I'm fairly serious about security when it comes to our computers, devices, and online accounts.
I'm not super strict but I never connect to insecure networks and I never log into accounts when I'm on an unfamiliar network. I never understand when people log into their bank accounts from a computer sitting in the “Business Center” of a hotel (I've seen it happen plenty of times). You don't know the computer, you don't know if some random person installed keylogger, and there's really no reason to ever do it.
One thing I have considered in the past is setting up a VPN account for those times I need to use an unfamiliar Wi-Fi connection and I need to log into something important.
If this is something you've considered, maybe this guide is for you.
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for a virtual private network and it's a way to add security and privacy when you browse the web. It's most valuable if you're in an insecure public location, like a wifi hotspot at the airport or coffee shop. The basic gist of the VPN is that you connect to a VPN and then to the sites you want to visit. The information you transmit is encrypted, your identifying information (like your IP address) is replaced by the VPN, and it's effective at anonymizing you.
When you connect to a VPN, every site you visit thinks you're in whatever country that VPN is in.
Now, if you work at a company, they may require you to use a VPN to connect with their servers. This creates a secure controlled environment so that company information isn't leaked inadvertently. They can't be sure of your computer setup and how you're connected to the internet and a VPN gives them some assurances.
Do you need a VPN?
When you are outside your home, you can never tell how secure a network is. When you use public wifi, you don't know who else is on the network and monitoring traffic. If you don't know the different wifi hotspots, you never know what network you're connecting to. You could connect to a fraudulent network that is simply collecting data.
If you travel a lot and find yourself using a lot of insecure networks, a VPN might make sense.
If you're at home, your network should be safe. Here, the case for a VPN isn't about security but about your data. Your internet provider could be selling your data to third parties and a VPN would anonymize your usage data.
There is one last use case and I learned this from my college friends who now live in England. There are some services that are unavailable in other countries and they use a VPN to pretend they're in the United States so they can stream video.
If security is important to you, a VPN might be something you want to add to your system. A lot of the free VPNs have bandwidth limits so you might just want to turn it on when you're outside a safe network like your home.
What are the Best Free VPNs?
As you'd imagine, a premium VPN service should cost money because you're connecting to their servers and using bandwidth. The best ones do cost a monthly fee that is comparable to internet service. There are, however, some good free VPNs that are a good option if you're on a budget or just want to test it out before you pay for it.
I recommend signing up for a VPN and testing the speed using a tool like Ookla's Speedtest. Only then will you know how fast your connection is on each of the services.
For example, this is how fast my normal connection is:
And here it is when connected to a VPN associated with a company I did some work with:
As you can see, speeds are similar but the VPN is slightly slower and this VPN was based in the United States.
So, the lesson is to give them a try, do a speed test and see how much the extra step is costing you.
NordVPN is not a free VPN but a very affordable one. I wanted to include it on the list to give you a sense of what you get if you pay for a VPN.
NordVPN is based in Panama and thus subject to their data laws. They have a strict no logs policy – meaning they never log any user activity whatsoever. With over five thousand servers in 62 different countries, you'll be able to find a fast connection because you're not limited to a few servers everyone is using at the same time. Also, they support streaming, which is key if you're using it to get around geofences on those services.
- Simultaneous connections: 6
- Streaming services supported: Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime, Pandora, BBC iPlayer, Hulu, and more
- Operating systems & Devices supported: Windows, Android, MacOS, iOS, Linux, Blackberry, Windows Phone, Raspberry Pi, Smart TVs and various routers. Also has proxy extensions for Chrome and Firefox.
- Security protocols: AES-256-CBC encryption, you can use OpenVPN (UDP and TCP), PPTP, L2TP/IPSec, and IKEv2/IPSEc.
- Servers: 5000+ and growing in 62 countries
- Support: 24/7 support through live chat, email and a ticketing system
You can pay month to month for $11.95 per month or you can pay for up to a 3 year plan which drops the price considerably:
They also have a 30-day money back guarantee.
ExpressVPN is another very popular VPN that doesn't maintain logs, has over 3,000 servers in over 90 countries, and has a strict no logging policy. They don't log IP addresses, browsing history, traffic, or DNS queries – it's similar to NordVPN (and should be a minimum requirement of all VPNs!) in that regard.
Unlike many other VPNs, Express VPN permits torrenting and file sharing.
- Simultaneous connections: 3
- Streaming services supported: Netflix
- Operating systems & Devices supported: Windows, Android, MacOS, iOS, Linux, smart TVs and various routers.
- Security protocols: AES-256 encryption, you can use OpenVPN, SSTP, PPTP, and L2TP/IPSec protocols.
- Servers: 3000+ and growing in 90+ countries
- Support: 24/7 support through live chat, email and a ticketing system
They also have a 30-day trial and a 30-day money-back guarantee.
You can pay $12.95 per month on a month to month plan or get 15 months of service for $99.95 – when you prepay for a year, you get 3 months free. That works out to just $6.67 a month. Finally, they have a 6-month plan where you pay $9.99 a month (billed $59.95 every six months).
Hotspot Shield claims to have 650 million users, which says something about the desirability of this app. It gives you secure access to your favorite sites and apps, even when you're at work, on the road or traveling. It works by masking your IP address, hiding your physical location, and encrypting data between your computer and the VPN server. It also does not keep logs of your browsing activity, and provides access to streaming services, like YouTube and Netflix from other countries.
