Free VPN vs. paid VPN: the hidden costs of paying nothing

The biggest difference between free VPNs vs. paid VPNs? Free VPNs may not cost anything upfront, but that’s mostly a trick. Free VPN providers need to make money as well, which they do via adware or selling your browsing data. Paid VPNs are already getting subscription fees, so they have fewer reasons to rip you off – and they have the funds for research and development. But don’t just take this paragraph for it – I’ll expand on all of those points in this article. 

The pros and cons of free VPNs

As I mentioned before, a free VPN service is, well, free. No subscriptions, no upfront costs, just vibes, and VPNs. But a VPN isn’t like any other free app, which can exist with zero upkeep once installed on your device. It depends on the infrastructure established by the VPN provider to exist.

No virtual private network service would work without a physical server to route the data. As such, someone has to pay for the server upkeep, and it will likely be you. One of the most lucrative ways VPN providers do it is by selling the user’s browsing data

How do free VPNs make money?

In the fight between free VPNs vs. paid VPNs, a free VPN service  still has to make money – often in shady ways. The most straightforward example is just collecting and selling your data for their purposes. 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 the motivations of those entities financing the data-collecting via free VPN services. 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 that 38% of free Android VPN apps had malware or malvertising in them. Two-thirds of the free VPN services used third-party tracking libraries, meaning someone else was logging your browsing data. Some VPN providers even injected their data into your stream, thus leading to more ads (at best). Either way, it’s a terrible subversion of your online security.

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

Are free VPN services worth the cost?

Nope. Even if you’re OK with paying with your data, you wouldn’t be getting the best service. Because when it comes to choosing a VPN service, both the number and the quality of servers matter. A free VPN is highly unlikely to offer thousands of servers worldwide. The likely scenario is that a free VPN service will only have tens of servers. They’re also unlikely to have a solid connection. As such, congestion becomes a frequent issue, impacting your internet speed much more. 

Limitations of the top free VPNs (according to data by TechRadar):
Paid VPN for contrast (Surfshark):
Server countries
Data limits
500MB/month* – 10GB/month
24/7 support

*One provider offers 500MB/day limits
**One provider offers unlimited data but engages in speed throttling
***4 out of 6 VPNs in question

That is if the free VPN provider isn’t throttling your speed in the first place to entice you to buy their premium package

Another issue that comes from having a handful of servers is that they’re very easy to block, especially for streaming services. And there’s but one way for them to know that you’re using a VPN: to see that you’re connecting from an IP of a known VPN server. Sure, you could connect to another server… if there was one! Remember, free VPN services can’t invest that much into servers. 

Are free VPNs safe?

Nope again. 

Free VPNs lack the funding to invest in security and RnD. A poorly set-up VPN may be using obsolete VPN protocols. It can also leak your data in various ways, like via WebRTC vulnerabilities. It is also less likely to have the resources to stave off a hacker attack. For example, 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.

VPN Protocol
Best use
Universal, but exceptional on mobile devices
Overcoming the Great Firewall

Having a steady guaranteed income flow means spending money on developing additional features, too. Split tunneling, Kill Switch, and obfuscation are all good features to have if you want to use VPNs to their fullest. But without that subscription money, free VPN services have to make do with what they have. 

Plus, as we said before, around 38% of free Android VPNs have been found to host malware or malvertising, which means they’re purposefully unsafe. And that’s before you account for the free VPNs that don’t encrypt your data, which denies one of the main benefits of using a VPN. 

The pros and cons of paid VPNs

The big downside of a paid VPN is in the name: you need to pay for it. Whether you go for a monthly or yearly subscription, it’s still money leaving your pocket.

But what can a VPN do for you if you decide to pay for it instead of choosing a free option? For one, it actually protects your data and privacy instead of putting it at risk. On top of that, you get better connection speeds and plenty of other benefits.

The benefits of the subscription model

All that money allows paid VPN services to, among other things, acquire plenty of servers. For example, Surfshark has over 3200 servers in 100 countries. Not only does this help you find a server that’s free from congestion, but it also finds one that suits your needs the best. What if you want to watch the content your country produces while you’re traveling? With a paid VPN, you’ll likely find the server that matches your home country. 

Plus, investments in servers lead to benefits like having a 100% RAM-only server roster (which deletes any data on them when they’re unplugged from power) and megabit-rated ports (which means more connection speed). 

More servers mean it is much harder for streaming services that hate VPNs to block their usage. And if they finally manage to hunt down the server you’re using, you can connect to another one – especially if the country hosts many servers.

Are paid VPNs worth the price?

Yes, it’s worth getting a premium VPN. It’s harder to detect paid VPN use because they can also invest more into online security than any free VPN. A good paid VPN will, by default, be immune to IP, DNS, and WebRTC leaks. It will also be a lot more secure from hackers – one of the largest breaches of a paid VPN provider only revealed what websites the users are visiting but not what they’re doing there. The money is also useful when implementing the best, most secure modern VPN protocols like WireGuard

But that’s not the only way that paid VPNs can develop. There are also additional features that a VPN user can appreciate. A paid VPN is more likely to have a Kill Switch to disconnect you from the internet if the VPN unexpectedly goes down. Split tunneling (known as “Bypasser” on Surfshark) allows you to mark websites and services exempt from VPN protection. This is very important as some apps (usually banking) are sensitive to VPN use

Is a free VPN better than no VPN?

It depends. If you need to bypass some restrictions, then having no VPN will obviously not help. But even in that case, it’s better to use Tor.

Why? Because comparing a free VPN to no VPN, we see that privacy threats don’t go away but simply change form:

Free VPN
  • Basic encryption from the HTTPS websites you use.
  • Third parties can see your site traffic.
  • Might result in targeted ads from websites you visit.
  • Some form of VPN encryption for your entire traffic.
  • The VPN service sees and logs your entire internet traffic.
  • Might result in your browsing habits and data being sold to data brokers or hackers.

To boil it down, the only real difference between no VPN and a free VPN is not if you give away your data but to whom

In conclusion: in free VPN vs. paid VPN, paid VPN wins

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 free VPN vs. 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. If you’re still on the fence about whether to go for a paid VPN, why not take advantage of Surfshark’s VPN free trial to experience the difference yourself?

Get yourself a great paid VPN

Get Surfshark


Is a paid VPN better than a free VPN?

A paid VPN is better than a free VPN in every aspect except for the price. However, free VPNs usually make their money in shady, non-obvious ways (like selling your data). 

Do free VPNs work with Netflix?

Free VPNs are unlikely to work with Netflix because:

  • Their limited roster of servers is easy to block;
  • The servers are likely to be congested;
  • They usually have speed limitations to make you go premium.

Are any VPNs free?

There is a saying, “if something is free, you are the product,” – which means that free apps aim to capitalize on their users in one way or another. So free VPNs do it with ads, malware, and selling your data.