Learning how to use a free VPN safely isn’t hard.
All experts agree that free VPNs are not as secure as paid VPN services. But, if you desperately need an easy way to access geo-blocked content or protect yourself from prying eyes, they are better than nothing.
If you use a free VPN, there are a few tips and pointers you should follow to make sure you stay safe and secure. Want to learn more? Keep reading to learn how to safely use a free VPN.
1. Use a Reputable VPN Brand
A quick Google search shows dozens of free VPN services. Unsurprisingly, they all claim to offer the “most reliable”, “the safest”, or “the most secure.” In truth, many free VPN providers aren’t any of these things.
For example, many VPN users will be familiar with the Hola VPN scandal in 2015. At the time, Hola was one of the most popular free VPNs on the web; it had millions of users around the world. A moderator on 8chan was the first to spot the problem. He discovered that the 8chan site had been the target of multiple DoS attacks from Hola’s network.
When security experts looked into the matter, they discovered that Hola had been selling its users’ bandwidth to the highest bidder, thus effectively turning its entire customer base into a giant botnet.
Ideally, if you do want a free VPN, look for established VPN brands. Services like TunnelBear, ProtonVPN, Hotspot Shield, and Windscribe all have free versions available. Sure, the features are more limited than the companies’ paid versions. But at least you can be confident there won’t be any malware in their apps and that they won’t compromise your connection for illicit means. And some providers, like Surfshark (our Surfshark VPN review) offer free trial versions of their client.
2. Learn to Accept Trade-Offs
That leads to our next point. If you’re using a free VPN, you need to be prepared to make some trade-offs in order to stay safe.
The free versions of the reputable apps we just mentioned all have various restrictions in place. Perhaps you only get a limited amount of bandwidth each month, maybe you won’t access to the entire list of the company’s servers, or you might find that you can’t run the full-featured app on all your devices.
But the trade-off is worth it. Remember, your privacy and security should be your number one concern.
Yes, with some digging, you can find free VPNs that promise the earth—hundreds of servers, unlimited usage, and more. But they’re far more likely to be using your connection for their own gain or monetizing your usage in other ways.
3. Beware of Aggressive Ads
One way “Free” VPN providers monetize your usage is by serving ads. Although ads in general aren’t always bad (they pay the bills), research has shown that many free VPN providers use particularly aggressive ads.
Andy Michael, a security researcher, published the findings in September 2019. He found that four of the most popular free VPN apps on Android—Hotspot VPN, Free VPN Master, Secure VPN, and Security Master—were serving ads while they were running in the background, even if the VPN connection was disabled.
Worse still, the free VPNs continued serving ads in other apps and on the Android home screen, at times covering Android’s navigation bar and thus restricting the usability of your device. The apps even contained obfuscated code that allowed them to show full-screen ads at any time.
Not only are such ads morally suspect, but the type of code they use places a serious strain on your device’s CPU and will drain your battery much faster. Aggressive ads also raise questions about tracking, logging, and other anti-privacy practices.
4. Check the Free VPN’s Country
All four of the apps in Andy Michael’s research were based out of China or Hong Kong—neither of which have a strong reputation for privacy, data protection, and security. It goes without saying that you should avoid VPNs from such places.
Ideally, you also avoid VPNs from countries in the Nine Eyes (Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Norway) and 14 Eyes (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden) intelligence-sharing alliances. You absolutely need to avoid VPNs in the Five Eyes countries (the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand).
5. Never Use a Free VPN to Access Sensitive Material
When using a free VPN, avoid accessing sensitive data. While better than nothing, a free VPN can expose you to man-in-the-middle attacks, in addition to exposing your personal data to third parties.
Never use a free VPN to log into your online banking, medical records, government files, or any other types of data that could leave you compromised if stolen. If someone hacks your Netflix account because you used a free VPN, it won’t ruin your life. If someone steals your identity, it could have profound implications for your future.
6. Use a Free VPN With a SOCKS5 Proxy
A SOCKS5 proxy is a type of internet protocol that can disguise your IP address. It prevents websites from finding your location which means you can access geo-blocked content. A SOCKS5 proxy does not, however, encrypt your web traffic.
Nonetheless, if you’re using a free VPN, you should also use a SOCKS5 proxy with it. The proxy can act as a safety net. Given many free VPNs don’t have advanced features like kill switches, the proxy can help to protect your identity if the free VPN fails while you’re torrenting or performing another sensitive task.
7. Use a Paid VPN
The most reliable way to stay safe with a free VPN is to avoid using them at all. Many paid VPNs offer entry-level plans for just a couple of dollars per month; there’s really no excuse not to sign up.
While VPNs aren’t one-stop shops for privacy, they do help get around geo-blocking and they help secure public internet. For these purposes, we recommend using a paid VPN plan from Windscribe, or Mullvad (our Mullvad VPN review).