Virtual private networks (VPNs) have become a must-have for protecting your online privacy, security, and anonymity. By rerouting all your internet traffic through a remote server, they can hide your actual IP address so no one can track you online. Most services also provide complete end-to-end encryption to keep you safe even when you’re using unsecured wireless networks, such as those commonly found in airports and cafés.
The best VPN services go even further and also provide extra features, such as ad-blocking software, to help protect your privacy and give you more control over your data.
With these benefits in mind, more and more people are looking for a dependable VPN service provider. A quick search on Google or the mobile app stores will bring up many free and paid options. Of course, free always looks like the more attractive choice, but it might put you at risk. After all, VPN providers need to make money somehow, and choosing a disreputable service can even leave you in a worse situation than not using a VPN at all.
In this guide, we’ll have a rundown of the similarities and differences between free and paid VPNs to help you make an informed decision.
Easily the best question to start with is how much your privacy and security are worth to you. It’s important to remember that all VPN services need to make money to maintain their servers and pay their customer support teams, whether that’s through a subscription fee or something else entirely. That’s why it’s crucial to carefully evaluate the service provider’s business model before you make your choice.
Many VPN services, especially those that target mobile users, follow the ‘freemium’ model, in which you get some basic functionality for free but need to pay for extra features. These entice users into paying by offering restriction-free and feature-complete alternatives, but they often lack transparency. While the freemium model isn’t always bad, it is controversial and should probably be avoided when it comes to matters of security and privacy.
Another common business model is to make money from data collected. This applies to some ‘free’ VPN services, thereby wholly defeating the primary purpose of their existence. Much like social media, where your data is the product that they make money from by selling to advertisers, some free VPN providers collect information about your browsing activities to sell on too. These service providers might not charge you anything, but they can leave you more vulnerable than if you weren’t even using a VPN.
Conversely, some free VPN services can help protect your privacy and security since you don’t need to provide any personal or payment information to sign up. That said, several premium services allow you to sign up anonymously and even pay in bitcoins or other cryptocurrencies anyway.
Premium VPN services typically charge upwards of $10 per month if you go for a monthly billing option. However, most provide generous discounts if you commit to at least one year. Making a long-term commitment can reduce the price to as little as $2 or $3 per month. Moreover, almost all premium services feature a 30-day money-back guarantee or longer. That said, free VPN trials are rare.
When it comes to security and privacy, you often get what you pay for. For example, many of the free VPNs don’t use the latest encryption protocols. You should be wary of those that only support older and obsolete protocols such as PPTP and instead choose those that use L2TP IPsec or OpenVPN. Encryption is, after all, one of the fundamental features of a VPN service.
A reliable VPN should also provide leak protection to keep your online activities anonymous. Another critical feature to have is a kill switch, which will automatically disconnect you from the internet if the connection to the VPN server drops. This ensures your privacy and security are still protected even if the service temporarily stops working.
Perhaps the most important thing to evaluate when choosing a VPN service is the provider’s track record and privacy policies. A dependable provider should have a strict no-logs policy, ideally, one that has been independently audited and verified. They shouldn’t store any data about you or your online activities on their servers, including your original IP address.
For the most part, these features and benefits are restricted to premium offerings. After all, it costs money to maintain secure servers and implement the latest encryption protocols. A free VPN is only likely to offer the bare minimum.
No reputable VPN service provider will compromise on security and privacy, free or otherwise. That said, you can’t expect to get a premium-quality service for nothing. A free but trustworthy VPN service will likely still limit how much data you can download. For example, some services have a monthly data limit of as little as one gigabyte. That’s fine if you only ever use your VPN occasionally for non-data-intensive activities like checking email or online banking. However, if you want to use your connection for anything more data intensive, such a small limit will run out very quickly.
Even if a free service provider doesn’t have monthly or daily download limits, they might still throttle your connection speed. While using a VPN always results in a performance reduction due to the longer roundtrip the data has to make, this can be very significant in free services. Any reduction in performance should be minimal with a premium service, especially if you’re connecting to a server in the same country.
Another common limitation of free VPN servers is the number of available servers. To access more servers in more countries, you’ll usually need to move up a subscription tier.
Bandwidth costs money, so service providers aren’t likely to just give it away for free unless they’re being compensated in some other way. That said, some companies offer an otherwise full-featured service with limited bandwidth to give users a chance to evaluate it in the hope they’ll end up paying for an unlimited subscription.
Finally, free VPN services rarely offer customer support beyond basic self-service knowledge bases and user forums. By contrast, just about every premium service provider offers 24/7 support via live chat or phone.
Every company needs to make money, even if only to cover costs. For a VPN provider, these costs include server rental, purchase, and maintenance, customer support teams, and various other operational and hardware-related costs.
A paid service has a vested interest in protecting user privacy and anonymity. Because their services cost money, they have the financial resources needed to invest in the latest expertise and technology to keep up with the constantly evolving world of information security. Free services, on the other hand, are more likely to cover their costs in less transparent ways. Moreover, they may outsource various operations, such as software development or server monitoring, which can further compromise security.
Despite this, that’s not to say a free VPN service isn’t worth considering, and neither does paying bring any guarantees. Even a free service can be much better than having nothing at all, so long as you choose a reputable provider. If you’re just a casual user who only wants to stay protected while checking email and carrying out other routine activities on public WiFi networks, then a free service might be adequate.
However, if you’re after top-tier protection, you’ll only get that from a premium service offered by a reputable company. That way, you’ll have access to robust security and privacy features, excellent performance, and on-demand customer support.