TunnelBear VPN Review 2018
TunnelBear is one of the easiest-to-use VPN services around. The service offers a free subscription option, which allows you to try it without being required to hand over your credit card information.
Their paid options are competitively-priced and offer a good value for the money. Users who are looking for a simple, bare-bones VPN to cover their tracks and protect their data from the bad guys would do well to take a closer look at TunnelBear. Power users or speed demons will want to look elsewhere.
Ease of use
Anyone who has used the internet for pleasure or business in the last few years is likely aware that the online world is a dangerous place, with both bad guys and government agencies making continual attempts to access your personal data and web usage information. A VPN, like TunnelBear, is a good way to guard against such attempts.
As I’ve mentioned in my other reviews, I work for a large IT firm at a job that keeps me on the road for a significant amount of time each month. Much of my travel is international. I require a way to ensure my internet browsing and the data I send and receive are not being monitored.
In addition, I need a way to access websites and online service that may normally be blocked due to government or regional restrictions.
There are a number of VPN services available today, with new services popping up constantly. In this review, I will be taking a look at TunnelBear, a reasonably-priced and easy-to-use VPN service.
What is TunnelBear?
TunnelBear is one of the simplest-to-use VPN services available today. The service offers easy installation, and using the app to protect yourself is a matter of two mouse clicks. Selection of a VPN server can even be left up to the application.
TunnelBear provides private browsing, keeping your’ tracks hidden from hackers, your ISP and anyone else that may be monitoring a connected network. The app provides protection while using public Wi-Fi hotspots. It also claims not to log any activity for users connected to their service.
TunnelBear is located in Canada, so there are some questions as to whether regulations enacted in Canada requiring “internet providers” to keep usage logs apply to VPN services such as TunnelBear. More about that later.
TunnelBear uses two different VPN protocols on their network, depending on the device you are using to access their services. If you’re using Windows, macOS or Android, you’ll be using OpenVPN.
OpenVPN is an industry-standard open-source protocol supporting Blowfish 128-bit, AES 128-bit and AES 256-bit encryption. If you’re using an iOS device, you’ll be using IPSec/IKEv2, which TunnelBear says works best on iOS devices.
All of the technical gobbledygook above simply means TunnelBear covers your tracks quite well. The service uses the latest methods of protecting your data.
At the time of this writing, TunnelBear has servers in 20 countries. Countries include The U.S., the U.K., Australia, Spain, India and a number of other locales.
How TunnelBear Works
TunnelBear cloaks your actual IP address by routing your traffic through the TunnelBear VPN servers. Once the cloaking is enabled, any website or web service you access through the connection would see a TunnelBear IP address, not the actual address provided by your internet provider.
TunnelBear offers easy-to-install apps for several desktop and mobile operating systems. The app’s cloaking allows you to connect to websites that may not usually be available in your area due to either government or geographical restrictions put in place by the websites or services themselves.
P2P File Sharing (Torrents)
While one popular use for VPNs is to access file sharing (P2P) servers, including BitTorrent servers, TunnelBear does not allow the use of BitTorrent.
The company says that while it realizes BitTorrent can be used for a number of totally legal purposes, the high number of complaints the company received from content providers led them to decide to disallow BitTorrent usage.
If you are looking for a VPN service which does allow torrenting, we’ve made a list of those here.
In addition to the hassle of dealing with content providers, TunnelBear also likely took into consideration that Torrent users, as a rule, do consume a large amount of bandwidth, moving large amounts of data from one point to another. Disallowing Torrent use on their network helps them keep the network running smoothly for everyone, while also allowing them to cut costs.
The TunnelBear Website
The TunnelBear website offers a very clean and uncluttered design. The website makes it quite easy to obtain information about the service, including its pricing and capabilities. There are easy-to-find links to pricing, downloads and information about the service available from the front page.
