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Free VPN vs Paid VPN: Get Your Money’s Worth in 2023

While you might be tempted to pick a free VPN when you’re on a tight budget, this could potentially jeopardize your personal data and security. Our free VPN vs paid VPN guide dissects the risks surrounding free services and compares them to paid VPN services.

Samson Max
By Samson Max (Writer, Linking Editor)
— Last Updated: 2022-11-14T08:06:22+00:00 Facts checked by Eugenie Tiu

It’s normal for consumers to be attracted to freebies. When it comes to free VPN vs paid VPN, the “zero price effect” often sways the decision of first-time buyers. However, when it comes to cybersecurity, using 100% free VPN software could be a detriment to your personal data and privacy. 

Fortunately, in addition to trustworthy paid VPN options, there are a handful of reliable “freemium” VPNs offered by companies that have great track records of robust security and privacy.  

Key Takeaways: 

  • Most free VPNs don’t have trustworthy security and privacy features; most have not undergone independent security audits. Even the best free VPN options come with restrictions.
  • If you want to use the internet risk-free, get one of the premium VPNs, because they deliver excellent security and privacy. ExpressVPN is the best paid VPN service. 
  • However, if you’re still leaning toward a free VPN, consider a freemium VPN like Windscribe or ProtonVPN, as they deliver top-notch security and privacy. 

In this guide, we’ll discuss how free VPN services differ from paid VPNs in terms of security, privacy, usage limits, connection speed and more. We’ll show you the security and privacy risks these services pose to your personal information. Keep reading to learn when using a free VPN is justifiable and find out the best paid VPN options and free VPNs to use. 

  • Windscribe is one of the best free VPN options. It’s one of the fastest VPNs, offers unlimited simultaneous connections and comes with advanced security features. However, you only get 10GB of monthly data and can access servers in only 10 countries.

  • ExpressVPN is the best paid service, thanks to its all-around performance. Even though it comes in second after NordVPN on the speed front, it perennially ranks as the best VPN in most of our categories, like gaming and streaming.

  • Yes, there are 100% free VPNs — VPNs that don’t ask you to pay for monthly or yearly subscriptions. However, these VPNs have to make money somehow. If they don’t also have a paid VPN service, they may turn to unscrupulous activities such as selling your data to turn a profit.

  • This is the crux of the free vs paid VPNs discussion. If you’re wondering why you should pay for a VPN when there are numerous free VPNs, you’re not alone.

Free VPN vs Paid VPN Services

There are hundreds of free VPNs out there, with the vast majority geared toward mobile users. We tested most of these free VPN services to find out how they stack up against the best VPN providers.

Pricing: How VPNs Make Money

All VPN companies need financial resources to keep their operations sailing along. That means the VPN provider has to generate income somehow. Premium VPN services collect money from subscription fees, which is enough to keep the company running and turning a profit. 

Freemium VPNs, like Windscribe and ProtonVPN, use the free plan to entice users toward their paid plans. However, completely free VPNs don’t charge you a penny. That begs a question: What price do you pay for using a free VPN? 

A few VPNs might ask for donations. Other free VPN providers may also serve up targeted ads in the app. However, some free VPNs will collect your personal information and sell it to third parties to make money.

UrbanVPN app
UrbanVPN is one of the 100% free VPN services that sells your anonymous data to third parties.

Privacy: Do Free VPNs Sell Your Data? 

Unlike digital security, digital privacy is all about keeping your online activities and identity anonymous. Besides security features, the best VPN for privacy offers a strict no-logs policy as an assurance it won’t collect, store or share connection logs or the trail of your digital footprint.  

Additionally, top-tier virtual private network providers like ExpressVPN and NordVPN have undergone third-party audits to guarantee privacy and security, including finding and patching up errors that could cause their infrastructure to accidentally store user data.  

ExpressVPN independent audit
ExpressVPN has been audited multiple times by independent security firms. 

Many fully free VPNs don’t state their logging policy, and they gather user data to varying levels, including details about the websites you visit, your real IP address and more. Some sell it on data marketplaces or use it for commercial purposes.  

Facebook’s Onavo Protect is a good example. Facebook lured mobile users into using its now-defunct free VPN service; little did subscribers know the VPN was a data-mining tool for the social media giant. Instead of safeguarding user privacy, the free service harvested valuable information that Facebook used for commercial interest.

Betternet, which is owned by Aura (Hotspot Shield’s parent company), has also been embroiled in controversy. In 2016, a report showed how the free VPN service was one of the VPNs with the highest number of embedded third-party trackers. These are not isolated cases of privacy violation; it’s a fair reflection of the privacy dangers that free VPN services pose.

