Free vs Paid VPNs: Are Paid VPNs Worth It?

Posted on Jul 12, 2024 by Chantelle Golombick

If you’re new to VPNs and have decided you need one, one of the first decisions you’ll make is whether to choose a free or a paid VPN. If you search online, or on the Apple Store or Google Play Store, you’ll find dozens of both. While they share some similarities, it’s important to understand their differences before you hit the download button. 

TL;DR: if you’re serious about privacy and security, free VPNs are probably not the way you want to go. They often come with hidden costs like limited data, slow speeds, intrusive ads, or worse – the risk of your browsing data being collected and sold to third parties.

You’ll find a vast difference between the quality of service and security measures a free VPN offers compared to what a paid VPN provides. So, how do you make sure you pick the best option for you? Is it ever a good idea to use a free VPN, or is a paid VPN always the better option? Read on as we dive into the free vs. paid debate.

With PIA, you get the ultimate privacy and security bundle: powerful encryption, protection for all your devices, protection against data leaks, a proven no-logs policy, and more. Our 2024 Deloitte audit shows that we keep our promises: no tracking, no logging, and no selling your data. It’s easy to get and connect to PIA VPN: 

With PIA, you get the ultimate privacy and security bundle: powerful encryption, protection for all your devices, protection against data leaks, a proven no-logs policy, and more. Our 2024 Deloitte audit shows that we keep our promises: no tracking, no logging, and no selling your data. It’s easy to get and connect to PIA VPN: 

  1. Sign up for PIA
  2. Set up PIA on any device
  3. Choose a server and click to connect

What Does a Reputable VPN Look Like?

Before we jump into analyzing free VPNs, let’s understand what a reputable VPN should do so you can spot any shortcomings before you commit to a free or paid VPN. A reputable VPN’s biggest pull is its ability to improve your online privacy and security. 

A VPN creates a secure and encrypted tunnel between your device and a VPN server, masking the original IP address assigned by your ISP with one from the VPN server. When connected, your traffic travels through this secure tunnel. During this process, the VPN also encrypts your connection. This means it converts your data from a readable format to an unreadable one and any party that might intercept it, including your ISP, won’t be able to read it. 

Once your encrypted data reaches the VPN server, it’s decrypted and sent to its destination. When your traffic exits the VPN server, it appears to originate from the VPN server’s IP address, not your original IP address. This conceals your true location and makes it harder for others to track your online activity. The combination of encryption and IP address masking is what improves your online security.  

A reputable VPN won’t store any data about this process – not your browsing history, your connection logs, or your IP address. This makes it impossible to share any data with governments, law enforcement, advertising agencies, or data brokers. The VPN encryption process combined with a proven no-logs policy, is what improves your online privacy. 

Free VPNs may claim to work the same as paid VPNs, but the reality is their processes are often far less secure. Some free VPNs use outdated or weak encryption protocols, leaving your data vulnerable. Some even skip encryption altogether, exposing your online activity completely. It’s also important to note that a VPN (free or not) may have a no-logs policy but this doesn’t mean much unless it’s backed up by proof, like an independent audit and regular transparency reports.

While there are tons of great reasons to use a VPN, there are very few reasons to use a free VPN. While they may be okay for quickly changing your IP address if privacy isn’t a top concern for you, most free VPNs don’t actually live up to their promises. They sometimes can’t afford to run proper infrastructure, or might want to convince you to upgrade to a paid tier. More importantly, free VPNs also come with potential privacy risks, stemming from how these services make money.

Why Free VPNs Might Not Be Safe

Just like any other business, VPN providers need to make money to keep going. For starters, they’re managing a large server network, software development for their apps, and customer support. None of these things are free. If you (and all the other people using a free VPN service) don’t pay for the service, it has to find other ways to make money. Many turn to practices that compromise your privacy and security. 

They May Sell Your Data

One tactic free VPNs might use to make money is to log and sell your data to advertisers and data brokers. This could include your connection logs, usage patterns, and browsing data. Some free VPNs might also sell your email address and other personal information. That could lead to an influx of spam and phishing scams in your inbox or even identity theft at worst.

This practice compromises your privacy. PIA, on the other hand, keeps no logs – meaning we’ll never track, store, record, or sell your browsing data, ensuring your VPN usage tracks disappear for good. We’re not just making a claim either. We use RAM-only servers that can’t store data long-term. This means any trace of your session is wiped with every scheduled reboot. Our no-logs policy has also been tested in US courts, and we’ve proven that we had nothing to share.