The design of the website features the service’s mascot, a cartoon bear, that, while used quite a bit, isn’t overly cute. (Although I guess that depends on how you feel about cartoon bears, doesn’t it, Boo-Boo?)
The website explains the VPN provider’s offerings without going into heavy detail. You can tell the provider is aimed at the beginner audience, as they appear to be trying to put their prospective customers at ease - particularly the customer who hasn’t used a VPN before.
Subscription Options and Pricing
Subscription options include the free “Little” subscription, the 1-month “Giant” subscription and 1-year “Grizzly” option.
While the first 2 tiers of service provide the same unlimited data and other features, the 1-year “Grizzly” option costs substantially less overall than the monthly “Giant” subscription. The plan comes out to $4.99 per month (with an annual payment of $59.88), while the Giant plan carries a monthly $9.99 tariff.
The “Little” option provides the same high-speed connection as the 2 paid plans. However, it limits users to 500MB of data use per month.
While the “Little” plan isn’t sufficient for day-to-day use, it does allow you the opportunity of trying out the VPN before putting your hard-earned dough down on the counter for a paid tier of service. Plus, you can get another 1GB of data added to your account if you tweet about the service.
Creating an account with TunnelBear doesn’t require a credit card or any other form of payment. Any new accounts are automatically set up with the free “Little” account. Users can upgrade at any time to the “Giant” or “Grizzly” accounts.
Subscription signup is protected by an HTTPS connection. Payment options include VISA, MasterCard, American Express and Bitcoin. iTunes and Google payments are also available as payment options in the iOS and Android mobile apps, respectively. All credit card processing is performed through Stripe and PayPal.
Users hoping to keep their payment actions completely anonymous on the web will be glad to see Bitcoin listed among the payment options. Using Bitcoin in conjunction with a temporary “throwaway” email address offers users protection from prying government eyes, as they can’t force a payment processor to hand over identifying information about its customers.
The charge for TunnelBear shows up as “TUNNELBEAR INC.” on your credit card statement. The service does NOT offer refunds for any reason. While this would normally raise a red flag for me, the opportunity to try the service for free via the “Little” plan makes it less of an issue for users who may want to try a service risk-free.
Subscription terms and costs are as follows:
While all of the plans are a good value, the 1-year “Grizzly” plan definitely offers the best value, as it comes out to less than half the monthly amount a user would pay for the month-to-month “Giant” plan.
I would recommend anyone considering TunnelBear for their VPN needs to try out the “Little” free service. While free connections are limited to 500MB per month, users can at least get a decent idea of how well the service will work for them before whipping out their credit card to pay for anything.
Keep in mind that all 3 subscription levels provide the same services, data speeds and options. The main differences are the length of the subscriptions, the discount for the longer subscription and the data limit on the free level of service. Like many VPN providers, TunnelBear changes up their pricing from time to time. Be sure to visit the TunnelBear website for the latest pricing.
I purchased 1 month of service, as is normal for my review testing. (What can I say, caution is my middle name.) I made the subscription purchase via my Mac’s browser, using the credit card option.
At $59.88 for an annual subscription, TunnelBear’s pricing falls in the middle of the VPN price range. They are one of the few providers I’ve reviewed that offers a truly “free” level of service, which provides a true “try before you buy” experience.
Installing the App on Your Computer
The TunnelBear download page displays versions for Windows, Mac, Android and iOS. The service also offers browser extensions for use with Chrome and Opera browsers.
Windows and Mac versions are available as direct downloads from the website. iOS and Android apps are available from the Apple App Store and Google Play, respectively. Unfortunately, there is no way to use TunnelBear with a router.
I visited the download page on my Mac, and the app automatically began to download. I saved it to my Download directory and waited a few moments for the file to download.
The TunnelBear installation file is contained in a ZIP file. I double-clicked the file, which unzipped it to my machine’s hard drive. The only file in the ZIP archive is the application itself. Installation consists of dragging the unzipped file from the Downloads folder to the Applications folder. The file copies in a matter of seconds.
