VPN services are increasingly popular in the era of remote work, but not all VPNs are secure. Here's what you need to know about free vs. paid VPN services.
In an effort to keep their digital networks as secure as possible, businesses are increasingly employing the services of virtual private networks. VPNs have become especially valuable to businesses that now have an influx of employees working outside the office. VPNs allow employees to securely log on to company servers to help safeguard sensitive data, no matter where they are. A simple Google search for top VPN services provides a host of options for both free and paid services. While you might be tempted to jump at a free one to save costs, it is important to understand how each type works and its capabilities first.
Free vs. paid VPNs
All VPN users are looking for services that can cloak their identity and protect their data online. VPNs provide secure remote access to a local network without tracking the user's location or collecting their personal data. Companies use VPNs for remote workers to keep their servers connected to the company network without compromising security.
Paid VPN services make money through subscriptions or other pricing structures. Free VPNs can save a user money by offering limited services, which could suffice for a personal user looking for basic protection.
Beware of free VPN services that offer unlimited protection, because they may be selling your personal information to make up the difference. The worst-case scenario is that a free VPN provider is compromising the security of your data to make money. Do your research on different VPN services to ensure the proper protection of your data.
Differences between free and paid VPNs
Here are the most common differences between free and paid VPNs:
With VPN services, you get what you pay for in terms of security. Maintaining a strong and protected network requires a lot of work and money, so free VPN providers may not put in the same effort as paid VPN services to maintain top-level security protocols.
Paid VPNs keep you completely anonymous online, while free VPNs may cut corners by relying on weak encryption and cheap security methods. This means you may be more susceptible to hackers or cybercriminals attempting to obtain your personally identifiable information when you use a free VPN.
"When it comes to security, trying to cut corners by finding cheaper or even free solutions can often end up costing more than paying for the right solution in the first place," said Jonil Patel, chief information security officer and co-founder of Threat Protect.
While they don't require a subscription fee like paid VPN services do, free VPN services will attempt to make money through advertisements that stream directly into your browsing activities. These ads are the most common way free VPNs make money. Depending on the VPN service you use, you may be constantly bombarded with ads that interrupt your browsing experience. Even worse, these ads may contain malware or other viruses.
Other VPN services seen as "free" (or "freemium") may charge a small monthly fee or are available as add-ons to other security features. A premium (paid) service option allows them to offer free VPN services to the users who choose not to upgrade.
Businesses looking to provide employees with VPNs can save money depending on their size.
Bandwidth and speed
The encryption process is the main indicator of whether you'll have high bandwidth or a strong internet connection when you're connected to a VPN service. VPNs automatically cost you some connection speed due to this process, but you'll notice it more with free VPN services. This is because of their smaller network services and possibly intentional speed disturbances to coax you into upgrading to a paid version.
You may also have to limit the number of devices or users and the time you spend using free VPN services, as some have limited network capacities. Paid VPNs have separate optimized servers for gaming and streaming, making speedy service the norm.
Some free VPN services restrict the available features in an effort to get you to upgrade to the paid versions of their service. This means you may not have access to certain websites, such as Netflix or BBC iPlayer, while using a free VPN service. Paid VPNs can bypass VPN detection systems, allowing you to access restricted websites in countries such as Russia, China and Turkey.
You may also have restrictions on the amount of data you can use and experience delays or interruptions when browsing with a free VPN.
"Development on free tools can also end at any time," said Peter Nelson, senior security engineer at Stern Security. "This means any security vulnerabilities could remain unpatched."
Paid VPN services, on the other hand, may allow you to use their premium features on multiple devices with one subscription without delays in browsing. Other features of paid services include customer support, user-friendly interfaces, ad blockers and malware protectors.
Paid VPN services are dedicated to providing your VPN connection with speed, privacy and ease of connectivity. Free VPN services are less reliable, as some can't keep up with the capacity of users and the maintenance VPN servers need to run smoothly.
"Generally, very small teams who are only seeking small amounts of security opt for the free VPN software," said Pablo Listingart, founder and owner of ComIT. "But among most larger teams, there's a preference toward the paid solutions that can provide the least congested, most trustworthy services."
Online streaming has become the norm in the digital age. Netflix, for example, is a typical streaming agent that may look different as you travel around the world. This is because the content of Netflix has different licensing based on the territories the content is from.
Free VPNs can't access these streaming services because of VPN-detecting software that blocks certain territories. However, paid VPNs can bypass these restrictions by making your location ambiguous and tricking the provider into thinking you are located somewhere that allows these services.
Next to security, user privacy is the main reason for utilizing VPN services. Paid VPNs delete your session data after you've finished browsing, and while some keep logs for diagnostic purposes, they never share or sell your data to other parties.
Free VPN services are less inclined to keep your data to themselves. Some free VPN services state upfront that they sell your data to advertisers, which they then use to interrupt your online activities with ads. This defeats the entire purpose of trying to stay anonymous online with a VPN.
Also, free VPN services may utilize P2P (peer-to-peer) traffic, which essentially sends your data through another user's device and routes others' data through your network in turn. This means your network is possibly connected to other users' networks, putting you at risk for computer viruses, bugs and malware.
When is it OK to use a free VPN?
Free VPNs are good for occasional (rather than long-term) use. If you are taking a short trip or working for a short time in a place with public Wi-Fi, a free VPN service can be beneficial. The important thing to remember is that free VPN services don't come with the same accessibility, ease of use, or functions as paid versions, so they may not be suitable for heavy business use.
"Free tools can sometimes be more complicated to manage and may lack functionality or flexibility to adapt to a growing business," Nelson said.
There are some free VPN versions you should steer clear of entirely, like those that claim they offer unlimited services, because they aren't as secure. Rather, if you want a free service, you should look for premium VPN providers with restricted free plans, since they offer the same security and privacy features as the paid service. They may restrict your bandwidth and usage, but your data and privacy will be protected, which is exactly what VPN services are intended to do. However, the free service may not last, as the company will most likely push for you to upgrade.
"There are dozens of [VPN] solutions; each and every one has its pros and cons," Listingart said. "The best strategy is to be clear on your expectations, begin with your needs, and make sure they're met."