VPNs can seem like a complicated technology, packed with low-level geeky details that hardly anyone understands, but check the TunnelBear site and you'll quickly realize this service does things differently.
The Canadian-based, McAfee-owned company doesn't drown you in jargon. There's little talk of protocols, no mention of encryption types, barely any technical terms at all. Instead the site focuses on the fundamentals, such as clearly explaining why you might want to use a VPN in the first place.
This approach won't work for everyone. If you're an experienced user and want to get down to the technical details of the service, for instance, you're likely to be disappointed. For example, the Support site returns one article if you search for DNS, one for OpenVPN, and nothing at all for MTU.
- Want to try TunnelBear? Check out the website here
The service has a relatively small network, with locations in 22 countries only covering North America, Europe, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.
Setup is easy on all the main platforms, thanks to custom clients for iOS, Android, Mac and Windows, as well as a browser extension. But if you're hoping to get the service working on routers, games consoles, Chromebooks, Linux, or anything else even slightly non-standard, there's almost no help to be found.
Still, if you're happy with the regular apps, TunnelBear's support for up to five simultaneous connections means you'll be able to have most of your devices running at the same time.
TunnelBear's free account provides a horribly limited 500MB of traffic a month, barely enough to run even a single simple speed test.
Its monthly plan gives you unlimited data for $9.99 a month, though, and if you're willing to pay a year up-front, the price drops to an effective $4.99 a month. That's decent value and towards the low end of the typical price range, although if you're willing to sign up for two or more years, there are savings to be made elsewhere (CyberGhost, VPN Unlimited, Surfshark and others all have long-term plans for under $3 a month.)
If you do sign up for TunnelBear, keep in mind that there's no money-back guarantee. The small print says, "While all amounts paid are non-refundable, certain refund requests for subscriptions may be considered by TunnelBear on a case-by-case basis", presumably if you've had really bad service, but it's entirely up to the company to decide what should happen. Not quite as friendly as the cuddly cartoon bears suggest, then.
There's a small disappointment is the shortage of payment methods, too. Not only is there no Bitcoin support, the service doesn't even accept PayPal - it's strictly card-only.
Privacy and logging
The logging policy is clearly described, with TunnelBear explaining that it does not collect "IP addresses visiting our website", "IP addresses upon service connection", "DNS Queries while connected", "Any information about the applications, services or websites our users use while connected to our Service." As a result, the company says, it can't link any of its users to an action carried out by a specific IP address. Sounds good to us.
The service does record what it calls 'operational data', updating it when you connect to the network. This includes the OS version of your device, TunnelBear app version, whether you've been active this month and the bandwidth you've used. Not quite zero logging, then, but it's far less than we've seen elsewhere, and there's nothing here that anyone could use to begin to link you to a specific online action.
While that looks great, there's normally no way to tell whether you should trust what a VPN provider is telling you. But TunnelBear is a little different. In 2017 and 2018, the company has hired independent specialists to run a public security audit on its servers, system and code, and you can read the results for yourself.
The audit results weren't perfect (we would have been suspicious if they were), and the report detailed several vulnerabilities. They weren't critical, though, and TunnelBear got them fixed. Overall, we must applaud the company for being transparent enough to give others this level of access to their systems.
We ran our own far simpler privacy tests on TunnelBear's Windows app, and these also delivered positive results. There were no DNS or WebRTC leaks to give away our identity, and the VigilantBear kill switch immediately blocked internet access when the VPN connection closed.
To check out TunnelBear's performance, we first logged on to each server, recorded the connection time, ran a ping test to look for latency issues and used a geolocation check to verify the server is in the advertised country.
We ran this test twice, 12 hours apart, and managed to connect to each server without difficulty, no retries required. Connection times were consistently fast. The ping times were variable, but not enough to show any significant issue.
Our nearest UK server gave us a capable 63-65Mbps, only around 3-4% down on our speeds without a VPN, and all we can reasonably expect from a 75Mbps line.
US speeds peaked at 95Mbps, and our best median results were around 60Mbps (some were much less), relatively disappointing for our very fast 475Mbps connection. It's still fast enough for browsing, email and streaming, of course, and if your device is using a 30Mbps connection, you should get all the performance you need. We've seen much better results from some providers, though - Private Internet Access delivered more than 200Mbps across every single test - and we suspect that higher capacity will help VPNs keep speeds high, even at peak times.