Free VPNs: Privacy and Online Security Risks

Here are the most common security and privacy risks of free VPNs:

  • They might collect user data and sell it to third parties: advertisers, data brokerage companies or government agencies.  
  • Free VPNs use embedded third-party trackers to create a complete profile about you before bombarding you with digital ads.
  • Some free VPNs could be infected with malware.
  • Free VPNs may allow surveillance and government agencies to monitor user activities.  

Security: Are Paid VPNs More Secure?  

Online security is all about protecting your personally identifiable information: name, address, email address, credit card number, IP address and more. The most secure VPNs transmit your internet traffic via an encrypted tunnel to keep your data away from hackers, advertising agencies and other snoopers.

However, the availability of security features like secure protocols, encryption, a kill switch and DNS leak protection doesn’t always translate to a secure VPN service. The way these features function within the VPN infrastructure has a huge bearing on the VPN’s security posture.

NordVPN security features
Like other top-tier VPNs, NordVPN has a suite of basic and advanced security features. 

This is the reason why you should always go for VPN services that are certified by independent security firms via rigorous security audits. Most free VPNs lack the key security features, and those that come with the basic tools rarely undergo independent security audits. 

According to a recent ProPrivacy report, 40% of free VPN providers on the Google Play Store have personal data leaks. We examined a number of VPNs mentioned in this report, and most of them don’t say the protocols or encryption standards they use. You can read our worst free VPNs guide to see other VPNs you should avoid.  

hotspot shield protocols 
Hotspot Shield offers secure protocols, but it gathers user data, which is why it made it onto our list of worst free VPNs. 

Data breaches are a normal occurrence with free VPN services. In August 2022, Cybernews uncovered a massive data set containing 25 million records of email addresses, passwords, payment information and names of free VPN users. 

In comparison, there are only a few isolated cases of data breaches involving paid VPN services, proving they are more secure. 

Limited Features With Free VPNs

In addition to having limited security features, many freemium VPNs limit other features. While the freemiums provide excellent security and privacy, the providers impose usage limits to entice you into paying. They will either limit your monthly data, internet speed or the number of servers you can access, so the free plan doesn’t meet all your needs. 

windscribe server locations
Windscribe’s free plan lets you access servers in only 10 countries. 

For example, Windscribe’s speed is excellent for streaming movies. However, the 10GB data limit has been enforced to upsell binge-watchers to a paid plan. The service also limits you to 10 server country locations. 

However, that’s better than ProtonVPN, which limits the free plan to three server locations and restricts speeds. It also limits you to one VPN connection, whereas many paid VPN providers offer at least five or six simultaneous connections.

surfshark unlimited data
Surfshark doesn’t limit the number of devices you can simultaneously connect under one account. 

Speed: Are Paid VPNs Faster? 

Many free VPN providers have limited performance on the speed front. That’s because most free VPN services don’t have the up-to-date infrastructure to facilitate fast connection speeds. You’ll likely be disappointed with a free VPN when streaming, gaming, torrenting or engaging in any other data-heavy online activity.

Even those that come with the latest infrastructure place a soft limit on your connection speeds to upsell you on paid plans. For example, ProtonVPN has fast download speeds and may be a safe bet for speed-intensive activities — at least if you’re on a paid plan. If you’re on the free plan, it puts you on “middle” speeds (in favor of paid users).

Windscribe is an exception, as it doesn’t limit your connection speeds or bandwidth. If it were not for the data cap, it would be great for streaming, gaming and other speed-intensive activities.  

Streaming Services: Can Free VPNs Unblock Netflix? 

Accessing geoblocked streaming is one of the principal reasons consumers buy VPNs, so it’s no surprise that the majority of VPNs are designed to unblock popular streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Max and more.  

ExpressVPN for streaming
ExpressVPN is a behemoth streaming service that unblocks all streaming services with ease. 

However, streaming services try to block IP addresses from VPN providers. It takes a well-maintained VPN infrastructure and a frequently updated pool of IP addresses for a VPN to stay ahead of streaming geoblocks. Unfortunately, most free VPN services fail in that regard. 

As a result, many free VPNs struggle to unblock streaming services. Even if you find one that can unblock Netflix now, its success rate might dwindle over time as the streaming sites’ detection system continuously blocks its IP addresses. 