They Could Infect Your Device with Malware

Some free VPNs may put your device at risk by covertly loading malware, like spyware or ransomware, onto your computer, tablet, or smartphone, causing a lot of damage. Malware could allow a provider to secretly spy on everything you do or even take complete control of your device, letting it access, modify, or delete your stored data, including your device’s information, location data, emails, messages, and contact details. 

Free VPN providers have been caught out for this before. One was caught using malware to turn its unsuspecting free users’ devices into exit nodes or VPN servers – essentially using its free customers’ bandwidth and IP addresses to serve paying customers.

They Might Be Willing to Hand Over Your Data

Data privacy and security are the two most important reasons to know your VPN provider’s true ownership status and internal practices. Unfortunately, some providers might be willing to hand your data over if required to. For example, if a VPN company is based in or hosts servers in a country with mandatory data retention policies, and they’re storing or not fully encrypting your data, they could be compelled to share your unprotected information. 

Free VPN services don’t typically have the resources to avoid government interference. As an example, India requires all VPN companies with servers in the country to collect and hand over customer data. PIA gets around this problem by running virtual servers in India, which means the physical infrastructure is located nearby but not inside the country. As a result, you still get a geo-located Indian IP address without us having to comply with the directive. This comes with operating costs free VPNs simply can’t afford.

They Might Bombard You with Ads

Some free VPN providers have been known to target their users with ads for a steady source of income. Advertisers pay to feature their ads on VPN apps, so you could be bombarded with annoying popups or in-browser ads you can’t remove with an ad-blocker. These ads might even be personalized, suggesting the VPN uses cookies and other trackers to collect and share information like your interests, frequent web searches, and location with advertisers.

This shows that the tool you trusted to maintain your online privacy could now be invading that very privacy for money. On the other hand, PIA – a reputable and paid VPN – blocks ads, trackers, and malware at the DNS level with PIA MACE and helps protect your privacy, data, and devices.

Overall, They Rarely Meet Your Expectations

Free VPNs often have limited (and sometimes unreliable) server networks, leading to slow speeds, potential connection drops, and fewer IP address location options. You might find yourself unable to access the websites you need or facing frustrating buffering while streaming.

Additionally, free VPNs might apply strict data caps or throttle their customers’ bandwidth. This isn’t a big problem if you aren’t using the VPN much, but it may quickly become frustrating when you’re trying to stream or even browse social media. Customer support is also often lacking with free VPNs, leaving you to troubleshoot issues alone.

The lack of price tag on free VPNs can be appealing, but they come with a risk of limitations and privacy concerns. Reputable paid VPNs, on the other hand, offer better security, privacy, and performance – along with additional features and reliable customer support. 

The Difference between a Free VPN and a Paid VPN

Choosing between a free and paid VPN depends on your needs and priorities regarding privacy, security, and budget. This side-by-side comparison highlights these differences – we’ll get into the finer comparison details after:

FeatureMost Free VPNsReputable Paid VPNs
CostFree; some offer a freemium optionsPaid, usually a monthly or yearly subscription fee
Server LocationsLimited options, often between few server locationsExtensive network, typically with servers in multiple countries
Connection SpeedGenerally slow due to high user traffic among limited serversFast speeds with dedicated servers and bandwidth
SecurityBasic encryption, may lack advanced security featuresStrong encryption protocols and additional security features like a kill switch, DNS leak protection
Privacy PolicyMight collect and sells your dataTypically has a strict no-logs policy
Customer SupportLimited or non-existentResponsive customer support and helpful resources like an FAQ portal
Device CompatibilityTypically supports either one OS or a few popular devicesNative support for desktop, mobile, and other devices
Bandwidth LimitsCould impose data and bandwidth capsUnlimited or high bandwidth allocations
AdvertisementsMight display ads or promotes sponsored contentAd-free experience
PerformanceUnreliable performance with frequent disconnectionsStable connections with minimal downtime
FeaturesLimited features and functionalitiesRich features such as split tunneling, multi-hop, Dedicated IP, etc.
Streaming & TorrentingPopular services restrict or block server IP addressesSupport for streaming and torrenting with servers that are regularly maintained
ReputationMixed reputation with concerns about privacy and securityTrusted reputation with an emphasis on privacy and security, often verified by independent audits

Free VPN vs. Paid VPN: You Get What You Pay For

We’ve all seen “free” VPN offers popping up everywhere, but are they the online privacy superheroes they claim to be, or is there a catch? As the saying goes, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and the same often rings true for VPNs. While scoring free protection for your data might sound like a dream, it’s wise to take a closer look before jumping in.

Let’s get real about the pros and cons of both free and paid VPNs. Below, we’ll reveal how your choice could actually affect your online experience – from how safe your data would be to how easily you’ll be able to browse from anywhere or binge your favorite shows. Let’s dive in. 

