Why use a VPN?
The best free VPN clients
There are various reasons for wanting to use free VPN (virtual private network) software, but the two main ones are to hide who you are, or to hide where you are. Why might you want to do either of these things?
Depending on what you're up to online, it is entirely possible that you do not want your online activities to be traceable – particularly in parts of the world where internet surveillance is a serious issue.
According to a recently released report, almost one in six people in the UK are now using a VPN (or proxy server) with their internet connection – and half of them have turned to a VPN in order to get access to region-locked sites or services, according to new research.
As for wanting to disguise where you are, this has the advantage of opening up websites that might otherwise be inaccessible.
There are a large number of websites – often video or television sites – that use geo-locking to try to block visitors from certain countries, and free VPN software can be used to get around these restrictions.
It can also be used to bypass site blocks put in place by governments – like the one in Turkey – and ISPs, effectively getting around censorship, and helping to preserve freedom of the web.
Although the authorities can crack down on VPNs themselves, such can be the perceived threat from the services, as we’ve seen in China recently with the news that certain ‘unapproved’ VPNs will be closed down – and Apple has actually removed some VPN apps from its iOS store in the country.
One of the affected providers, ExpressVPN, noted it was “troubled to see Apple aiding China’s censorship efforts”, but Tim Cook hit back, saying that Apple has to obey the laws of the countries it operates in, and VPN services need to have a licence from the Chinese government.
Furthermore, Russia has just passed a law banning VPNs, in order to prevent them being used to circumvent government blocks on content.
Another interesting point: new statistics from security firm Barkly have shown that 45% of internet users still keep clicking on dangerous links, but a VPN can help here. Some VPNs offer malware blocking or URL filtering to help prevent the less tech-savvy from stumbling into a phishing site, or contracting a virus online. VPNs are also great protection when using insecure public Wi-Fi hotspots.
At any rate, here's our pick of the best free VPN software to keep your online activity safe and anonymous.
A word of caution. Criminals have stepped up their efforts to infect internet users by masquerading their malware as innocent-looking applications, this is particularly true for mobile platforms where free VPN clients are particularly popular. So be wary of freshly launched VPN services or offers that are too good to be true (they usually aren't).
Also bear in mind though that VPN services are as secure as the weakest link in your setup. So if your device has already been compromised with malware, using a VPN won't save you from being spied upon, however, antivirus solutions could.
Protecting your identity doesn't get easier than this – TunnelBear is the best free VPN around
Number of servers: ~1,000 | Server locations: 20+ | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: 5
TunnelBear might have something of a cutesy design, but it's a serious free VPN. There are free and paid-for subscriptions to choose from. The only restriction with the free one is that you are limited to 500MB of traffic each month.
That said, TunnelBear’s exclusive TechRadar plan offers a far more generous 5GB, 10 times the amount you get if you sign elsewhere.
This isn't a huge amount, so you won’t be able to use TunnelBear all of the time without paying, but it's great for those times when you feel like you need a little extra protection.
Performance is impressive and ease of use is second to none. In all likelihood you won’t need to change any of the default settings, and the automatic connection option should work fine, but you can manually choose from one of 20 countries as your adopted location. Delightfully simple and reassuringly secure, TunnelBear is certainly one of the best free VPN's for all your devices.
Want to try TunnelBear? You can download it here
Super secure, with a very generous data cap, Windscribe is a top-notch free VPN
Number of servers: N/A | Server locations: 8 | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: 1
Windscribe is a relative newcomer to the free VPN scene, but its generous data allowance and commitment to protecting your privacy make it the best around. The free service gives you 10GB bandwidth per month as standard, and lets you choose from eight remote server locations.
You only need to create a username and password to sign up (an email address is optional, but might prove handy if you forget your password). Windscribe doesn’t store connection logs, IP stamps, or visited sites; when you’re actively connected to a server it stores your username, the VPN server you’re connected to and the amount of data transferred, but this is erased within three minutes of the session ending.
The 10GB data allowance is enough to make Windscribe’s free service a practical option for everyday browsing (though not heavy downloading or streaming), and there are several ways to boost it even higher.
Tweeting about the service will earn you an extra 5GB, and you’ll get 1GB each time you invite a friend to join. As an added perk, if anyone you’ve referred decides to upgrade to a Pro subscription (starting at US$7.50 per month billed annually), you’ll get the unlimited plan as well and far more servers.
If that isn’t enough to tempt you, there’s even a built-in adblocker and firewall. Give it a try today – we think you’ll be impressed.
