Methodology: How We Tested Free VPNs
That’s pretty much it for our list of the best VPNs you can access for free. But if you want to explore your options yourself, here’s an insider’s look at our review process and what we look for when we compare VPNs, whether free-to-use or otherwise.
First of all, we want our VPN to protect our privacy without making much of an impact on our browsing experience, particularly our internet speed. Almost any VPN we’ve ever tested slowed down our connection, but ideally, the difference should not exceed 40 percent in any of the speed categories— namely, the latency (ping), download speed, and upload speed.
We tested free VPNs using Speedtest by Ookla. To make the results uniform, we connected only one device to our router at a time, and then we took a speed test using the device without a VPN. We then performed a second speed test, this time with the VPNs. We logged the results and computed the difference between the latency, download speeds, and upload speeds in terms of a percentage. We performed the tests both on our Mac and Windows computers.
Keep in mind that speed test results don’t always tell the whole story. There are a number of other factors that may affect the results, like our proximity to the server, the current online traffic of both our internet service provider and the VPNs, and the device we used, just to name a few. So while we try to keep our test results as accurate as possible, we don’t fully rely on the speed alone to determine our top picks.
VPNs preserve personal data by encrypting web traffic that could contain personally identifiable information. Unfortunately, while most VPNs do encrypt web traffic, there are some that collect other kinds of metadata that they sell to third parties to turn a profit.
That’s especially true with free VPNs. As they say, “if you’re not paying for a product, you are the product.” To see which VPNs do that and which ones don’t, we looked into their privacy policies and checked which kinds of data they collect and store. There are some, like ProtonVPN, that have strict logging policies, but there are also others that store some types of data but immediately delete everything as soon as you disconnect. Both are acceptable, but ideally, we want our VPN to not collect any data at all aside from the bare minimum it needs to uphold our account.
We also looked at each VPN company’s legal obligations to share customer information with the government. Companies based in member countries of the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes international surveillance alliances are particularly risky because their government could force them to hand over customer information. While we won’t go as far as to avoid them, we want our readers to know the risks.
On the more technical side of things, we tested for DNS and WebRTC leaks using online tools. We can see if VPNs have DNS leaks by comparing our IP address that appears on the DNS Leak Test website.3 A similar method applies to WebRTC leaks, which we test using ExpressVPN’s online tool.4
The performance of VPNs also matters to us. We are always on the lookout for useful VPN features. For instance, we checked if VPNs have a kill switch, which stops all online activity in the event that the VPNs fail to prevent our data from leaking to our internet provider Split tunneling is another useful feature as it allows devices to connect to the Internet through two different tunnels. One tunnel passes through a VPN tunnel, while the other connects to a public network as if there’s no VPN. This feature is useful for multi-tasking and it creates faster speeds as it allows lower bandwidth. Finally, we gave special credit to VPNs with multi-hop or at least double-hop connections, as they encrypt data several times as it hops through different servers.
For this review specifically, we didn’t put much weight on the pricing, given the subject matter. However, we’d like to note that all five free VPNs on our list have paid versions. We base our assessment on a number of factors, including the features the VPNs offer and their pricing compared to competitors. In our experience, paid VPNs could cost as low as less than a dollar per month, but the more expensive ones could cost up to $15 per month.
No matter how tech-savvy we are, we still run into issues we can’t troubleshoot ourselves, so we also like to know how easy (or hard) it is to contact the VPNs’ customer support teams. Email support is not the most ideal for us because most companies are slow to respond to email tickets. We prefer companies with live chat or phone support, and if those channels are available 24/7, even better.
Finally, we looked into both the Android and iOS apps of the VPNs, focusing on their functionality. Are they easy to use? Do they work well? What are other users saying about the apps? We also read customer reviews and compare their observations with ours to see if any patterns emerge.