You know you should keep your online communications as private as possible, but you don't want to pay for a premium virtual private network service to encrypt all internet traffic to and from your computer. Perhaps you want to watch a little overseas streaming television, or torrent a few files anonymously. What's a frugal web surfer to do?
Based on our in-depth testing, our top pick for free VPN servces is Windscribe, which gives you 10GB of free monthly data and whose connections were not noticeably slower than those made without a VPN.
Our runner-up is Hotspot Shield, which offers 500MB free per day, amounting to roughly 15GB per month. Like Windscribe, it didn't slow down our connections much. But Hotspot Shield admits that it partners with advertising networks and collects some user data. It also shows ads in the Android app, although the company says it no longer injects ads into websites displayed in a desktop web browser.
It's important to note that a completely free VPN service often comes with a hidden price. If it isn't getting money from you, then it's getting funds from someone else — sometimes by selling your browsing history, borrowing your bandwidth or injecting ads into the sites you visit.
That's why we instead recommend the limited free tiers — let's call them freemium plans — offered by paid VPN service providers. Each has limits on how much data you can use, how speedy your connection will be or the number of VPN servers you can connect to, but at least you'll know the service you use has legitimate ways of making money.
Free VPN News and Updates
— U.S. Senators Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security asking whether foreign-based VPN apps pose a threat to national security.
— In a new study, almost all the free Android VPN apps analyzed by researchers had privacy issues, and a quarter actually revealed the user’s location. Hotspot Shield, Speedify and Windscribe explained the reasons behind their extensive Android permissions to the researchers' satisfaction; TunnelBear had no issues at all.
— ProtonVPN has added an iOS app that, like most iOS VPN apps, uses the IKEv2 VPN protocol instead of OpenVPN. It also has added servers in Ireland, Norway and Israel, bringing the total number of countries served by the company to 31. Free users are still limited to servers in Japan, the Netherlands or the U.S.
Windscribe is among our top picks for paid VPN services, so it's natural that its generous free tier would shine as well. Among the regular free services, Windscribe ranked first in connection time, download speeds and upload speeds. It works so well that you might not notice any network lag.
The basic monthly allowance is only 2GB, but if you register with an email address, that jumps to 10GB. If you run out of data before the end of the month, you can always switch over to the even more generous Hotspot Shield.For even more free data, you can let Windscribe use your computer to mine cryptocurrency. That feature seems a bit creepy, but it's entirely optional and you can adjust the amount of power drawn.
Windscribe is based in the Toronto suburbs and is theoretically out of reach of U.S. law enforcement. Unlike some other Canadian VPN services, it hasn't yet been bought by a U.S. corporation.
The free tier gives you the Windows, Mac, iOS, Android and Amazon Fire TV/Firestick client software (and the beta Linux software, should you wish to try it); the Chrome, Firefox and Opera Windscribe browser extensions to block ads and trackers; a separate firewall built in to the Windows and macOS clients; and the ability to connect to VPN servers in 11 countries, mostly in Europe and North America.
Paid users get unlimited data per month and the abilities to connect to any of Windscribe's 600 servers worldwide, including the Windflix feature to (at least try to) watch U.S. or U.K. Netflix streams, and to manually connect routers, Windows Phones, Linux boxes and torrent clients.
Hotspot Shield is even more charitable with its free plan than Windscribe is, giving you 500MB per day (about 15GB per month), and it's right behind Windscribe in speed and connectivity. Its user interface is one of the best we've seen, attractively presenting exactly what you need, and nothing more, right up front
The downsides to the free plan are that you'll see more ads, at least on the Android app, your choice of connections will be limited to Hotspot Shield's U.S. servers and you won't be able to get around geographic restrictions on Netflix, Hulu or BBC iPlayer. We were also a bit annoyed that the desktop software tries to hide the free plan when you launch it for the first time.
Hotspot Shield is up front that it collects "anonymous, aggregate" usage data, partly in order to "place generic ads" (their words, not ours). As the parent company is based in the U.S., it can't turn away the feds if they come a-knockin', although a 2017 transparency report says the company had never given law enforcement anything.
If none of these factors bothers you, Hotspot Shield makes a great complement to Windscribe, as using both services will get you up to 25GB of free VPN data per month.
With only 5GB of monthly data allowed, Speedify's free tier is not as useful as Windscribe or Hotspot Shield, but we're giving it extra credit because it's so darn fast.
If two or more independent internet connections are available, such as via Wi-Fi and cellular data, Speedify uses proprietary software to merge them to drastically boost internet speed. Even if you're linked via Ethernet and Wi-Fi to the same home router, there's no speed drop. We've never seen anything like it.
