- Excellent privacy policies
- Annual independent audits
- Friendly, approachable design
- Browser extensions, including stand-alone ad blocker
- Good speed test results
- Lack of geographic diversity in server locations
- Few advanced features
If you’re tired of green-on-black hackertext and overall “edginess” in your security products, you’re not alone. TunnelBear VPN heads the opposite direction with bright colors, excellent design, and a cadre of cute but powerful bears. It’s bursting with charm, yet it also delivers excellent security tools at a good price. It’s an VPN that you’ll actually enjoy using and an Editors’ Choice winner, too.
What Is 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 and other ne’er-do-wells lurking on public 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.
TunnelBear Pricing and Features
TunnelBear is one of the few providers I’ve reviewed that offers a truly free VPN service. However, the free TunnelBear tier restricts 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 of 1GB for one month. The free version of HotSpot Shield limits you to 500MB per day, while the ProtonVPN free subscription has no data limit.
If you decide to pay for TunnelBear, it won’t break the bank. You can snag the Unlimited plan for $9.99 per month. That’s slightly below average $10.10 per month for a VPN, and the quality of service makes it an even better value. Hotspot Shield, by comparison, costs $12.99 per month, while Mullvad is a mere $5.54 per month. TunnelBear also has longer term subscriptions, starting at $59.88 per year or $120 every three years. That’s significantly less than the industry average of $73.41 per year. While TunnelBear is an excellent value, I highly recommend starting with the company’s free or monthly plans, so you can test out TunnelBear for yourself and make sure it will work for you.
There is an added cost to that low price tag: TunnelBear doesn’t offer much beyond VPN protection. NordVPN and ProtonVPN are among the few VPNs that offer mulithop connections, which use a second VPN server for extra security. Several offer split tunneling, which allows you to designate which apps’ traffic travels inside or outside the VPN connection. TunnelBear has none of these.
You can pay for TunnelBear using major credit cards. Bitcoin is an option, but only for the one-year plan. Other VPN services such as 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, but many services offer more. Some services, such as TorGuard, will let you purchase additional device connections using a sliding scale. Avira Phantom VPN, Encrypt.me VPN, Ghostery Midnight, IPVanish VPN, Surfshark VPN, and Windscribe VPN place no limit on the number of devices you can use simultaneously. (Note that IPVanish and Encrypt.me are owned by j2 Global, the parent company of PCMag’s publisher, Ziff Davis.)
Previously, TunnelBear forbade the use of its services for P2P file sharing or BitTorrenting. Thankfully, those days are gone. You can now use it to torrent over VPN to your heart’s content.
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. IKEv2 is also available for the Windows and macOS clients. You can’t change which protocol TunnelBear uses in its app, but that’s fine for most users.
Some VPNs, including NordVPN and Mullvad, have begun deploying the next-generation WireGuard VPN protocol. While also open-source, this super-fast VPN protocol is still experimental. The fact that TunnelBear doesn’t offer it isn’t a problem. Yet.
Servers and Server Locations
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.
TunnelBear offers servers in 23 locations. This collection covers the essentials, but is on the low side. TunnelBear’s offering completely ignores Africa, the Middle East, and much of South America, an omission that is, sadly, not unusual for VPN companies. ExpressVPN covers 94 countries and CyberGhost comes close behind with servers in 90 countries.
Total server count isn’t really a good metric for quality. A large company with lots of subscribers will surely have more servers, and companies of all sizes will spin servers up and down as needed. That said, more options is always a good thing.
At last count, TunnelBear has around 1,800 servers across the globe. That’s a robust offering, besting the majority of VPN services, but it’s not among the largest collection of servers. ExpressVPN, Hotspot Shield VPN, Private Internet Access VPN, and TorGuard VPN all offer more than 3,000 servers, and both CyberGhost and NordVPN boast over 5,000 servers.
Virtual servers are software-defined servers, which 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. Sometimes, this is a good thing, because a server can be in a secure location while providing coverage to a nearby unsafe location. It becomes an issue when companies aren’t transparent about where your data is headed.
TunnelBear told me that it has dedicated servers in all of its locations only uses virtual servers to handle unexpected demand. Those virtual servers are located in the country they claim to be. If you’re using TunnelBear, rest assured that your data is exactly where it’s supposed to be.
In the wake of recent legislation within China, TunnelBear announced it was voluntarily suspending its servers in Hong Kong. The company stresses that all it does not store user information on these servers, and that the drives are encrypted. Other VPNs that have recently left the region have filled the gap with virtual servers that appear to be in Hong Kong but are actually outside of China. TunnelBear instead recommends that Hong Kong users connect to servers in nearby countries.
Your Privacy With TunnelBear
Beyond its cute and powerful bears, TunnelBear’s greatest strength 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. Other VPN companies should take note of this approach.
Notably, TunnelBear says that it will not disclose, sell, or trade personal information with third-party companies. 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 says it does not collect information about user activity, nor does it store originating IP addresses, timestamps, or DNS queries.
For free subscribers, it does record the overall bandwidth in order to enforce its data cap. This is reset to zero at the end of each month.
TunnelBear has the notable distinction of having completed not just one, but three independent code audits and publicly released the results of those audits. That’s great, and I’m pleased to see that TunnelBear is committed to an annual public review process. A company representative described these audits to me as, “security audits of our whole stack, which includes our backend servers, our VPN servers and VPN clients.”
