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Best free VPN: Try these services for up to 30 days, risk-free

Avoid the malware, ad tracking and slow connections that come with free VPNs -- by using free versions of safer providers.

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When it comes to free VPNs, there's always a price to pay. 

Seamind Panadda/EyeEm/Getty Images

Your VPN should be reliable, fast and able to work on both your laptop and phone with no issues. So when it comes to choosing a VPN service, quality should come before cost. You shouldn't risk using an unreliable VPN just to save a few bucks every month. 

While free VPNs are a popular option for discount shoppers and deal hunters, as recent security issues highlight, it's worth it to pay for reliable technology that encrypts your data while you browse online. If you absolutely must use a free VPN, use the introductory versions or the free trial deals offered by a service from our list of trusted VPN providers

Yes, you read that right: If you have to use a free VPN for a short period of time, the safer alternative is to take advantage of a money-back guarantee on a paid VPN service, or test drive a free trial offer on a paid VPN. To that end, our top recommended VPNs all either offer a free version of the premium service or a 30-day assessment period. Here are the top contenders we've found:

  • NordVPN offers a risk-free 30-day trial period
  • ExpressVPN is our current Editors' Choice VPN and, while it doesn't have a standard trial period, it does offer a 30-day money back guarantee. Express also currently offers three months of free service when you sign up for a one-year plan (in other words, 15 months of service for the price of 12). However, there is one exception: If you sign up for ExpressVPN by downloading the app on an iOS or Android device, you'll be offered a seven-day free trial there. But this only works in certain countries, including the US.
  • If ExpressVPN isn't in your budget, check out Surfshark's $2.49 a month offer on its two-year plan. 
  • ProtonVPN offers a limited free version of its product (one device only, limited download speeds) as a way for users to get a fee-free test drive of the service. It's the one narrow exception to the "avoid free VPNs" rule (see below).
NordVPN

NordVPN is a die-hard heavy-hitter and one of the most recognized brands in the virtual private network field. Its two-year plan costs more than Surfshark but less than Express, and it has an enormous network that's constantly getting faster and more secure. It's also easily the most reliable service we've tested.

While NordVPN doesn't have an "official" free trial, it does offer a 30-day money-back guarantee. That means you can try it out for a full month and simply request a full refund before your 30 days is up. You just need to remember to cancel your account before your free trial period is over. The VPN provider also used to offer a seven-day free trial of its VPN app for all iOS and Android subscribers, but that offer is now currently limited to Android devices only.

Read moreNordVPN review: Still the best value for security and speed

ExpressVPN

Thanks to its overall performance and impressive security, ExpressVPN is our current Editors' Choice VPN. Like NordVPN, Express doesn't have a standard trial period, but it does offer a 30-day money-back guarantee. It also currently offers three months of free service when you sign up for a one-year plan (in other words, 15 months of service for the price of 12). However, there is one caveat: If you sign up for ExpressVPN by downloading the app on an iOS or Android device, you'll be offered a seven-day free trial there. This only works in certain countries, including the US.

Read moreExpressVPN review: A VPN speed leader with a secure reputation

Surfshark

While Surfshark's network is smaller than some other VPN providers, it makes up for it on features, connection speed and price. And its unlimited device support is a huge bonus too. If you want to run your entire home or office on Surfshark's VPN, you don't have to worry about how many devices you have on or connected. It also offers anti-malware, ad-blocking and tracker-blocking as part of its software.

If you purchase any of Surfshark's subscriptions, you get a 30-day money-back guarantee, meaning you'll have a full month to try it out before claiming a full refund. But the best part is that if you try it out and you do like it, you'll be getting a bargain at just $2.49 a month for a two-year plan.

Read moreSurfshark VPN review: A feature-rich service with blazing speeds and a security focus

ProtonVPN

We'd like to see ProtonVPN's premium service come down a bit on price, but in the meantime, you can sign up for its free version, which isn't as speedy but still offers unlimited bandwidth and data. But be aware that with ProtonVPN's free tier, you'll get support for just one device and access to servers only in the Netherlands, Japan and the US. For access to 55 countries and up to 10 devices, you'll need to upgrade to the paid version.

Along with its options to send your traffic through a secure bunker of private servers, we love ProtonVPN's transparency policies: It's completely open-source with routinely published audits, and includes a built-in route to VPN into Tor servers. We're also confident recommending its mobile app since it has eliminated the use of some weaker security protocols, like PPTP and L2TP, which are still used by some other VPNs. 

Read moreProtonVPN review: A secure service with a solid reputation that costs a pretty penny

Why use a trial instead of a free VPN? 

Staying in the arena of trusted providers by test-driving free versions of secure products may seem cumbersome, but with a VPN market this competitive, there's no better way to find the right fit for you. And it's better than handing your logins and browsing history to an untrustworthy entity.

In July 2020, for instance, Hong Kong-based free VPN provider UFO VPN was among seven free VPN services keeping detailed information on its users, as uncovered by Comparitech. A database of usage logs -- including account credentials and potentially user-identifying information -- was exposed, highlighting why you can never really trust a VPN's no-logs claims. To make matters worse, six more VPNs, all of which were apparently sharing a common "white label" infrastructure with UFO, were also reportedly logging data.

It's helpful to think of a good VPN like a bodyguard for your bank account. When you go for a stroll through the bustling lanes of public Wi-Fi, your VPN shields you from password pickpockets and keeps you out of unsafe areas. You trust your VPN with your online privacy and most precious information. Maybe even your family's, too. So when a VPN provider offers to guard your digital life for free, the first question you should ask is: What's in it for them?

Whatever virtual private network you choose, here are five reasons why you should never use a free VPN. 

