The following is my test report for TunnelBear VPN, which is done independently. Tested on Windows, MacOS, Android, iOS and others. If you have any questions, you can contact me and I will answer your questions.
Too often, security companies opt for ominous imagery of faceless hoodie-clad hackers or other scaremongering designs to sell their products. Not so with TunnelBear VPN. This excellent virtual private network secures data with a cadre of powerful, but no less cute, bears. It’s bursting with charm, yet it also delivers excellent security tools at a good price. It’s a VPN that you’ll actually use, and an Editors’ Choice winner.
What Is a VPN?
The free public Wi-Fi at the coffee shop might not be as safe as it seems. If you join the network, it might intercept and inspect all your web traffic, sending that information to malevolent forces. Your ISP, or the ISP connected to that public Wi-Fi network, is also keen to spy on your web activities in order to sell that information to advertisers. This is why you need a VPN.
When your VPN is active, your web traffic travels through an encrypted tunnel to a server managed by the VPN service. That keeps your information safe from data thieves with phony networks. It also helps protect against ISPs selling anonymized metadata about your web habits. When your traffic exits to the web through the VPN server, you appear to have an IP address at that server’s location. This protects your real identity as you browse the Web.
VPNs are often used by journalists or people living in countries with restrictive policies toward the internet. They’re also a handy way to spoof your location for less serious needs. Content that is region-locked, such as sporting events or Netflix movies that are available in some countries but not in others, can be viewed with a VPN because the service spoofs your location. Netflix—and other video streaming services—can be quite aggressive about blocking VPN use as a result.
There’s a good chance that you may have never laid hands on a VPN before. If that’s the case, don’t worry! We’ve got a whole feature on how to set up and use a VPN.
Pricing and Features
TunnelBear is one of the few providers I’ve reviewed that offers a free VPN service. However, the free TunnelBear tier does restrict you to only 500MB of data per month. You can earn more data by Tweeting about the company, which can raise your limit to a total 1GB for one month. The free version of HotSpot Shield Elite serves you ads instead, but it doesn’t restrict your data usage.
If you decide to pay for TunnelBear, it won’t break the bank. You can snag the Giant plan for $9.99 per month or the Grizzly plan for $59.88 per year. That’s slightly below average pricing for a VPN, and the quality of service makes it an even better value. NordVPN, by comparison, costs $11.95 per month, while Private Internet Access($2.91 at Private Internet Access) is our most affordable top-rated VPN, at $6.95 per month.
You can pay for TunnelBear using major credit cards or anonymous BitCoin transactions. Other VPN services like TorGuard go even further, accepting prepaid gift cards from merchants like Starbucks and Subway. The next time you receive one of these as a gift, consider putting it toward a VPN instead of a venti mocha.
With either a free or a paid account, you can use up to five devices on a single TunnelBear account. That’s average for VPNs, although NordVPN provides six, out of the box. Both TorGuard VPN and KeepSolid VPN Unlimited offer additional slots for more devices at monthly rates.
Some services, like IPVanish, offer software for routers. This effectively protects every device on your network while only counting the router toward your limit of protected devices. TunnelBear doesn’t offer this scheme, but it’s primarily an option for those used to getting their hands dirty when it comes to networking, which isn’t TunnelBear’s forte.
Previously, TunnelBear forbade the use of its services for P2P file sharing or BitTorrenting. Thankfully, those days are gone. You can now torrent to your heart’s content, though the terms of service do note that using TunnelBear for illegal activity (such as breaching copyright law) is forbidden. If using BitTorrent freely and frequently is a major priority for you, I recommend TorGuard, which offers static IP addresses and other technology specifically tailored for BitTorrent users. NordVPN allows BitTorrent on specific servers, and it also offers other specialty servers for video streaming and connecting to the Tor anonymization network.
TunnelBear has client software for Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android devices. It also offers browser plug-ins for Chrome and Opera. I’d like to see an extension for Firefox, as well, but no such luck so far. Using a VPN browser plug-in runs only your browser data through the VPN service, letting your other apps operate unfettered but also unprotected. It’s a feature I like, since it offers protection for just about any device that can run a browser. It’s not, however, a substitute for the service’s complete VPN protection, which is what I tested.
VPNs have been around a long time, and as a result there’s a myriad of ways to create a VPN connection. TunnelBear secures your connection with the OpenVPN protocol for Android, macOS, and Windows. This is my preferred protocol, as it is newer, faster, more secure, and open source.
