Article updated on April 13, 2024 at 2:05 AM PDT

Best Free VPN for 2024: Affordable Risk-Free Privacy

Using a free VPN can be risky. But you don't have to compromise your privacy with a free version of a premium VPN service.

Our Experts

Written by 
Attila Tomaschek,
Rae Hodge
Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement
Attila Tomaschek
Attila is a Staff Writer for CNET, covering software, apps and services with a focus on virtual private networks. He is an advocate for digital privacy and has been quoted in online publications like Computer Weekly, The Guardian, BBC News, HuffPost, Wired and TechRepublic. When not tapping away on his laptop, Attila enjoys spending time with his family, reading and collecting guitars.
Expertise Attila has nearly a decade's worth of experience with VPNs and has been covering them for CNET since 2021. As CNET's VPN expert, Attila rigorously tests VPNs and offers readers advice on how they can use the technology to protect their privacy online and
Rae Hodge Former senior editor
Rae Hodge was a senior editor at CNET. She led CNET's coverage of privacy and cybersecurity tools from July 2019 to January 2023. As a data-driven investigative journalist on the software and services team, she reviewed VPNs, password managers, antivirus software, anti-surveillance methods and ethics in tech. Prior to joining CNET in 2019, Rae spent nearly a decade covering politics and protests for the AP, NPR, the BBC and other local and international outlets.
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VPNs Tested

We intensively test each VPN, making sure it meets our standards for privacy, speed and usability.

See Price at ProtonVPN

Best Free VPN

ProtonVPN

The only free plan we recommend

50% off with 24-mo plan
See Price at ProtonVPN
Pros
  • Highly transparent
  • Open-source
  • Unlimited free plan
Cons
  • No live chat support
  • Split tunneling only available on Android and Windows
  • Occasional speed dips
Savings 50% off with 24-mo plan
Latest tests No leaks detected, 9% speed loss in 2020 tests
Network 1,700-plus servers in 91 locations across 64 countries
Jurisdiction Switzerland

Proton VPN's free tier is the only truly free VPN we've encountered that's worth using. True, it lacks support for torrenting and doesn't include all the bells and whistles as its paid subscriptions, but Proton VPN's free tier is secure and doesn't put limits on speed, data or usage time like most other free VPNs do. And Proton VPN doesn't track you or serve you ads like other free VPNs do. We were even able to access Netflix using Proton VPN's free servers. Free users get access to servers in three countries (US, Netherlands and Japan) and can connect one device at a time. 

All of its apps across platforms are fully open-source and are routinely audited by third-party cybersecurity professionals. Proton VPN has all the standard security features you'd expect from any VPN provider worth its salt, including a kill switch, DNS leak protection and AES 256-bit encryption included on its free tier. Paid subscribers get additional security protections like an ad/malware blocker, access to Secure Core servers, Tor over VPN and a stealth protocol to help cloak the VPN connection and bypass firewalls. Proton VPN's paid plans cost $72 per year or $10 per month and include access to servers in 69 countries and support for 10 simultaneous connections. Paid plans also include a 30-day, money-back guarantee.

See Price at ExpressVPN

Best Overall VPN with a free trial

ExpressVPN

Privacy protection and transparency

49% off with 12-mo plan (+3 free months)
See Price at ExpressVPN
Pros
  • Strong commitment to privacy and transparency
  • Forward-thinking security enhancements
  • Excellent for streaming
  • Streamlined, easy-to-use app across platforms
  • Privacy-friendly jurisdiction (British Virgin Islands)
Cons
  • DNS leaks detected (but immediately addressed)
  • Expensive
  • Only eight simultaneous connections
  • Apple TV app needs work
Price $13 a month, $60 for six months or $100 for a year
Latest tests DNS leaks detected, 25% speed loss in 2024 tests
Network 3,000 plus servers in 105 countries
Jurisdiction British Virgin Islands

ExpressVPN is currently CNET’s pick for the best VPN overall, scoring an 8.8/10 on our VPN rating scale. It’s a veteran VPN provider that consistently demonstrates a strong commitment to privacy and transparency. It’s also excellent for streaming and the easiest VPN app to use on any platform. But for the best, you’ll need to pay a premium -- ExpressVPN is one of the most expensive VPN providers currently on the market. The service costs $13 per month, $60 every six months or $100 per year, which is considerably more expensive than the $11 per month or $60 per year that Surfshark charges. NordVPN is more in line with ExpressVPN on price at $13 per month or $100 annually (after a promotional $60 price for the first year). While it's not technically a free trial, you can request your money back within 30 days.