Finding the TunnelBear app icon in my Applications folder, I clicked it to start up the app. I was immediately prompted for my login and password. (The app basically lives in the Mac’s Menu Bar, so the app requests permission to install a “helper app” for the Menu Bar when you first run it.)
Installation should prove just as easy for the Windows users among us (and you know who you are). Installation is merely a matter of downloading the .exe TunnelBear installation file, and double-clicking the file to install the app. You may be prompted here and there to approve a few options, but in just a few minutes, you’ll be ready to “tunnel with the bear.”
Installing the App on a Mobile Device
I also installed the TunnelBear app on my iPhone. Installation of the app is completed in the usual Apple manner, which consists of downloading and installing the app from the iOS App Store. The download takes a few moments, and then a quick tap of the app icon loads and runs the iOS app
Following login, the app asks for permission to install VPN settings on your iOS device to allow for a VPN connection to the TunnelBear servers. Installation necessitates okaying the changes, along with entering the device’s passcode or using Touch ID to confirm the changes.
Android users will experience a similar method of download and installation, as the app is available via the Google Play store. Installation takes a few moments, and you’re ready to protect your Android device’s connection with a simple tap on its screen.
Features & Use
Following the installation of the app on my Mac, I entered the login and password that I created during my signup on the TunnelBear website and prepared to test the service. Upon logging in for the first time, I was presented with a few screens offering tips about using the app and the service itself.
Starting up a connection to a TunnelBear VPN server is simplicity itself. Simply click the TunnelBear icon in the menu bar and then click the name of the country you’d like to connect to a server in. (You can also click “Automatic” if you simply want to protect your connection from prying eyes and don’t need to access content or services in a particular country.)
I’d also like to make a note of a special feature TunnelBear offers, called “GhostBear.”
While an internet service provider can usually detect if you’re connecting via a VPN, TunnelBear’s GhostBear option makes your encrypted connection less detectable to governments, businesses and ISPs. This is accomplished by scrambling your VPN communications, making them harder to detect and block.
This feature would be especially attractive to users in highly-restrictive countries where internet connections are monitored closely.
GhostBear is currently only available on the Mac, Windows and Android apps. The iOS app does not currently have the feature “due to restrictions in the way in which iOS is designed.”
Users should also know that the GhostBear feature will slow your connection a bit, and TunnelBear recommends leaving it turned off unless you have issues with your connection.
Other attractive features include a kill switch to shut down your internet connection if you become disconnected from the VPN server, an option to start up and connect when you boot your computer and the ability to specify certain apps to not use the VPN tunnel.
The TunnelBear service can be accessed from up to 5 devices at once. This makes it an excellent choice for family or business users who may require more than one VPN connection at one time.
The TunnelBear app offers a quick and easy way to protect your internet connection. The service limits connection options, such as country and server selections, for free users. However, the app still provides an excellent way to encrypt your connection to the net.
The features of the app are somewhat limited when compared to other providers, but the app is great for users who are new to using a VPN to protect their connection.
Ease of Use:
The app is small in size and doesn’t noticeably impact system resources. The app offers easy-to-use options for customizing internet connections. Connecting to a VPN server is as easy as clicking the large yellow “Click Here” button.
Connection Quality and Speed
I tested the quality of the connections offered by TunnelBear in my usual manner. For any VPN service, I test ping times as well as download and upload speeds.
I run the tests while using my normal internet connection in Tennessee, a VPN connection routed to a server in the United States and another routed to a server in the United Kingdom. I perform all speed and ping measurements using the speedtest.net website.
Ping, Download & Upload Speed
Local Internet Provider
U.S. VPN Server
U.K. VPN Server
While using any internet connection, the adage “the faster, the better” always applies. However, it is also true that a VPN connection will almost always be at least a bit slower than a straight connection to any content.
