The free version of TunnelBear is very good but ultimately just used as a prompt to push you into a paid subscription. Local speeds are much better than most other free providers, but the monthly 500MB data cap won’t allow you to do much more than casual browsing.
Users benefit from exactly the same level of protection as paid users, including strong encryption and a good set of privacy features, such as a VPN kill switch and DNS leak protection.
It only collects anonymous usage stats so nothing you do online can be traced back to you.
All in all, TunnelBear (free) is a decent app that’s let down by a stingy bandwidth cap.
This review only applies to the free version of TunnelBear VPN. If you want to find out what we thought of the paid version, you can read our review here.
Speed & Reliability
Testing TunnelBear Free’s performance was very time-consuming thanks to the highly limiting 500MB monthly data cap. We had to create four different accounts to test the speeds in nine different countries as we kept reaching our bandwidth limit.
Disregarding that, performance was surprisingly good – almost as quick as the premium service, allowing for buffer-free streaming and multiple file downloads.
Local latency was also one of the lowest we’ve seen from a free provider, just 8ms in London. Uploads were also pretty promising, but less consistent, across the board. Keen gamers may want to consider alternatives that offer even lower ping times, such as one of our top picks, IPVanish.
To find out about our speed testing methodologies, please read How We Review VPNs.
For a free service, TunnelBear Free’s server network is a decent size – 22 countries. The popular locations are covered, and there are a few located in Asia, one in South America, but none in Africa. If you live far from the servers you may suffer poor performance.
Unsurprisingly there’s no city-level choice, but then again, this is also the case with the premium version of the app. You can find the complete list of TunnelBear server locations by country on its website below.
Platforms & Devices
TunnelBear is available on your usual platforms and possible to use with Linux with some manual configuration. There are no manual workarounds for any other platforms, including routers. You can use the app on up to five devices at once, but we wouldn’t advise it considering the 500MB data cap.
There are also proxy extensions available for Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera browsers. These don’t provide the same level of protection as the other custom apps but will suffice for those just looking to spoof their IP address in order to access blocked content.
Streaming & Torrenting
TunnelBear Free is absolutely no good for streaming or torrenting. Not only were we not able to stream content from either Netflix or BBC iPlayer, the stingy 500MB monthly data cap means that you won’t be able to watch more than half an hour of HD video content.
If you’re looking for quick, easy access to popular streaming sites, you’re most likely going to have to consider a paid provider – our top pick is ExpressVPN.
Encryption & Security
TunnelBear Free provides the same level of privacy as its paid service, which is great. OpenVPN is also the default protocol, balancing security and performance. And encryption is is via top cipher AES-256.
We also really like ‘Vigilant Mode’, TunnelBear Free’s version of a VPN kill switch. Our tests also confirmed protection against DNS leaks.
- OpenVPN (TCP/UDP)
- DNS Leak Blocking
- First-party DNS
- VPN Kill Switch
- Split Tunneling
Ever since China started imposing harsher restrictions on VPN providers, we can’t recommend the free version of TunnelBear for use in that country.
The software does offer additional obfuscation tools to help you bypass the Great Firewall (GhostBear mode), it isn’t guaranteed to work 100% of the time, with some complaining that it won’t work at all.
Still, this is a decent option for high-censorship countries, thanks for its proprietary GhostBear protocol designed to disguise your connection to a VPN. The data cap is an issue but it’ll do the job if you just need to quickly access a few government-blocked sites.
TunnelBear’s logging policy is applicable to its premium and free users, and it’s one of the clearest policies we’ve seen so far. It’s pretty close to zero-logs, collecting only basic connection metadata including bandwidth used, lifetime connections and whether you’ve connected in the last month. These are not personally identifiable and are used for troubleshooting purposes to monitor data caps on the free plan.
TunnelBear was also recently featured in a report conducted by the CDT (Center for Democracy & Technology) on “Signals of Trustworthy VPNs”. It states that each VPN server features full disk encryption, malware scans, and intrusion protection techniques, designed to protect user privacy as much as possible. It also releases an audit of its methodology on an annual basis and makes this available for the public to read.
TunnelBear’s headquarters are in Toronto, Canada, meaning it’s subject to intrusive surveillance laws and intelligence-sharing agreements with countries like the US and UK. The policy states that it will comply with Canadian law enforcement agencies if supplied subpoenas, warrants, or other legal documents.
However, this isn’t too much of a concern as it doesn’t collect any information that could trace your online activity back to you.
Ease of Use
If you like bears, you’ll love TunnelBear Free’s custom apps, which are the same for free users as for paid ones. They’re really simple to install and use. All you have to do is click on a server location on an interactive world map and wait for the bear to tunnel through the earth and pop out in your chosen geographic region.
You can keep track of your bandwidth usage, which is a nice touch. The downside is that you don’t receive a pop-up when you’ve exceeded your limit. That means if you don’t have vigilant mode on, your true IP address will be exposed with you knowing.
It’s really refreshing to see a free VPN offering some advanced settings – you can find these behind the cog icon on the left-hand side of the screen. The mobile apps are much the same as the desktop app, but clicking and dragging around the world map to find a server location can get very boring after you’ve already done it a few times.
In order to use the free version of TunnelBear, you have to create an account with them. Once you’ve done this, simply click the link in your confirmation email and you’re good to go. Download the relevant app for the device you want to protect, enter your email address and new password and you can begin using the VPN.
TunnelBear’s customer support for free users is up there with some of the best we’ve seen from any complimentary service. The online resources are well put together and make an effort to ensure an accessibility for beginners. However, it’s all quite basic and doesn’t offer much to experienced users who want detailed answers.
There’s no live chat, only customer support via email. We submitted a form and received a response 24 hours later, which is later than we’d like but it answered the question fine. You have to create an account in order to contact support, which is no good for those who have questions before they sign up.
The Bottom Line
- Reliable downloads of up to 63Mbps
- User-friendly apps. Instant setup on popular platforms
- Connect securely to 22 countries
- Very minimal logging policy
- VPN kill switch and DNS leak protection
- Stingy 500MB monthly data cap
- No access to Netflix or iPlayer
- No live chat support
The free version of TunnelBear is effectively a method of tempting users to upgrade to a paid subscription. It has exactly the same features and offers excellent performance, however the very limiting data cap of 500MB per month means you can’t really do anything without hitting your bandwidth limit. P2P restrictions are bad news for torrenters, and streaming fans will be disappointed to hear that access to Netflix and iPlayer is currently blocked.
Privacy-wise, TunnelBear’s complimentary offering is just as good as the paid service, using a secure VPN protocol and solid encryption. It’s about as close to zero-logs as you can get, collecting only anonymous usage stats, and it’s great to see advanced features such as a VPN kill switch (Vigilant Mode) and a tool for circumventing censorship measures (GhostBear). You’re also protected against DNS and IPv6 leaks.
The software is cute and user-friendly but the bear theme quickly loses its charm, especially if you’re a more experienced user looking for configurable settings. It’s a simple free VPN that’s best suited to beginners looking to test out TunnelBear before they commit to a paid plan.