Though fast enough for most any online activity, ExpressVPN’s speeds are not quite as fast as some of its competitors, based on our latest speed tests. In 2024, we measured a 24.8% average speed loss with ExpressVPN. This is still fast, considering that many VPNs can slash your internet speeds by 50% or more. However, we saw substantially better speeds from NordVPN (11% speed loss) and Surfshark (17% speed loss). Still, ExpressVPN’s speeds were largely consistent and aligned with our expectations across protocols and server locations. ExpressVPN’s speeds were still plenty fast enough for general browsing as well as for more data-intensive activities like streaming, gaming and videoconferencing -- especially if you use Lightway.

When we most recently evaluated ExpressVPN for privacy and security, we uncovered an alarming bug in its Windows app that sent our DNS requests to our ISP instead of to ExpressVPN’s dedicated DNS servers when we had the split tunneling feature enabled. This meant that our true IP address, general location and the websites we visited were exposed. We notified ExpressVPN, who immediately disabled split tunneling from its Windows app as a temporary solution while engineers got to work on a permanent fix. We were impressed with the transparency with which the company acknowledged the situation, promptly publishing a and a comprehensive . Shortly thereafter, ExpressVPN was able to roll out a fix to its Windows app that resolved the DNS issue and . During our tests with the updated app, we detected no leaks with or without split tunneling enabled. The DNS leaks were concerning, but the decisive response from ExpressVPN was illustrative of the company’s commitment to transparency and user privacy.

In addition to offering excellent privacy protections, ExpressVPN delivers the most consistent and streamlined VPN app experiences across platforms. Its minimalist interface is simple to use, whether you’re an advanced VPN user or if you’ve never used one before. The app settings are easy to navigate and finding a server location is straightforward. We like how the app always connects in a snap, which isn’t always the case with other VPNs -- like Surfshark -- which often struggle to connect immediately on the first attempt. If you want the best for streaming, ExpressVPN is a good bet because it effortlessly unblocks all sorts of streaming content, including Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video.

See Price at Surfshark

Best Cheap VPN with a free trial

Surfshark

Extensive features at a great price

$2.69/mo with 24-mo plan (+4 free months)
See Price at Surfshark
Pros
  • Lots of unique security features
  • Unlimited simultaneous connections
  • RAM-only server network
Cons
  • Inconsistent speed performance
  • 14 Eyes jurisdiction (Netherlands)
  • No transparency reports
Price $11 per month, $48 for the first year (or $59.54 for 2yrs)
Latest Tests No leaks detected, 17% speed loss in 2023 tests
Network 3,200-plus servers in 100 countries
Jurisdiction Netherlands

Surfshark boasts an impressive suite of privacy and security features, unlimited simultaneous connections, easy-to-use interface and expansive global network. We're particularly interested in the rollout of its Nexus network, whose Dynamic MultiHop, IP Randomizer and IP Rotator functions can give you a few extra layers of protection while you use the VPN. Surfshark's significantly cheaper price earned it CNET's Editors' Choice for Best Value VPN. Surfshark offers a 7-day free trial if downloaded through the App Store or Google Play store. Like ExpressVPN and sister company NordVPN, Surfshark also offers a 30-day money-back guarantee.

See Price at NordVPN

Best VPN for Speed with a free trial

NordVPN

Perfect for power users with a free trial

Pros
  • The fastest VPN we tested
  • Tons of features
  • Diskless RAM-only server infrastructure
Cons
  • Not as transparent as VPN rivals
  • Complicated pricing structure
  • Only six simultaneous connections allowed
Price 67% off + 3- month VPN coupon with every 2-year plan bought.
Latest tests No leaks detected, 11% speed loss in 2024 tests
Network 6,000-plus servers in over 60 countries
Jurisdiction Panama

NordVPN's widespread marketing campaigns have made it one of the most recognizable VPNs on the market. Nord remains a popular VPN option thanks to its fast connections, privacy-focused features and excellent geo-unblocking for streaming services, all of which our 2024 tests reaffirmed. Its combination of user-friendly design that doesn't compromise on settings makes it an outstanding choice for casual VPN newcomers and seasoned power users alike. Like most of our top picks, NordVPN offers a 30-day, money-back guarantee, letting you try the service without committing to it. If you do decide to sign on, you’ll have the option of paying $13 monthly, $60 annually or $96 total for two years. The promotional price is initially less than rivals like ExpressVPN, but more than budget-oriented companies like Surfshark and PIA. Subsequent price hikes drive the price to $100 per year, which aligns with many other VPN providers, including Express.

In our 2024 speed tests, NordVPN solidified itself as the fastest VPN available, boasting a best–in-class 11.1% average internet download speed loss. Using its NordLynx VPN protocol, we measured an average internet speed loss of just 3.2% with Windows and 12.6% on MacOS. On OpenVPN Nord’s average speed loss was a blazing-fast 10.1% with Windows and 18.8% using Windows. We do recommend an OpenVPN connection for more privacy-critical users, but other users should be fine to use the much speedier NordLynx protocol, and thankfully Nord’s outstanding performance means you won’t sacrifice speed for privacy either way. With apps for Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android/Android TV, iOS/iPadOS, browsers and even Apple TV, Nord runs on almost any platform you can think of.

