Free VPN vs. Paid VPN: Which is best for you?

VPN related terms
VPN related terms (Image credit: Android Central)

A free VPN, or virtual private network, is a wonderful thing — as many things that are free tend to be. But, as is also often the case, you get what you pay for and a paid VPN is often better. That said, it all depends on what you need. So which is the best VPN for you, free or paid?

The price difference between these two options is clearly big, going from totally free to the average monthly price of a VPN which is about $10. But subscribe for longer and you save money that way.

The downside of going for a free option — and one of the main differences between the two — is the amount of data you can use. A free service will have a limit on your data usage in most cases, be it daily or monthly. Once you've gone over that data limit you will no longer be able to use the VPN. There is one unlimited service, but there are other limits, more on that below.

So a free VPN is a great option for those that want it for limited use — perhaps to check a map or certain website while abroad, for example. But for those that want to check emails in bulk, stream music, and watch online video — a paid VPN is going to be needed.

How much data does a free VPN offer?

One of the best free VPN options is Hotspot Shield VPN, which also has a premium version should you want to upgrade. At its most basic, the free service is good for up to 500MB of data per day. Not a small amount for browsing websites, but very little if you want to watch your latest Netflix show, for example.

A monthly data allowance of 15GB, which that equates to, does sound like a lot but since you can't roll over that daily limit, it's not that much. But, of course, it depends on what you need it for. For bulk use, you might want to go for a service like Windscribe which offers a lower 10GB data allowance but it's spread over the month so you can use that as you need. Tweet about the service and you'll get an extra 5GB, and each time you refer a friend you get an extra 1GB also.

ProtonVPN has no limits on data but, before you get excited, this has other limits to incentivize you to upgrade. That means only one device can be used and there are only three server locations plus speeds can be limited. You will be throttled on speed if a lot of paid users are online as they get priority. There is also no P2P torrent support from this service.

What are the problems with a free VPN?

Aside from the data limit, there is also the issue of connection speed. A service like Hotspot Shield premium has over 1,800 servers across over 80 international locations. But if you go for the free version you won't be able to pick and choose servers. The result is spotty speeds.

You could get lucky and have a really great connection at a local server. But you could end up connecting to a slower server that's really far away and struggles with speed. In the case of Windscribe, which offers more liberal free data use, it is limited to servers in the U.S., UK, Hong Kong, and Canada only.

Another issue is that with the free service you'll have to put up with ads. Yup, nothing is ever really free, as they say. But if you don't mind pop-ups then this could be a good option to save you a bit of money and still get you the security of a VPN.

What's good about a free VPN?

Despite being free, you'll still be accessing secure servers. This means that your location and identity, via your IP address, will be hidden. That helps you stay anonymous online as well as more secure than using an open connection.

In the case of Hotspot Shield you get military-grade encryption, meaning your data is kept super secure in transit so even if someone were to, somehow, get hold of it, they wouldn't be able to decipher it anyway.

What does a paid VPN get me?

This is the key question as you're committing to a monthly or annual payment for a service. Of course, you'll get all the security of an encrypted connection but you'll also get unlimited data. That means you could be abroad and still watch all your favorite Netflix shows without the worry of running low on your data allowance.

The other important thing to keep in mind is that you'll be able to select the server that you want. This is a huge advantage as you could connect to U.S. Netflix while you're in Europe, say. This is also really helpful if you're somewhere like China where VPN use is restricted and you may need to try a few server locations to actually get online.

Best VPN Services 2020

Speeds are usually faster on paid-for VPN services. Although there is the free option, Speedify, which is all about rapid connections but that will be limited with just 1GB of data allowance per month. We recommend ExpressVPN for anyone looking to pay for a VPN.

What is the best free VPN?

Depending on what you need, as an all-around service, Hotspot Shield is great for free access to 15GB of data per month at 500MB per day with decent speeds and top security. Want to get bulk data that you use when you like? Then the Windscribe service with 10GB per month is for you. If it's all about speed and you don't need much data then Speedify is ideal. Don't care about speed but want unlimited data? Go ProtonVPN.

What is the best paid VPN?

If you've decided what you need can't be provided by a free VPN then you'll want to take a look at ExpressVPN. In all our testing it's come out on top time after time. It's fast, secure, has great customer service with 24/7 live chat, gets you Netflix abroad, supports torrents, and works on five devices at once with lots of clients to suit all sorts of tech. The pricing is average but what you get is anything but that.

How do I find the best VPN deals?

Free versions not cutting it for you? You don't have to go broke while signing up for a new VPN service. We've rounded up all the best VPN deals for you. We keep it up to date with coupons, price drops, and other promotions that are available. Be sure to check back often!

We test and review VPN services in the context of legal recreational uses. For example:

1. Accessing a service from another country (subject to the terms and conditions of that service).

2. Protecting your online security and strengthening your online privacy when abroad.

We do not support or condone the illegal or malicious use of VPN services. Consuming pirated content that is paid-for is neither endorsed nor approved by Future Publishing.

Luke Edwards