When activated, it protects your information and activity from governments, hackers, and Internet service providers. It also provides a Kill Switch, that will protect your private information if your VPN connection is lost. It's available for Mac, Windows, iOS, Android and Chrome devices.
The free plan does have a 500 megabyte daily data allowance. The Premium plan, at $2.99 per month, provides military-grade encryption, unlimited bandwidth, and connects to up to five devices. It works on 3,200+ servers in more than 70 countries, and provides 24/7 live tech support.
Hide.me enables you to surf the Internet privately while keeping your real IP address hidden. With your location anonymous, your ISP can't spy on you. You can access any website and even navigate around government or workplace restrictions. The app doesn't even store website logs. Hide.me has 56 locations and 1,400 servers around the world to let you access websites securely.
The free service provides 2 GB of data transfer, one connection, and five worldwide locations. However, you can use the premium version at $5.41 per month, which provides unlimited data transfer, five simultaneous connections, and 56 worldwide locations. Either version is available for windows, macOS, iOS, Android and Amazon Fire TV, and includes the highest possible speeds, automatic kill switch, unlimited server switching, split tunneling, IP leak protection, and strong 256-bit AES encryption. The service also provides customer support (via email) and a community of users.
Speedify provides channel bonding that combines Wi-Fi and cellular to create a faster, more reliable and secure connection. That includes uploads, downloads, web browsing and streaming videos. The app uses the latest encryption standards to keep your information private. And since the app doesn't log IP addresses, websites, or data that you send or receive, your activity is kept private. It can be used to unblock apps and services, safely access your email and watch region-locked content from home while traveling abroad.
Speedify's free Starter Plan provides 5 GB of monthly data with use on one device. It provides super secure encryption, channel bonding, redundant mode, automatic failover, packet loss and error correction, and offers servers worldwide. The ability of the app to speed your Internet connection makes it a good choice for anyone who lives in an area where Internet service is poor.
There are three paid versions, with enhanced capabilities:
- The Individual plan is $8.99 per month, or $49.99 per year, and offers unlimited data on up to five devices, plus all the features of the free version.
- Families is $14.95 per month, or $74.95 per year, with unlimited data, accounts for you and for family members, an administrative dashboard, and all the features of the free version.
- The Team plan is $8.99 per month per user, or $49.99 per year per user, with unlimited data, accounts for you and for team members, an administrative dashboard, and all the features of the free version.
ProtonVPN sends your Internet traffic through an encrypted VPN tunnel, keeping your passwords and confidential data safe. It's effective even over public or un-trusted Internet connections. As a Swiss-based company, they do not log user activity or share data with third parties. It's an anonymous VPN that enables you to surf the web without being tracked. It allows you to access any website or content.
The app is available for Android and iOS, as well as Windows and MacOS.
The service uses ciphers with perfect forward secrecy, so that your encrypted traffic can't be captured and decrypted after the fact. And to avoid the problem of their own servers being under surveillance, traffic is passed through their secure core network in privacy friendly countries, like Switzerland and Iceland. Your true IP address will never be revealed. Like some of the other apps on this list, no logs of your activity are kept.
The free version is available in the US, Japan and the Netherlands, and is available for one device. It has the no logs policy. However, the limitation is that the free version provides only medium speed.
There are three premium versions:
- Basic, at $4 per month, services two devices in all countries, and provides high speed.
- Plus, at $8 per month, services five devices in all countries, at high speeds, as well as other services.
- Visionary, at $24 per month, services 10 devices in all countries at high speed, as well as other premium services.
TunnelBear enables you to access global content, while bypassing local censorship. It provides online privacy from network owners and Internet providers, and also stops password and data theft. They can even prevent ad services from tracking your behavior through your IP address. The service is available in 22 countries, including the US, Canada, Mexico, and most European countries. The app is available for iPhone and iPad, Android, Windows and Mac.
TunnelBear comes in three versions:
- Free – comes with 500 MB of data per month.
- 1 Month – $9.99 per month.
- 1 Year – this is the 1 Month plan at only $4.99 per month for one year.
The 1 Month and 1 Year plans provide unlimited data, five connected devices, lightning fast servers, no activity or connection logs, and best-in-class 256-bit AES encryption.
The major negative with TunnelBear is the 500 MB monthly data limit on the free version.
Windscribe encrypts your browsing activity, blocks ads, and unblocks entertainment content. The app never releases your DNS information, and doesn't track you. And since it masks your IP address, you'll have unrestricted and private access to blocked content in more than 60 countries. It's available for Mac, Windows, Chrome, Firefox, iPhone and Linux. It also enables you to pay for the premium service using bitcoin, among more traditional payment methods.
The free version comes with 10 GB of data per month, and has servers in over 10 countries, including the US, UK and Canada. It also blocks malware and ads on all your devices, and maintains no identifying logs. They use AES-256 cipher with SHA512 authorization and a 4096-bit RSA key. It even allows you to track cookies and delete them on tab close.
There is a paid version – Windscribe Pro – available at $9 on a monthly basis, or $49 per year. It comes with unlimited data, and has server locations in 60 countries.
What makes Opera VPN unique is that offers free, unlimited VPN service. It works by replacing your IP address with a virtual one, making it more difficult to track your location and identity. However, it only promises to reduce online tracking, and not to eliminate it. Service is available for Windows, Mac and Linux, as well as Android devices.
The service is totally free and requires no subscription. There are no paid versions.