Free vs paid VPNs | TechRadar

Free vs paid VPNs | TechRadar

A virtual private network (VPN) works by allowing you to route your traffic via another server, which spoofs your true IP address. This means you can connect to servers in other parts of the world, which will allow you to unblock region-restricted content. A VPN also encrypts your data, which keeps it hidden from third parties.

There are countless VPN providers on the market. While you have to pay a monthly subscription to use a lot of them, there are also plenty of free options available. But are paid VPNs really better than free VPNs? A free VPN may sound too good to be true and that’s often the case, as they’re usually a lot more limited than paid-for options. Some free solutions may even jeopardize your online safety. But there are some decent free options out there. We’ll help you decide by explaining the pros and cons of free vs paid VPNs.

1. Pricing

Naturally, the main selling point for a free VPN is the fact that it doesn’t cost anything to use. However, although you’re not being charged any money to use a free VPN, it doesn’t mean that free solutions don’t come with a cost. They often make money through ads or even by selling your data to third parties. So if you want a VPN for privacy and security reasons, using a free solution could end up doing more harm than good.

Alternatively, you could opt for a freemium, which is a free version of a reputable, paid-for VPN that offers a much more stripped-back service but without any fees. A freemium is unlikely to make money from your free sign-up, but it will often give you access to a much smaller number of servers and may impose a monthly data cap. These restrictions are designed to tempt users to sign up for a paid subscription without limitations.

Having said this, while paid-for options will cost you, they might be a lot cheaper than you imagine. Provided you’re prepared to sign up for a lengthy subscription, the best paid-for options on the market can cost as little as $2 or $3 a month. 

As you might expect, the longer you sign up for, the cheaper it works out per month. So if you only sign up on a one-month rolling basis, it can get pretty expensive. Otherwise, you’ll find the monthly cost is pretty reasonable. Plus, most paid-for VPNs come with a free 30-day money-back guarantee, which means you can thoroughly test it out before you sign up for a lengthy subscription.

If you’d like to find out more, take a look at our detailed round-up of the best cheap VPNs on the market.

2. Security

If you want a VPN to improve your online security, you’ll find you really do get what you pay for. So you might want to consider a paid-for subscription if you want to protect your data while you’re online.

Until recently, most free VPNs used a much less sophisticated protocol to protect user data, favoring the cheaper PPTP over the industry-standard OpenVPN. While most free providers have now caught up and use OpenVPN, a lot of the best paid VPNs now offer additional protocols to help improve your online security.

Depending on which paid-for solution you choose, you could end up with TCP or the combination of Layer 2 Tunnel Protocol (L2TP) and IPsec. These two protocols are usually coupled together because L2TP is not encrypted, so IPsec is used to add the encryption layer.

We would recommend avoiding using a VPN that only comes with PPTP. Also, if it doesn’t disclose which protocols it uses, we would consider that a red flag and steer well clear. It’s much safer if you can use a free provider that uses OpenVPN. But they’re still nowhere near as secure as most paid-for options.

Plenty of high-end VPNs now also use the modern WireGuard protocol due to its fast connection speeds and secure way of transferring data. Meanwhile, other providers use their own protocols that have been developed in-house, such as ExpressVPN’s Lightway or NordVPN’s lightning-quick NordLynx.

Furthermore, you’re likely to get much stronger encryption with a paid-for product. Most reputable paid-for providers use the nigh-on unbreakable 256-bit data encryption. But free VPNs tend to use 128-bit encryption, which is far less secure.

Having said all this, premium VPNs aren’t always bulletproof. Plenty of the biggest providers on the market have experienced security breaches. One of the most notable incidents was ExpressVPN’s DNS leak, which was identified earlier this year and resulted in user data being leaked online. However, it only impacted less than 1% of its customers who used the Windows 12 version of the app.

In short, while it’s unlikely any VPN will ever be 100% secure, a tried-and-tested paid-for solution will always offer more robust security than a free version.

3. Quality of service

As we’ve already discussed, free VPNs often come with hidden costs, such as selling information about your online activities to third parties for advertising purposes. So you’re likely to have your browsing interrupted by plenty of targeted ads. 

While this isn’t necessarily the end of the world, it could end up getting pretty annoying and may even slow down your connection speeds. What’s worse, it means that your data isn’t completely private. It’s being viewed and shared by your VPN provider.

By contrast, many paid-for solutions come with ad blockers, which will save you from having to see any targeted ads.

Free VPNs have to find ways to reduce their overheads, as they’re not making money from subscriptions. Therefore, one thing they hardly ever provide is any form of customer support. This can cause headaches, particularly if you’re new to using a VPN or you come up against any issues with your service. 

Meanwhile, paid-for VPNs usually offer a range of customer support options, including helpful FAQs and tutorials, email ticketing systems, 24-7 live web chat options, and sometimes even a phone number to speak to someone directly.

Another problem with a lot of freemiums, which are free versions of paid-for products, is that they often impose limits on how much data you can use each month and how quickly you can get it. This could get extremely frustrating, particularly if you’re using a VPN to access geo-blocked live sports or to binge-watch a show.

On top of this, you’re also likely to get saddled with much slower connection speeds than you’d find on the paid-for version. The speeds you get are often throttled, which can make streaming or gaming almost impossible. 

Freemiums also tend to limit the number of servers you can access down to as little as one or two. So not only are you greatly restricted as to the content you’ll be able to unblock from around the world, but you’re also likely to find that the freemium servers are more prone to get overloaded, which will further slow down your connection speeds.

