Using a full-scale VPN service has multiple benefits: Wi-Fi connections are encrypted, a new IP address hides your identity, and you may be able to access sites you can't normally reach.
There are downsides, too. A VPN typically slows down your internet connection, might conflict with some applications, and can sometimes be expensive.
VPN and proxy browser extensions are a simpler, more lightweight alternative to a full VPN client. They're not as secure and they only protect your browser traffic, but you can get some of the same benefits – an encrypted connection, plus a site unblocking new IP – and they're an easy way to explore what each service has to offer.
Tunnello is a good example of what's available. The extension is user-friendly, offers 13 locations around the world, and says it’s ‘10x faster’ than the competition. The speed claims don’t match our experience (although it is quick), it only works on Chrome, and the free plan limits you to 200MB of data per day, but if your needs are simple that could be enough.
Below we've listed 10 of the best VPN browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox. They won't all work for everyone – it depends on where you are and what you're trying to do – but they all have some level of free access so it's easy to test them out for yourself.
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A speedy VPN which is highly user-friendly
Number of servers: ~1,000 | Server locations: 20+ | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: 5
TunnelBear is a likeable Canadian VPN offering great performance, a strong focus on simplicity, and a website filled with cartoon bears.
Install the Chrome extension, register with your email address and you're ready to go. Click the TunnelBear address icon at any time, choose your location from the 20 available (Europe, US, India, Hong Kong, Mexico, and more), and the browser updates instantly to use your new home.
Unusually, you can toggle the service on and off instantly with a hotkey (Ctrl+Shift+U); there’s no need to touch your mouse at all.
The biggest issue with TunnelBear's standard free plan is the 500MB per month data limit, which you could easily use up in a quick browsing session. This can be increased by tweeting about the service, which earns you an extra 1GB. Upgrading to the commercial version gets you unlimited data for a reasonable $5 (£4) a month paid annually, and there are often special deals available. Speaking of which, there’s an exclusive TechRadar deal available here which gives you 5GB of data.
Whether you're using the free or commercial plans, you'll have access to the same seriously speedy network. In our performance testing, UK to UK connections gave us 35Mbps or better download speeds, the US server managed 30 to 35Mbps, and even going long-distance to Australia still got us 10Mbps; that's way better than most of the competition.
Offers a free plan with a generous data allowance
Number of servers: N/A | Server locations: 8 | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: 1
Free browser-based VPN extensions are often disappointing, but Windscribe is refreshingly different: it has fewer limits, more features, and on balance is a quality service you might actually want to use.
One major convenience is the fact that you don't need to sign up – just choosing a username gets you 2GB of data allowance a month for free. Handing over an email address gets you an impressive 10GB a month, though, way better than some of the competition.
Windscribe's Cruise Control chooses the fastest server for you, and automatically changes it when you hit a blocked resource. You might bypass some geoblocks without ever knowing they were there.
Of course you can choose your own location, too. Options include US Central, US East, US West, Canada East, Canada West, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Hong Kong and the UK.
Whatever you're using, you get the same fast performance as the commercial plans. In our tests that meant 30Mbps and higher download speeds from our local UK server, 25-30Mbps from Europe, and 15-20Mbps when connecting to our nearest US server.
Smart bonus features can remove ads, trackers and social media buttons, or randomly rotate your user agent to help stop sites recognising you. If any of these cause problems on a favourite site, add it to Windscribe's whitelist and normal service will be resumed. Nifty.
Signing up for the Pro plan gets you unlimited bandwidth and access to the full 45 locations. It's a little more expensive than most at $7.50 (£6) a month paid annually, but there are loads of apps and you can install it on as many devices as you need – another uncommon bonus there.
VPNs don’t come any easier to use than this
Number of servers: N/A | Server locations: 1 | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: 5
One of the best-known names in the VPN business, Hotspot Shield is an easy-to-use service with apps for almost everything (yes, even Windows Mobile).
The Chrome and Firefox extensions can be downloaded and used for free. There's no need to hand over your email address or any other kind of personal information, which is obviously a welcome privacy plus.
Using this VPN really couldn't be any easier. Clicking a big button connects you to the best server for your location, and you can start browsing right away. Click the button again to disconnect. Who needs a manual?
