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TunnelBear VPN Free review

TunnelBear Free has everything you need – except for data

TunnelBear review
(Image: © TunnelBear)

Tom's Guide Verdict

TunnelBear's Free plan looks pretty tempting – a few global servers, decent speeds, excellent security credentials and a very usable interface. However, in truth it's good for little more than testing out the software before upgrading, as the 500MB-a-month limit renders it all but useless for day-to-day use.

Pros

  • +

    Easy to use

  • +

    Very secure

  • +

    Unblocks Netflix

  • +

    Good speeds

Cons

  • -

    Minuscule 500MB data limit

  • -

    Some iOS issues

If you’re new to the VPN experience, TunnelBear Free VPN could be a good place to start. Every one of its programs is straightforward and easy to use, plus it has some critical features to ensure you’re extra safe while online. Once you get the hang of it, you can choose to upgrade to a paid service or continue using a free VPN.

On top of being easy to use, TunnelBear is genuinely secure. It uses AES-256 and the WireGuard protocol to encrypt your data. Even if it is intercepted, the encryption is nearly impossible to decipher, so there isn’t a way to trace your online activity back to you. And because there is an option to make your data look unencrypted even when it is (using GhostBear), you can access a lot of blocked content designed to look for VPN activity.

TunnelBear has thousands of servers around the world, but Free users only have access to those in three countries - the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. These are listed at the top of the server list, so it’s easier to find an available location. Or you can simply click the Connect button and let the program automatically find the fastest connection for you.

However, TunnelBear Free is severely hamstrung by its pathetic monthly data limit of 500MB. This is enough to watch maybe one movie each month, or spend a few hours of light browsing. Thanks to this, it feels more like a VPN free trial rather than a true free service.

TunnelBear review - TunnelBear homepage

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TunnelBear Free on paper

Supported platforms: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android
Supported protocols: OpenVPN, WireGuard
No. of servers: 3
No. of countries: 3
Split Tunneling: Yes
Kill switch: Yes
Country of registration: Canada
Data usage: 500MB per month
Max. no. of simultaneously connected devices: 1
Customer support: Email

TunnelBear Free review: Privacy and logging

The biggest perk to TunnelBear is how well it keeps your data secure. In addition to our own tests that showed how well data is encrypted and how effectively the kill switch works, TunnelBear subjects itself to annual independent audits to look for weak points. If anything is found amiss, the company works to shore up these issues and continue to offer a secure service.

The kill switch is effective. This means it will automatically disconnect you and secure your data if the VPN drops. Also, it has an auto-connect feature that will instantly start up the VPN if it senses any type of snoop or hacks coming through your network. You get clear alerts anytime your data is compromised and the steps TunnelBear took to protect you.

TunnelBear promises never to log any of your personal information, or share it with government agencies or law enforcement. However, the company is based in Canada, which has several treaties and agreements with other countries including the United States promising to share information pertaining to possible online criminal activity. Because of these policies, these countries tend to collect some personal information and keep a hold of it for a few days before permanently discarding it. 

  • More: Save your money with the best cheap VPN

TunnelBear Free review: Desktop apps

The desktop interface of TunnelBear Free isn’t cluttered, but it does take a moment to realize that the map you’re looking at is how you find and connect to the desired server location. There is a list of server locations, but it isn’t the easiest to find (it’s at the top next to the On/Off button.) The dashboard also shows the amount of data left of your monthly limit.

Under the Settings tab, there are several protocol options. One of these turns on the kill switch and lets TunnelBear keep your information hidden as it attempts to reconnect you to the VPN. Another option lets TunnelBear automatically create a connection when it detects an unsecured website as you browse. You can also keep the VPN running in the background while the dashboard and app are closed. TunnelBear has good default settings, so several of the protocols you won't need to mess with.

It's worth noting, however, that both the free and paid versions of TunnelBear are very much geared towards the beginner. If you've any inclination to tinker with settings, more robust services like Proton VPN or Hide.me may be better suited.

TunnelBear review - TunnelBear features

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TunnelBear Free review: Mobile apps

The mobile VPN apps are laid out similarly to the desktop version. There is an added feature, though – you'll notice a distinct roaring bear sound each time the VPN is connected and disconnected. This makes it easy to know when you’re being protected or when the connection is dropped. But, thankfully, there's an option to turn the sounds off if you think you may be spooked by the ursine intruder.

The Android VPN app has split tunneling, and the GhostBear option bypasses websites that block VPNs. It also has a kill switch with a reconnect option available if the VPN connection is lost.

The iOS VPN application is a little more rudimentary. It doesn’t have a kill switch and its split tunneling is limited. It only applies to websites, so you can’t filter apps through the VPN. This doesn’t mean you’re not protected, just that it's easier for iOS using VPNs to be detected. One item of concern is if TunnelBear detects that there is a VPN block on a site you’re trying to access, it will drop the VPN connection and let you access it from your own network. This means you can get to the content you’re after, but you’re not shielded, so your online activity may be tracked, traced, and logged.

TunnelBear Free review: Performance

Our speed tests showed that TunnelBear is a fairly fast VPN. On average we were able to connect with speeds of 300Mbps. This is really impressive, fast for a free program, and even better than some paid VPN subscriptions.

Normally free services can’t unblock streaming services, and that's the case with TunnelBear. However, we could unblock Netflix and watch a little bit of a show. In reality though, if you're looking for a free Netflix VPN you're much better off going with a provider like PrivadoVPN Free, thanks to its larger data cap and reliable performance.

If you do run into any problems using TunnelBear, you can reach out to support staff through its website. We tried out this service and got a helpful response to our ticket within 24 hours. However, note that when you do send in a question, TunnelBear’s automated response is “we will do our best to respond to all inquiries within 48 hours.” This might lead you to believe you’ll get help within two days, but there is the “our best” caveat, so it very well could take longer.

TunnelBear review - TunnelBear VPN app

(Image credit: TunnelBear)
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TunnelBear Free: Final verdict

Because of how easy it is to use, TunnelBear Free is a good place for beginners to get a feel for how a VPN works. But the data limit of 500MB per month makes this program more of a free trial rather than a true free VPN. There really are better choices out there that are just as secure, just as fast, and just as easy to use but with a lot more data available. 

Nicole Johnston
Commissioning Editor

Nicole is a commissioning editor for Tom's Guide covering everything VPN. With over 17 years of research and writing experience, and 10 years of testing and reviewing internet security solutions, Nicole knows how to dive deep to get the information consumers need to make better buying decisions. She is also a mom to 10 children, and personally uses many of the products she reviews to ensure the safety of her own family.