TunnelBear’s cute aesthetic and user-friendly free plan have earned it a reputation as one of the most accessible virtual private network (VPN) services for beginners. However, as adorable as all the digging bears may be, VPN users deserve substance along with style. For our TunnelBear review, we set out to learn whether TunnelBear delivers.
What we found is a VPN that keeps its promise of a simple, cute service, but doesn’t deliver much else. As we’ll cover in the TunnelBear VPN review, TunnelBear’s limited choices aren’t just a problem for security nerds — these restrictions create real inconvenience for every user. There’s not much here that can stand up against the providers on our best VPN list.
- TunnelBear’s best feature is its extremely simple UI, which anyone can grasp right out of the proverbial box.
- TunnelBear gives you access to all its features and servers on the free plan, but with a punishingly low monthly data cap.
- Thanks to unreliable speeds, difficulty unblocking streaming services and a lack of features, TunnelBear isn’t a great VPN choice for complex tasks.
- One thing you can say for TunnelBear: Its privacy record is spotless. We also couldn’t find any fault with how it secures user IP addresses.
Our TunnelBear VPN review explores this ursine VPN provider’s features, speeds, user-friendliness, pricing, security, privacy and more. By the end, you’ll be ready to decide whether to pay for TunnelBear, take advantage of its free plan, or skip it altogether.
09/25/2022 Facts checked
Updated for 2022 to reflect current features, audits and server spread.
Yes, TunnelBear can be trusted. It has no history of logging user data, and it’s secure against leaks.
It depends on your objective. If you want to stay safe during simple yet risky activities like online banking, TunnelBear is perfectly safe and secure. If your goal is streaming, torrenting or anything else that requires speed, it may not be the right choice.
TunnelBear’s free plan really is free, but it’s limited to 500MB of traffic per day (1GB if you link your Twitter account). You do get access to all features and servers, though, including the kill switch (and split tunneling on mobile).
Average speedDownload Speed91 MbpsUpload Speed9 MbpsLatency6 ms
- : PayPal, Credit card, Bitcoin, PaymentWall
- : 5
Average speedDownload Speed90 MbpsUpload Speed9 MbpsLatency5 ms
- : PayPal, Credit card, Google Pay, AmazonPay, ACH Transfer, Cash
- : 6
Average speedDownload Speed62 MbpsUpload Speed9 MbpsLatency50 ms
- : PayPal, Credit card, bitcoin
- : 7
- : PayPal, Credit card
- : 30
Average speedDownload Speed88 MbpsUpload Speed9 MbpsLatency4 ms
- : PayPal, Credit card
- : 10
Strengths & Weaknesses
- Simple user interface
- All features on free plan
- Fast-growing server network
- Affordable prices
- Excellent knowledgebase
- Chrome & Firefox extensions
- VigilantBear kill switch
- Limited feature set
- Very few payment methods
- Can’t install it on routers
- Can’t pick servers within countries
- Locked protocols on macOS & Android
TunnelBear’s design philosophy seems to stem from the famous quote that an engineer is only finished when they have nothing left to remove. It’s got an extremely slim feature set, and it’s still removing features from its latest releases. Only the absolute basics, such as the kill switch, are safe.
The good news is that all of TunnelBear’s features are available on the free plan. The bad news is that there aren’t a whole lot of features in general. Unlike ExpressVPN, this isn’t a case of still waters running deep. We’ll run through them in the order they appear on the preferences menu.
First, we’ve got TunnelBear’s basic behavior toggles. You can set it to launch as soon as you log in, and if you’re on macOS, you can have it appear in your dock. This is helpful if you often forget to activate your VPN before going online. When paired with the auto-connect (under the “trusted networks” tab), you don’t have to remember a thing.
You can also decide when TunnelBear sends you notifications. One box controls basic notifications on your connection status. The other alerts you if you’re browsing on a network with dangerously lax security.
