If you’re looking to subscribe to a VPN, tacking on an additional yearly or monthly charge to your expenses may not be ideal. A free virtual private network may be an attractive solution. But as tempting as it is to use a completely free VPN, it’s practically unfeasible to acquire a free VPN that is top tier regarding ease of use and performance quality. Notably, free VPNs can be chock-full of harmful malware, and they are also known to sell off your data. Plus, these services mostly offer slower connection speeds than their paid premium counterparts. More often than not, free VPNs will put a cap on the data you’re able to use, putting limitations on your online experience. If your top priority is saving money, we completely understand. With affordability in mind, and through years of rigorous testing, our VPN experts have compiled a list of reliable VPN service providers that are easy on the wallet and deliver the goods. The only free VPN recommended by CNET at this time is Proton VPN’s free tier, due to its robust security, performance and lack of data limitations.
Randomly choosing a free VPN is a tricky undertaking. A free VPN can be unstable and isn’t worth the few dollars that can be saved each month. Taking advantage of free subscription tiers, free trials and money-back guarantees available from our list of trusted VPN providers is always a solid bet. Keeping your finances in order is important — and so is choosing a quality VPN that’ll maintain your online safety. That’s why all of our top recommended VPN services come with either a free version of the paid service or a 30-day assessment trial.
What is the best free VPN right now?
Proton VPN is currently the best free VPN. The vast majority of free VPNs impose heavy restrictions on things like data allowance, usage time and connection speeds, making them practically useless for anything beyond the most negligible of online activities. Proton VPN imposes no such limitations on its free users. Though the free tier has access to only three server locations and doesn’t include the full suite of features you get with a paid subscription, it delivers the same level of encryption and includes the privacy features you need. It’s also fast and works well with streaming services.
Best free VPN services in 2023
How we test free VPNs
When we evaluate a free VPN, the main thing we look at is how safe the VPN is to use. In other words, we want to be as certain as possible that the VPN isn’t logging user data or selling it to outside parties and we want to ensure that the encryption the VPN employs is up to industry standards. We test for leaks and to see if privacy features like a kill switch work properly. We also evaluate how useful the free VPN is for the average user, in a practical sense. Is it fast enough for general browsing? Does it allow for streaming? Does it have data or usage limitations? A good free VPN is safe to use and is actually useful because it doesn’t impose overbearing limitations that render it essentially ineffective as a VPN.
Other VPNs we tested
The additional VPNs listed below aren’t free VPNs in a traditional sense. Rather, they’re all top-class VPNs that offer free trials and money-back guarantees so you can try them risk-free for a limited amount of time.
Factors to consider in a free VPN
The primary consideration for any VPN should be privacy. If a free VPN is unable to sufficiently protect your online privacy, then that VPN is useless. At a minimum, your VPN should employ industry standard AES 256-bit encryption along with offering basic privacy protections like a kill switch, DNS leak protection and a no-logs policy. Those basic standards should be included in any free VPN you’re considering. For critical privacy needs, you’ll also want a VPN provider that is based in a privacy-friendly jurisdiction and has a RAM-only server architecture. Also, look for a VPN that undergoes regular third-party security audits, as audits can help bolster trust in the VPN’s ability to protect its users’ privacy. It’s important to do your research and make sure the company behind the free VPN you’re considering is legitimate and isn’t tracking and selling your data.
The speed of your VPN can have a major effect on activities like streaming, downloading, video conferencing, gaming and general web browsing. To keep things running as smoothly as possible, you’ll want to look for a VPN that will have as minimal an impact on your regular internet speeds as possible. Many free VPNs put limitations on speeds, but there are some — like Proton VPN — that don’t. In such cases, you can actually achieve decent speeds.
A good free VPN should run smoothly and be easy to use regardless of your technical expertise. It should also be free of severe limitations that prevent it from doing what you need it to do.
Free VPN FAQs
Why you shouldn’t use a free VPN
1. Free VPNs simply aren’t as safe
Free VPNs can be very dangerous. Why? Because to maintain the hardware and expertise needed for large networks and secure users, VPN services have expensive bills to pay. As a VPN customer, you either pay for a premium VPN service with your dollars or you pay for free services with your data. If you aren’t ordering at the table, you’re on the menu.
Some 86% of free iOS and Android VPN apps — accounting for millions of installs — have unacceptable privacy policies, ranging from a simple lack of transparency to explicitly sharing user data with Chinese authorities, according to two independent 2018 investigations into free VPN apps from Top10VPN. Another 64% of free VPN app offerings had no web presence outside of their app store pages, and only 17% responded to customer support emails.
In June 2019, Apple reportedly brought the hammer down on apps that share user data with third parties. But 80% of the top 20 free VPN apps in Apple’s App Store appear to be breaking those rules, according to a June update on the Top10VPN investigation.
In 2021, 77% of apps were flagged as potentially unsafe in the Top10VPN VPN Ownership Investigation — and 90% of those flagged as potentially unsafe in the Free VPN Risk Index — still posed a risk.