1. Free VPNs simply aren't as safe

As our sister site Download.com previously reported, free VPNs can be very dangerous. Why? Because to maintain the hardware and expertise needed for large networks and secure users, VPN services have expensive bills to pay. As a VPN customer, you either pay for a premium VPN service with your dollars or you pay for free services with your data. If you aren't ordering at the table, you're on the menu.

Some 86% of free VPN apps on both Android and iOS -- accounting for millions of installs -- have unacceptable privacy policies, ranging from a simple lack of transparency to explicitly sharing user data with Chinese authorities, according to two independent 2018 investigations into free VPN apps from Top10VPN. Another 64% of free VPN app offerings had no web presence outside of their app store pages, and only 17% responded to customer support emails. 

As of June 2019, Apple reportedly brought the hammer down on apps that share user data with third parties. But 80% of the top 20 free VPN apps in Apple's App Store appear to be breaking those rules, according to a July 2019 update on the Top10VPN investigation.

In August 2019, 77% of apps were flagged as potentially unsafe in the Top10VPN VPN Ownership Investigation -- and 90% of those flagged as potentially unsafe in the Free VPN Risk Index -- still posed a risk. 

"Google Play downloads of apps we flagged as potentially unsafe have soared to 214 million in total, rocketing by 85% in six months," the report reads. "Monthly installs from the App Store held steady at around 3.8 million, which represents a relative increase as this total was generated by 20% fewer apps than at the start of the year as a number of apps are no longer available."

On Android, 214 million downloads represent a lot of user login data, culled from unwitting volunteers. And what's one of the most profitable things one can do with large swaths of user login data? 

2. You can catch malware 

Let's get this out of the way right now: 38% of free Android VPNs contain malware, a CSIRO study found. And yes, many of those free VPNs were highly rated apps with millions of downloads. If you're a free user, your odds of catching a nasty bug are greater than 1 in 3. 

So ask yourself which costs less: a secure VPN service for about $100 a year, or hiring an identity theft recovery firm after some chump steals your bank account login and Social Security number?

But it couldn't happen to you, right? Wrong. Mobile ransomware attacks are skyrocketing. Symantec detected more than 18 million mobile malware instances in 2018 alone, constituting a 54% year-over-year increase in variants. And last year, Kaspersky noted a 60% spike in password-stealing Trojans. 

But malware isn't the only way to make money if you're running a free VPN service. There's an even easier way. 

Read more: Red flags to watch out for when choosing a VPN

3. The ad-valanche

Aggressive advertising practices from a free plan can go beyond getting hit with a few annoying pop-ups and quickly veer into dangerous territory. Some VPNs sneak ad-serving trackers through the loopholes in your browser's media-reading features, which then stay on your digital trail like a prison warden in a B-grade remake of Escape from Alcatraz.

HotSpot Shield VPN earned some painful notoriety for such allegations in 2017, when it was hit with a Federal Trade Commission complaint (PDF) for over-the-top privacy violations in serving ads. Carnegie Mellon University researchers found the company not only had a baked-in backdoor used to secretly sell data to third-party advertising networks, but it also employed five different tracking libraries and actually redirected user traffic to secret servers. 

When the story broke, HotSpot parent company AnchorFree denied the researchers' findings in an email to Ars Technica: "We never redirect our users' traffic to any third-party resources instead of the websites they intended to visit. The free version of our Hotspot Shield solution openly and clearly states that it is funded by ads, however, we intercept no traffic with neither the free nor the premium version of our solutions."

AnchorFree has since offered annual transparency reports, although their value is still up to the reader.

Even if possible credit card fraud isn't a concern, you don't need pop-ups and ad-lag weighing you down when you've already got to deal with another major problem with free VPNs.

Read more: How to identify a good VPN: 3 features to look out for

4. Buffering... buffering... buffering

One of the top reasons people get a VPN is to access their favorite subscription services -- Hulu, HBO, Netflix -- when they travel to countries where those companies block access based on your location. But what's the point in accessing the geo-blocked video content you've paid for if the free VPN service you're using is so slow you can't watch it?

Some free VPNs have been known to sell your bandwidth, potentially putting you on the legal hook for whatever they do with it. The most famous case of this was Hola, which was caught in 2015 quietly stealing users' bandwidth and selling it, mercenary-style, to whatever group wanted to deploy the user base as a botnet.

Back then, Hola CEO Ofer Vilenski admitted they'd been had by a "spammer" but contended in a lengthy defense that this harvesting of bandwidth was typical for this type of technology.

"We assumed that by stating that Hola is a [peer-to-peer] network, it was clear that people were sharing their bandwidth with the community network in return for their free service," he wrote.

If being pressed into service as part of a botnet isn't enough to slow you down, free VPN services also usually pay for fewer VPN server options. That means your traffic is generally bouncing around longer between distant, overcrowded servers, or even waiting behind the traffic of paid users.

To top it off, subscription streaming sites are savvy to those who try to sneak into their video services for free. These services routinely block large numbers of IP addresses they've identified as belonging to turnstile-jumping freeloaders. Free VPNs can't afford to invest in a long list of fresh IP addresses for users the way a paid VPN service can.

That means you may not even be able to log into a subscription media service you've paid for if your free VPN is using a stale batch of IPs. Good luck getting HBO Max to load over that VPN connection. 

5. Paid options get better all the time

The good news is that there are a lot of solid VPNs on the market that offer a range of features, depending on your needs and budget. You can browse our ratings and reviews to find the right VPN service for you. If you're looking for something mobile-specific, we've rounded up our favorites for 2021.

If you'd like a primer before deciding which service to drop the cash on, we have a VPN buyer's guide to help you get a handle on the basics of VPNs and what to look for when choosing a VPN service.

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