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What is the difference between a free VPN and a paid VPN?

Free products typically come with hidden costs, but not always. With a VPN service (virtual private network) users are looking for connectivity, speed, reliability, privacy and anonymity. Free VPNs and subscription-based VPN services differ considerably in terms of their offerings. For the most part, anyone requiring a little more privacy with their online communications will find a free VPN useful. On the surface of it, the fundamental difference between a free VPN vs paid VPN is the monthly subscription fee.

As we dig deeper, we quickly learn that there is more to this saga than meets the eye!

Benefits of using a free VPN service

  • A free VPN service offers you cloaked (anonymous) browsing on the Internet. Your IP address will not be visible to websites you are visiting – other than the VPN server – to allow you greater freedom, privacy and anonymity online.
  • A free VPN service is available at zero cost. It is possible to enjoy free VPN services in several ways, notably signing up with a VPN provider offering a 30-day money back guarantee, and then claiming your money back after 30 days (making it 100% free), or simply picking the free VPN option of a paid VPN provider.
  • A free VPN service typically doesn’t require a user to signup (register) using any of your biographic information, financial information, or personally identifiable data. In other words, you have much greater anonymity when using a free VPN service.

Pitfalls of using a free VPN service

  • Free VPN services always limit your usage (megabytes) and the number of servers available to you. They do this to prevent customers from overloading their servers by strict limits on usage capacity and accessible servers. In other words, you will have far fewer options available to you when connecting to a VPN service.
  • Free VPN services are congested by their very nature. This means that it usually takes an inordinate amount of time to connect to the server and the websites you are visiting. There are many lags, delays, hanging pages, disconnects, and other interruptions you will face. Every free VPN service will slow down your browsing speed – regardless.
  • Free VPN services are not generating direct incomes from customers – they are 100% free – so the VPN company has to generate income from ads. This means that your online connections will be bombarded with advertising material. This is a tremendous annoyance and could be associated with malware, adware, tracking, viruses and other unwanted cybersecurity threats.
  • Free VPN services are insecure. Since these products are provided to users for free, not much time and effort is dedicated to securing these networks. It takes money to build rock-solid network infrastructure, and free VPN services aren’t it. Weak encryption protocols often mimic malware and this affects protection. Government agencies, hackers and other cybercriminals can easily infiltrate free VPN networks.
  • Free VPN services have been associated with many botnet attacks over the years. Consider the case of Hola in 2015. This free VPN was abused by hackers to infiltrate websites by using customers’ bandwidth.
  • Free VPN services are sometimes operated by companies with nefarious intent. As such, they can easily track, monitor and record all of your online communications and sell it to 3rd parties. Remember that companies offering free VPN services need to generate income and they often do this by selling user data.
  • Free VPN services may act just like your ISP provider – they can track all of your information, making the reason for selecting them in the first place redundant. 

Benefits of using a paid VPN service

  • Paid VPN services typically provide users with a solid network infrastructure comprising hundreds, perhaps thousands of servers across dozens of countries around the world. This means that you have far greater accessibility to secure servers in different countries. Not only does this make it easier for your traffic to remaining encrypted, it also speeds up your online browsing activity since there is significantly less congestion to deal with compared to free VPN services.
  • Paid VPN services generate income streams from their clientele. This means they can dedicate the necessary resources to enhancing the safety and security of their networks. Paid VPN services typically feature open source protocol with SSL (secure socket layer) encryption technology. Other paid services use additional encryption layers such as IPsec and Layer 2 Tunnel Protocol (L2TP).
  • Paid VPN services offer the added advantage of multi-platform support and access, no limitations on bandwidth capacity, and a variety of additional features which will boost your online security.
  • Paid VPN services provide clients with round-the-clock customer support and service via email, live chat, telephone, or an online contact form. While you will likely not be required to use customer support, it is a useful feature when technical/connection issues arise.

Pitfalls of using a paid VPN service

  • Paid VPN services require users to pay a monthly, semi-annual, or annual fee for use of the services. Depending on the VPN service you use, these fees can be substantial.
  • Paid VPN services are not all trustworthy. Some of them will retain logs of your information and sell it to 3rd parties, or will have no hesitation sharing your logs with the authorities if necessary. Consider the case of PureVPN which claimed to have a ‘no logs’ policy and actually provided user logs to the FBI in 2017.
  • Paid VPN services may claim to have a ‘no logs’ policy, but customers have no way of verifying the veracity of that claim. What is true is that your online communications between your computer and the VPN service are 100% visible to the VPN service provider – paid or unpaid. That’s why it is imperative to select a VPN service that is trusted by its users and extensively reviewed by people with technical expertise.
  • Many paid VPN services are located offshore in ‘dodgy’ jurisdictions such as the British Virgin Islands, Panama, Granada, et cetera. The regulatory environments in these areas are sketchy at best, and nobody quite knows who owns these companies, and you may find it difficult to get your money back if you have complaints against the company.
  • All paid VPN services require you to enter your biographic information and payment information. This is in itself a security risk.

There are many reasons to consider a free VPN service over a paid VPN service, but from a privacy, speed and reliability perspective a paid VPN service appears to be the better bet. A word of caution is in order: be sure about the credibility of the VPN provider you are using before you offer your private information on registration.