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Phantom VPN, operated by German antivirus maker Avira, is quite fast and very easy to use. The free version limits usage to a measly 500MB a month, but it doubles that allotment to 1GB if you register with a valid email address.
Unfortunately, that's chicken feed compared with Windscribe's 10GB monthly free plan, which we think is the best free VPN service, and won't satisfy anyone but a holiday traveler checking email.
The Truth About Completely Free VPNs
We can't recommend any entirely free VPN service because too many of them inject ads onto websites, borrow your bandwidth or sell your browsing history. The companies simply don't have an incentive to keep your private data private.
It is better to use "freemium" VPN services that offer limited free tiers as a teaser for unlimited paid service. Such free offerings generally cap data usage or throttle broadband speed, but at least you'll know how the services make money.
Limited free tiers are primarily useful for travelers or people who take laptops to coffee shops. For 24/7 home VPN service, use an unlimited paid VPN plan such as Private Internet Access or Windscribe.
What You Get for Free
As mentioned above, Avira Phantom VPN gives you 500MB of free data per month with no strings attached, and 1GB if you register. Free users don't get tech support, but they do get access to all of Avira's 82 VPN servers in 24 countries. Many other services' free tiers limit server choices.
Unlimited data access via Avira Phantom VPN Pro costs $5.99 a month for mobile devices, or $6.50 a month for desktops as well; the latter plan can be bought for $78 on a yearly basis.
Phantom VPN has client software for Windows, macOS, iOS and Android. You'll need the software to connect, so forget about Phantom VPN if you're using Linux or Windows Phone.
Phantom VPN's user interface shows you when you're connected and what your virtual location is. You can pick which VPN server to connect to from a pull-down menu. The software also lets you set up a Wi-Fi auto-connect sequence for trusted networks.
With Phantom, you can use Open VPN (for Windows or Android) or L2TP/IPsec (for macOS and iOS) to secure your connection with its VPN servers. Because Avira is based in Germany, it should be beyond the reach of American search warrants -- although German police are known for heavy-handed digital snooping.
We tested Avira Phantom VPN's free offering and those of eight other services: Hide.me, Hotspot Shield, the Opera browser VPN, ProtonVPN, Speedify, SurfEasy, TunnelBear and Windscribe.
Testing was done at a suburban New York home provisioned with regular consumer cable-broadband service. Each service was tested for connection time, latency (network delay) and upload and download speeds using Ookla's Speedtest.net online service.
Each parameter was tested three times and then averaged. Because network speeds can vary, a baseline reading without any VPN service active was taken before each round of tests.
It took us less than a minute to download Avira Phantom VPN's 5.2MB Windows package, install it on our HP EliteBook X360 1020 G2 notebook and get online. Connecting to Avira's New York City server took a relatively long 7.2 seconds, although TunnelBear, Opera and Hide.me took longer.
But Phantom VPN's latency was 18.6 milliseconds, an increase of only 24 percent over the non-VPN ping time and the least of any regular VPN service. Most other services' latencies were at least double the non-VPN times. (Speedify's latency was actually less than the baseline, but that service performs unique network tricks and we're treating it separately.)
Phantom VPN downloaded data at an average rate of 78.2 megabits per second (Mbps), a drop of 56 percent from the pre-VPN levels but still among the best. Only Windscribe and Hotspot Shield did better.
Avira Phantom VPN uploaded data at 28.3 Mbps, a reduction of 20 percent from pre-VPN rates and again one of the better results. Phantom VPN supported watching videos and listening to music without a hiccup.
Avira Phantom VPN's good performance is a step ahead of the crowd, but its paltry usage limits don't make it very useful. Go for Windscribe's 10GB free tier instead.
Client platforms: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS
Protocols: Open VPN, L2TP/IPsec
Restrictions: 500MB per month of data; 1GB if you provide your email address
Credit: Tom's Guide
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Brian Nadel is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in technology reporting and reviewing. He works out of the suburban New York City area and has covered topics from nuclear power plants and Wi-Fi routers to cars and tablets. The former editor-in-chief of Mobile Computing and Communications, Nadel is the recipient of the TransPacific Writing Award.