Free VPNs tend to get a bad rap, and often for good reason. We’ve previously covered ten hidden dangers of free VPNs, some more serious than others. Among these is something VPNs are supposed to prevent in the first place. Namely, third parties selling your data to the highest bidder. Here is a quick rundown of some other security concerns we go over in the article above:
- Over one-third of free Android VPNs being infected with malware
- Aggressive advertising practices, such as injecting ads directly into your browser. It should be noted that ads like these tend to use tracking cookies to monitor your browsing activity
- Multiple VPNs are owned by the same companies – giving you the illusion of choice, as well as making it harder to avoid companies known for bad business practices
- Poor to non-existent customer support
Legitimate Business Practices of Free VPNs
To the credit of critics everywhere, there aren’t many ways free providers can maintain a legitimate operation. Moreover, these practices are often meant to draw you into getting their premium plan. Some might consider them paid VPNs with extra steps, essentially. At least you don’t have to worry about them selling your data.
Anyway, here’s what you can expect.
1. Imposing Limitations
One way a legit free VPN can make money is to have a “freemium” business model. What this means is that your provider offers a limited version of their VPN for free. If you pay for a subscription, you can have these restrictions removed. Simple enough.
These are the limitations you can expect from such a service:
- Data caps – the most common, and probably the most irritating. Providers allow you decent speeds, but traffic caps range from 500 MB to 10 GB per month. It’s not much, especially if you were thinking about using a free VPN for data-intensive tasks, like video streaming.
- Small number of servers – self-explanatory. Renting servers in different countries costs a decent amount, so you’re stuck with a few key areas unless you’re willing to pay.
- Slow speeds – even if the provider offers a decent number of servers in multiple regions, don’t expect lightning-fast speeds.
It goes without saying that these limited-feature VPNs won’t be able to unblock Netflix or other content platforms. And even if they do, the data caps won’t last you for more than a couple of episodes of a show; maybe a movie.
However, if you are diligent in managing your data usage, you may use such free VPNs to unblock articles, YouTube videos, and other restricted media in your country. They’re a great way to bypass online censorship, whether it’s governmental or corporate.
2. VPN As A Side Business
A great way for companies to keep a free VPN afloat is to fund their operations through another business. That’s exactly what Switzerland-based email provider ProtonMail is doing with ProtonVPN. They’ve made enough money thanks to ProtonMail subscribers looking for a secure email provider, so they got their foot in the VPN industry as well.
Another noteworthy example is Avira Phantom VPN, which comes from German security software provider Avira – best known for their antivirus solutions. We’d put Opera’s free “VPN” here, but it acts more like a secure proxy since it only encrypts traffic from the Opera browser – as opposed to your entire network traffic.
In any case, don’t think you’re safe from limitations just because these VPN providers get their money from somewhere else. For example, Avira Phantom VPN only allows you 500 MB of data per month. At most, this is suited for very light browsing, such as reading some blocked articles and watching low-quality YouTube videos.
ProtonVPN does not have a data limit and advertises itself as having “no speed limits.” While that may be true in theory, its popularity makes server congestion a problem. Since you’re sharing the few free servers with thousands of other people, you’re inevitably going to run into slowdown issues.
Yes, we’ve included adverts as a potential security risk of free VPNs. And yet, it can also be a legit practice if the provider is completely upfront about it. What does this entail?
- Stating what data they collect and how they use it in non-ambiguous terms
- Clearly naming the advertisers they work with – avoid providers that only mention vague, nameless “third parties” they’re partnered with
[…] our VPN products do not use your VPN browsing activity for these purposes and we do not maintain any records that show what you were browsing or accessing through a VPN connection.
In fact (and this applies to any free VPN), if you don’t need to use a credit card to sign up, you should offer as little information about you as possible. Some providers even let you create an account without an email – though you could always use a free, disposable email service like MailDrop.
What Are Some Good Free VPNs?
If budgets are tight at the moment, you’re in luck. Check out our list of the best free VPNs of 2020 for some in-depth coverage on the topic. We take a look at the features, limitations, pros, and cons of each entry. And yes, that includes whether you can reliably unblock Netflix as well.
Great Alternatives to Free VPNs
1. Free Trials
Free trial VPNs let you access their full range of features, but only for a few days at most. After that, you will need to subscribe to continue using their services. In contrast, you can use free VPNs indefinitely, but your experience will be limited somehow.
The advantage of this “try before you buy” approach is that you can see for yourself whether the provider’s services are worth the money. Speed, server count, anything you can think of. A good VPN with a free trial should not limit you in any way, otherwise, you may end up paying for something that’s not as great as advertised.
2. Money-Back Guarantees
A great VPN provider should offer a robust, hassle-free money-back guarantee if you weren’t satisfied with their services. These are usually available for 30 days, though that could be more or less, depending on the VPN.
The reason we’re mentioning this (even though it costs money) is because providers often advertise themselves as “free-to-try for 30 days” (or applicable number). As always, there are cases where certain limitations apply. The problem is that they are never clearly advertised, and are usually buried within the terms and conditions.
For example, you may be ineligible for your money back if you pass a certain bandwidth usage. Other providers might ask you to provide a specific reason for the refund, requiring you to go through customer support. Whatever the case is, reading the terms of service should save you a headache or two.
Despite everybody’s grim outlook on free VPNs, there are still a few decent companies out there who just want to provide a free way to:
- Bypass censorship
- Unblock geo-restricted content
- Secure their online data and privacy
All this without having to resort to shady tactics like selling your personal data to advertisers or unknown third parties. You just need to know where to look.