A Virtual Private Network (VPN) does not need to be intimidating or frustrating for its users. McAfee-owned TunnelBear makes it simple to secure your internet connection. With good security features and a reasonable price, TunnelBear is an excellent VPN to consider for your Android device. Although TunnelBear wasn’t the best performer in our speed tests, it’s one of the most intuitive VPNs we’ve tested. TunnelBear earns an Editors’ Choice for Android VPNs alongside NordVPN and Private Internet Access.
What Is a VPN?
If you frequently connect to public Wi-Fi networks at airports or cafés, know that your connection is not secure. Malicious actors on the same network can peek at your activity and potentially extract your personal data, including passwords and banking information. These same individuals can also trick your device into automatically connecting to fraudulent networks. Mobile devices are more often a target in public places, but even your home network is susceptible to privacy incursions from internet service providers (ISPs) that sell your data. To preemptively combat all these intrusions, you need to use a VPN.
At a basic level, a VPN client sets up an encrypted connection (or tunnel) to a server hosted by that VPN service. When you connect to one of these servers, your IP address appears as the IP address of the VPN server itself, rather than one that is identifiable to you. This practice effectively hides the origin of your connection and makes it difficult for a third party to attribute activity to you specifically. If this sounds confusing, don’t worry; TunnelBear, like other top competitors, makes it easy to set up and use a VPN service, without making you dive into the details.
Since a VPN is subject to the same threats and vulnerabilities as any other security software, we recommend you take a look at our guide on how to tell if your VPN is leaking. Also, note that a VPN in the wrong hands could function as particularly intrusive spyware. Take Facebook’s Onavo VPN for example. The app, which Apple has since removed from the App Store for violating its policies, openly tracked its users’ network activity. Accordingly, you should only use a VPN from a company you trust or, better yet, one that has undergone a third-party audit.
It’s also important to establish what a VPN is not. For example, a VPN does not make you completely anonymous online. Using a VPN alongside Tor is a better, but still not fool-proof, way to protect your privacy. A VPN is not the most effective tool to prevent websites from tracking your sessions, either, but extensions such as Privacy Badger can help. Threats to your privacy and security are always evolving, but a VPN can help protect one of your greatest vulnerabilities. For strengthening your personal security online, be prepared to supplement your VPN with other tools, such as a password manager.
Pricing and Security
TunnelBear offers three pricing options, including a completely free one. TunnelBear is one of the few VPNs that offers a free tier, but note that this account is limited to 500MB of data per month, which is likely not enough to sustain most users. TunnelBear will upgrade this limit to 1GB per month if you tweet about the service, though. The company also does not require a credit card to use the free version, which we appreciate. If you really don’t want to pay for protection, you can check out our feature on free VPN services for other options. Although most free services either come with severe data usage restrictions or rely on ads for support, Editors’ Choice ProtonVPN’s free version does not.
TunnelBear’s base paid tier, Giant, costs $9.99 per month and removes the data limit. The top-level account, Grizzly, offers the same capabilities as Giant, but it only costs $59.95 per year, or about $5 per month. The monthly price is slightly less than the current average ($10.16) of VPN services we’ve tested. Private Internet Access is cheaper at $6.95 per month, but NordVPN comes in higher at $11.95 per month. Users can pay for TunnelBear with a credit card or with Bitcoin.
TunnelBear protects your network traffic with AES 256-bit encryption and implements the OpenVPN protocol on Android. Data authentication is handled with the SHA-256 hash function. TunnelBear allows five concurrent connections at any one time, which is a little below average. IPVanish offers the most simultaneous connections (10) of the services we reviewed. In addition to Android, TunnelBear is available on Windows, macOS, and iOS.
TunnelBear also offers a Team account for $69 per person per year. This plan includes an unlimited data allotment, up to five devices per subscription, team billing features, and priority email support. We tested the service using a Grizzly account.
TunnelBear Server Locations
When we evaluate a VPN service, we compare how many servers a company maintains and where those servers are located. The reason is simple: the greater the number of servers, the less bandwidth users will need to share with other people. Also, if a company hosts more servers closer to your geographical location, your connection will likely be quicker.
TunnelBear offers servers in 20 different locations worldwide at the time of writing. Notably, TunnelBear does not offer servers on the entire continent of Africa. Further, it neglects Cuba, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and Vietnam, all of which have particularly restrictive internet policies. That said, we understand that maintaining servers in such countries is potentially problematic and that the consequences of failure are severe for the end user. For this very reason, we don’t pick a best VPN for China, for example. However, most other VPNs we tested offers servers in a greater number of locations. For example, IPVanish and Hide My Ass VPN maintain servers in 60+ and 190+ countries, respectively.
According to a company representative, TunnelBear maintains around 1,200 servers at any one time. That’s on the low side, compared with our other Editors’ Choice winners. For reference, NordVPN claims more than 5,000 servers and Private Internet Access says it has around 3,500. TorGuard’s 3,000 server count also outclasses TunnelBear’s offering.
One other thing to keep in mind is whether a VPN company uses virtual servers. Virtual servers physically exist in one location but spoof their location so that they appear to be in another. One potential issue with this practice is that connecting to a virtual server could expose your data to the laws of a country other than the location you think you are choosing. According to a company representative, TunnelBear’s server count is “split about 50/50 in terms of active physical vs virtual servers,” and TunnelBear “does not currently maintain physical servers in every location that [it] offer[s] virtual servers.” The representative further explains that TunnelBear prioritizes physical servers in the countries it has them using a weighted selection algorithm and “auto scale[s]…virtual servers up and down based on traffic fluctuations.”
