VPN’s are a miracle of modern technology for anyone wishing to keep nosy third parties from snooping through sensitive information and personal data sent over the Internet. But there’s just one problem: VPN services were not created equal. Some services succeed at providing fast and reliable connections, but some other services are unpredictable unreliable garbage. So how do you know if a VPN service is a zero or hero before committing to a subscription? By trying VPNs with free trial possibilities.
Sure, you can read reviews, but first hand experience is superior to reading a review. But to test a service out, you’re going to need to sign up for a free trial. In fact, some people take advantage of free VPN services indefinitely because they’re either too price sensitive or simply don’t want to pay for a VPN. Today we’re going to take a look at the best VPNs with a free trial, but first, let’s talk about some of the most common pitfalls found among free VPN services.
Caution Regarding “Free VPN” or “Smart VPN” Services
We will, of course, take a look at the best VPN’s with a free trial momentarily, but first I wanted to issue a word of caution concerning “free” VPN services. As you may have noticed, the VPN and proxy service industry is overflowing with competition, and all of the good services (e.g. ExpressVPN, PIA VPN, IPVanish VPN, TorGuard, etc.) genuinely try to improve service offerings to outshine the competition as a result of healthy competition.
But not all services take such an honorable approach to business, and some services are nothing more than shoddy marketing ploys by Internet hucksters who are out to make money. Over the years, I’ve seen some services that are little more than SmartDNS or proxy services claiming to be a VPN service. However, the catch is that these types of services don’t encrypt data at all.
I highly encourage you to do a little research before signing up for a service you’ve never tried before. Make sure that the application will actually encrypt data using a mainstream protocol like OpenVPN, L2TP/IPsec, SSTP or another type of secure connection. Otherwise, your data will be sent in plain text and can be intercepted and read by third parties.
Why Pay for a VPN Subscription at All?
Since some services offer free trials and some of those trials can be used indefinitely (with some encumbrances, as we’ll discuss in the next section), you may be wondering why anyone would pay for a subscription. Even if a free trial was limited by time, couldn’t you continually sign up for the free service with multiple email addresses? After all, why pay for something that can be downloaded for free? Unfortunately, the difference between paid and free services is as different as night and day, and the main difference can be summed up in two words: quality and reliability.
With few exceptions, paid services are going to offer a higher level of service and quality than a free service. Often free services don’t have the same guaranteed levels of uptime as paid services. In fact, I’ve even seen a few free VPN trials and services that only offered best effort connectivity to free users. Best effort means that the free users’ traffic was sent with a lower priority than paid users’ traffic, so connectivity could be spotty at best, especially during periods of peak usage.
Conversely, leading paid services often have a 99.99% uptime guarantee, real-time server usage statistics and premium tech support standing by to help you get the most out of your VPN tunnel. And I’d also like to point out that running a VPN service company isn’t cheap; it takes a lot of financing to host servers and pay for engineers to maintain the servers. For that reason, it’s usually better to use a free trial offered by a service which also has paid subscription plans.
Some services offer free server connections without any paid subscriptions. Typically, these types of services are substandard because they lack the funding to build a better mousetrap, and can only rely on the good nature of selfless developers, which are in short supply. At any rate, do note that a paid subscription will almost always be better than any free service, because they last longer, have higher availability, generally have faster speeds and come loaded with a lot more features.
Common Free Service Limitations
There are a lot of free trials and free services in the VPN market, and it seems that providers often imitate each other regarding how they lock down and restrict free users. The tactics employed to encourage free users to upgrade really aren’t all that different from other products.
Consider just about any software application; take antivirus software, for example – the free version will be watered down to act as a marketing tool. Then, free users who want access to more features will eventually upgrade, because the free version was so restricted it just wasn’t practical.
The same mostly holds true for VPN services. And the most common two restrictions are limited time accounts (account expiration dates) and monthly data caps. Free trials with expiration dates really only serve as a way to test a provider before committing to a subscription, and typically don’t have as many restrictions as other free trials. Services with monthly data caps, however, can be used indefinitely and generally have many more restrictions to prevent free users from overwhelming the servers.
Furthermore, you’ll often find that free trials employ rate limiting techniques to cap bandwidth at a certain threshold. Yet again, this technique is imposed on free users to protect the service quality of paid users.
The last of the encumbrances placed on free VPN connections is the one that irritates me the most: connection protocol limitations. It’s fairly standard to see paid VPN providers offer at least three types of connections with few exceptions: PPTP, L2TP/IPsec, and OpenVPN. I never advocate using PPTP since it’s flawed and crackable, but L2TP/IPsec is a suitable alternative to OpenVPN, which is the best connection protocol to use.
