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Are free VPNs as secure as paid VPNs?

Are free services as secure as paid VPNs?
(Image credit: Marcus Spike)

If you choose the very best VPN, you can rely on the fact that you’ll get the most secure VPN experience, by hiding your IP address and using strong encryption to ensure your online data/activities remain as private and protected as possible.

With both paid and free services to choose from, you might want to save money with a free VPN yet wonder if it’s as secure and trustworthy as a paid one. In this article, we determine how safe free options really are.

Limited free services

A free service is the smaller, entry-level companion to a paid service. VPN providers (such as Hotspot Shield, Windscribe, and TunnelBear) offer limited free options in the hope you’ll upgrade to one of their paid plans.

As many of the best free options come from premium providers who make a profit through paid subscriptions (rather than through sneaky partnerships with advertisers), it means they’re unlikely to sell/share your data or have shoddy security and privacy infrastructures. If they did, nobody would want to upgrade to paid plans, which wouldn’t be commercially viable.

However, you should never take it for granted that a no-fee VPN is safe. Instead, make sure you do some background research to see how well known and reputable the VPN provider is. This includes checking whether it uses the strongest available encryption (AES 256-bit encryption).

Unlimited free services

An unlimited free service is a standalone VPN that apparently offers you everything a paid service does—but for free. It sounds too good to be true, and it is. What’s more, it might seriously compromise your online security and privacy.

Unlike a premium VPN provider, an these free options often turn a profit through advertising. As a user, this might mean you’re continuously confronted with lots of embedded pop-up ads, or automatically redirected to random (and potentially risky) third-party websites, without your consent.

In worse cases, these services might track your personal data and online activity, then sell it to advertisers and analytics companies for a profit. Worst of all, some might even come with concealed malware, which opens the door to hackers.

To add insult to injury, these services are likely to come with weak (or no) encryption. Furthermore, it might cause your internet to run slowly, and might not be able to unblock any geo-restricted content.

Overall, this type of free service undermines, in varying ways, the whole point of having a VPN. At best, it’s unsatisfactory and counter-productive; at worst, it poses a serious threat to your online security and privacy.

Are free services as secure as paid VPNs?

(Image credit: Yurchanka Siarhei/Shutterstock)

The security benefits of a paid service

Without doubt, the most secure type of VPN service is a paid one. Besides offering you much greater access to servers, server locations, geo-blocked content, and monthly data, a paid service will provide your internet traffic and personal data with a superior security network.

Firstly, you’re much more likely to get the strongest encryption (AES 256-bit encryption) with a paid service, as well as extra premium features—like a kill switch, which disconnects you from a network should your VPN unexpectedly stop working.

Secondly, most VPN providers offering paid services implement a no-logging policy, which means they won’t track your online activity, let alone share it with advertisers and/or analytics companies. Compared to unlimited free options, paid services (like those from ExpressVPN and NordVPN) are infinitely more trustworthy.

Bottom line

Ultimately, if you intend to extensively use a VPN, it’s much better to opt for a paid service. The idiom ‘you get what you pay for’ applies here.

With your online security and privacy at stake, a paid service is more likely to have good ethics on data handling, plus a robust security/privacy infrastructure. On the whole, it’s better to spend some money than take a risk with a free service—and particularly an unlimited one, which could pose serious threats to your personal online data.

That said, if you only want occasional, temporary VPN coverage for specific situations (e.g., if you need to momentarily connect to a public Wi-Fi network), then a no-fee VPN may do the job in a pinch.

What do we recommend?

ExpressVPN stands out from the competition in terms of price, features, and value. With servers in nearly 100 countries, all the security features we mention above, blazing connection speeds, and reliable access to multiple streaming services, ExpressVPN is an excellent choice for those after security with no compromises.

While some users may prefer certain features of other top VPNs, it’s the best overall option for most users – and now Tom’s Guide readers can claim three months absolutely free.View Deal