TCP override controls the VPN protocol TunnelBear is currently using. OpenVPN works over one of two transport protocols, UDP or TCP. TunnelBear uses UDP by default because it’s faster; however, it can drop connections on occasion. If your UDP connection becomes unstable while TCP override is active, TunnelBear automatically switches to TCP.
VigilantBear is TunnelBear’s version of a kill switch. While active, a kill switch monitors your VPN connection for unexpected drops or disconnects (i.e. not when you manually disconnect). If your VPN connection cuts off, the VigilantBear kill switch cuts off your internet until it can reconnect. That way, you’re never without VPN protection for a second, which is especially useful if you’re on public WiFi.
GhostBear is an obfuscation protocol. While active, TunnelBear won’t just encrypt your traffic, but will disguise the fact that you’re using a VPN at all, preventing censorship states like China from discovering and blocking it.
The VPN client cautions that you should only use GhostBear if you’re unable to connect to TunnelBear normally, as it can significantly slow down your connection.
The next tab is “trusted networks,” but it won’t be for much longer. In May 2022, TunnelBear announced plans to phase out trusted networks over its next few releases. It didn’t offer an explanation, but it’s likely that users didn’t take advantage of the feature much.
Regardless, for as long as the trusted networks feature is accessible, it will let you program TunnelBear to automatically connect unless you’re on a trusted network named on the list. In effect, it’s an allowlist for WiFi. Hopefully TunnelBear will replace it with something, because it’s a good feature.
That’s basically it, unless you’re on mobile (see the next section). There are no specialty servers, no multi-hop, no dedicated or static IPs, and no complex automations like you get with CyberGhost (read about “smart rules” in our CyberGhost review).
There’s a fine line between “streamlined” and “bare-bones,” and for us, TunnelBear is on the wrong side of it. The kill switch is still nice, though.
Does TunnelBear Have Split Tunneling?
TunnelBear’s split tunneling feature is called SplitBear (perhaps unsurprisingly). It lets you run certain apps or websites through the VPN for greater protection, while allowing others to run unprotected for greater speed. At the moment, it’s only available on iOS and Android, but the TunnelBear team assures us that Windows and macOS implementations are on the way.
TunnelBear doesn’t work on all platforms, but it covers most of the important ones. Users of Windows, mobile devices and macOS will find VPN clients for them. There are also browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox.
There’s no app for Linux (though there is “limited support” for a manual setup) and no dedicated TunnelBear app for smart TVs or other devices. Normally, this wouldn’t matter, but you can’t manually configure TunnelBear outside of Linux — so there’s no way to install it on a router. You can’t cover game consoles, smart TVs or anything non-traditional that connects to the internet.
TunnelBear Features Overview
|Payment methods||Credit card|
|Supports split tunneling||iOS & Android only|
|Free trial available|
|Worldwide server amount||48 countries|
|Desktop OSes||Windows, MacOS|
|Mobile OSes||Android, iOS|
|Browser extensions||Chrome, Firefox|
|Can be installed on routers|
|Can access Netflix US|
|Can access BBC iPlayer|
|Can access Hulu|
|Can access Amazon Prime Video|
|Encryption types||256-AES, ChaCha20|
|VPN protocols available||OpenVPN, IKEv2, WireGuard|
|Enabled at device startup|
|Passed DNS leak test|
|Malware/ad blocker included|
TunnelBear makes pricing simple, and it costs about what it’s worth. Unless you’re a business, you’ll either go with the free or Unlimited plan. The Unlimited plan is relatively affordable month-to-month, and gets cheaper when you pay for a long-term plan in advance.
- : 500MB
- : 5
- : Unlimited GB, five devices, priority customer service
- : Unlimited GB
- : 5
- : Unlimited GB, five devices per user, centralized billing, account manager, price per user per month
- : Unlimited GB
- : 5
The free version comes with TunnelBear’s full feature set, and gives you access to all servers. The only limits are a 500MB monthly data cap (which you can raise to 1GB by tweeting about TunnelBear) and a single simultaneous connection.
