Are any VPNs actually free?

Find out whether there are any VPNs are free and what we think of these services and whether or not we recommend using them

Laptop user looking worried
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

We know what makes the best VPN, but the question is whether or not you have to pay for one to get a fully-fledged experience. There’s no shortage of free VPN services out there, whether that’s more obscure operations, or indeed premium providers like the companies we recommend in our best of buying guide. Often these providers may offer a free plan – which will inevitably have a good few limitations compared to the paid service.

While these services are free on the face of it – insomuch as that you can use the VPN without paying a solitary penny – as you may have heard, there can be hidden costs to free services. What might they be exactly? Read on to find out.

Privacy, where art thou?

Two of the main things that users flock to VPNs for are security and privacy online, and a no-fee VPN could potentially fall short on both those fronts – with perhaps costly results.

In terms of privacy, what you have to bear in mind about unpaid VPNs is that they need to monetize their service just like anyone else. With a paid-for VPN, cash comes in from subscriptions, obviously enough, but a free one has to turn a profit differently – often by somehow leveraging user data.

Remember that with a VPN, you're using an encrypted tunnel and the company’s servers to go online, which means that your ISP can no longer see your browsing data. However, the VPN can.

And despite whatever promises it makes about maintaining your privacy in no uncertain terms – let’s face it, every VPN website does this – the likelihood with some free services is that they may be playing fast and loose with your data, perhaps selling it to third-parties who are paying them for information on you (and other users) in order to, say, better target ads. Naturally, this completely defeats the idea of using a VPN to maintain your privacy online.

Could a free VPN be costly due to lax security?

(Image credit: Pixabay)

Security worries?

Another danger with free options is that too many of the massed ranks of services out there are simply set up to make a quick buck and, as a result, may be badly implemented. They might be incompetent services that suffer from IP leaks or DNS leaks, and worse still, they could be outright malicious.

There have been incidents of free clients which come loaded with malware, for example – particularly with Android apps – and obviously if you end up with malicious software on your device, that could eventually cost you far more dearly than any monthly subscription.

This is why for the sake of your device’s security, if you do go the free VPN route, it’s vitally important to be sure to pick out trusted and reputable providers, like the companies we recommend in our list of best free VPN services.

Other considerations

Another danger of am unpaid VPN is that while it may not cost any money, it could end up costing you time instead (at least a small amount of it). That’s because these free apps can be supported by adverts. In some cases where the company goes overboard with the advertising – perhaps in combination with timers that force you to watch the ads for a certain duration – this can get pretty annoying and time-wasting.

Furthermore, free services likely won’t come with any tech support (at least not beyond simple online resources). That means if the software causes your device to go wrong somehow, you’ll have to sort it out yourself – which could be a costly headache in itself. Paid VPN services will (usually) have a full range of technical support that should include live chat or even a phone service, so you can talk to someone and hopefully get any troubleshooting done swiftly.

A final point to bear in mind is that it's quite possible to get a subscription to a seriously cheap VPN, particularly if you don’t mind committing and signing up for a longer contract term. So if you shop around, you might find you’re not actually paying that much more than nothing anyhow, for a long list of potential benefits as we’ve seen.

Are any VPNs actually free?

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Are any VPNs actually free?

It seems clear enough that while you might have to fork out money for a premium VPN, that subscription payment could actually be less costly than some of the potential drawbacks of free services in the longer run.

Of course, we can’t tar all free providers with the same brush – far from it – so the other message here is that if you want to go the free route, choose carefully, and go for a firm which is reputable and trustworthy, and preferably independently audited in terms of its privacy policy and systems.

Darren is a freelancer writing news and features for T3 across a broad range of computing topics including CPUs, GPUs, various other hardware, VPNs, antivirus and more. He has written about tech for the best part of three decades, and writes books in his spare time (his debut novel was published by Hachette UK in 2013).