Using the best VPN service (Virtual Private Network to the uninitiated) when connecting to the Internet has long been recommended as a way to keep data private and secure. And, as concerns over data collection and government surveillance increase seemingly by the day, it's now more important to take action than it ever has been.
'While VPNs have always been appropriate for untrusted networks, like unsecured Wi-Fi at places like coffee shops and airports, this change now means that we must all think about our home network connections as untrusted as well,' said Jarret Raim, head of strategy and operations for Rackspace Managed Security in San Antonio, Texas.
With this in mind, more people than ever are looking for VPN service providers, and a quick search through Google Play or the Apple App Store will bring up a lot of free VPN options. We won't lie: free always looks like the more attractive option.
But are the free services as reliable and trustworthy as a paid VPN, or do you really get what you pay for? What are the pros and cons of free versus paid VPNs?
Here, we'll run down all the key similarities and differences – including security, general quality of service, and all-important streaming performance.
NB: The interviews with Jarret Raim and Adnan Raja referenced in this article were undertaken in 2017.
The top 'selling' point for a free service is the price. Some free or 'freemium' options are supported by reputable security companies, which are offered with the intention of enticing users into paying.
Some free options offer fairly good anonymity because you often don't have to provide too much personal and financial information, or even sign up for an account at all.
However, the cream of the VPN crop charge for the pleasure – but surprisingly enough, it doesn't always cost the world. If you go with a reputable cheap VPN, you can get prices of around $2 a month. While that's not free, it's hardly expensive, either.
When it comes to security, though, you often really do get what you pay for in terms of security.
It used to be the case that no-fee services lagged behind in terms of protocol technologies, with many relying on the obsolete PPTP protocol. Most reputable free options have now caught up with the pack, and generally use OpenVPN
However, paid users almost universally have more options, such as OpenVPN UDP and TCP or the Layer 2 Tunnel Protocol (L2TP) and IPsec combination. (L2TP itself is not encrypted, so IPsec adds the encryption layer.) The modern WireGuard is now becoming popular for its swift connections and secure transfer of data, and providers such as ExpressVPN are developing in-house protocols like Lightway.
"If you're paying for a good quality VPN, you can get 256-bit data encryption, compared to a free VPN, which is likely to only have 128-bit encryption," explained Adnan Raja, vice president of marketing for Atlantic.Net, an IT consulting firm in Orlando, Florida.
You probably should avoid VPNs that offer only PPTP, or that don't tell you which protocols they use or support. If a free service supports OpenVPN (and some do), that's much better – but it still doesn't mean the service is worth using.
Quality of service
Free services have to pay for their overhead costs somehow. That revenue sometimes comes in the form of selling your browsing activity to third parties for advertising purposes.
"This means your data isn't 100 percent private," Raja says. "Your web experience can be riddled with ads, have bottle-necked bandwidth speeds, lack data encryption, and even have monthly capped data usages."
Many free options pay the bills by displaying ads, which in and of itself isn't nefarious – and often these are simply the lowest tier of otherwise paid services. Hotspot Shield is a good example here, with its free tier being ad-supported, but its well-regarded paid version being ad-free.
These freemium services, which are generally reputable, also often put a limit on how much data the user gets, how quickly they get it, and how many servers he can connect to before he has to start paying. Referring back to Hotspot Shield, go for the free option and you'll get 500MB a day, throttled speeds and one US location. Pay up, and you'll have unlimited data, over 1,800 servers to choose from, and access to our top-rated fast VPN.
It could be argued that free services could even make you complicit in cyberattacks. The once-popular no-fee VPN service Hola, for example, was used in an online attack against a website in 2015, using customer bandwidth to deploy a botnet. That's a long time ago now, but the memory remains.
Paid VPNs also tend to be more robust than free options, and less vulnerable to outages and meltdowns. Plus, just about every one of our recommended paid VPNs offers a 24/7 live chat service alongside comprehensive FAQs and setup guides to assist if anything goes awry.
"A paid service will protect user interests and sensitive data at much higher speeds, whereas a free service could outsource to a third party to write its code, monitor systems and operate servers," Raja said.
All we've mentioned here are the security aspects of VPNs – and for many that's the biggest concern. But, now that VPNs are truly entering the tech mainstream, streaming performance sits at the top of casual users' lists.
If you subscribe to a service like Netflix, you may have noticed that when traveling your library is different. That's because different content is licenced by different providers in different territories.
If you use a streaming VPN, however, you can spoof your location and trick your provider into thinking you're anywhere in the world. That means you can watch whatever you want, wherever you want.
And this is a huge downfall of free services. While there are a couple of OK free Netflix VPN services, on the whole a no-fee VPN will struggle to evade any streaming sites' VPN detection system and subsequently be blocked from accessing it.
If you want to make the most of your subscription, the only way is to pay.
Finally, you don't want a service logging your activities – keeping track of what you do and where you go online when you're connected. If the company says it logs user activity, or, more likely, doesn't state its logging policy, avoid it.
Plus, even if a service claims to be no-logging, if it concerns you, it's worth seeing if it's undertaken an independent audit. Leading providers like ExpressVPN have NordVPN done so, but fairly few free providers have – with a notable exception being TunnelBear.
Generally, though, if you're paying for a service, the firm providing it has less incentive to log or store your data – if it's getting cash from you, there's less reason to monetize your data.
Free vs paid VPNs: bottom line
If you're after a VPN that can provide brief protection for casual usage – think checking your emails when you're on public Wi-Fi – then a no-fee VPN may well fit the bill nicely.
However, if you're after robust privacy and security features, powerful streaming performance, extra features, and flexibility, a paid option is the way to go.
Which paid VPN do we recommend?
The top-rated VPN service available today (opens in new tab)
ExpressVPN is our top choice for just about any use, be that staying private online or watching overseas streaming content. With over 3,000 servers in 94 countries you'll get a huge selection to choose from, the apps are super simple to install and use, and you can even try it risk-free for 30 days. What's more, Tom's Guide readers can claim three months FREE on any 12-month plan – what's not to like?
- If you share P2P, check out the best torrenting VPN
- For a full walkthrough, see our guide on how to download NordVPN
- Try before you buy with the best VPN free trial