Avatar image of Aimee O'Driscoll
Aimee O'Driscoll on in VPN

Canada-based TunnelBear is an increasingly well-known service, mainly due to its free VPN offering. But aside from that, it advertises a premium service that enables users to surf the web securely and privately, without worrying about data caps.

But how does it compare to other premium providers in the space? We’ve been testing out the TunnelBear service to see how it stacks up compared to the likes of ExpressVPN and NordVPN.

Features and pricing

As mentioned, TunnelBear is most famous for its free service. With this option, you get access to TunnelBear’s full server list, which covers more than 20 countries. This is admittedly small compared to many paid providers, but it’s actually quite a decent selection for a free VPN. The main drawback of the free service is that you only get 500MB to play with per month, which limits what you can do while surfing securely.

TunnelBear pricing table.

If you’d rather have unlimited data, you can go for a paid plan and pay on a monthly or annual basis. For the monthly option, the cost is $9.99 per month, but you’ll get a discount of about 50% when you opt for the one-year deal at $5.00 per month. Each plan enables you to connect up to five devices simultaneously. These prices are around about the industry average for top-rated providers. Although, some offer steeper discounts for longer terms, going as low as under $3 per month.

Plans come with a 7-day money-back guarantee, which isn’t all that generous considering some services offer 30-day trial periods. Payment options include credit cards and bitcoin, the latter being attractive for more privacy-conscious users.

Reader discount: TunnelBear is currently offering our readers 50% off here.

Desktop clients are available for Windows and MacOS, and mobile apps can be downloaded for iOS and Android. Browser extensions are available for Chrome and Opera, although these only protect your browser traffic and don’t cover your entire device. Plans also include an ad blocker that works with the Chrome browser. Unfortunately, TunnelBear can’t be configured to work with home routers.

This provider used to prohibit torrenting, but these days P2P is allowed and certain servers are recommended, making this a potential option for torrenters. TunnelBear users will enjoy strong security, including “military-grade” encryption, perfect forward secrecy, DNS leak protection, automatic wifi protection, and a kill switch.

Setup and interface

When it comes to apps, TunnelBear keeps things simple. They’re easy to set up and straightforward to use. For this review, we’ve been testing out the Windows desktop client and the iOS mobile app. To start, download the correct app for your operating system, install it where appropriate, and launch the app.

One thing worth noting before we get to the apps: no matter what operating system you use, you should be prepared for many, many “bear” puns. They’re seemingly everywhere, scattered within the website information, feature names, and install notifications; this provider just can’t seem to get enough. It might seem cute to some, but could be annoying to others. Moving on, let’s take a look at the apps.

Desktop

The desktop client is the same whether you’re using the free or paid version of TunnelBear. The only difference in the free version is you’ll see how much data you’ve used and an upgrade button at the bottom of the app. Note that we’re using the premium version for our testing.

Once you’re logged in to the app, you’ll see a series of welcome windows, giving tips on how to use the client. Then you’ll arrive at the Server page. At the top is an On/Off toggle which you can use to connect or disconnect to the VPN. By default, in the Auto mode, you’ll be connected with the server that will give you the best performance.

TunnelBear main screen.

If you’d rather choose a location, you can do so by clicking one of the “honeypot” icons in the country of your choice. Just hold and drag to get to your desired location, click the icon, and select Yes to connect. Alternatively, you can use the dropdown list to select your country.

Typically, with other providers, we see options to organize server lists, such as by city or favorites. However, given the small number of server locations, this is a non-issue with TunnelBear.

The TunnelBear main screen while connected.

Looking at the menu on the left, below the Server tab, you have Settings which is broken up into General, Security, Trusted Networks, and Account.

In General, you can adjust settings for startup, notifications, and appearance. One of the startup options is TCP override which can help overcome certain issues, such as your ISP throttling or blocking UDP traffic.

TunnelBear settings.

Security options include toggles for VigilantBear and GhostBear, both of which we’ll explain below. These are disabled by default.

The TunnelBear Security tab.

