TunnelBear Review

TunnelBear is probably the best free VPN out there, but that isn't saying much: it won't get you into Netflix and speeds are mediocre at best. However, as you can read in this TunnelBear review, it's free and secure, so it may be worth a shot.

By Samuel Chapman
— Last Updated: 2018-11-02T07:51:54+00:00
Starts from $ 333 per month
Free plan available Save 67 % (All Plans)

TunnelBear was founded by two Canadians in 2011 and was sold to security giant McAfee in 2018. It currently produces two products: TunnelBear, a VPN, and RememBear, a password manager. We’ll be reviewing the VPN today; check our RememBear review if you’re in the market for a password vault.

For this updated TunnelBear review, we put the latest version through its paces and looked over its features, security, usability, pricing and more. The pitch for TunnelBear’s VPN relies heavily on accessibility and usability, bolstered by its digging bear mascot. It’s admittedly adorable and a nice change of pace from the fear-based tactics typically employed by VPN branding.

Yet behind the cartoons, TunnelBear falls short on substance, which keeps it off our best VPN list this year. It can’t access Netflix and has only a few servers, most of which are clustered in Europe. 

It’s not all bad, though. Its security — the core test of any VPN — is strong, and the pricing is fair, although the free plan is a bit restrictive. For more detail, read our full TunnelBear VPN review below.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Pros:

  • Very accessible UI
  • Well-priced annual plans
  • Strong security & encryption protocols
  • Follows its privacy policy
  • Thorough customer service

Cons:

  • Blocked by streaming services
  • Limited free plan
  • Not many servers in underserved regions
  • Few customer service options
  • Download speeds lag in most countries

Alternatives for TunnelBear

  1. 1
    • Credit card
    • 5 Simultaneous connections
    • Unlimited bandwidth
    • Can access Netflix US
    • Allows torrenting
    • No-logging policy
  2. 2
    • PayPal, Credit card, Bitcoin
    • 5 Simultaneous connections
    • Unlimited bandwidth
    • Can access Netflix US
    • Allows torrenting
    • No-logging policy
  3. 3
    • Credit card
    • 6 Simultaneous connections
    • Unlimited bandwidth
    • Can access Netflix US
    • Allows torrenting
    • No-logging policy
  4. 4
    • PayPal, Credit card
    • 7 Simultaneous connections
    • Unlimited bandwidth
    • Can access Netflix US
    • Allows torrenting
    • No-logging policy
  5. 5
    • PayPal, Credit card
    • 10 Simultaneous connections
    • Unlimited bandwidth
    • Can access Netflix US
    • Allows torrenting
    • No-logging policy

Features

84 % – Very Good

The TunnelBear VPN is available on Mac, Windows, Android and iOS devices. It also comes as a browser extension for Chrome, Firefox and Opera. It’s used for private, secure browsing and protects you from third parties accessing your location or other data.

TunnelBear’s focus on a friendly user experience means that its feature set is limited, though not always to its detriment. If you’re used to seeing VPN service bundled with all-inclusive kitchen-sink antivirus packages, it might seem jarring that all you can functionally do with TunnelBear is turn it on and off, but there is a little bit of power under the surface here.

You can set the VPN to activate when your device boots up and to immediately cut off internet access via a kill switch whenever your secure connection is interrupted, ensuring you don’t accidentally expose your data on a shady website. You can also toggle when TunnelBear sends you notifications and set which WiFi networks the VPN will automatically trust. 

TunnelBear-General-controls

Only two functions aren’t immediately obvious: “TCP override” and GhostBear. TCP and UDP are two widely recognized protocols for data transfer. TunnelBear usually transmits data via UDP, which is faster. However, some ISPs throttle UDP traffic. If your UDP connection sharply slows down, “TCP override” lets you switch TunnelBear to TCP, which is a more stable protocol.

TunnelBear-Security-controls

The GhostBear feature is for when you’re browsing on a restrictive or high-surveillance network, such as in a school or an office. In those environments, it’s sometimes not enough to encrypt your data — it also has to not obviously look like it’s encrypted. However, GhostBear slows down connections, so you should only use it in extreme situations.

The biggest thing missing in TunnelBear is split tunneling, a function that allows you to send some traffic through your VPN while sending the rest normally, which can sharply increase your bandwidth while running a VPN. It’s not that common a feature, but the few VPNs that have it (especially ExpressVPN) make us sorely miss it when it’s gone.

