Free vs paid VPN: Which is best for you?

Whether you want to protect your privacy online or just want to cover your security bases while using public Wi-Fi, virtual private networks (VPN) put another layer between your device and the internet. The best VPNs work by routing your internet connection through a VPN server before accessing the rest of the internet, putting a secure tunnel between your device and the servers from which you’re pulling data. VPNs are a good way to give yourself some peace of mind online.

Free VPNs, however, are a bit trickier to trust because, at the end of the day, somebody has to pay for those servers. Many free VPNs are offered as more of a trial for a full service with restrictions that make them impossible to use all the time. Even so, these free VPNs can be excellent in a pinch for downloading a few emails or sending messages when you’re away from your home or work network.

Free VPNs have data and speed limits

Speedtest free VPN with 2GB of data

The most significant restriction with free VPNs is data. Free VPNs often give you just enough data to browse the web or access email without worry, but if you try to download larger files, you’ll find that you run out of data rather quickly. Streaming video and attending online meetings can also add up rapidly.

One of the best free VPN services, Hotspot Shield, comes with 500MB per day on the free plan. That’s less than an hour of Disney+ with quality set to Save Data. If you plan accordingly, however, and stick to light usage, these free VPNs can be an excellent way of protecting yourself online as long as they’re from a reputable provider.

Proton VPN, on the other hand, doesn’t have a data cap, but speeds can be lower than paid accounts, and streaming isn’t supported. The paid version comes with faster VPN speeds and more servers in more countries. Using an unlimited paid VPN means you can leave it connected all the time without giving up too much speed or worrying about running out of data.

A VPN is nothing without its servers, and much of the time, the best servers are reserved for paying customers. Proton VPN, for example, has over 100 servers in three countries for free users but 2,900+ servers in 65 countries for paid ones. The capacity of these paid servers can be higher, but mostly, there are simply more of them to go around. If you look at Proton VPN’s server page, you’ll also see that the free servers are often very close to full capacity, which means that speeds can suffer. Proton VPN’s paid servers also support P2P file transfer, such as BitTorrent and Tor.

Whether you’re trying to view sites locked to certain regions or save money on merchandise that’s sold cheaper in another country, a VPN with plenty of servers gives you the best chance for success. Some VPN services even specify servers for streaming with extra upkeep to keep them from getting locked out.

Protect your privacy

While many free VPNs enjoy the same level of privacy as their paid counterparts, some companies may take advantage of you. VPNs may not be as safe as they seem, and at the end of the day, your network traffic is passing through the VPN, so you want to be sure the company isn’t holding onto records any longer than they absolutely have to and has a proven record of respecting users’ privacy.

Your browsing information is valuable and can be used to learn a great many things about you in addition to your shopping habits. A free VPN needs to make money somehow to keep operating, so you want to be sure that it’s not doing that by selling your data. Advertisers hate wasting their money, and if they can already identify an intent to purchase based on your browsing habits, their ads can be much more effective.

A free VPN needs to make money somehow to keep operating, so you want to be sure that it’s not doing that by selling your data.

You also can’t know with full confidence whether your stored data is being held securely. If your data isn’t properly secured, a bad actor might also be able to use it to aid in a phishing scam, such as offering a fake warranty for a product you’ve likely purchased. While many of us are pretty savvy about tech scams, making one mistake and sharing key information can lead to weeks of headaches.

Reputable VPN providers will tell users exactly how long they keep logs and what type of information is stored. Typically, the best paid VPN providers don’t keep any logs at all beyond what’s needed to sign you into their software, helping keep your usage private. If you’re considering a VPN, make sure you know what type of data it’s keeping and how long the provider holds onto it.

ExpressVPN on an iPhone

Most free VPNs will severely limit the number of devices you can have connected through a single account to just one. If you want to get more devices online at a time, a paid VPN will come with many more connected devices, so you can have your phone, tablet, computer, and more protected by the same VPN. You can even get a router with VPN support to protect even more devices without needing to install profiles on each one.

Besides the basics, many paid VPNs have switched to a more full-service format with malware protection and ad-blocking. Surfshark, for example, offers an ad blocker and cookie pop-up blocker with its basic package. The cookie pop-up browser automatically declines cookie requests on websites, so you don’t accidentally accept anything you don’t mean to.

Of course, you can toggle ad-blocking off if you don’t want it or if it’s causing issues visiting a website.

You shouldn’t use a VPN for everything

VPNs sound like a perfect solution from the ads, but they can also disrupt your internet experience in some ways. First and foremost is speed. Even with the latest protocols, you’re very likely giving up some of your internet speed when connecting to a VPN.

You’re also adding another hop to your connection on its way to the destination, which can hurt ping times. Ping is the time it takes for data to be transmitted between your device and the internet. A low ping is essential to responsive online gaming, and while a high-quality VPN adds only a few milliseconds to your connection, it can still impact your game. A VPN can be a reliable way of connecting to servers in another region, but for most people, it should be left off for gaming.

Which VPN should you pick?

When it comes to picking the right VPN, it really comes down to what you need it for. If you’re just grabbing a few emails on public Wi-Fi, a trusted free VPN should do the trick. A free VPN is also fine for general browsing but may fall flat when it comes to streaming music or video. Free VPNs may also struggle to keep up with a video meeting if the server is close to capacity, which can lead to interruption.

Hotspot Shield is one of our favorite free VPNs because it offers a decent chunk of data renewed daily. The 2Mbps connection won’t be great for streaming, and neither will the 500MB of data, but for shooting off a few emails in an airport or using financial apps on an unknown public Wi-Fi connection, Hotspot Shield is a good choice.

Hotspot Shield offers a free, easy to use VPN service that can be toggled with a click of one button.
Hotspot Shield

Hotspot Shield

Hotspot Shield is free and easy to use with a solid 500MB of data per day with up to 2Mbps. While limited to a single connection for free, this VPN has enough data and speed for securely browsing and emailing from a public connection.

If you are using a VPN for work, it’s always a good idea to check with your company to see if it already uses a VPN. Many companies and organizations, like colleges, will have VPNs to their network for workers or students who travel. You may also already pay for one with an antivirus package or even Google One.

Finally, a paid VPN makes sense for someone who wants to download large files using BitTorrent, secure multiple devices, and stream without worrying about usage. Paid VPNs support many more servers than free VPNs, so you can find a server with a relatively low load or in a location that works well for your needs to keep performance high. If you want to stream video from another country, a paid VPN with streaming-optimized servers will give you the best overall experience.

One of our favorite paid VPNs is Mullvad, which has plenty of servers to find a strong connection in a wide range of countries. If you’re hesitant about paying for your VPN with a card, you can also pay for Mullvad with cryptocurrency, bank wire, or even cash if you mail it in. You don’t even need to provide an email address and phone number to Mullvad with everything linked to your generated account number.

Mullvad is a trustworthy, fast, and easy-to-use VPN. It also comes with a lot of server locations.


Mullvad is an affordable VPN with over 650 servers in 43 countries. Mullvad accepts a wide range of payment methods including credit card, cryptocurrency, bank wire, and even cash.

The truth is, most of us don’t need to use a VPN all the time, and features like two-factor authentication paired with a little common sense are all the security many people need. Still, a VPN is a very convenient backup plan when you’re using public Wi-Fi that tracks your usage, or a connection that you aren’t quite sure is secure.