Paid-for VPNs, however, generally give you access to thousands of servers across hundreds of locations worldwide. So, you’re far less likely to experience slower speeds as a result of an overloaded server. You’ll also have no end of options when it comes to unblocking region-restricted content.

Besides all this, paid VPNs are almost always a lot more robust than their free counterparts. They’re far less susceptible to outages and meltdowns and therefore provide a much smoother, faster experience than you’d get with a free solution.

If you want to find a VPN that offers the best quality of service, be sure to read through our guide to the best VPNs 

4. Streaming

Streaming services have to comply with licensing rules and copyright laws in each country they operate in. This means that, even though they have the rights to show a particular movie, sporting event, or TV show in one region, they don’t necessarily have the rights to show it everywhere. 

This is where a VPN can help you out. You can use a VPN to connect to a server in the country that’s showing the content you want and it will spoof your IP address to make it appear as if you’re really in that location. But not all VPNs are powerful enough to successfully unblock region-restricted content.

So, if your main reason for getting a VPN is to unblock region-restricted streaming services from other parts of the world, you’ll need to choose your provider very carefully. Most streaming services can identify and block most VPN traffic. So you’ll need a tried-and-tested solution that can successfully bypass the geo-blocks on the content you want to watch.

As you might imagine, the vast majority of free VPNs aren’t strong enough to go undetected by streaming services that block VPN traffic. This is due in large part to the fact that most free VPNs have a much more limited number of servers. The ones they do have tend not to be as strong as the ones you’d find on a more premium provider. Plus, as we’ve already discussed, the level of security you’d expect from a free VPN is unlikely to allow you to unblock the content you want without detection.

Moreover, because you don’t get access to as many servers as you would with a paid-for service, you might well find that most free providers don’t have servers in the region you want.

Having said this, not all paid-for VPNs are strong enough to give you access to all the content you want. So it’s vital you do your research before you sign up for a paid VPN. Most VPNs offer a free 30-day money-back guarantee, so you can test it out on the geo-blocked content you want to watch to make sure it works before you commit to a long-term contract.

Alternatively, read our guide on the best VPNs for streaming.

5. Privacy

One of the main benefits of using a VPN is that it can improve your online privacy by hiding your browsing activities from third parties, such as government bodies, advertisers, and hackers. However, as we’ve already discussed, a lot of free VPNs will compromise your privacy by selling your data to advertisers. This can lead to you getting targeted with endless ads, which defeats the purpose of using a VPN to give you online anonymity.

Free providers are far more likely to do this because it allows them to make money from your free subscription. On the flip side, paid-for products are a lot less likely to do this because they’re already making money by having you as a customer.

Free VPNs are far more likely to log your activities while you’re connected, whereas many paid VPNs operate strict zero-logs policies. This means that they won’t keep any records of any of your activity.

Most reputable VPNs offer this, and the more privacy-focused ones will ensure their no-logs policies are independently audited, meaning that an independent company can perform checks at any point to ensure the VPN isn’t storing any user information. Both ExpressVPN and NordVPN have been independently audited in the last year or so and both have passed with flying colors. So you can rest assured that these two providers are every bit as private as they claim to be.

If you’re particularly concerned about your online privacy, we’d recommend using a trusted provider that has recently passed an independent audit. It’s a good idea to avoid any VPN that says it logs user activity or doesn’t explain its logging policy on its website. Instead, always opt for one that has an independently audited zero-logs policy.

VPN FAQs

Is a paid VPN better than a free VPN?

As a general rule, you tend to get what you pay for with VPNs, so paid VPNs are much better than free solutions. This is because free VPNs aren’t usually very secure and can compromise your online privacy by selling your data to third parties. They also struggle to bypass region restrictions on geo-blocked content, so they’re usually not worth using for streaming.

Worse still, many freemiums, which are free versions of paid VPNs, are extremely limited and may only give you access to one or two servers. They may also impose a data cap, which would restrict you to light browsing.

Paid VPNs, on the other hand, don’t have these restrictions. They also often come with lots of extra features to improve your online security, such as malware blockers, ad blockers, and DNS leak protection.

However, there are some free VPNs that are worth considering. Take a look at our roundup of the best free VPNs to find out more.

Should I pay for a VPN or get a free one?

On balance, we’d recommend opting for a paid VPN over a free one because a paid one will give you a lot more functionality, stronger privacy, and better security. 

It’s worth bearing in mind that most paid VPNs are actually pretty good value, with reasonably low monthly costs, particularly if you sign up for a two-year subscription. You should be able to get a sophisticated VPN with thousands of servers from around the world for as little as $2 or $3 a month.

If you’re interested in getting a fantastic VPN without breaking the bank, be sure to check out our guide to the best cheap VPNs

Is a free VPN better than nothing?

Provided it’s from a reputable provider, using a free VPN will give you greater security and stronger privacy than not using a VPN at all, as it will provide you with some anonymity. However, if you use a free VPN that doesn’t explicitly say that it won’t log customer data, it will likely do more harm than good, as those providers tend to log customer data and sell it to third parties. 

We test and review VPN services in the context of legal recreational uses. For example: 1. Accessing a service from another country (subject to the terms and conditions of that service). 2. Protecting your online security and strengthening your online privacy when abroad. We do not support or condone the illegal or malicious use of VPN services. Consuming pirated content that is paid-for is neither endorsed nor approved by Future Publishing.

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