The Unlimited plan removes the data cap and allows five connections at once. You also get priority in the customer service queue. You can get the Unlimited plan for $9.99 per month, $4.99 per month for a year ($59.88 total) or $3.33 per month for three years ($120 total).
The Teams plan makes it easy to put many users on the same account. For $5.75 per user per month, you can centralize billing for any number of users, and work with an account manager to settle any concerns. It comes with the same features as the free and Unlimited plans.
TunnelBear payment methods
Payment methods are extremely limited. TunnelBear only accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express credit and debit cards (and “jars of honey,” though we’re treating that as a joke until the Federal Reserve releases the latest Dollar-Honey exchange rates). Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are not an option.
If you’re downloading it from the Apple app store or Google Play store, you can use any method they accept — a further indication that TunnelBear is heavily focused on the mobile market.
Is TunnelBear VPN Completely Free?
Not completely, but its free version really is unlimited in a lot of ways. In other ways, it’s one of the most restrictive free VPN services, though it’s also trustworthy and reliable. There are times when it can stand against the champion, Windscribe.
All free VPN services are restricted in one or more ways. VPN providers are for-profit businesses (with the debatable exception of ProtonVPN), so the free version is essentially an advertisement for the paid plan. Most of them limit the features you can access or the servers you can use.
TunnelBear does neither. You get all features and all servers without paying a cent (or a drop of honey). However, the limit it does impose is pretty restrictive. Any activity except casual browsing — streaming, gaming, chatting, torrenting — will chew through 500MB in days or even hours. By contrast, hide.me offers 10GB for the same length of time, and Windscribe offers up to 15GB.
Because it has a free plan, TunnelBear does not offer a free trial. There’s also no official money-back guarantee, though the website states that refunds might be offered “on a case-by-case basis.”
TunnelBear is very user-friendly — partly because of good design, and partly because it has so little going on.
Downloading the app from the website couldn’t be easier. If you’re using the free plan, just click “download” and TunnelBear will download and install itself. It even moves the TunnelBear app to your hard drive or applications folder automatically (with your approval), then deletes its own installer. You’ll be prompted to create a password when you open the app.
Getting a paid plan is hardly more complicated. You have to enter a payment method, but then everything plays out the same way: The website detects your OS and downloads the proper app, which then sets itself up for you.
On mobile, you’ll have to get the app from the Apple app store or Google Play store, but the process is largely the same.
TunnelBear Desktop App
When it comes time to use the TunnelBear VPN app, you’ll probably figure it out within seconds. On the main window, all you can do is connect or disconnect. Judged on interface alone, TunnelBear holds up against any of our best VPNs for Windows or best VPNs for Chrome.
The main control is a big button at the top. If it’s on the left and the map is grayed out, you aren’t connected to the VPN. If it’s on the right and the map is in color, you’re connected.
Clicking the button connects you to the fastest server, which will probably be the one closest to your physical location. To connect to a specific server, either click and drag the map to the location you need, or click the arrow by the name of your current location to open a list of available VPN servers.
Navigate the list with the scroll bar and click on the location you want to spoof. It doesn’t get any simpler than this, even if there is no search function.
The only other thing you can do on the TunnelBear desktop app is visit the “preferences” page, but you won’t be spending much time here. As you saw in the features section, there’s little to do.
TunnelBear Mobile Apps
TunnelBear’s VPN apps for Android and iOS look very similar to its desktop apps. There’s the same map and the same server list, which you activate by tapping an arrow, and the same small, out-of-the-way preferences section.
We’d go so far as to say that mobile is TunnelBear’s natural home. On a compact phone or tablet screen, being rich in features is less important than being user-friendly and uncluttered. Still, we wish the server list was emphasized a bit more — too many users think that laboriously dragging the map is their only option.
Sadly, TunnelBear isn’t especially fast. If you have fast internet to begin with, you can have a fine experience, but it won’t perform well over long distances or inconsistent connections. A speedy VPN like Surfshark can be halfway around the world while TunnelBear is still getting its boots on.
