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. Although the site is easy to follow, there's not much depth - meaning that TunnelBear still comes up a little short of the likes of ExpressVPN and NordVPN.
- Want to try TunnelBear? Check out the website here
The service has a relatively small network, with locations in 23 countries only covering North America, Europe, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, and – a new addition since the last review – Finland.
Setup is easy on all the main platforms, thanks to custom clients for iOS, Android, Mac and Windows, as well as extensions for Chrome, Firefox and Opera. But again, there's not a lot for demanding users, with no help for getting the service working on routers, games consoles, Chromebooks, Linux, with OpenVPN, or anything else.
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.
The three-year plan also comes with full use of the RememBear Password Manager at no extra cost. That's normally priced at $2.50 a month on its longest two-year plan.
If you'll use RememBear, that's a great deal, but if you only need the VPN, there are much cheaper providers around. As we write, Private Internet Access has a one-year plan plus two months free for $2.85 a month, while Surfshark’s two-year plan is a monthly $1.99.
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 you might get a refund 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 plus in TunnelBear's Bitcoin support. This is limited, though – it's available with the one-year plan only, not the monthly or three-year options – and elsewhere, there's no PayPal support; 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", or "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 this when you connect to the network. That 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. The company now has independent specialists Cure53 run an annual public security audit covering many different areas of the service. (The third audit, covering 2019, included the mobile and Windows clients, browser extensions, the service infrastructure, backend and frontend systems, and the public website.)
The audit results weren't perfect (we would have been suspicious if they were), and the report detailed several vulnerabilities, with two of them critical. That's no surprise when a service puts itself under this level of scrutiny, though, and all issues are now fixed.
Overall, we must applaud TunnelBear for its level of transparency, which tramples all over most of the competition. Most VPNs have never had any form of security audit, and the providers who have actually made some movement in this direction, typically have one-off audits with a far narrower scope. That's just not good enough, and it's great to see TunnelBear leading the way.
While we can't begin to compete with Cure53, 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 that the server was indeed 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.
Next, we used benchmarking websites including Netflix's Fast, TestMy.net and Ookla's SpeedTest to check TunnelBear's best download speeds from both the UK and the US.
Our nearest UK server averaged 66Mbps on our 75Mbps test line, only around 6% down on our speed with the VPN turned off.
US speeds averaged 200Mbps on a 600Mbps connection. That's a good result, especially as we were testing in late March 2020, when most people were in coronavirus-related lockdown and internet and VPN traffic was running at record levels.
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 with Netflix and more to see if they can give us access to various streaming sites.
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.
There was no luck with Amazon Prime Video, either. Forget accessing US content, we couldn't even stream UK movies using our UK account.
The misery continued with Disney+, where for some reason the site wouldn't even allow us to log in with the VPN enabled. Why? We've no idea. This all added up to a poor unblocking performance, though. If you're hoping to access geoblocked content, check out your target sites with the free TunnelBear plan before you part with any cash.
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 they 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 VPN 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 start in Europe and scroll to the left to view California, for instance, you can't continue in the same direction and cross the Pacific to Asia. You're forced to scroll back 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 probably simpler, especially as TunnelBear has responded to our complaint from the last review, and now lists locations in alphabetical order.
Once you've chosen a location, clicking On gets you connected, and the client displays a 'connection' animation, panning the screen and plotting a line across the map to your destination.
TunnelBear also displays native Windows desktop notifications to tell you when it connects or disconnects, which is handy as 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 has also got easier since our last review, as there's no longer an annoying 'are you sure?' style question when you click a country. But do it from the map and the client still wastes time on its pointless connection animations, panning from the country you've clicked, to your current location, then back to your physical location, then back to the selected country again. (Fortunately, you can avoid this by choosing a country from the drop-down location list.)
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, you can opt to use TCP rather than UDP connections, perhaps improving reliability.
Overall, TunnelBear's Windows client isn't bad, and the recent small fixes have removed some of its previous irritations. But there's lots of scope for improvement, and the 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, 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.
However, you get most of the benefits of the desktop client, too, like 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 this feature, but if you find the VPN breaks a particular app, you'll be glad it's there.
Recent Android improvements are mostly under the hood, though still sound worthwhile, with the company claiming that 'speeds have increased, connections are more reliable and overall stability has improved.' That works for us, and we certainly didn't notice any reliability or stability issues, although it's hard to spot those anyway during a short-term review.
The iOS app is mostly about the core basics. You can forget split tunneling, a kill switch or GhostBear-type obfuscation, for instance. 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 VPN 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. The extensions 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 enabled connecting to new locations from a drop-down list. There's no tiny map to indicate your location – this has been ditched from the extensions – so you just have a country name and a simple On/Off button.
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 version.
The browser extensions follow a very similar pattern to the apps, then – they are 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.
There's no live chat support, but if you need more in-depth help, 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 in three and a half hours. We would still prefer the near-instant response of quality live chat – because if your problem is complex and requires a lot of back and forth, questions and answers, it could take a very long time to find a solution – 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.
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