Looking at the results above, we can see that, as a rule, the farther a VPN server is from you, the higher the ping numbers will be, and download and upload speeds will usually be lower than if you were using a direct connection to the internet.
We know I had a nice, fast connection to my local ISP, as the unfettered numbers, in the first screenshot, show.
The U.S. numbers, in screenshot 2, show increased ping numbers with reduced download and upload speeds.
Finally, the U.K. numbers, in screenshot 3, show substantially-increased ping numbers, while the download and upload numbers come in very close.
But what does all of this mean?
Ping numbers are affected by distance, as the farther away you are from a VPN server, the longer it takes a data packet to travel back and forth. Ping numbers as seen above wouldn’t cause any issues. However, as pings numbers increase, you could experience lag, causing connections to gaming servers and the like to affect your gaming experience.
I’m not proud of it, but in the early days of the internet, my employer actually ran a Quake server after-hours on one of our local servers. We’d play games while hooked up to it via our LAN, while any outsiders would be connected by slow cable connections, or worse - dial-up.
Local players would lay in wait for outsiders, as our low latency rates allowed us to “kill” them while they were waiting for the server to update their location in the game. (Okay, I’m only a little ashamed of that...)
Usually, I don’t see greatly-reduced download and upload speeds on VPN servers located in the U.S., as that’s where I reside. Also, even a U.K. connection can return surprisingly good data rate numbers.
VPN server loads can also affect the numbers returned by speed tests. Much like any server, the more users who are connected to a VPN server, the less responsive it will be.
Always look for a server in the connection list with low use and ping numbers. Or, if your VPN provider offers it, use their “Best Connection” option to connect to the fastest available server. (TunnelBear calls theirs simply “Auto.”)
VPN protocols can also contribute to a slower connection. While modern protocols and their encryption are designed to give as much protection for your data as possible while still providing good performance, there is usually a performance penalty to pay.
Sure, 256-bit OpenVPN encryption offers better protection for your data than 128-bit PPTP encryption does, but you’ll pay a bit of a performance penalty. However, when given a choice, always go for the extra protection.
Another possibility for lower performance numbers as returned by the U.S. and U.K. servers is the connection between you and the VPN servers. An internet connection is only as fast as its slowest point along the way.
While testing TunnelBear, I performed the following online activities. The results of my testing are noted for each test.
I tested YouTube streaming on both a U.S. and a U.K connection. The service performed well on both connections. Videos played without any buffering or stuttering in all their 1080p HD glory.
Click here to see the best VPNs for Youtube.
I attempted to view video via Netflix while connected to a TunnelBear server on my Mac. As I had experienced with other VPNs, I was met with an error message that told me I was using an unblocker or proxy and prompting me to turn off the services and try it again. This is not an unusual occurrence. I am actually only surprised when a VPN service does offer access to Netflix.
As I’ve mentioned in previous VPN reviews, there is a constant battle of wits going on between VPN services and Netflix. VPNs are continually adding new IP addresses for use with their services, and Netflix is continually scanning for those new addresses.
What this means is that you may find that Netflix works great with a VPN connection one day, while the next time you may find the VPN’s IP address has been blocked. While this is clearly an issue, it’s business as usual in the battle between the two sides.
Click here to see the best VPNs for Netflix.
Hulu complained that I “appeared to be using an anonymous proxy tool, you’ll need to disable it to access Hulu.” (Most VPN users can expect a lack of Hulu access, which seems to be waging its own battle with VPN services.)
Click here to see the best VPNs for Hulu.
Skype and FaceTime
I placed Skype video and voice calls, and both performed well on both the U.S. and U.K. VPN connections I tried. Video streamed smoothly, and audio was acceptable. I am a Mac user, so I also tested the performance of FaceTime via both VPN connections. Apple’s video-calling solution performed well over both the U.S. and U.K. connections.
Click here to see the best VPNs for Skype.