For us to consider a VPN service one of the fastest VPNs, it needs to have low latency and fast download and upload speeds. Latency determines how long a connection takes to perform a single action, such as contacting another server. Download and upload speeds measure how quickly data can move from one server to another.
The rule of thumb with VPN speed is that the farther away the server, the worse it will perform. That’s why it’s important to have a large server network with a lot of locations. We used speedtest.net to check TunnelBear’s speeds in six locations, starting near our home base and moving to the other side of the globe.
TunnelBear Speed Test Results
In the table below, latency is given in milliseconds (ms). Download and upload speeds are given in megabits per second (Mbps).
Most VPN services perform best on the closest server, so we expected to get our best speeds in the United States. Unfortunately, TunnelBear has shot itself in the paw here by not allowing users to pick specific server locations within countries. We might have gotten a better result if we could have picked a server in the Northwest, but all TunnelBear’s U.S. locations seem to be in the Midwest.
These speeds illustrate why user choice is so important in a VPN, even a “beginner” option like TunnelBear. If your VPN connection isn’t as fast as you’d like, the two main troubleshooting methods are switching servers within the country and switching protocols.
TunnelBear doesn’t let you do either one on macOS and Android, and prevents you from changing countries on every service. Middling speeds are one thing, but they’re much worse without the tools to fix them.
TunnelBear has excellent security, if you examine it solely from a security point of view. From the perspectives of speed and user convenience, its security choices are a lot more questionable.
If you use Android or macOS, TunnelBear doesn’t let you select your own VPN protocol. Windows and iOS users get access to OpenVPN, IKEv2 and WireGuard, but TunnelBear automatically picks the fastest option unless you override it from the “preferences” menu. Users on macOS and Android only get OpenVPN, though the website claims that WireGuard support is “coming soon” to these two platforms.
OpenVPN, IKEv2 and WireGuard are strong protocols. They all use the latest encryption algorithms, and to our knowledge, none of the three has been cracked by the NSA. We checked them out using both an independent leak test and TunnelBear’s own IP locator, and found no signs of IP addresses leaking.
If you look at security alone, there’s nothing wrong with this setup, but viewed another way, it raises some eyebrows. For starters, IKEv2 is generally best for mobile apps — so why does TunnelBear make it available for Windows but not Android?
The bigger problem is that Android and macOS don’t get to choose their own protocols, except through TCP override. If your VPN isn’t working, or if you keep getting the Netflix proxy error no matter which server you try, switching to another protocol is one of the first fixes. For half of TunnelBear’s users, that’s out of reach.
That said, a speed and user choice issue is not a security issue. TunnelBear keeps IP addresses safe and secure, and that’s a fact.
Most of this data is not identifiable — that is, it can’t be connected to real IP addresses. The only suspicious bit of the whole thing is in section 1.4, which concerns information TunnelBear uses to prevent credit card fraud. Via Stripe, its payment processor, TunnelBear can see information on a device at the moment of payment. This includes its IP address, operating system and device type.
That information, known as a device hash, is enough to single out an individual computer. In other words, if Stripe was hacked, or if TunnelBear was subpoenaed, the hackers or law officers could prove that an individual subscribed to TunnelBear. However, they couldn’t tell anything more than that.
This isn’t a critical vulnerability, but it is a slight knock against TunnelBear’s approach to privacy. The service will gain a lot of points with us in the future if it implements more secure payment methods.
Like many other VPN services, TunnelBear guarantees its no-logs policy through independent audits. It’s undergone one every year since 2016, though if a 2022 audit is planned, it hasn’t happened yet. According to TunnelBear, every vulnerability found in the 2021 audit has been addressed.
TunnelBear isn’t a streaming VPN. We’ve already touched on its suspect speeds, which make streaming non-viable on slower connections. Then there’s the fact that if you’re using the free plan — one of the main draws of TunnelBear — you’ll chew through your entire 1GB monthly limit in about an hour of HD streaming.