Our best free VPNs, Windscribe and ProtonVPN, are great at unblocking streaming sites — it’s no surprise they’re the best Netflix VPNs. However, the latter struggles with middling speeds, whereas the former is crippled by the 10GB data limit. 

If you want to consistently unblock your favorite streaming service and enjoy watching movies and TV shows without interruption, the best streaming VPNs are the way to go. Besides their excellent ability to evade detection by streaming services, the VPNs offer excellent speeds and unlimited bandwidth for an enthralling streaming experience. 

Do All Paid VPNs Work Well?

Paid VPNs abolish limitations and deliver excellent security and privacy. Does that mean that all paid services work well? Not always, but most paid VPNs offer solid security and privacy. You’ll only find isolated cases of premium VPNs that have had data breaches. 

Beyond that, paid VPNs record serviceable speeds. Some, such as NordVPN and ExpressVPN, are super fast, as you can see in our speed comparison guide. Others don’t match these lightning speeds, yet they still cut it for most internet activities, from casual browsing and streaming to gaming and remote working. 

Keep in mind that we don’t expect perfection from every VPN service. For this reason, don’t rule out a paid VPN service if you spot a few gripes here and there. If a VPN service gets the job done without compromising your security and privacy or draining your pockets, it’s worth a shot. 

The 3 Best Paid VPNs 

If you’re after a VPN with robust security, solid privacy, excellent streaming capability and advanced features to bypass censorship, the following paid VPNs are a safe bet.

1. ExpressVPN

expressvpn
ExpressVPN ensures that each VPN server in its fleet uses built-in obfuscation technology. 

Pros:

  • Excellent security & privacy
  • 3,000 servers in 94 countries
  • Unrivaled streaming ability

Cons:

  • Expensive

ExpressVPN is an excellent VPN service that excels in any online activity you throw at it. It’s incredibly fast; this, coupled with its unparalleled ability to bypass geoblocks, makes it the best VPN for streaming Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, BBC iPlayer and other services.

It’s relatively expensive, but when you consider the features in its arsenal, it offers great value for the money. Beyond the basic security tools, it uses perfect forward secrecy to regularly change encryption keys for extra protection. In addition, with the TrustedServer technology, all its servers wipe your browsing data with every reboot to enhance online privacy.

ExpressVPN for privacy
Even though ExpressVPN is expensive, it offers an impressive suite of features to justify the price. 

Other reasons we like ExpressVPN include ease of use, a strict no-logs policy and compatibility with all devices: smart TVs, mobile devices, PCs, routers and gaming consoles. Read our ExpressVPN review to learn more, or use it free for 30 days with the money-back guarantee.

2. NordVPN

NordVPN Threat Protection
NordVPN has one of the best security suites to hide your network traffic from prying eyes.

Pros:

  • Strong security features
  • Excellent privacy
  • Very fast

Cons:

  • Few VPN servers in Africa
  • No split tunneling on macOS

NordVPN is the fastest VPN and its ability to unblock streaming geoblocks is commendable. It’s no wonder it takes second place on our list of streaming VPNs and on the torrenting front. Beyond the basic security and privacy features, NordVPN comes with threat protection to fend off malware and ads.

In addition, the specialty servers stand out for NordVPN. The obfuscated servers will hide your VPN use, whereas the double VPN servers offer double VPN protection, which is great for journalists, human rights activists and whistleblowers. Other notable specialty servers include Onion over VPN and P2P servers, which are optimized for torrenting.

apple tv get nordvpn
NordVPN is the fastest VPN on the market right now.

Meshnet is another nice addition to NordVPNs armory. The feature is particularly enticing for remote teams as it helps connect up to 60 devices over a virtual LAN. The good thing is that all these features are available at a relatively affordable price. Read our NordVPN review to learn more, or take advantage of its 30-day money-back guarantee.

3. Surfshark

surfshark
Surfshark is one of the best paid VPN providers with unlimited simultaneous connections. 

Pros:

  • Good security & privacy
  • Unlimited devices
  • Affordable long-term plans

Cons:

  • High latency
  • Slower speeds

Surfshark is a relatively new VPN service that positions itself as a cheaper yet capable NordVPN and ExpressVPN alternative. It doesn’t match the speeds or the streaming performance of our top two picks, but that doesn’t mean it’s a fly-by-night service; on the contrary, it unblocks all major streaming sites and loads videos without lags or buffering. 

Security-wise, Surfshark is reliable, though its no-logs policy hasn’t undergone third-party audits. Like NordVPN, the VPN provider comes with a malware and ad blocker called CleanWeb. Its servers are RAM-based and also come with obfuscated servers, which scramble OpenVPN metadata to hide VPN use. 

