Opting for a free VPN plan usually means some major compromises: data transfer limits, maybe restrictions on speeds, and users often can't use the most popular locations. It's tempting to think there's always a big catch somewhere, and all you have to do is find it – right?
Windscribe is an interesting VPN which doesn't seem to follow the usual rules. The free VPN plan gives you a chunky 10GB a month data allowance if you register your email address (2GB if not), 20 times what you'll get with some competitors.
The main issues are that you get access to just eight countries (US, UK and other European cities, Hong Kong) and there's support for one connection only. But that's perfectly adequate if, say, you just want to protect your browsing and emails while you're travelling.
Windscribe's free plan goes further with some unexpected extras: ad-blocking via a browser add-on, and even P2P support.
- Want to try Windscribe? Check out the website here
Windscribe offers clients for Windows, Mac and iOS. That's usually a positive sign as it indicates a company with some expertise and resources, and makes the service easier to set up. The lack of an Android client is an issue, but you can manually configure Android devices to use the service, and a native client is promised to be ‘coming soon’. Also, there are separate Chrome, Firefox and Opera extensions you can install and use anywhere.
This isn't bad at all for a free service, but if you need more, spending $9 (£7) gets you a month of unlimited access to 45 locations. Pay for a year upfront and the price drops to an effective $7.50 (£5.80) a month.
Unlike most of the competition, Windscribe’s commercial plan allows unlimited connections, and they're not explicitly for single users only. You're not allowed to resell the service, but this does mean you can let the whole family have access without worrying about hitting some arbitrary connection limit.
VPNs might be used to protect some very confidential information, as well as your privacy in general, so it's important to be sure that your provider is trustworthy and up to the task.
The good news kept coming. The document is relatively short at 600 words, but still nicely structured into small sections. Each paragraph is clearly written in plain English, and somehow manages to include more relevant information than policies four or five times the length.
Windscribe collects minimal data from its website, for instance. Opening a page submits the same information that other sites get (user agent, referring website). Cookies are only set if you're referred from an affiliate. This all stays within Windscribe, because there's no third-party Google Analytics involvement (the company runs its own Piwik web analytics).
The service details are just as encouraging. You can sign up without providing even an email address, although your data transfer allowance falls from 10GB to 2GB. The system records a timestamp of your last visit and your total bandwidth used for the month, but there's no historical session log, no records of incoming or outgoing IP addresses or your individual activities.
VPNs still need to log data for the current session, especially on bandwidth-limited plans, because they need to record that the browsing activity on this server connection relates to the IP address or account of this user. Other VPNs either don't mention this at all, or they hide it in vague clauses about logging "some" data for "operational" reasons. Here's what Windscribe says about the issue:
"For the duration of your connection we store the following data in a temporary location: OpenVPN username, VPN server connected to, time of connection, amount of data transferred during the session. This data expires and is discarded within 3 minutes of session termination."
That's exceptionally clear and detailed.
The policy even covers what happens if you stop using the service, mentioning that Windscribe will "periodically prune inactive accounts", and that you can ask for your details to be deleted if you like.
All of this is based on what Windscribe says it does and will do, of course. There's no way for us to tell exactly what happens in practice. What we can say is the company appears to understand the privacy issue more than others, it's more transparent, and there's no attempt to hide dubious practices in the small print. And whatever Windscribe's internal procedures are like, the option to sign up without providing any personal details is a major privacy plus.
Getting started with Windscribe isn't difficult, but that said, it's not as beginner-friendly as some of the competition.
For example, TunnelBear has a single ‘getting started’ button as a first step, and after completing a simple form the client downloads automatically. Meanwhile, Windscribe has separate ‘signup’ and ‘download’ steps, the signup page has more options to consider, and there's a host of download links to check out.
We still figured out what we needed to do in less than a minute, so you're unlikely to be too stressed. We chose a username and password, logged in, downloaded and installed the Windows software.
Windscribe's client is small and easy-to-use, at least in a basic way. By default it displays the best location (the closest and fastest server) and you're able to connect and disconnect with a click. Alternatively, other locations are displayed in a list. You can choose just a country, or in some cases select a server (US East offers a choice of Chicago, Miami and New York). Windscribe connects immediately and defaults to your choice of server next time.
Performance was mixed in our testing*. The supposed best choice – the nearest server in the UK – returned disappointing download speeds of around 8 to 14Mbps. UK to New York connections ramped up performance to a very acceptable 20Mbps, and European servers were in a similar 10-20Mbps range. Nothing too surprising, then, but that's enough for regular browsing and lightweight streaming, and for a free service Windscribe performs reasonably well.
If you do have problems, the Preferences dialog gives you some low-level control over the service. You can choose TCP, UDP or Stealth protocols, set a port, configure a proxy and more. If you know what you're doing then a Log View feature is particularly welcome, giving you a detailed look at exactly what's happening under the VPN hood.
The native clients, 10GB data allowance and P2P support are major pluses, and although Windscribe's speeds are relatively average, this is still one of the best free VPNs around.
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*Our testing included evaluating general performance (browsing, streaming video). We also used speedtest.net to measure latency, upload and download speeds, and then tested immediately again with the VPN turned off, to check for any difference (over several rounds of testing). We then compared these results to other VPN services we've reviewed. Of course, do note that VPN performance is difficult to measure as there are so many variables.