VPN. Those three letters stand for a secure internet browsing experience (or Virtual Private Network, if you’re being technical).
A VPN provides privacy, so your digital business won’t be known by anyone else but you. It means security, so no one else can access the information on your computer. And, it changes your IP address, so you can appear to be in a different location than you really are.
Many people are taking advantage of this magic by downloading free VPNs with a click of the keypad. No commitment security – sign me up!
But there are a lot of VPN providers that you can pay for with a subscription as well.
“Wait, why would I pay for a VPN subscription when I could download one for free?”
Great question. A question we answer here.
This article will explain what you are signing up for with a free VPN, what you get with a paid VPN and why it’s worth the purchase, the pros and cons of each option, and how you can make the best VPN decision for your internet browsing needs.
Back to Basics: Why VPN is Critical for Anyone Not Living Under a Rock
Let’s backtrack a little. Security and privacy are great, but why is a VPN really necessary? Is simply browsing the internet putting you at risk?
To answer this question, let’s look into what a VPN actually does.
You can think of a VPN like a secret tunnel that connects your computer to a server. This server encrypts your activity (which means its coded into a tech-language that only your VPN server understands), so that no one else can know what you are doing on the internet except for you.
So, that’s pretty neat. But, why would you need that kind of connection with secret codes and private tunnels?
Public WiFi + ISPs = Personal Data Disaster
Here is an everyday scenario for you.
You’re at a coffee shop, and they have free WiFi, no password or anything! Score! But, you have no idea who is watching the activity on that network. It’s completely available to the public, which means the information you have stored on your computer as well as your internet activity is vulnerable.
Think about all your passwords, your credit card information, phone numbers and addresses– your computer has it all stored. And since free, public WiFi offers zero encryption security to its users, all of this information is susceptible to hacking, and pretty much any amateur hacker could access it.
The secret tunnel and encryption provided by a VPN protects that information and keeps your internet activity private and secure from hackers, or even the WiFi operator itself. Though the network may be called “FreeCoffeeShop-Guest”, there is no guarantee it is actually operated by the coffee shop. Anyone can name a WiFi network anything they want.
Then, there are the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to think about. Your ISP has free reign to track and collect all of your internet activity data. They can then use this for target-advertising, or they can take sell the information they’ve collected from you and sell it to other companies for a profit.
Basically, if you don’t want to be hacked, or have your information broadcasted or handed off to some random company for money, then you need a VPN.
After that reality check, you probably just opened another tab in your browser to start searching VPNs. In your search, you will find that there are free providers and paid providers. So now, let’s dive into the paid vs free VPN debate.
Free VPN: What You Get and What You Don’t
It’s true. You can download and benefit from the privacy of a VPN for free! And free is great, right?
Well, you know how it goes, nothing in life is free.
While a free VPN will provide the encryption and security you are looking for (if your provider is honest), there are going to be strings attached, and not all VPNs are created equally.
The Hidden Cost of “Free”
If the idea of a free VPN sounds too good to be true, that’s because a free VPN doesn’t make sense. Think about the basic economics. These services are free to users, but it is expensive to run and maintain VPN software. So, how does that work?
Information and Activity
These “free” VPNs run off of ads, and as we’ve learned, targeted advertisement is a new, valuable product. So many free VPNs take advantage of the wealth of internet activity data they are receiving from their clients by selling them to third-parties for a profit.
This means in essence you are still paying for your VPN with your activity and data. While you think you are receiving secure browsing activity, you are really contributing to a data farm scheme for free VPN providers.
Poor Quality Service
It’s also very hard to know that your VPN provider is actually doing their job and staying true to their security claims.
VPNs use different protocols that determine how your data travels between your computer and the server. The top three protocols are SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol), IKEv2 (Internet Key Exchange, Version 2), and OpenVPN. What’s important about this is that many free VPNs use a protocol called PPTP, which is outdated and no longer considered secure. The encryption code for PPTP was cracked, meaning your data is still completely vulnerable.
