Many VPNs sell themselves on features. The highest number of protocols; strongest encryption possible; more complex technical settings than any other in the industry. You know how it works.
On the other hand, TunnelBear is all about simplicity with its free VPN plan, just offering the core features you need, and making them so accessible to everyone, with an absolute minimum of hassle.
Select your VPN protocol selection. Other apps can offer you a choice, giving you low-level network adjustments for each one. TunnelBears software supports the best and most secure protocols available, WireGuard and OpenVPN, but handles all decisions about what to use, and when, yourself.
The app also has a handful of other valuable features. It can connect automatically when you access untrusted Wi-Fi, for example. A kill switch prevents your traffic from being exposed if the VPN crashes, 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 a single simultaneous connection, so you can only use it on one device at a time. Even then, you will not use it for long, because the free plan is linked with a terribly limited monthly data supplement of 500 MB, enough for only 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 to customers connected to our service. Period. Your privacy is important. ‘
Most providers say something very similar, of course, but this is not just marketing spins. TunnelBear goes above and beyond to confirm its promises, and is now going through some of the more intensive independent VPN revisions available.
The company does not only have experts to look at its apps, for example. It also puts its servers under scrutiny, along with the website and backend infrastructure. TunnelBear publishes the audit report in its entirety, instead of quoting a few cherry-picked 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 happen.
Windows and Mac apps
TunnelBears Windows and Mac apps have an appealing interface where the company’s locations are displayed on a world map. You can click and drag to pan around the map, then click on the desired city to connect. Alternatively, you can select your city from a drop-down list, or you can just click the ‘On’ button and see when the app connects to the nearest location.
We found that the connection times could be surprisingly long, sometimes 20 seconds or more. Many VPNs (especially when using WireGuard) connect in a matter of seconds, and some are even faster than that.
We also noticed some connectivity issues, as the VPN occasionally dropped. It is not clear why, and we can not rule out the possibility that there was a temporary network or other local problems. But we test all VPNs in the same environment, and TunnelBears connection seemed less stable than most.
The apps have only the most essential settings: alerts, the ability to turn the kill switch on (or off) and so on. These have sensible default settings, so you may never need to explore them at all. But if you do, you’ll find generally simple descriptions of what each setting does, with links to the support page for everything a little more complicated.
Our tests found that the kill switch did not always fully protect us in the most extreme situations, such as an app crash. It’s useful to know, because the best apps protect us everywhere – but it’s not a big risk either. It’s very unlikely that you’ll ever see an app crash in real life, and we found that the TunnelBears kill switch had no problem protecting us from common situations that might occur more realistically.
Android and iOS apps
TunnelBears mobile apps share roughly the same interface as the desktop editions, and it works for us. You can select locations from the map, a drop-down list, or have the app automatically connect to the nearest location with a tap.
We quickly noticed a surprising difference: a roaring bear sound every time the app connects or disconnects. Charming? Irritating? We are not sure, but the sound has a certain practical value, by making it very clear when you are protected and when you are not. (And if you do not need it, no problem – there is a “Bear Sounds” checkbox in Settings where you can mute the sound.)
It’s not just about the sweetness factor. The Android app also has the TunnelBears VigilantBear kill switch, the GhostBear feature to bypass VPN blocking, and even a shared tunnel feature (called – you guessed it – SplitBear) to route the specified app’s traffic outside the VPN.
TunnelBears iOS app is relatively limited, without VigilantBear or GhostBear. You still get shared tunneling, but that applies to websites instead of apps. If a website does not give you access when using VPN, the app allows you to route that traffic through your regular connection instead. This is not an ideal solution, as it means that VPN is not able to protect you, but if the site does not cover anything confidential or important, it may be a sensible alternative.
TunnelBear may not have the most powerful apps available, but it delivers on speed? We tested the app from a UK data center with a 1Gbps connection, and the results were not bad at all, with TunnelBear averaging a decent 300Mbps.
We have seen faster free VPNs: Atlas VPN, PrivadoVPN and Proton VPN reached 320-380 Mbps in their latest tests. Nevertheless, TunnelBear surpassed Hide.me, Hotspot Shield, Speedify and Windscribe in our testing, and 300 Mbps is a very solid result for a free product.
It was a similar story with the unblocking. TunnelBear gave us access to US Netflix, a great achievement that surpasses any paid VPNs. But the good news started and ended right there, with TunnelBear failing to unblock Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus or BBC iPlayer.
If you have any problems with the service, please contact support. There is no live chat, so you have to get a ticket on the website, but TunnelBears immediate response – “we will do our best to respond to all inquiries within 48 hours” – left us unimpressed. “Our best” – so it can be even longer than two days?
However, this turned out to be a bit pessimistic, and in fact we got a useful answer in around 24 hours. It cannot compete with live chat support from a paid VPN plan, where you may get an initial response in 24 seconds. But it’s not bad for free – Hotspot Shield’s free plan, for example, has no support at all – and it’s good to know that there is some help available if you ever need it.
TunnelBear Free VPN is a decent service at heart, fast and very easy to use. But unfortunately, the meager 500 MB per month data allowance means that it is more of a demo for the paid plan instead of something you can run in the long run. For occasional users only.