From time to time, I would like to dedicate an article for useful resources of possible interest to you.
Unless otherwise stated, product recommendations are unsolicited opinions of mine as a consumer. (“Affiliate links,” through which I may receive payments for referring customers, are labeled with “[aff.]” next to the hyperlinked text.)
If you are like me, you might get online in public places such as Starbucks or public libraries. Many shopping malls and supermarkets also have free Wi-Fi for customers. For those who are on the move, some trains and buses may even have Wi-Fi. Some university campuses also have guest Wi-Fi services for non-students, but they are also unencrypted and possibly monitored by the universities’ offices of information technologies. (Note: Some public Wi-Fi access points at college campuses and public libraries may be restricted to TCP port 80, which means you may not be able to use any of the VPN services listed below, as they are all UDP and TCP port 443. You can, however, use VPNBook as it provides TCP port 80 connections, if TCP port 443 is blocked.)
Most such public Wi-Fi hotspots are unencrypted. This means anyone who is on the same Wi-Fi network can snoop on everything you are doing online. In addition, some public Wi-Fi access points seem to be tracking your activities in order to feed you ads or for market research purposes.
But for those who would like a free VPN service, extreme caution is urged. Almost all the “free VPN” apps (for smartphones and tablets) and VPN browser add-ons/extensions are scams with questionable privacy practices and low-grade encryption technology.
After an extensive research and field test, however, there are several truly free VPN services that live up to their names.
ProtonVPN is a service from the same company that offers ProtonMail (an end-to-end encrypted email service) in Geneva, Switzerland. It was originally founded by CERN scientists for their own use.
Unlike most other questionable VPN apps, ProtonVPN uses the OpenVPN protocol, which is the latest technology that is widely considered to be reliable. And more importantly, the company does not keep logs except for how many devices are simultaneously connected using a single account (the free account only allows one device to be connected at a given moment).
Most free VPN apps available for Android are also often accused of being adware or malware. Not ProtonVPN. In fact, you can connect to the ProtonVPN servers using a generic OpenVPN (which is open source) app instead of having to use the app provided by Proton (although, doing so requires some technical skills and familiarity with OpenVPN). If ProtonVPN is hell-bent on mining personal data and selling ads, it would not allow you to use third-party software to connect to the VPN, so this is a good sign.
The ProtonVPN services are also available for Windows, macOS, iOS, and Linux for your desktop use (but keep in mind that a free account cannot be used on a PC and a smartphone at the same time).
Your connection is protected by AES-256 encryption, with 2048-bit key exchange.
The only downside is the lack of server choices for the free account (two Dutch servers, three Japanese servers, and two U.S. servers are the only ones available to free users). For the free Android app, ProtonVPN appears to assign you to a random server that is the fastest (and usually the nearest to you).
Cryptostorm’s Cryptofree service (Iceland)
Cryptostorm bills itself as the “OpenVPN provider for the truly paranoid.” Many layers of security measures and OPSEC make Cryptostorm perhaps one of the most secure VPN services available today.
While you can purchase an annual paid plan for a great bargain price of $52 (that’s only a dollar every week!) using most major cryptocurrencies or bank card, it also offers a free, no-strings-attached, anonymous VPN service albeit it is speed-restricted at 160kbps down, 130kbps up. (it is quite slow, but you may not notice it if you’re just doing an ordinary web browsing activity from your mobile device). Aside from the speed, there is no difference in security and privacy measures deployed.
All that you have to do is to download an OVPN file, import it to your OpenVPN app, and connect using any made-up username and password of your choice.
SigaVPN (Memphis metro area, Mississippi, U.S.A.)
SigaVPN is a small VPN operation based out in the suburbs of Memphis, Tennessee (on the Mississippi side) that offers selections of free, no-logs servers in New York, Las Vegas, Luxembourg, and Netherlands.
This service is unique in that you do not have to sign up for an account, but instead, it will generate a unique OVPN file for you to use. Simply import the OVPN files into your OpenVPN app and you’ll be ready to go.
VPNBook (claims to be based in Zurich, Switzerland; allegedly based in Canada)
VPNBook has been around for several years so far and offers an anonymous, no-registration service through its servers in Manassas, Virginia; Montreal, Quebec; France, Germany, and Poland.
To use VPNBook, simply download its “OpenVPN certificate bundles,” unzip them, and import one of the .ovpn files to an OpenVPN app of your choice. While no registration is necessary, you will have to visit VPNBook’s Web site or Twitter feed once a week or so to find out the current password, as the password is changed a few times a month.
One of the positives about VPNBook is that it provides .ovpn files for TCP port 80 connections, which can be useful in situations where public Wi-Fi may be port-restricted to 80 only.
As for privacy, it supports AES-256 encryption; however, VPNBook states that it does keep logs of connections for seven days, and critics speculate that it may be selling the data to advertisers for money (though I find this allegation unconvincing, since VPNBook does not feed ads anywhere) or that VPNBook is even a “honey pot” operation owned by FBI.
The allegations aside, VPNBook does provide a fast, stable VPN connection, though it seems to automatically disconnect and reconnect every 60 minutes.
For most tasks, VPNBook should be fine, but if you are more privacy-conscious, I’d suggest using the Tor browser in addition to VPNBook.
Test your VPN connection for privacy leaks
- Confirm that you are connected to a VPN by using IPLocation.
- Run a DNS leak test. If the result shows the name of your ISP (like Comcast, CenturyLink, etc.), it is leaking.
- Run an IPv6 leak test
- Run a WebRTC leak test (WebRTC leak is caused by your browser, not by VPN.)
- Check your IP blacklist status. Unfortunately, some people abuse free VPN services to send spams or engage in malicious activities. If your IP happens to be blacklisted by two or more lists, some websites might deny you access. Disconnect from VPN and then reconnect, and try again with the new IP address.