MORE: Speedify Free VPN Review
Speedify's drawbacks are that you can't connect manually (it's software-based), the cellular-data usage will cut into your carrier's monthly limit, and it's based in the U.S. and subject to search warrants. The free services is limited to one device, although you could just try to create new accounts for extra devices. But even free users can connect to any of the 1,000 or so VPN servers in 40-odd countries.
Overall, Speedify's free tier is just a teaser for the service's reasonably priced ($9 monthly or $50 yearly) paid plan. But it's a pretty effective teaser.
Avira Phantom VPN limits its free tier to only 1GB of data per month, and that's only if you register with a valid email address; anonymous users get 500MB. But this service is easy to use and reasonably fast, making it perfect for checking email while you're in an airport waiting for a flight.
In addition to the drawback of a usage cap, free users won't get tech support, but they do get access to all of Phantom VPN's 82 servers in 24 countries and its client software: Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, plus a Chrome browser extension.
You'll also be able to use it on unlimited devices (not that there's much to share) and watch streaming video from other countries (though you won't be able to watch for long before the data cap is hit). Privacy fanatics will like that Avira is based in Germany, where Google Street View can't even take photos of people's houses.
ProtonVPN is a sister company to the ProtonMail encrypted-email service. You get unlimited data, but the speeds can be a lot slower compared to the (rather expensive) paid plans.
Downloads took four times as long as they did without the VPN switched on, but even then, ProtonVPN was far from the worst among the nine free services we tested. You'll also be limited to VPN connections in only three countries, as opposed to the paid complement of 25, and you won't have access to ProtonVPN's "Secure Core" of super-hardened servers.
MORE: ProtonVPN Free Review
But you do get to connect to ProtonVPN servers manually for BlackBerry and routers, and through a command-line tool for Linux. The client user interface for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android is dark and ominous, but surprisingly user-friendly. And you can't get farther away from U.S. search warrants than a service based in Switzerland.
We really wanted to like Hide.me's free tier, as it lets you connect almost any operating system to Hide.me's VPN servers, doesn't throttle your speed, offers tech support and gives you a one-stop "privacy check" to analyze your connection.
MORE: Hide.me Free VPN Review
But for a company that bills itself as "the world's fastest VPN," Hide.me was kind of mediocre, with our download speeds dropping to a third of the non-VPN baseline. Free users are limited to 2GB of monthly data and can connect to servers in only three countries; either of those limitations would be more acceptable if the network speeds were faster.
Like ProtonVPN, the VPN service built in to the Opera web browser gives you an unlimited amount of free data per month. But its network download and upload speeds were awful (download speeds were 3 percent of the baseline speed), and it's not even a real VPN; it's just a browser-specific encrypted proxy service. (The OperaVPN mobile apps no longer work.)
MORE: Opera Free VPN Review
The only upsides to the Opera browser VPN are that data usage is unlimited, the client software is very easy to use and it, surprisingly, streamed Netflix content from each of its three server locations without a hint of blocking. It's potentially useful to video streamers, travelers and café sitters who've run out of other free options — as long as they keep all their activity within the Opera browser window.
TunnelBear has a terrific user interface, but the service's network speeds are slow and unreliable and the basic free monthly allowance is only 500MB. You can boost that to 1.5GB per month if you just tweet about the company once, however.
Free users can connect to any VPN server in 20 countries, and all but iOS users can disguise their VPN traffic to look like regular data.
But TunnelBear's network latency was the worst among the nine services we tested, and the service's connection time was the second worst. Upload speeds were good, but the download speed was one-quarter of the baseline, and the connection dropped out three times during our tests.
We can barely recommend TunnelBear's free tier — but only for those who've already used up their monthly allowances with other freemium services.
Toronto-based SurfEasy provides the back-end servers for the Opera browser VPN, but we were still surprised that this full-fledged VPN service's network speeds were almost as bad as Opera's. Downloads took 10 times as long as before the VPN was switched on, and uploads took three times as long.
MORE: SurfEasy Free VPN Review
The free service starts at only 500MB per month, but you can lift that by 250MB if you register with the service and by 500MB for each friend you get to sign up. Free users are limited to connecting to servers in only 16 countries.
The low monthly allowance might ordinarily be enough for departure-gate email checking, but SurfEasy's connections were so slow that we can't recommend even the free service.
VPN Gate is an experimental project set up by the University of Tsukuba in Japan as an absolutely free, unlimited service that locates and connects you to VPN servers around the world.
Unfortunately, most of those servers are in Japan or South Korea, which means that connection delays are long and speeds can be slowed by any network hop along the way. The U.S. servers we connected to were excruciatingly slow; our speed test simply gave up a few times. We can't recommend VPN Gate to you unless you happen to live in or near Japan.
