The best free VPN in 2024

Woman using a free VPN on a mobile device, in front of a laptop
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Free VPNs are a convenient way of improving your online privacy without spending a penny. However, the quality varies widely – only a select few are worth actually downloading, while many should be actively avoided.

If you're looking for a quality free VPN, at Tom's Guide we've tested and reviewed dozens of them. Here, I've highlighted the only free services I consider safe to use, and my top two choices are the best products by a hefty margin.

However, it's worth considering a paid VPN for a number of reasons. Premium services offer unlimited data, have thousands of servers in dozens of countries, and can unblock streaming sites from all around the world. 

No free VPN offers all of that, and every single one has limitations in a certain areas. You could take advantage of the 30-day refund periods offered by the very best VPN services I've briefly listed below, and get a few months of unlimited protection for free. That'll let you see what a full-fat VPN offers before settling for a free product.

The best paid VPN providers

1. NordVPN: get the best VPN overall free for 30 days

1. NordVPN: get the best VPN overall free for 30 days
NordVPN is my number one VPN for a reason. With super speeds and locations in over 100 countries, it's perfect for tapping into global streaming sites – all while protecting you with its rock-solid encryption and privacy features.

Expert users get nifty tools like Onion over VPN, but it's very easy to use for beginners too. It's great value at $3.09 per month. and I recommend using the 30-day money-back guarantee to get yourself a free month to make sure it's right for you.

2. ExpressVPN: get the simplest VPN free for 30 days 

2. ExpressVPN: get the simplest VPN free for 30 days 
ExpressVPN is the easiest VPN to use, and it's perfect if you just want to protect yourself with strong encryption and stream global content with absolutely no fuss. 

It's more expensive than NordVPN at $6.67 per month, but sign up to the 12-month plan and you'll get three months free, plus a year of Backblaze could storage. ExpressVPN also offers a 30-day money-back guarantee, so you can sign up for a month and get a full refund if you don't like it.

3.

3. Surfshark: get the best cheap VPN free for 30 days
Surfshark is an excellent choice if you're looking for a premium VPN on a budget. It's owned by the same company as NordVPN, and delivers very similar performance at a cheaper price.

It has a good range of privacy, excellent connection speeds, and servers in over 100 countries. The price has recently dropped to $2.19 per month, and you can get a free month with its 30-day money-back guarantee.

Recent updates

There have recently been a few changes when it comes to free VPNs, most notably the shutdown of NordVPN-owned Atlas VPN. Despite being a decent free service, the VPN has now closed, and removed from this guide.

Proton VPN has also changed the way it handles its free servers. Instead of being able to choose a location, the server you're assigned is now random. This has been done to protect the wider network, but comes at the expense of usability.

The best free VPNs of 2024

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PrivadoVPN: The best free VPN overall

Privado free VPN on a range of devices

(Image credit: Privado VPN)

1. PrivadoVPN Free

Unrivaled streaming and great privacy

Countries: 10 | Server locations: 13 | Maximum devices supported: 1 | Available on: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux | Data limit: 10GB per month (+ slow unlimited data) | 24/7 live chat: No, FAQ and email available

Unlimited data, with 10GB at full speed
Able to unblock Netflix and other streaming sites
Impressive connection speeds
Simple yet intuitive apps
Mobile apps aren't hugely powerful
Only one device allowed per plan
Reasons to sign up:

✔️ You're looking for a free Netflix VPN. From my testing, PrivadoVPN is the only free VPN to reliably unblock Netflix (and others).

✔️ You want plenty of privacy features. While PrivadoVPN imposes some limits, all the essentials like split tunneling and a kill switch are available for free and paid users alike.

✔️ You've got a need for speed. Topping out at around 900 Mbps, Privado is faster than a huge amount of paid VPNs, let alone free providers. In real life terms, this means you won't ever notice it's on.