Surfshark is an unlimited service that lets you simultaneously connect to as many devices as you wish. 

The standout feature is the unlimited simultaneous connections, which allow you to protect all your devices under one account. With an unlimited device allowance, Surfshark is great for large families or friends who want to split the bill. Read our Surfshark review to learn more, or try it with the 30-day money-back guarantee.

The 3 Best Free VPNs

If you’re on a tight budget and are undeterred by service limitations, the following free VPN apps fit the bill. 

1. Windscribe

windscribe
Windscribe’s paid and free VPN options offer identical security and privacy tools. 

Pros:

  • Trustworthy free plan
  • Strong security & privacy
  • Unique build-a-plan option

Cons:

  • 3-day money-back guarantee
  • Limited servers on free plan

Windscribe shines where most free VPN services fail: on the security and privacy fronts. While most free services offer basic features like secure protocols and encryption, Windscribe takes it a step further. 

It offers advanced tools such as its malware blocker called R.O.B.E.R.T., which blocks malware and ads on the free plan. It also maintains a strict no-logs policy and has never been involved in a data breach.

Like most top-notch free services, Windscribe comes with usage limits. It doesn’t cap the number of simultaneous connections, and it’s one of the fastest VPNs out there. It has apps for most OSes, and Windows is particularly easy to configure, making it the best free VPN for PC computers.

However, its free plan limits your data to 10GB per month and only lets you access servers in 10 countries. Read our Windscribe review to learn more.

Free
  • : Up to 15 GB free with email confirmation and Tweet
  • : 15 GB
  • : Unlimited

2. ProtonVPN

ProtonVPN app
ProtonVPN’s free version offers unlimited data and would be great for binge-watchers were it not for its slower speeds. 

Pros:

  • Excellent free version
  • Easy to use
  • Unlimited data on free plan

Cons:

  • Restricted speed on free plan
  • 1 connection on “free”
  • Only 3 servers on “free”

ProtonVPN misses the best free VPN crown by a hair’s breadth. Like Windscribe, its security and privacy postures are excellent, and it has undergone third-party security audits. ProtonVPN offers decent speeds, but they get restricted to “medium” speeds on the free plan.

ProtonVPN Free is also quite generous, as it offers unlimited monthly data. However, it lets you access servers in just three countries. Moreover, ProtonVPN limits you to “middle” speeds on the free plan and allows only one simultaneous connection.

Read our ProtonVPN review to learn more. Be sure to read our Proton VPN vs Windscribe comparison guide to learn how the two free VPNs compare.

3. TunnelBear

tunnelbear review ease of use
The TunnelBear free package offers a secure connection, but its data limits and sluggish speeds are its Achilles’ heel.

Pros:

  • Good encryption & protocols
  • Does public full-scope audits
  • All servers on free version

Cons:

  • Small free data amount
  • Slow speeds
  • Can’t open some streaming apps

Like Windscribe and ProtonVPN, TunnelBear offers excellent security and privacy, but that’s where their similarities end. Its mediocre speeds are the chink in its armor, whereas the free plan’s 500MB data limit is dismal compared to what the two best free VPNs offer. The usage limit makes TunnelBear good for casual users for tasks such as checking emails on public WiFi.

However, it offers five simultaneous connections, which is enough for the average household. The availability of servers in 48 countries is a huge plus for TunnelBear. It provides the largest pool of IP addresses of the three free VPNs, enabling you to access geo-restricted websites and access services while traveling abroad. Read our TunnelBear review to learn more. 

Free
  • : 500MB
  • : 5
Teams
  • : Unlimited GB, five devices per user, centralized billing, account manager, price per user per month
  • : Unlimited GB
  • : 5
  • :

Final Thoughts

Free VPNs are tempting, but the reality is that most of them will fail to protect you the way a VPN should. Even freemium providers come with restrictions that limit the usability of the service. 

Instead of putting your data at risk, we recommend trying one of the premium VPN services. ExpressVPN is the best VPN service, offering great all-around performance, security and privacy. If its price is off-putting, fret not. It comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee, just in case you change your mind. 

If you’re on a tight budget, try Windscribe, our best free VPN service. It offers top-notch security and excellent speeds, though its data cap can be a deal-breaker for binge-watchers. ProtonVPN is a great alternative to Windscribe. 

Which free VPN have you used before? Did the free service meet all your needs? Would you still recommend the VPN, or is there another service you recommend to users? We’d like to hear about it in the comments. As always, thanks for reading. 

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