Wired magazine reports that a study conducted by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) found that, “18% of the mobile VPNs tested created private network ‘tunnels’ for traffic to move through but didn’t encrypt them at all, exposing user traffic to eavesdropping or man-in-the-middle attacks.”
Even if you can find a free VPN vendor that is trustworthy, a “free” service means that companies won’t usually provide quality or up-to-date software, won’t have a fast connection, will disconnect frequently, and don’t offer much support.
And the worst-case scenario. Your supposed “free VPN” is actually malware (think like a virus) that is specifically aimed at stealing your information and bringing you down digitally.
VPN malware can hack into your online bank accounts and steal your money, steal any digital products or software you have, or lock/encrypt your devices in exchange for money. Yikes.
Another CSIRO study found that 38% of free Android VPNs contain malware. These free VPNs are highly rated by users and currently being used by millions of people who have no idea they are actually getting the opposite of what they are looking for with this service.
Again – you get what you pay for.
Paid VPN: All the Goodies
Not interested in having your data tracked and sold or possible computer corruption?
There is another option. Let’s talk about what you can get with a paid VPN vs a free VPN.
Here are some things paid VPNs will provide you, and what you should look for when considering
The basic function of a VPN is to provide you with secure, private
internet activity. The best VPNs will not only do their job and actually encrypt your activity and change your IP address, but
they won’t keep any records of the websites you visit or the files you download to use for their own benefit.
Paid VPNs have logging policies that you can view which will show you exactly what they are (or hopefully are not) collecting from you. You want to look for a provider that has a no-log policy, which clearly states they will not track and/or log your IP address, browsing history, traffic destination, or perform DNS (Domain Name System) queries. This means you can have all the security promised to you without the underhand collecting and dealings of your personal data.
While getting all that security, you want to make sure response and downloading times are speedy. You also want to make sure connections are strong and not being dropped frequently.
Paid VPNs can offer top downloading speeds for whatever your VPN use is, and thinking about that use is important. Your definition of “speed” is dependent upon what you are using your VPN for. Do you need speedy downloads? Speedy streaming? Or speedy response time?
Whatever your VPN need is, you can find a paid VPN service that will offer top-notch speed.
Your devices do a lot of different things for you, and your VPN needs to be able to keep up with that. A paid VPN is going to give you versatility by protecting your internet activity no matter what you are doing or what device you are using.
Many paid VPNs allow for multiple devices to be supported at once (some providers up to offer up to 10 devices), and they have easy-to-use, configurable apps so you can complete whatever task you need to securely.
Paid VPN companies have the revenue to host servers in many locations, which means no matter where you go, you will be covered and protected. And with more servers in place, the faster connections VPN services can offer due to close proximity and less traffic on each server.
Signing up for a paid subscription means you will also be offered customer support and services when you need it. You can find paid VPNs that offer 24-hour customer service, tutorials and guides, live chat support, and more.
Paid vs Free VPN: Pros & Cons
Now that you’ve got all the information for both paid and free VPNs, let’s review and look at them side-by-side to make some comparisons.
Obviously, this is the number one pro of a free VPN. It’s a completely non-committal way to get security, privacy, and an IP address change.
- Basic security:
The PPTP protocol used by many free VPN providers will not give you full-proof protection. But if you don’t care about strong encryption, then you should be able to benefit from the basic security encryptions and IP address changes that free VPNs provide.
- Risking your information with non-credible source:
The possibility of malware is very real with free VPNs, and it is hard to detect what kind of malware you could be getting yourself into before creating an account.
- Data collecting and selling:
Here’s where the “free” VPN no longer becomes free. You are paying for your service in your data and browsing activity, which is then being sold for a profit to the free VPN provider.
- Security flaws:
Free services don’t have any paying customers holding them accountable for their actions, and it is possible that your free VPN is more concerned with gathering and using your data and less concerned with potential security flaws or breaches.