Nevertheless, VPN Gate is worth keeping an eye on. It uses the SoftEther open-source VPN client software, which supports multiple protocols and which we found fairly easy to set up. If the VPN Gate project adds faster servers in North America, it might end up delivering the ultimate goal: fast, free, unlimited VPN service for everyone.
How We Tested VPNs
To assess free VPN services, we gave them a thorough test drive from a suburban New York office and home. (We tested a 10th option, the experimental VPN Gate project, from a midtown Manhattan office, but that service's speeds were so poor we can't recommend it.)
Free VPN Performance Results
|Connect time||Ping time (change from baseline; less is better)||Download speed (change from baseline; more is better)||Upload speed (change from baseline; more is better)|
|Speedify*||2.4 seconds||23.2 ms (-17%)||74.2 Mbps (+176%)||32.8 Mbps (+507%)|
|Windscribe||1.7 seconds||31 ms (+122%)||126.7 Mbps (-25%)||32.4 Mbps (-5%)|
|Hotspot Shield||3.2 seconds||29.5 ms (+64%)||111.8 Mbps (-35%)||29.3 Mbps (-13%)|
|Avira Phantom VPN||7.2 seconds||18.6 ms (+24%)||78.2 Mbps (-56%)||28.3 Mbps (-20%)|
|Hide.me||9.5 seconds||48.8 ms (+205%)||56.1 Mbps (-68%)||23.5 Mbps (-27%)|
|ProtonVPN||8.2 seconds||102 ms (+363%)||47.4 Mbps (-73%)||22.0 Mbps (-37%)|
|TunnelBear||8.8 seconds||151.8 ms (+849%)||38.8 Mbps (-76%)||27.0 Mbps (-15%)|
|SurfEasy||4.7 seconds||41.4 ms (+176%)||17.0 Mbps (-90%)||10.0 Mbps (-64%)|
|Opera||4.3 seconds||32.6 ms (+151%)||5.9 Mbps (-97%)||2.8 Mbps (-92%)|
*Speedify uses a proprietary network booster that requires two separate internet connections. Our testing used LTE and Wi-Fi on a phone.
We tried to use the web as we normally would: watching movies, reading email and news, playing games, and listening to music. We discovered that not only can you use a decent VPN for free, but that a lot separates the best from the worst.
For the formal testing, we used an HP EliteBook X360 1020 G2 notebook, an Asus ZenPad S8 tablet (for Avira Phantom VPN) and a Samsung Galaxy Note 8 phone (for Speedify). Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections were provided by a 200-Mbps cable broadband line. Each time we connected to a VPN service, we recorded how long it took to get online and noted how many times the service disconnected us.
We measured how much each service affected data flow using Ookla's Speedtest.net online bandwidth meter, which yields latency (network delay), download speeds and upload speeds. Each speed test was performed five times per service, then averaged.
Because home-ISP network speeds can vary, a baseline reading without a VPN connection was taken before each round of tests. The raw numbers were converted to percentage changes from the baseline so that the VPN services could be compared on an equal basis.
A word of warning: Because these tests were conducted from a single location over the course of a few days, they will not provide a complete picture of a VPN service's performance.
Who Are Free VPNs Best For?
Even the best of these services are good for only occasional use, such as when traveling or in a café. They simply don't provide enough data usage or speed for 24/7 home VPN connections. If you want to encrypt all your home internet traffic, all the time, you should pay for your VPN service.
If a VPN service is based in the United States, it will be subject to search warrants presented by U.S. law-enforcement agencies. All VPN services log user connections, no matter what the service claims.
Many of the services we review here are based in Canada, Switzerland or Germany, which have stronger privacy laws. But two of the Canadian services, SurfEasy and TunnelBear, were recently bought by U.S. companies and have to honor U.S. warrants and subpoenas under a new U.S. law.
How VPNs Work
VPN services encrypt your data while it's in transit, creating a virtual tunnel through the internet that separates your data packets from the bazillions around them until they reach the VPN's exit nodes many miles away from where you are.
Not only is the data encrypted, as it would be during a normal secure web session, but the routing information about the sender and intended recipient is hidden as well.
Today, the most popular VPN protocols are OpenVPN and various implementations of Internet Protocol Security (IPsec), which include IPsec by itself or in combination with Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) or Internet Key Exchange versions 1 and 2 (IKEv1 and IKEv2).
Some VPN protocols, including OpenVPN, use the Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) protocols, which are also the standards to encrypt non-VPN connections between your web browser and secure websites (those that begin with HTTPS).
A VPN's scrambling and unscrambling of your data can sometimes slow internet traffic to a crawl. The best VPN service providers have fast servers connected to huge data pipes to minimize this performance decline. They also have thousands of servers located in scores of countries, ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe.