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TunnelBear review: How far can you go on charm?

Stuart Andrews
20 Apr 2020
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
per month

TunnelBear is a great VPN service that’s a pleasure to use but, sadly, rivals now offer more

Fun and friendly interface
Good base-level security
Decent speeds
Reasonable pricing
Doesn't stream US Netflix
Limited locations
Lacks advanced features

TunnelBear has always stood out from the crowd of VPNs, thanks to one unexpected secret ingredient. Some VPNs have low prices or advanced security features to sell them, while others push streaming or P2P features or sheer ease of use. TunnelBear’s USP has always been its charm.

Not everyone will like the constant ursine references or the quirky animations of bears tunnelling underground, but they help make using this VPN seem almost fun. In fact, the whole style plays a large part in establishing TunnelBear as a brand you feel you can trust.

Plus, TunnelBear makes itself even more likeable by providing a free version that – with one major limitation – might fill many users’ needs without a penny being spent. But the VPN market keeps getting more competitive, and there are now better options out there than ever before.

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TunnelBear review: What you need to know

TunnelBear is based in Canada and operates servers in 23 countries around the world, which isn’t a huge number by the standards of most VPNs these days. What’s more, it doesn’t offer different cities for each country; click on the United States or Canada and you’re going to connect to whatever servers are available at the other end. Beyond the numbers, though, the service has a lot going in its favour.

You can use a free version provided you use less than 500MB of data a month – and there are ways to extend that. The company also has a refreshingly transparent approach to its privacy and logging practices. TunnelBear provides apps for Windows, MacOS, iOS and Android, though there’s no app for Linux or any support for installing a VPN on a router. There are instructions for configuring a Ubuntu Linux installation using OpenVPN, but that’s about as good as it gets right now.

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TunnelBear review: Setup and basic use

It’s near-impossible to quibble with TunnelBear’s ease-of-use. There’s a dedicated page for app downloads on the Home page, and once you’ve downloaded the client and installed it’s just a question of registering your account or entering existing log-in details, then clicking the switch in the top-left of the app window. By default, this will take you straight to the nearest, fastest connection.

You’ve got two options if you want to connect to more distant locations. Your first is to click and drag around the map and then click on the pipe icon in whatever country you want to connect to. We’ll draw a veil over why bears need a Mario-style pipe to exit their tunnels from; maybe because we’re not really sure real bears spend much time tunnelling, anyway.

Otherwise, you can pick a location from the drop-down list next to the switch. Use it and you’ll note that this only lists the countries TunnelBear operates from, rather than any specific locations within those countries. US servers seem to be based on the East Coast in the region of New York, which is generally a good thing when connecting from the UK, but this could be an issue if you want to spoof a location in the mid-west or on the West coast. Ditto if you want a US connection from somewhere in the Asia-Pacific region.

There are some additional features hidden in the Settings menu. Beyond the usual options to launch the VPN on start-up and deliver notifications on connection and disruption, you can set specific networks to be trusted. TunnelBear can then be set to launch automatically when connected to other networks; a sensible measure if you’re connecting through different public Wi-Fi hotspots. Otherwise, there’s a killswitch, dubbed VigilantBear, and a feature called GhostBear that’s designed to make encrypted traffic look more like regular Internet data.

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TunnelBear review: Privacy and security

TunnelBear is based in Canada, which some privacy advocates will tell you isn’t a great place to site a VPN. Canadian law requires that VPN providers hand over any personal information collected in specific circumstances, and the country is close to the US and the UK in the FiveEyes intelligence-sharing group. To balance this, however, it’s only an issue if you’re worried about legal action for copyright infringement or you’re concerned about government surveillance, and this bear does earn extra brownie points for its clear privacy policies.

When the purpose of so many VPN privacy policies seems to be obscuring what the company wants to do with any data, TunnelBear’s is a model of clarity. It tells you exactly what information is stored when you use the website and when you connect to the service, plus any cookies used, whether data is anonymised and the information the service does not collect. Crucially, this includes IP addresses visiting the website, IP addresses upon service connection, DNS queries while connected and any information about your activities while connected. Generally speaking, while TunnelBear will follow its legal obligations to provide information where required, it doesn’t store or log any information that could be used to identify users or track their activities online.

In tests, TunnelBear’s security seems close to rock solid. We say "close to" because while didn’t pick up any worries on location, IP address or DNS queries, it did note a discrepancy in time zone between the server location and our browser. It’s not a big deal, but some websites and services will pick this up as a sign of someone using a VPN to connect.