Reasons to avoid:

You need genuinely unlimited data. While Privado does technically offer unlimited usage, if you use more than 10GB in a month you'll be restricted to a single 'emergency server' with very low speeds.

You demand excellent mobile apps. Although they're stable and work perfectly, PrivadoVPN's mobile offerings lack the refinement of some rivals.

Final score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

When compared to paid providers, PrivadoVPN Free falls a little short, but for a totally free VPN it's absolutely unbeatable. Its streaming performance has to be seen to be believed, and for day-to-day privacy usage it's seamless. Absolutely worth a try.

Newcomers to the VPN industry tend to take some time to grow, but despite only being founded in 2019, PrivadoVPN has quickly become a powerful and well-known provider. In my hands-on PrivadoVPN review I found the paid service to be quite impressive, but what really stands out is the PrivadoVPN Free plan.

First and foremost, PrivadoVPN Free offers all the essential privacy features you need to stay safe online. A kill switch blocks any traffic getting through if the VPN loses connection, and split tunneling lets you route some apps through the VPN while excluding others. It's a fast VPN too, topping out at around 350 Mbps in my testing.

At its core, PrivadoVPN is built around AES-256 encryption, which is the industry standard. In short, even if your traffic is intercepted it'll be totally unreadable. OpenVPN and WireGuard protocols are both available, and while most users will now use the swift and secure WireGuard, it's nice to have OpenVPN as an option.

Sign up to my #1 free VPN PrivadoVPN

When comparing it to the competition, one of the few places PrivadoVPN falls behind close rival Proton VPN Free is its limited data cap. Proton sets no data limits, while Privado caps full-speed connections to 10 GB a month. However, if you go over this you'll still be able to browse – albeit restricted to a sluggish 1 Mbps.

PrivadoVPN's party piece, however, is its incredible streaming performance. Free VPNs typically restrict this kind of unblocking power to their paid plans, but in my testing I found that Privado's free plan is capable of accessing US Netflix from around the world, and can also gain access to other streaming sites like BBC iPlayer.

You'll get a generous spread of server locations too, with 13 cities located in 10 countries, including the US, UK, Canada, France, and more. That's better than Proton VPN's 3 locations, but can't match paid providers like ExpressVPN or Surfshark, which boast 100 or more.

It's worth noting that while PrivadoVPN has a robust zero-logging policy, this is yet to be proved by an independent audit. This is apparently due to the disruption an audit can cause, and as a new service, Privado is intent on developing further before sacrificing a significant amount of time to an audit.

From my testing, I'm confident that PrivadoVPN is safe to use, but I've got my fingers crossed that the team will undertake an audit sooner rather than later to prove their claims without doubt.

For a free VPN, PrivadoVPN Free offers the most comprehensive package on the market. With the only real limitations being restricted fast data, a smaller number of servers and only a single device being allowed on each plan, it's well worth a try – especially if you're after a Netflix VPN for free.

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PrivadoVPN Free: key review metrics
AttributesCommentsRating
App designSmart, simple design that's appealing on desktop and mobile.⭐⭐⭐⭐
Privacy and security Industry-standard encryption and must-have features like a kill switch, plus a good zero-logging policy. However, the lack of an audit is a minor negative.⭐⭐⭐⭐
Ease of useThe apps are well laid out, which is perfect those new to VPN, but it's easy to access settings for more experienced users to customize features.⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
PerformanceFaster than many paid VPNs – seriously impressive⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
UnblockingQuite simply unrivaled unblocking power when it comes to free VPNs.⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
SupportCapable support agents, but website lacks in terms of detailed articles.⭐⭐⭐⭐

Best free VPN with unlimited data

Proton VPN on a range of devices

(Image credit: Proton VPN)

2. Proton VPN Free

A privacy-focused service with a great Linux VPN

Countries: 3 | Server locations: 3 | Maximum devices supported: 1 | Available on: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux | Data limit: Unlimited | Support: Website, email

Unlimited data allowance
Good range of privacy features
Powerful desktop apps
Fast connections of up to 520 Mbps
Torrenting not supported
Poor for streaming
Update has made it harder to choose servers
Sign up if:

✔️ You need truly unlimited data. Proton VPN Free is one of the the only free VPNs to offer unlimited fast data.

