Updated to add new pricing scheme and ad blocker. This review was originally published June 20, 2018.
Most of the best VPN services that don't charge a penny have low data caps, limited connection locations or annoying ads, but Windscribe's free tier of service is among the most generous, providing up to 10GB per month. Not only is the service quick to set up, but it's also fast and it includes a firewall for the security-minded. We think it's one of the best options for anyone looking for a free VPN.
What You Should Know About Free services
We don't recommend totally free services, because too many of them sell your browsing history, borrow your bandwidth or inject ads into the sites you visit. If you're not paying these services, there's no incentive for them to keep your private data private.
Instead, use the free tiers offered by paid VPN services. Each has limits on data usage or speed, but at least you'll know how the service makes money. The drawback is that none of the free offerings provide enough data or speed to be used 24/7. If that's what you want, you'll have to pay for it.
What You Get for Free
Windscribe has client software for Windows, Mac, Android and iOS and browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox and Opera. There are also beta versions of software for the more popular Linux distributions. The paid version also lets you manually connect routers, Windows Phones and Linux machines. (Keep in mind that VPN browser extensions protect only that specific browser's traffic.) A new ad and tracking blocker works on all Windscribe client software.
Windscribe's free service delivers 2GB per month of VPN-protected data, but if you provide your email address, you'll get 10GB. (Hotspot Shield offers about 15GB per month, and the Opera browser VPN and ProtonVPN don't have data caps, but each has its drawbacks.)
Windscribe's unlimited Pro service, which we liked a lot in a separate review, costs $9 a month or $49 paid yearly. A new pricing scheme lets you "build a plan" at $1 per month per country you want to connect to, with 10GB of monthly data added with each country.
Like the paid version, Windscribe's free version has a small and cramped interface with a prominent connection button. The window shows the current IP address, the connection location and how much of your monthly data allotment remains. We picked our connection location from the interface's pull-down menu, but you can also use the Task Tray icon.
Windscribe's default VPN protocol is IPsec/IKEv2, but you can also use OpenVPN. Unlike most other free services, Windscribe includes a firewall.
Windscribe has 610 servers in more than 60 countries, although free users are limited to just 10 countries: the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania. Switzerland, the U.K. and Hong Kong. Under the free plan, you won't be able to use Windscribe's dedicated "Windflix" servers to access the U.S. and U.K. versions of Netflix. but you can give it a shot while connected to one of the regular servers.
The company headquarters are just outside Toronto, theoretically outside the range of U.S. law-enforcement agencies, although obviously not their Canadian counterparts.
Our tests were conducted at a suburban New York home using regular cable-broadband service. Speed, latency (network delay) and connection time were measured using Ookla's Speedtest.net online service.
Each test was repeated three times for each service, then averaged. Because broadband speeds can fluctuate, individual baseline measurements were taken before each round of tests.
The services tested were the free offerings of Avira Phantom VPN, Hide.me, Hotspot Shield, the Opera browser VPN, ProtonVPN, Speedify, SurfEasy, TunnelBear and Windscribe.
Windscribe's 14.8MB Windows client installed in less than 3 minutes on our HP EliteBook laptop. After setting up an account, we were online a minute later.
We used Windscribe's servers on the East Coast of the U.S., and the service aced our performance tests, with an average connection time of 1.7 seconds — the fastest of the nine no-fee VPNs we tested.
Our average data-download speed while using Windscribe was 126.7 megabits per second (Mbps), a drop of 25 percent from pre-VPN levels but nonetheless good enough to make Windscribe the fastest of the regular VPN services. (Another service, Speedify, can actually boost networking speeds, but only if two or more separate internet connections are available.)
Windscribe's upload speed was even better, dropping only 5 percent from the baseline. You might not even notice a slowdown with Windscribe turned on.
Only Windscribe's latency, or how long it takes to receive a response from the VPN server, was average. At 31 milliseconds, or 2.2 times the pretest level, Windscribe was still behind only Speedify, Avira Phantom VPN and Hotspot Shield.
Windscribe's 10GB monthly allotment provides a nice amount of data for someone who frequently works online from a café or other public place. With an excellent mix of protocols, geographic locations and performance, plus a generous data cap, Windscribe's free tier is the leader in its class.
Client software: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS
Protocols: IPsec/IKEv2, OpenVPN
Restrictions: 10GB per month of data (2GB without email address); accessible servers in only 11 countries
Credit: Tom's Guide