“Google Play downloads of apps we flagged as potentially unsafe have soared to 214 million in total, rocketing by 85% in six months,” the report reads. “Monthly installs from the App Store held steady at around 3.8 million, which represents a relative increase as this total was generated by 20% fewer apps than at the start of the year as a number of apps are no longer available.”
On Android, 214 million downloads represent a lot of user login data, culled from unwitting volunteers. And what’s one of the most profitable things one can do with large swaths of user login data?
2. You can catch malware
Let’s get this out of the way right now: 38% of free Android VPNs contain malware — despite the security features on offer, a CSIRO study found. And yes, many of those free VPNs were highly rated apps with millions of downloads. If you’re a free user, your odds of catching a nasty bug are greater than 1 in 3.
So ask yourself which costs less: a secure VPN service for about $100 a year, or hiring an identity theft recovery firm after some chump steals your bank account login and Social Security number?
But it couldn’t happen to you, right? Wrong. Mobile ransomware attacks are skyrocketing. Symantec detected more than 18 million mobile malware instances in 2018 alone, constituting a 54% year-over-year increase in variants. And in 2019, Kaspersky noted a 60% spike in password-stealing Trojans.
But malware isn’t the only way to make money if you’re running a free VPN service. There’s an even easier way.
3. The ad-valanche
Aggressive advertising practices from a free plan can go beyond getting hit with a few annoying pop-ups and quickly veer into dangerous territory. Some VPNs sneak ad-serving trackers through the loopholes in your browser’s media-reading features, which then stay on your digital trail like a prison warden in a B-grade remake of Escape from Alcatraz.
HotSpot Shield VPN earned some painful notoriety for such allegations in 2017, when it was hit with a Federal Trade Commission complaint (PDF) for over-the-top privacy violations in serving ads. Carnegie Mellon University researchers found the company not only had a baked-in backdoor used to secretly sell data to third-party advertising networks, but it also employed five different tracking libraries and actually redirected user traffic to secret servers.
When the story broke, HotSpot parent company AnchorFree denied the researchers’ findings in an email to Ars Technica: “We never redirect our users’ traffic to any third-party resources instead of the websites they intended to visit. The free version of our Hotspot Shield solution openly and clearly states that it is funded by ads, however, we intercept no traffic with neither the free nor the premium version of our solutions.”
AnchorFree has since offered annual transparency reports, although their value is still up to the reader. More recently, however, HotSpot Shield was among just a handful of VPN apps found to respect users’ refusal to permit ad-tracking. In a November 2021 study from Top10VPN, just 15% of free VPN apps respected iOS users’ choices when they declined voluntary ad-tracking. The rest of the free VPN apps tested by Top10VPN simply ignored users’ Do Not Track requests.
Even if possible credit card fraud isn’t a concern, you don’t need pop-ups and ad-lag weighing you down when you’ve already got to deal with another major problem with free VPNs.
4. Buffering… buffering… buffering
One of the top reasons people get a VPN is to access their favorite subscription services or streaming site — Hulu, HBO, Netflix — when they travel to countries where those companies block access based on your location. But what’s the point in accessing the geo-blocked video content you’ve paid for if the free VPN service you’re using is so slow you can’t watch it, despite a good internet connection?
Some free VPNs have been known to sell your bandwidth, potentially putting you on the legal hook for whatever they do with it. The most famous case of this was Hola VPN, which was caught in 2015 quietly stealing users’ bandwidth and selling it, mercenary-style, to whatever group wanted to deploy the user base as a botnet.
Back then, Hola CEO Ofer Vilenski admitted they’d been had by a “spammer” but contended in a lengthy defense that this harvesting of bandwidth was typical for this type of technology.
“We assumed that by stating that Hola is a [peer-to-peer] network, it was clear that people were sharing their bandwidth with the community network in return for their free service,” he wrote.
If being pressed into service as part of a botnet isn’t enough to slow you down, free VPN services also usually pay for fewer VPN server options. That means your traffic is generally bouncing around longer between distant, overcrowded servers, or even waiting behind the traffic of paid users.
To top it off, subscription streaming sites are savvy to those who try to sneak into their video services for free. These services routinely block large numbers of IP addresses they’ve identified as belonging to turnstile-jumping freeloaders. Free VPNs can’t afford to invest in a long list of fresh IP addresses for users the way a paid VPN service can.
That means you may not even be able to log into a streaming service you’ve paid for if your free VPN is using a stale batch of IPs. Good luck getting HBO Max to load over that VPN connection.
5. Paid options get better all the time
The good news is that there are a lot of solid VPNs on the market that offer a range of features, depending on your needs and budget. You can browse our ratings and reviews to find the right VPN software for you. If you’re looking for something mobile-specific, we’ve rounded up our favorite mobile VPNs for 2023.
If you’d like a primer before deciding which service to drop the cash on, we have a VPN buyer’s guide to help you get a handle on the basics of VPNs and what to look for when choosing a VPN service.