✔️ You're on Linux. Proton VPN Free is a great option for Linux users, and even offers a full GUI.

✔️ You want a fully open-source VPN. All of Proton's apps are open-source, meaning that you, or any other person in the world can make sure the code is secure.

Avoid if:

You want to torrent. Likely a deal-breaker for some, Proton VPN Free does not allow P2P connections through its servers. You'll have to upgrade for that privilege.

You want to stream. Streaming services without geoblocks are fine, but Proton VPN Free doesn't offer the unblocking power of PrivadoVPN or Proton's paid version.

You need a good range of servers. With just three servers to choose from, Proton VPN's location list is a little restrictive.

Final score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Proton VPN Free is a seriously good product that may well seem more appealing than PrivadoVPN if you don't care about streaming. Unlimited data means you can set and forget, while the useful apps are a pleasure to use. However, its limited server list and poor streaming support means it misses out on the top spot.

Proton VPN is a big name in the VPN industry, and in my hands-on Proton VPN Free review I found that the Swiss-based provider really delivers. 

Its robust applications are open-source and secure, and it delivers an excellent privacy- and security-focused experience.

The biggest advantage Proton VPN has over the competition is its unlimited data policy – no matter how much you use this free VPN, you'll never find yourself restricted. What's more, while it can't keep up with PrivadoVPN, Proton Free's speeds of 520 Mbps are still excellent.

Just like PrivadoVPN, all the privacy essentials are available for any users, paid or free. You'll have a kill switch, AES-256 encryption, and access to both OpenVPN and WireGuard protocols. This is all very positive to see from a free service.

Unsurprisingly, the useful Secure Core feature isn't available for free users, but in reality fairly few people are really going to benefit from these ultra-secure servers in special locations.

Sign up to Proton VPN Free now

However, there's a reason why PrivadoVPN has overtaken Proton in recent times, and it's the outside the essentials, Proton VPN Free is just a little more limited. You'll only get access to 3 servers (US, Netherlands, Japan) compared to Privado's 13. 

This means that many people around the world may not have a nearby server, with the omission of a UK VPN server being the most noticeable.

What's more, with a recent update Proton has made it much harder to actually select a server. Now, you won't be able to choose your location, and you'll simply rely on an auto-connect button. You're able to essentially scroll through servers by connecting and disconnecting, but there's an intentional lag between these to discourage this. It's easy to see why Proton has done this – protecting the most popular servers from overload – but as a user it can be a little frustrating.

The lack of any significant streaming support is also notable. While PrivadoVPN may have spoiled us by offering this, it's no longer a given that free services don't work as streaming VPNs, and this now has to be marked as a negative. Lack of P2P support will also be a red flag for some.

However, it's well worth noting that Proton has partnered with German news broadcaster Deutsche Welle, and both paid and free versions of the VPN have dedicated servers that allow free and unrestricted access to unbiased news coverage from anywhere in the world.

In truth, though, if you're just looking for a free VPN to help keep you private day-to-day with no data limits, Proton VPN Free is arguably the better choice over PrivadoVPN – but you really can't go wrong with either.