Sadly enough, I’ve seen some free services lock down free users to only using PPTP. If you see a free service that only allows PPTP, I’d recommend steering clear and finding another service to use. PPTP is old and antiquated, and it can be easily cracked with cheap software. That’s why I prefer free services with OpenVPN, but it isn’t always an option.
In summary, the following outlines missing features and limitations placed on free VPN services to encourage free users to upgrade:
- Time limit set for free account to expire
- Monthly data caps
- Bandwidth throttling (rate limiting)
- Limited access to global server locations
- No tech support
- Best effort data delivery (paid users’ traffic usually takes priority over free users’ traffic)
- Limited connection protocols
A Dire Warning Against Hola VPN
I also wanted to take a moment to issue a dire warning against a free service called Hola VPN. At first glance, it seems pretty alluring because it promises to be an “unlimited free VPN” that will unblock any website. But you should do everything in your power to avoid this tool – if you care about security and privacy, that is.
Just a couple of years ago, Hola VPN endured harsh criticism and outrage from users around the world due to misleading features. Users thought they were downloading a free VPN tool, but in reality, the users were opening a can of worms loaded with security flaws and hidden backdoor features. Unfortunately for naïve seekers of secure VPN connections, the code would actually commandeer a portion of the user’s network interface and share it with complete strangers by utilizing P2P mechanisms.
These mechanisms were designed to work silently in the background, and the average user had no idea it was happening at all. In fact, researches claimed the tool “operates like a poorly secured botnet.” I also happen to think that the branding is strange and misleading, and it setsrif s a red flag preventing me to use the service with peace of mind. Naturally, the word ‘hola’ is Spanish for hello, but the company isn’t located in a Spanish-speaking country. In fact, it’s based in Israel, so I don’t understand the branding.
In response to the firestorm of negative publicity, the extension’s details on the Chrome webstore claims the following:
“This is NOT a peer to peer application. This extension does not link to nor encourages the download of any other products and is fully functional as is without requiring any additional download/component.”
The latest version of Hola VPN has been updated since all the flack it received in 2015, but I still wouldn’t use the service if my life depended on it for a couple reasons. First and foremost, any trust this service had with its users has completely eroded, as merited by the unethical practice of sharing users’ Internet connections without the users’ knowledge. And once trust is lost, it’s darn near impossible to earn back.
Secondly, I think there are a ton of better alternatives without black marks on their record. After all, why use an untrustworthy service when there are tons of other credible alternatives at your fingertips? To that end, let’s go ahead and take a look at the best VPN alternatives available for free.
The first and best VPN is WindScribe, which is based in Ontario. And in addition to paid subscriptions, this service provides a free trial you can use indefinitely (supposing its service model doesn’t change in the future). I think WindScribe has a fantastic free trial, but there are some drawbacks that need to be acknowledged. I was saddened to see that free users don’t have access to OpenVPN configuration files. Unsurprisingly, that feature is reserved for free users.
WindScribe does, however, allow free users access to IKEv2 and SOCKS connections. I’m not too crazy about SOCKS since it functions as an unsecured proxy. In fact, the SOCKS protocol itself does nothing to encrypt data and relies on higher level protocols running through the SOCKS connection for security. IKEv2 does provide encryption, but I was disappointed to see that WindScribe doesn’t offer L2TP connections.
Still, the real takeaway is that free users are provided encrypted connections with IKEv2. Apart from encryption, the next big limitation is a 10GB monthly data cap. I actually prefer monthly data caps as opposed to time limits, because the data caps renew on a monthly basis. That makes them perfect for short term use, such as a holiday abroad, or even as a long term solution for users who don’t download tons of data.
As expected, free users don’t have access to as many servers as paid subscribers. Paid users have access to 50 locations around the world, but free users only have access to 11 server locations. In my opinion, this is still pretty generous of WindScribe. The 11 free server locations include: United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Hong Kong, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway, and Romania, which is enough to unblock just about any popular streaming service.
Last but not least, I did want to draw attention to the fact that WindScribe permits P2P traffic for free users. Other free trials often bar P2P traffic to prevent people from using the service purely to secure BitTorrent downloads. But WindScribe is great for BitTorrent – as long as you don’t have more than 10GB of data to download.