TunnelBear Features Overview

  • General

    • Credit card
    • Accepts cryptocurrency
    • 5 Simultaneous connections
    • Supports split tunneling
    • Unlimited bandwidth
    • 7 days for Teams plan Free trial available
    • Case-by-case basis Refund period
    • 23 locations Worldwide server amount
    • Windows, MacOS, Linux
    • Android, iOS
    • Chrome, Firefox, Opera
    • Can be installed on routers
  • Streaming

    • Can access Netflix US
    • Can access BBC iPlayer
    • Can access Hulu
    • Can access Amazon Prime Video
  • Security

    • 256-AES
    • IPSec, OpenVPN, L2TP
    • Enabled at device startup
    • Allows torrenting
    • No-logging policy
    • Passed DNS leak test
    • Killswitch available
    • Malware/ad blocker included
  • Support

    • Live Chat
    • 24/7 Email support
    • Phone support
    • User forum
    • Knowledgebase

Pricing

87 % – Very Good

TunnelBear’s free plan includes 500MB of bandwidth each month and works on five devices. By TunnelBear’s own admission, this plan isn’t good for much, other than testing and light usage. Although you can increase your limit to 1GB by tweeting about TunnelBear once a month, it still pales in comparison to Windscribe’s free plan (check out our Windscribe review for more) or that of Hide.me.

Free
  • 500MB
  • 5 Included Devices
Unlimited
  • Unlimited GB, five devices, priority customer service
  • Unlimited GB Bandwidth
  • 5 Included Devices
  • Bitcoin
1-year plan $ 4.99/ month
$59.88 billed every year
Save 50 %
3-year plan $ 3.33/ month
$120.00 billed every 3 years
Save 67 %
Teams
  • Unlimited GB, five devices per user, centralized billing, account manager, price per user per month
  • Unlimited GB Bandwidth
  • 5 Included Devices
  • Bitcoin

You can buy Unlimited, the only individual paid plan, for three different lengths of time: monthly for $9.99, one year at $4.99 per month ($59.88 total) and three years at $3.33 per month ($120.00 total). The Unlimited plan removes all data transfer caps and gets you access to better customer service, though you’re still limited to five devices.

TunnelBear-Pricing

The final option, Teams, is set up for businesses and offers the benefits of the Unlimited plan at a cost of $5.75 per user every month ($69 per year). The extra money gets you a dedicated account manager, centralized billing for your business and the ability to manage all your corporate VPNs from a single control panel. You can try the Teams plan free for seven days.

We’re happy to see that TunnelBear has added a multi-year option and that it comes with significant savings. It’s also nice that you can pay with bitcoin. If you want your money back, TunnelBear has no official policy, though its support staff offers refunds on a “case-by-case basis.”

TunnelBear’s pricing is right in the middle of the pack. It gains points for having added a multi-year option since we last reviewed it, but it loses them for its limited free service and the fact that the Teams plan isn’t worth the extra money. For a better deal, check out NordVPN or CyberGhost.

Ease of Use

89 % – Very Good

TunnelBear downloads quickly. Once you unzip and open it, you’ll be prompted to create an account with your email address. This also happens nice and fast. Email confirmation is speedy, too.

TunnelBear-Create-an-account

TunnelBear’s UI

For good or ill, this is about the simplest user interface we’ve seen on a VPN service. From the initial panel, you can only do three things: connect to the VPN, choose a different country to connect to and open the preferences menu.

TunnelBear-Main-UI-panel

You can choose a country with a dropdown menu, but you can also use the map screen that features the tunneling bear mascot. Although this screen is cute, its implementation leaves something to be desired: the only way to move is by clicking and dragging, which you’ll have to do several times to get anywhere.

TunnelBear-Dropdown-menu

The dropdown menu is easier, though not perfect. With TunnelBear, you can connect to 23 different countries, which the menu doesn’t organize by any discernible metric.  

It regains points, though, for providing the easy-to-use and convenient option to pick whichever connection is currently fastest. We tried connecting to a few different countries, which took the VPN about 15 seconds each time.

TunnelBear-Connect-to-Canada

Control Panels

All the rest of TunnelBear’s interface is contained in the preferences menu, which is accessed by clicking the gear icon. It’s organized into four tabs, none of which have any controls deeper than a single button or checkbox. The “general” tab lets you choose when to boot up TunnelBear, when to get notifications and when to do a TCP override.

The “security” tab lets you activate two settings. VigiliantBear is the industry-standard kill switch that stops all traffic if your connection to the VPN breaks. GhostBear makes it harder to detect that your data is encrypted, allowing you to use TunnelBear on restrictive networks that might block it otherwise. 