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Proton VPN Free: key review metrics
AttributesCommentsRating
App designRecent facelift moves aesthetic from The Matrix to Cyberpunk 2077.⭐⭐⭐⭐
Privacy and security Open-source with powerful encryption.⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Ease of useApps are powerful, but could be a little complex for newbies – and the server selection process is tedious.⭐⭐⭐
PerformanceThe fastest free VPN we've tested.⭐⭐⭐⭐
UnblockingDeutsche Welle access is more than most free VPNs, but it can't rival PrivadoVPN.⭐⭐⭐⭐
SupportPlenty of detailed guides, plus helpful support agents.⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Best free VPN Chrome extension

Windscribe best free vpn

(Image credit: Future)

3. Windscribe Free

Excellent free VPN with great browser extension

Countries: 11 | Server locations: 14 | Maximum devices supported: Unlimited | Available on: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android | Data limit: 10GB | Support: Website, email

Good privacy and useful extra features
Use one free plan on unlimited devices
Able to access UK Netflix, iPlayer
Free browser extension is excellent
Not as fast as others
Sign up if:

✔️ You're looking for a quality VPN browser extension. Windscribe's Chrome VPN is a proxy, but it's very good, and offers great functionality for free.

✔️ You want to use the same plan on all your devices. Unlike PrivadoVPN and Proton VPN, a single free Windscribe account can be used on an unlimited amount of devices.

Avoid if:

You need the fastest free VPN. Windscribe isn't exactly slow, but my higher-rated options provide a swifter experience.

10 GB of data isn't enough. 10 GB of data can go a long way, but when you've used it all up, that's Windscribe done for the month – unlike PrivadoVPN, there's no emergency backup allowance.

Final score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Windscribe is an appealing free VPN, and definitely has a niche in that it offers plenty of server locations and limited streaming support. However, for the majority of users, either Proton VPN or PrivadoVPN will provide a slicker, simpler experience.

Windscribe is well-known in the VPN world for its zany marketing operations and commitment to user privacy. While its paid product is very good, in my Windscribe Free review I found the freemium version to be the pick of the bunch.

Its server spread is remarkably generous. With 14 locations in 11 countries, it offers greater range than my top 2 providers here – although PrivadoVPN isn't far off with 13 locations in 10 countries. 

You'll also get a generous amount of data per month, matching my #1 provider at 10 GB. However, here Privado just pips it to the post by offering unlimited yet slow emergency data. As mentioned above, Proton VPN free outdoes both by offering truly unlimited browsing.

Take Windscribe free for a test run

One of Windscribe's more impressive features is that in my testing, it was able to unblock UK Netflix and BBC iPlayer. This is better than many paid VPNs, and while PrivadoVPN again performs even better in this area, it's an added bonus that's worth mentioning.

In terms of connection speeds, Windscribe lags behind my top two picks, but at 240 Mbps it's still plenty fast. To put that into perspective, most domestic Wi-Fi connections top out at around 100 Mbps, so Windscribe is unlikely to slow you down.

One major drawback, however, is Windscribe's app design. Despite a recent refresh, they're still pretty clunky and cramped. There are some good features like a useful server search, but compared to roomier apps like Proton VPN's and paid rival Surfshark's, Windscribe isn't quite up to scratch.

Finally, it's worth mentioning Windscribe's Chrome extension. It's excellent, and although it's only a proxy – it provides no encryption, and simply changes your location and IP address – it still works very well when trying to avoid ISP content blocking or accessing restricted overseas websites.

Overall, Windscribe is a powerful free VPN service that's simple and effective, and although it can't match the previous two providers, it's still very usable. However, considering all the products here are free, there's little reason to pick it over PrivadoVPN.

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Windscribe Free: key review metrics
AttributesCommentsRating
App designFairly intuitive, but lacks the polish of rivals.⭐⭐⭐
Privacy and security Open-source apps make it easy to trust.⭐⭐⭐⭐
Ease of useFairly simple to get up and running.⭐⭐⭐⭐
PerformanceLags behind the competition, but still hardly slow.⭐⭐⭐
UnblockingImpressive access to UK Netflix and iPlayer.⭐⭐⭐⭐
SupportNo live chat makes quick resolution tricky, but email support is comprehensive.⭐⭐⭐

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The best of the rest

Hide.me VPN review on a laptop screen

(Image credit: Future)

4. Hide.me Free

Flexible and powerful free VPN

Countries: 4 | Server locations: 5 | Maximum devices supported: 1 | Data limit: 10GB per month | Support: Website, email, live chat

Tons of configurable features
Decent 10 GB/month data limit
Fair amount of servers
No WireGuard
Poor connection speeds
Sign up if:

✔️ You're a big torrenter. Hide.me free is great for torrenting, which many competitors restrict for free users. 

