Free VPN services will always sound more attractive just because they do not cost anything (only apparently). But there is a reason why the users who did their research always go with the premium VPN. Let’s find out what that is.
Here’s what we are exploring in the current article (click to jump to topic):
- Understanding the VPN licensing models
- Free VPN
- Paid VPN
- Free VPN vs paid VPN: Who is the winner
Understanding the VPN licensing models
If you install a VPN application on your computer right now from a website that listed “free VPN” on Google, messages like “credit card required” or “free to try for 30 days” may welcome you. These services are not really free but may offer a free trial or a money-back guarantee. It is essential to understand the licensing models to learn how to identify a truly free VPN app.
Free software (freeware) means that you can use all supported features without any time limitation. To generate income somehow, the developer might rely on donations (donationware) or inject ads (adware). Adware is harmful because, besides the VPN, you can end up accidentally installing additional tools that you did not sign up for. Or you might see aggressive ads during runtime, or even end up with a malware-infected computer.
Demo mode keeps some features locked but has no time limitation while trial mode lets you evaluate everything for a fixed amount of time. Freemium is a newer licensing model that can be a demo, trial, or a combination of both. Most popular VPNs are commercialware, though, also known as premium VPN: it is impossible to test anything for free before buying the full package.
With a free VPN service, it is not possible to access the features available in the premium version. However, you can do this with a free VPN trial, which gives you the possibility to test everything for a fixed amount of time.
By this point, you should know that most VPNs apps that claim to be “free” are not 100% free. In the best case scenario, the VPN providers restrict some of their functionality and give you the possibility to test a few features at no cost. It is normal. By showing you proof their VPN service works as expected, they might convince you to pay for the premium version with everything unlocked.
For instance, you might be able to hide your IP address and perform secure payments but not use the free VPN service to access streaming websites or to download torrents. Or you might have limited monthly bandwidth or capped Internet speed through the VPN traffic.
In the worst case scenario, the so-called “free” VPN service is ad-supported. It can inject malware in ads and banners (unintentionally or not), turn you into an exit node to permit other premium users to route their traffic through your device, or worse, gather details about your browsing and sell it to advertising companies.
Is there a completely free VPN service?
Yes, if it is an open-source project.
Thinking like a VPN developer: is it worth it?
To better understand how impractical it is to come up with an excellent VPN service offered for free, you must think like a software developer. For example, creating a free image editor can mean throwing it some image manipulation tools, filters, and effects. Afterward, you can forget about the project and focus on something else. But the user community will still be able to use the image editor without issues.
Developing a free VPN application is different. Because it is a security tool, it must be continuously monitored and improved by a team of security experts. If the project is abandoned, it will quickly become open to exploits. If it is taken offline, users will no longer be able to log into the service and connect to VPN servers.
Dangers of free VPN services
Here are some of the risks involved with using free VPN services:
It often happens with freemium VPN services. They lock too many features in the free edition of the product, making it impossible to connect to the VPN and explore the web. For example, if a kill switch exists but is not available in the free version, you risk leaking your IP address on sudden connection drops.
If you can connect to a single VPN server, there is no point in using the same IP address every time you go online since your browsing habits will be eventually tracked. The VPN providers must not be zealous in blocking so many settings because they risk creating a useless product.
Low or compromised security
We are talking about two security aspects here: VPN protocols and malware. Firstly, VPN providers do not invest too much time and effort in their free services, which could translate to poorly implemented VPN protocols used to encrypt your data traffic. Many free virtual private network tools continue to support L2TP and PPTP connections, although they are becoming obsolete to their vulnerabilities. Few give you the possibility to connect through the OpenVPN protocol, for instance.
Secondly, free VPNs typically inject advertising content, which opens the door for malware infections. In 2016, CSIRO led an independent research study on Android-based VPN services, demonstrating that 38% out of 283 apps contained ads or another form of malware. Most of the red-flagged VPNs did not cost anything.
Hampered connection speed
It is possible for VPN providers who offer both no-cost and premium flavors of the same product to limit the Internet speed of free users intentionally. From the company’s perspective, the solution is more optimal since it helps them allocate more VPN bandwidth to paying customers. Setting a maximum limit for how much bandwidth can be freely used can deliver the same effects.
Public Wi-Fi is frequently restricted because many Internet users share the network bandwidth. It translates to slower connections. An Internet connection that is already limited by the VPN provider may slow down to a halt over open hotspots. It puts the last nail in the coffin.
Monitoring, collecting and selling your private data
We can not stress this enough. Free VPN services which seem like the best thing that ever happened since sliced bread are notoriously famous for keeping track of your Internet activity. They build a database of raw information using your browsing habits and then sell it to a marketing company.
Browsing habits can include the websites you access, the links you click, the products or services you are paying money for, as well as the mode in which you reach certain websites. In turn, the company puts together an online profile and uses it as leverage to design engaging ads of products and services.
