Cute bears are cool on VPN apps, but can they really protect your online privacy like NordVPN? We ran a few tests to find out.
Getting scammed online is ugly, scary business — which is exactly why all quality VPN providers are so serious about protecting our privacy. But does a VPN have to be serious all the time? I mean, is online security all doom, gloom, and rising fraud statistics?1
TunnelBear, a privacy-first VPN provider based out of Canada with over 22 million fans, says no, and they’ve got the cute brown bears on their apps to prove it.
The question remains: Can TunnelBear actually do the job better than, say, an all-around VPN powerhouse like NordVPN? I compared them both from top to bottom to find out.
NordVPN and TunnelBear: What You Get With Both
First off, if you like smooth, superbly designed apps, NordVPN and TunnelBear speak your language. In fact, I can’t really think of better-looking, easier-to-use VPN apps. And, in case you missed it, NordVPN’s latest iteration of its map view has gotten even better.
Second, in terms of protecting your online activity, you’re in good hands with both NordVPN and TunnelBear. Both companies tout transparent zero-logs policies (they’re not secretly mining our data to sell to Cambridge Analytica). Both back their claims up with routine, third-party security audits. And both are on a mission to protect the open internet for anyone that wants in with advanced privacy features (including sophisticated ad and malware blockers) that are a cinch to use.
Did You Know: In 2018, after almost seven years in business, TunnelBear joined cybersecurity company McAfee. They had 22 million active users at the time.
Speaking of privacy features, if you’re shopping for a VPN, chances are you’ve also looked into a password manager. With 2021 set to outpace 2020’s record 2,935 public data breaches,2 it makes sense to keep your passwords strong and safe. Both NordVPN (NordPass) and TunnelBear (RememBear) can help you there. We’ll look at pricing below.
Finally, since we’re on the subject of pricing, the first rate you’re going to land on for both NordVPN and TunnelBear subscriptions is in the $3-4 price range. That’s actually deceptive (and I’ll explain why in a sec). But if you were to use either service for two years, it’s true, price wouldn’t necessarily be a deciding factor.
FYI: NordVPN’s password manager, NordPass, has a free plan with unlimited passwords and syncing across all devices. Just don’t expect to stay logged into more than one device at a time, or be able to check your password health, or access NordPass’s data breach scanner.
NordVPN and TunnelBear: What Sets Them Apart
Server Connections: Convenience and Privacy
Server numbers and locations for both services are fairly straightforward. NordVPN has over 5,000 servers in 59 countries. At last count, TunnelBear had about 3,000 servers spread out over 27 countries.
Neither figure is shabby, but then again, neither really gives you a window into what kind of experience to expect from a VPN, day to day. The availability of 2,000 more servers in locations you aren’t near or can’t connect to won’t help you a bit.
What’s actually worth getting to the bottom of (and what’s not always straightforward at all) is server hardware, because that’s the stuff that’s standing in between you and the next piece of infected freeware3 you download by accident. Here’s what we know about NordVPN and TunnelBear.
NordVPN recently went on record claiming they’d gone entirely diskless. FYI, for a VPN provider, “going diskless” isn’t the same thing as cleaning out a CD collection. Diskless DNS servers store data in RAM only, not on hard drives. This means the minute a diskless server is powered down, that data is erased, which is great for us law-abiding folks who hate data trails, but terrible for hackers and e-felons who love them.
Pro Tip: Want to take your VPN know-how to the next level? Make your research easier with our Total VPN Guide. It covers VPN servers, security, privacy, and everything else you need to know about buying a quality VPN.
NordVPN is also based in Panama. If that isn’t ringing any bells, a base in Panama means that NordVPN is outside the jurisdiction of the Five Eyes, a big and pretty scary surveillance-sharing outfit that has been known to knock on VPN providers’ doors and ask for information.
Canadian-American TunnelBear is firmly within that jurisdiction. In fact, members of the Five Eyes asked TunnelBear to hand over user data 14 times throughout 2018-2019. To TunnelBear’s credit, they reported all of those events in their yearly security audit,4 and the only reason I’m reporting them here. Many VPN providers don’t operate on that level of transparency.
FYI: NordVPN isn’t the only VPN service outside the clutches of the Five Eyes and the 14 Eyes. ExpressVPN (British Virgin Islands), ProtonVPN and VyprVPN (both based in Switzerland), and CyberGhost (Romania) are also exempt.
TunnelBear also claims to own and operate its own DNS servers. (To the best of my knowledge, NordVPN hasn’t gotten there yet.) This claim is worth unpacking.
Whenever we connect to the internet through a VPN, we’re creating a sealed tunnel between our devices and our final destination (usually a website). Just sending our data through the tunnel isn’t enough, though. We want to encrypt it, for security, and we want our VPN provider to assign us a new IP address, for anonymity. That’s essentially the service we’re paying for.