✔️ You like to customize your VPN experience. There's a remarkable amount of configuration on offer here, just like Hide.me's paid service.

Avoid if:

You value simplicity. With Hide.me's raft of extra features come quite complex apps. Beginners and those looking for a simple process should look elsewhere.

You need excellent connection speeds. While Hide.me's paid version is incredibly fast, its free version is limited to around 25 Mbps.

Final score: ⭐⭐⭐

Hide.me free is a serviceable free VPN that's great for torrenting, and offers a decent amount of customization. However, slow speeds and complex apps mean it's no match for my top picks.

In my full Hide.me review, we found that the Malaysian VPN contender had made some key improvements and is now fighting it out with the big dogs. 

However, most people will know this provider from its Hide.me free product, which offers online protection at no cost.

In terms of the basics, Hide.me free is a safe and secure VPN, with great encryption alongside a bunch of extra features like Double VPN and split tunneling that will keep the techies happy. 

With 10 GB of data a month, Hide.me is pretty much on par with most of its rivals, and with US, Canada, Germany and Netherlands servers, there's a passable spread of locations – although hardly class-leading. 

One big plus is that it works well as a torrenting VPN, though, with P2P allowed on all of these servers.

A somewhat annoying omission from the free plan is WireGuard support. It seems like a strange decision to limit the modern protocol to paying customers only, while also giving them access to just about every other tool available. All of my other picks allow full protocol usage on their free plans, and I'd like to see hide.me do the same.

This restriction to OpenVPN shows when it comes to speed. Topping out at a measly 25 Mbps, Hide.me free could quite possibly have a noticeable impact on your internet speeds – and it looks even worse when you consider PrivadoVPN, Proton VPN and other free providers top out at 10 times this.

Overall, if you think that you'll genuinely use the extra features Hide.me offers while being able to live with a slight slowdown, it's a decent choice. But for the vast majority there are better out there.

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AttributesCommentsRating
App designUseful and usable, but lacks any kind of flair⭐⭐⭐
Privacy and security Tons of extras, and no concerns found⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Ease of useAdded complexity could be daunting for newbies⭐⭐⭐
PerformancePoor considering the speed of the competition⭐⭐
UnblockingPretty average with no surprises⭐⭐⭐
SupportGreat agents and a comprehensive support site⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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Hotspot Shield best free vpn

(Image credit: Hotspot Shield)

5. Hotspot Shield Basic

A decent free VPN with unlimited data

Countries: 1 | Server locations: 1 | Maximum devices supported: 5 | Data limit: Unlimited | Support: Website

Unlimited data
Easy to use
Useful Chrome extension
No kill switch
Ads and popup pages
Only 1 location
Sign up if:

✔️ You're looking for unlimited data. Hotspot Shield doesn't impose any data caps, which means you can browse with absolute freedom

✔️ You want fast connections. If you don't want to be held up by your free VPN, Hotspot Shield is a good choice.

Avoid if:

You want servers outside the US. Hotspot Shield only provides a single server, so if you want to access sites not available in the States, you're out of luck.

You want full privacy peace of mind. Hotspot Shield is decent in terms of privacy, but the omission of a kill switch on the free plan prevents it from being a truly reliable piece of software.

Final score: ⭐⭐⭐

With unlimited data and decent speeds, Hotspot Shield might seem tempting. However, it just can't match up to the competition.

My most recent Hotspot Shield review saw the US-based provider put in an admirable showing, and although it's no longer one of the very best, it's still a good product. 

However, in my Hotspot Shield Basic review I found the free service had fallen behind in recent years, and is now one of the lesser options in a jam-packed space.