You can switch to another location in a couple of clicks. US and UK servers aren't included with the free plan, but you do get access to Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Netherlands, Russian Federation, Singapore, Spain, Sweden and Turkey.
The free version gives you 750MB of data per day, but performance is variable. We got up to 30Mbps at best, but usually it was a lot less, with most sites taking noticeably longer to load.
Still, Hotspot Shield's registration-free simplicity and range of locations is appealing, and overall it's well worth a try. If you'd like to upgrade, Hotspot Shield's Elite plan drops the ads, gets you more locations, coverage for multiple devices, unlimited data and cloud-based malware protection. Prices start at £6 ($7.50) a month, and at the time of writing you can get lifetime usage for £120 ($150). The latter could work out to be a great deal in the end.
A free VPN which doesn’t cap your data usage
Number of servers: N/A | Server locations: 4 | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: 5
ZenMate is a hugely popular VPN service based in Germany which now claims to have more than 41 million users.
The company's Chrome and Firefox browser extensions give you basic access to the VPN for free. You must sign up with your email address to get started, and also bear in mind that the service may include ads and there are only four locations (Germany, Romania, US, Hong Kong). But there are no annoying data transfer limits, and you're able to use the service as much and as often as you like.
ZenMate's browser extensions are straightforward and user-friendly. Select locations from a list and you're connected almost immediately, toggle the service on or off when you need it, and ZenMate's address bar icon updates to show when you're connected.
Speeds were reasonable on our test Windows 10 system. The German server gave us up to 20Mbps, we got 10-12Mbps from the US, and even Hong Kong's 3-5Mbps was just about enough for basic browsing.
Opting for the full commercial VPN gets you much-improved performance, more than 30 locations and the ability to use the service with other applications. Extras include malware and tracker blocking, and it's reasonably priced from £4.16 ($5.20) a month paid annually.
This freebie offering is packed with interesting features
Number of servers: 700 | Server locations: 10 | IP addresses: N/A | Maximum devices supported: 5
DotVPN is a free, feature-packed VPN which claims it can ‘unblock the entire internet’. That's not quite true, but it does have some interesting tools you won't find everywhere else.
The core VPN is easy-to-use. Click a button to connect, click it again to disconnect, and that's about it. Unusually, the free version doesn't allow choosing your own location. Instead, DotVPN assigns you the fastest server, then changes it automatically.
There are several extras. You get a simple firewall, along with ad, tracker and analytics blocking – there’s even a ‘bandwidth saver’ which the company says can save up to 30% of your data traffic with integrated compression.
Will these tools be effective? That depends on your internet use, but DotVPN does its best to help you find out. Open the extension at any time and it displays the number of ads, trackers, analytics and network attacks blocked in the last seven days.
DotVPN worked well most of the time, but a few sites wouldn't display correctly when it was running. That's not a fatal problem – there might not be any issues with your favourite sites, and disabling a tracker or two might help – but be ready for some initial troubleshooting.
If DotVPN delivers for you, the full Premium account gets you a full VPN and usage on up to five devices from $3 (£2.40) a month, paid annually.
6. Strong Proxy
Simple to set up and use, Strong Proxy enables connecting to 14 locations, including seven across the US. Bandwidth is limited to 3GB a month, but speeds are good, and unlike many free competitors, the company won't collect and resell your data to third-parties.
SetupVPN offers a ‘lifetime free’ plan with unlimited bandwidth, and access to 18 locations across the world: Europe, US, South America, South Africa, Japan, India and more. Speeds can be good over short distances, but tail off quickly and can be very inconsistent (our UK-US speeds ranged from 5-20Mbps).
8. Gom VPN
Gom VPN is all about unblocking restricted websites in the simplest way possible. It's incredibly easy-to-use, with no settings or even locations to select: just a single on/off button. The price isn't bad at $4 (£3.20) a month, paid annually, but you can get some full-scale VPNs for less.
Hola is a very different type of VPN which passes traffic through its users, rather than a network of servers. It works, and it's entirely free for non-commercial use, with no bandwidth limits. But Hola has some privacy issues, too, and overall we'd only recommend it for casual use.
10. Hoxx VPN Proxy
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