A VPN is useful for three main things: unblocking content that’s not available in your region, preventing anyone from spying on your online activities and securing your connection when using public Wi-Fi.
So long as you don’t want to stream video, a free VPN might well be all you need. However, in most cases their restrictions, compared to paid-for services, will make them next to useless.
For example, most free options only allow you to use a certain amount of data per day (or month). Once that limit is reached, either the VPN connection will be stopped and you’ll be returned to your normal internet connection or you’ll find you can no longer browse the web or stream videos or music.
The second big restriction is on which of the provider’s servers you can use. Often they’re not in the locations you want, either because their distance from you is too great, which means slower browsing speeds, or because you can’t unblock US Netflix because there’s no US server to select.
Finally, there’s the question of what you’re trading off in order to use the service without paying. Sometimes it’s your data, so it’s important to read the terms and conditions so you know exactly what data could be sold on.
It is rare, though, that VPN services log any data – even on free accounts, and none of the recommendations below will do this. Some services will throttle speeds, while others make back their costs from your use of their servers by displaying ads.
It’s worth knowing, though, that a paid-for VPN service with no real limitations can work out surprisingly cheap – especially if you don’t mind paying for a subscription up front which lasts several years. We’ve see five-year deals offered as cheap as $0.99 per month (around 76p), and for most people it’s simply not worth putting up with the restrictions of a free service when you can have a fully fledged one at those kinds of prices.
(If you’re interested, the five-year deal is from Ivacy, and you can get it here, if you’re quick.) If you missed out, Surfshark is a great alternative at $1.99 per month, which works out at £1.59. And you’ll find plenty of other great VPN deals in our roundup as well as our recommendations of the best paid-for VPN services.
Compared the others here, ProtonVPN is really in a different league. It is a rare beast indeed, as it imposes none of the restrictions you’d expect from a free service.
There’s no throttling, no ads and you have unlimited data usage. Proton has plenty of servers, but while anyone signed up to the Basic tier ($5 per month) can pick and choose between them, free users can only pick Japan, Netherlands or the US.
The latter is an unexpected bonus, as it means you can access websites blocked in Europe. But, and here’s the bad news, it does not unblock Netflix. For that, you’ll need to upgrade to a Plus or Visionary account, which grants you access to ‘Plus’ servers.
Proton is a Swiss-based VPN which has a no-logs policy, so is a fine choice if privacy is a priority. And there are apps for macOS and iOS (plus Windows, Android and Linux support) which should cover most, if not all of the devices you want to use.
Just note that only one device can be connected to the service at any one time.
Windscribe is a VPN service that supports more devices than you might expect. It offers apps for macOS, iOS, Amazon Fire TV Stick, Windows, Android and – in beta - Linux. Note that the Apple TV doesn’t have VPN support, so any service that claims to offer an app will instead direct you to an awkward workaround using your Mac or router.
There are also browser extensions for Firefox and Chrome, which can be useful if you only want web browsing traffic to go via the VPN connection.
Windscribe gives you a 10GB data allowance per month, which is huge compared to most free VPNs. There are also quite a few servers to pick from, with locations in the US, UK, Hong Kong, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Canada, Romania and Switzerland.
As with ProtonVPN, though, you cannot watch US Netflix and speeds can be very slow, despite the claim that the free version doesn’t have any speed restrictions.
Note that you’ll get a 2GB allowance if you don’t provide an email address, too, but Windscribe says it does not sell data to third parties even if you’re using its free service.
Have a read through hide.me’s website and you’ll be tempted to download the app immediately. It won’t bombard you with ads, there’s the same 24/7 customer support that paying customers receive, there’s no throttling and unlimited bandwidth.
‘So…What’s the catch?’ asks a sub-headline. And the answer is that – despite the unlimited bandwidth claim, free users are actually only entitled to 2GB per month.
And hide.me isn’t just using the term bandwidth to mean speed, because the same page already promises fast connections as a result of no throttling.
Putting this confusion aside, the other two limitations are what you’d expect: just five server locations (Singapore, Canada, Netherlands, US East and US West) and you’re only allowed to connect one device to the service at any one time, compared to 10 with the Premium tier.
There’s one final restriction that isn’t mentioned: free users don’t get P2P support, so you can’t download torrent files or play any games which use P2P.
The 2GB allowance may put you off, but if you’re only looking for a VPN to use on your iPhone or MacBook to secure your connection on public Wi-Fi, it’s probably more than enough.
And don’t get over-excited about the two US servers: they won’t unblock Netflix.
This fun VPN service has been around for ages, and is now owned by antivirus giant McAfee. The free version is also very well known and still exists in exactly the same format.
It means that, unlike other providers’ free tiers, TunnelBear gives you access to the full list of 23 locations that paying subscribers get. The catch in this case is that you’re only allowed to route 500MB of data via those servers each month.
That is pretty restrictive, even if you’re only intending to use it on open Wi-Fi networks as some users will get through that allowance before the month is up. Even if you don’t use it up, data does not roll over.
Twitter users can tweet bear-related puns to @thetunnelbear to get an extra 500MB that month. Rawr! to that.
There are a couple of other things that free users miss out on. First, you can only have one device connected to the service and second, only paying users get Priority support.
It’s the 23 locations, then, which are the main reason to use Tunnel Bear over the other free services here.