That said, Hotspot Shield Basic is one of the only free services to offer unlimited data (alongside the more well-rounded Proton VPN), which is a major plus point.

Unfortunately, that's just about all Hotspot has going for it. You'll only get a single US server – nothing compared to PrivadoVPN and Windscribe's generous offerings – and while top speeds of around 230 Mbps are pretty good, they're not quite class-leading.

The apps are also quite intrusive in terms of usability. Mobile clients shows ads on connection, and while the Mac app doesn't show adverts, it does insist on opening the Hotspot Shield website on connection and disconnection, which is seriously annoying when you're in the middle of things.

You also don't get a kill switch on the Basic plan, which seems like a miserly decision considering the other limitations present. 

Combined with Hotspot Shield's slightly excessive logging practices (bandwidth used, your OS, the time you connect and more), it certainly won't please those looking to use the VPN as a true piece of privacy software.

Overall, Hotspot Shield is a fairly capable free VPN, but the fact of matter is that there are a number of more well-rounded, flexible, and secure options out there right now.

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AttributesCommentsRating
App designSimple, fairly attractive design⭐⭐⭐⭐
Privacy and security No kill switch means it simply can't be relied upon⭐⭐
Ease of useEasy enough to get going, but ads are a pain⭐⭐⭐
PerformanceMiddle-of-the-pack connection speeds⭐⭐⭐
UnblockingNothing to write home about⭐⭐
SupportNo live chat or email support means you've not contact with a real human for advice⭐⭐

Tested by

These are the experts who have tested, reviewed, and ranked the best free VPNs in this guide:

Headshot of Tom's Guide VPN Editor Mo Harber-Lamond
Mo Harber-Lamond

Mo is VPN Editor at Tom's Guide. He's covered VPNs since 2020, and in that time he has helped test and review over 100 providers. Mo handles the day-to-day testing of VPNs, making sure that they work for real people in real situations. He also undertakes ongoing streaming testing to make sure these services can unblock everything they claim, and produces video content to discuss and demonstrate the software.

Anthony Spadafora
Anthony Spadafora

Anthony Spadafora is the Senior Security and Networking Editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches and malware to password managers. He also undertakes VPN testing for Tom's Guide and TechRadar, which includes running all of our US-based speed tests.

How to choose the best free VPN

This page is exclusively designed to help make your decision-making process easier when it comes to choosing a free VPN. My top choice is the VPN I think will best suit most people, but before you pull the trigger it's good to consider exactly what you want from your free VPN.

For day-to-day privacy, you'll want reliable and proven privacy features, and a nice simple interface that doesn't get in the way of actually staying protected. I'm confident that all the providers here are safe to use, but you may prefer to go with a provider that has undergone privacy audits like Proton VPN over one that hasn't.

If you're into TV and film, you might want a free VPN that you can unblock Netflix libraries from around the world, and other streaming sites. both PrivadoVPN and Proton VPN are good here, with PrivadoVPN edging out all the competition as the most reliable for this.

How many devices you'd like to use your plan on is important, too. While it's easy to set up multiple accounts to get around limits, a good number of simultaneous connections can makes things much easier if you've got more than one device you want covered..

Finally, are there any specific locations you want to access?  If so, make sure the provider you go for has a server in, or at least near this country. 

Overall, it can't hurt to download a few and see which one works best for you – after all, they're free!

How I test the best free VPN services

With free VPNs, I have slightly different priorities than I do when testing paid products – check out how I test VPNs.

When it comes to free VPNs, there's less focus on the added extras, and more on making sure it really keeps you safe online. Simple apps and good fundamentals are important here.

I'll make sure all the apps, including iPhone, Mac and Android VPN apps are robust, and ensure all the features are working well. I'll also test streaming performance – which is often poor for free VPNs – and finally test out any and all support options.

Free VPN FAQs

Free VPN vs paid – which should you get?

