It costs money to run a VPN service. Even the most basic service must purchase or rent servers, pay qualified staff to configure and maintain them, and employ and train knowledgeable support staff.
To stand out in today’s crowded VPN marketspace, providers must hire talented developers to build high-quality software with advanced features, creative designers to make their software easy and intuitive to use, and website designers and marketing specialists to promote their product. And so much more.
This means no one, no matter how philanthropic they might be, can run a traditional VPN service without a viable business model. This includes free services.
There are non-traditional options available, including running your own personal VPN server and participating in a community peer-to-peer VPN network such as VPNGate. However, while such options have their uses, they invariably come with serious limitations compared to commercial VPN services.
In this article, we look at commercial VPN tunnels vs. free VPN options, examine their strengths and weaknesses, and explore when (or if) it would be appropriate to use each option.
- Most free VPN services
- Freemium VPN
- Proton VPN Free
- Roll your own VPN
- Paid VPN services
- Proton VPN Plus
Most free VPN services
- Streaming and P2P may be allowed
- Will almost certainly keep logs
- Will almost certainly target you with ads
- Will probably sell your data
- Will probably share your details with partners
- May infect your device with malware
The “traditional” VPN model is for a private company (the VPN provider) to offer its customers access to VPN servers it owns or rents. It provides all the software, support, and other infrastructure needed for this to work. As noted above, this costs a considerable amount of money — not just for the initial setup but also for the ongoing costs required to keep the service running.
A VPN service needs a sustainable business model to pay for all this. The simplest such model is to charge for its services. And indeed, this is what most reputable VPN services do.
To compete with often well-funded, paid-for VPN services, hundreds of VPNs exist that claim to be “free” because they don’t charge you actual money. But as the old saying goes, “if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product”.
Arguably most “free” VPNs use one or more of the following underhand methods to fund (and profit) from the service they provide:
- Target you with ads
- Sell your personal data
- Share your details with partners
- Infect your device with malware
For a more detailed look at this subject with many egregious examples of these tactics being used in practice, please see our article on How do free VPNs make money?
- Reputable business model
- Most won’t keep logs
- Usually extremely limited data and speeds
- No streaming or P2P
- May target you with ads
The only reputable way for a commercial company to offer a VPN service for free is to fund it through a paid-for tier. The problem is that for most companies, the sole purpose of the free tier is to encourage people to upgrade to the much better paid-for tier.
Consequently, the “free” tier is often little more than a free trial with strict data limits (typically under 500 MB per month) and artificially slow speeds. Even worse, many providers supplement their income by serving ads to their free users (which are removed when they upgrade to a paid plan).
No one working on this kind of “freemium” model allows users to stream media content or P2P torrent on their free plans, as the cost of doing this would be unsustainable.
Proton VPN Free
- No data limits
- No logs
- No artificial speed limits
- No ads
- Servers in three countries
- No streaming or P2P
Proton VPN offers a Free plan that’s supported by our paid plans. However, unlike most other “freemium” VPN services, our Free plan does not exist purely as a business gambit. Proton was founded to make online privacy the default for everyone by scientists who met at CERN.
We offer a 100% no-strings-attached Free plan as a core part of our mission. It allows activists, journalists, and every day people to evade censorship and access the internet free from government surveillance. It’s why Proton VPN exists.
With our Free plan, there are no data limits, no logs, no ads, and no artificial speed restrictions. Our free servers in the Netherlands, Japan, Romania, Poland, and the United States aren’t as fast as our Plus servers simply because of how many people use them. But our Free servers are much faster than most other free VPN options.
If you are on our Free plan, you have access to some of our advanced features, including:
- Smart Protocol — Intelligently probes networks to discover the best VPN protocol configuration needed for optimal performance or to bypass censorship
- Alternative routing — Helps defeat censorship by routing your connection through third-party networks such as AWS when access to our servers is blocked
- Stealth — Our custom WireGuard-based VPN protocol designed to defeat many forms of advanced censorship
Roll your own VPN
- Free (excluding the cost of your hardware or server rental)
- Can defeat censorship
- Has some limited security advantages
- Might be able to stream (from a single location)
- Does little to improve your privacy
- Not suitable for P2P
- It’s your responsibility to ensure the setup is secure
- You don’t benefit from R&D that expert engineers put into optimizing network connections (such as Proton VPN’s VPN Accelerator)
If you have some technical ability, it’s not too hard to configure a VPN server on your own hardware or rented server space (bearing in mind that renting server space and data isn’t free). You can then connect to your VPN server from your other devices.
This setup will protect you against criminal hackers when using public WiFi, but with the modern ubiquity of HTTPS, this isn’t the problem it once was. It can also defeat censorship if the VPN server is located somewhere where the internet isn’t censored (assuming no advanced DPI techniques are used).
