Ryan Toohil has a BS in Computer Engineering from Virginia Tech and holds multiple patents in the web services domain. As the CTO at Aura, he leads the platform, information security, and corporate IT teams.
Jory MacKay is a writer and award-winning editor with over a decade of experience for online and print publications. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Victoria and a passion for helping people identify and avoid fraud.
Virtual private networks (VPNs) promise to help you surf the internet anonymously, access location-specific content and streaming platforms, and protect your data from snooping hackers.
But for the thousands of people using the free SuperVPN service, this unfortunately wasn't the case.
In 2023, researchers discovered over 360 million user records from SuperVPN had been leaked on the Dark Web [*].
Sadly, this is far from the only free VPN service data breach. Just one year earlier, data from another 21 million VPN users leaked and went up for sale [*].
While paying for a premium VPN won't solve all your problems, it's a step in the right direction.
In this guide, we'll take a look at what VPNs do, compare free VPN vs. paid VPN services, and outline what you get for your subscription fee.
What Is a Virtual Private Network (VPN)? Why Do You Need One?
A VPN reroutes your IP address and activity to an encrypted remote server where your personal information and browsing data get scrambled and concealed.
This means that both internet service providers (ISPs) and individuals (such as hackers) won’t be able to track your browsing history or see your data. It also makes VPNs essential tools for helping to prevent identity theft and IP address hacking.
Some of the main reasons you'll want to use a VPN include:
Hiding your IP, location, and data from hackers. VPNs use strong levels of encryption to hide your sensitive data from onlookers. Even if hackers are on the same network as you, they won’t see your IP address, location, or any data that you send online.
Protecting your data while traveling or working remotely. Public Wi-Finetworks are notoriously dangerous. VPN servers prove essential when you’re traveling or not on your home network. Some organizations make a VPN connection mandatory for remote workers.
Keeping your browsing activity private. VPNs disguise your online activity by connecting you to a remote server and encrypting your internet traffic. Even internet service providers (ISPs) won't see the specifics of this online activity. VPNs can also hide your personal IP address from online apps and services that collect data.
Giving you access to geo-blocked websites and content. Many websites and streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime restrict access to content based on user locations. VPNs unblock this content by masking your IP address and making it seem like your traffic is coming from an unrestricted region.
Additional digital security features. Some paid VPN providers include additional features to keep you safer online. This can include Dark Web monitoring, antivirus software, and local area VPN networks.
Helping you access location-based savings. Companies often charge different prices based on where their customers live. By changing your IP address and location with a VPN, you can access lower regional prices on amenities such as hotels, flights, and video games.
Avoiding data throttling. Throttling usually occurs when you exceed your high-speed data cap or go online during high-traffic times. Some ISPs also throttle public Wi-Fi networks, specific sites, and certain types of data. While VPNs can't get around data caps or network congestion, they can bypass ISP throttling based on network and data specifics [*].
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How Does a VPN Keep Your Data Safe?
Encrypting data. VPNs use the same level of data encryption as the U.S. military to ensure that hackers and prying eyes won’t be able to see your online activity.
Masking your IP address. When VPNs change your IP address, they block people from identifying your physical location or personal details.
Avoiding public Wi-Fi networks. VPN servers ensure that you're never exposed to the dangers of public Wi-Fi networks. They change your IP address and encrypt your data — which keeps you secure while traveling or browsing, working, and socializing online when visiting your local coffee shop.
Not keeping logs of your browsing history. VPNs can hide your browsing history from your ISP, your employer, your school, and any other onlookers. While many VPN providers keep logs, paid services like Aura anonymize traffic logs and encrypt and delete IP addresses [*].
Using servers based around the globe. Global servers help VPN providers manage congestion, connection speeds, and geo-blocking restrictions. But VPNs in low-surveillance countries can also improve online privacy for users.
Scanning the Dark Web for your leaked data. Some VPNs offer personal information leak protection. For example, Aura scans the Dark Web for your personal data and alerts you if anything shows up.
Securing your devices with antivirus software. Premium VPN providers like Aura include antivirus software that can help prevent spyware, ransomware, and adware from infiltrating your devices and data.
Blocking phishing sites and ad trackers. VPNs like Aura’s can also help block malicious websites that contain known phishing traps and annoying pop-up ads.
Initiating a kill switch. When your internet connection to a VPN server gets disrupted, you lose the encryption and protection that you once had. VPNs can defend this with kill switches that shut off access to the internet, or a “double VPN” that activates when your connection is lost.
What’s the Difference Between a Free and Paid VPN?
