Very little in life is truly free, but as far as virtual private networks (or VPNs) are concerned, you can get quite a bit for nothing. Though you'll likely have to pay to get all the premium features of the best VPN services, there are many free options available that can nevertheless still go a long way toward protecting your internet traffic. If it's the price tag that has prevented you from using a VPN, you should definitely try one of these services.
What Is VPN?
If you've ever had to use special software to log in to your work network when working remotely, you are already familiar with VPN technology. It creates an encrypted connection (often referred to as a tunnel) between your computer and your company's VPN server, and then passes all network activity through the protected tunnel. This way, even if you are using the airport's Wi-Fi network, none of the other people on that network can see what's happening inside that tunnel.
The VPN services I talk about here work the same way, but instead of your Web traffic moving through the encrypted tunnel to your company's server, it goes to a server operated by the VPN provider. This not only means that your data is safe from prying eyes on the network you're connected to, but that advertisers and online snoops won't be able to see your actual IP address or glean your current location. Instead, they'll see the IP address and location information for the VPN server.
Think of it this way: If you drive out of your garage, someone can follow your car and track where you went, how long you were there, and when you returned home. We call that stalking. Using a VPN service is like driving into a closed parking garage, switching to a different car, and then driving out. Anyone following your original car now has no idea where you went after entering the garage. A VPN service keeps the stalkers at bay.
Of course, no technology is foolproof. Once your traffic exits the VPN server, it can be monitored and perhaps intercepted. It's also possible to use complicated timing algorithms to predict when and where you leave the encrypted tunnel. There are other services, such as Tor, that can provide greater levels of anonymity. And if you're exchanging sensitive information, consider using encryption software to secure it first or using an encrypted messaging service such as Signal for iPhone and Android.
Using VPN to Watch Netflix
Activists rely on VPN services to change their IP addresses and spoof their online activity to get around government censors. Regular people can use VPN services to encrypt sensitive online activity while connected to unknown Wi-Fi networks to foil ad tracking and to spoof their location. This last point means that, in some cases, you can enjoy region-locked content.
What do I mean by region-locked? The Netflix we know here in the US isn't the same Netflix that people in other countries see. Overseas, Netflix subscribers can see HBO shows, and major hit films on the streaming service that don't show up within these United States. That's because Netflix has specific deals to distribute this content in different areas.
Netflix isn't the only service that can be tricked. The BBC and the MLB have different streaming arrangements for different regions. There are numerous others.
It's certainly fun to feel like you're getting away with something when using a VPN to gain access to restricted content, but don't complain if you get caught violating a company's terms of service in the process. Just because you have a Netflix account does not mean you have a legal right to access Netflix content in another country. In fact, using VPN to watch Netflix has become much harder as of late, because many VPN services render region-locked streaming sites inaccessible, and because the streaming services are fighting back against the VPN services that don't.
Using BitTorrent or P2P on VPN
Let me say two things upfront: I am very well aware that there is nothing inherently immoral or illegal about downloading files through BitTorrent or peer-to-peer (P2P) services. That said, I also acknowledge that (like it or not) exchanging copyrighted material over these services is generally a breach of copyright law.
As a consequence, many companies ban or tightly restrict the use of BitTorrent and P2P services when connected to their VPN servers. For one thing, these services can put a strain on the company's resources. For another, it can put them into awkward legal situations. But people are attracted to the idea because of the privacy protections and location-spoofing VPNs can provide.
Before starting your download, it's a good idea to look through the VPN company's terms of service or FAQ to discover what its policy is for this kind of downloading activity. Be sure to read carefully, because violating the VPN company's terms of service may result in you being banned from its use. In some cases, VPN companies may only allow BitTorrent or P2P on specific servers.
Paid VPN Versus Free VPN
Free VPN services generally fall into one of two camps: ad-supported or restricted bandwidth. Spotflux is one service that uses the ad-supported model, which can be convenient because it doesn't limit your downloading or video streaming. Hotspot Shield also uses ads to make its free version pay, but it goes further by restricting the number of servers you can access with a free account. That's not a deal breaker if you don't need a VPN to spoof a specific location.
Others, such as Steganos Online Shield, place a monthly cap on network bandwidth. Steganos has a limit of 500MB of traffic per month, which is not unusual for services that use bandwidth caps. TunnelBear, a popular and snazzy VPN service, will give you an additional 500MB per month (a total of 1GB per month) when you Tweet about the company. It's an easy way to double your bandwidth each month. Heavy downloaders and video streamers will likely struggle with these plans.
Performance is an important consideration when choosing your VPN service, especially when you're looking at free tools. CyberGhost, for example, has a free version which is ad supported and also restricts performance. Other services may restrict how many devices you can connect at a time on the free version, as is the case for TorVPN.
Also, be sure to note the difference between money-back guarantees, free trials, and truly free software. Most VPN services offer some sort of refund period, but HideIPVPN offers just a seven-day free trial of its product.
VPN technology has become far more accessible in recent years, but there are still some products that will appeal primarily to geeks and those comfortable with less-than-user-friendly experiences. VPNBook, for example, is a free service quite different from the competition. It simply lists available VPN servers, leaving you to figure out the rest. It is completely free, but likely to be a challenge for new users.
One recent innovation in free VPNs is offering browser plug-in for free. AnchorFree Hotspot Elite Shield offers plug-ins for both Chrome and Firefox and using them is completely free. The Firefox plug-in is offered without any restrictions whatsoever, but the free Chrome plug-in can't connect to either US or UK VPN servers. Still, it's a very good deal.
Similar to Hotspot Elite Shield, Opera now offers a free VPN integrated directly into its web browser. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this VPN service, while limited in the number of servers it offers, provided remarkably good speeds. It's an excellent and user-friendly choice.
One word of caution about the Opera VPN and VPN browser plug-ins in general is that they offer only limited protection. They can only protect data from your browser, any other information broadcast from your computer over the internet won't have VPN protection. That's fine for most people, but it's important to understand the limitations of any technology.
Trust and Technology
As is the case with most encryption technology, verifying the efficacy of a particular VPN's security is very difficult. True, I could monitor traffic to confirm that it's encrypted, but that really doesn't tell us much. If, for example, the fundamental execution of the encryption scheme is flawed (either in how it is set up or how the math works) there would be almost no way to know it. I rely on many companies to act in good faith, and third-party researchers to ferret out the companies that don't.
VPN Service for Your Needs
There is plenty of variation even among free VPN services, so it's a good idea to try a few and figure out which one you like best. A great VPN service should be easy to use and understand, and shouldn't throw up too many barriers, even when you're using free software. Regardless of your choice, the important thing to understand is that you need a VPN. It's a simple way to make your personal information much safer.