TunnelBear is based in Canada, which is part of the 14 Eyes intelligence alliance, but a company representative explained that it is not subject to any mandatory data retention laws. We refrain from judging a VPN company’s privacy practices based solely on its location, but consumers should at least know under what legal jurisdiction it operates. TunnelBear also says it will comply with a “valid subpoena, warrant or other legal document and applicable law,” but again, this only applies to the limited personal data that TunnelBear collects. Another plus side of this minimal collection policy is that the stakes are much lower in case of a data breach.
TunnelBear notably completed an independent code audit by Cure53. Code audits are designed to uncover vulnerabilities in software; you can read the full results in this PDF of Cure53’s findings. Third-party evaluations aren’t common, and even fewer are public, so we applaud TunnelBear’s efforts here. AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite is the only other VPN service we’ve reviewed to undergo an audit.
TunnelBear’s Android VPN App
We installed TunnelBear on a Google Pixel running Android 9.0. We had no issues downloading the app or signing into our test account. The app’s main view shows a vibrant, interactive map with bright yellow tunnel icons stationed in every available country. We really enjoy the overall design and watching the animated bear tunnel to other locations is definitely entertaining. You can also tap on a location you are already connected to for an informative bear fact. We wish the app allowed you to zoom in and out from the map; it’s hard to see all the available locations just by panning around. App settings are available via a hidden left-hand menu.
Once you decide on a server location, tap on the icon or select it from the list at the bottom of the screen. You can also use the Auto function to connect to the closest available location. If this option is greyed out, you may need to adjust the ICMP settings on your router. Some VPN services let you choose from several servers at each location, but TunnelBear does not give you that option.
The first time you connect to a server, your device pops up a connection request notification. This notice explains that TunnelBear will have the ability to monitor your network traffic. As mentioned before, a VPN can be a malicious tool in the wrong hands, so make sure the request comes from a verified source. Once you hit OK, the on-screen bear dives into the pipes and emerges in a new location. Your bear’s path is tracked by a bright blue dotted line.
You can also configure TunnelBear to auto-connect when you connect to insecure Wi-Fi networks. TunnelBear includes other proprietary options too: GhostBear, VigilantBear, and SplitBear. When the GhostBear option is enabled, it makes encrypted data appear as regular HTTPS internet traffic. The VigilantBear option disables all internet traffic in the event that your connection is disabled. This feature is sometimes called a Kill switch. SplitBear lets users select which apps should not be tunneled even when connected to TunnelBear.
The last in-app option is to enable Trusted Networks. Basically, TunnelBear will automatically run whenever you connect to a network not listed as trusted. Oddly, when we tapped the Learn More button in the descriptions of each of these extra settings, the app redirected us to a generic landing page. We had no issue accessing these same help pages from the desktop.
TunnelBear and Netflix
Some VPNs don’t work with Netflix, even though it is not clear whether the use of VPNs is an explicit violation of its terms of service. Netflix does explain, however, in section 4.3 of its policy that “You may view Netflix content primarily within the country in which you have established your account and only in geographic locations where we offer our service and have licensed such content.”
TunnelBear’s Android app did not work with Netflix in our latest round of testing. We tested compatibility with a Nexus 5X running Android 8.1, since we had problems streaming from Netflix (even without a VPN) on our Google Pixel test device with Android 9 Pie. You can always enable the SplitBear settings enabled for Netflix to avoid disconnecting from the VPN entirely, but know that your data will not be encrypted.
If you use video streaming services frequently on your phone, this lack of compatibility could be important. You can check out our current roundup of the best VPNs to use with Netflix for other options, but know that your results with any service will likely vary over time.
Testing TunnelBear’s Speed
Testing the connection speed of a VPN is difficult since variables such as the time of day, geographic location, server, and test device can all affect the outcome. Therefore, you should not consider our test results the final word on such matters, but rather as a comparative snapshot of VPN performance. If speed is a priority, however, check out our roundup of the fastest VPNs.
To test the performance of a VPN, we run Ookla’s internet speed test app several times to establish a baseline network performance with the VPN turned off. (Note that Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag’s publisher.) Then, we let the VPN automatically choose the closest server (or switch it to the closest US-based one), and rerun the tests. For each test, we use the download (Mbps), upload (Mbps), and latency (ms) results to evaluate the performance. We take the median of the results in each category and compare the percent change between the two tests.
TunnelBear’s Android app slowed down our connection speed considerably in all our tests. For example, it increased latency by over 3,500 percent. Its download and upload speed performance is not much better. TunnelBear’s download and upload speeds respectively clocked in at 95.4 percent and 79.4 percent slower than our baseline result. In subsequent tests, the latency did improve somewhat, but upload and download speeds remained consistent. In all three tests, TunnelBear produced worse results than the median.
Speedify turned in the fastest results in our download tests, only decreasing speeds by 3.4 percent. NordVPN also produced good results in terms of download speeds and took the top spot in our upload tests, only slowing down speeds by 48.7 percent and 22.6 percent respectively. In our latency test, NordVPN, Tiger VPN, and Private Internet Access were the quickest, only increasing our ping by an average of 20 percent. All of TunnelBear’s results are well below the average performance of the VPNs we tested.
TunnelBear did not perform particularly well when PCMag’s VPN expert Max Eddy tested its Windows client either. In fact, it was one of the slowest services we tested in terms of latency and download speeds. When Senior Security Analyst Neil Rubenking reviewed the TunnelBear’s iOS app, it also performed poorly on download and latency tests, but managed to hit upload speeds consistent with most other competitors.
Again, keep in mind that we don’t consider performance to be the most important factor when judging VPNs. Most of our readers have enough throughput that the increased security even a slow VPN delivers is worth the tradeoff in performance. Certainly, if you’re doing something in which speed or latency are critical factors, that doesn’t apply. In that case, please see our roundup of the best gaming VPNs.
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