TunnelBear is a Canadian VPN service that comes with an extra helping of cuteness and a pinch of philanthropy to make you feel good about using it. It has a bear theme running all the way through its interface, and it says it donates free bandwidth to citizens in countries with internet restrictions.
This may be one of the features that make it stand out from the rest of other services in our VPN reviews, but not as a method of keeping prying ISPs away from your data, or of helping you watch your favorite geoblocked content on Netflix while you’re on vacation. It certainly isn’t the best option for getting past the Great Firewall either.
That said, its free plan is probably the best out there, which is why it’s one of the best free VPN services around. Read on to see the details on what we thought of TunnelBear and why paying for a VPN is probably the best course you can take.
- User-friendly interface
- Good knowledgebase
- 5 simultaneous devices
- Good encryption
- Doesn’t get in to Netflix
- Split tunneling only for Android
- Slow speeds
- Technical support
TunnelBear’s interface is quite similar to that of ZenMate (read our ZenMate review to find out what we thought of that particular service), only a little less nifty. It is attached to the bear icon on the application bar at the top of your screen, and so you can’t move it around the way you can the interfaces for our best VPN provider, ExpressVPN.
This has advantages and disadvantages. It means that you don’t lose the interface behind other windows, but you do have to click the icon when you want to see details about your connection such as which server you’re connected to.
The client interface gives you a graphic impression of where you’re currently located, and when you activate the VPN it shows your connection moving across the map to its server in Australia or the U.S. This kind of graphic can offer false reassurance, but our research suggests that TunnelBear lives up to the marketing hype in at least some of its functions.
TunnelBear stands out from other VPNs like ZenMate and Shellfire (read our Shellfire review to find out more about this service) in having a killswitch which it calls “VigilantBear.” When you’re in VigilantBear mode the VPN service will automatically disconnect your internet if the VPN disconnects for some reason, thereby ensuring that nobody catches a glimpse of your IP address while your guard is down.
This is by now a standard feature of the best VPN services, as is split tunneling, which TunnelBear only offers for Android, for some reason (read our ExpressVPN review for a service that offers it across all platforms).
Split tunneling means you can choose which applications on your computer use the VPN in case you don’t want to communicate with your printer via Tokyo. This is a handy feature because it maximizes the speed of your connection where and when you need it.
What TunnelBear does have is a tethering facility that allows your devices to talk to each other and connect or disconnect to the VPN simultaneously. Note that this only works if you have TunnelBear installed on each device.
Another unusual feature of TunnelBear is that it offers a special facility for teams, so that groups of people can network their VPN usage to make sure they’re all protected when working on a project. This feature also comes with priority helpdesk support, and of course a higher price tag.
$ 9 99monthly
$ 59 88yearly
|Bandwidth||500 GB||Unlimited GB||Unlimited GB|
TunnelBear’s price structure is simple and positions it towards the top end of the VPN price spectrum, suggesting that it sees itself as a rival for ExpressVPN or NordVPN. This is not warranted by its speeds, security or its ability to get you into geoblocked content, read our NordVPN review to see what we base this conclusion on.
With TunnelBear you get all the main features with all the packages, including the free package. However, with the free plan you only get 500MB of data through the VPN per month which doesn’t last very long when you’re streaming movies, but still makes for one of the best free plans around.
Once you step up to the paid plans you get unlimited data, and so the free plan is really its version of a free trial, albeit one that you can repeat every month if you want to.
TunnelBear is easy to use. The installation was of the standard variety: you click the download button for your operating system, then drag and drop the icon into your applications folder and you’re ready to go.
You can then set it to open when your computer starts up, or if you prefer to use the VPN only occasionally you can go into your applications folder and click on it yourself when needed. When you do, an icon appears on the address bar of your screen, but it doesn’t open a separate application bar.
For some reason the TunnelBear application bar opens only when you click on the settings wheel at the top of the client interface, and then click on “’preferences” in the dropdown menu. This opens a different window with a series of checkboxes that you can use to make it launch when you start your computer, or to remove the icon from your dock if you’re using a Mac (you might want to check out our best VPN for Mac tips if you’re an Apple fan).
You can also ask TunnelBear to notify you if you’re using an unsecured network and to tell you when you connect and reconnect. This is a handy feature if you’re streaming movies and don’t want to be interrupted with a message sliding out from the side of the screen every time your VPN disconnects, which is an annoying feature of some other providers.
From here you can also activate the TCP override. This is a slightly less secure type of connection than the UDP connection which TunnelBear uses as standard, but can result in a more reliable connection if you do suffer from frequent disconnects. It’s easy to find on the interface once you know where it is, though we couldn’t determine if it had a big impact.
One slightly annoying feature of TunnelBear is that if you click on the question mark in the settings interface in order to get help, it doesn’t open a tab on the browser you’re using, but instead opens the default browser on your computer to show you the TunnelBear knowledgebase.
