Are free VPNs safe?

There are two primary reasons someone might use a VPN: for added privacy and security online, or to access geo-restricted content like streaming services. In fact, over 30% of Internet users utilize a VPN for their added benefits while browsing—putting the VPN industry on track to exceed hundreds of billions in revenue in the coming years. But many people want the benefits of VPNs without paying for the service, resulting in 47% of VPN users opting for free versions. This despite free VPNs showing worse performance and serious privacy risks.

If you’ve ever tried to use a free VPN you’ve probably noticed it didn’t work very well (more than two-thirds of free VPN users report performance issues). Free VPNs are highly ineffective at bypassing content restrictions, but they also often expose users to privacy and security risks they’re meant to protect against.

Here we’ll discuss why free VPNs are ineffective at best, and outright dangerous at worst. We’ll also cover the info you need to choose a safe VPN that suits your needs.

How VPNs enhance online privacy and security

A VPN, or virtual private network, is a way to add an extra layer of privacy to your online activity. A VPN obscures the Internet traffic between your device and the websites you visit, sending it through an encrypted tunnel. When your traffic travels via an encrypted tunnel, your device’s IP address and geographic location are hidden, and replaced by the IP address of the VPN server. This prevents your Internet service provider (ISP)—and potentially other network admins or third parties snooping on the network—from seeing which sites you visit. It also makes it possible to tell websites you’re connecting from somewhere other than your actual physical location, potentially unlocking access to geographically restricted content.

In other words, the primary purpose of a VPN is to encrypt your Internet traffic and hide your true IP address, which affords you more privacy online. The VPN IP address that replaces your “real” IP address can be strategically chosen to bypass certain geographical restrictions.

Note: This description mainly applies to personal VPNs, as opposed to workplace or other kinds of VPNs. Learn more about what VPNs are and what exactly they protect.

The realities of free VPN services

The standard VPN business model looks something like this: A service provider establishes a global network of VPN servers that adhere to strict performance and privacy standards. Users pay to subscribe to this server network, and that revenue goes toward continuously expanding, upgrading, maintaining, and securing the network.

Operating a VPN service is technically difficult and expensive, so it should raise major red flags when a VPN provider is able to offer their services for free to end users. There are two potential—but not mutually exclusive—conclusions to draw about free VPN providers:

  • Free VPNs just aren’t very good (on account of having fewer resources to secure and maintain the network, let alone to expand or upgrade it).
  • Without generating revenue from direct user payments, free VPN providers must find some other way to cover their operating costs (which typically means selling user data to third parties).

Why free VPNs are ineffective

In general, a VPN service is as effective as the size and quality of its network. With a free service that brings in less revenue, the network is likely to be small, overcrowded, and cobbled together with low-quality hardware. Here’s why that matters:

  • Free VPN providers likely aren’t investing in expensive state-of-the-art server technology in their network infrastructure, meaning less security and slower speeds.
  • Free VPNs might not have very many servers to begin with, and the ones they do have likely attract lots of users, which results in overcrowding and severely degraded connection speeds.
  • Free VPNs likely only have servers in very limited locations—meaning your data might need to travel long distances if there’s not a server near you (again, slowing down your browsing), or that you can’t route your traffic through desired locations to bypass geo-restrictions.

All this to say, your browsing experience can take a major hit when using a free VPN. You’ll likely experience much slower browsing, and may not even be able to connect to servers in the locations you want.

It’s also worth noting that some sites (like content streaming platforms) actively attempt to block visitors from IP addresses known to be associated with VPNs, and VPN providers with less resources to combat these blocks can easily be rendered obsolete at bypassing content restrictions. (This is a challenge for every VPN provider, but those with direct revenue streams have more resources to fight back.)

It’s also common for free VPN providers to impose bandwidth/data limits that prevent you from sending more than a designated amount of data via the VPN’s encrypted tunnel. They may also impose speed limits that arbitrarily slow down your browsing while connected to the VPN.

Paid VPNs, on the other hand, are likely made up of networks with many more servers, in far more locations, resulting in much less crowding and Internet slow-down. Virtually all paid VPNs do away with data limits, and many invest in state-of-the-art server infrastructure to keep your browsing speedy.

Why free VPNs are dangerous

Aside from being slow and inefficient, and perhaps not working for your desired goals like accessing streaming content, free VPNs can also be outright dangerous. Here are some such cases:

Note: These free VPN providers got caught because the user data they collected was leaked online. Many other VPN providers continue to collect and sell user data without being publicly exposed by data leaks.

The most important point, though, is that none of these VPN providers should have stored any of this information—activity logs, names, home addresses, device information, and other personally identifiable information—in the first place. The reason many free VPN providers do store this information is to sell it to third parties, doing the exact opposite of what a legitimate VPN is intended to do—they violate user privacy rather than protect it.

All this underscores the importance of choosing a trustworthy provider.

How to choose a reliable and trustworthy VPN provider

Using a VPN involves placing a lot of trust in the provider, because they could see your Internet activity while you’re connected to the service. When shopping for a VPN, always look for a clear no-logs policy. You should also choose a VPN with a proven track record of reliability and trustworthiness. At the very least, a VPN provider should be transparent, and you should be able to easily find information about where the provider is based, and what privacy policies they adhere to.

Learn more about how to choose the right VPN.

Brave VPN: a secure and private alternative to free VPNs

Keep in mind that operating a VPN service costs money, and if you’re not paying the provider, someone else must be. VPN providers like Brave VPN present a much safer and more reliable alternative to free VPNs, with a strong, proven commitment to user privacy and security.

Brave VPN works system-wide, meaning it protects all your connections—from every app, even outside the Brave browser—on all your devices (across Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows). One subscription covers up to 5 devices, so you can add a layer of privacy to your Internet browsing wherever you go.

Keep in mind that a VPN doesn’t protect you from other forms of Web tracking, like cookie-based tracking or fingerprinting, so most VPNs will fall short in that area. But because Brave VPN is accessed via the Brave browser, you can enjoy built-in protections against these kinds of tracking and a true no-logs VPN in one package. Brave VPN also comes with a 7-day free trial to make sure you’re happy with the product.

If you’re ready to try a VPN that actually does what it promises to, download Brave and check out Brave VPN by clicking the VPN icon in the navigation bar.

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