Advertisers, governments, schools, and companies are watching where you go online. While advertisers just want to follow you around and sell you stuff, your school or company might block certain websites so you can’t access them.
This is often done in a heavy-handed, thoughtless way. Either by using algorithms to block entire topics or by blacklisting individual sites. The Chinese government, for example, blocks every Google domain making email difficult if you have a Gmail account.
You can also find that you’re barred from some websites or content based on your location. Netflix, for example, serves completely different content based on your location. You might be halfway through an amazing series and then lose access by traveling to another country.
People use VPNs to get around these restrictions.
What is Chrome VPN, and why would you use it?
VPN is a Virtual Private Network. When you send or receive data over the internet, it’s broken up into packets, routed around the network and reassembled at the other end. In a virtual private network, you wrap the packets in encryption and send them to a server that decrypts them before they get forwarded to their destination.
That means that no-one else can see what data you’re sending and receiving, and no-one can follow you around the web, block you from certain sites, or know what you’ve been doing. Your traffic looks like it’s coming from somewhere else entirely. You can use public wifi safely, browse without your boss, government, or principal snooping, and control your own internet use.
Strictly speaking there’s no such thing as ‘Chrome VPN,’ but plenty of VPNs have a Chrome extension that either lets you control the VPN through your browser, or provides secure proxy services that have similar functionality to a VPN. Many are free, and if you want easy access to the sites you want, wherever you are, they’re good choices.
Free vs Paid VPNs
Paid VPNs are subscription services. They own servers, have employees, and incur other costs in order to provide the VPN service. Free VPNs get their revenue elsewhere. Some sell your data, some show you ads, some are freemium versions of paid VPNs.
The 5 Best Free Chrome VPNs
1: CyberGhost – Best for Regular Unblocking
How it works
Install from the Chrome store and fire it up from the extension bar. Choose your server location by clicking on the one that’s currently active.
Under the hood, CyberGhost’s Chrome extension is built on the Ethereum blockchain, meaning it’s one of the most private options out there.
They do warn you upfront that “this browser plugin is not secure when accessing Flash content and does not protect you from webRTC leaks.” It’s also not good at unblocking streaming sites.
Free users are limited to a choice of four server locations:
- United States
Premium subscribers get access to a full-size server net with 4,800 servers across 58 countries.
Encrypted with 256-bit AES (Advanced Encryption Standard).
CyberGhost logs connection attempts, but it anonymizes them. It doesn’t log traffic or IP addresses.
CyberGhost won’t significantly slow down most users’ connection speed.
CyberGhost’s Chrome extension is free. Subscriptions are priced at $12.99 a month, $5.99 a month for a one-year subscription billed annually, $3.69 a month for a two-year subscription billed every two years, or $2.75 a month for a three-year subscription, billed every three years.
2: Browsec – Most Convenient
Browsec is faster than most free VPNs, secure, and easy to use.
How it works
Install the extension and then click on it. You don’t need to be signed in or have an account to use the Chrome extension. Location is reliable between websites, there are plenty of servers to choose from, and the interface is simple and intuitive.
Browsec has 12 locations available to its premium subscribers. Free subscribers get four server locations:
- United Kingdom
- United States
Browsec encrypts everything in 256-bit AES (Advanced Encryption Standard).
Browsec doesn’t collect personally identifying information and uses “automatically-collected information in the aggregate for the purpose of monitoring, research or analysis.”
It it located in Russia, though, which is a security concern. Probably a good idea not to use this extension for anything sensitive.
Browsersec boasts speeds of up to 100Mb/s but in fact you’re more likely to experience speeds around 10-15Mb/s.
Browsec’s free service is free forever, but its premium subscription is priced at $4.99 per month, or $3.33 per month billed annually.
3: TunnelBear – Best for Infrequent Usage
TunnelBear is a real VPN with a Chrome extension. Unlike most premium VPN services, TunnelBear has a free account with a data limit instead of a time limit. If you want a real VPN’s power and control, but only occasionally, TunnelBear will work for you.
How it works
Install the extension, click on it and you’ll be asked to create an account. All you need is your email address, and when you confirm your free account you’ll get access to the 500MB a month that comes with a free account.
It doesn’t play that well with some other Chrome extensions — when we tested it, Ghostery and OneTab crashed.
TunnelBear has servers in 20 countries, and free users can select any of them from the extension icon.
TunnelBear uses 256 bit symmetric encryption.
Tunnelbear logs connections, but not traffic or IP addresses.
TunnelBear is fast. If your naked internet connection will support high speeds, you could see connection speeds in the high 50s across the TunnelBear server net. And free accounts are data-capped, not speed-throttled. Even free users can get speeds like these.
TunnelBear’s free accounts are free forever. Paid accounts are $9.99 per month or $4.99 per month billed annually.
4: HotSpot Shield – Easiest and Most Reliable Unblocking
HotSpot Shield is a freemium tool built around its Chrome extension, with no data or time cap.
How it works
Install the extension and you’re guided through a five-screen onboarding flow in the extension itself before you connect. You can choose your server by clicking on the one you’re connected to.
You’ll also see options for a cookie blocker, malware blocker, RTC protection, and a tool called Sword that creates spoof traffic while you browse to confuse trackers trying to identify you.
Free users get access to four server locations:
- Russian Federation
India, Singapore, UK, France and the US are available to premium subscribers.
HotSpot Shield uses 256 bit AES encryption.
HotSpot Shield collects aggregate activity logs but not traffic or IP logs.
HotSpot Shield is fast enough that most users won’t notice much difference compared to a naked internet connection. It will slow ping noticeably for more distant servers, though.
HotSpot Shield offers permanent free accounts. Subscriptions are priced at $12.99 per month, $9.99 per month billed annually, or $8.99 per month billed every two years.
5: Windscribe – Most Flexible Server Locations
How it works
Install and you’re prompted to sign up. Once you create your free account, you’re automatically connected.
You get 2GB of free data with WindScribe, but they do their best to help you make the most of it. The default setting is “Cruise Control,” which doesn’t use any of your data allowance until you encounter a blocked website. When that happens, Windscribe flicks itself on automatically to get you access, choosing the appropriate server location to get you access.
Free users get access to servers in:
- US Central, East and West
- Canada East and West
- Hong Kong
Premium users get access to a wider range of global servers as well as dedicated “Windflix” servers specifically designed to unblock Netflix.
Windscribe uses 256-bit AES encryption.
Windscribe collects connection logs but not traffic or IP logs.
Windscribe isn’t even on most of the time. When it is, more distant servers do display a noticeable lag.
Windscribe’s free accounts aren’t time-limited. If you want more data or more servers, premium accounts cost $9 a month or $4.08 per month billed annually. There’s also the option to build your own subscription if you only want certain locations.
What if the website you want to view is still blocked?
Websites like YouTube and Netflix are engaged in a kind of arms race with VPN users, many VPNs are blocked by these sites. If you’re doing a lot of unblocking, or you want to unblock sites that are particularly VPN-proof, these paid options are worth a look.
ExpressVPN – Best Paid VPN
Living up to its billing, this is the fastest full-feature VPN out there. It has an effective stealth mode so watchers won’t even know you’re using a VPN, solid encryption, and reliably unblocks everything on the internet.
There’s a Chrome extension but you need a subscription to use it, and the desktop and mobile apps are easy to use too. It’s priced at $12.99 a month or $9.99 per month for a six-month subscription.