In the software world, the term “free” is not quite as straightforward as it may be in other domains. Even if the app you are interested in can be downloaded to your device without using a credit card in the process, there is usually some catch that prevents you from making full use of the software.
Furthermore, it’s also worth mentioning that “open source” and “free” do not mean the same thing. The former also grants you access to the software’s source code, not to mention the fact that the licensing is also based on GPL or similar models, which grants you almost complete freedom when it comes to what you can do with the app once you download it.
In the case of free products, you definitely do not get access to the source code, and you are also not allowed to make modifications to the app or to extend its functionality. Not only that, but you might also need to put up with ads or various types of nag-screens that urge you to pay for the premium version.
That’s also how it works when it comes to VPNs, except that the matter is a bit more complex when it comes to what exactly you are paying for when you subscribe to a paid VPN service.
In short, there are actually plenty of open source solutions if you do a short Google on the subject, but that doesn’t mean you can just get an open source VPN set up on your machine. OpenVPN is a good example of that, because even if you can freely download the software from GitHub and even change its source code, you won’t be able to do anything with it unless you also build your own server to reroute your traffic.
Now that is what you are actually paying for when you subscribe to ExpressVPN or NordVPN: The servers. Well, in truth, you are also paying for the convenience of having some extra features as well, such as an integrated kill switch, split-tunneling, multiple protocols, as well as a fancy GUI that doesn’t require you to fumble around with the command line.
Hence, instead of paying a lot of cash to rent a few servers in the countries you are interested in using for your home-made VPN, you can pay a monthly fee and gain access to hundreds or even thousands of servers, which are also spread all over the globe. Obviously, this is a lot more convenient, especially since the VPN provider takes care of keeping those servers up-to-date with the latest security fixes.
On the other hand, it really depends on how much value you put on your online anonymity, since you can get a lot of use out of a free solution as well, depending on your requirements. Thus, if you are not looking for top-notch obfuscation and fancy security features, a free VPN can at the very least help you unblock streaming services, or let you change your IP in order to access blocked content.
What can you expect from a free VPN?
Right off the bat, it’s not recommended to use a free VPN if you value privacy, because such products are usually not designed with security as a top priority. Hence, you are definitely more exposed to DNS leaks and similar issues, especially since websites have gotten a lot better at detecting VPN protocols and working around them.
After that, you can also forget about fancy features like split-tunneling or multi-protocol support. While this is not universally true, most free VPNs are not very customizable, which means that you are pretty much stuck with a couple of basic options. Again, this is not a big deal if you don’t have any use for more advanced settings, but it’s worth keeping it in mind.
Speaking of fancy protocols, many free VPNs will be unable to fool streaming services like Netflix or Hulu, which means that you won’t be able to access geo-restricted content. Netflix is especially good at detecting VPN protocols, which means that even if the videos will appear in your dashboard when you look for them, you won’t be able to play them.
Lastly, you will also have to deal with severe bandwidth limitations and traffic quotas, which is probably the worst part about free VPNs. In most cases, the caps are so tiny that you won’t even be able to stream an entire movie before your bandwidth runs out, especially if you try to watch something at a higher resolution.
To make it even easier for you to understand what kind of limitations you should be expecting, here is a list of downsides you have to live with if you decide to opt for a free VPN:
- Limited number of servers and locations
- Reduced download and upload speeds
- High pings on distant servers
- Possible DNS leaks, as well as other types of security issues
- You may be unable to unblock streaming services
- Limited or downright nonexistent obfuscation methods
- Traffic caps that can run out in a matter of hours if you are not careful
- No advanced customization features, such as split-tunneling or multiple protocols
- In-app ads that can disrupt your browsing
- Very few simultaneous connections allowed
How to pick a good free VPN for your needs
With all that being said, you can still get some use out of a free VPN, even if you will never get quite the same experience as you would with a premium one. However, there are some things you should research before making a decision, since you can avoid some common pitfalls if you are careful about your pick.
- Try to stick with a well-known company, even if you get more restrictions. Some premium VPNs also offer a free tier, which is a great way to test the service before actually paying for it. Given the fact that in many cases the same infrastructure is used for the free servers as well, you can at the very least count on better security than what you get from a no-name company.
- Do a Google search on the service before signing up. If you are new to VPNs, it’s always good practice to research the company behind the VPN. You will often find reviews or forum posts that detail the experience, as well as potential news items relating to security issues in the past.