From the settings interface you can also activate VigilantBear. Under that checkbox is one for GhostBear, which is Tunnelbear’s answer to the Netflix VPN ban. Unfortunately it didn’t work for us, though it did get into a geoblocked newspaper. If your idea of entertainment runs to more popular tastes, we recommend you check out our article on the best VPN for Netflix instead.
One less than optimal feature of the interface is that you can’t have both the preferences and the basic client interface open at once. If you’re in settings and want to look at your connection you have to close the window, click on the TunnelBear icon, then go back into settings to see the more detailed features of the VPN.
With other, better services all of these functions are incorporated into one interface. It’s true that with ZenMate you can’t have settings and server options open together, but having them in separate windows as TunnelBear does should allow you to view them simultaneously. We recommend that people that like to tinker check out other services such as TorGuard, instead (TorGuard review).
TunnelBear supports MacOS 10.10 and later and has recently fixed a bug that was affecting MacOS 10.11 users. It also supports Windows 7 and later, as well as Android and iOS for mobile. It can be configured for Linux, but only offers limited technical support for this operating system (you’re probably better off checking out our best VPN for Linux picks).
There are extensions available for Chrome, Firefox and Opera browsers, and you have to take care to only connect to the VPN through either the browser or the client interface accessed through the application bar. This is to avoid having two tunnels open at once with resulting slower speeds.
TunnelBear doesn’t work on Kindle, Android TV or Windows mobile devices, but there’s nothing unusual in that. What is more noteworthy is that you can’t install it on your router even by manually configuring it.
The TunnelBear mobile app closely mirrors the desktop version except it’s a little more compact and it has the added feature of bear sounds in case that kind of thing is important to you. If it isn’t, you might want to check out our best VPN for Windows or best VPN for Android articles.
TunnelBear, does, however, support up to five multiple connections at once, so if the rest of the service was a little better it would have made it onto our list of the best VPN for multiple devices. As is, we recommend NordVPN or CyberGhost instead (read our CyberGhost review).
TunnelBear has servers in 20 countries, which is a small number compared to similarly priced VPNs like ZenMate, and is tiny compared to the market leaders like ExpressVPN, which offers 148 locations in 90 countries, or CyberGhost with its 1300 servers.
These 20 locations are fairly well distributed and it does have servers in countries that are often overlooked by VPN providers, such as Ireland, Canada and New Zealand. However, It has nothing in the Middle East or anywhere in Africa.
Like most VPNs its servers are concentrated in Europe but with such a small number it doesn’t even have a very good density of coverage there, with servers in only 11 out of 50 European countries.
To test TunnelBear’s speeds we ran a number of tests from your reviewer’s location in Western Siberia. As you can see below, TunnelBear won’t be getting a spot in our overview of the fastest VPN providers.
Like every other VPN service, Tunnel Bear claims to have “lightning fast speeds” on its website. We found it to be on the slow side compared to the better known VPN services, but its speeds are marginally better than those of VPNs like ZenMate or Shellfire that have received lower ratings from us.
Tunnel Bear uses AES 256-bit encryption by default, and says proudly that “weaker encryption isn’t even an option.” It doesn’t give users a choice of protocols but tells you that on Windows or Mac you’ll be using either OpenVPN or IKEv2 depending which one wins the race to connect first. On iOS 9 and later it uses either IPSec or IKEv2.
It doesn’t use the less reliable PPTP on any of the supported applications. Unlike ZenMate, which we’ve compared it to in terms of its speed, it did fine in a DNS leak test on its U.S. and UK servers. In the UK as you can see below it uses a server farm called Redstation Ltd.
It did less well when it came to getting past the notorious Netflix proxy error. Even using its GhostBear feature it was unable to get into U.S. Netflix, instead displaying its trademark black screen.
The same happened with the BBC iPlayer, and therefore we have to say that while we didn’t detect cause for concern in TunnelBear’s encryption, it didn’t prove itself to be a suitable VPN for people hoping to watch their favorite TV shows while they’re on the road. Try VyprVPN for that, which is a similarly priced service with a much better set of features, as you can read in our VyprVPN review.
Tunnel Bear says it offers 24/7 customer support even to non-subscribers, but it doesn’t have a live chat service. Like most VPNs it encourages you to use its knowledgebase first. The knowledgebase is excellent, providing a lot of detailed information about encryption, privacy policies and about the different features of TunnelBear.
If you decide you need personal help, you can click the support tab which directs you to a series of radio buttons that categorize your query as being technical or related to account matters. However, the response was slow. The next day there was a message to reassure us that someone was thinking about our query and only two days later a reply. Not a good showing in an arena where most services get back to you in minutes.
TunnelBear is a decent mid-range VPN with the some unique features like TeamBear and a user-friendly interface. It has good encryption but doesn’t have the geoblocking avoidance capabilities of more upmarket VPNs. It also lacks some of their easy configurability, such as the ability to choose different encryption protocols
It’s slower than average with a limited range of servers, but it is marginally cheaper than better services like VyprVPN and has markedly better security and general features than a similarly priced service like ZenMate. What do you think of TunnelBear? Let us know in the comments below and thank you for reading.