I’m not going to lie. The first few times I needed to bypass restrictions online, I used free VPNs. I’m talking about my college days when I needed to bypass restricted IP addresses for research purposes. Back then, neither did I have the luxury to pay for a VPN subscription, nor did I possess the knowledge to understand the risks associated with free VPN.
To this day, I hear people say that you shouldn’t use a free VPN service because they’re bad. And much like me, you probably also thought “How bad could it be? It gets the job done!” and kept using the free VPN service.
Well, buckle up! What you think the “best free VPN services” are offering and what you’re actually getting is not the same. Free VPNs are, in fact, one of the largest sources of data breaches in the modern world.
In this post, I’ll share my unfortunate ransomware experience along with the top 7 things you must know before using a free VPN service. Most importantly, I’m going to give you great alternatives that don’t necessarily break your bank. Without further ado, let’s get started.
How I Lost All My Data to Ransomware
I’ve already admitted that I used to have a free VPN to get the necessities met on the internet. Everything was fine for years. Until one day, I turned my computer on and went into shock. All of the file extensions were showing .mccq or something like that, I can’t exactly remember. But it was an extension I never saw or heard of before. Needless to say, I couldn’t open any of the files.
I tried to rename them to the right extensions. It didn’t work. I scanned my computer with a FREE antivirus. It didn’t find any threats (!).
I was nervously browsing through my hard drive (hard drives were still cool, okay?) to see which files were affected. To no one’s surprise, it was all the files. Then I found the text file addressing me. It was the only file I could open.
And there it was. The infamous ransom note that hopefully not many of you have seen. If I remember correctly, the “hackers” were asking for $999 for the key to decrypt my files. Just like all broke college students, I didn’t have the money.
Now, I still can’t claim that it was my free VPN that infected my computer. But I don’t see any other source. I may not be an IT expert but I know my way around a computer and how to protect it.
I learned a very expensive lesson. It was no less than a trauma losing all my playlists, photos, and vital documents.
Since then, I’ve never used a FREE service on the internet. Years after the incident, I decided to study how free VPNs operate and it opened my eyes.
That’s what I’m about to do to you.
7 Things You NEED to Know Before Using a Free VPN Service
7 is a very arbitrary number. It could’ve been 5. It could’ve been 10. When I was looking to expand on what I experienced through research, I found a lot more reasons than 7. But not all of them are worth mentioning as I know all of you are sensible internet users.
From what I’ve seen, trouble begins when you least expect it. So, I have only listed the most important aspects regarding free VPN risks that I think can catch you off guard.
- The VPN Client Could be Infected with Malware
Usually, I don’t like to include data and statistics in my writing. It feels very pretentious if I’m being honest. But this is one of those blogs where I can’t find a way around it.
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) conducted a study in 2016. It showed that for every 10 VPN clients that are likely to be infected with malware, 6 of them are free.
That’s a whopping 60%. In other words, more than half of the VPNs you can download from the internet can contain malware.
In case you’re not aware, malware is short for malicious software. In fancy terms, these are pieces of software created by cybercriminals to disrupt the operations of a computer system. It can destroy all stored files, gain unauthorized access to the system or steal private information without the knowledge of the owner.
More often than not, you have no idea that your system has malware until it’s too late. The longer it stays in your system, the more damage it does.
For example, your passwords can be compromised. You may not be able to access important work files on time. I faced the extreme case of ransomware, which is also a type of malware.
Whatever you do on your computer or smartphone, malware is always bad news. And when you have a 60% probability of getting through them through free services, I’d stay away if I were you.
- VPNs Can Embed Tracking Libraries on Your Data
For this section, I have to bring in another statistic by CSIRO. This time, they found that a whopping 72% of free VPN apps include some kind of tracking library baked into the VPN software.
What do these trackers do, you ask?
Well, they track your activities. But you know that one of the main purposes of using a VPN is to avoid peeping eyes. If the free VPNs themselves are tracking your online activity, doesn’t that defeat the purpose? If someone is to monitor what you do, your ISP or the government should get priority!
In most cases, the trackers redirect data directly to third party advertising networks. All the targeted ads you see on the internet are nothing but the result of these advertising companies’ analyzing your browsing behavior and preferences.
It’s the real-world equivalent of installing a CCTV right in your bedroom, pointing directly at your bed!
Needless to say, this kind of tracking can very well lead to identity theft and a myriad of other data mishandling issues.
You decide for yourself. Do you want to spend now for the premium service from reputable VPN providers or hire cybersecurity firms later on to retrieve your lost privacy?
- There’s No Guarantee Free VPN Services Can Unblock the Content You Want
I don’t need any data to confirm this. I’m a witness myself. As I said earlier, the main purpose for me to use a free VPN was to get free access to sites I can’t visit.
Oftentimes, I couldn’t get in without changing the server location multiple times. And even after I got in, it would be a miracle if the VPN apps could hold the connection for more than 10 minutes.
