Best Buys Sherwin Coelho 21 Oct 2019
Here’s our pick of five free VPN services that unblock wesbites and keep your browsing data safe from prying eyes
A VPN is a way to open a secure “tunnel” between your device and a VPN provider. All data travelling down this tunnel is encrypted and therefore unreadable to anyone who may try to snoop on what you’re up to.
These services are especially useful if you tend to travel a lot and use public Wi-Fi networks, which are more vulnerable to hackers. When you use a VPN, your data is completely secured from hackers and even from your ISP and mobile service provider.
While most free VPN services claim a no-logging policy, there are often grey areas lurking within the legal rubric. When it comes to compliance, you just have to take them on trust. Deciding between using a paid-for VPN over a free VPN really boils down to how much you value your privacy. VPNs cost money to run and, if the service you’re using isn’t charging you, you have to wonder where they’re making their money from.
While free VPNs are a great way to dip your toes into the waters, most free services have limitations. These include monthly bandwidth caps and limited or no access to geo-blocked content, like Netflix and BBC iPlayer. Some services even route other users’ traffic through your devices. The best way to ensure you don’t succumb to these weaknesses is to use a good paid-for service. Our favourite VPN – ExpressVPN – doesn’t log any user data, lets you access geo-blocked content around the world, and you can use it on five devices at the same time. Our readers save 49% when you subscribe to the one-year plan, and there’s a 30-day no-questions-asked money-back guarantee if you’re not happy with the service.ExpressVPNTry it Now!
If you really like using a free VPN, we recommend you buy one of the paid-for VPN services that we recommend. Apart from additional safety and security features to enhance your protection, you’ll also get access to loads more geo-blocked content.
Many good paid-for VPN services (including our current favourites ExpressVPN and NordVPN) have features that none of the aforementioned free VPN services offer, including a strict no-logs policy backed by independent audits, government-level encryption standards, lightning-quick speeds, multiple simultaneous device connections, 24/7 customer support and a 31-day no-questions-asked money-back guarantee if you decide to change your mind.
However, if you quickly want to test the limits of what’s possible with a VPN without paying up first, then a free service is the best way to try before you buy.
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1. Windscribe: Brilliant to test-drive what free services can offer
Windscribe’s free service comes with no intrusive ads, no speed restrictions and a decent 2GB of bandwidth per month. You can bump this up to a generous 10GB per month by simply signing up with your email address. The software comes in two parts, a standard desktop VPN and a browser add-on, which gives you a proxy connection, cookie controls and ad-blocking features on top of regular VPN services. The free version doesn’t let you unlock Netflix, like its Pro version.
Its basic functions are easy to use, but dig down into the Windscribe interface and you’ll find some surprisingly advanced features. This includes a choice of VPN protocols, a killswitch and tools to turn your laptop into a VPN hotspot, through which all communication is encrypted and anonymised. The free service doesn’t give you access to all the locations of the premium service, but you still get a solid selection spread around the globe. Its decent performance and solid privacy protection made it an easy number one choice for us.
2. TunnelBear: A good VPN for occasional use
TunnelBear clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously which is obvious from its cartoonish graphics and endless bear-related gags. But, jokes aside, it’s a great free VPN service, with a friendly map-style interface and a good few extra features to protect your privacy. Those include the “VigilantBear” killswitch and the “GhostBear” feature, which scrambles your VPN communications to make them look like regular, unencrypted internet traffic.
On the downside, performance is only average, and TunnelBear won’t let you watch Netflix US. The fact that the service is based in Canada, which is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, might also put off those worried about government surveillance. However, the company is very up-front about what information it collects and stores, and what it can and cannot disclose to the authorities. The only serious restriction is its 500MB monthly bandwidth cap, but this is tripled if you tweet about the service.
3. ProtonVPN: The best free VPN for data and security
ProtonVPN was developed by a team of scientists and engineers from CERN, and it uses several layers of encryption and tunnelling to make sure nobody can work out your identity or location. Profiles let you easily access different settings for various online activities, and the interface looks more like something from a Bond film than your average VPN. The free version only gives you access to servers in three locations, and supports only a single device per account.
Speeds are also a little on the slow side, only getting faster if you pay. However, there are no bandwidth limitations, and ProtonVPN’s security credentials are hard to fault: it’s based in Switzerland which has strong privacy laws and the provider is very clear about how it stores and uses data. If you’re concerned about snoops and spies, this is the free VPN to go for.
4. Hotspot Shield: The best VPN for mobile users
Hotspot Shield is primarily a paid-for VPN, but this free version still gives you military-grade 256-bit AES encryption, a killswitch and a slick, intuitive interface that’s admirably consistent across Windows, Android and iOS. The main restriction is that you don’t get to choose your server location or use region-unlocking features, so if you want to stream US TV shows, it’s not the right choice. You’ll also have to put up with some adverts in the Android version, but we didn’t find them too distracting.
Where Hotspot Shield wins out is performance: it’s one of the fastest VPNs around. The provider is based in the US, but it doesn’t store any personally identifiable information and publishes regular transparency reports. The free version does share information about the sites and apps you use with advertisers, but the data is anonymised and can’t be linked to your account. If your primary concern is connecting securely to open Wi-Fi networks, then Hotspot Shield is a good choice.
5. Speedify: The best free VPN for performance
Speedify’s big selling point isn’t hard to guess – and the focus on performance extends to the free version. On short-range connections to UK or Netherlands-based servers, we found it was one of the fastest VPNs out there. It has some good features too. For example, mobile users can use channel-bonding to boost performance by combining their mobile and 4G connections, and built-in speed meters show you everything from raw download bandwidth to latency.
Free users get 5GB of speed-optimised bandwidth every month, and there’s little in the way of ads or nagging upgrade messages. Speedify can’t evade Netflix’s VPN-detection features, but it did reliably unblock other US streaming services. Throw in clear privacy policies and a smart, user-focused attitude, and this a very likeable VPN indeed – which is brilliant for a completely free service.