Next up is TunnelBear VPN, which has a branding strategy that can only be described as “out there.” Like WindScribe, TunnelBear VPN is based in Canada, although it is headquartered in Toronto. TunnelBear’s free VPN service shares some similarities with WindScribe, such as its ability to be used indefinitely by means of a monthly data cap. Unfortunately, TunnelBear has a much lower monthly data cap.
Free users are allowed 500 MB per month, which is only half a gigabyte. That’s only 5% of the monthly data WindScribe allows. Nevertheless, TunnelBear does provide access to more server locations. Free users are permitted to connect to 19 locations scattered around the globe, which offers more flexibility when unblocking content hosted in a specific region.
The paid version starts at just $4.16 per month, which is pretty reasonable considering it’s less than the cost of a cheap meal. Paid users don’t have the annoying monthly data cap and can run the VPN tunnel on up to five devices simultaneously. But if you don’t need unlimited data or simply don’t want to pay for it, you can take advantage of the free version for as long as you like.
Next up is Hide.Me VPN, which does have a free VPN download. One of the largest drawbacks, in my opinion, is that the free client download only supports Windows users. It makes sense that Hide.Me would target Windows users since Windows is used more than the other mainstream operating systems. But if you’re on a Mac, Linux system or mobile device, you’re out of luck with this provider.
The monthly data cap is 2 GB, which is fair. But do note that bandwidth is the best effort in nature, although there is a 3Mbps minimum bandwidth guarantee. One thing that I really didn’t like about the free version is that users only get access to servers in Canada, Netherlands, and Singapore. I suppose it’s ungracious to complain about a service that’s completely free, but I would have like to see servers hosted in the US since there are a lot of streaming services hosted in the US exclusively.
On the other hand, I was happy to see a wide variety of connection protocols offered to free users. Unfortunately, OpenVPN is not included in the free version, but free users do have access to PPTP, L2TP, SSTP, and IPsec (using either IKEv1 or IKEv2). Finally, the last restriction on free users is a lack of port forwarding, which is available with the Premium version for $9.99 per month.
ProtonVPN has a free version that’s different than the previous providers because it doesn’t have any monthly data caps. Wow, sounds pretty great, huh? What’s the catch, you ask? ProtonVPN may not impose data caps or time limits on free accounts, but it does limit free users’ bandwidth to preserve bandwidth for paid users.
As such, I wouldn’t recommend using this free VPN alternative as your go-to solution if you intend to stream any significant amount of video. The bandwidth caps are a bit irritating, but if all you need is a way to access some HTML web pages, the bandwidth throttling probably won’t bother you. And it has several of the same limitations as hiding. Me VPN.
For instance, free users of ProtonVPN also only have access to servers in three countries and can only have one connection active at a time. Additionally, free users are subject to bandwidth throttling that makes their connection speeds slower than paid subscribers’ connections.
However, despite the numerous limitations, I was pleased to see that this provider is hosted in Switzerland, which is a more advantageous location than the US due to the wiretapping and coercion of domestic businesses revealed by Edward Snowden. I do think the paid versions of this service are admirable too because they offer great features like 10 simultaneous connections, 10Gbit server connections and P2P support.
But if you’re just looking for a free way to unblock websites, ProtonVPN is a perfectly viable solution.
Fifth and final is IPVanish VPN, which offers a more traditional free trial that cannot be used indefinitely. It is a little cumbersome because IPVanish uses a seven day money back guarantee. But for me, the real upside is that you get to use the actual service on a trial basis without any of the annoying limitations imposed on the previous alternatives.
Trial users have access to servers in over 60 countries around the world. Plus, both trial users and paid subscribers have the ability to connect up to five devices to a VPN at the same time. And the protocol limitations seen with previous free alternatives are nonexistent. IPVanish VPN offers OpenVPN connections in the free trial, which is wonderful.
Oh, and guess what? IPVanish VPN users have unlimited and unrestricted P2P traffic. And because IPVanish doesn’t log users’ activities (for that matter, neither do any of the previous solutions), users can enjoy truly anonymous Bittorrent downloads. It does come with a SOCKS5 web proxy as well, but I prefer to use OpenVPN connections instead.
I think WindScribe has an exceptionally generous free VPN trial, and I favor it because it has a higher monthly data cap than the other alternatives. Having said that, note that each provider has it’s own peculiarities, strengths, and weaknesses, so you may want to opt for another provider based on which attributes you value the most.
Two key takeaways to remember are to avoid using Hola VPN and services that don’t offer any encryption, or weak encryption using PPTP exclusively. But the aforementioned best VPNs with a free trial all offer strong encryption, so sticking with these providers is a safe and free way to secure Internet traffic.
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