Protect your privacy online
The best free VPN tools
With the eyes of ISPs growing ever more suspicious and government monitoring fast becoming something tangible and terrifying, the ‘private’ part of Virtual Private Network has never been more important. But hiding your internet traffic inside an encrypted tunnel isn’t the only reason you might want to run a VPN on your machine.
Perhaps you want your network traffic to appear to emanate from elsewhere in the world in order to use region-locked services (presuming, of course, you can do so legally). Maybe you’re looking to seamlessly access your home network while on the road, or don’t trust the security of public Wi-Fi access points. The VPN tag covers a lot of potential uses.
Bear in mind that using a VPN does come with certain disadvantages, primarily that you’ll experience slower internet speed as your traffic is encrypted and routed through the servers of your chosen provider. Free options usually end up throttled compared to their paid-for siblings and might also serve up ads or, in some cases, track your browsing habits to sell on to third parties.
1. CyberGhost 5
The best VPN tool to keep your browsing activity private
CyberGhost is a VPN that truly has its users’ ideals in mind: the company proudly declares that it doesn’t track your activity, and publishes a transparency report to back up its claims.
You can even use its interface to restrict the amount of information you’re passing on to the sites you visit, shutting down tracking cookies, malicious websites, and more. If you want your traffic private and protected, this is our number one choice.
It’s also supremely easy to use, with a simple interface which allows you to select the location of your new IP address, and good visual indication of what’s going on. That said, CyberGhost does run a reasonably limited number of servers, with selections mainly focused in Europe – at the time of writing, the free version offers no location option for Canada or any servers located in Asia.
Tunneling made simple – but watch out for the data limit
Tunnelbear is, as its dev crows, ‘really really simple’ to use. It’s probably the most friendly VPN you’ll find, with straightforward apps available for for Windows, MacOS and mobile devices. It’s also one of the most well-travelled, with a truly worldwide network of tunnels to connect to, routing your data everywhere from Hong Kong to Norway – only its Australia and India nodes are restricted in the free edition.
Much like CyberGhost, Tunnelbear promises high-end encryption and a complete absence of traffic logging. There’s a pretty big kicker: the free version only offers 500MB of data transfer per month, so it’s going to be reasonably useless if you’re using it as a location-spoofing tool to watch geo-restricted video.
For those moments when you’re doing light browsing in a coffee shop, though, Tunnelbear‘s simplicity – and mobile compatibility – may come in very handy as long as you can cope with its slightly twee collection of bear puns.
VNPBook is a simple, convenient way to protect your privacy
If you’re a confident computer user or want to protect more than just a Windows device, VPNBook is a great option. It doesn’t even require any specific software – you just plug the appropriate info into your machine’s system settings and you’re connected.
It uses your choice of point-to-point-tunneling (PPTP) or OpenVPN to encrypt your traffic and fire it out of one of six servers, three in Europe and three in North America.
Being rough-and-ready, though, VPNBook does have its issues. We can’t vouch for the specific encryption used, for a start, and its open nature (and potential for abuse) means it uses a password which changes frequently.
If your ISP blocks PPTP connections, you’ll need to use OpenVPN’s client software – which pretty much nullifies the benefit of its compatibility with phones and games consoles. But for an ad-free, no-nonsense VPN connection it’s a great choice.
4. OpenVPN Server
Setting up your own VPN server is an enterprise-level option
While the OpenVPN team produces a more user-friendly VPN option in the form of PrivateTunnel – which offers only limited data transfer in its free form – and many of the other options here use OpenVPN tech to get the job done, it’s worth putting in the (considerable) effort to install an OpenVPN server on a home machine. You’ll need to stump up some cash if you want to make use of more than the two client connections included with the server installation, but this is a proper VPN.
Set up its server properly, connect to it with the OpenVPN client software, and you’ll not only encrypt your network traffic but gain access to your home network as if you were connected locally — all your shares, files and machines at your fingertips.
Make no mistake, though: building your own OpenVPN server is enterprise-level stuff, certainly not for the faint-hearted given the amount of configuration required, and its absolute overkill for most purposes. But if you’re in this for the ‘network’ side of VPN, look no further.
5. Hotspot Shield Free
A promising VPN tool, but the ads and toolbars are overbearing
It’s been around for a while and has something of a mixed reputation: Hotspot Shield is a cracking VPN, but suffers some pretty heavy drawbacks that are required to contribute to its upkeep.
However, Hotspot Shield dev Anchorfree has recently made steps to improve its service to free users. While you’ll have to put up with a decent number of ads and frequent pleading to upgrade to its Elite version, some of the more insidious aspects – browser toolbars, page-injected advertising – are on the outs.
While it’s quick, easy to install and available in a neat Chrome extension version, we still struggle to recommend Hotspot Shield Free fully. There’s a 750MB data cap per day, a single USA output locale, and access to many video streaming sites is hidden behind the paid Elite subscription.