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Best free VPN for secure browsing on PC, iPhone, Fire TV stick and more

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Many VPN providers limit the features available to free users (iStock)
Many VPN providers limit the features available to free users (iStock)

A VPN keeps you anonymous and secure when browsing the internet, and can also help you get around geographic restrictions to stream shows and access content that’s not normally available in your country.

If you’re not sure whether it’s worth paying for one, you might be tempted by one of the many free VPNs available to download. But are they safe to use?

Below, we’ll list the best free VPNs, but first let’s talk about why most they cost money.

Put simply, a virtual private network is a security tool used to disguise your presence online. They work by routing your internet traffic through encrypted servers, so that to websites and streaming services, you appear to be located somewhere else in the world.

Those encrypted servers are physical things whirring away in a warehouse somewhere. They cost money to run, require engineers to service them and slow down as more customers use them, which is why the most trusted and popular VPNs are paid for on a subscription basis.

Read more:

The best paid-for VPN in 2021

ExpressVPN: From £4.96 per month, Expressvpn.com

The best all-round VPN, ExpressVPN is super fast and compatible with most operating systems, including Android set top boxes and videogames consoles. It can even be installed on your home router directly to secure every device on your wifi network in one go.

ExpressVPN safeguards your data using secure encryption protocols and doesn’t store any record of your internet activity while doing it. In our tests, it reliably unblocked the US versions of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services (although keep in mind that doing this is normally against providers’ terms of service), and was fast enough to watch TV shows and movies without buffering.

Read the full ExpressVPN review

Buy now

NordVPN: From £2.71 per month, Nordvpn.com

One of the most popular VPNs around, NordVPN supports up to six devices and can be installed across your smartphone, laptop and desktop computers, your Amazon Fire box and other platforms.

NordVPN’s slick interface lets you select your desired location from a map of the world, and like ExpressVPN it keeps no user logs. The VPN allowed us to watch TV and movies from the most popular US streaming services, as well as access our Google accounts while travelling in China.

Read the full NordVPN review

Buy now

IPVanish: From £3.88 per month, Ipvanish.com

We like IPVanish for its uncapped device limit, which allows even the largest families or house shares to all use the VPN at the same time. The IPVanish app is available to download on a range of platforms too, from your iPad or Android tablet to opensource TV streaming apps like Kodi.

Top-level encryption, fast speeds and round the clock customer support put IPVanish in our top three paid-for VPNs. In tests we found it worked well with US Netflix, though sometimes it struggled to access international versions of other streaming services.

Read the full IPVanish review

Buy now

The best free VPN in 2021

Set on not paying a penny and want to know which free VPNs are the safest to use? Here are the ones we can recommend.

ProtonVPN Free: ProtonVPN.com

 (ProtonVPN)
(ProtonVPN)

Best: Unlimited VPN

  • Number of servers: 17 (1,245 in the paid version)

  • Server locations: 3 (55 in the paid version)

  • Devices supported: 1 (10 in the paid version)

  • Data allowance: Unlimited

  • Free version pros: Unlimited data allowance

  • Free version cons: Occasionally slow, no P2P support or streaming

A free account with ProtonVPN limits you to three locations around the globe – the Netherlands, Japan and the US – and just one simultaneous connection. Unlike most free VPNs, your data allowance isn’t capped, meaning you can browse for as long as you want, but your bandwidth is shared with other free users. At busy times you’ll notice a drop in speeds.

As a free user you can’t use streaming services or peer-to-peer connections, which means torrenting services won’t work, but for simple, secure web browsing from a trusted name in security, ProtonVPN is the best free VPN you can get.

Download now

Hotspot Shield Free VPN: Hotspotshield.com

 (Hotspot Shield)
(Hotspot Shield)

Best: For iOS and Android

  • Number of servers: 1,800

  • Server locations: 1 (115 in the paid version)

  • Devices supported: 1 (5 in the paid version)

  • Data allowance: 500MB per day

  • Free version pros: Support for a range of devices, no registration required

  • Free version cons: Speed capped at 2Mbps, no streaming

While most paid-for VPNs offer time-limited trials, Hotspot Shield offers a free version that you can continue using for as long as you like and without handing over your credit card details. With the free version you can unlock US websites and avoid local content filters by tunnelling your internet through one of Hotspot Shield’s servers located in North America. Speeds are slow but consistent and the free VPN can be installed on iOS and Android devices.

You’re given a data allowance of 500MB per day, can only use the VPN on a single device at once and can’t access entertainment services like Netflix and Prime Video. If you want a free VPN for streaming, the paid version of Hotspot Shield starts at $12.99 per month.

Download now

TunnelBear: Tunnelbear.com

 (TunnelBear)
(TunnelBear)

Best: Without a credit card

  • Number of servers: 3,000

  • Server locations: 27 (as many as the paid version)

  • Devices supported: 1 (5 in the paid version)

  • Data allowance: 500MB per month

  • Free version pros: Friendly design, includes all server locations

  • Free version cons: Data capped at 500MB per month, no streaming

TunnelBear’s free VPN can be used as often as you like, but its bandwidth limitations are restrictive enough that we’d consider it more of a sample of what the paid version can do. You have a mere 500MB per month to work with, compared to 500MB per day with Hotspot Shield, and unlimited bandwidth with ProtonVPN.

The free version of TunnelBear can’t bypass Netflix’s geographical restrictions, so this isn’t a VPN for those who want to take a peek at TV shows not available in their own country. However, you do get to use up to five devices at once, and TunnelBear’s privacy credentials are top notch.