- Slow connection:
Even if you can find a free VPN that’s trusted and doing its job, chances are it will be very slow, disconnect frequently, and therefore be very frustrating to use. Free VPNs aren’t looking for customer satisfaction, simply because they don’t have to.
- No support:
Customer support will be little to nothing with a free VPN, so you will be on your own with any technical difficulties.
Free VPNs are only a good idea if you do your homework and can find a vendor you trust. Check out the origin of the VPN service. If they are based in a country with sketchy security history, you might want to reconsider. There are a number of free VPN providers that are backed by antivirus providers, so there can be trustworthy free VPN vendors out there, but you need to do your research to protect yourself and your data.
- Security and encryption:
With a paid VPN, you can be assured that your provider will be delivering on its promise to encrypt your data and provide a secure connection.
- IP address change:
A good, paid VPN vendor can offer tens of thousands of different IP addresses that will mask your location and help you remain untraceable.
- No-log policies and no data selling:
A paid VPN company doesn’t need to generate revenue through selling data, so it won’t need to track or log your browsing history activity.
- Speedy connection and downloads:
Multiple servers in multiple countries equals a fast, dependable connection that will allow you to download or stream with ease.
- Multiple device capability:
User-friendly mobile apps are a high selling-point for paid VPNs, and many vendors offer apps for smart TVs as well.
- High quality technology and usability:
While it is expensive to run VPN software, the money you pay your provider with will go toward offering quality technology and designing user-friendly interfaces to ensure security and customer satisfaction.
- Support and free trials:
When you pay for a VPN, you pay for customer service and support from the vendor’s team. Many providers also offer free trials, so you can test out the software and see if it works for you.
Some of the high-end VPN services can cost around $10 per month, which is pretty pricey for a service that technically can also be provided for free.
- Possible usability frustrations:
Even if you choose to pay for your VPN, you will inevitably run into glitches, slow connection, server issues, etc. Paying for a service that doesn’t meet your expectations can be very frustrating.
As you can tell, paid vs free VPN pros and cons are basically inverted. While the main pro to a free VPN is the cost, the list of cons proves it might not be worth the risk. On the other hand, paid VPNs have a long list of pros that are stable and secure, and the cost is the only con.
So what’s worth it to you? Is it worth the risk, or do the risks outweigh the cost of security?
5 Things to Consider Before Choosing a Paid vs Free VPN in 2019
So, you’re ready to commit. But, there’s some business to take care of first. You want to make sure you know what you’re looking for before you look for it.
Here are a few things to help guide you in the search of paid vs free VPN software:
1. Your VPN needs
What kind of security are you looking for specifically?
Are you a frequent user of public WiFi and you want protection? Downloading torrents that you don’t want to be traced back to you? Do you have a lot of sensitive data on your device that you want to secure? Are you traveling and need to get around firewalls (or just want to watch some Netflix)?
Different VPNs will offer different specializations for these needs. If you’re just looking for some basic security, a trusted, free VPN might be fine. But for anything more, you will want to look into paid VPN options based on your needs.
2. Personal Budget
If security is a priority but the budget is tight, it might be worth it to do a lot of research and find a trusted, free VPN provider just to have some protection. Or, you can choose a free VPN provider that also offers subscriptions that you can upgrade to later.
But, if digital protection is worth the money for you, research the paid VPN providers that will offer the most bang for your buck.
3. Research the Reviews
Look into what the users are saying about the product, but also be sure to look into articles and reviews written by the experts. Trustworthy sources will be able to give you comparisons of different VPNs and judge the overall quality of service based on individual features.
4. Home Country and Exit Servers
Where a VPN company is located makes a difference in your choice. Whether it is a free or paid VPN service, you will want to avoid companies located in dicey locations security-wise. If you are traveling to a specific place, you’ll want to make sure your provider has servers there.
5. Data Usage Cap
Many free VPNs have a data cap, while many paid VPNs do not. If you are going to be using a lot of data, you will want to make sure you choose a VPN that will support that.