The TunnelBear iPhone app, meanwhile, uses the IKEv2 protocol, which is a good option for that platform. You can’t change which protocol TunnelBear uses in its app, but that’s fine for most users.
Servers and Server Locations
When I review VPNs, I consider how many servers it offers, where those servers are located, and how many of those servers are virtual. The first point is simply a reflection of the VPN service’s robustness. True, a larger company doing more business will likely have more servers, and also true, that companies will spin servers up and down as needed. But the more servers a company provides, the less likely you’ll have to share bandwidth with a lot of other users on the same server.
At last count, TunnelBear has around 1,000 servers across the globe. That’s a robust offering, keeping pace with many of the top VPN services I’ve reviewed. But it’s not among the largest offerings. NordVPN, it should be noted, recently took the crown for the most servers with some 3,400, followed by Private Internet Access with about 3,275. TorGuard VPN also recently upgraded its network to include about 3,000 servers.
A VPN’s distribution of servers is also important. The more server locations a service has, the more options you have for spoofing your location. A lot of geographic diversity also means you are more likely to find a close-by server when traveling abroad, which will likely be faster and more resilient than a distant one would be.
As for server locations, TunnelBear offers servers in 22 locations. This is on the low side, as Hide My Ass has 286 locations in 220 countries, and PureVPN offers 180 server locations across 140 countries. TunnelBear’s offering includes Australia, Brazil, most of Europe, Hong Kong, India, Japan, and Mexico. This completely ignores Africa, the Middle East, and much of South America, an omission that is, sadly, not unusual for VPN companies. CyberGhost, notably, has several servers in areas that TunnelBear and other VPN services ignore.
Virtual servers are software-defined servers. That means several virtual servers can run on a single physical server. It also means that a virtual server can be configured to behave like it’s located in one country, when it’s actually in another. If you’re concerned about which specific countries are handling your data, you want to know how many virtual servers a VPN uses and where they are actually located.
TunnelBear told me that it only uses virtual servers to handle unexpected demand, and has dedicated servers in all of its locations. That means that when you connect to a VPN server, it’s located exactly where it says it is located. This might be part of why it offers fewer server locations. But if you’re using TunnelBear, rest assured that your data is exactly where it’s supposed to be.
Your Privacy With TunnelBear
TunnelBear’s greatest strength, besides its powerful bears, is its stance on privacy. It has one of the best privacy policies I have seen, explaining in great detail and with plain language, exactly what it collects and why. It also includes discussion sections, where the company explains how it arrived at a particular decision. For example, a pull-out section talks about how the company used to gather users’ names to customize communications, but decided that this information didn’t need to be gathered or stored and that its loss could put customers at risk.
Notably, TunnelBear says that it will not disclose, sell, or trade personal information with third-party companies. That’s a remarkable commitment that not every VPN company makes. TunnelBear does use third-parties for payment processing, but this is not unusual. Additionally, a company representative confirmed to me that TunnelBear’s only source of revenue is subscriptions—not data mining or ad retargeting.
The company is based in Canada, and a company representative explained that it is not subject to any mandatory data retention laws. We at 10Beasts do not feel that we can adequately pass judgment on a company’s privacy practices based solely on its location. However, I think it is important to know where a VPN company is headquartered and under what legal jurisdiction it operates. I recommend that consumers consider this information, and simply go with the service they are most comfortable with.
TunnelBear has the notable distinction of having completed not just one, but two independent code audits and publicly released the results. This year’s audit turned up about a dozen issues, which TunnelBear says have since been fixed. That’s great, and I’m pleased to see that TunnelBear is committed to an annual public review process. The company has also participated in a project from the Center for Democracy and Technology, voluntarily explaining aspects of the company’s operation. Both of these efforts go a long way to establishing TunnelBear as a company that takes its role as a security company very seriously—despite its playful image.
Hands On With TunnelBear
When I went to buy a VPN for my home, I showed my partner all of the top-rated services I had reviewed. I explained what I thought made the best the best, and then asked which my partner would actually use on a daily basis. They didn’t miss a beat, and picked TunnelBear. And it’s true; we have used it every day since then.
Previously, the TunnelBear app used a serviceable but dated interface that heavily relied on old-timey visual metaphors such as switches and dials. The company has moved away from this approach, and I like the result. The new client is sleek and subtle, built around a central map of the world displaying the company’s server locations. Select your desired location from the menu above, switch protection on, and you’re treated to a surprisingly smooth animation of a bear tunneling away from your current location. The mobile apps use the same design, so you’ll have a familiar experience no matter where you go with TunnelBear.