Another problem I faced was the lack of server locations. Free VPN providers often fail to include enough locations to cover the needs of the users.
- Free Providers Will Most Likely Slow You Down
This is bound to happen. Want to test my theory? Go to your nearest street with a jar of cookies and declare that you’re giving them away for FREE and see what happens.
People who never eat cookies may also show up and get a piece. There’s nothing wrong with it. This is how we humans are wired.
The same goes for a free version of VPNs. There are too many users and too few servers to distribute the load.
When you actually try to do something after connecting to a free server, you’ll notice a significant downgrade in your connection quality. If you’re trying to watch videos, prepare yourself to sit through who knows how many buffering sessions.
Pair it up with disrupted connections, I guarantee you’ll lose the urge to watch the show right then and there.
On top of all of these limitations, you’re limited in data usage! Most free access VPNs only allow up to 15 GB per month. At least that’s what I’ve seen. You may find a free VPN that allows more data. But know that none of them offers unlimited data usage like the brands VPN Unlimited or NordVPN.
- Of Course, There are Ads
Ads are one of the best ways to make money on the internet. How can you expect free VPN providers to not utilize this revenue channel?
I, like most people, don’t mind a few pop-ups here and there during the day. But if they keep coming back every 5 minutes, it’s not going to be a very enjoyable experience for anyone.
Many free VPN apps bake in ad trackers. Hotspot Shield VPN provider is a great example. Back in 2017, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against Hotspot Shield Basic for over-the-top privacy violations.
Apparently, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that 5 different ad-tracking libraries smuggle data through a backdoor to advertising companies!
In response, AnchorFree denied the allegations completely. I mean, what else could you expect? They’re not going to admit that they’re making money selling user data.
In a later update, the Hotspot Shield website started asking for permission from users before ad tracking. Today, it still remains one of the most widely used free VPN services.
- A Free VPN Service may Manipulate Your Online Activity
I’m a victim of this practice by virtual private networks as well! You’re browsing the internet like you always do, but this time with a VPN. And bam! You’re on alibaba.com instead of where you should be.
This is commonly known as browser hijacking and many Free VPNs do it. Even the Hotspot Shield did it, CSIRO found proof of it.
The issue with this is that you never know where you might get redirected. If the developers behind a free VPN service have malicious intent, they may redirect you to shady websites where your data is at risk.
- Your Data May Not be Immune to Government Summons
The reason they choose such countries is simple. The virtually non-existent data retention laws. The government of these regions doesn’t require the VPN provider to log any customer data at all.
Most free VPNs can’t claim the same. They’re bound by the local laws of their origin country to provide data to the government if asked. You may not mind your own government collecting data on you. But a foreign entity? Come on!
A study conducted by VPNpro back in 2019 shows that the top 97 VPNs are owned by a mere 23 parent companies. And the majority of them failed to demonstrate a strong privacy law.
Why Do I recommend Paid Service for a Virtual Private Network?
I’ve tried my best to illustrate the severe risks of free services. I learned it the hard way and don’t want it to happen to you. There’s no guarantee that it won’t happen in the future if it hasn’t happened yet.
I may have named only one company that came under the scrutiny of authorities for violating online privacy but the other free VPN service providers are no better.
I also promised at the beginning of this guide that I’d be sharing the alternative to free VPNs. Whether you like it or not, the only free VPN I can recommend using is free-trial versions of paid VPNs.
Here are the reasons I recommend investing in a top-tier VPN from my own experience.
You Get Unlimited Data
There is no true unlimited free VPN in the world. If you find any, know that it’s false advertising. You’ll always start off strong with these free VPNs. The speed will feel amazing. But as you keep using you, you can visibly see it slowing down. Ultimately, as you reach the limit, you won’t be able to access the free VPN servers anymore.
The only way to truly enjoy unlimited data is to get paid VPNs.
See, these companies are taking your money legitimately. This means they have the resources to create a sustainable infrastructure. ExpressVPN, for example, has over 3 million users around the world! All of them are paying customers who never complained about the data limits. Why do you think that is?
You Actually Get A Secure VPN Connection
The same reason paid VPNs can offer unlimited data is also behind the stringent security infrastructure. They have the resources to invest in good encryption protocols like Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) or ChaCha20 or Camellia.
On top of that, they R&D different types of VPN protocols like OpenVPN, IKEv2, IPSec, etc. to make sure the user data is as secure as it can be.
The best part is that all of these features and claims are actually proven. Almost all premium VPNs are audited periodically by third parties to make sure there is no security vulnerability.
Your Internet Connection Can Actually Be Faster
The servers top VPNs use in their data centers are all high-performance machines. More importantly, there are more than enough servers and server locations to service the entire customer base.