In the Trusted Networks tab, you can opt to add certain networks to a whitelist. When the trusted networks function is turned on, TunnelBear will be automatically activated on any wifi network that isn’t on your list of trusted networks. So, if you connect to a wifi hotspot in a coffee shop or hotel and you haven’t whitelisted the network, then the VPN will automatically start up.

The TunnelBear Trusted Networks tab.

Some advanced users might miss additional features, including a broader server selection and the ability to switch protocols, but all-in-all, this is a well-designed and robust app.

Mobile

TunnelBear’s mobile app is very similar to the desktop, albeit with fewer settings options. Once you launch the app, you’ll be prompted to allow TunnelBear to install VPN settings on your device. Then you’ll have a quick tour of the simple interface.

The TunnelBear mobile main screen.

Like in the desktop client, the main screen shows you a map of server locations. You can either find your desired location on the map or use the dropdown to select your country. Choosing Auto will connect you with the server that will give you the best performance.

The TunnelBear mobile server list.

From the main screen, click the menu icon to get to your settings.

The TunnelBear mobile settings screen.

The only feature of note here is the Trusted Networks option, which works in the same way as in the desktop app. Here you can add a trusted network if you’d rather not use the VPN while connected to that network.

Overall, this app is attractive and very simple to use. However, as with the desktop client, advanced users might be looking for additional functionality, such as the ability to tailor security features and to select servers based on function.

Servers and performance

As mentioned, TunnelBear doesn’t have a huge server selection. Unlike most providers who heavily promote their total server numbers, TunnelBear couldn’t tell us how many it has, just that the number fluctuates. We do know that the network covers just 22 countries. The majority of these are in Europe, with four in the Americas, four in Asia, and one each in Australia and New Zealand. When you consider that a provider like NordVPN has almost 5,000 servers, and ExpressVPN covers 94 countries, you start to see how relatively tiny the TunnelBear network is.

This provider also differs from most VPNs in that its servers are all virtual and managed remotely. These are cloud servers, provided by third-party companies — in TunnelBear’s case, these include Digital Ocean and Vultr. While TunnelBear notes that these are “reputable providers,” virtual servers are still considered less secure because they introduce a third party into the server management. Plus, they can affect performance because multiple companies share resources on the same virtual server.

We tested out servers in Canada, the US, and the UK, as these tend to be popular locations with users. The general connection on all servers was good and changing servers was quick and painless.

We were able to stream HD video, browse the web, and play online games with no issues. That being said, there have been reports of users of the free service having noticeable slowdown issues while browsing. Sadly, this is a general expectation with free VPN services, and may even be a tactic to encourage users to upgrade.

TunnelBear speed test performance

We strive to be as empirical as possible when running our speed tests and test multiple VPN servers for each provider. We typically test two US servers as well as one in the UK, but given only one option exists in the US, we’ve decided to test TunnelBear’s Canada location. The tests are conducted in Toronto and are similar to those we’ve run for other providers.

While connected to a test VPN server, we download a file (100MB in size) from a server in Oregon. We repeat the tests at three different times during the day. At each timepoint, we also conduct control tests without a VPN server.

The results are shown in the boxplots below. The lines where the dark and light blue boxes meet show the median speed. Lower is faster. The overall box size indicates the spread in results. Smaller means more consistent.

As you can see from the results, TunnelBear didn’t fare well on the tests. Surprisingly, the Canadian servers, which were presumably the geographically closest to the test location, pegged speeds more than three times those of the control. The US location did much better, but the UK server gave some of the slowest speeds we’ve seen in these tests. It is expected that geographically distant servers will be sluggish, but these slowdowns are very significant.

It is worth mentioning that these tests only serve as a rough indicator of what you might see when you’re using the service. The inherent volatility of the internet adds a significant factor of randomness, so these tests should be taken with a grain of salt. They were run while using a 60Mbps connection, so you’ll likely see longer wait times with a slower connection, and potentially smaller or larger discrepancies.

Does TunnelBear unblock Netflix and other popular streaming sites?