The Pros and Cons of Free VPNs

While free VPNs can provide basic privacy and security, they don’t offer the same level of features, performance, and customer support as paid VPNs. You should carefully consider the trade-offs before using a free VPN, especially when it comes to security and privacy. To help you make an informed decision, we’ve created a handy comparison guide. 

Pros

  • They’re Free: Stating the obvious here, we know. While paid VPNs can cost you anywhere from a few dollars to double figures a month, a free VPN promises it won’t cost you a cent to get increased online privacy. 
  • Access to Geo-Restricted Content: Free VPNs can help you access sites and apps that are unavailable in your region, such as your media libraries when you’re traveling.
  • Privacy and Security: Free VPNs promise some level of anonymity and security as they conceal your IP address and encrypt your internet traffic. 

Cons

  • Limited Features: Free VPNs normally lack advanced features commonly offered by paid VPNs, such as DNS leak protection, a kill switch, split tunneling, and optimized servers for activities like gaming. With a free VPN app, you’ll likely get the bare minimum necessary to run a VPN. Most free VPNs will also support only a limited number of devices and limit how many devices you can use simultaneously. While many paid VPNs impose similar restrictions, PIA VPN never limits your device connections and supports all popular operating systems.
  • Security Concerns: Free VPNs don’t offer the same level of security as paid VPNs. Unlike most paid VPNs, they can’t afford the best developers and constant upgrades and maintenance to their network and apps. Since they don’t need to compete to build a base of loyal customers, security isn’t top of mind for most free VPNs.
  • No Streaming Support: Although some free VPNs can unblock certain streaming platforms, many can’t. They can’t afford the expertise to overcome blocks and detection, or to keep switching to new IP addresses when platforms recognize and blacklist their current range of IP addresses. So, you likely won’t be able to access your streaming libraries on platforms like Hulu or Netflix while the VPN is on. 
  • Slow Internet Speeds and Limited Bandwidth: Free VPN providers often can’t afford a large server network or only make it available to their paid customers. When you then use these free VPNs, you’re stuck dealing with slow speeds as your data has to travel far to connect to overcrowded servers. Plus, most free VPN providers impose daily/monthly data and bandwidth caps to limit your usage.   
  • Lacking Customer Support: Free VPNs often lack dedicated customer support channels, leaving you without help if you encounter technical issues.

The Pros and Cons of Paid VPNs

Pros

  • Strong Encryption: Paid VPNs take security seriously. They use tough encryption and security protocols to encode your data, making it impossible for anyone (think cybercriminals on public Wi-Fi and even your ISP) to snoop on what you’re doing. This means your sensitive information – bank details, passwords, all that – stays protected.
  • A Strict No-logs Policy: Trustworthy paid VPNs don’t keep tabs on what you do online.  They won’t track your browsing history, IP address, or anything else that could identify you. This is where a lot of free VPNs fall short – they might say they offer privacy, but often make their money in ways that breach your privacy instead. PIA has successfully proven its no-logs policy and releases regular transparency reports. We also have open-source apps and VPN protocols so anyone can verify our code anytime.  
  • Lightning-Fast Speeds: No one likes a slow internet connection. Paid VPNs invest in fast and stable network infrastructure so you can browse, stream, and download without frustration. All PIA’s VPN NextGen servers, for example, run 10-Gbps network connections with no bandwidth or data restrictions. 
  • Large Servers Networks: A large network of servers comes with less chance of traffic congestion on any server compared to small networks. This can translate to faster speeds and a more reliable connection, especially during busy times. Plus, having more options means you’re more likely to find a server close by, which can further improve performance by reducing lag. If you connect to one of PIA’s ultra-fast servers across 90+ countries, you instantly free up your bandwidth from ads, trackers, and other snoops.
  • Extra Features to Protect Your Privacy: A paid VPN is more likely to have features that act as a safety net for your data. As an example, VPN obfuscation adds a layer of SSL encryption to hide the fact you’re using a VPN. A kill switch automatically cuts your traffic if your connection drops to keep your data from leaking without the VPN’s protection.
  • 24/7 Customer Support: Got questions or need a helping hand? Paid VPNs usually offer round-the-clock support channels, so you never have to feel stuck dealing with a problem alone.

Cons

  • Cost: The primary downside to a paid VPN is the subscription cost. While free VPNs might seem enticing, remember that running a reliable, secure VPN network comes with costs. Paid VPNs make their source of income transparent  – you pay a subscription fee and get a quality service in return.
  • Variable Features: Paid VPN providers don’t all offer the same features and services, meaning you have to take time to research your options before subscribing. Make sure the one you choose aligns with your needs, whether that’s bypassing censorship or protecting your identity on public Wi-Fi.
  • Not Foolproof: Even with a paid VPN, it’s important to remain vigilant online. VPNs won’t protect you from phishing, social engineering attacks, or downloading malicious files. Think of a VPN as a method that helps keep you safe, just like an antivirus program, but don’t neglect other good online habits.