We appreciate NordVPN's commitment to privacy and security. In addition to features like Onion over VPN (Tor) and a Double VPN, which deliver additional encryption, a 2023 audit by Deloitte backed up its no-log claims for improved transparency. Folks with serious privacy needs can even buy a Nord subscription with cryptocurrencies for pseudo-anonymity. While zero-logging policies are challenging to verify with absolute certainty, third-party audits provide peace of mind. On the entertainment side, we had no issues streaming US and UK Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney Plus libraries on most devices. 

NordVPN’s global server network comprises more than 6,000 servers spanning over 60 countries. That’s a little short of the international reach of competitors like Surfshark and ExpressVPN, but a planned expansion in Q1 of 2024 should increase Nord's server count to 100 countries. Overall, NordVPN sports advanced privacy features in an intuitive service.

What is the best free VPN right now?

Proton VPN is currently the best free VPN. The vast majority of free VPNs impose heavy restrictions on things like data allowance, usage time and connection speeds, making them practically useless for anything beyond the most negligible of online activities. Proton VPN imposes no such limitations on its free users. Though the free tier has access to only three server locations and doesn't include the full suite of features you get with a paid subscription, it delivers the same level of encryption and includes the privacy features you need. It's also fast and works well with streaming services. We're currently retesting Proton and will publish an updated review later this month.

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How we test free VPNs

When we evaluate a free VPN, the main thing we look at is how safe the VPN is to use. In other words, we want to be as certain as possible that the VPN isn't logging user data or selling it to outside parties and we want to ensure that the encryption the VPN employs is up to industry standards. We test for leaks and to see if privacy features like a kill switch work properly. We also evaluate how useful the free VPN is for the average user, in a practical sense. Is it fast enough for general browsing? Does it allow for streaming? Does it have data or usage limitations? A good free VPN is safe to use and is actually useful because it doesn't impose overbearing limitations that render it essentially ineffective as a VPN.

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Factors to consider in a free VPN

Privacy

The primary consideration for any VPN should be privacy. If a free VPN is unable to sufficiently protect your online privacy, then that VPN is useless. At a minimum, your VPN should employ industry standard AES 256-bit encryption along with offering basic privacy protections like a kill switch, DNS leak protection and a no-logs policy. Those basic standards should be included in any free VPN you're considering. For critical privacy needs, you'll also want a VPN provider that is based in a privacy-friendly jurisdiction and has a RAM-only server architecture. Also, look for a VPN that undergoes regular third-party security audits, as audits can help bolster trust in the VPN's ability to protect its users' privacy. It's important to do your research and make sure the company behind the free VPN you're considering is legitimate and isn't tracking and selling your data.

Speed

The speed of your VPN can have a major effect on activities like streaming, downloading, video conferencing, gaming and general web browsing. To keep things running as smoothly as possible, you'll want to look for a VPN that will have as minimal an impact on your regular internet speeds as possible. Many free VPNs put limitations on speeds, but there are some -- like Proton VPN -- that don't. In such cases, you can actually achieve decent speeds.  

Usability

A good free VPN should run smoothly and be easy to use regardless of your technical expertise. It should also be free of severe limitations that prevent it from doing what you need it to do. 

Free VPN FAQs

What's the best free VPN?

Proton VPN's free tier is the only free VPN we've come across so far that's worth using. It costs a lot of money to operate a VPN, and free VPN services usually make up for the lack of subscription revenue by selling user data. And in addition to being limited in usability and light on security, many free VPNs are fronts for malware distribution, which is why it's generally best to avoid them. However, Proton VPN's unlimited free tier is fast, secure and can be used for most online activities, including streaming Netflix. But if you're on a budget and want access to a premium VPN solution, you can also take a look at our picks for the best cheap VPNs.

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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.

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?

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Why you shouldn't use a free VPN

1. Free VPNs simply aren't as safe

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 iOS and Android VPN apps -- 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. 

In 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 June update on the Top10VPN investigation.

In 2021, 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 -- despite the security features on offer, 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 in 2019, 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. 

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. More recently, however, HotSpot Shield was among just a handful of VPN apps found to respect users' refusal to permit ad-tracking. In a November 2021 study from Top10VPN, just 15% of free VPN apps respected iOS users' choices when they declined voluntary ad-tracking. The rest of the free VPN apps tested by Top10VPN simply ignored users' Do Not Track requests.

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.

4. Buffering... buffering... buffering

One of the top reasons people get a VPN is to access their favorite subscription services or streaming site -- 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, despite a good internet connection?

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 VPN, 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 streaming 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 software for you. If you're looking for something mobile-specific, we've rounded up our favorite mobile VPNs for 2024.

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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