Psiphon is a specialist open source tool for bypassing web censorship, dealing with everything from simple business network restrictions to the industrial-strength firewalls of repressive regimes.
This VPN service supports thousands of servers across 20 countries, and offers additional proxy and protocol options to maximize the chance of successfully accessing your chosen sites.
Psiphon is available for Windows, Android and iOS. It's not always easy to find – the Android app isn't available in all countries, for instance, and the website may be blocked in others – but the company offers several workarounds, including downloading the Android app directly or emailing the firm for download links.
The service can be used for free, with no bandwidth limits and no registration required, but there's a catch, and it's a big one: your speeds are limited to 2Mbps.
- Want to try Psiphon? Download it here
The commercial Psiphon Pro plan offers unlimited speed on Android devices, but it's expensive at £9.99 ($14) a month. Still, if you're interested, a 30-day trial allows you to test the service before handing over the cash.
This isn't the best choice of service for performance, then, but it's just about enough for simple browsing, and Psiphon's underlying technologies may give you a chance of accessing sites that other VPNs can't unblock.
"Psiphon is designed to provide you with open access to online content. Psiphon does not increase your online privacy, and should not be considered or used as an online security tool."
Well, that's good to know. Scan down the page, just a little, and it gets even worse:
In other words, Psiphon may include ads which allow unknown third parties to record at least some of your service usage.
The company goes on to explain that it may sometimes log downloads of server discovery lists as they're accessed by software clients. These record source IP addresses, timestamps and (possibly) user agents. In theory – given a lot of work – this might allow a snooper to build up a history of when you logged on to Psiphon.
This doesn't mean Psiphon has no privacy value at all. The service encrypts your connection (though via SSH, by default, rather than OpenVPN), offering some protection from snoopers on insecure Wi-Fi hotspots. And it may allow you to access blocked websites without your attempts being logged locally.
It's also worth remembering that Psiphon doesn't require registration. You don't have an account, the company doesn't know your email address or have any idea who you are. Some information about your activities may be logged, somewhere, but even nation states might not always be able to connect it back to you.
- We’ve rounded up the best free VPN services of 2018
Trying out Psiphon on our test laptop was just about as easy as it could possibly be: click Download, click 'Psiphon for Windows', click the downloaded file and it launches and connects to the service immediately.
Once active, Psiphon opens a browser tab to display your new IP address. It's important that this kind of tool keeps you abreast of what it's doing, but that shouldn't require launching a browser process to do it. We would prefer the client to display a desktop notification itself, or users should at least have the option to turn notifications off.
By default Psiphon connects to the server in the country closest to you, and this worked correctly for us. If that's not what you need, a simple client allows connecting to your choice of 20 destinations: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and United States.
Switching locations is easy, too. There's no need to manually disconnect from one server before you can choose another – just select a country in the list and Psiphon connects to it within a couple of seconds. (Okay, it then opens yet another browser tab to display your new IP address, but you can't have everything.)
Our performance tests delivered some odd results. Most Psiphon locations were limited to download speeds of around 2Mbps, but a few gave us significantly more, with Singapore consistently reaching 8Mbps. We're unsure whether that was a temporary issue or perhaps a flaw in our speed tests, but keep it in mind, if you test the service – the nearest location won't necessarily be the fastest.
Although these speeds are far lower than you would expect from a decent VPN, real world testing showed they were adequate for basic browsing. We were also able to watch standard definition video clips without difficulty, and 720p movies were just about viewable, though with occasional pauses for buffering.
Psiphon's unblocking abilities proved reasonable in our simple checks, with the service giving us access to BBC iPlayer and protected YouTube videos, but not Netflix.
Our final leak tests showed Psiphon correctly allocated IP addresses in our chosen locations, and replaced our ISP’s DNS servers with a local equivalent.
Psiphon's Windows client performed reasonably well for us, but if you have any problems, there are some interesting settings which might help. A split tunnelling feature ensures traffic to servers in your country won't be routed through the tunnel, probably improving its speeds. And although Psiphon's obfuscated SSH should give better results when bypassing firewalls, you can optionally switch the service to use the regular L2TP/IPSec VPN protocol, instead.
Psiphon Pro is an Android app based around the same site unblocking technology. It's also available in a basic form for free, although with some ads. These are large enough to be annoying, although not too intrusive – we didn't notice any popups or autoplaying videos.
Connect for the first time and Psiphon Pro allows you to hook up to the fastest server, or choose from the same 20 countries as offered by the Windows client.
You can opt to route all app traffic through the tunnel, but it might make more sense to use Psiphon Pro's custom browser only. That allows you to access blocked sites as required, while your regular apps use your standard connection for the best possible speeds.
Whatever you're doing, we found the service worked much the same as under Windows. Our virtual IPs always matched our chosen countries and performance was mostly poor, although it was still just about enough to manage some very basic streaming.
Upgrading to the Maximum Speed plan saw us achieve up to 35Mbps via Wi-Fi. That's not bad, but we're not sure that it justifies the £9.99 ($14) a month price. Still, if the app unblocks the sites you need, you might feel differently, and a 30-day trial gives you a risk-free way to find out.
Psiphon's free service is slow, but worked reliably for us, and it could be worth keeping the client around as a backup service. The commercial Psiphon Pro product is fast but expensive, and most users will get better value from a standard VPN.