Free VPNs vs. Paid VPNs

Sometimes, it’s hard to argue with free. Many of us would love to drive a brand-new car. But, if you’re in need a vehicle and your uncle offers you his 1994 Ford Escort for free, would you say no? It runs and will get you from point A to point B. That may just be good enough.

That analogy can be extended to VPNs. There are plenty of excellent paid services we can choose from. But, there are also many free providers. No one will argue that free VPNs are perfect but, just like that 25-year-old Ford, could they be good enough to get the job done?

Maybe.

Besides the obvious, the price, there are several significant differences between a free VPN and a paid VPN. And, depending on what you’re hoping to do, you may be much better off investing in the latter. Or, you could be fine.

Free or Paid VPN, Running One Is Expensive

The perfect VPN should do it all. It should keep us safe online and anonymous online, allow us to visit websites or stream video from any country in the world, and do everything at speeds matching our regular internet connection.

How great would it be if we could get all of that for nothing?

Sadly, that just won’t happen. Running a VPN service costs a lot of money. Just off the top of my head, they need to maintain a global network of servers, develop and maintain their client software on a dozen different platforms, and give us support when needed.

How a paid VPN gets its funding is pretty clear. But, what happens in the case where a provider doesn’t charge a dime?

There are two ways in which free VPNs make ends meet.

Running VPN requires a big budget

Free VPNs often skimp on features. They run fewer servers, use older hardware, don’t have any support to speak of. And that may be fine. As long as they get the job done, who cares, right?

Except that they still need to bring in at least some funds, if for nothing else, to pay their electricity bills. Free VPNs make money but do so in a much more indirect way than paid providers.

Basically, you become the currency. And, that’s where you need to be careful about your choice of providers.

To help explain, let’s go over the most common VPN features and compare how paid and free services handle things differently.

Free VPN vs. Paid VPN Feature by Feature Comparison

Free and paid VPNs take a different approach to how they implement most features. And unfortunately, in most cases, you very much do get what you pay for.

Security

If like me, you are somewhat security conscious and rely on a VPN to protect your data, the level and means of encryption applied to the VPN connection most certainly matters. In this case, free providers just don’t cut it.

Most of the time, free VPNs use PPTP to encrypt your data, with no option to pick another protocol. Some don’t even mention what they use at all (in which case, it almost certainly is PPTP).

The problem is PPTP is obsolete. It’s considered insecure and has been since as far back as 1999.

PPTP will keep your data safe from casual observation. If all you’re doing is streaming geo-blocked videos, you should be fine. But, it will not in the least bit protect you from anyone who knows what they’re doing (and if someone is trying to inspect your data, you can bet they know what they’re doing).

On the other hand, paid VPNs give you more options and ones which are actually secure.

Nearly every paid provider worth its salt will use OpenVPN, an open-source protocol that uses SSL. That’s the same type of encryption used by secure https websites, like your bank. L2TP with IPSec is another protocol option you’ll often run into.

Pay VPN services also use 256-bit encryption keys. Free providers tend to opt for the less secure 128-bit option for the simple reason that it’s computationally less expensive and, therefore, cheaper to implement.

The combination of OpenVPN and 256-bit encryption keys is virtually bulletproof, impossible for anyone to intercept and decrypt. A paid VPN is a safe VPN and, if that’s what you’re after, it’s the way to go.

Online Privacy and Anonymity

Even if you’re not too concerned about the security of your data and all you care about is staying anonymous, something a free VPN should theoretically give you, you still need to be careful.

When picking a free service, always (and I mean always) read the fine print.

Sometimes, free VPNs are ad-supported. Other times, they’re subsidized through the sale of your data and online habits. So, while your internet service provider (ISP) may no longer be able to track what you’re doing directly, someone else always is.

I say “track directly” because honestly, if they wanted to, your ISP can still quickly get the information they want. They see the IP address of the VPN server you’re connecting to and from it, can figure out which service you’re using. And since your data is for sale, you’re not really hiding from anyone.

A free VPN selling data to ISP

As you might expect, a paid VPN stands a better chance of protecting your privacy and anonymity. Paid VPN servers never sell information about your activities to third parties and often, avoid collecting user data (but not always).

Many paid providers do keep some form of connection log that can be traced back to you. And, depending on what jurisdiction they’re based out of, may provide that information to law enforcement (or other authorities) when ordered to do so.