Websites and P2P peers will see the IP address of the VPN server, but if you’re running the VPN from home, this will be your home IP address anyway. Even if you use rented server space, the server’s IP address can be easily tracked back to you and is a fixed point of reference that websites can use to identify and track you.
This contrasts with commercial VPN services, where many customers typically share the same IP address and where you are likely to routinely switch between many different VPN servers and IP addresses. This prevents websites from being able to link you to any single IP address.
And unlike most commercial server providers, commercial VPN services make it their business to keep no logs and take measures to ensure no one can trace your internet activity back to you.
If you configure DNS correctly, a home-grown VPN server can prevent your internet service provider (ISP) from seeing your web browsing history, but this requires greater technical know-how than setting up a simple VPN server.
If you configure a VPN on a server located in a different county, you might be able to stream geo-restricted services from that country. However, renting service space isn’t free, there are no guarantees it will work (or continue to work), and you will only be able to access services from that country.
- Might be a useful anti-censorship tool
- Very slow (at least from outside East Asia)
- No reason to trust volunteer-run servers
- University of Tsukuba collects a lot of metadata
VPNGate is a volunteer-run distributed VPN network developed primarily as an anti-censorship tool by the University of Tsukuba in Japan.
VPNGate is genuinely free because each “VPN server” in its network is run by a volunteer — usually on their home systems. That’s why it doesn’t need to support an expensive infrastructure. The University of Tsukuba publishes extensive technical information about VPNGate on its website, but its support is limited to a volunteer-moderated forum.
Thousands of servers are available, although most are located in Japan, with a few in South Korea, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
As an anti-censorship tool, VPNGate has its uses. However, we found (testing from western Europe) that the connection speeds on all the servers we tested (including those in the UK) were so poor as to be effectively unusable for simple web browsing (let alone streaming or P2P). The service might possibly be better if you’re geographically closer to Japan when you connect.
Another big issue is that each server states its logging policy, but there is no way to guarantee that it abides by this policy. The University of Tsukuba also keeps extensive connection logs for “three or more months”.
There may be other examples of free peer-to-peer community VPN networks, but we aren’t aware of any. However, any similar setup would likely suffer from similar problems.
Paid VPN services
- Lots of VPN servers
- No logs
- No data limits
- Good speeds
- Streaming and P2P allowed
- Often offer additional features
- Not free
- Source code is usually closed
- Many VPN services are owned by the same company
- Affiliate marketing
A successful paid VPN service has a reliable revenue stream that it can use to invest in good VPN infrastructure, pay talented programmers to develop easy-to-use software with advanced features, hire qualified support staff, and all the other things that go into making a premium VPN experience.
Commercial VPN services typically run thousands of VPN servers in many countries around the world, offer high-speed connections, and are adept at unblocking geo-restricted streaming services. Some have even developed effective “stealth” measures to overcome advanced VPN censorship.
However, most VPN companies offer closed-source apps, so you can’t know for sure that they are doing what they are supposed to be doing, and only what they are supposed to be doing. You should also be aware that many of the many popular VPN services are owned by a very small number of companies.
Another issue with many paid VPN services is they use an affiliate business model, where they pay VPN comparison sites and social media personalities to recommend them in return for financial compensation.
Proton VPN Plus
- All the usual benefits of a paid VPN (see above)
- A host of useful advanced features
- Not free
At Proton VPN, our free service is supported by our paid VPN service. With our paid service, you can use Proton VPN on up to ten devices at the same time, connect to over 1,900 high-speed 10 Gbps servers in over 65 countries, and access premium features that enhance both your VPN and your general internet experience. These include:
- NetShield Ad-blocker — Block ads, trackers, and malicious scripts
- High-speed P2P torrenting support with port forwarding — Share and download files over P2P protocols while still being able to access local resources
- Browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox — Protect your internet connection without needing to install our app
- Secure Core — Prevent man-in-the-middle and timing attacks with our secure double-hop VPN implementation where the first server is located only in a privacy-friendly country
- Tor over VPN — Conveniently access the Tor anonymity network and Onion sites without the Tor browser
- Streaming — Watch your favorite shows, movies, and sports events when traveling away from home
Additionally, purchasing a Proton VPN Plus plan supports our Free plan, providing private and secure access to the uncensored internet to those who need it most.
Rolling your own VPN server can be a useful option if you have the technical know-how and privacy is not your primary motivation for using a VPN. Most other “free” options are simply not very good and can be malicious. An exception to this rule is the Proton VPN Free plan, which is a key part of Proton’s work to make the internet a better place for everyone.
However, if your VPN needs go beyond being private on the internet and evading online censorship, you should choose a commercial VPN tunnel over a free one. A paid VPN service opens up a wealth of additional possibilities.