- Manage your expectations. This is very important, because many people expect way too much from a free VPN. Hence, make sure that the VPN you pick is good at the thing you are interested in – be it unblocking Netflix, preventing leaks, or something else. No free VPNs is going to do all of these things at once, so keep that in mind.
- Don’t give out too many details about yourself while creating an account. Since you are not required to use a credit card, there’s really no reason to give out any information about yourself when signing up for a free VPN. If the VPN in question is adamant about this stuff, then you can pretty much assume that they are in the business of selling your personal data to advertisers.
Best free VPNs in 2020
Alright, we’ve covered a lot of information so far, which means that you are aware of what are the risks associated with getting a free VPN. Hence, it’s time to unveil our picks for the best solutions in this category, so that you do not have to lose too much time doing your own research. If you want to quickly navigate this article and jump directly to the entry you are most interested in, you can use the links below.
If you want to compare all of them against each other in terms of features, then the following table should also come in handy.
|Part of the 14 Eyes||Yes||No||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
Just for Netflix, Hulu,
Disney+ and HBO Go
|Yes||No||Yes||Just for websites||No|
|Data transfer limit||10 GB/month||10 GB/month||10 GB/month
(2 GB/month if you
don’t verify your email)
|Available servers/locations||200+ servers||5 locations||10 locations||3 locations||1 location||20+ locations|
Speedify is part of the Connectify, Inc. brand, which also features services like Pingify, EdgeWise Connect, and Connectify Hotspot. However, the VPN solution is designed to be very simple to set up and use, even if you are not familiar with how a VPN works. To make it even simpler, you can try the product for free for as long as you wish before buying a subscription, although there are some major limitations.
To begin with, the best part about the free version of Speedify is the fact that you do not have to create an account or give out any personal information in order to start using the app. Hence, after you install it and skip the nag screens that urge you to purchase a subscription, the app automatically connects to the fastest server near you and starts encrypting your traffic. Thus, it’s very easy to get started, and the fact that you are not required to create an account is a huge bonus.
After that, you can also connect to any server from the list of available options, which is not something that most VPNs on this list allow. On top of that, you can let Speedify automatically find the fastest server for your location, which is always a nice touch. There are also “Torrent-friendly servers”, which as you can guess from their description are designed to maximize download and upload speeds while using P2P apps.
In terms of limitations, there’s really only one major thing that stops you from being able to enjoy Speedify at its true potential: The 10 GB traffic limit. Thus, you can only transfer 10 Gigabytes per month, which is actually pretty good, at least when you consider other free VPNs, most of which have much stricter bandwidth caps.
If you are looking to do some light browsing and you are not planning on downloading files or streaming videos on Netflix or YouTube, the 10 GB can actually be enough to last you for a whole month. Obviously, you do need to be vigilant about software updating in the background, or accidentally watching something with the VPN turned on by mistake. While this is not a big issue, these are not the kind of things most people have to think about on a regular basis.
As far as advanced features go, Speedify is not very generous in this regard, but you at least get a couple of customization options that allow you to have an easier time managing your monthly quota. Hence, you can set up daily transfer caps to make sure you don’t use up too much of your free GBs at once, as well as reduce your download speeds to 200 KB/s whenever one of these transfer caps is exceeded.
To make things even better, there’s even a split-tunneling feature, kind of. While you cannot manually add or remove apps in order to allow them to bypass the VPN, you can do that for traffic from Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, and HBO Go. On the other hand, the bad news is that Speedify does not seem able to unblock these services anyway, so you are not losing much by allowing the traffic to bypass the VPN.
Lastly, one other good thing about Speedify is that you get 5 simultaneous connections to work with, which is not bad at all. Obviously, these connections are measured against a single traffic limit, so you don’t get five times the traffic. Read our review.
+ 10 GB is a pretty generous monthly cap
+ Plenty of servers to choose from, and they are all accessible even in the free version
+ You can allow streaming services to bypass the VPN to protect your monthly cap
+ Very easy to set up and use, especially since no account creation is needed
– Cannot unblock Netflix
– No split-tunneling
– Not a lot of advanced features
Although Hide.me is not as popular as other VPNs on this list, the service is actually quite impressive when it comes to functionality and features. Not only that, but the free version is very enticing as well, given the fact that you get plenty of monthly traffic, as well more than one server location to use.