Free and paid VPN services may offer many of the same features, but there are some critical differences that you should consider before signing up for either:
Free VPN providers need to make money in some way. Many offer a free service with limited features and functionality as an advertisement for the paid version. Some sell ad space to generate revenue, which can worsen your experience. Then there's the free providers that sell your data to advertisers or inject spyware to track your activity [*].
Premium VPN companies have a paying user base and, therefore, more income to reinvest in their services. This allows them to bolster server quality, feature and infrastructure development, and online security and privacy. As a result, you get better speeds, access, and protection, plus extensive customer support.
Completely risk-free online activity may not exist, but a reputable VPN service provider can make it safer out there.
🛡 Protect yourself from online threats. Try Aura’s award-winning digital security solution free for 14 days and protect your devices, data, and finances from scammers and hackers.
Free VPN vs. Paid VPN: Features, Benefits, and Safety
While every VPN has its own unique feature list, you will find some general differences between free and paid services.
Here are the main differences that you’ll typically see between a free and paid VPN:
Multiple servers around the globe
IP address protection
Not as secure (Usually 128-bit encryption)
Strong AES 256-bit encryption
Stable and fast connection
Access to U.S.-only websites and content
24/7 customer support
Persistent ads and upgrade notices
Easy-to-use apps for all of your devices
Collect and sell data
Allow simultaneous connections
Typically starts at around $10/month (with significant discounts on annual plans)
The bottom line: A free VPN service can hide your data, but it will most likely be slower, less secure, and more dangerous.
Why You Should Avoid Free VPNs: The 8 Biggest Risks
Maybe you think a free VPN is better than no VPN; and, in some cases, you might be right. But that's not always true.
The following eight risks show why you might be better off avoiding free VPN apps altogether.
1. Tracking and selling your data
While you may want a VPN to keep your browsing history private, this might not be possible with a free version.
In fact, many providers collect and sell browsing data to third parties. For example, Buzzfeed News revealed that Sensor Tower — a data analytics and market intelligence organization — had been secretly analyzing user data from several free VPNs [*].
Here’s what can happen if a free VPN service sells your data:
You’ll get targeted ads — perhaps for interests that you want hidden. Websites and apps serve you ads based on your browsing data. If you use a free VPN, you could start seeing ads targeted to the browsing history that you tried to keep private.
You could end up on spam lists. Once you become the recipient ofunwanted spam emails, your exposure to cyberattacks increases.
2. Flooding your screen with annoying (or malicious) ads
In return for their service, free VPNs may shower you with ads. Not only will ads distract and annoy you, but they could threaten your device and personal information. Hackers often use malicious ads to target you with scams or try to gain remote access to your browser [*].
Here’s what can happen if a free VPN service floods you with ads:
Your online experience will be diminished. Ads can be intrusive and bothersome, but they also weigh down and slow your central processing unit (CPU) and operating system.
You'll get exposed to malvertising. Whether they are complicit or not, free VPN providers increase your odds of encountering ads that may be infected with malware.
Even if you only provide a limited amount of personal data to a free VPN, you could be at risk. If your name and login information are leaked, you could face critical personal and financial consequences. That's why it was such a big deal when 300 million VPN user records leaked in 2021 [*].
Here’s what can happen if a free VPN service leaks your personal data:
Your identity could be stolen. Identity theft can be catastrophic. You could lose your medical benefits, social media accounts, and emails (or entire email address). Crimes could be committed in your name, and your family could be put in danger as well.
You could be financially ruined. If bad actors have your personal and financial details, they could steal money, go shopping, and sink your credit score. Fraudulent activities under your name could even cost you your home.
The limited features and functionality of free VPNs often come at the expense of security. You may not get adequate encryption, and the service won't include antivirus software or an ad blocker.
Here’s what can happen if a free VPN service has weak security:
Hackers could access your device or your network. From there, they could steal your personal information, leak or destroy documents, and install malware. They might even pull this off without you knowing it.
You become more susceptible to viruses. The weaker your security, the more likely you are to accidentally download malware to your device.
5. Slow performance, especially with streaming
Free VPNs have slow speeds for different reasons. Some have server limitations, while others use slower speeds to encourage service upgrades. You might use a VPN for better access to streaming services, but free VPNs may actually limit the type and amount of content available.
Here’s what can happen if a free VPN service has slow performance:
Your streaming experience will be weak and undependable. Slow connection speeds could result in long load times or constant buffering while streaming or torrenting. With a free VPN, you may not have access to high definition content or streaming services in general.
You could lose your job. Slow performance might be an annoyance for some, but it can be detrimental for remote workers. A poor connection speed can decrease your productivity and take away from your bottom line.
