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 virtual private network, or VPN, secures data with a cadre of cute but powerful bears. The app is bursting with charm, but it also delivers security at a good price. However, the iPhone edition lacks the advanced features found in the Windows app, and it fared poorly in some of our speed tests. Even so, TunnelBear’s charm and simplicity mean you may want to install it for your non-techie friends.
What Is a VPN?
The free public Wi-Fi at the public library or internet café may be convenient, but it’s not safe. A malefactor on the network could intercept your traffic. The network itself may be a creation of malevolent forces. It may not even be the network you think you’re using—crooks can spoof the network ID, making your device think it’s one of your usual connections. Out on the web, advertisers and government snoops are eager to track your movements online. To combat these possible spies, you need a VPN.
When your VPN is active, it routes your web traffic through an encrypted connection to a server managed by the VPN service. Data thieves and phony networks can’t touch that data. Using a VPN also helps protect against your ISP 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, and foils ad networks that pin your surfing habits to your IP address.
Journalists or people living in countries with restrictive internet policies often use VPNs. But they’re also a handy way to spoof your location for less serious needs. With a VPN, you can view content that is region-locked, such as sporting events or Netflix movies that are available in some countries, but not in others, because the service spoofs your location. Netflix has gotten wise and started blocking VPN access. In our previous review TunnelBear was one of the VPNs that worked with Netflix, but not this time.
Pricing and Servers
TunnelBear is one of the few providers we’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 of 1GB for one month, and you earn bandwidth by tweeting every month. Other free VPNs, like that offered by HotSpot Shield Elite, serve you ads, limit access to servers, or both.
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. The current average monthly price is about $10.50, so TunnelBear’s price combined with the quality of service makes it a good value. Both the paid plans offer unlimited data and a full set of features.
You can pay for TunnelBear using major credit cards and anonymous BitCoin transactions. You can also pay from the app on the iTunes store. Other VPN services like TorGuard VPN (for iPhone) go even further, accepting prepaid gift cards from other merchants, such as Starbucks and Subway. The next time you receive one of these as a gift, consider putting it towards a VPN instead of a venti mocha.
With either a free or a paid account, you can use up to five devices with a single TunnelBear account. That’s average for VPNs, although NordVPN offers six, CyberGhost gives you seven, and KeepSolid VPN Unlimited (for iPhone) lets you tack on more devices for an incremental charge.
IPVanish VPN (for iPhone), TorGuard, and a few other services offer software for routers. This effectively protects every device on your network while only counting one device (the router) toward your limit of protected devices. TunnelBear doesn’t offer this scheme. In any case, a router-based VPN won’t do you a lick of good when your mobile device is away from the home network.
Representatives from TunnelBear told us that it offers approximately 1,000 servers at any given time. That’s a good offering, but it’s a far cry from Private Internet Access, which offers well over 3,200 servers in more than 20 locations. With more than 3,400 servers in 59 countries, NordVPN (for iPhone) gives you even more choices. The number of servers matters because you get better performance if the VPN server you’re using isn’t already stuffed to capacity with other subscribers.
As for server locations, TunnelBear offers servers in 20 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, and these United States. It’s a good selection, but it leaves out all of Africa, the Middle East, and places like Russia and Turkey, which have repressive internet access policies. Editors’ Choice winners VPN Unlimited and NordVPN offer more locations. The more locations a VPN company offers, the better performance you’ll have when traveling abroad, since there will be a VPN server close by. Having more server locations to choose from also means more options for spoofing your location.
TunnelBear does not include integrated ad blocking. 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, but it’s naturally less useful on an iPhone. See our review of the full TunnelBear VPN for complete details.
Note that several advanced features from the Windows edition don’t appear on the iPhone, specifically: Vigilant mode, which protects your data while the VPN reconnects; Ghost Bear, which disguises VPN traffic as HTTPS traffic much like the similar feature in Golden Frog VyprVPN (for iPhone); Trusted Networks, which automatically uses VPN if you connect to an untrusted network; and Kill Switch, which halts internet-aware programs when the VPN connection is lost. Apple’s strong grip on what apps can and can’t do make these features tough to implement under iOS, though NordVPN offers Kill Switch and VyprVPN activates automatically on untrusted networks. In truth, TunnelBear’s iPhone edition is sleeker and friendlier without these advanced features.
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 we’ve seen, explaining, in great detail and with plain language, exactly what it collects and why. It also includes discussion sections, in which 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 us 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 PCMag do not feel that we can adequately pass judgment on a company’s privacy practices based solely on its location. However, it is important to know where a VPN company is headquartered and under what legal jurisdiction it operates. We 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 an independent code audit, and publicly released the results. The point of a code audit is to find potential flaws in the app’s design, so this is welcome news. These kinds of third-party evaluations aren’t always conducted, or made public, and we’re glad to see that TunnelBear takes privacy and security seriously enough to undergo the audit. The only other VPN service we’ve reviewed that has undergone a similar evaluation is AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite (for iPhone).
