Despite its cute bear motif and first-rate interface, TunnelBear's free VPN service is a bit disappointing, with unreliable connections and only up to 1.5GB available each month — really only enough to casually check email while traveling. We recommend Windscribe's 10GB free monthly plan, which we consider the best free VPN service, instead.
The Truth About Completely Free VPN Services
We don't recommend any completely free VPN service because too many of them borrow user bandwidth, sell user browser histories or inject ads into the websites users see. For free VPN service, it's better to use the "freemium" offerings given out as samples by otherwise paid VPN services.
Such limited free plans cap either data usage or data speeds, but some of them are quite generous. However, they're really best for infrequent VPN use while connected to public Wi-Fi networks in cafes, airports or parks. Anyone seeking 24/7 VPN coverage for a home connection would be better served by a full-fledged paid VPN service such as Private Internet Access or Windscribe.
What You Get for Free
TunnelBear has client software for Windows, macOS, Android and iOS. It has browser add-ons for Chrome and Opera that are convenient, but it encrypts only traffic going to and from those specific browsers. Other platforms are left out in the cold.
The basic TunnelBear free service comes with a miserly 500MB of data, clearly not enough other than for occasional use. If you tweet about TunnelBear only once, however, you'll get an extra 1GB per month. TunnelBear's unlimited paid service costs $9.99 a month or $60 yearly.
TunnelBear has one of the best VPN interfaces we've seen. There's a colorful full-screen map of the world, with TunnelBear's connection servers displayed as honeypots (what else?). How much data you have left is shown in the lower-right corner.
A bonus is TunnelBear's GhostBear setting, which mimics unencrypted data traffic to avoid signaling to snoopers that you're using a VPN; both free users and paid users can use it.
The service uses the IKEv2/IPsec and OpenVPN protocols. It has 1,700 servers in 20 countries, and users of the free service can connect to any of them.
As it's based in Toronto, TunnelBear until recently wasn't subject to U.S. law. But that may no longer be the case, because the company was bought in March 2018 by U.S. antivirus giant McAfee. Legislation enacted by Congress that same month makes clear that data controlled by an American firm, no matter where it is stored, is subject to U.S. warrants and subpoenas.
To test the free plans of nine VPN providers — Avira Phantom VPN, Hide.me, Hotspot Shield, the Opera browser VPN, ProtonVPN, Speedify, SurfEasy, TunnelBear and Windscribe — we used Ookla's Speedtest.net service on an HP EliteBook x360 1020 G2 notebook connected via Wi-Fi to a regular consumer cable-company broadband account in a suburban New York home.
We measured the connection times, network latency (delay), upload speeds and download speeds of each service three times, and then averaged them. Because network speeds can vary, baseline readings without any VPN connected were taken immediately before each round of tests.
It took less than 2 minutes to set up TunnelBear on our laptop. But it took us 9.3 seconds — the second-longest time after Malaysia-based Hide.me — to connect to TunnelBear's U.S. servers. The connection was unreliable, dropping for no apparent reason three times in a 15-minute period.
TunnelBear's network performance was equally unimpressive. It had the worst average latency of any of the nine free VPNs we tested, at 151.8 milliseconds compared to a pretest ping time of 16 ms — a nearly tenfold increase.
Download speeds averaged 38.8 Mbps — a drop of 76 percent over the baseline — although SurfEasy and the Opera browser VPN showed even bigger drops. However, TunnelBear uploaded data at an average rate of 27.0 Mbps, which was a drop of only 15 percent and thus pretty good. TunnelBear's free tier was OK when streaming video and music.
If you're into teddy bears, TunnelBear's free plan might be for you. But considering its small data allotment and slow, spotty performance, we can't really recommend it over the competition as a free VPN provider. Use it only when your Windscribe or Hotspot Shield allowances are used up.
Client platforms: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS
Protocols: OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPsec
Restrictions: 500MB per month of data/1.5GB if you tweet about TunnelBear
Credit: Tom's Guide