The best VPN can be a powerful tool for online security and privacy, and the top services boast fast, encrypted connections to servers located all over the world, strict no-logging policies, DNS protection, kill switches, and other security features. Together, they help make for a safer and more private online experience.
There are a few decent free VPN providers out there, but it’s important to understand their limitations in terms of both security and privacy.
To put it bluntly, no-fee VPNs aren’t as secure as the paid options. There are a number of features that help make a VPN provider safe and secure and, while there are occasional exceptions, you’re unlikely to find a no-fee VPN that ticks all the boxes. Here’s where things can go wrong:
No choice of server or location
First, it’s good to have a wide choice of VPN servers and locations. While this also makes for a better Netflix VPN, routing your Internet traffic through a certain country – one with stricter privacy laws, for example – can help keep your online activity more secure. Providers like ExpressVPN offer hundreds of servers in 90+ countries. No-fee providers usually don’t give you the choice.
- Speed freaks will appreciate a fast VPN
Logging and sale of your private information
Paid VPN providers don’t need to sell your information to make money – you’re already paying them – and have no incentive to do so: security and privacy is their whole product.
Free providers, on the other hand, are known for logging traffic, making use of tracking technology like cookies, and even selling this information to advertisers and third parties.
Instead, look for VPNs with strict no-logging policies, like NordVPN.
Limited security features
Many free providers offer only limited functionality, often as an incentive to go paid. As a result, you may not get proper DNS leak protection or a kill switch, leaving your identity and activity exposed if something goes wrong with your VPN connection.
In the wrong hands, DNS requests can be used to track you, making you more vulnerable to hackers, while a VPN without a kill switch can’t keep you safe if the encrypted connection fails. Your personal data can be intercepted and stolen by anybody who happens to be in the right place at the right time.
Presence of malware
No-fee VPN providers may also lack the resources necessary to keep their own products and services safe, regardless of their intentions.
In fact, according to a 2016 paper presented at the Internet Measurement Conference in Santa Monica, California, of the 10 most popular (Android) VPNs found to carry malware, six were free. Most of the malware cases were related to advertising, which isn’t something paid providers tend to engage in.
Use of your resources and Internet connection by other users
Finally, some free providers make money by using your computer as an exit node for paying customers. What this means is that their traffic, legal or otherwise, may end up going through your Internet connection. Your ISP, and anybody else who’s watching, will think it’s yours.
If you only need to very occasionally use a VPN for checking your email or accessing online banking when connecting to a public WiFi, you’re probably OK using a free version.
Just remember that your data may be collected and sold (which more or less defeats the purpose of using a VPN in the first place), and that there may be numerous security holes just waiting to be exploited by hackers and other unsavory characters.
If you value privacy and security, your best bet is to go with a proper, paid VPN provider. There are excellent VPNs available that cost only a few bucks per month, and are thus a worthwhile investment in your online safety.
Of the paid services, our top recommendation is ExpressVPN. As well as topping our best VPN services list, it provides excellent security alongside seriously fast speeds. Its apps are incredibly simple to use on all devices, but also offers a great amount of customization if you fancy getting under the hood and tweaking settings.
The best part is that Tom’s Guide readers can get three months free on a year-long plan, meaning you’ll get 15 months for the price of 12. Plus, you’ll also get a 30-day money-back guarantee so you can test the service before you commit.
Get the BEST of Tom’s Guide daily right in your inbox: Sign up now!
Upgrade your life with the Tom’s Guide newsletter. Subscribe now for a daily dose of the biggest tech news, lifestyle hacks and hottest deals. Elevate your everyday with our curated analysis and be the first to know about cutting-edge gadgets.
Christian is a freelance writer and content project manager with over six years' experience writing and leading teams in finance and technology for some of the world's largest online publishers, including TechRadar and Tom's Guide.