The free version of TunnelBear is very good but ultimately just used as a prompt to push you into a paid subscription. Local performance is much better than most other free providers but drops off internationally – not that the monthly 500MB data cap allows you to do much anyway. Access to Netflix and BBC iPlayer is currently blocked. User-friendly custom apps are available for the four major platforms but there are no manual workarounds for any other devices, including routers.
Free TunnelBear 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, mitigating its jurisdiction in privacy-unfriendly Canada. Customer support lacks live chat but will solve most basic issues. A decent app that’s let down by a stingy bandwidth cap.
We wish to clarify that this review applies solely to the free version of TunnelBear VPN. If you want to check out what we thought of the paid version, you can read our review here.
Speed & Reliability
Trying to test out TunnelBear Free’s performance was incredibly time-consuming thanks to the ridiculously limited 500MB monthly data cap. We had to create four different accounts just to test out speeds in nine different countries as we kept hitting our bandwidth limit, making the whole process incredibly frustrating and a lot more difficult than it needed to be. We were prompted to tweet about the service to get an extra 1GB of data, but that would defeat the object of staying private while using a VPN.
Disregarding that, performance was surprisingly good – almost as quick as the premium version of the service. Local downloads peaked at 63Mbps in Germany and averaged around 50Mbps across the rest of Europe, allowing for buffer-free streaming and speedy multiple file downloads. Speeds on more distant servers dropped off significantly but were still more than quick enough for general streaming and browsing on one or two devices, coming in at 13Mbps in the US and 22Mbps in Japan.
Local latency was also one of the lowest we’ve seen from any free provider, at just 8ms in London (we test from the UK). While this isn’t quite as quick as some of our top-tier providers, the best of which offer ping times as low as 1ms, it’ll do the job for most users. Keen gamers may want to consider alternatives, though, such as one of our top picks, IPVanish.
Uploads were also pretty promising but less consistent across the board, as is usually the case. They peaked at around 50Mbps on local connections but dropped right down to 5Mbps connecting over longer distances such as to Singapore or Australia.
Overall, the free version of TunnelBear produced very good results in our speed tests, we just wish the data cap was a little more generous, as right now you’re restricted to a measly 500MB each month. This means that no matter how good performance is, you’re not going to be able to do anything more than stream for an hour in standard definition, and you can forget about torrenting. A good service let down by harsh restrictions.
TunnelBear’s server network is a decent size for a free service, coming in at 20 countries in total. The usual popular locations such as the US, Australia and most of Western Europe are covered, so if you live in or nearby any of these countries then you shouldn’t have any issues.
It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that there’s no city-level choice, but then again, this is also the case with the premium version of the app. The majority of the server locations are in Europe, accounting for 12 of the 20 in total, and we were pleasantly surprised to see four server choices in Asia, including India and Singapore. Options in Australia and New Zealand were also a welcome bonus.
TunnelBear only currently offers one server in South America (Brazil) and there are no options in Africa whatsoever, so users in these areas of the world are likely to suffer from poor performance. People in the US looking to drill down to a specific state will also want to consider other options, such as market leader HideMyAss!, with 65 city-level servers in that country alone.
You can find the complete list of TunnelBear server locations by country on its website below.
Platforms & Devices
The free version of TunnelBear is available to download on Microsoft Windows, MacOS, iOS and Android, and it’s possible to use the software on Linux if you’re prepared to do some manual configuration. There are no manual workarounds for any other platforms, including routers, but you can use the app on up to five devices at once (although we wouldn’t advise it considering the very limiting 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. These can be downloaded from TunnelBear’s website and added to your browser in a matter of seconds.
Streaming & Torrenting
The free version of TunnelBear is absolutely no good for streaming or torrenting. Not only were we not able to stream content from either Netflix or BBC iPlayer, the ridiculously stingy 500MB monthly data cap means that you won’t be able to watch much more than half an hour of high definition 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’s free offering provides exactly the same level of privacy as its paid software, which is great news. The desktop and Android apps default to OpenVPN on startup, which is our preferred protocol as it offers the best balance between security and performance. The iOS app uses IKEv2, which comes a close second, and encryption is via top cipher AES-256.
