The popularity of downloading a VPN has been growing steadily for the last few years, but that's been accelerated massively this year with more and more people needing to work safely and stay entertained at home. Is a free VPN the answer? And, if so, which should you go for?
If your reason for having a VPN is just about having a bit more security on your laptop or mobile when using public Wi-Fi every now and then, a freebie can do a decent job. And on this page, you'll find our pick of the best options available to download today. We've tested and retested dozens of free VPNs and assessed their ability to keep your online activity safe and anonymous without you having to spend a cent.
ExpressVPN might take the crown of our favorite premium provider in the world, but the best free VPN at the moment is Hotspot Shield Free. We really like the fact that - despite the fact it's a freebie - you basically get a free trial of the full version of the service. Yes, there are fewer servers to choose from, but at least the data usage limit is more generous than other packages.
But (and there's always one), is it really possible to get a good and completely free VPN that does the job you need? The answer is... sort of. Ultimately, if you're looking for something for casual use you will find something that meets your needs, just so long as you are happy with the limitations that free options usually come with...
The problems with free VPNs
Free VPN services may cost nothing but there is usually a good reason for that - it means the provider will be turning a profit in some other way, usually with invasive advertising or by selling your browsing data to third-parties (rather defeating the whole drive for privacy in the first place).
Plus, free services usually limit the amount of data you can use and the speed you can use it at, rendering them useless for streaming video, torrenting or as an extra layer of reliable security in your day-to-day online life. And don't expect the kind of easy access support or server range that you get with the paid services, either.
So before we get stuck in to our list of the best free VPN downloads, it's worth knowing that a paid-for version can cost as little as $2.50 per month - and often even cheaper around Black Friday - and will give you much better performance and protection.
1. ExpressVPN: TechRadar's #1 rated VPN service
We have reviewed more than one hundred VPN providers, both free and paid, and our top recommendation right now is ExpressVPN. Given the risks of using free VPNs, we think the price is absolutely worth paying - plus, it comes with a no-questions-asked 30 day money back guarantee, too.
2. Surfshark VPN: A world-class VPN for under $2.50 a month
If ExpressVPN is too expensive, look no further than TechRadar's #2 provider - Surfshark. From just $2.49 USD per month it's a fantastic, premium option that's unbelievably simple to use and has become a TechRadar favorite. It offers most of the same features as the other top services for less money.
3. NordVPN: The world's biggest VPN brand
Chances are, even if you don't know a lot about virtual private networks you may have heard of NordVPN. It advertises on TV, sponsors sports teams and has been a leader in the market for over seven years. Nord doesn't quite lead the way like it once did but it's still a fantastic service from $3.71 per month.
The best free VPN for 2020:
Not only is Hotspot Shield Free one of the better known free VPN options in our rankings, we also reckon it's the best.
Those on the free plan are limited to 500MB of data per day (so around 15GB per month). That may sound restrictive, but compared to one or two below, it's actually one of the more generous limits among its competitors (although, of course, not a patch on the unlimited data you get with paid-for services).
If security is your sole aim, then Hotspot is on the same wavelength, boasting 'military-grade encryption' - comforting if you do your banking and shopping online or by mobile.
In addition to security, Hotspot Shield Free also won plaudits in our testing for being so friendly to use. Whether on its mobile version or on desktop, you won't find it the hair-pulling user experience offered by some competitors.
You can choose to anchor yourself to one of 70-odd countries if you pay for the Elite version of Hotspot, and this should enable you to access just about anything you want; in the free version you're limited to one US-based location that Hotspot Shield chooses for you, and you'll have to put up with ads if you're using on Android.
So if you can't afford the few dollars a month that the best overall paid-for VPN out there costs, Hotspot could be a decent alternative.
Want to try Hotspot Shield Free? You can download it here
If you're new to the world of Virtual Private Networks or are just perfectly content that a free service is enough for your purposes, then downloading and installing Hotspot Shield without charge is really easy to do. And it doesn't stop you upgrading or going for another provider whenever you wish.
TunnelBear might have something of a cutesy design, but it's a serious free option, especially after its acquisition by security giant, McAfee. There are free and paid-for subscriptions to choose from.
The major restriction with the free plan is that you are limited to 500MB of traffic each month. That really is a tiny amount and means you can only really use it at those times when you feel like you need a little extra protection and want to go down the free route. You won't be able to keep it on all the time and you can forget using this VPN for torrenting and streaming. Obviously going for a provider like ExpressVPN or NordVPN alleviates this pain point entirely.
ProtonVPN is another provider that offers a free VPN alongside a paid option, but the former has some very strong points. The most notable of which is that it doesn’t impose any data restrictions. In other words, you’re free to use as much data as you want every month. That's highly rare for a free VPN provider and immediately makes it well worth considering.
There are, naturally enough, limitations for the free plan to incentivize upgrading to a paid-for offering. And ProtonVPN Free’s restrictions include limiting you to only one device, only three locations, and free users get a lower priority when it comes to speed compared to paying subscribers. There’s no P2P support either and speeds may drop at peak times when lots of users are around and paying folks get priority.
But if you can live with that, this is an impressive provider with a strict no logging policy, and you can sign up with nothing more than your email address. There aren’t even any ads on the website, let alone the client.
