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The 3 best free VPNs (and why you get what you pay for)

“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” That phrase has actually been around since the days of Old West saloons. If you bought a drink, the saloon would provide you with a free lunch. There was a catch, of course. The lunches were so salty that patrons wound up buying more and more drinks, to slake their thirst.

If you think you’re getting something for free, there’s always a catch.

This also applies to VPN services. But instead of paying for a few extra drinks, free VPN services could end up putting your personal privacy at risk. At the very least, free VPNs often have such strong limitations that even when they are offered by a reputable company, they aren’t very useful.

A good rule of thumb is to be wary of any free service and only consider free VPNs offered by companies with strong privacy policies and a good track record. A VPN provider may offer a limited version of its service for free as a way to generate business for its paid product. In a pinch, this type of free VPN could be useful for a one-off trip, but you’re not going to have access to many features and free VPNs typically aren’t good for heavy-duty use, such as file sharing or streaming.

Proton free VPN specifications

  • Simultaneous Connections: 1
  • Kill Switch: Yes
  • Platforms: Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, Linux, Chromebook
  • Logging: None
  • Customer service: Same as with a paid subscription
  • Data limit: None
  • Countries: 3

ProtonVPN offers the most comprehensive and useful free VPN service, mainly because there are no data caps. Proton VPN is also the only free service on our list that supports Linux. You can connect to servers in three countries (US, Netherlands, Japan) and I found consistent speeds across those locations. In our tests, ProtonVPN’s free service only reduced download speeds by roughly 20%, which isn’t the fastest free VPN but is still great and comparable to many paid services.

With the free ProtonVPN service, as far as I can tell, you’ll have access to the same level of customer support as you would with a paid subscription. There is no live chat option, but you can get help through email or an extensive FAQ catalog.

For anyone who wants to try out ProtonVPN’s paid service, it comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee. The cheapest paid plan is the two-year deal, which costs $119.76 ($4.99/mo) and comes with 10 simultaneous connections, locations in 60+ countries, and access to streaming services.

Free version pros

  • Unlimited data
  • Supports Linux
  • Same customer service as the paid version

Free version cons

  • One connection
  • Only three countries
  • No streaming

Hotspot Shield free VPN specifications

  • Simultaneous Connections: 1
  • Kill Switch: Yes
  • Platforms: Windows, macOS, iOS, Android
  • Logging: None
  • Customer service: None, online FAQ only
  • Data limit: 500 MB daily
  • Countries: 1

Hotspot Shield VPN is lightning fast. In our review (from 2019), we found our connection speeds were faster when connected to Hotspot Shield VPN versus a non-VPN connection. In cursory tests of the free VPN, I found that it performed on par or better than some of the best VPNs. The free VPN has an advertised connection speed of 2 Mbps, but I had download speeds that were only about 4% to 18% less than my 100 Mbps service.

Further reading: Our Hotspot Shield VPN review

Despite its excellent speed, the free version of the Hotspot Shield VPN will have limited use for just about any user because of its daily data cap of 500 MB. Running a few speed tests and some basic browsing nearly put me over my daily data limit, so streaming isn’t really an option. The free version also doesn’t support smart TVs, Linux, or routers, and you can only connect to US locations.

You can unlock all of Hotspot Shield VPN’s features for only $2.99/mo with a three-year plan ($107.64 upfront). The standard premium VPN comes with a limit of five simultaneous connections. There’s also an annual family plan for $11.99/mo ($143.88 upfront), which allows you to set up five accounts and each account can have five simultaneous connections. If you split the cost of the family plan among five people that drops your average monthly cost to $2.40.

The paid service has a 45-day money-back guarantee.

Free version pros

  • Faster than advertised speeds
  • Kill switch

Free version cons

  • Data caps (500 MB daily)
  • No support for Linux, routers, or smart TVs
  • Can only connect through US locations

Atlas free VPN specifications

  • Simultaneous Connections: Unlimited
  • Kill Switch: Yes
  • Platforms: Windows, macOS, iOS, Android
  • Logging: None
  • Customer service: Email support
  • Data limit: 5 GB monthly
  • Countries: 2

Atlas free VPN performs well enough and comes with the same encryption protocols and privacy policy as the Atlas premium VPN. It also performed well in speed tests only reducing download speeds by an average of 21%.  With the free VPN, you’ll have access to email support, but if you want to chat with a human, you’ll need to opt for the paid version.