Download now

Kaspersky Secure Connection: Kaspersky.co.uk

 (Kaspersky Secure Connection)
(Kaspersky Secure Connection)

Best: For PC

  • Number of servers: 300

  • Server locations: 1 (24 in the paid version)

  • Devices supported: 1 (5 in the paid version)

  • Free version pros: Reliable speeds, stable connection

  • Free version cons: Data capped at 200MB per day, no streaming

Trust is important when choosing a VPN, especially a free one, and Kaspersky is one of the most trusted names in online security. Founded in Russia, Kaspersky and its VPN servers are now owned by a UK holding company and based in Switzerland, a country with famously strong privacy laws. The free version of its paid VPN uses the same server infrastructure as Hotspot Shield, meaning you can only choose to disguise your location as coming from inside the US.

You’re also limited to just 200MB of downloads per day. For international users trying to bypass local firewalls or content restrictions, this can be enough. But for more heavy-duty use, such as accessing region-locked streaming services, a paid VPN is the way to go.

Download now

Hide.me Free: Hide.me

 (Hideme)
(Hideme)

Best: For speed

  • Number of servers: 1,900

  • Server locations: 5 (75 in the paid version)

  • Devices supported: 1 (10 in the paid version)

  • Data allowance: 10GB per month

  • Free version pros: Fast, has customer support, allows P2P connections

  • Free version cons: Limited locations, no streaming

Another VPN with a generous free tier you can use until the encrypted cows come home, Hide.me gives you access to five server locations around the world and a healthy data allowance of 10GB per month. Peer-to-peer connections are allowed and the VPN promises no speed throttling, no ad tracking and no data logging.

Unlike some rivals, free users can also access customer support 24/7. Like most free VPNs, you’re unable to use Hide.me to bypass region-locked shows on Netflix and other streaming services.

Download now

Free VPN FAQs

How to choose the right free VPN service

The VPNs we’ve selected above are a great way to try before you buy, but here are a few things to bear in mind when choosing a free service that works for you.

  • Data caps: Most free VPNs limit the amount of data you can upload and download. ProtonVPN is the only to offer unlimited data usage to free users.

  • Speed: Free users typically have to share the VPN’s limited bandwidth with other free users, slowing the network down for those who don’t pay. Hotspot Shield throttles its free VPN to just 2Mbps, but by doing so it creates more consistent speeds and fewer dropped connections.

  • Streaming: No reputable free VPN allows you to stream content on services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, so be very wary of any free VPNs or Chrome extensions that make this claim.

  • Security: The ability for hackers to spy on you while you use the internet is overstated by most VPN services, so don’t feel pressured into downloading a free VPN if you’re not absolutely sure you need one. If there’s a padlock next to the URL in your browser window, your connection is already encrypted and safe.

How do free VPNs make money?

They’re profiting in a different way. Many paid-for VPNs offer a free trial or a limited version of the full product to lure in new customers, who they hope to convert to the paid version.

Others make money by selling your browsing data to third-party advertisers, or by replacing the ads you’d normally see on webpages with their own, or even by using your device as a virtual server for other users to connect through.

The problems with a free VPN

When you use any VPN, free or paid, you’re trusting a private company to look after your data responsibly. The best VPNs don’t keep a log of your online activity, so that even if they’re compelled by law to hand over information about their customers, there would simply be no useful data to reveal.

A free VPN has no such obligation to its users. To survive, a free VPN has to make money out of you in other ways. At best a free VPN will offer limited features, no customer support and throttled download speeds, making streaming impossible.

But at worst it will actively harvest your information to sell to its advertising partners. It’s generally not a good idea to have this kind of adversarial relationship with a service that’s handling the very data you’re trying to keep private.

With that in mind, it’s worth considering a free trial of a paid VPN before you settle for a completely free VPN. Many paid VPNs have 30-day trials that can be easily cancelled before you’re charged, or only cost a few quid a month. For the peace of mind that comes with knowing the service has your back, we think a paid VPN is worth it.

Are free VPNs safe to use?

We’ve gone through this a little bit already, but in short, while some free VPNs are safe, they’re less safe than paid-for VPNs. In 2017, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) released a report in which it analysed 283 VPN Android apps on the Google Play Store. Of the apps analysed, 72 per cent of the free VPNs were found to be tracking users’ activity.

The main reason why free VPNs do this is simply because they’re not charging their users to use their service, and obviously need a way to make money. Tracking your online activity and selling it on is a pretty effective way to keeping VPNs free.

The report also found that six out of the ten VPNs most likely to be infected with malware were free, rather than paid-for. The malware often came in the form of injected ads.

The CSIRO study also claimed that HotSpot Shield was one VPN who (at the time) was hijacking users’ browsers and redirecting them to a different page. This isn’t the case, anymore, but it was back then.

Essentially, while free VPNs can be safe, you can always guarantee that a paid-for VPN – and the ones on our best VPNs round-up – are definitely safe.

How does a free VPN work?

They work the same way as any other VPN, routing your traffic through a server. The only issue is that most of them don’t allow you to access geo-restricted content, so they won’t usually work with US Netflix, for example, like ExpressVPN and Surfshark.

The way they make money, however, is also a little different. Most free VPNs are never really free. They make money by tracking your browsing habits, injecting advertising trackers into your session and collecting data about you, as outlined above.

The verdict: Free VPN service

We would always advise choosing a paid-for service, but if you’re looking for a simple to use, free VPN that promises not to sell your personal information to the highest bidder, we recommend ProtonVPN. With an unlimited data cap and reliable speeds, it’s a great introduction to the premium product.

Hide.me also offers a generous free version with a few more locations to choose from, top security credentials and access to customer support should you get stuck.

Voucher codes

For the latest discounts on NordVPN and other tech offers, try the links below:

Ready to upgrade to a premium VPN service? Here are the best paid-for VPNs available to download in 2021