If you’re concerned about the risks of using a free VPN but don’t want to jump into a premium subscription with both feet, consider a VPN with a free trial. This way, you can see the security and performance of a paid VPN without risking your money. You can try PIA and all its premium features risk-free for 30 days on Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, and iOS

While you’re checking out a VPN’s features and performance during your trial period, you may want to look for specific features that improve your experience. In the next section, we list 10 important VPN features you can keep in mind before you buy. 

10 Things to Consider When Choosing the Best VPN

This straightforward list will help you know what to look for in a VPN – from security essentials to streaming prowess, we’ve got you covered. When choosing a VPN, consider the following factors:

  1. Security: First and foremost, you want a VPN that’s tough as nails when it comes to security. Look for strong encryption and protocols like OpenVPN or WireGuard. You want your data locked up tighter than Fort Knox. 
  2. Bandwidth: Nobody wants a slow connection, especially when you’re binge-watching your favorite show or engaging in some serious online gaming. Make sure your VPN doesn’t drag its feet when it comes to speed.
  3. Privacy: You’re not trying to join a reality TV show here. Your VPN shouldn’t be keeping tabs on your online activity. Ensure the VPN is based in a country with strong privacy laws and has a watertight no-logs policy. It should be able to prove its policy with results from independent audits or court subpoena logs. 
  4. Price: Quality doesn’t always have to come with a jaw-dropping price tag. Shop around for a reputable VPN that offers a good balance of features and affordability.
  5. Ease of Use: Your VPN should be as easy to use as tying your shoelaces (maybe even easier). Look for intuitive app interfaces and straightforward setup processes.
  6. Server Network: A larger server network allows for better global coverage and improves your chances of finding a server and IP address in your location of choice.
  7. Compatibility and Device Support: Whether you’re team Apple, Android, Windows, or Linux, your VPN should be right there by your side. Check for compatibility across all your devices to ensure seamless protection.
  8. Customer Support: Look for 24/7 customer support that’s prompt, knowledgeable, and ready to tackle any issue you throw their way.
  9. Trial Periods and Money-Back Guarantees: Consider VPNs that offer a free trial or a money-back guarantee to test the service risk-free.
  10. Reputation: Take a look at what others are saying about the VPN. Does it get good reviews from customers and external sources?

Final Thoughts

Free VPNs might sound tempting but remember – if you aren’t paying for the product, you become the product. While they might offer a basic shield for when you occasionally use public Wi-Fi, they often trade your data for targeted ads, limit your features, and could even leave you vulnerable to security breaches. For truly reliable privacy, security, and the ability to bypass online restrictions, a paid VPN is a worthwhile investment.

Try PIA risk-free for 30 days and experience the internet the way it was meant to be: safe, secure, and yours to explore without red tape and fences.


FAQ

Are free VPNs safe?

Free VPNs might sound like a good deal, but they often come with hidden costs. Unlike paid services, free VPNs don’t have subscription fees to keep them running so they have to make money somehow. Some do this by tracking your browsing habits and selling that data to advertisers. Others might bombard you with intrusive ads (which sometimes contain malware). 

Paid VPNs generally provide a much safer and more reliable experience. Since they make money from subscriptions, they’re not under the same pressure to compromise your privacy or inject ads into your browsing. Reputable paid providers usually have a strong interest in maintaining their customers’ trust, which translates into better security practices and more transparency about how they handle your data. 

Is a free VPN better than no VPN?

It depends. If a free provider offers encryption, and you just need to browse on the go, a free VPN might be enough. However, the benefits of free VPNs often don’t outweigh the potential security and privacy concerns they pose. Free VPNs can compromise your online security, with VPN providers often selling your data or exposing you to malware. Our suggestion? Go for a reasonably-priced, reputable VPN to keep your online data safe and sound. With PIA, you also get MACE, which uses DNS-level blocking to help you defend against malware, ads, and trackers

Why should I pay for a VPN?

Running a VPN involves expenses such as server hosting, software development, and other operational costs, so when providers offer a free VPN, they could be making money off you in one way or another, such as by selling your data. Additionally, most free VPN providers offer limited server options and impose data and bandwidth limitations, resulting in a slow and unreliable connection. Opting for PIA’s budget-friendly premium VPN is always a better choice than dealing with the risks and restrictions of a free VPN.

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