The “trusted networks” tab includes the option of connecting to the VPN automatically on all networks, with the option of whitelisting networks you know are safe. Finally, the “account” tab links you directly to your in-browser account.

TunnelBear-Trusted-Networks

They say a product is perfect when there’s nothing left to take away. By that standard, TunnelBear is a near-perfect VPN. However, it’s sacrificed a lot in terms of power to get there. You can’t freely change your protocol, there’s no split tunneling and you can’t download the browser extensions from within the desktop app.

We’ve rated TunnelBear very highly for accessibility, but we docked a few points for a lack of control (not to mention those baffling choices in the server-selection interface).

Speed

73 % – Decent

Due to TunnelBear’s clustering of all a country’s servers into one, we were unable to distinguish between locations within any of these countries. Take all these numbers with a grain of salt, as it’s always possible for one individual server to be an outlier. 

This test was run from Portland, Oregon. We used the same server for both the protected and unprotected tests in the United States, near Wichita, Kansas, where TunnelBear’s U.S. node appears to be located.

LocationPing
ms
Download
Mbps
Upload
Mbps
Unprotected759.642.40
United States (protected)
86
8.15
2.27
Mexico
161
4.76
2.24
Canada
82
4.85
2.24
Brazil
207
5.31
2.27
Denmark
184
5.00
2.32
India
307
3.94
1.98
Average
171
5.34
2.22

We saw almost no increase in latency with the VPN, either in the United States or Canada, which impressed us. More remarkable was the minor effect on download speeds, which only slowed about 15 percent; for reference, the average VPN knocks off about 30 percent.

 Within the U.S., this is enough to put TunnelBear into contention with our list of fastest VPNs. Its low latency makes it acceptable for gaming and the negligible effect on downloads means it should also work well for streaming (making it all the sadder that it can’t access Netflix or Hulu). 

Outside the U.S., it’s a different story. TunnelBear is still fast enough for gaming in Canada, but its download speed has plunged, making streaming a poor choice. Latency varies a bit, but downloads are consistently slowed down by about 50 percent. However, we do really like that things speed up a bit in historically underserved Brazil.

This is only one web connection, though, and others might have a different experience. For our part only, we’re giving TunnelBear high marks for performance within the United States and lower marks for performance almost everywhere else.

Security

95 % – Excellent

On all platforms except iOS, TunnelBear does not include the option to change VPN protocols, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. More protocols don’t make security any stronger, same as how six different types of lock don’t make it harder to kick down your door. 

On Windows, macOS and Android, TunnelBear implements OpenVPN. This is an open-source, free-use protocol that we find especially trustworthy because its dedicated developer community has spent almost 20 years poking and prodding it for all possible weaknesses. 

On iOS, TunnelBear uses L2TP instead, paired with IPSec. L2TP is a protocol for transferring data between networks, also known as tunneling. Unlike OpenVPN, it doesn’t include an encryption algorithm, so it’s often found paired with IPSec to encrypt its data. You can learn more about what these protocols mean by reading our breakdown

For encryption on platforms other than iOS, TunnelBear uses AES-256, which — without getting too technical — is basically impossible to crack with current computing technology. All these protocols and algorithms have held up under years of real-world testing. Although TunnelBear doesn’t let you change them, we wouldn’t want to anyway.

TunnelBear-Geolocation-detection

We checked for IP, DNS and WebRTC leaks using ipleak.net and found that TunnelBear wasn’t leaking any information about our location or IP. All in all, it clearly takes security seriously. We’ve got no complaints about the core functionality of the VPN.

Privacy

80 % – Good

TunnelBear claims it has “a privacy policy you can actually understand.” It’s long but written in language that’s understandable to the layperson. 

TunnelBear-data-collection

The first section of the privacy policy deals with personal data collection. It lists every piece of data TunnelBear collects from its users and is honest about the parts that are used for marketing purposes. It states categorically that the VPN does not log any information about users’ browsing habits or IP addresses.

The second section lays out ground rules for what TunnelBear does with the information it gathers. It promises to only disclose personal data to third parties that provide infrastructure to TunnelBear itself, or to anyone who serves the company a valid subpoena.

The privacy policy hits all the right notes, but given how many VPNs have been caught tracking their users recently, we’ve adopted a trust-but-verify attitude. Fortunately, we haven’t found any incidents of TunnelBear being caught with its paws in the honeypot. It’s also had itself audited by a third party twice now, with no hint of shady data practices.