Examples of shady free VPN services
We can not back up our claims without any proof, so here are three examples of free VPNs with a history of dangerous or suspicious practices:
In 2015, Hola revealed that it turned its free customers into exit nodes by providing their system’s idle resources to premium clients of Luminati, Hola’s sister service. To prevent this from happening, users would have to pay a fee to use Hola VPN PLUS.
But the company kept all of this in the dark until Frederick Brennan, 8chan’s founder, discovered the flaw after a hacker exploited Hola’s network. Subsequently, a website called Adios, Hola! was specially designed to warn users about the dangers of Hola.
Facebook Onavo Protect
In 2013, Facebook purchased Onavo, an Israeli company that specialized in web analytics tools for mobile apps. One of these tools was Onavo Protect, a VPN service primarily concerned not with protecting user privacy across the web but with analyzing data traffic passed through the VPN to compile statistics about app usage.
Hotspot Shield VPN
In 2018, an independent security expert named Paulos Yibelo uncovered a flaw in Hotspot Shield VPN, which makes users vulnerable to data leaks such as real location and Wi-Fi network name.
Other inconveniences of free VPN
We have already covered the risks involved with using free VPN. Let’s talk about general inconveniences now: the little things that might not compromise your privacy but make your life more difficult unless you switch to premium VPN.
Few VPN servers
You will have a hard time finding a free-to-use VPN service with plenty of servers to choose from. Instead, they list all countries available in the full version but make most of them unavailable in the light edition. It is supposed to be the incentive that convinces you it is worth spending money on the paid counterpart.
Furthermore, the free version may have a drastically lower number of servers where all free users connect, with no room left. When this happens, you are left out, will waste time searching for a server that works, and perhaps get kicked out of the server when premium users connection (priority-based VPN).
VPN servers blocked by Netflix
The majority of VPN apps does not support torrenting or streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, or BBC iPlayer. And even if they do, it does not mean that the servers work. Maintaining a large number of private VPN servers is quite expensive, especially those located in countries with harsh Internet policies.
If the development team does not take care of the servers, then giants like Netflix swiftly intervene to identify and block the IP addresses of the VPN servers.
Lack of support
A lot of problems related to virtual private network services have simple workarounds, like VPN error codes. But if you run across an issue that can not be fixed by looking into help manuals, checking the FAQ page or consulting the user community, then you must ask for assistance by contacting customer support.
Premium VPNs come with all sorts of help systems, like support tickets and live chat. But you should not expect this level of dedication from a free VPN provider. Human resources cost money that can not be obtained from free VPN users, so you are left figuring out the solution on your own.
The minor advantages of free VPN
In addition to the apparent upside of getting a free product, the other good thing about free VPNs is that you do not have to sign up using your real name, nor specify your credit card details. From this point of view, it is possible to hide your identity from the VPN provider, a feat that can be achieved by a few premium virtual private network tools, such as Mullvad VPN.
But it will not matter if you use the VPN service to connect to your personal accounts tied to your real identities, such as Facebook or Instagram. Not to mention the fact that all measures you take to preserve your anonymity will be in vain if the VPN company collects and sells your data.
Examples of decent freemium VPN services
The world of VPN is not black and white, though. There are some freemium virtual private network tools with decent limitations that make the compromise worth it. For instance, ProtonVPN permits only one connection and three countries in the free edition but comes with unlimited bandwidth.
Speedify limits you to 5Gb of data traffic. You can connect from a single device and access all servers available in the premium edition. TunnelBear offers 500Mb monthly bandwidth in its free version.
When is it safe to use a free VPN?
If you need to download a file that is not available to your location, you can quickly download and install a free VPN, connect to a server, get the file, then uninstall the application. You can also try watching Netflix if possible since it is not illegal (just frowned upon).
Whatever you do should not involve any level of privacy, like downloading a torrent with copyright content, accessing email accounts or shopping at public hotspots, having private conversations, or overcoming government censorship if Internet circumvention tools are illegal in your country.
Compared to free VPN, paid virtual private network services are a whole other matter. Companies use the money of their paying customers to create and maintain a professional product. There is an entire team behind a premium VPN, whose role is to check the product and fix any security leaks regularly.
You will rarely find ads, banners, or hidden trackers that redirect your traffic to partner websites in exchange for profit. It is because a premium VPN is already receiving revenue so that it can focus on the needs of the individuals.
Should I pay for a VPN?
Yes, if you want a top-notch service.
All the money gained from VPN customers is poured into the product: the better the service is, the more customers it will attract. It is in the interest of the VPN provider.
If you are not sure you will get along with a particular application, you can turn to a short-term solution and purchase a one-month subscription. Most professionals offer a money-back guarantee in case you are not satisfied.
Are VPN providers safe?