Want to try Windscribe? You can download it here
If you use public Wi-Fi regularly, this is a great free VPN for protecting your privacy
Number of servers: N/A | Server locations: 1 | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: 5
Hotspot Shield Free is one of the better known names in this roundup, and another of the best free VPNs around today.
You can choose to anchor yourself to one of 20 countries if you pay for the Elite version of the app, and this should enable you to access just about anything you want; in the free version, you're limited to locations that Hotspot Shield chooses for you.
Hotspot Shield Free offers the option to have the free VPN automatically enabled whenever you connect to a wireless network that is deemed 'unsafe', the program offers peace of mind for those who work away from the home or office a lot. Online performance does seem to suffer a little when Hotspot Shield is enabled, but the bandwidth limit of 750MB per day is generous.
Note: Hotspot Shield’s free VPN offering has recently come under fire from the Center for Democracy & Technology, a pro-privacy non-profit organisation. The CDT has claimed that this provider intercepts and redirects traffic to partner websites which include online advertising firms. Hotspot Shield has denied these allegations and said that it was “dismayed that the CDT did not contact us to discuss their concerns”. Check here for the full lowdown on this controversy.
The latest we’ve heard is a clarification which comes via Ars Technica, in which a spokesman for Hotspot Shield noted: “The free version of our Hotspot Shield solution openly and clearly states that it is funded by ads, however, we intercept no traffic with neither the free nor the premium version of our solutions. Our users’ online privacy has always been our absolute priority.”
Want to try Hotspot Shield Free? You can download it here
Want a secure yet speedy connection? Then look no further
Number of servers: 30+ | Server locations: 20+ | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: 5
Speedify, as the name suggests, has one main aim as a VPN provider: to ensure that while you benefit from encryption, your internet connection remains as speedy as possible.
To that end, the service will make use of all available internet connections to get the best possible performance, potentially combining, say, an Ethernet connection (fixed broadband) with a tethered mobile 3G/4G connection. Even if you only have one type of internet connection, the firm claims its turbocharging technology will still help speed things up.
As well as the promise of better performance, Speedify operates a clear no logging policy, meaning it doesn’t monitor your internet traffic. And it offers clients for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, and access to over 30 VPN servers.
The free plan boasts full access to those servers (just as with the subscription options), the only restriction of the free offering being that you’re limited in the amount of data you can download.
Free users get 4GB of data for the first month, but that drops to 1GB during subsequent months. That’s not a massive amount, and certainly not as much as some other rivals you’ll see elsewhere on this page, but it’s still enough for some basic surfing and email duties.
And this VPN provider is definitely worth a look on the performance front, as during our testing, the aforementioned speed-granting technologies did actually prove themselves to have a positive effect.
Want to try Speedify? You can download it here
A free VPN that’ll keep your data and identity safe on any PC or mobile device
Number of servers: N/A | Server locations: 9 | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: 3
Like some of the other tools featured in this roundup, PrivateTunnel is available for a number of platforms – specifically Windows, Mac, Android and iOS. Another characteristic shared with many of its contemporaries is the existence of a limited, free package in addition to paid-for subscriptions. Well, sort of. Rather than offering a traditional monthly subscription package, you are instead provided with 200MB of non-expiring data to use as you want.
When this runs out, you can purchase more data in bundles of 20GB or 100GB. If you feel that you'd like to use PrivateTunnel all the time, you can opt for a $30 per year package which give you unlimited data – see the 200MB as something of a taster session to see if you like everything.
As a VPN, PrivateTunnel works fairly well, although connections can be a little temperamental at times. It's all very easy to use, so there's little reason not to take it for a test drive.
Want to try PrivateTunnel? You can download it here
A free VPN for experienced users who are comfortable with the command line
Number of servers: N/A | Server locations: N/A | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: N/A
The installation of Freelan is a little disconcerting for the uninitiated. Rather than just installing a regular program, the software installs new network drivers that take control of your web traffic. That's not a problem, but it's something that's worth pointing out right from the start.
Freelan is an open source tool and is free in absolutely every regard, but getting it set up can be tricky, particularly for novices. For more advanced users Freelan has a great deal to offer, but you should not expect your hand to be held every step of the way as well the likes of TunnelBear.
For most people this is going to be a program to avoid, but for the curious, the more technically-minded (there's no graphical user interface, so you'll be controlling it via the command line) and those who want to be in absolute control, it's ideal.
Want to try Freelan? You can download it here