Find out if a free VPN service is right for you with our pick of the best this year
The best free VPNs – or virtual private networks – are powerful tools that can help secure your connection while also disguising your location. Unfortunately, the best VPNs all cost money, but thankfully, there are still some dependable VPNs that are available for free, and we’ve combed through them all to present you this list of the best.
Free or Paid VPNs: Which one should you choose?
When deciding whether to use a free VPN or one you need to pay for, there are a few things to consider beyond the simple fact that one costs money while the other doesn’t. Most importantly, the majority of free VPNs simply can’t be trusted.
The reason for this is simple: running a VPN costs money. Since the best way to cover these costs is to charge users for the service, and if the service doesn’t do that then you may want to wonder how they finance themselves. Often, the answer is by selling users’ data, or by showing ads, or by both. In a bid to cut corners, they may not even encrypt your connection to the standard you need or expect, making them just a glorified proxy rather than a true VPN.
However, there is an exception to this rule, and all of our picks fall squarely into this category: the free plans offered by otherwise-paid-for VPN services. Some of these providers have decided to offer their services for free either as a way to help people who need a VPN, but don’t have the money to subscribe – often activists living under less-than-savoury regimes – or simply as an incentive to encourage customers to try the service before upgrading.
In any case, the free plan can best be thought of as a “light” plan, usually capping usage in some way (known as a bandwidth cap), or by limiting servers, or even by throttling maximum speeds. But that’s the price you pay for free.
You can always check out our pick of the best cheap VPNs if you want better service, but still don’t want to pay over the odds.
How we test free VPNs
We thoroughly test every VPN we review, putting free services through the same rigorous process as paid-for subscriptions. We install the client software on both desktop and mobile systems, and connect to a selection of secure servers around the world.
For each server, we use an online speed-testing service to get a sense of the performance you can expect in your own use. We also try connecting to a range of region-restricted streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu in the US, to find out whether the VPN can unblock them. We test British services too, such as BBC iPlayer and Now TV, to check whether the VPN can be used to watch UK content from abroad.
We don’t overlook security either. We scan VPN connections for DNS and WebRTC leaks, to ensure that the sites you’re visiting can’t see your private information. We look for security features such as a kill switch and automatic connection for insecure networks. And we dig into the provider’s privacy policies and location, to find out whether any information about your activity might be stored or revealed – a particularly important consideration with free services.
READ NEXT: The best cheap VPNs to use
The best free VPNs you can download in 2023
1. Windscribe VPN: Best free VPN overall
Windscribe’s free service comes with no intrusive ads and no speed restrictions. You can use up to 2GB of data per month, but you can bump this up to a generous 10GB per month just by verifying 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 all on top of regular VPN services. Windscribe also lets you use its malware and ad-blocking tech for free.
Its basic functions are easy to use, but dig into the Windscribe interface and you’ll find some surprisingly advanced features. They include a choice of VPN protocols, a kill switch, and tools to turn your laptop into a VPN hotspot through which all your communication is encrypted and anonymised. The free service doesn’t give you access to all the locations that the premium service does, but you still get a reasonable selection spread across the globe. Its decent performance and solid privacy protection made it an easy number one choice for us.
Read our full Windscribe VPN review for details
Key features – Free data per month: 2GB, extendable to 10GB; Access to streaming services abroad? Yes; Number of overseas servers: 10 countries
2. ProtonVPN: 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 see 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 limitations on bandwidth 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 best free VPN to go for.
Read our full ProtonVPN Free review for details
Key features – Free data per month: Unlimited; Access to streaming services abroad? No; Number of overseas servers: 3 countries
3. Hide.me: Best free VPN for security
Hide.me is a VPN that does a pretty good job of… well… hiding you. It’s safe and secure, and generally pretty fast, though we found that there are occasionally some connection issues. This may be due to too many people using the free servers at the same time, which can be a common issue with these services.
Free users get up to 10GB per month – which is pretty generous – though, from our experience, you’ll have some issues connecting to streaming services. Overall, the only real downside to using Hide.me is its interface, which is both bland and, occasionally, confusing. But, other than that, it’s a great free service to try out.
Read our full Hide.me review for details
Key features – Free data per month: 10GB; Access to streaming services abroad? No; Number of overseas servers: 8 countries
4. Atlas VPN: Best free VPN for accessing the US
Atlas VPN is a relatively new service that seems to be trying to use its free plan to attract new customers more than anything. In all honesty, this mostly just works to reveal the service’s weaknesses, but 5GB of free bandwidth is nothing to sniff at, and all you need to do to get it is download the app and create an account.
You get a VPN that’s relatively fast – though you can expect slowdowns on the free servers at peak times – but with a seriously buggy interface. You may want to double-check that your kill switch is turned on, as the connection timed out a few times during testing, due to unknown issues. Still, if you choose to upgrade to the paid version, it’s hard to beat the price, and you get three servers, two of which are in the States.
Read our full Atlas VPN review for details
Key features – Free data per month: 5GB; Access to streaming services abroad? No; Number of overseas servers: 2 countries
5. Hotspot Shield: Best free VPN for mobile users
Hotspot Shield is primarily a paid-for VPN, but this free version still gives you their military-grade 256-bit AES encryption, a kill switch, and a slick, intuitive interface that’s admirably consistent across Windows, but especially good on 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.
Hotspot Shield’s free plan does come with some serious downsides too. In particular, it targets ads at you, which means it’s using some of your browsing data to show you ads. As this runs contrary to what a VPN is supposed to do, we’re loath to recommend it. Another big strike against Hotspot Shield’s free plan is that it throttles your speed to a crawl.
Read our full Hotspot Shield review for details
Key features – Free data per month: Unlimited; Access to streaming services abroad? No; Number of overseas servers: US-only
6. Speedify: Best free VPN for performance
Speedify’s big selling point isn’t hard to guess, and their 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 free VPNs out there. It has some good features too. For example, mobile users can use channel-bonding – combining their mobile connections with Wi-Fi to boost performance – and built-in speedometers show you everything from raw download bandwidth to latency.
Free users get 2GB of speed-optimised bandwidth every month, and there’s little in the way of ads or nagging upgrade messages. In our tests, Speedify couldn’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.
Key features – Free data per month: 2GB; Access to streaming services abroad? No; Number of overseas servers: 38 countries
7. TunnelBear: Best free VPN for occasional use
TunnelBear clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously, obvious from its cartoonish graphics and endless bear-related punnage. But, all jokes aside, it’s a great free VPN service, with a friendly map-style interface and a few good extra features to protect your privacy, including the “VigilantBear” kill switch, and the “GhostBear”, 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 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 real restriction is its 2GB monthly bandwidth cap.
Read our full TunnelBear VPN review for details
Key features – Free data per month: 2GB; Access to streaming services abroad? No; Number of overseas servers: 40 countries