Before we discuss the limitations and possibilities of a free VPN, it is useful to know how a VPN service works. A VPN ensures that your internet traffic is anonymous by diverting it via its own servers. That means that you first establish a connection with the VPN server, and it “pretends” it is you.
All data that goes to and from the website of your choice must therefore go through the server of the VPN service. And that means that the VPN service must run a powerful server that also has enough bandwidth to allow your (and all others) traffic to flow.
Since servers and bandwidth cost money, you cannot expect premium internet access from a free service.
This also means that the security and the way in which your personal data is handled will not be strongly guaranteed. Because that also costs money. In fact, if you’re using a free VPN, you will not have a base to stand on when things go wrong. You route your data traffic via a server with which you have no further relationship and where you should not really expect anything from.
In fact, you don’t know what the revenue model of a free service is. Are they selling your email address? Do they keep logs? You don’t know it and you cannot get much information about it. Therefore, you get what you pay for.
So, what do free VPN services do?
In most cases, free VPN service are especially suitable for occasionally making yourself anonymous online. Think of safe internet via public WiFi networks, or the occasional download via P2P networks. With daily use (and then you don’t even have to be a “power user” you quickly hit the limits.
How reliable is a free VPN?
The first thing you’ll notice when trying out the free services is that connecting to a VPN server is sometimes slow. Especially at peak times, it can take some seconds to a minute for your device to connect. In the case of Atlas VPN, you even get sometimes connection only in the evening to the server, which means that you cannot access the American Netflix library.
The connection with Atlas also disconnects a number of connections when you want to use certain public WiFi networks, which is precisely the reason why you want to be able to rely on a VPN network. With Proton-VPN the connection even drops very often, and you barely get access to the Netflix website.
How Fast is a Free VPN?
The biggest blow we experience with most free VPN services is surfing speed. With our connection, we get around 250 Mbps without a VPN. With Proton VPN enabled, we can be happy when we reach 9 Mbps. That is sufficient for surfing and for watching SD youtube, but that is all. It works, but just don’t expect an optimal experience. Hide.me gave us a much more acceptable 80 Mbps, but then you have a monthly data cap of 10gig.
How Secure is a Free VPN?
A good test for a VPN is a so-called Leak Test. This means that an external server tries a number of times to find out where and with which IP address you are on the internet. And here too, free turned out not to be great. Several VPN services, including Proton-VPN failed the Leak Test, and our real IP address and our country of origin were visible to the external server. That is not encouraging.
When is a free VPN a good choice?
A free VPN is really only interesting if you rarely need a secure connection. All free services have limitations that ultimately make it more attractive to use a paid service.
The most important reason to (continue to) use a free VPN is for safe internet via public WiFi networks. If you are on the road a lot, and you need access to the server of your work, your accounting or internet banking, for example, a free VPN is usually sufficient, although our leak tests show that they do not always establish a 100% secure connection.