Long-distance speed tests don't tell us as much as there are many factors involved, but we ran some checks anyway, and with some very positive results. Performance was less consistent, as we would expect, but typical download speeds were 20-30Mbps and up, more than enough for most internet tasks.
One of the major selling points of a VPN is that it can make you appear to be visiting a website from another country, perhaps giving you access to content you wouldn't be able to view otherwise. But this doesn't always work, so we test all VPNs to see if they can give us access to BBC iPlayer, US YouTube and US Netflix.
We logged into TunnelBear's UK location and tried accessing BBC iPlayer, but the site noticed our VPN-based trickery and warned 'this content is not available in your location.'
There was more success with US-only YouTube channels, where we were able to stream videos without difficulty. That's a plus point, but not a major one, as just about every VPN with a US location can do the same.
US Netflix is generally much more of an unblocking challenge, and this time it seemed too much for TunnelBear. Whatever we tried (including connecting to the UK and France), Netflix displayed its standard 'you seem to be using an unblocker or proxy' error message and refused to stream any content.
VPNs usually don't like to shout about their torrent support, and it's not difficult to see why. Torrent users are likely to gobble up much more bandwidth than others, and if that involves downloading illegal stuff, it could generate more attention from the copyright police.
TunnelBear takes this quiet approach to an extreme, though, with only one reference to P2P and torrents on the entire TunnelBear website (and that was a general reference which said nothing about P2P support.)
Undaunted, we raised a query with the support team, and a polite response soon arrived. TunnelBear supports torrents at all locations, the agent explained, but also recommended specific tunnels (Canada, US, UK, Romania, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden) if we had problems elsewhere.
Getting started with TunnelBear begins by handing over your email address to create an account. Accept the free option or hand over your cash for one of the paid plans, and you're offered a choice of apps for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, as well as browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox and Opera.
If you're looking for anything more advanced, you're going to be disappointed. There's nothing for routers, or games consoles, or smart TVs, or anything else. There are no links to installation guides or troubleshooting advice. Bizarrely, the page doesn't even link to TunnelBear's OpenVPN configuration files, to help you set up other devices manually. These are available, but you have to look very hard to find them (we tracked them down by checking a support document on Linux installations.)
If you're happy with TunnelBear's main apps, you're unlikely to notice any issues (if anything, the focus on the major platforms makes the website easier to navigate.) But given that TunnelBear does have useful setup information regarding Linux, OpenVPN and more, we think the website should make this more accessible to its users.
TunnelBear's Windows client opens with a grey world map, centered on your current location, with all the other VPN locations highlighted.
Map interfaces can look good, but they're not very practical to use, and this one is no exception. There's no zoom option to help you get an overview, for instance, and although you can click and drag to move your viewpoint, this won't wrap around. If you're looking at California, for instance, you can't pan across the Pacific to view Asia - you must scan across the US, the Atlantic, and Europe, instead.
You can also select your location in a more conventional way, by clicking the current destination at the top of the screen and choosing something else from a drop-down list. That's simpler, although it would be better still if TunnelBear had thought to list the locations in alphabetical order (right now it has sequences like Switzerland, Ireland, Spain, Singapore, Norway, Denmark, Hong Kong...) Still, TunnelBear has so few locations, it only takes a second to scroll down and find whatever you need.
Once you've chosen a location, clicking On gets you connected, with the client drawing a line across the map to your destination. TunnelBear displays native Windows desktop notifications to tell you when it connects or disconnects, which is generally a good thing, as it means you're able to tell when your connection is protected, even if the Windows client is minimized or covered by another application window.
Switching locations is easy if you do it from the location list (choose a new country, TunnelBear closes the existing connection and starts a new one), but more clumsy if you do it from the map (there's an 'are you sure?'-type question, then the map viewpoint moves from the new virtual location, back to the old one, then to your physical connection, then back to the new one again.)
The client doesn't have many settings, but the few you get are very useful. You can have it load when Windows starts, for instance, then automatically activate the VPN whenever you access a wireless network which isn't on a custom Trusted Network list (everywhere but home and work, say.)
A VigilantBear setting is essentially a kill switch, blocking all internet traffic if the VPN drops to prevent any identity leaks. We tested this by forcibly closing our VPN connection and it performed well, detecting the problem, blocking internet access, warning us with a desktop notification and reconnecting within seconds.
The Obfsproxy-based GhostBear attempts to make your activities look more like regular internet traffic, perhaps helping you connect in countries like China which try to detect and block use of VPNs.