As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, I am not a hard-core gamer, though I enjoy binging every now and again. I know many VPN users are gamers, and being able to connect to their game server of choice is important to them, so I played a casual game while connected to a VPN, via both the U.K. and U.S. servers.
Both connections performed well, proving to be more than capable for casual games. Gamers addicted to first-person shooters may find the connections responsive enough, but for use with some of the first-person latest shooters, I suggest gamers give the free service a quick trial before deciding to pay for the service.
Click here to see the best VPNs for Gaming.
General Internet Use
I also attempted to do the tasks necessary for my usual workday via VPN. A normal day for me involves web browsing, checking email, working in Google Docs creating and editing spreadsheets, troubleshooting computer issues, writing text documents and making presentations.
I also communicated with friends via the Mac Messages app, posted to Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites, shopped online and did other everyday tasks.
In all cases, the connection easily handled everything I threw at it. At no time while I was connected to either the U.S. or U.K. TunnelBear VPN servers did I experience any lag or any other type of slowdown.
I also tried the TunnelBear iOS app, which provided a speedy and reliable connection via both U.S.- and U.K.-based servers. While slower than an unfettered connection, both servers proved to provide a more-than-acceptable connection speed, with the U.K. connection being the slowest, as seen in the table below.
Ping, Download & Upload Speed
Local Internet Provider
U.S. VPN Server
U.K. VPN Server
TunnelBear’s iOS VPN app worked just as well as the Mac version. I found that I did not experience any slowdowns of any kind. I performed my usual tasks on my mobile device, and all apps performed well. I experienced no noticeable lag while retrieving email, using the iPhone’s Safari browser and accessing social networks.
TunnelBear’s connection speeds are nowhere near the best of any VPN provider I have tested. While it performed well enough for the tasks I subjected it to during my testing, there are plenty of other providers that outperform TunnelBear.
Global Server Coverage
TunnelBear currently has servers in 20 countries, including the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, Spain, Hong Kong, Germany, France and some others. Unfortunately, the provider doesn’t offer any numbers as to how many servers it has stationed in these locations.
While TunnelBear’s country count may be low, they have done a decent job of spreading them around, increasing the possibility that you might still be able to access blocked content from an international location.
Global Server Coverage:
TunnelBear’s “bearly”-there amount of server coverage results in a sub-par score in this category. Anyone considering this provider would be advised to check their global server coverage closely before committing to a long-term subscription.
Privacy, Security & Legal
TunnelBear uses 2 different VPN protocols on their network, depending on the platform you use to access the service. Windows, Mac OS X and Android users will be protected by OpenVPN.
OpenVPN is an industry standard, open-source protocol supporting Blowfish 128-bit, AES 128-bit and AES 256-bit encryption. On iOS devices, TunnelBear makes use of IPSec/IKEv2, which the company says works best for those devices.
TunnelBear’s offices are located in Toronto, Canada, and as such TunnelBear is subject to the laws governing that country. Currently, while the Canadian government requires ISPs to track their user’s activities, the laws do not currently apply to VPN providers. This could change at any time.
However, the company claims it does not store users’ original IP addresses and cannot identify users when provided IP addresses of their servers. They also cannot disclose information about the applications, services or websites their users consume while connected to their services, as TunnelBear does not store this information.
TunnelBear does work in a few restricted countries, including China. However, the browser extensions and the iOS app do not work from behind the red curtain. This is due to their use of the IPSec/IKEv2 protocol to connect, which is much easier than OpenVPN (which is used in the Mac, Windows and Android apps) for governments or network administrators to block.
TunnelBear’s customer service informed me that Windows, Mac and Android users should be able to connect from within the country. I was told that if I had trouble connecting, I should use the app’s “GhostBear” option in the app, which would make encrypted traffic look like normal traffic and allow a connection to be made.
As an extra layer of privacy protection, the provider also accepts Bitcoin as payment for subscriptions.
Overall, the service looks to be a viable choice for travelers like myself who find themselves traveling to China a number of times each year.
