Free VPN vs. paid VPN

We have run the phrase “the best things in life are free” into the ground, but still: does it apply to VPNs (Virtual Private Networks)? We say “no” – there’s too much at stake to be swayed by the low, low price of nothing. When it comes down to free VPN vs. paid VPN, paid always beats free. Let me explain, bit by bit!

    Free VPN vs. paid VPN: in short

    A paid VPN is better than a free VPN nine times out of ten. A free VPN cannot compete when it comes to speed, reliability, features, ease of use, and security. What it can offer is a lower price. However, you end up paying for that by potentially exposing your data to advertisers and even hackers. 

    In short, here’s how a free VPN vs. paid VPN matchup looks like:

    Free VPN
    Paid VPN
    Price
    Free
    $2-$6/mo
    Monetization
    Your data
    Subscription
    Speed
    Low
    High
    Unlimited data
    No
    Yes
    Servers
    <50
    3200+
    Server countries
    ~20
    ~65
    Security
    Low
    High
    Additional features
    Low
    High

    But those aren’t just some numbers on a chart – here are more details to really make those data points come alive. 

    Paying for a VPN with your data

    We all know that freeware and open source apps exist, and they’re absolutely free. You might buy the premium paid version or kick some Patreon money towards the devs as a “thank you,” but that’s it. 

    However, most of those apps don’t have recurring maintenance costs: that is, not only paying for the development of the app but also for running the servers. You don’t need to connect to a server to make a meme on paint.net, but you do need to connect to a VPN server to post it online privately.

    So how do free VPNs make it work? The easiest example is just collecting your data for their own purposes and selling it. A 2018 study found that half of the most popular free VPN apps for smartphones had links to China. And by “links,” we mean “explicitly stating that they’re logging user data and transferring it to entities in mainland China.” One can only guess at the motivations of those entities financing the data-collecting VPN apps. Whatever they are, they’re incompatible with the desire for privacy that drives VPN use. 

    At least those apps are open about taking your data. A study from 2017 found 38% of free Android VPN apps had malware or malvertising in them. Two-thirds used third-party tracking libraries – which means that someone else was logging your browsing data. Some even injected their own data into your stream, thus leading to more ads (at best).

    CSIRO analysis of 283 free Android VPNs:
    • 84% leak user data
    • 18% don’t encrypt data at all
    • 38% contain malware or malvertising
    • 2/3rds use third-party tracking libraries
    • 80% ask for access to sensitive data

    There’s no such thing as a “free lunch,” and when it comes to a free VPN, you’re paying for it with the very data you wanted to protect. But let’s move on to the fun stuff!  

    A free VPN is a slow VPN

    If a free VPN isn’t selling your data, pushing ads, or getting money from some third party, then how can it get funding? By using the free version as a limited trial edition of the full product. Here’s an example of how top-tier free VPNs stack up against a paid one:

     

    Limitations of the top free VPNs (according to data by TechRadar): Paid VPN for contrast (Surfshark):
    Servers  1-50+ 3200+
    Server countries 1-20+ 65
    Data limits  500MB/month* – 10GB/month  No
    Speed throttling  ~** No
    24/7 support No*** Yes
    *One provider offers 500MB/day limits
    **One provider offers unlimited data but engages in speed throttling***4 out of 6 VPNs in question

     

    For these kinds of free VPNs, you’ll face many limitations, often in terms of speed and the number of servers you can access. Put those two together, and you get a recipe for disaster. Not only is your speed limited by the app, but you’re also likely to face server congestion, as even the best free VPNs offer merely tens of servers (Surfshark, for example, has over 3500 in 65 countries).

    The server country choice matters more than you might suspect. If you want to use a VPN just for security rather than accessing content only available in a specific country, you’ll want to connect to a server closest to you. The less geographical distance from a server, the better your speeds would be. 

    And as we said, servers cost money.

    You can’t buy servers for free

    At the very least, a server needs a constant supply of electricity to run. But those are just the most basic maintenance costs – just like paying rent for the place where you put them at. Sure, you can skip the hands-on approach and rent servers, but that isn’t free either. 

    Maintaining and improving the server tech isn’t an easy or cheap feat. The current trend of switching to 100% RAM servers (so that if someone disconnects the server to move it, all the data disappears) is mostly the preserve of subscription VPNs. 