For example, ExpressVPN has just over 3,000 servers in 94 countries around the world. NordVPN one-ups ExpressVPNs with over 5,000 servers in 60+ countries!
Last but not least, there are no bandwidth limits or data limits on your usage. So, instead of slowing your internet connection down, paid VPNs can actually make it faster!
You simply can’t expect this kind of coverage from free services.
Clients for All Operating Systems with Simultaneous Connections
When you go for a reputable VPN, you can expect downloadable clients for all operating systems. I’ve seen ExpressVPN offering clients for Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, and Mac. I’m sure there are other options as well. I’m a Mac app user and I have no complaints so far. I’ve also used mobile apps in the past that worked flawlessly.
ExpressVPN caps the maximum number of active connections to 5. If you ask me, that’s more than enough devices to use at once. NordVPN has no such restrictions and you can have unlimited simultaneous connections across all of your devices!
A Premium VPN Can Virtually Unblock Anything
If you are anything like me and watch lots of shows from all over the world, I highly recommend that you get a paid VPN. In my experience, they can practically fool even the strongest server protocols.
For example, streaming Netflix with regular online data means you’re limited to the content made available to you. If you live in the US, you can’t watch shows from the UK Netflix.
Well, all you have to do is connect to one of the UK server locations and reload your Netflix account. Voila! You now have all UK Netflix shows.
And don’t worry, you don’t have to reconnect every 5 minutes like free VPNs. You’ll surely find VPN services that claim to be free Netflix VPN but they never work.
I might be using Netflix a lot in my example but it’s not limited. All streaming sites can benefit from a VPN service actually designed for FREE users instead of offering free VPN services!
Gamers, I Have Good News
Have you ever seen your in-game character teleport to a different place as you’re playing? We all have. It’s the dreaded “ping” that causes random glitches like this in online games, especially multiplayer titles.
Ping is nothing but packet loss. A “packet” is a cluster of data bundled together. When one or more of these data packets fail to reach the destination in the right order, you see the game behaving weirdly.
I somewhat understand this struggle of online gamers, especially in the MOBA genre. It’s hard enough to connect to a decent server already. From there, it depends on what transport layer protocol your internet connection is using. Connectionless protocols are more prone to packet loss.
Many players try to use a free version of VPNs to improve connection stability, only to fail miserably.
You need a VPN service that offers a connection-first protocol to ensure the data reaches the destination server successfully. And trust me when I say this, investing in a good VPN with unlimited bandwidth will change your gaming experience forever! You can even share it with your friends as most subscriptions offer unlimited devices!
For instance, Torguard VPN offers features such as dedicated IPs that are sure to boost your gaming experience by a mile! So, if both you and your friends have internet traffic going through the same premium features, give me one good reason why your experience won’t improve.
Is There No Free VPN I Can Use?
If you’re not in the place right now to spend on a premium VPN but you need the functionalities desperately, I may have a few options for you. But start saving so that you can upgrade later on and free yourself from the shackles of free VPNs.
Proton VPN Free
Proton is basically a freemium service and it offers a very decent free VPN for users. All you have to do is create an account and download the client.
Keep in mind that you only get 3 server locations to choose from in the free plan. They’re the US, Netherlands, and Japan. Plus, you can only use the free VPN on a single device.
On the bright side, you get to enjoy a strict no-log policy and unblock pretty much all websites. US-based reputable computer magazine PCMag declared Proton VPN as the best free VPN out there. And I have to agree with them.
Tunnelbear is another free VPN you can check out. It’s free from top to bottom with no hidden charges. It currently offers servers across 47 countries which should be enough for most free users. It is also one of the very few free VPNs that are audited independently for security vulnerabilities.
What surprised me the most was the number of available servers in the African region. Tunnelbear has servers in Kenya and Nigeria. I haven’t even seen paid VPNs (except for ExpressVPN) covering this region, let alone free VPNs.
Free VPN FAQs
Are free VPNs safe for me?
I highly doubt it. Unless you’re using a free VPN version or a free trial from paid providers, I wouldn’t recommend them. It’s always better to not spend any money than to lose money, right? The same principle applies to.
What are the biggest risks of using free VPN providers?
If I have to summarize, your personal data and online privacy are at the greatest risk. In the worst-case scenario, you can fall victim to identity theft.
What can I do to mitigate risks when using free VPNs?
Well, there’s nothing much you can do unless you use the free trial version. Of course, there are freemium VPNs like Proton VPN free or Atlas VPN free.
What premium features can I expect if I choose a premium VPN?
Well, it all starts with a guarantee of your data security. From there, you can expect better internet speeds, more stable connections, and more servers to choose from. NordVPN, a premium VPN, offers advanced features like Onion servers!
Which VPN can reliably unblock Netflix?
Netflix has one of the strongest security features among all the streaming services. Even the best free VPNs failed to access this streaming site. I recommend the ExpressVPN free trial if you want instant access to streaming sites without compromising security.