TunnelBear’s privacy protection isn’t top-notch, but they don’t totally leave you with a “bear” behind. (Okay, I’ll stop.) Since the provider is located in Canada, they might be compelled to supply logs if requested. However, the service claims they do not keep identifying information about their customers, so this may be moot. As always, a Bitcoin payment option is a definite plus.
TunnelBear customer service, for both free and paid accounts, is limited to an online “Contact a Support Bear” trouble ticket submission form and an FAQ page. This is beginning to become the norm among VPN providers, as they walk the fine line between offering good customer service and keeping costs down.
I opened a trouble ticket with a question concerning the service’s abilities in China around 7:45 p.m. on a Saturday night, and I did not receive a response until late the next afternoon.
While this was an acceptable turnaround time for my type of question, users who have connection issues or billing questions will want to keep in mind that they may not receive an immediate answer from support.
The FAQ section could be of help to some users. However, the FAQ’s mostly cover more general support questions, such as billing, installation, various app options and other answers to mostly non-critical issues.
TunnelBear’s support consists of an online trouble ticket submission form and an FAQ section that offers limited help for mission-critical issues. That said, the provider did reply to my trouble ticket submission within the advertised 24 hour period.
Alternative VPN Options
TunnelBear is an excellent option for value-minded consumers and those looking for simplicity. However, it is lacking in the speed department. It’s the all-around slowest VPN service I have reviewed.
Luckily, VPN users looking for a fast, reliable connection have other options. Among VPN providers that I have reviewed, 3 stand out when it comes to speed. Hide My Ass!, VyprVPN and Private Internet Access will likely more than satisfy any speed demon.
Hide My Ass! offers the best connection speeds I experienced among any of the VPN providers I have tested. Their connections regularly come within single digits of my usual ISP connections. In addition, they boast the best global server coverage of any of the providers that I have covered.
VyprVPN also supplies excellent connection speeds, within 6% of my unfettered speeds. They offer quite good global server coverage as well, making for a great combination of speed and access.
Private Internet Access (PIA) also offers fantastic connection speeds, trailing only Hide My Ass! in this category. While their global server coverage is only a bit better than TunnelBear, they are the lowest-priced provider I have tested, making them an excellent option for the budget-minded VPN user.
TunnelBear is an incredibly easy-to-use VPN service. The TunnelBear website is easy to navigate, and all information on the website is presented in a clean, pleasant manner.
I had no issues downloading, installing and setting up the VPN service on my Mac or iOS device. Signing up for the service was quick and easy, as was paying for a subscription. As always, the Bitcoin option for payment is a welcome sight.
Once installed, the Mac and iOS apps both offered speedy and reliable connections, easily handling almost everything I threw at them. (With the exception of Netflix and Hulu. However, this is almost to be expected, as VPN and streaming services are locked in a continual battle of one-upmanship.)
TunnelBear is a great choice for users who simply need a reliable and secure connection to protect their personal data and allow them to connect to geo-restricted services that may not normally be available in their current location. However, customers looking for a service with extra bells and whistles should look elsewhere.
TunnelBear provides an attractive, if somewhat data-limited, free service tier that allows users to try the VPN service before they buy it. While the 500MB monthly limit on the free accounts is rather restricting, the free tier could still be attractive to users who simply need to check email or social media sites while on a short trip, or when using the Wi-Fi hotspot at a coffee shop. TunnelBear does offer a free 1GB of extra data to free users who tweet about the service.
TunnelBear’s subscription options are priced competitively compared to other VPN providers, falling somewhere around the middle when it comes to overall value. Once a user has confirmed TunnelBear meets their needs, I would highly recommend the $59.88-per-year “Grizzly” plan, as it’s a much better value over the “Giant” plan and its $9.99-per-month tariff.
For more information about TunnelBear, or to sign up for a subscription, visit the TunnelBear website.