wide range of devices, plus its functional leak protection, split tunneling and custom DNS servers all combine to make the most well-rounded free VPN we've tested to date by far. If you can live with the compromises, we highly recommend it.
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Windscribe's premium service is excellent, and that translates over to its free VPN, too. When you sign up you'll get the chance to bag either 2GB a month without handing over any info, or 10GB if you provide an email address – learn more in our Windscribe VPN review.
We also like the fact you can pick from a selection of servers, including North America, Europe, Hong Kong, and the recently added Turkey. Of course, if you upgrade you'll get a far larger selection, but this is generous for a free VPN.
What's interesting is that Windscribe's free VPN has been known to be able to access Netflix. While we can in no way guarantee this as the goalposts are always moving, if you're looking for a free Netflix VPN you could do a lot worse – plus you'll get an ad-blocker, a firewall, and claims of no-logging.
However, Windscribe's apps do let the side down a little – the interface is quite cramped and can make it tricky to find settings. But, if you stick to the recommended settings and just turn it on and off (or just get used to the UI), it's perfectly serviceable. It's also worth noting that neither paid nor free versions get 24/7 support, so you could be left in the lurch if something goes wrong
Overall, though, Windscribe is a powerful free VPN service that's simple and effective. Well worth a look.
In our Hotspot Shield review, we rate the provider's paid VPN as one of the very best, so it should come as no surprise that the free VPN offering is good, too. Delivering good speeds (although not nearly as fast as the paid version) and a generous 500MB daily data allowance, it's perfectly usable for keeping you private online.
As soon as you open up the app you'll know it's a professional bit of kit, as the apps are slick and work very well. However, while you'll be able to see all the premium servers in-app, free users are limited to just a single US location.
It's not all plain sailing with Hotspot, though. In the past we've had issue accessing google Search, with a 403 Error being displayed. In our most recent testing, though, this seems to have been remedied. However, Hotspot Shield itself blocks Netflix access for free users, so you won't be able to watch anything with it switched on.
There are also some concerns about advertising and logging. It's widely claimed that Hotspot Shield injects ads into your browsing in order to subsidise free users, but in our experience we didn't really notice any difference. What the provider collects about users, though (bandwidth used, your OS, the time you connect and more), is a little worrying.
Overall, Hotspot Shield is a very capable free VPN – and the paid version is excellent – but the fact of matter is that there are more well-rounded, flexible, and secure options out there right now.
TunnelBear is owned by none other than security giant McAfee, and with that comes some serious infrastructure and investment – this is no cottage-industry free VPN.
The first thing we noticed in our TunnelBear review was the clean, simple app which makes it easy for wiz kids and Luddites alike to get going in seconds. However, with that comes a noticeable lack of function, although TunnelBear's target audience probably isn't too interested in adjusting DNS settings or the difference between OpenVPN UDP and TCP.
You don't have to fork over too much personal info to sign up – just an email address – and this certainly inspires confidence in the VPN's security. It's great for checking your emails or online banking in privacy.
However, TunnelBear is crippled by its measly 500MB-a-month limit, meaning after a few Facebook videos and emails with attachments you could be nearing your monthly cap. Plus, for all but the most inexperienced users, the lack of functionality will be more hindrance than help.
But, if you're fine with that and want an audited, secure free VPN for very occasional use, TunnelBear is a great option.
Speedify, as the name suggests, is a VPN that offers great connection performance across more than 1,000 servers in over 50 countries – and it does so without scrimping on security. You can enjoy a fully encrypted security system while the software's turbo-boosting technology is able to make sure speeds stay at their maximum possible performance throughout your connection time, and in our Speedify review it delivered speeds of over 400Mbps.
This smart software lets you use multiple connections to enhance speed – for example, both Wi-Fi and 4G data connections when on a mobile device – ensuring top speeds. The catch with this is that the mobile-data use might eat up your carrier's allocation if it's capped monthly.
Every month, Speedify allows you 10GB of free data. That's great if you'll be using it for extended period, but you'll have to remember that one it's gone, it's gone. Also, Speedify is a US-based company, meaning it's subject to federal search warrants. Do with that information what you will.
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Free VPN FAQs
Who are free VPNs best for?
Even the best free VPN services are only good for occasional use, such as when traveling or in a café. They simply don't provide enough data usage or speed for 24/7 home VPN connections. If you want to encrypt all your home internet traffic, all the time, you should pay for one of the best VPN services – our top pick is ExpressVPN.
If a VPN service is based in the USA, it will be subject to search warrants presented by US law-enforcement agencies. Also, all free VPN services log user connections, no matter what the service claims.
Many of the services we review here are based in Canada, Switzerland or Germany, which have stronger privacy laws, but one of the Canadian services, TunnelBear, was recently bought by a US company and will have to honor US warrants and subpoenas under a new US law.
How does a free VPN work?
Free VPN services encrypt your data while it's in transit, creating a virtual tunnel through the internet. This separates your data packets from the countless others around them until they reach the service’s exit nodes many miles away from where you are.
Not only is the data encrypted, as it would be during a normal secure web session, but the routing information about the sender and intended recipient is hidden as well.
Today, the most popular VPN protocols are OpenVPN and various implementations of Internet Protocol Security (IPsec), which include IPsec by itself or in combination with Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) or Internet Key Exchange versions 1 and 2 (IKEv1 and IKEv2).
A VPN's scrambling and unscrambling of your data can sometimes slow internet traffic to a crawl. The best free VPN will have fast servers connected to huge data pipes to minimize this performance decline. They also have thousands of servers located in scores of countries, ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe.
Is there a completely free VPN?
Well, it depends on what you classify as 'free'. There are plenty of free VPNs that don't part you from your cash, but you could be paying for them by watching ads or even unknowingly giving them your data to sell.
The best free VPN services tend to be 'free versions' that are intended to give you a taster of a paid product before asking you to actually hand over your money. The best providers like ProtonVPN and Windscribe do this by using data limits and server restriction to create an incentive to upgrade. Many people do, which pays for the company's costs overall.
We'd recommend avoiding any free VPN that doesn't have a paid option – if there isn't a paying customer-base supporting the development of the software, who knows where the company's getting its money?
When might a free VPN not be a good choice?
A free VPN is likely to come up short for those looking to stream or torrent, or people looking for a gaming VPN. That's because these activities use up tons of data. If you've got unlimited data with your VPN, that's not an issue, but if you've only got 500MB to play with, that's only about one episode in standard def on Netflix – and that's only if you can actually access the service.
Also, you might find that your connection speeds drop, and for gamers and torrenters that's a killer. Those activities rely on having high speeds, and only the best paid-for fast VPN services can provide that.
Finally, some free VPNs struggle with privacy issues, and the addition of ads can be a real pain for users. If you want the most secure service, you'll have to pay for one – at least then you'll know exactly how your VPN is making money, rather than hoping it's not using your info to cash in.
Are free VPNs legal?
In short, yes. VPN software itself is no less legal than any other mainstream software.
However, using it as a torrenting VPN to download copyrighted files is still illegal, as is accessing any other illicit content.
Essentially, while a free VPN is perfectly legal to own and use, it doesn't make illegal acts legal just because it makes the crime harder to detect.