Digital Trends may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

Are free VPNs safe? What you need to know

You’ve probably at least heard of virtual private networks (more commonly referred to as VPNs) and if you’re at all concerned with digital privacy and security, you might have already done a bit of research on them and have been pricing them out a bit. You’ve likely also noticed that there are some free VPN plans out there, which might seem too good to be true — after all, if these services cost money to operate, why would anybody offer it for free?

That’s a fair question, and as you can imagine, there’s a pretty big catch with those “free” VPNs. Virtual private networks require hardware infrastructure to run (which means money), and free providers have to recoup their costs somehow. They typically do this by collecting and selling your data to marketers, which means they’re likely keeping some sort of activity log. This defeats much of the purpose of using a VPN — protecting your online activity, habits, and information from third parties and other assorted snoops — in the first place. And in any case, are you really willing to risk your online security just to save a few bucks each month?

That’s not to say that free VPNs are necessarily bad, at least in the sense that they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do (which is encrypt your internet connection and reroute it through the VPN operator’s remote servers). Also bear in mind that free VPN plans are going to be rather limited. They may have data caps, and they’ll certainly have speed caps. There will be restrictions on which security protocols you can use, which devices you can use, and which global servers you’re allowed to route your connection through if you can even have control over any of these at all. They also lack advanced features like ad-blocking and malware protection, making them considerably less safe. All of these are reasons why, in general, we recommend that you ditch free plans and set up a VPN through a trusted provider like NordVPN.

All that said, good virtual private network providers often offer free “money-back guarantee” periods that function as free trials, letting you cancel your plan and receive a full refund (usually within 30 days), and some, like NordVPN, also often run specials that include a few free months. This gives you a bit of time to give a VPN service a spin and decide if it’s a good fit for your digital lifestyle before you have to fully commit to a subscription. More good news is that the best VPN services actually aren’t that expensive considering the security and peace of mind that they deliver, and most also have different plans you can choose from. Longer-term yearly plans are the best value and usually only come to only a few dollars per month.

Here are the top four virtual private network providers we trust the most, including some more about each one, how much they cost, and whether they offer a free trial to new subscribers.

Secure VPNs you should be using

  1. NordVPN — from $12/month
  2. ExpressVPN — from $13/month
  3. Surfshark — from $13/month
  4. IPVanish — from $11/month

NordVPN

There’s a very good chance you’ve heard of NordVPN already, which is not a huge mystery considering that this is the most highly trusted virtual private network provider out there today. It’s our own top pick, too, because it has all the features we want in a VPN. You can use split-tunneling to choose which sites and services you want on the VPN and which ones you don’t (if you don’t want to encrypt 100% of your online activities to improve performance for things like gaming, for instance), and it boasts more than 5,000 servers in 59 countries worldwide. It also works great on both PC and mobile devices with intuitive app controls.

Pricing for NordVPN plans ranges from $12 per month for the monthly tier to $89 for the two-year plan (which comes to only $3.30 per month, making this package the best value by far). This allows you to connect and use up to six devices on your NordVPN service at a time.

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is a fierce competitor to NordVPN and another contender for the best virtual private network service provider. It’s slightly more expensive, but the trade-off is that you have more server locations to route your connection through — ExpressVPN operates more than 3,000 servers in 94 countries (160 locations total) that are well-spread across the world — with no bandwidth restrictions. It’s also compatible on virtually all devices, from computers and mobile devices to smart TVs and gaming consoles, and offers good speeds along with a pretty straightforward setup process.

ExpressVPN is a little pricier than the competition, but it’s a solid choice if you want more regional servers and no-brainer compatibility across multiple devices. The service plans ring in at $13 per month, $60 for six months, or $100 for one year (which comes to $8.32 monthly) for use with up to five devices simultaneously. You also get a 30-day risk-free money-back guarantee.

Surfshark

If you’re looking for the best cheap VPN and even NordVPN’s two-year plan is more than you want to spend at once, Surfshark is the one. Its server list isn’t quite as impressive as that of the other big-name providers like ExpressVPN, but it delivers solid connection speeds, can be run on an unlimited number of devices (yes, really — no device limits!), and does pretty much everything that we want a virtual private network to do, right up to offering built-in ad-blocking and malware protection. The fact that it’s cheap and runs on an unlimited number of local devices simultaneously makes Surfshark a great choice for families and offices.

The price is also highly appealing. Although the monthly plan costs $13 per month (the same as ExpressVPN), you can grab a two-year package for $120 (billed $60 per year). That comes to a dirt-cheap $2.50 monthly for a solid virtual private network you can use with all of your devices. Who needs a free VPN?

IPVanish

Last but certainly not least is IPVanish, which is another low-cost option that offers some nice value-added features. Chief among these is its optional backup service add-on, which automatically backs up data of your choosing in a secure encrypted cloud. This not only guards you against ransomware attacks but allows you to restore lost data in the event of theft or a hardware/software failure (such as a computer crash and the resulting file system corruption). IPVanish also operates more than 1,600 servers in more than 75 locations worldwide, and, like Surfshark, there are no restrictions as to how many devices you can connect to the VPN at once.

The backup service is an optional add-on, so you’ve got more IPVanish plans to choose from. The VPN itself is available for $11 per month or $45 for your first year ($3.75 per month), but reverts to its usual price of $90 per year after that. The VPN + Backup plan comes to $13 monthly or $50 for your first year (which averages to $4.17 per month), then $100 per year after that.

Editors' Recommendations