Speaking of traffic, you are limited to 10 GB/month when it comes to downloading or uploading files. This is not a big number if you are accustomed to downloading torrents or streaming high-resolution movies, but it’s more than enough to allow you to browse the web for a full month, depending on whether you use social media a lot.
To make things even better, your speeds are not throttled either, which is not something many other free VPNs are willing to offer. Granted, the high speeds are not very useful if all you do is read articles or scrolls through Reddit, but it’s nice to know that you have the option to blow through your whole 10 GBs in a few hours if you want to.
Unfortunately, Hide.me is not able to unblock Netflix, at least not if you are using the free version. The website immediately detects that you are using a VPN and blocks your access to the videos, even if you can search for geo-restricted content and access the results. This is a bit of a bummer, but then again you wouldn’t be able to watch more than a couple of episodes anyway, given the data transfer limits.
As far as features are concerned, Hide.me is actually surprisingly generous in this regard. Even the kill switch is extremely customizable, given the fact that you can choose to run custom scripts whenever the kill switch interrupts your connection. In fact, you can even decide whether to run these scripts when the kill switch is triggered or after, depending on the types of scripts you plan on using.
There is also a split-tunneling feature as well, which allows you to easily white-list certain apps and allow them to bypass the VPN limitations. This is especially useful for the free version, since you can still watch regular Netflix without sacrificing your data transfer limits. Furthermore, instead of blocking certain apps and allowing everything else to go through the VPN, you can also do it the other way around, by only allowing the desired apps to make use of the VPN. This is actually a unique feature among VPNs since we haven’t seen this in other apps so far.
Lastly, you are obviously limited to a single connection, which means that you cannot connect multiple devices at once. We believe this to be a common-sense restriction since it wouldn’t be advantageous for the VPN provider to support multiple connections while still not charging you anything in return. On top of that, you would quickly run out of bandwidth anyway, so there’s really no point in being able to use multiple devices simultaneously.
+ Extremely customizable app, with many settings and options
+ 10 GB/month limit, which is a lot when you consider the competition in terms of free VPNs
+ No speed throttling of any kind
+ Technical support available 24/7 even for free users
– Only 5 server locations to choose from
– Only one device allowed
– Cannot unblock Netflix
Windscribe is a pretty interesting VPN service, especially when it comes to the free version that is available on the website. In short, you can create an account with no email or payment options, and you can use the app for as long as you wish, although there are obviously some limitations in terms of service.
The first and most severe limitation is the monthly traffic cap, which is set at 2 GB/month. However, this is where it gets interesting, because you can increase this cap by adding an email address and confirming it. This gets you 10 GB/month instead of 2, which is quite a substantial increase, especially since it’s on par with some of the most generous offers when it comes to free VPNs.
On top of that, you also have the option to “Tweet 4 Data”, which allows you to increase your bandwidth cap by simply tweeting something that mentions Windscribe. However, keep in mind that this option is not available to you if you do not confirm your email address first, which makes sense.
As far as server locations, the free version gets you 10 countries to choose from, including Canada, United States, Germany, and Hong Kong, which is a fairly diverse list as far as geographical coverage is concerned. The cool thing is that you can extend this list using the custom subscription builder on their website. Hence, for $1/month you can add one extra location and receive 10 GB of extra traffic. Keep in mind that this only works for up to 7 extra countries, and you are still limited in terms of traffic, especially if you want to stream movies.
In terms of features, Windscribe is pretty customizable, especially when it comes to protocols. As such, you get both OpenVPN and IKEv2, while also gaining access to the proprietary WStunnel protocol. Furthermore, you also have the option to manually set the port for each protocol, which comes in handy if you do not want the app to interfere with other programs on your machine.
Unfortunately, Windscribe does not offer a split-tunneling feature, which means that there is no way to white-list apps and allow them to bypass the VPN entirely. Also, it’s worth mentioning that the kill switch option is referred to as the “Firewall” instead. It does the same thing as a kill switch however, but it might be a bit confusing at first.
One other cool thing that is also part of the free version is the R.O.B.E.R.T. feature. This can help you block malware and ad trackers, but it also works for a variety of other things, such as blocking crypto mining, social networks, and gambling websites. In addition, you can also use this to whitelist certain URLs.