Unlike other Windows VPN apps, TunnelBear includes a minimized mode. This is more functional than the Task Bar shortcut but less graphical than the full-blown app.
TunnelBear has a tongue-in-cheek attitude that it brings to every aspect of its app. It’s charming and colorful, without ever being overbearing or cloying. For example, whenever you connect to a VPN server, a notification appears bearing a bear with a hat representative of that country.
TunnelBear doesn’t have many locations to choose from, but a location search box would be an excellent addition—as would a list of servers, with some basic information such as load and ping time. NordVPN does an excellent job of conveying vital statistics about its VPN servers, and it offers specialized servers for connecting to Tor, streaming video, and more.
The TunnelBear app does include some advanced features, such as Vigilant Mode. This prevents data from slipping through your internet connection during the seconds it takes TunnelBear to reconnect should you become disconnected. GhostBear aims to circumvent VPN blocking by disguising VPN traffic as normal HTTPS traffic. A TunnelBear representative told me that the company advises that users switch on GhostBear only when absolutely necessary, as it can reduce performance by as much as 50 percent. It’s an impressive offering, but not unique. Other companies, such as Golden Frog VyprVPN, offer similar custom tools designed to circumvent censorship.
Another important security feature is Trusted Networks. This is basically a whitelist of Wi-Fi networks you trust. When this feature is activated, TunnelBear will automatically connect if the Wi-Fi network you’re on is notone of the networks on your whitelist. I like this feature, but other companies that include a similar feature frame it more clearly by saying that the VPN will connect on untrusted networks. Still, it gets the job done.
TunnelBear and Netflix
While no one can know you’re a dog online, streaming companies like Netflix do take note of your location. That’s because companies often have to honor geographic restrictions with the content they provide. For example, if you live in the US, you must pay for a CBS All Access subscription in order to watch Star Trek: Discovery. If you live outside the US, you can watch the show through Netflix. This is why Netflix in particular has been so aggressive at blocking VPN users.
Fortunately, you’ll have no such problems with TunnelBear. I had no trouble accessing Netflix from my Android phone while the VPN was running. It also ran smoothly on a computer using TunnelBear’s Chrome VPN plug-in.
When most VPN companies include ad blocking, they tend to do so on the network level, blocking the ads before they even reach your computer. TunnelBear doesn’t do this. Instead, the company has quietly launched a stand-alone browser plugin called Blocker. It retains TunnelBear’s trademark bears and charm, and is surprisingly well polished for a Chrome plugin.
When you visit a site, the number of ads blocked appears in the mouth of the little bear icon, as if it had ripped them from the still-warm body of the website. Clicking the arrow next to the Blocking section expands a list of all the elements blocked. I like this, since it allows you to block some elements on a website, but not all of them. You could, for example, block privacy-defying trackers while still allowing ads. TunnelBear Blocker also handles more complex elements, such as Ultrasonic Tags. These are high-frequency tones played during advertisements and received by apps in order to tell advertisers that their ad is being viewed.
Fine controls, like site whitelists, are especially important with ad blockers. Some blockers break elements in sites, making them virtually unusable. Sometimes, enduring a few ads is the price to pay to see a working site.
Similarly, TunnelBear launched a password manager called RememBear. Currently, the company offers RememBear clients for Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows. It’s free to use on one device, but if you want the convenience of syncing across all your devices, you’ll have to pay the $36 yearly subscription fee. We found it to be a good service that handles the basics in a fun, whimsical fashion, with plenty of animated bears. However, it lacks advanced password-management features such as two-factor authentication, secure sharing, and password inheritance.
No matter the VPN you choose, you’ll see an impact on your web-browsing experience. That’s because you’re adding some extra hoops for your traffic to jump through. Speeds are a perennial concern for consumers, but I try and discourage anyone from using speed results alone as a benchmark for choosing a VPN service.
When I test VPNs, I look at performance when connected to a domestic (US) server and an international server. For the domestic test, I connect to the VPN and then compare the average results of several Ookla speed tests with a baseline average. I do the same for the international tests but use an Ookla test server in Alaska communicating with a VPN server as far away as possible—usually in Australia.
Note that while I stand behind my speed tests, they’re certainly not the definitive word in VPN performance. You may have different results connecting at a different time of day, or to a different server. Networks are finicky things, so I consider these tests to be more of a snapshot for comparison purposes.