We really like ‘Vigilant Mode’, TunnelBear’s version of a VPN kill switch, which blocks all unsecured web traffic if your connection gets disrupted for any reason, preventing your IP address from being exposed. You’re also protected against DNS leaks, and after running extensive tests on a variety of TunnelBear’s server locations, we can confirm that we didn’t detect any leaks at all.
Another great feature you can find in TunnelBear’s apps is GhostBear, which helps bypass content blocks in high-censorship countries by disguising your VPN connection as a regular HTTPS connection. Unfortunately, this isn’t currently available for iOS due to design restrictions. Android users can also take advantage of a split tunneling setting, allowing you to route non-sensitive traffic outside of the VPN tunnel.
- 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 wouldn’t really recommend the free version of TunnelBear for those seeking reliable internet access from that country.
It’s a little bit of a gray area, as while the software does offer additional obfuscation tools to help you bypass the Great Firewall (such as GhostBear mode), it isn’t guaranteed to work 100% of the time. While there are reports from some users that they’re able to connect without any problems, there are also people saying that it’s completely useless and won’t work with any VPN protocol. The 500MB monthly data cap is once again a huge hindrance, meaning you won’t be able to do much more than just general browsing before maxing out your bandwidth allowance.
However, TunnelBear Free is still a decent option for users in other high-censorship countries, thanks to its proprietary GhostBear protocol, designed to disguise the fact that you’re connecting using a VPN. The data cap issues still apply, but it’ll do the job if you just need to quickly access a few government-blocked sites.
TunnelBear’s logging policy applies to both its premium and free users, and it’s one of the clearest, most transparent policies we’ve seen so far. It’s pretty close to being totally zero-logs, collecting only basic connection metadata including your total amount of bandwidth used, number of lifetime connections and whether or not you’ve connected in the last month. These are used for troubleshooting purposes and to monitor data caps on the free plan.
We really like the fact that TunnelBear doesn’t collect any personally identifiable details, such as your IP address or chosen server location, as that means nothing you do while using the VPN can be traced back to you.
TunnelBear was also recently featured in a report conducted by the CDT (Center for Democracy & Technology) on “Signals of Trustworthy VPNs”. In this, 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. This isn’t too much of a concern, however, as it doesn’t collect any information that could trace your online activity back to you.
TunnelBear states that it will comply with Canadian law enforcement agencies if they supply subpoenas, warrants, or other legal documents, but this is largely standard for most VPN providers. Again, this would be more concerning if it collected any personally-identifiable information but, as it doesn’t, this isn’t something to worry too much about – it can’t be compelled to hand over details it doesn’t have.
Ease of Use
If you like bears, you’ll love TunnelBear’s custom apps. They’re exactly the same for free users as they are for paid ones, so they’re really simple to install and use. All you have to do is click on a server location on the interactive world map and wait for your bear to tunnel through the earth and pop out in Germany, Singapore, or wherever you’ve chosen.
You can keep track of your bandwidth usage with the bar along the bottom of the app that tells you how much data you have left, which is pretty useful. One minor downside is that you don’t receive a pop-up when you’ve exceeded your limit, so if you don’t have Vigilant Mode turned on, your true IP address will be exposed without you realizing.
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. These are very easy to toggle on and off, but we would have liked to see some more integrated support here, as right now if you click to find out more information you’re redirected to TunnelBear’s website.
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. There’s also no way of skipping the tunneling animations and, again, these get old very quickly. It’s a quirky approach that’s probably best-suited to VPN newbies – those looking for loads of advanced settings should avoid.
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, although there are still a lot of improvements that could be made. The online resources are very well put together and go to a lot of effort to make the VPN accessible to beginners and non-techy people, however this means it’s all quite basic and doesn’t offer much to experienced users who want detailed answers. The FAQs offer basic troubleshooting support but we would have liked to see some setup guides here too.
There’s no live chat so the only way you can get in touch with the customer support team is via email. We submitted the online form and are still waiting on a response 24 hours later – TunnelBear does allow itself up to 48 hours though. You also have to create an account in order to contact the support team, 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 20 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 – we ran out of data within five minutes of speed testing. 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. Customer service doesn’t quite measure up to that offered by top-tier providers but is the best we’ve seen from a free service, with useful online resources and support via email. A simple free VPN that’s best suited to beginners looking to test out TunnelBear before they commit to a paid plan.