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(Pocket-lint) - VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are brilliant things. They protect your privacy, they evade censorship and they enable you to watch catch-up TV when you’re on holiday. But they also tend to cost money. Is it possible to get a free VPN that offers decent protection without any nasty surprises? Let’s find out.

What’s the difference between a free VPN and a VPN you have to pay for?

The big difference, of course, is that only one of them is getting any money from you. Running a VPN network isn’t cheap, and buying, running and maintaining all the servers you need to deliver a decent service costs a lot of money. That money has to come from somewhere.

How do free VPN services make money?

This is the single most important question you need to ask. The answer will vary from service to service. Some free VPNs take the tried and tested free-app route of blasting you with ads; the ads are there to pay the bills. Unfortunately, internet advertising doesn’t pay very well, so free VPN services may have to run more ads and more invasive kinds of ads in order to get your attention.

Some free VPN services illustrate the famous internet maxim that if you’re not paying for something, you’re the product it’s selling: they may sell browsing data to third parties such as advertising networks. If that sounds like it defeats the whole purpose of using a VPN to protect your privacy, well… yes. It does.

If in doubt, you should assume that unless they state otherwise a free VPN is going to be doing something with your personal data. The VPN providers that don’t are very vocal about it.

It’s not all bad, though. The most common approach with free VPN services is to make a stripped-down version of the paid product with some key restrictions. For example, the free version may limit you to a certain amount of data, or it might throttle your connection so it’s no good for streaming HD video or downloading torrents at high speed. Free accounts are usually limited to a single device too.

The hope is that you’ll find the app and service so compelling that once you’ve tried it you’ll happily pay for the full-fat version. It’s exactly the same approach taken by the likes of Dropbox, Evernote and Spotify.

Should I get a free VPN or a paid one?

Personally we use paid VPNs: the difference in service quality and privacy protection is really dramatic, and if you’re serious about protecting your privacy – whether that’s when you’re using public Wi-Fi or a political activist battling repressive regimes – the fees are so small we think it’s a false economy to go for a free option. But not everybody is as paranoid as we are, or needs that level of protection – and we started off with free versions too. You may find that that’s the best option for you if you’re only going to use a VPN very rarely.

Where can I get a free VPN that’s safe?

We’ve tested a lot of VPN services and there are several that we know to be trustworthy. Hotspot Shield offers military-grade encryption for a single device in exchange for advertising; the super cute TunnelBear is a joy to use but limits you to just 500MB of secure browsing each month; ProtonVPN Free offers great privacy but reserves its high-speed service for paying customers.

Other good, trustworthy options include Speedify, Windscribe and Hide.Me. Hide.Me’s data allowance is more generous than many – it’s 10GB a month – but it limits how many servers you can choose from and like most free services, doesn’t support streaming.

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Is a free VPN right for me?

The only person that can answer that is you. If you only need to secure the occasional public Wi-Fi connection, then a free service is absolutely up to the job; if you want to protect your privacy while torrenting or streaming, it almost certainly isn’t.

Writing by Carrie Marshall. Editing by Dan Grabham. Originally published on 21 January 2010.