Additionally, TunnelBear says that it has taken steps to limit the damage a successful attack on its server infrastructure might cause. The servers themselves contain no identifiable information about users, and the drives are encrypted. Some companies now run their servers “RAM only,” and TunnelBear should consider doing the same. TunnelBear says it would “expedite the communication of any breach or risks” to its customers, should they occur.
Security is really an issue of trust. Even if a company does everything right, it doesn’t matter much if you, the customer, don’t trust them. I recommend that consumers consider this information, and choose a service with which they feel comfortable.
Hands-On With TunnelBear
When I went to sign up for a VPN for myself, 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. We have used it ever since.
TunnelBear currently offers clients on Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows. For this review, I tested the Windows client on an Intel NUC Kit NUC8i7BEH (Bean Canyon) desktop running the latest version of Windows 10.
The TunnelBear client is quite charming, dressed in bold yellow. The app has a tongue-in-cheek attitude that it brings to every aspect of its app. It’s cute 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.
The app is built around a central map of the world displaying the company’s server locations, shown as Mario-esque pipes. 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. All the TunnelBear apps use the same design, so you’ll have a familiar experience no matter where you go with TunnelBear.
As much as I love the TunnelBear apps, they have remained fairly static for several years. It would be nice to see them get a tune-up, without losing their panache in the process.
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 and others provide detailed information about specific servers, which can be useful when you need a connection in a very specific location.
The TunnelBear app does include some advanced features, such as Trusted Networks, which is basically a whitelist of Wi-Fi networks you trust. Another important feature is Vigilant Mode. This prevents data from slipping through your internet connection during the seconds it takes TunnelBear to reconnect should you become disconnected. The GhostBear feature 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. It’s an impressive offering, but not unique. Many other companies offer similar custom tools designed to circumvent censorship.
TunnelBear does not offer split tunneling in its Windows app, which would allow you to designate which apps send traffic through the VPN tunnel and which app’s traffic should travel in the clear. It’s useful for accessing LAN traffic, and for keeping certain low-risk activities like gaming or video streaming speedy and unblocked by the VPN. ExpressVPN and a handful of other services offer this feature.
One thing you don’t want your VPN doing is leaking your personal information. When I test VPNs, I check to see if my IP address changes and the name of my ISP is hidden, and I use the DNS Leak Test to see if DNS information is, well, leaking. TunnelBear passed all these tests easily, but its possible other servers could be misconfigured.
TunnelBear and Netflix
While no one can tell you’re a dog online (or a bear, for that matter), streaming companies like Netflix can tell where you live and will block you if you’re spoofing your location. That’s because companies often have to honor geographic restrictions with the content they provide. Unfortunately, when I tried to stream a movie from Netflix while connected to a TunnelBear VPN server, I was blocked. That was true when I tested the service, but your mileage may vary—as is always the case when your try to use a VPN with Netflix.
Most VPN companies that include ad blocking tend to do so on the network level, purporting to block the ads before they even reach your computer. TunnelBear doesn’t do this. Instead, the company has launched a stand-alone browser plug-in called Blocker. This retains TunnelBear’s trademark bears and charm, and is surprisingly well polished for a Chrome plugin.
I actually prefer this approach, since it gives users far more control over what is blocked and when. That’s especially important because blockers can break elements in sites, making them virtually unusable. Sometimes, enduring a few ads is the price to pay to see a working site.
TunnelBear also offers browser plugins for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera, which function as proxies to reroute your traffic through a TunnelBear server. This encrypts your browser traffic—and only your browser traffic—differently than the VPN app. It’s useful because 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 test.
Similarly, TunnelBear launched a password manager called RememBear. 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 $36 per year (or $60 every two years). A subscription to RememBear is bundled with the three-year TunnelBear subscription. 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.
Other VPN companies have also begun diversifying their offerings. NordVPN also offers a password manager, and an encrypted file system called NordLocker. Hotspot Shield has one of the most intriguing bundles, bringing three different products for free through the company’s Pango account.
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. At PCMag, we use the Ookla speedtest tool to gauge the impact a VPN has on performance. (Note that Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, which also owns PCMag.) We have a whole feature on How We Test VPNs, so do read it for more on our methodology and the limits of our tests.
TunnelBear had a mixed showing in my tests. It reduced upload speed test results by 62.9 percent, which is better than the median for that category. It can’t claim the same for download speed test results, which it decreased by 74.7 percent, or latency, which it increased by 96.5 percent. The high latency is not too surprising since TunnelBear has only a few US servers, meaning your data will likely travel further to stay within the US. Testing from New York, my traffic was sometimes routed to a Canadian server, probably because it was closer.
You can see how TunnelBear compares in the chart below with the top nine performers among the over 40 services we tested. These results are presented in descending order by download result.
Hotspot Shield VPN currently holds the title of fastest VPN, but Surfshark isn’t far behind with a truly stunning upload speed test score. As I said, however, I discourage people from focusing too much on speed, as it is difficult to measure and not nearly as important as a VPN’s features or overall value. Keep in mind, too, that the performance you experience will likely differ greatly from mine.
This VPN Is Just Right
What TunnelBear does right is making a security product you’ll actually use. It’s not a perfect product, but it’s a product that perfectly fits into your life. It’s an Editors’ Choice winner, along with ProtonVPN and Mullvad.