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Best free and paid VPNs -- and why you need one

About VPNs

A VPN, or virtual private network, gives you a secure tunnel to the Internet. It can protect your data over public Wi-Fi, help you skirt Internet filtering and geographical content restrictions, and help you avoid being tracked online. Businesses sometimes run a corporate VPN so that employees working remotely can connect securely to the firm's servers and not endanger company data and documents.


VPN FAQs

  • Free versus paid VPNs: Which is better?

    If you need a VPN infrequently -- say, while waiting for a flight at an airport terminal -- a free service might meet your needs. A handful of VPN providers offer a free version of their service with a monthly data cap or with limited capabilities.

    A subscription plan would be a better choice if you want a VPN with no data cap, support for multiple devices like Windows PCs and Android phones, or access to servers in multiple regions.

    Some VPNs, such as Cisco AnyConnect, require a business license before you can use them ( Android, iOS).

    Either free or paid, you want to make sure you're picking a service that you can trust and that's actually protecting your privacy.


Best Free VPNs

TunnelBear

TunnelBear VPN puts a friendly face on security, helping you protect your privacy via a bear-themed private network. The solid (and entertaining) free version has a monthly data cap.

Avira Phantom VPN

Avira distinguishes itself with a low-key approach, a clean and compact interface, and a wide variety of optional settings.

Betternet

Betternet offers a free, ad-supported version of its VPN with unlimited monthly data.


Best Paid VPNs

IVPN

IVPN provides a feature-rich package of security, privacy, customer support, and connection types.

VPN by Private Internet Access

Private Internet Access' VPN is a simple-to-use way to secure your Internet traffic. If you want to adjust your level of encryption, it offers a useful collection of security settings.

Private Tunnel VPN

Private Tunnel, from the makers of the open-source OpenVPN protocol, offers an affordable way to keep your Internet traffic safe and private.


What to Look for in VPNs

With a few minutes' effort, you can get an idea of whether a VPN provider is acting responsibility or possibly doing something shady.

Privacy. First, do a search on the VPN's name and "privacy policy," which should get you to a page that discusses how the company handles user logs. A service has plenty of good reasons to monitor network activity. But some companies sell customer activity logs to third parties to cover the expense of the VPN service. Look for whether your provider collects logs, what it logs, and what it does with those logs. If you can't even find a website for the service, that's a tip-off to be careful.

Geoblocking. If you want to evade geoblocking, check that the VPN has an exit node in the region you want to visit. And, if you can, check that the VPN hasn't been blacklisted by the service you are trying to access.

Security. Check our story to see a few tests you can run to see how well a VPN is protecting your data.

Finally, many VPN services use the open-source OpenVPN software to create a private connection and a respected encryption tool such as AES or Blowfish to encrypt your data. While a VPN provider may have valid reasons for not using industry-standard tools, it can be challenging to gauge how effectively the service is guarding your data when the code is not open.


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Clifford Colby follows the Mac and Android markets for Download.com. He's been an editor at Peachpit Press and a handful of now-dead computer magazines, including MacWeek, MacUser, and Corporate Computing.