Free VPNs are very attractive to users because they don't need to pay any money. At least directly for purchasing the subscription. But no one will give you anything for free, especially a VPN service which has a high running cost because of the infrastructure.
In today's article, we'll review some of the most common dangers and risks of using a free VPN service, and explain what to look for when you are choosing a free VPN. You should be extremely careful when someone offers a truly free VPN with no limitations or upselling. But don't worry, there are free providers which you can trust.
Free Only vs. Freemium VPN
When it comes to free services, including VPN, there are basically two models – free only and freemium business model.
Free only is a VPN service which doesn't have any costs, limitations or premium version. Those services are extremely suspicious because it's not clear how exactly they are financing their “free” service. And to run a VPN service, you need to have a lot of resources in order to support the infrastructure.
So how the free only VPNs make their revenues? Typically indirectly using various models like 3rd party software distribution, advertising, selling users data/bandwidth etc. The main problem is you as a user have typically no idea.
In general, we recommend staying away from the free only VPNs due to their shady business models.
Freemium, on the other hand, is a popular business model where the basic VPN product is offered for free with some limitations (e.g. features, bandwidth, servers). In order to get a premium service user needs to upgrade (pay).
This is a valid business model used by companies like Dropbox, Avast, Evernote, Skype etc. It's very clear how the company makes its revenues and there shouldn't be any shady practices.
Our general recommendation is to go with a freemium VPN like TunnelBear VPN.
6 Dangers/Risk of Using a Free VPN Service
Now let's take a look at some of the most common dangers/risks of using a free or freemium VPN service compared to the premium one.
1. Low Level of Security
Free VPNs are typically using less secured protocols and don't have many resources to secure their server infrastructure. That means your connection is less secure and more likely to be compromised by hackers compared to the premium VPN.
In fact, the independent study from CSIRO conducted in 2016 which analyzed 283 Android VPNs, found that 38% of them already contained malware (typically advertising). From the infected ones, the vast majority of them were free.
2. Basic/No Features & Fewer Servers
Free VPNs have fewer features and they don't offer advanced ones like Kill Switch or DNS leak protection. Which again increases the risk of being compromised.
Also, their infrastructure is more limited in terms of servers. They offer fewer locations and have fewer servers. While they have to maintain a bigger user base.
3. Unblocking Doesn't Work
One of the most popular use cases for using VPN is unblocking a service which is geo-restricted (e.g. it only works in a particular country). For example Netflix, YouTube, Instagram, BBC iPlayer etc. All these may be blocked in some regions.
But with free VPN, you will be very lucky if you will unblock Netflix. Because of the limited infrastructure and lot of users, the IP addresses are quickly banned. In general, free VPNs are really bad for unblocking any service.
4. Slow Connection Speeds
As we mentioned several times, the server infrastructure of free VPNs is very bad and yet it has to serve a lot of users. That is causing a slowdown in the Internet connection speeds, so downloading/uploading is very slow. Sometimes even regular browsing is a pain.
Impact of using TunnelBear VPN on the Internet connection speed
This isn't happening when you have a premium VPN as they can invest much more into the infrastructure to get better/more servers. Plus the overall user base and bandwidth is smaller.
5. Selling Your Private Data or Bandwidth
One of the indirect ways how free VPN providers can get money from free users is selling out their browsing data or bandwidth. How does it work?
Free VPNs are tracking your online behavior like what sites you visit, how do you get there, what are you buying etc. and then selling these information to 3rd parties. Typically marketing/ad agencies who then sell your profile and allow brands to target you.
In 2015, one of the most popular free VPN services, Hola, was caught selling users bandwidth and using it as part of botnet attacks without users knowledge or permission.
6. Aggressive Advertising
This is quite typical for the freemium VPN services. In order to promote their premium product, they need to show users ads. Sometimes this is well balanced (e.g. in TunnelBear VPN), but sometimes this is off the limit.
Some of the free VPNs may hijack your browser and display additional ads, add their affiliate parameters into links, or redirect you to their partner websites. This was a case also for one of the most popular free VPNs by HotSpot Shield.
Is It Safe To Use A Free VPN?
In general, we tend to say no, but there are a few exceptions which are free (freemium) trustworthy VPNs. We will look into which ones are they in the next article focusing more on choosing the right free VPN provider.
But why take the risk, if you can get the all-inclusive risk-free VPN for a few dollars per month? Just check out our top 5 best VPNs for 2019.