Even if not perfect, any paid VPN will always do a better job than a free one of maintaining your privacy online. But, for complete anonymity, you need to look for a service with a strict no-logging policy and do a bit of research to make sure they actually stick to it.

Server Selection

Aside from providing security and privacy, VPNs also allow you to mask your real location by sending traffic through a server in a different part of the world. This lets you access geo-restricted services (like Netflix or the BBC iPlayer) and avoid other types of location-based filtering (like internet censorship).

Many free VPN services are designed with this specific use in mind. They’ll have a good number of global server locations you can connect to though that choice may be a bit limited due to the costs involved in running each server cluster.

Not to be outdone, all paid VPN also offers a good choice of server locations around the globe. But, because those companies are usually better funded, the overall number of locations tends to be bigger.

Map of a paid VPN's server locations

Paid providers also have a vested interest in maintaining a high level of service to stop customers from jumping over to a competitor. So, they’re more likely to expand their networks.

If getting around geo-blocking or censorship is why you want to use a VPN, a free service should do fine assuming, of course, they have servers available in the country you’d like to connect to. Though there are two caveats.

Depending on what you’re doing, server performance (or a lack thereof) may become a problem. You’ll be fine browsing websites, but if, for example, you want to stream videos, you may be in for a rough ride with a free provider.

Many streaming services also do their best to prevent viewers from using a VPN by blacklisting individual server IPs. For example, the BBC block VPNs with ruthless efficiency.

If blocked, paid providers are much more likely to do something about it. They have the resources and, again, subscribers may jump ship if they don’t act.

Once a free VPN is detected and blacklisted, it may take them months to come back (if they ever do at all).

Connection Speeds

Another major distinction point between a free and paid VPN service is speed.

No one likes to spend money if they don’t have to, which is why free VPN servers are often in heavy use. Because they may not run the best hardware to begin with, when you use one, you can suffer from varying degrees of performance and connectivity issues.

Though on the plus side, if you use a free VPN, you normally won’t experience additional speed penalties from encryption overhead. As noted before, free providers tend to use PPTP. While not terribly secure, it is the fastest of all protocols.

Paid VPNs, by contrast, tend to have robust server back-ends that scale to meet current demand.

Only subscribers can access paid VPN services. Administrators can, therefore, design their systems for a known number of users and make use of sophisticated load-balancing algorithms to avoid performance issues.

It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that the fastest VPNs tend to be paid VPNs. If you just want to browse around a bit, a free provider should do fine. But, for any more bandwidth intensive activity like streaming or heavy downloading, you can’t beat the speeds of a paid service.

Pricing

If cost is your primary concern in choosing a VPN service, your choice is clear. After all, you can’t get cheaper than free.

A paid VPN service will cost anywhere between $2 and $12 per month, depending on the provider and the length of your subscription.

It is important to remember, though, that free VPNs do subsidize their service through advertising, data mining, or both. So, you’re still paying for the service, just not from your bank account.

Support

No matter how technically savvy we are, we all run into issues that stump us from time to time. If you run into trouble with a free VPN provider, don’t expect much help.

The free model doesn’t leave much room for overhead, making tech support little more than an afterthought. Often, an FAQ or knowledge base are the only things you’ll have to work with.

With a paid VPN service, you can expect quite a bit more assistance. Not every provider is perfect, and some do an astonishingly horrible job. But, in general, a top-tier VPN will have 24/7 support via live chat and email. Some even offer one-on-one phone support.

Paid providers will go much further to keep you satisfied and have the resources to make sure you are.

When Is It Fine to Use a Free VPN

Even though they’re heavily outgunned, a safe and reputable free VPN service may work very well in certain situations. Though we are talking mostly about light and occasional use.

For example, if you’re on a public Wi-Fi and want a bit of extra protection, as imperfect as it may be, a free provider is a much better choice than no VPN at all. Or, if you’re abroad and looking to accesses a rudimentarily geo-blocked service or website in your home country, free can work too.

Which free VPN should you pick?

Definitely avoid any service that claims to give you unlimited everything. That’s too good to be true, and it is. Those types of free VPNs are usually the shadiest and riskiest.

A dangerous free VPN provider

Instead, accept that free comes with limitations. Look for a provider that comes with an obvious source of funding, such as a pay VPN that offers a free subscription tier. Good choices are TunnelBear, Windscribe, or Hide.me.