There’s an even bigger issue: streaming access. Streaming platforms block VPN providers because they can be used to circumvent copyright laws. Every VPN needs a way around these blocks, which usually involves concealing VPN traffic so the streamer’s firewall doesn’t catch it.
TunnelBear fails to check that box in almost every case. The only streaming service we managed to unblock was HBO Max. As you’ll see in the table below, it was blocked by the other five, even when we changed servers.
|Amazon Prime Video||No|
All of this wouldn’t be so bad if TunnelBear had universal split tunneling. Users could just stream outside the VPN while protecting all their more sensitive traffic. However, SplitBear is only available on mobile right now, so users who watch TV on a desktop or laptop computer are out of luck.
There’s still another problem. TunnelBear is allergic to giving its users real choice, which means (as covered in the speed section) that we can’t get around a Netflix proxy error by switching to another server. If you want to watch U.K. Netflix, and the U.K. server isn’t working, you’re out of options. It’s even worse for platforms like Hulu that only work in one country.
Instead, try one of the other VPNs that we’ve found can beat the Netflix VPN ban.
TunnelBear has a relatively small server network with servers in 47 countries — normally 48, but it’s currently unable to maintain its physical servers in Ukraine. That’s not a lot when compared to networks like Private Internet Access, which has servers in 78 countries, but it’s quite a respectable spread.
TunnelBear doesn’t separate server locations by cities. If you’re connecting to the United States, all you know for sure is that your server is in the United States. That’s why the rows in the table below have the same numbers in both columns.
Of course, sheer numbers are only half the battle (if that was all it took, HideMyAss would be our favorite VPN). We also need to check whether the server network is distributed broadly enough to provide adequate service for almost anyone in the world.
In that area, TunnelBear falls short. There are no servers whatsoever in the Middle East, nor in Central Asia, and there’s not a single location between Kenya and Malaysia. On the other hand, it’s nice to see three locations in Africa and seven in South America, since many VPNs leave those regions high and dry.
There’s no word on whether TunnelBear’s servers are bare metal or virtual. Given that it has no servers in Ukraine or India right now, we’re inclined to think it chooses not to use virtual servers. That’s better for security, but limits user options a bit.
Given that user-friendliness and accessibility are the backbone of TunnelBear’s product, we expected it to make customer support a priority. Its actual customer support offerings mostly meet that standard. Users in trouble have two choices: visit the knowledgebase or submit a customer support ticket.
The customer support tickets are less pleasant, but still more helpful than not. There’s no way to get live help — instead, you’ll have to visit the contact link on the main help page, then wade through a lot of multiple-choice questions.
Unlike the user-friendly help articles, submitting a ticket is a bit of a maze. Some questions won’t give you a chance to type anything into a text field before you hit send; you’ll just have to communicate through the multiple-choice menus.
TunnelBear asks for 48 hours to resolve each ticket, but we received a response in less than half that time. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this is the point where the bear theme really began to overstay its welcome. Puns and mascots are fun when everything is going well, but when you’re frustrated, the last thing you want to do is wade through a bunch of bear jokes.
To accurately review a VPN, you have to understand its objective. In some ways, calling TunnelBear shallow is like complaining that a movie for kids lacks deep moral complexity. It sets out to be a VPN service anyone can use, then fulfills that objective.
However, a movie can be both simple and deep, and so can a VPN — look at Surfshark or ExpressVPN, for example. TunnelBear isn’t like that. In spite of several positive elements, like its UI, free plan and knowledgebase, TunnelBear feels disposable. There’s nothing it does better than anybody else.
In the end, we can’t say exactly who this VPN is for. Casual users will be frustrated at its slow speeds, while experienced users will chafe at its lack of options. If you need a quick free VPN for a specific task, TunnelBear might be able to bear the strain. For a long-term commitment, you’re better off looking outside the den.