In the latency tests, TunnelBear increased ping time by 645.45 percent domestically and 270.3 percent internationally. This is unusual. First off, the domestic test results are the second worst I have recorded, especially compared to TorGuard VPN, which actually reduced latency by 6.7 percent. Second, the international latency was half the domestic latency, which is confusing given the fact that my international tests by definition include a ridiculous amount of latency given the distances involved. Last, TunnelBear’s international latency results are actually the best I have recorded thus far.
TunnelBear did not distinguish itself in the download speed tests, either. In fact, its domestic results showed a decidedly not-so-nice 69.1 percent reduction in speeds. This is the second-worst score I’ve yet recorded, and a far cry from TorGuard VPN, which slowed speeds by only 3.7 percent. TunnelBear has the dubious distinction of dropping download speeds by 90.5 percent in my international tests, the worst score in that category. AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite had the best score, reducing download speeds by only 39.9 percent.
The upload tests were TunnelBear’s redemption. In the domestic test, it reduced upload speeds by only 7 percent. IPVanish had the best score in this category, lowering speeds by only 2.9 percent. TunnelBear also did well internationally, reducing upload speeds by 97.8 percent. Private Internet Access has the best score in this category, reducing speeds by 97.3 percent.
Because of its excellent performance in the latency and domestic download tests, I am currently calling TorGuard VPN the fastest VPN. That said, speeds don’t tell the whole story. If you went by speed alone, you’d miss out on TunnelBear’s excellent value, privacy protection, and user experience.
TunnelBear for Android
The Tunnelbear VPN Android app follows in the footsteps of its Windows counterpart with an excellent user experience marred only slightly by disappointing speed tests results. TunnelBear has a consistent interface across all platforms, so you’ll see the same bright yellows and friendly bears on Android. Tap a VPN server location on the map, or select one from the list, and you’ll be swiftly be secured. You won’t be able to select a specific server, however. Just the location. TunnelBear continues to struggle in our speed tests, likely because our testing location is far from the nearest TunnelBear US VPN server.
For its ease of use and strong value, the TunnelBear Android VPN app earns a top score and an Editors’ Choice award.
TunnelBear for iPhone
The TunnelBear iPhone app gives the service’s whimsical, colorful nature a real opportunity to shine. The app fits in quite well with modern iPhone apps, and the brightly colored design looks excellent on the iPhone’s screen.
Note that the iPhone app doesn’t have all the features that the Windows version does. For one thing, it only uses the IKEv2 VPN protocol. That’s fine, as it is a modern protocol, but we prefer iPhone apps that take the extra effort to include the OpenVPN protocol.
While we always prefer a full-featured offering, the TunnelBear iPhone app is simple and approachable. For people perhaps unused to using iPhone VPN apps, that’s fantastic.
TunnelBear for Mac
TunnelBear is not available in the macOS App Store, so you’ll have to download it directly from TunnelBear’s website. Once installed, Mac users will likely appreciate how iPhone-like the app is, retaining both the friendliness and bright colors of its mobile cousin.
Like the Windows version, the TunnelBear macOS app includes both the OpenVPN and IKEv2 protocols. Those are both modern protocols and we’re especially glad to see our preferred option, OpenVPN, available.
For its excellent mix of strong technology and friendly design, TunnelBear is one of our favorite VPN apps for macOS. It’s an Editors’ Choice winner.
TunnelBear for Chrome and Opera Browsers
We’ve only tested TunnelBear’s Chrome browser plug-in, and it’s very impressive. Compressed into a very small window, the app lets you choose a VPN server location and includes some handy keyboard shortcuts.
You won’t get all the bells and whistles that you do with the desktop application versions of TunnelBear, but this is a lightweight VPN solution. Do note that only your browser traffic will be encrypted if you use the TunnelBear browser plug-ins. All of your computer’s other traffic will travel in the clear.
This VPN Is Just Right
It’s not a perfect product, though. The service lacks the kind of broad geographic diversity we like to see. It also doesn’t have specialized servers, although it could be argued that it eschews these in favor of simplicity. And although we don’t believe that speed test scores are the best measurement of a VPN service’s value, TunnelBear’s test results are significantly below average in some categories.
What TunnelBear does right is make a security product you’ll actually use. It’s a powerful, affordable product and is a clear Editors’ Choice winner, along with NordVPN and Private Internet Access.
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