Windscribe's generous data allowance and commitment to protecting your privacy make it one of the best free VPN options around. You get 10GB bandwidth per month as standard and can choose from ten remote server locations with the Windscribe VPN free including UK, Hong Kong, Germany, Canada and US VPN). You only need to create a username and password to sign up (an email address is optional, but might prove handy if you forget your password).
Windscribe doesn’t store connection logs, IP stamps, or visited sites; when you’re actively connected to a server it stores your username, the server you’re connected to and the amount of data transferred, but this is erased within three minutes of the session ending.
If that isn’t enough to tempt you, there’s even a built-in adblocker and firewall.
Speedify, as the name suggests, has one main aim as a free VPN provider: to ensure that while you benefit from encryption, your internet connection remains as speedy as possible. To that end, this provider will make use of all available internet connections to get the best possible performance, potentially combining, say, an Ethernet connection (fixed broadband) with a tethered mobile connection. Even if you only have one type of internet connection, the firm claims its turbocharging technology will still help speed things up.
The free plan boasts full access to those servers (just as with the subscription options), the only restriction of the free offering being that you’re limited in the amount of data you can download. Free users get 2GB of data each month. That’s not a huge allowance, and certainly not as much as some other rivals you’ll see elsewhere on this page, but it’s more than some, and still enough for covering some basic surfing and email duties.
And this provider is definitely worth a look on the performance front, as during our testing, the aforementioned speed-granting technologies did actually prove themselves to have a positive effect.
But of you were hoping for a free option that would also be a good option for streaming, then you'll need to look for something else. Speedify almost wears its inability to help hopeful streamers as a medal of honour.
Hide.me offers both paid and free VPN providers, with the latter giving you 2GB of data per month to play with. There are other limits too: you can only connect a maximum of one device, and are limited to five server locations (including the US and a Canada VPN) rather than the 50+ locations paying subscribers get. On the plus side, however, this provider won’t throttle the connection speed of free users, and Hide.me further promises that it keeps no logs and stores no user data, so won’t pass on any data to third-parties in order to try and make a profit (simply because it doesn’t have any data to pass on). There are no adverts here, either.
You get native software for Windows PC and Mac, Android and iOS, with the Windows client being smartly designed, plus there’s 24/7 technical support (which is in place even for free users). Performance was impressive in our testing, too. Overall, then, this is a more-than-solid free offering which tries to maintain your privacy, without too many restrictions.
Is a free VPN worth getting?
Honestly, there isn't one easy answer to this question. It depends on what you want to use your free VPN for. If it's just about having a bit more security on your laptop or mobile when using public Wi-Fi, they can be just the ticket. Jump on the service, turn on an encrypted server connection and crack on with your online activities safe in the knowledge that no prying eyes will be able to see your private information.
But if your main purpose is to have a streaming VPN say, or want to use it while downloading terabytes of torrent files, a free VPN just isn't going to do the trick. For starters, most of them limit you to a daily or monthly data allowance that you'll rinse through in no time at all. While most don't have the kind of easy access support or server range required to make those activities easy with a virtual private network.
How to choose a free VPN: 5 must-ask questions
The couple of years have witnessed the rise of global threats to individual privacy with long maintained rights to anonymity and net neutrality being undermined with a cloak of legitimacy.
While virtual private networks are not the panacea to being safe, secure and private on the internet, it is an essential component of the arsenal for individuals inclined to seek these liberties.
If you don’t have one yet, you can grab one for free, without having to pay a single penny for one. Just be careful though as not all free VPN providers are created equal and some might even compromise your security.
Here are five questions you need to ask yourself before you download and install one.
1. What is its business model? Providers are in for the money and running such a business does cost a lot especially if it is a popular one. Some will use their free version, just like Dropbox, as a marketing tool to entice potential customers to move to a paid version once they are happy with the free one. Most however will sell user data or provide a something to a third party that will, again, compromise your privacy.
2. How does it protect my PC? Most providers usually use a desktop application that runs in the background encrypting your data while you surf the web. However, that’s only solves part of the problem. Your laptop can still be fingerprinted because of the permissiveness of tracking solutions that can be found on almost all websites online. A few, including WIndscribe, have a more holistic approach by integrating the equivalent of a super ad-blocker
3. What do I lose by going free? Usually one can expect a free product to have some corners cut and that is indeed the case for all providers. Some offer more free bandwidth than others, major locations and even ad blocking, P2P and firewall with an easy paid for upgrade path that unlocks unlimited bandwidth with more locations and OpenVPN Configs.
4. Does your provider log anything? Make sure that your provider doesn’t store users’ internet activity. You can usually check that in the terms and conditions page or the end user license agreement, commonly known as EULA. Sadly, a lot of providers prefer to frustrate end users with long T&Cs or privacy statements that often hide significant details about how they operate. On the other end of the spectrum are providers that will erase everything after your session closes and don’t keep logs.
5. Can I sign up completely anonymously? Having a provider that you can subscribe to without an email address and one that accepts Bitcoin payments, for maximum privacy, is pretty much the best you can expect online. Some providers also offer double hopping where you can obfuscate your traffic further by essentially doubling down on privacy.