Hands On With TunnelBear
TunnelBear offers client software for Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android devices, as well as browser plug-ins for Chrome and Opera. The plugins give you VPN protection on any device that can run the associated browser, but they’re less important on an iPhone. For testing, we installed the TunnelBear iPhone app on an Apple iPhone SE. It installed in a snap and was immediately ready to go.
Like NordVPN and VPN Unlimited, TunnelBear’s user interface centers on a world map. NordVPN’s map is a bit whimsical, with sailboats in the oceans, while VPN Unlimited offers a more businesslike map. TunnelBear’s map is the best-looking of the three. Tunnels sticking out of the ground identify server locations, while trees, shrubs, and mountains add interest. Tap a tunnel, confirm your desire to connect, and then watch as an animated bear tunnels there from your current location, and roars to indicate success (you can turn off the bear sounds). If you wish, you can simply choose the desired location from a list, but where’s the fun in that?
On iOS devices, TunnelBear uses the IKEv2 protocol. This protocol is newer than IPSec, but in general we prefer OpenVPN. The problem is, Apple requires extreme vetting for any app that wants to use OpenVPN. VPN Unlimited is among the very few that support OpenVPN. TunnelBear does use OpenVPN in its Android, macOS, and Windows apps. Whatever the platform, you don’t get a choice of protocol, but that’s fine for most users.
You can set TunnelBear to always manage your phone’s Wi-Fi traffic, and separately set it to activate whenever you’re on the cellular network. There’s also an option to define certain networks as trusted, meaning you don’t need VPN protection on that network. Or, as the help system puts it, give your bear a coffee break.
Some Slow Speeds
No matter the VPN you choose, you’ll see an impact on your web-browsing experience. Most of the time, it’s a negative one, but there’s the occasional exception. For example, in our latest round of testing, Hotspot Shield actually made downloads and uploads faster.
TunnelBear’s Windows app earned poor scores in our latest speed tests. It greatly increased latency in the domestic test, and slowed downloads more than any other in the international download test. For mobile apps, we stick with testing on domestic servers.
To prepare for this test, we set the iPhone to airplane mode, disabling the volatile cellular connection, and then turn on Wi-Fi. You’re much more likely to encounter man-in-the-middle attacks and other attacks over Wi-Fi than arcane attacks on your cellular data. We use Ookla’s internet speed test tool, running it several times with the VPN turned off and immediately running several more tests with the VPN connected. (Note that Ookla’s Speedtest.net is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag’s publisher.) Averaging runs with and without VPN lets us see just how the VPN affected speeds.
Latency, simply put, is the time it takes to ping a remote computer and receive a response. High latency could cause lagging in a fast-paced action game, though you’re more likely to play those on the PC than on an iPhone. TunnelBear increased latency by 21.7 percent, better than the current average of 28 percent. CyberGhost VPN (for iPhone) aced this test, with just a 3.7 percent increase. At the other end, IPVanish increased latency by 79.5 percent.
Any decrease in download speed due to VPN usage will irk most users, especially if it’s a big decrease. Here, too, TunnelBear didn’t fare so well, slowing downloads by 34.4 percent. Only IPVanish, with a 47.4 percent slowdown, did worse in recent tests. CyberGhost only slowed downloads by 9.5 percent, and, as noted, Hotspot Shield increased download speed.
All recent products slowed uploads, but not by a huge amount. Even the worst, Private Internet Access and TorGuard, only slowed uploads by 8.5 percent. TunnelBear slowed uploads by 5.1 percent, a bit more than average. PureVPN (for iPhone) put just a 2.4 percent slowdown on uploads, while Hotspot Shield sped them up a bit.
Novices Will Love the Bear
TunnelBear has always been a favorite of ours. In the often ossified and overly technical world of security products, it’s lighthearted and cute. The company has always put a premium on design and user experience, rare in the world of VPNs. The Windows version of TunnelBear VPN is an Editors’ Choice. The iPhone app lacks some of the advanced features that impressed us under Windows, but that’s just fine for casual users. Thinking of installing a VPN for your parents, or for a non-techie friend? TunnelBear is a great choice.
That said, it falls short in the important area of geographically diverse servers, and it lacks the specialty servers offered by some of the competition. In addition, it caused significant slowdowns in some of our speed tests. For an iPhone VPN that’s both effective and attractive, we recommend NordVPN or KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, our Editors’ Choice products in this area. Still, we wouldn’t fault anyone for cuddling up with this bear.