No, TunnelBear doesn’t unblock Netflix. We typically try at least a few US servers with Netflix, but there is only one US server option with TunnelBear. We tried this one with no luck. One of the recommendations on the TunnelBear FAQ page is that you try disconnecting and reconnecting to switch IP addresses, in the hopes that you’ll land with one that isn’t blocked. We tried this several times, but again, had no luck accessing Netflix.

We contacted customer support, and a representative gave us a bit of a vague response, stating that “we have many users able to use our services to access region-blocked content” and directing us to a troubleshooting article. Unfortunately, we were still unable to get Netflix to work.

We also tried Netflix while connected to servers in other countries, including the UK, Canada, and France. These didn’t work either, although this isn’t a big surprise, as very few VPN services can unblock Netflix libraries other than the US one.

In attempts to access other streaming services, we had mixed results. While a Canadian server worked to unblock Amazon Prime Video, a US and UK one didn’t. The UK server was unable to provide access to BBC iPlayer, although it did enable access to All 4 and ITV Hub.

Does TunnelBear work in China?

Yes, TunnelBear does work in China. While it doesn’t appear to be putting a lot of resources into enabling access to streaming services, it does have a method for users to bypass China’s Great Firewall. We mentioned GhostBear earlier, and it can be toggled on in the Security tab of the Settings menu.

This feature — available for Windows, MacOS, and Android — obfuscates encrypted traffic to make it look like regular internet traffic. China’s firewall uses Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to block certain forms of traffic, but your GhostBear-obfuscated traffic can fly under the radar.

One thing to note is that the obfuscation process will make things a bit slower, but this is a small price to pay for access to the free web.

See also: What’s the best VPN for China?

Security and privacy

TunnelBear is based in Canada, which is known for having some less-than-desirable laws relating to data retention and net neutrality. Bill 51, which gives Canadian intelligence the power to collect a plethora of private information, is particularly troubling for the privacy-conscious. However, none of this is really of concern when a VPN keeps minimal logs.

Logging

Thankfully, TunnelBear adheres to a strict no-logs policy: “TunnelBear does NOT store users originating IP addresses when connected to our service and thus cannot identify users when provided IP addresses of our servers.”

It collects a small amount of data, including which operating system you’re using, whether or not you’ve been active in the last month, and the total amount of data you’ve used in the month. This is all fairly standard for many providers and does not breach your privacy.

Encryption

When it comes to security, TunnelBear uses 256-bit AES encryption, which is considered pretty much as good as it gets. This is in conjunction with a SHA1 or SHA256 hash (depending on the operating system) and 2,048-bit RSA keys for authentication, along with perfect forward secrecy. Protocol options include OpenVPN, IKEV2, IPSec.

See also: Encryption Guides and Resources

Leak protection

Protection against WebRTC and DNS leaks is built in and always on. This provider uses its own private DNS servers, which is a plus for privacy. We mentioned VigilantBear earlier; this is TunnelBear’s kill switch. In the case that the VPN connection is lost, VigilantBear will block any unsecured traffic until the VPN reconnects again. This feature is available on the desktop clients but not in the mobile apps.

Customer service

If you need help while getting started with or using TunnelBear, you have a few options. Website help pages include sections on Getting Started and Troubleshooting. If you can’t find what you’re looking for there, you can use the Contact Us form. Unfortunately, there is no live chat option.

When we submitted a contact form, we got a popup telling us to expect a response within 48 hours. This is a long time to wait considering how many providers will fix your issue in a matter of minutes over live chat.

TunnelBear customer support message.

Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait two days, and we got a response in about 21 hours. This is still quite a lengthy wait period, especially if you have an issue where you have go back and forth several times.

Verdict

Overall, TunnelBear didn’t quite live up to expectations. It allows P2P and provides unlimited data, so could be a good option for torrenters, although speeds aren’t great. Some users looking to unblock streaming platforms might have luck. However, if you’re looking to gain access to some of the more strict sites like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and BBC iPlayer, you will have to look elsewhere.

TunnelBear does offer a solid privacy policy and strong security, so if your primary goal is secure and private browsing, then it could be a good fit. Just be prepared to wait for customer support; there’s no live chat feature and the email support is fairly slow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.