Free VPNs have a bad reputation for good reasons, such as questionable security, poor performance, and intrusive advertisements. This is why we recommend avoiding them.
The digital security market for individuals has soared in recent years, especially with the widespread and easy access to VPN services. You’re likely familiar with these small programs designed to secure your internet connection, or more specifically, your online privacy. This market is now worth over $30 million and could surpass $70 billion within five years. With such a massive market, competition is fierce, and many brands have emerged to grab a share of it.
While NordVPN, Cyberghost, or Surfshark are well-established in the 100% paid services category, other brands offer their services partially (in a freemium model) or completely free. However, what may initially seem like a bargain could come with significant drawbacks, or even compromise your security. Here’s an overview of the reasons not to be tempted by free VPNs.
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Limited bandwidth and performance
One of the key differences between VPN services is performance. In this regard, free VPNs often fall short.
Free VPNs generally limit the data allocated to a user, offering only a few hundred or even just a few dozen MB of bandwidth over a specified period. This is often a way for the service to entice users into paying for a subscription. Don’t expect unlimited surfing with a free service.
Another area where free VPNs skimp is connection speed. The servers to which users can connect are often throttled or underperforming. In some cases, VPNs don’t disclose this information, leaving the user with a slow connection, even if their base internet speed is fast.
The effectiveness of a VPN service is also determined by its global coverage and the number of servers it can access. Free VPNs significantly limit the number of countries and servers available, often focusing on the service’s country of origin. Don’t expect to connect to servers in authoritarian countries like China or Iran.
If you’re using a VPN to access foreign Netflix, Prime Video, or other catalogs, a free VPN is unlikely to be effective. These services often use less effective protocols for bypassing geographic restrictions and are easily detectable by platforms that block access to their content. This aspect is highly variable, and it may work occasionally, but it’s not a guarantee.
Insignificant or even dangerous security levels
The critical issue with a VPN is security and, above all, privacy assurance. Naturally, a free service will often cut corners in this area, leaving you completely vulnerable – ironic, considering a VPN is meant to protect your privacy. Even if the VPNs offering paid versions claim to provide the same security features as their paid counterparts, this guarantee is thin and hard to verify. By using these services, you risk having your private information (country of origin, address, etc.) captured by the very entities that were supposed to protect it.
A good way to check for integrity and potential privacy leaks is to use an independent DNS leak test like DNS leak test. If your IP is visible after the test is completed, you can be sure that your VPN is not protecting your privacy.
Another concern is the security protocols used, which are often far less effective and outdated. You won’t find modern protocols like WireGuard, IKEv2 (for mobile), or the highly effective proprietary protocols of NordVPN or ExpressVPN. Instead, you’ll frequently encounter old protocols like PPTP, L2TP, IPSEC, or the aging OpenVPN.
Lastly, and perhaps most critically: some obscure programs posing as VPNs can actually be Trojan horses hiding malware that can infect your device and compromise your data. For example, they can capture your keystrokes to record your passwords, send you ransomware, or even use your device’s processing power to mine cryptocurrency.
For instance, cybersecurity company Bitdefender recently discovered that the Iranian spyware EyeSpy had been deliberately hidden in free VPN packages, which gained popularity following the Iranian government’s digital blackout, leaving citizens without internet access during recent civil unrest.
Absence of Kill Switch, yet essential
We have already demonstrated the essentiality of the Kill Switch feature in a VPN service. This feature ensures your privacy even if your connection is compromised. Unsurprisingly, free VPNs do not offer this basic option nor other often useful features.
In the same vein, it is reasonable to trust or distrust a VPN based on its customer service. You won’t be surprised to learn that free VPNs obviously do not provide any. There is no way to make a complaint or any request in case of a problem.
Ads, ads everywhere!
Naturally, if users do not pay a monthly subscription, free VPNs must find other ways to monetize at their expense. To compensate for the lack of a paid subscription, these programs or applications are often filled with intrusive and frequently targeted ads, thanks to the personal data they have stolen and sold to third parties.
Most often, these ads are found in VPN applications not affiliated with a brand on the Play Store or the App Store.
It’s not uncommon for some VPNs to offer a free but limited version of their services. In the case of major brands, there are no real concerns besides limitations on speed and connection time. In this case, we recommend checking out our VPN comparison tool, which includes some services with a free offer, such as ProtonVPN, for example.
Another good alternative is to take advantage of VPN trial periods. These usually last around 30 to 45 days. You simply need to request a refund before the end of the trial period to get your money back.
How can a free VPN compromise my security and privacy?
Free VPNs can compromise your security and privacy by using weak encryption protocols, failing to adequately hide your IP address, or even deliberately collecting and selling your personal information to third parties. Some free VPNs may also contain malware or other malicious software that can infect your device and steal your data.
Are there any reliable free VPNs available?
Some reliable free VPNs do exist, but they typically come with limitations, such as data caps, fewer server locations, or slower speeds. Examples of reputable free VPNs include ProtonVPN’s free version and TunnelBear’s limited data plan. These services may offer adequate protection for casual users but are not ideal for heavy or long-term use. It’s generally recommended to invest in a paid VPN for better security, privacy, and performance.
Can I use a free VPN for streaming and accessing geo-restricted content?
Free VPNs may occasionally allow you to access geo-restricted content, but their effectiveness is often limited. Free VPN services often use outdated protocols that can be easily detected and blocked by streaming platforms. Moreover, free VPNs usually have slower connection speeds and limited server locations, which can lead to poor streaming quality and buffering issues.
If I use a free VPN, how can I protect myself from potential risks?
What are some alternatives to using a free VPN?
Alternatives to using a free VPN include taking advantage of trial periods or money-back guarantees offered by paid VPN services. These trials usually last around 30 to 45 days, allowing you to test the VPN’s performance, security, and features before committing to a subscription. Additionally, some reputable VPN providers offer limited free plans, such as ProtonVPN and TunnelBear, which can be a viable option for occasional or light use.