Concerns About McAfee

Many longtime fans of TunnelBear who liked that it didn’t harvest browsing data were concerned when McAfee bought it in 2018. To put it lightly, McAfee does not have a stellar reputation for protecting user privacy.

While it’s definitely a reason to keep an eye on TunnelBear, it doesn’t seem like there’s evidence yet that you should abandon it on privacy grounds. The company is still based in Canada, which has a far more progressive stance on data privacy than the United States. You can read our article on the best cloud storage for Canada to learn more.

For once, it seems like the data it says it logs really is the only data it logs. We applaud the fact that TunnelBear only makes money from subscriptions, not ads, and we take off only a few points because it’s not possible to run a corporate VPN with completely perfect privacy.

Streaming Performance

50 % – Poor

This is where TunnelBear takes a body blow. Major streaming services uniformly block TunnelBear, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and BBC iPlayer. It is possible to tinker with TunnelBear until it has a chance of getting through to Netflix, but with so many other VPNs that do it right off the bat, there’s no reason to go through the trouble.

TunnelBear-Amazon-Prime-blocked

Server Locations

56 % – Fair

It’s hard to tell exactly how many servers TunnelBear accesses. Every country has a single node that represents the entire nation, without clarifying how many servers the node represents or where within the country they’re located. On the map, the United States node looks like it’s somewhere in Kansas, but we couldn’t tell whether that positioning means anything.

TunnelBear-North-American-nodes

TunnelBear offers servers in 23 countries. Five are in Asia (though not Russia or China), three are in North America, two are in Oceania and a further 12 are in Western Europe. TunnelBear has zero servers in Africa, only one in South America (Brazil), one in Eastern Europe (Romania) and none in Southeast Asia or the Middle East.

TunnelBear-Western-European-nodes

Two server clusters in underserved locations keep TunnelBear just above water in this category. We’d prefer to see more geographic diversity and more clarity within each country. If a large network is important to you, check out our review of HideMyAss instead.

Customer Service

82 % – Good

Customer support on TunnelBear is, unsurprisingly, pretty heavily bear-themed. You can access the help page from the desktop VPN. It consists of a search bar that connects to every article in the knowledgebase and six buttons that break those articles down into categories. It’s visually pleasing, easy to read and mercifully free of upselling.

TunnelBear-Knowledgebase

The only way to get in touch with live support is to submit an email ticket through the “contact us” button. The ticket system is easy to use, and support usually gets back to you with an email in about 24 hours. Our test question took a little bit longer, but the thoroughness of the “support bear” response made us grateful for the time it took to get it right.

TunnelBear-Submit-a-ticket

TunnelBear does not have a forum or a tech support phone line. The Unlimited package says it offers premium customer service, but it isn’t clear what this means, outside of pushing your email tickets to the front of the line. We rate TunnelBear’s customer service high for its thoroughness, friendliness and design, but lower for its lack of options.

The Verdict

We don’t mean to sell TunnelBear short by calling it things like “adorable.” We’re all for VPNs focusing less on fear tactics. TunnelBear’s aesthetics and its streamlined UI make it a natural starting point for VPNs. Moreover, there are hardly any chinks in its armor when it comes to security, and it seems to practice what it preaches by not logging and selling user data.

All this makes us want to recommend it more highly, but there’s too much dragging TunnelBear down. Aside from not being able to access streaming services, users have to contend with limited customer service options and inconsistent speeds. We wish there was more bandwidth in the free tier and a far more diverse range of server locations.

All that said, the results of its annual audits suggest the company is driven to regularly improve its product, so we look forward to TunnelBear becoming a VPN to watch in the years to come.  

Thanks for reading our TunnelBear VPN review. If you’ve had an experience using TunnelBear that you think we should know about, let us know in the comments below.

TunnelBear FAQs

  • What Is TunnelBear For?

    TunnelBear is a VPN, or virtual private network. VPNs let you browse the internet using another server’s connection rather than your own. This grants you more privacy, since what you do online can’t be traced back to you directly.

  • Is TunnelBear Safe?

    TunnelBear doesn’t demonstrate any leaks in tests. There’s some concern about its parent company, McAfee, interfering with its no-logging policy, but there isn’t yet any evidence that has happened. TunnelBear is based in Canada, which has a more progressive data privacy stance than the U.S.

  • Does TunnelBear Work With Netflix?

    Sadly, TunnelBear is blocked by all the major streaming services, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and BBC iPlayer.

  • Does TunnelBear Allow Torrenting?

    Yes. However, download speeds might be slow.

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