I've discussed free vs paid VPNs before, but if you're looking for a short answer, it's quite simple.

A free VPN is great if you think you'll be using a VPN once or twice a week or less, for short amounts of time. If you quickly need to access a blocked site or visit a sketchy area of the internet, it will doo what you need.

If you're looking to keep your VPN all the time, want to access content from other countries, or want to torrent, a paid VPN is the way to go. You'll have unlimited data and often over 100 locations worldwide to choose from. You'll also likely have additional privacy tools to protect you in other ways, too.

Nowadays, even cheap VPNs are super fast, while free VPNs often lag behind. This is fine for occasional use, but may get annoying over extended periods.

Are free VPNs safe?

It all boils down to which free VPN you choose. While there are a few decent ones, they're vastly outnumbered by dubious, ad-filled apps with no background and no privacy policies. What's more, these could be harvesting your data – exactly the opposite of what you want from a VPN.

That's why I've taken the time to review tons of free VPN services, both good and bad. In them, there's tons of info on where each service impresses and disappoints.

Truly safe providers should be fully tested and proven to be secure, but your decision will also depend on what you're looking for from your free VPN. For example, those looking to stream overseas Netflix will likely need PrivadoVPN, while those looking for unlimited data may prefer Proton VPN.

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 – my top pick is NordVPN.

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 I've included here are based in Canada, Switzerland or Germany, which have stronger privacy laws, but one of the Canadian services, TunnelBear, was bought by a US company and will have to honor US warrants and subpoenas under a new US law.

Illustration of a VPN installed on a mobile phone, network strength symbol, location markers, and cogs.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

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 WireGuard. 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), are still seen, but are rapidly becoming outdated.

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 Proton VPN and PrivadoVPN 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.

I'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?

Is there a free VPN without limitations?

Perhaps, but I highly recommend not downloading a free VPN that offers an unrestricted product. 

This goes back to the old adage that you never get something for nothing. If your free VPN has no restrictions, it's likely it won't have a paid plan for you to upgrade to. If that's the case, ask yourself the question, "how is this company making money?"

If this is the case, it's likely, if not guaranteed, that it's either selling your data for profit or inserting extra ads into the sites you visit – or quite possibly both.

By using a limited "freemium" VPN, there's a clear way the company makes money – by users upgrading, or simply purchasing the paid version straight away. Of course, there are scam products that masquerade as a legitimate providers, but all the options on this page have high-quality paid products, and good freemium versions that are 100% safe to use.

An illustration of cartoon figures with mobile phones, in a hand drawn style, and watching eyes.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Is a free VPN better than no VPN?

If you're using a good-quality provider like the ones I've recommended on this page, a free VPN absolutely is better than no VPN. 

All the providers I've covered here offer industry-standard encryption, a range of server locations, and a usage amount of data that shouldn't be too restrictive if you're only using it sporadically.

That said, VPNs work best when they're active 24/7, and only Proton VPN Free offers an unlimited data cap. Here, paid VPNs will perform best, but in a pinch, a free VPN is much better than no VPN at all.

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 500 MB 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 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 to torrent 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.

Disclaimer

We test and review VPN services in the context of legal recreational uses. For example:

1. Accessing a service from another country (subject to the terms and conditions of that service).

2. Protecting your online security and strengthening your online privacy when abroad.

We do not support or condone the illegal or malicious use of VPN services. Consuming pirated content that is paid-for is neither endorsed nor approved by Future Publishing.

Mo Harber-Lamond
VPN Editor

Mo is VPN Editor at Tom's Guide. Day-to-day he oversees VPN, privacy, and cybersecurity content, and also undertakes independent testing of VPN services to ensure his recommendations are accurate and up to date. When he's not getting stuck into the nitty-gritty settings of a VPN you've never heard of, you'll find him working on his Peugeot 205 GTi or watching Peep Show instead of finally putting up those shelves.

With contributions from