Many VPNs sell themselves on features. The highest number of protocols; the strongest possible encryption; more complex technical settings than anyone else in the company. You know how it works.
On the other hand, TunnelBear is all about simplicity with its free VPN plan, which offers only the core features you need and makes them accessible to everyone with the absolute minimum of fuss.
Choose your VPN protocol. Other apps may offer you a selection and give you low-level network customizations for each app. TunnelBear’s software supports the best and most secure protocols, WireGuard and OpenVPN, but makes all the decisions about what to use and when.
The app also has a handful of other valuable features. For example, it can connect automatically when you access untrusted Wi-Fi. A kill switch prevents your traffic from being exposed if the VPN drops, and a stealth feature can help you get online in countries or networks where VPNs are often blocked.
TunnelBear Free VPN also has significant limitations. It only supports one simultaneous connection, so you can only use it on one device at a time. Even then, you won’t be using it for long, as the free plan is chained with a terribly limited monthly data cap of 500MB, enough for only very occasional use.
Privacy and logging
The TunnelBear website has many reassuring things to say about how it handles your traffic: ‘TunnelBear does NOT log any activity from customers connected to our service. Period of time. Your privacy comes first.’
Most providers say something similar, of course, but this isn’t just marketing spin. TunnelBear goes to great lengths to verify its promises and is now undergoing some of the more intensive independent VPN audits out there.
For example, the company doesn’t just let experts look at its apps. It also takes a close look at its servers, along with its website and backend infrastructure. TunnelBear publishes the audit report in full, rather than citing a few select paragraphs. And then it repeats the process every year (as we write, it has had four full-service audits). No other VPN provider comes close to that level of transparency, and TunnelBear deserves great credit for making this possible.
Windows and Mac apps
TunnelBear’s Windows and Mac apps have an attractive interface where the company’s locations are displayed on a world map. You can click and drag to pan around the map and then click on your preferred city to connect. Alternatively, you can choose your city from a drop-down list, or you can just click the ‘On’ button and watch the app connect to the nearest location.
We found that connection times could be surprisingly long, sometimes 20 seconds or longer. Many VPNs (especially when using WireGuard) connect in seconds, and some are even faster than that.
We also noticed some connectivity issues, with the VPN dropping every now and then. It’s not clear why, and we can’t rule out the possibility that there was a temporary network or other local issue. But we tested all VPNs in the same environment and TunnelBear’s connection seemed less stable than most.
The apps have only the most essential settings: notifications, the ability to turn the kill switch on (or off), and so on. These have sensible defaults, so you may not need to explore them at all. But if you do, you’ll generally find simple descriptions of what each institution does, with links to the support site for something more complicated.
Our testing showed that the kill switch didn’t always fully protect us in the most extreme situations, such as an app crash. Good to know, because the best apps protect us everywhere – but it’s not a big risk either. It’s very unlikely you’ll ever see an app crash in real life, and we found that TunnelBear’s kill switch had no problem protecting us from common situations that could be more realistic.
Android and iOS apps
TunnelBear’s mobile apps share much the same interface as the desktop versions, and it works for us. You can choose locations from the map, a drop-down list, or let the app automatically connect to the nearest location with a tap.
We soon noticed a surprising difference: a roaring bear sound every time the app connects or disconnects. Charming? Annoying? We’re not sure, but the audio does have some practical value, making it very clear when you’re protected and when you’re not. (And if you don’t need that, no problem – there’s a “Bear Sounds” checkbox in Settings where you can turn off the audio.)
It’s not just about the cuteness factor. The Android app also has TunnelBear’s VigilantBear kill switch, the GhostBear feature to bypass VPN blocking, and even a split tunneling feature (called – you guessed it – SplitBear) to block your specified app’s traffic outside of the VPN to lead.
TunnelBear’s iOS app is relatively limited, with no VigilantBear or GhostBear. You still get split tunneling, but it applies to websites rather than apps. If a site won’t let you access it when you use the VPN, the app will let you route that traffic through your normal connection instead. That’s not an ideal solution, as it means the VPN won’t be able to protect you, but if the website isn’t dealing with anything confidential or important, it could be a sensible option.
TunnelBear may not have the most powerful apps out there, but does it deliver speed? We tested the app from a UK data center with a 1 Gbps connection, and the results weren’t bad, with TunnelBear averaging a decent 300 Mbps.
We’ve seen faster free VPNs: Atlas VPN, PrivadoVPN, and Proton VPN reached 320-380Mbps in their latest tests. Still, TunnelBear outperformed Hide.me, Hotspot Shield, Speedify, and Windscribe in our tests, and 300Mbps is a very solid result for a free product.
It was a similar story with unblocking. TunnelBear gave us access to US Netflix, an important feat that outperforms some paid VPNs. But the good news started and ended there, with TunnelBear failing to unblock Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, or BBC iPlayer.
If you have any problems with the service, you can contact support. There’s no live chat, so you’ll need to submit a ticket on the website, but TunnelBear’s immediate response – ‘we will do our best to answer all questions within 48 hours’ – left us unimpressed. ‘Our best’ – so it could even be longer than two days?
However, this turned out to be a bit pessimistic and in fact we had a helpful response within 24 hours. That can’t compete with the live chat support of a paid VPN subscription, where you may get an initial response within 24 seconds. But it’s not bad for free – Hotspot Shield’s free plan offers no support at all, for example – and it’s good to know that help is there if you ever need it.
TunnelBear Free VPN is a good service at heart, fast and very user-friendly. But unfortunately, the stingy 500MB per month data allowance means it’s more of a demo for the paid plan rather than something you could use in the long run. Only for very occasional users.