Overall, the free version of Atlas VPN isn’t terrible and it does come with unlimited connections. But the reality is that with only 5 GB of data every month, the number of connections isn’t the limitation you’ll have to worry about. The 5 GB monthly limit is roughly a third of the data limit you’d get with the free Hotspot Shield VPN over a full month. However, because you get it in one chunk, rather than parsed out at 500 MB daily, it can be a bit more useful. It’s better to think of the free service as a limited free trial than as a service you could realistically use as an everyday VPN.

Atlas VPN has a solid premium service that’s extremely affordable. The two-year plan costs $49.19 upfront with two free months, which averages out to $1.89/mo, making it one of the cheapest VPNs. The paid version of Atlas VPN lifts the data cap and unlocks streaming servers and live support via chat. Paid plans have a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Free version pros

  • Unlimited simultaneous connections
  • Kill switch

Free version cons

  • Small monthly data limit
  • Can only access 2 countries

For most people, a free VPN service simply isn’t going to meet your needs, even if it’s a provider with a strong reputation.

However, ProtonVPN’s free service is head and shoulders above the free VPNs offered by other providers. The data limits and restrictions of the typical free VPN render them essentially useless. But ProtonVPN doesn’t put these same caps on its free service.

You may not be able to unblock streaming services with the free version of ProtonVPN, but it’s the only one that has the potential to work as an everyday VPN.

CountriesData limitLogs
ProtonVPN3NoneNone
Atlas VPN25 GB/moNone
Hotspot Shield VPN1500 MB/dayNone

Honestly, probably none of them.

The bottom line is this: It’s just not worth risking your personal and financial data on a free VPN service. VPN services I rated range from an average cost of under $2 to $4.99 per month, or about $50 to $100 for a two-year plan. Although it’s a bigger upfront expense, it’s usually a better deal to pay for two years at once.

The cost of identity theft keeps going up, both in out-of-pocket expenses and in the time and hassle to clean up the mess. When it comes to a service that’s designed to transfer your personal credentials and keep them safe, isn’t it worth spending just a few bucks to save potentially thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours, and an unmeasurable amount of stomach acid?

For me, it is. I use a commercial VPN, and for the peace of mind and digital protection, it’s a few bucks well spent.

In order for a free VPN to land on our best free VPNs list, it had to be a service provided by a reputable company that we trust. All of the VPNs on our list follow this model, which means you’ll be getting access to a service that follows the same privacy policy and provides the same level of encryption as some of the best VPNs or fastest VPNs we’ve tested.

Security shouldn’t be an issue, but performance probably will. These free VPNs are all a lead-in for upgrade sales in one way or another. They offer a small amount of free access and when you eat up that bandwidth, they’ll ask you to upgrade. “Try before you buy” is a proven method for selling services; it’s perfectly legitimate, and it’s often good for both the vendor and the customer.

VPN is an acronym for Virtual Private Network, a term used for services that allow you to encrypt your internet traffic between your computer and a destination computer on the VPN service. This is particularly necessary when using a public connection, like a hotel or coffee shop’s open Wi-Fi, so that other guests can’t watch all your traffic and steal juicy bits, like credit card numbers and passwords.

In short, there isn’t one. Free VPNs typically don’t support streaming or have such restrictive data limits that even if they did, it wouldn’t be practical. That’s on top of the potential risks inherent with free VPNs. Even with a paid VPN service, it can take some effort to find the right service or server location that will unblock the streamer you want to access. 

If the main reason you want a VPN is for streaming, then I’d recommend taking advantage of a money-back guarantee period to test out one of the best VPNs for streaming. The only way to be 100% certain that a particular VPN service is going to work for you is to try it out for yourself.

There are many free VPN services, but I don’t trust most of them. You probably shouldn’t either.

Here’s the thing: Running a VPN service is expensive. You need either servers and data lines, or you’re paying a cloud vendor like Amazon for every bit received, sent, and stored. Either way, it costs money. So, think about this: If you’re running a free VPN service, how do you pay for all that expense?

You. In the back of the room. I see your hand up. “Ads,” you say. Yep, that’s a possibility. Some free VPN services plaster ads on your browser display and sell those to whoever will pay.

You could also be putting your data at risk, too. A free VPN service could make money selling data. And someone with more nefarious intentions could pick up a lot of credentials quickly, by setting up a free VPN and waiting for people to just hand over personal information. 

As we’ve said, free VPNs are going to have extremely limited functionality in a best-case scenario. But there are affordable alternatives with the security and performance to meet most use demands. Here are a few worth taking a look at.


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