Free VPN is indeed one of the most controversial topics. On one side, people advise to stay away from it like the plague, and on the other hand, a single search on Google yields hundreds of results recommending the best free VPNs.
Is the advice to avoid free VPNs just a conspiracy by premium VPN companies? Are there actual practical uses of free VPNs? Well, today, I am going to take an unbiased look at free VPNs without trying to please the premium VPN overlords or putting the users’ online safety at risk.
In this post, I’ll talk about the good and the bad side of free VPNs and what purpose they serve.
Free VPNs: Existence and Challenges
Users love free software, which is why almost all categories of software have some apps that are completely free. The demand for a free VPN is dozens of times more than a premium or paid VPN, at least according to Google Search volume. So the existence of a free VPN is a necessity.
However, why do free VPNs have a controversial reputation? I mean, free programs have always existed, and they will keep existing. Then why is a free VPN such a big deal? The answer lies in how it works compared to regular free software. Let’s compare:
Free Apps Vs. Free VPNs
Nothing is created free. Other than the developer’s work on an app, the app needs a dedicated website or other sources to be distributed. Hosting is an even bigger expenditure if it’s a web-based tool, like a photo editing tool.
Most developers can make enough money via donations and maybe some ads on the website to run these apps for free. Web hosting isn’t that expensive, and they even make enough profit to justify the work they do.
However, a VPN depends on physical servers. Most VPN services provide multiple servers in a single country with support for dozens of countries. For example, NordVPN has 5880 total servers, and ExpressVPN also has thousands of servers in over 105 countries.
Starting a new VPN company isn’t as easy as you’ll need to deploy and manage physical servers in dozens of countries or pay third-party providers for the servers. Bandwidth and stability are other issues that require good servers, which could easily cost well over $200/month for a single server.
With such expensive requirements, it’s impossible for a free VPN to sustain itself on donations or other usual monetization methods. The gap in expenses and profit is so big that a free VPN can never offer a better service than a paid VPN. Even a mediocre service requires additional monetization methods, some of which are illicit.
Bad Side of Free VPNs
Free VPNs are bad to the point I can’t even compare them with paid VPNs because the only advantage they have over them is the price. Before we go towards justifying free VPN use, it is important to know the bad sides of free VPNs.
Below are some noticeable bad sides of free VPNs that you may consider before using one.
To cut down on costs, free VPNs use fewer servers, so the servers easily get congested and reach bandwidth limits. Some even use shared servers. Even though all VPNs slow down internet speed, free VPNs have a much bigger impact.
Data and Server Limitations
Whether you use a completely free VPN or a free version of a premium VPN, it will surely have limitations. You will only have access to a few servers, mainly in popular countries, and free VPNs have data limits to save bandwidth or encourage upgrading.
Some Free VPNs Show Ads
Some free VPN services opt for monetization through ads. When you enable the VPN, it will start showing pop-up ads and even open ads in browser tabs. This can be really annoying, and most such VPNs are very aggressive with ads.
They May Collect and Sell Personal Information
Lack of Advanced Features
Most free VPNs only have the option to select a server and start/stop the VPN. They lack advanced features like Split Tunneling and even some necessary ones like a Kill Switch. This makes them only good for basic use, not as a reliable security solution.
Congested servers can lead to server crashes and disconnection, which is a big problem if you are using a VPN specifically to hide your location.
If the VPN disconnects while in use, it can reveal your IP to the source. It also doesn’t help that free VPNs don’t have a Kill Switch to protect in such scenarios.
There is a high demand for VPNs, and not many good free VPN options. This makes it a good product for hackers to make false promises and infect devices with malware.
What might seem like a harmless VPN could infect your device with dangerous malware. Some free VPNs even provide VPN service along with hidden malicious code to steal information or mine cryptocurrency.
No Customer Support
Free VPN services don’t have a customer support team to solve technical issues and usually don’t even answer your questions regarding the service. It may not be a big deal since free VPNs already provide quite basic service, but it’s worth mentioning because premium VPNs usually have good support.
Practical Application of Free VPNs
If we look at all the above negatives of free VPNs, anyone may conclude they aren’t worth using. However, this is only because we look at all the negatives collectively and assume there aren’t any reliable free VPNs.
Although it’s true free VPNs will have those shortcomings, that doesn’t mean they will have all of those problems at the same time.
For example, a free VPN may track and store your data, but that doesn’t mean it will bombard you with ads too. Also, some free VPNs have very limited servers but offer a very reliable connection, such as Opera browser VPN.
If you choose the right free VPN for your needs, then a free VPN can have many uses. Below I am listing some uses of VPNs where a free VPN is more than enough; you won’t need a premium VPN.
#1. Hide Your Identity
Okay, let’s say a free VPN can secretly track your activity and maybe identify you too. However, for some people, the concern isn’t about being tracked; it’s about being tracked by a specific entity.
If you don’t want a specific website or online service to identify you, then a free VPN is more than enough to encrypt your traffic. I am sure some users will be willing to accept being tracked by the VPN company if it shields them from the specific entities they wish to evade.
After all, compared to Google’s extensive tracking history, this trade-off might not seem overly concerning to some.
#2. It’s Good For one-time Use Cases
You may not need a VPN all the time, but many times you may face the need to use a VPN. For example, I often face issues patching games since some game developers limit specific traffic during patch days. So I just downloaded a free VPN to patch the game and then deleted it later.
Having a paid VPN would be a waste if you only need a VPN sparingly, like unblocking a website.
#3. Avoid Throttling
Although VPNs decrease your internet speed, throttling from your ISP or download source can be much worse. Even some online games manage traffic on location-based priority to ease the load on the servers. Many such issues can be fixed if you use a free VPN service with good speed.
Since a VPN can hide your traffic and location from others, it can prevent location or content-based throttling. For downloads and browser-based streaming, Opera browser with a built-in VPN works fine for me. However, for OS-wide VPN, I recommend Urban VPN free version if you don’t want a P2P free VPN.
#4. Access Geo-Restricted Content
Accessing geo-restricted content is probably the most common use of free VPNs. As long as you use a reliable free VPN that doesn’t infect your device with malware or show ads, a free VPN is enough to unblock websites or streaming services,
The VPNs I mentioned above are more than enough for this. Although, Atlas VPN also has a nice unlimited free version with very high speed if you want a VPN for streaming.
#5. Securely Connect to Public WiFi
You don’t necessarily need the protection of a premium VPN to connect to public WiFi. Most of the popular free VPNs (like the ones above) use AES-256 encryption to secure your connection. This is more than enough to prevent any hacker from seeing your traffic on public WiFi.
#6. Test VPN
You shouldn’t have to take your credit card out before knowing how a VPN will work for your needs. Unfortunately, most premium VPNs require your card details even for the free trial. A free VPN can help you test the waters to see if it’s useful for your needs.
For example, if you want a VPN to decrease ping in games, then a free VPN can help check if it will make a difference or not.
Free VPNs: To Use or Not To Use
As long as you use a reliable free VPN service, it can have many uses. Honestly, malware and showing ads are very rare monetization strategies for VPNs. There are many free VPNs that don’t need to go to such extremes to stay in the market. For the basic function of hiding IP and securing your connection, a free VPN is enough.
However, when you can’t take risks with security and anonymity — like in an enterprise environment — a premium VPN is a must. Not only do they have advanced security features, but today, many come with RAM-based servers where data logging is impossible, like NordVPN and ExpressVPN.