    You probably already read about the way server paucity impacts your internet speed. Yet that isn’t the only issue. If you acquired a VPN with the idea of unlocking streaming services or region-locked video-games, then you’re hoping that the service will have servers in the countries you need. After all, not all streaming libraries are equal:

    Country
    Total Titles Available on Netflix
    Total Films
    Total TV Shows
    Academy Award-Winning Films
    South Korea
    4065
    2838
    1227
    109
    Switzerland
    4593
    3109
    1484
    85
    Japan
    5065
    3518
    1547
    78
    Italy
    3526
    2452
    1074
    73
    UAE
    2906
    2020
    886
    70

    Another thing that relies on having a bunch of servers scattered around is dealing with VPN detection. Most services don’t really detect that you’re using a VPN; they just know you’re connecting from an IP of a known VPN server. This can be easily rectified by just connecting from a different server. Again, not easy to do for a company with a mere handful of servers and no financial capacity to rent more in a pinch. 

    But the money doesn’t stop speaking here. 

    Your money buys security and RnD

    The struggle for security never ends. Hackers, state organizations, and even streaming services are constantly looking for ways to overcome blocks placed in their way. They’re always looking for loopholes to exploit – like obtaining your data via vulnerabilities in WebRTC, the browser technology that enables browser-based video and voice chat. A VPN has to be configured to prevent tricks like this.

    A VPN provider has to maintain their own security as well. A recent hack on a popular free Android VPN saw the data of 21 million users exposed – including the payment details of users who sprung for the full service. Compare this to the biggest recent server breach of a large paid VPN provider, which allowed hackers to monitor the traffic to see what websites you’re visiting and when – but not what you’re doing there. 

    You should also keep in mind the CSIRO analysis we mentioned above: a lot of free VPN apps leak your data, and quite a bit don’t even encrypt it, failing at the very basic security function of VPNs.

    But that’s not all. The field of VPN protocols is always evolving, always changing. Old and trustworthy protocols may become compromised. New protocols, faster and more secure than before, might appear – and they need to be implemented. 

    Here’s a list of commonly used protocols. Paid VPN providers often cover all of the reliable ones – can free ones claim the same? Keep an eye out for these protocols when doing research:

    VPN Protocol
    Best use
    IKEv2
    Mobile devices
    OpenVPN
    Desktop computers
    Wireguard
    Universal
    Shadowsocks
    Overcoming the Great Firewall
    PPTP
    OBSOLETE AND UNSECURE
    L2TP
    OBSOLETE AND UNSECURE

    And sometimes, very specific tools, like protocols aimed at overcoming the Great Chinese Firewall yet of limited usefulness for the general public, might become available. Will a free VPN be able to allocate its limited resources for a feature that doesn’t have a wide-ranging appeal? Good question!

    But that’s not all when it comes to development.

    More money = more features

    A free VPN can barely provide you with speed and servers; what are the odds of the developers investing into tech that’s adjacent to the main function of a VPN?

    If we’re still on the subject of security, will a free VPN have a Kill Switch? This nifty little feature disconnects you from the internet if the VPN connection goes down. This means that you won’t accidentally start blasting your data all over the web if the VPN experiences issues. This is especially pertinent to torrent users, as losing VPN protection would expose their IP (Internet Protocol) addresses for everyone to see.

    There are also fancier tools to consider. Will a free VPN be able to provide split tunneling (called “Whitelister” on Surfshark)? Having the ability to either get certain apps or websites to skip VPN routing or to be specifically routed via VPN can be quite handy. For example, online banking is very capricious when it comes to VPN use, so you might want to do that without a VPN. 

    Another good feature you’re unlikely to encounter on a free VPN is obfuscation (“Camouflage mode” on Surfshark): the ability to mask that you’re using a VPN in the first place. 

    But those are just things that are easy to point at. It’s a lot harder to point at the exact ways that lack of funding in free VPNs impact usability, user interface, software optimization, and bug hunting. What we can tell outright is that it is very hard to run a 24/7 live support service without having a subscription-based model. 

    Paid VPNs pay off

    Having to pay for things, especially ones that work in the background, is a bitter but necessary pill to swallow.

    There are edge cases when it’s OK to use a free VPN – like if you only need to use a VPN once to unlock a website on a long-distance bus Wi-Fi network. But when it comes to a free VPN vs. a paid VPN for sustained everyday use, paying a subscription fee buys you not only a massive improvement in the obvious basic features – speed, server amount – but also necessities like security and privacy. 

    The same goes for usability and additional features: you may get something for free, but you get a lot more if you pay. So if you’re still considering your VPN options or are currently using a free VPN, you should put some serious thought into going paid. 

    Try out a paid VPN with a 30-day money-back guarantee!

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