Yes, you’ll get monthly bandwidth limits, possibly capped speeds, and maybe a smaller selection of servers to connect to than pay subscribers. But, for light use, these free options will work very well.

Importantly, these providers take your privacy and security very seriously. Their reputation is at stake.

If word got out they’re selling user data or participating in other shady practices, you can bet the subscription side of their business would suffer. And I’m guessing that’s not something they want.

Another approach is to just make use of a paid provider free trials or money-back guarantees.

Not everyone has a free trial. But, every good VPN provider will give you at least a few weeks to try their service out. In fact, the best money-back guarantees can last as long as 45 days.

If you only need a VPN for a short time, this can be a very viable option to avoid paying for one.

Why Use a Paid VPN

No matter how you slice it, a free VPN will come with drawbacks. In the worst case, they’ll compromise your security, privacy, and will give you a very sub-par user experience. In the best case, you’ll need to put up with usage restrictions, like limited bandwidth.

Considering it’s not a huge financial step to go from free to pay, with some of the best VPNs in the market not costing much more than two to three dollars a month, does a paid VPN really give you that much more for relatively so little? Let’s do the math.

  1. Top of the Line Security

    Nothing would put a paid VPN service out of business quicker than a massive security breach, and paid providers invest heavily to avoid such incidents.

    They offer impenetrable protocols like OpenVPN and implement impossible to crack 256-bit encryption.

    And most come with features like kill switches and leak protection, which make sure you don’t ever accidentally expose yourself or your data.

  2. Complete Online Anonymity

    No paid VPN will ever track your activities, though some may keep some statistics for troubleshooting purposes. But, when you use a provider that sticks to a strict no-logging policy (and increasingly more top VPNs do), it’s as if you don’t exist on the internet at all.

    Your data leaves your device and disappears into the void.

    Several pay services also implement features like a double VPN, to take your online privacy to an even higher level.

  3. No speed or bandwidth limits

    In the world of paid VPNs, things like bandwidth caps or speed limits simply don’t exist. You can pull down as much data as you want as quickly as your connection can handle. This is, of course, key for activities like video streaming, gaming, or P2P.

    In fact, the best of the best even run servers optimized precisely for these purposes to make sure you always have the best experience possible.

  4. Hundreds of Server Locations

    When you pay for a VPN, you get access to their entire server network. In some cases, the number of locations can exceed the one hundred mark. PureVPN’s server network, for example, currently includes 131 countries and 160 cities.

    What does that mean? Unrestricted, worldwide access to websites and services, including to anything that’s geo-blocked.

  5. Access to Streaming Services

    Speaking of geo-blocking, the ability to get around it is what makes the best paid VPNs really stand out. If you’d like to access US Netflix or the BBC iPlayer from abroad, this is the way to do it.

    Streaming services know all about VPNs and try to block them as much as they can. Only a good paid provider has the know-how and resources to stay one step ahead reliably.

  6. No Internet Censorship

    Just as is the case for geo-blocking, a premium VPN is your only hope of getting past internet filtering systems mandated by the government in countries like China, Egypt, Russia, and Turkey.

    It takes a good deal of resources and technical expertise to side-step a sophisticated firewall like that. And paid providers have both.

  7. Other Premium Features

    On top of all the above, any paid VPN worth its salt will have fast, responsive, and (most importantly) knowledgeable customer support. You can expect their client software to be robust and user-friendly too.

    And only pay VPNs let you connect multiple devices at once using a single subscription.

    There’s also a host of other features you can find with paid VPNs. From dedicated IP addresses to built-in ad blockers and malware protection, while these are definitely not necessary, they’re welcome options.

In my humble opinion and considering all the benefits you get with one, VPNs are well worth paying for the couple of dollars per month they cost. A cup of coffee is more these days.

In the End

Anything free will always be appealing, and VPNs are no different. Unfortunately, much more often than not, while you won’t pay for a free provider in the traditional sense, you will with your privacy, security, or user experience. And sometimes, all of the above.

In a bind, or in some very specific cases, using a free VPN does work. You just need to pick the provider you use wisely.

But even then, why not just make use of a free trial or a money-back guarantee of a paid service?

For me, the free VPN vs. paid VPN debate has a clear winner. And, considering that you can always find a great deal on a top provider, no matter the time of year, going paid is a wise investment indeed.

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