TunnelBear review: Performance

TunnelBear isn’t the fastest VPN we’ve tested recently, but it’s in the right zone. When we’re seeing other VPNs like HMA Pro! or AVG Secure drop download and upload speeds by under 5% over a close-range VPN link, TunnelBear’s reduction of 6.66% and 5.18% is a little disappointing, but still not the kind of thing that’ll worry you while browsing the Web or streaming video.

We also saw ping times actually decrease while connected to the VPN, which could be useful in some scenarios. UK connections to the Netherlands were a little more affected, with 8% and 5.4% speed reductions, but connections to Germany were slightly faster, at 5.8% and 5.6%.

TunnelBear also trails the leaders over longer distances, but a 33% drop in download speeds isn’t unusually bad, by any means, while the 66% drop to Singapore and the 84% drop to Australia are par for the course. Look elsewhere if you want maximum performance for gaming, P2P or streaming, but TunnelBear certainly doesn’t make your connection feel slow.

There is some bad news when it comes to streaming, though. While we had no problems streaming programmes from the BBC’s iPlayer over a UK VPN, we couldn’t get US Netflix to play ball over a transatlantic connection, regardless of whether the GhostBear feature was turned on or off.

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TunnelBear review: Browser extension

While it isn’t pushed too much by the app or website, TunnelBear also offers a free browser extension you can use either alongside or without the VPN; TunnelBear warns you that if you’re doing both there will be an effect on speed. There’s precious little impact on performance – less than 3% in our tests – and your IP address, location and DNS queries are concealed. However, TunnelBear makes it clear that, though it’s a lightweight version of TunnelBear, its VPN-like capabilities don’t provide the same level of protection as the desktop app.

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TunnelBear review: Mobile apps

TunnelBear's iOS and Android mobile apps look and feel the same as the desktop version, and using them is every bit as easy. What’s more, they also offer similar features. There’s no VigilantBear or GhostBear on iOS, but you get the auto-connect and Trusted Networks feature, while the Android version has GhostBear and VigilantBear, plus a SplitBear option that lets you set which apps should connect through a VPN tunnel and which apps should be left alone to connect as normal.

Oddly, speeds appear better through the apps than the desktop client. For instance, a UK to UK connection using Android dropped download speeds by just 3.57%, while UK-to-US connection speeds were suspiciously fast, with the download speed reduced by just 3.18%. This might indicate the use of a virtual server somewhere this side of the Atlantic, but if so didn’t catch it. iOS speeds are even better for short-haul VPN links – we lost under 1% of the normal speed – but slightly worse for longer distances. Our download speeds over a UK-to-US connection dropped by just over 13%.

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TunnelBear review: Customer support

Technical support comes through a combination of searchable help articles and email support. The articles themselves carry on TunnelBear’s accessibility and do a great job of putting sometimes difficult concepts into English that most of us can understand. The email support is a little slow to respond to queries, taking several hours (Ed: crazy what we consider "slow" these days) but questions were answered clearly and in enough detail to help. One thing we did spot is that TunnelBear doesn’t provide support on queries to do with streaming US video services, perhaps related to the fact that TunnelBear doesn’t currently unblock them.

TunnelBear review: Pricing

TunnelBear costs a fairly pricey £8.05 ($9.99)/mth if you pay monthly, but – as with most VPNs – its subscription plans work out cheaper if you commit to a longer period upfront. An annual subscription comes in at £48.19 ($59.88), which works out at £4.02 ($4.99)/mth, while a three-year subscription is £96.58 ($120), or just £2.68 ($3.33)/mth.

That puts it in the same ballpark as many top VPNs, though it’s not as cheap as value winners like ZenMate, WindScribe or SurfShark. If your needs are limited, you can use the free service with just one restriction: a 500MB monthly usage cap. You can expand this limit by posting about TunnelBear to social media accounts or recommending it to your friends.

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TunnelBear review: Verdict

This one’s tricky. On the one hand, TunnelBear is still extremely likeable. It’s extremely easy to use and it provides good performance at a decent price. On the other, it doesn’t have the features or the broad server choice of some of its VPN rivals, and it’s not the only friendly, easy-to-use VPN in town.

This doesn’t make TunnelBear a bad VPN, and for basic internet security while using WiFi hotspots, it’s fine. Yet there’s a feeling that beyond the charm, it needs to up its game. Sure, it’s a pleasure to use, but other VPNs are just as warm and friendly while getting better at the same basic job.

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