Lastly, Windscribe manages to successfully unblock streaming services even if you are using the free version, and that includes Netflix. Granted, you won’t be able to watch a lot of content when you consider the 2 GB (or 10 GB if you confirm your email) limit, but at least you can test it out and make sure that you get the desired functionality once you pay for a Pro subscription. Read our review.
+ The 10 GB bandwidth cap is quite generous (make sure you confirm your email in order to upgrade from 2 GB to 10 GB)
+ 10 locations available for the free version
+ Plenty of protocols to choose from
+ The integrated ad-blocker and anti-malware component is a nice addition
+ Successfully unblocks Netflix
– Requires an email address in order to unlock the 10 GB traffic cap
– Company based in Canada, which is part of the 14 Eyes Alliance
In terms of features, ProtonVPN does not really impress all that much, even if you go for the premium tiers. However, there are a few things that make the free version more attractive than other solutions, mainly because this is the only free VPN on this list that does not impose a data limit on your account. Hence, you do not have to worry about running out of bandwidth, even if you want to stream movies all day long.
The limitations are in terms of servers, since you only get 3 countries and locations to choose from. Naturally, this can be pretty annoying if those three countries are not near your real location because you will have to put up with higher pings and more unstable connections. On top of that, the download speeds are also throttled, which means that you probably won’t have a very good experience trying to stream movies anyway.
Speaking of which, one major downside that comes with ProtonVPN is the fact that you have to fiddle with the server locations a lot until you are able to unblock Netflix or similar platforms. While you can indeed do it, it’s a bit of a hassle until you find the right server, especially since there are no dedicated streaming servers that would make this process a lot simpler.
On the other hand, you can at least binge YouTube videos and other forms of content all day long, given the fact that you are not constrained by bandwidth limits. This is especially useful on your phone or tablet since that is what sets ProtonVPN apart from the competition when it comes to the free tier.
As far as extra features are concerned, ProtonVPN does come with both a kill switch and split-tunneling, the latter of which is fully-functional in the free version as well. Not only that, but it works for both apps and IP addresses, which is not something you can get from a lot of premium VPNs.
In terms of protocols, the app supports the popular OpenVPN, with both TCP and UDP connections. Since this is a very trusted protocol, you can expect top-notch security as well, especially since ProtonVPN also encrypts your traffic at all times, which protects you from leaks and other types of attacks.
One thing that’s missing from the free version is the Secure Core option, which allows you to increase your anonymity and access blocked content in heavily-censored countries. Thus, there’s no way to test whether this option will work in your case, which is a bit of a bummer.
Lastly, you only get one connection at a time with the free version, which means that you cannot connect multiple devices, even if you have unlimited bandwidth at your disposal. On the other hand, that’s a pretty understandable limitation, especially since ProtonVPN already offers a pretty good deal when you consider the fact that you are not held back by a monthly quota. Read our review.
+ No data caps of any kind
+ Includes all the features of the premium version, including multiple protocols and split-tunneling
+ Trustworthy company based in Switzerland, which is not part of the 14 Eyes Alliance
– Download and upload speeds are reduced
– Only one device allowed
Hotspot Shield is a fairly respectable VPN service, especially since it is also one of the fastest VPNs we have tested here in our labs. Granted, you also have to consider the fact that the company behind the app has had some nasty issues in the past in regards to data collection and ad injection, but those seem to have been resolved in the meantime. Hence, this is definitely one of the top VPN solutions out there at the moment.
As far as the free tier is concerned on the other hand, you have to get accustomed to some pretty fierce limitations. In order to use Hotspot Shield without paying, you have to go for the Basic version, which comes with a lot of cool features turned off. Naturally, the most obvious limitation is the daily traffic cap, which is set at a very low 500 MB/day. This makes it virtually impossible to watch anything on Netflix or YouTube, so keep that in mind.
On the other hand, 500 MB/day means that you get around 15 GB/month, which is a bit better than other VPNs on this list, at least in theory. The bad news is that even if you do get 15 GB, you cannot use all of them at once, given the fact that you are limited to 500 MB/day. Thus, you can’t save up some traffic by not using it for a few days, which is a bit of a bummer.
Furthermore, there is also only one location available to you in the list of servers – the U.S.A. This means that you are forced to connect to that server regardless of whether you live there or not, which could mean that you are stuck with high pings if you live on the opposite side of the world. Granted, Hotspot Shield scored very high in our speed tests when it comes to latency, so that may not be a major problem for most people.