Although TunnelBear's Windows client doesn't give you any option to change protocol (we're not sure why as the code seems to support IKEv2, but the interface is OpenVPN-only), you can opt to use TCP rather than UDP connections, perhaps for greater reliability.
Overall, TunnelBear's Windows client isn't bad, and if your needs are simple you might find it works much like any other. But there's lots of scope for improvement, and the client's interface and basic feature list could disappoint experienced users.
TunnelBear's Android and iOS apps have a very similar look and feel to the Windows edition. There's a world map with VPN locations highlighted, a list of locations as a simpler alternative (though still not sorted alphabetically), a small number of useful settings, and not much else.
The map works a little better than the desktop version. It wraps as you expect, for instance (you can keep swiping left or right and get back to where you started). There's still no zoom, but the Android app can at least switch from portrait to landscape to give you a better view.
Server selection looks much the same, as you're able to choose locations from the map or the location list. But this time both options prompt for confirmation before they'll connect, so you could require an extra tap.
The Android Settings box has a few fun options, including the ability to enable or disable Bear Sounds, or to display fluffy clouds on the map. Not exactly essential, but they raised a smile anyway.
But you get most of the benefits of the desktop client, too. Auto-connect whenever you're not accessing a trusted network; the VigilantBear kill switch, and GhostBear to try and avoid VPN blocking.
There's also a welcome bonus in SplitBear (aka Split Tunneling), where you can choose apps which will always use your regular connection, rather than be routed via TunnelBear. You may never use the feature, but if you find the VPN breaks a particular app, you'll be glad it's there.
The iOS app's options are much more basic, as usual. There's no split tunneling, kill switch or GhostBear-type obfuscation. But you do get the ability to auto-connect with all but trusted networks, as well as an option to enable or disable Bear Sounds, so it's not all bad.
Put it all together and our verdict on the mobile apps is much the same as the desktop client. They get the job done and they're fine for simple use, but there are plenty of better and more feature-rich VPN apps around.
Installing TunnelBear's browser extensions can make the service easier to operate, by allowing you to choose a location, connect and disconnect from inside your browser. They work as proxies and so only protect your browser traffic, but if that's all you need, the extra convenience could make them worth a try.
The Chrome extension added an icon to our address bar, and tapping this displayed our location on a tiny drop-down map. New locations can be chosen from a list (and, at last, it's sorted alphabetically), and a button gets you instantly connected or disconnected.
There are no extra features, no WebRTC or tracker blocking or anything else. But the extension does have a small usability plus in its keyboard shortcut support. If you want to keep your hands off the mouse, pressing Ctrl+Shift+U will connect you to the VPN, and pressing it again will toggle the connection off when you're done. (A separate Alt+Shift+N shortcut toggles the connection on and off in Incognito mode.)
We checked the Firefox extension to see if it had any more options, but no, it looked and worked much the same as the Chrome edition.
The browser extensions follow a very similar pattern to the apps, then - short on features, but relatively simple, and fine for the target audience of casual users.
TunnelBear support starts with its web-based help site. This is presented in a clear and simple way, with large icons pointing you to key areas (Getting Started, Troubleshooting, Billing), and basic articles on the most common questions ('Why should I trust TunnelBear?', 'Why can't I access the content I want?', 'Does TunnelBear keep logs?')
Go searching for answers and you'll find TunnelBear's knowledgebase doesn't have a lot of content, but what you get is well presented and gives you a decent range of information. The Connection Issues page doesn't just offer generic 'reinstall'-type ideas, for instance. It links you to TunnelBear's Twitter page to look for service information, suggests trying out the service on another network, and points you to settings which might help.
Despite its beginner-oriented approach, there's also room for just a few more advanced tweaking ideas, with recommendations for ports which should be opened.
If you can't find the help you need online, a Contact page allows you to send a message to the support team. This prompts you for the type of problem, affected locations, operating system and so on, a smart way to ensure beginners provide all the key information.
We kept our test question simple, and had a friendly, helpful and accurate reply within four hours. We would still prefer the near instant response of quality live chat, but as email support goes, TunnelBear isn't bad at all.
It's not the largest, fastest or most powerful of VPNs, but TunnelBear's ease of use and strong focus on opening up its systems to scrutiny deserve a lot of credit. Worth a look for all but the most demanding users.
- Also check out the best VPN services of 2020