There are no guarantees, but you will definitely gain more security from paid VPN services. Trusting a VPN provider with your browsing data is a delicate matter. Everything can fall apart at the slightest sign of dishonesty. It is why we recommend doing a company background check for any history of bad behavior.
For example, IPVanish was at the center of a controversy in 2018, when it handed over logging details about a customer to the Department of Homeland Security, on suspicion of child pornography. The intentions were clearly noble, but the problem was that IPVanish claimed that it did not record any VPN traffic.
Can you be tracked when using VPN?
No, if your ISP does not use Deep Packet Inspection (DPI). But the government has more resources at hand and can probably track you if you live in a country with strict censorship.
This is why it is crucial to opt for the services of a VPN provider located in a country with neutral or undefined data retention laws and which does not keep logs about your activity.
The perks of paid VPN services
Purchasing a premium subscription to a virtual private network tool unlocks all supported functions. However, you might come across VPN providers that offer different features, depending on the subscription plan, such as fewer simultaneous connections.
Here are some of the upsides of utilizing premium VPN:
Firstly, there is no risk of getting your devices infected with malware injected through ads. Secondly, you can explore multiple VPN protocols to gain the best possible speed, end-to-end encryption, stable connections even when switching from Wi-Fi to data networks, or the ability to penetrate most firewalls.
Thirdly, some VPN services come with a kill switch designed to cut off all Internet connections in case of unexpected drops, in order to prevent IP leaks. Extra security features you might stumble upon are DNS and IP leak prevention, proprietary DNS, split tunneling, multi-hop VPN, and Tor support.
No bandwidth or speed restrictions
You do not have to worry about reaching the limit of your monthly quota too soon because most VPN providers offer unlimited bandwidth with their premium products. Similarly, your VPN speed will not be throttled by the company to save resources for other paying customers.
This combination makes the virtual private network tool ideal for tasks which require large bandwidth and a steady connection. For example, you can access streaming sites as well as downloading and uploading torrents with confidence.
More servers, more countries
Having a large number of servers at your disposal means that you will not find yourself connected to a busy IP address. You can unlock online content that is only available to particular countries, like exclusive video games, as well as get passed government censorship.
Some premium VPN services have servers optimized for streaming and P2P, so you do not have to worry about being banned by Netflix or experiencing slow torrent speeds. Also, if you want to join multiplayer games in rooms hosted across the planet, you can connect to the host’s country to reduce ping time.
No logs, no exposing your data
We previously established that the company behind a free VPN service might be secretly monitoring your browsing activity and selling it to the highest bidder so that marketing firms can use this information to their advantage and create targeted ads you are likely to find attractive.
Software applications are prone to break down out of the blue, and your favorite search engine might not be able to deliver the solution you wanted. When everything else fails, you can contact the support team of your VPN service to request help. Usually, the fastest way to obtain a reply is through live chat.
Compatibility and versatility
Premium VPN services offer support for multiple platforms and operating systems, like Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, and iOS. Paying for a product does not bind it to your hardware but lets you connect from any device.
Most allow multiple simultaneous connections so that you can share your VPN account with a friend or family member. Otherwise, you can install the VPN on the router using the OpenVPN protocol.
The top-ranked premium VPN services on FindYourVPN.com have passed our speed and leak tests with flying colors: ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and CyberGhost VPN. Click the names to check out their reviews and ratings.
Alternative: use open-source VPN or build your own
If we have not convinced you that premium VPN applications are the way to go, then you can look into open-source VPN services like OpenVPN, SoftEther or Freelan.
The upside is that everything is transparent. The downside is that you have to learn how to configure VPN settings because it’s not as easy as operating a paid VPN client that simplifies the experience for first-time users.
To take things one step further, you can learn how to build your own VPN and host it to a cloud service. There are free tools to help you install your own virtual private network apps, such as Algo and Streisand.
However, we should warn you that, if you are planning to be the sole user of your custom-made VPN and to use it in overcoming government censorship often, then your VPN server can be easily traced and blocked since you will be establishing VPN connections from a single IP address.
How to get a premium VPN service for free
To bend the rules and get a premium virtual private network tool at no cost, start monitoring the websites and social media pages of VPN providers. It is common practice for a software developer to hold giveaway promotions and special discounts for a select group of people, and VPN services make no exception.
Such events appear out of the blue, but make sure to check around the holidays, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday. An alternative is to contact the VPN developer and offer to write a review in exchange for a free license. Of course, having a broad network of followers comes a long way. You can also politely ask for a free license since you never know what is around the corner.
Free VPN vs paid VPN: Who is the winner
Without a doubt, a premium VPN service is worth the money. Especially if you plan to use it when going online regularly. It delivers unparalleled speed, security, and privacy. The only goal of free VPNs is to attract potential customers. Unfortunately, most of them are shallow.
What is your experience with free and premium VPN services? Let us know in the comment section below.