As far as device connectivity goes, you can only use one device at a time, which is not great if you also want to connect your phone or your tablet. In addition, even if we keep mentioning the great speeds Hotspot Shield is capable of, keep in mind that you don’t even get those with a basic account, given the fact that your speeds are throttled by the VPN.
With all that being said, at least the app’s functionality is not affected when it comes to all the advanced settings that can be customized. Hence, you get full control over every part of the app, which includes a kill switch and split-tunneling capabilities. The latter is actually only designed to work with websites, which means that you cannot white-list apps, only certain URLs for your preferred browser.
Lastly, the good news is that Hotspot Shield is perfectly capable of unblocking streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. The bad news is that you cannot take advantage of this anyway, given the fact that the 500 MB daily limit makes it impossible to stream anything, except maybe for a very low-quality TV show episode per day. Binging is definitely out of the question. Read our review.
+ The app is the same as the premium version, with no settings disabled
+ The speeds are still decent in most cases, even if they are throttled
+ You can unblock Netflix (even if it’s pointless to do so with the free version)
– Only one server (in the US)
– 500 MB/day limit
– The company is based in the US, which is part of the 14 Eyes Alliance
In spite of the fact that TunnelBear has become quite popular in recent years, – mainly thanks to a fairly aggressive marketing campaign on YouTube – the service seems to stagnate in terms of servers and locations for some reason. Hence, even if you decide to go for the premium version and pay for a monthly subscription, you still only get around 20 server locations to choose from. That is nowhere near what you can get from CyberGhost or NordVPN, which are not that much more expensive either.
Things are pretty disappointing for the free version as well, mainly because of the very low traffic cap: 500 MB/month. Yeah – you get the same amount of traffic per month as Hotspot Shield offers per day. On the other hand, the free version of TunnelBear is mostly meant to act as a demo of shorts, which means that it allows you to test the service and see whether you enjoy the experience enough to go for a premium subscription.
In terms of features, TunnelBear is definitely not the most advanced VPN out there, but it gets the job done if you are not interested in tweaking too many settings anyway. Hence, at least you get a kill switch to protect you from server failures, as well as a very neat user interface that makes it incredibly easy to switch between servers and pick the desired location.
However, one of the best things about TunnelBear is the fact that it is privately audited every year by a third-party company. This ensures that the security behind the VPN is top-notch, and you do not have to take TunnelBear’s word for it. Not many VPNs allow security experts to investigate their software, so it’s nice to see some transparency for a change.
The protocols used by TunnelBear are also pretty well-known and secure, and they include both OpenVPN and IKEv2. In addition, your traffic is also encrypted at all times, which means that you are never at risk of being tracked. This is something most good VPNs offer anyway, but it’s nice to know that you are not sacrificing security if you decide to test the free tier.
In terms of unblocking streaming services, TunnelBear does not fare so well, unfortunately, given the fact that it has trouble with Netflix and similar platforms. While this is not a problem with the free version,- because you can’t stream anything with that 500 MB limit anyway – this is not the sort of limitation that goes away when you purchase a premium subscription. Hence, keep that in mind if you are interested in unblocking geo-restricted content, because TunnelBear may not be the right solution for you.
Lastly, there is only one connection allowed per account if you choose the free tier, which is to be expected. This gets upgraded to five simultaneous connections once you subscribe, however, so at the very least you are not stuck with this limitation. The 500 MB/month cap would also make it next to impossible for you to share the account between multiple devices anyway. Read our review.
+ Privately audited every year, which is great news for privacy enthusiasts
+ Extremely intuitive user interface
+ Decent speeds
– Only 500 MB per month of traffic
– Very few server locations, even with a full subscription
– Cannot unblock Netflix
– The company is owned by McAfee, which is based in the US, a 14 Eyes Alliance country
As you can see, even if you are not able to afford a monthly subscription, a free VPN can still help you remain anonymous on the Internet. Granted, you are mostly limited by the total amount of data you can transfer every month, not to mention the fact that you must also make do with a limited number of servers, but that’s still better than having no VPN at all.
In addition, trying the free tier for a VPN can be a great way to assess its quality, as well as to check whether the app is good enough for your specific needs. As always, it’s important not to compromise when it comes to privacy, so make sure to research the company behind the VPN in order to see whether your personal data may be at risk.
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