While many VPNs unintentionally threaten users, some do it with purpose. Hackers can create malicious software that looks like a legitimate free VPN on the surface in order to lure victims. For example, in 2022, a fake VPN infected user devices with spyware when downloaded [*].
Here’s what can happen if a free VPN service is fake:
You could unknowingly give up access to your device. If hackers gain remote access to your device, they can download software, enter malicious code, and watch your every move.
Your personal information could be at risk. Hackers with device permissions might find your passwords, photos, and personal data. This could lead to identity theft, Dark Web sales, and extortion.
According to a 2020 study, VPNs can increase data usage by up to 20% [*]. The rate of consumption depends on the protocol used, encryption strength, data compression, and more. While free VPNs use lower-powered encryption, they also run data-consuming ads and could even sell your bandwidth.
Here’s what can happen if a free VPN service consumes data at high rates:
You could incur additional charges. The more data you consume, the faster you'll hit your ISP's data caps. This could result in considerable overage fees.
You might encounter slow speeds and throttling. You may only get a limited amount of high-speed data from your ISP and free VPN. Exceeding these caps often leads to bandwidth throttling and sluggish performance.
Here’s what can happen if a free VPN service has questionable ownership:
Your personal data could be at risk. Along with the Great Firewall, China has surveillance and privacy laws that could put your personal and browsing data in jeopardy. For example, the government can request access to all user data, even if it's encrypted [*].
You could be spied upon. In 2017, China announced that all VPNs in the country would need government approval to operate moving forward [*]. This might call into question the privacy and operations of some, if not all, China-owned VPNs.
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Can a VPN Protect You Against Hackers?
VPNs can protect you against hackers and unwanted observers, but even the best services can't save you from every threat. While VPNs encrypt data and help you avoid hacked Wi-Fi networks, they can't prevent you from clicking on infected links or falling for online scams.
The best protection comes from providers that can cover all of your digital security needs. Along with unlimited access to a secure and reliable VPN, a multi-layered provider like Aura offers:
Antivirus software that constantly scans and protects your devices.
A secure password manager that warns you of data breaches.
Safe Browsing tools to block fake or harmful websites.
Parental controls to monitor and safeguard your kids' online activity.
24/7 credit monitoring to ensure that no one is using your stolen data.
Free 14-day trial and a 60-day money-back guarantee on all annual plans.
$1 million in insurance coverage for eligible losses due to identity theft.
How To Choose the Best VPN Service for Your Needs
With so many VPNs to choose from, it can be overwhelming when comparing and contrasting all the different coverages and features. Here's a list of criteria and considerations to keep in mind when picking a VPN.
Security. A VPN's protocols and encryption determine the security of the data exchange. Some of the most common VPN protocols include OpenVPN, WireGuard, IKEv2, L2TP/IPSec, SSTP, and PPTP [*].
Speed. The encryption and servers your VPN uses will ultimately impact your online speed. The best VPNs offer unlimited bandwidth and have high-quality servers near you to ensure your traffic runs smoothly.
Server location. In many cases, server location matters more than the number of servers. With nearby servers, your online activity should run faster. If you need a VPN for U.S.-based content, consider a provider like Aura with high-quality U.S.-based servers.
Device coverage and compatibility. Look for a VPN that works with the devices and operating systems you use most. Aura offers unlimited access for Android, iOS, MacOS, and Windows devices.
Logging policies. Avoid VPNs that keep logs of your browsing data that can connect back to you. Find a service that has a strict no-logs policy or one that does not store identifiable information.
Extra features. VPNs can add plenty of value with a few extra features — such as an ad blocker, a kill switch, or split funneling. While not make-or-break tools, these additions give you an extra layer of protection and accessibility.
Payment and trial options. Protect yourself and your money by trying a VPN before buying it. Many paid VPN providers offer a 14-day free trial or 30-day money-back guarantee.
Customer support. Even the most experienced users can run into challenges. Find a provider that gives you round-the-clock assistance, like Aura's 24/7/365 customer support.
Backed by a reputable organization. Your VPN service is only as strong as the provider. Hold out for a VPN company with strong support, positive reviews, and a track record of success. For the most thorough protection, consider a provider with an all-in-one service like Aura.
When comparing free VPNs to paid VPNs, the results line up well for the paid versions. Premium VPNs help guard you against hackers and privacy concerns, but even they can't do it all.
The most effective way to block hackers, safeguard your data, and prevent scams is to stack your cybersecurity services. With Aura, you get comprehensive coverage that combines a robust VPN with identity theft, fraud, and antivirus protection.