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 the monthly 500MB data cap won’t allow you to do much more than casual browsing.
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. All in all, it’s 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.
Disregarding that, performance was surprisingly good – almost as quick as the premium version of the service. Local downloads peaked at 63Mbps in Germany (we test from the UK), allowing for buffer-free streaming and speedy multiple file downloads. Speeds on more distant servers dropped off significantly (13Mbps in the US and 22Mbps in Japan) but were still quick enough for general streaming and browsing.
Local latency was also one of the lowest we’ve seen from any free provider at just 8ms in London, which will do the job for most users. Keen gamers may want to consider alternatives that offer even lower ping times, 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.
To find out about our speed testing methodologies, please read How We Review VPNs.
TunnelBear’s server network is a decent size for a free service, coming in at 22 countries in total. The usual popular locations such as the US, Australia and most of Western Europe are covered. There are a few servers located in Asia, one in South America, but none whatsoever in Africa. If you live far from the servers offered you may suffer from poor performance.
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. 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. 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. 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
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 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’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 – something our tests confirmed.
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. 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, with some users complaining that it won’t work at all.
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 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 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. None of these are personally-identifiable and are used for troubleshooting purposes and 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”. 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. The policy states that it will comply with Canadian law enforcement agencies if they supply 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’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. 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, 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, but this means it’s all quite basic and doesn’t offer much to experienced users who want detailed answers.
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 received a response over 24 hours later, which is a little slower than we’d like but it answered our questions just fine. You do 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 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.