But we could potentially lose all the advantages we get from secure servers if a VPN provider rents theirs out from a third party that isn’t 100 percent secure, as sometimes happens. TunnelBear doesn’t take that risk, which is very good news for TunnelBear subscribers everywhere.
Pro Tip: A secure VPN can protect you against man-in-the-middle attacks and many other types of hacks, but you still need to be on your guard. Phishing attacks, for example, lure unsuspecting users into clicking on links in fake emails. A VPN can’t necessarily help you there, and the results of that one bad click could be catastrophic.
By the way, physically connecting to NordVPN and TunnelBear servers might be private, but it’s also limited: six simultaneous connections for NordVPN and five for TunnelBear. Honestly, this isn’t much to work with for busy households. If you’re one of them, you might want to check out my Surfshark review. Surfshark comes with as many connections as you want, and it’s one of our Top VPNs of 2021.
So the winner in my book is NordVPN, because at this point, I’m happier with risking nothing to steal rather than a miniscule chance of risking everything to steal (and having my email included on an NSA hot list).
One thing TunnelBear’s cute bears definitely can’t do that NordVPN can: Give you a specialty servers list. This is a very handy feature that finds the best server for you based on what you want to do, i.e., protect your privacy, mask your VPN, game or stream, share files, or even connect to the Onion network. (NordVPN has built-in access so you don’t have to download the Tor browser.) Basically, you tell NordVPN what you want to do and it finds the best connection for you.
Another neat trick TunnelBear’s grizzlies can’t do for you is show you server loads or locations when you’re connecting. Are these just details? Sure, but when I reviewed KeepSolid VPN, I found that seeing server loads (versus standard latency) came in really handy because, if I saw a particular location was too crowded, I could find a faster connection in a snap. NordVPN came through for me with loads and locations down to the city.
FYI: If you’ve already taken NordVPN out for a spin and couldn’t find your specialty servers, you were probably running NordLynx. To see the specialty servers, you’ll need to connect with OpenVPN TCP.
Finally, in terms of protocols (the instructions responsible for quick, secure VPN connections), your choice is going to be limited to OpenVPN and IKEv2 with TunnelBear. Granted, a zippy OpenVPN connection isn’t so bad, but a blazing-fast WireGuard connection? We’ll see in just a second what that means, courtesy of NordVPN’s very own WireGuard-based protocol, NordLynx.
If I’ve rained too hard on the bear parade, by the way, TunnelBear does come with a kill switch (VigilantBear) and a VPN-masking mode (GhostBear). Read about my adventures with both in my hands-on TunnelBear VPN review.
Beyond that, you’re just going to have to be entertained by roaring bears shooting out of tunnels, which is about the only thing NordVPN can’t do for you.
Did You Know: Masking your VPN with obfuscated servers isn’t something out of a 007 movie. This could come in handy if you’re doing something as basic as trying to stream Netflix, which is trained to sniff out suspicious proxies. In this case, hiding the fact that you’re connecting with a VPN will usually sneak you past the watchdogs.
I’m not going to hide it. I was really looking forward to test-driving NordVPN’s NordLynx on a speedier 400 Mbps line. The last time I tested the service for my NordVPN review, I was on a 160 Mbps line and had some trouble getting NordLynx up and running. It was time to go full throttle.
To make this even more interesting, TunnelBear is cute, yes, but in my previous tests, it was no slowpoke either, even on its default OpenVPN. When they’re not popping in and out of tunnels, those bears can move! But enough talk. Let’s take a look at those numbers.
So that was OpenVPN. Remember, TunnelBear only allows OpenVPN and IKEv2 connections. Let’s see what happens when we take NordVPN’s proprietary protocol, NordLynx, out for a spin.
For my final test, I tried something else. I let NordVPN find the fastest connection for me with a nifty feature called Quick Connect.
Pro Tip: Ever wonder what makes fast VPNs run so fast? A major factor is due to having less tunnel code encryption. OpenVPN, the industry standard for tunnel encryption, has amassed over 100,000 lines of open source code over the years. Compare that to Hotspot Shield’s proprietary Catapult Hydra protocol, which has less than 10,000. Want to see just how fast Catapult Hydra is? Read my hands-on HotSpot Shield review.
NordVPN vs. TunnelBear: Plans and Pricing
TunnelBear’s Free Plan
My view on TunnelBear’s much-celebrated free plan is that a free VPN isn’t the same thing as a free pizza. TunnelBear’s free plan is a big win for the open internet, yes. Practically speaking, it’s not going to give you anything more than a taste of its apps because you get locked out at 500 Mbps per month, which is just enough to check your email (and I mean check, forget downloading any big attachments).
Yearly Plans With NordVPN and TunnelBear
Things get a little tricky when you consider TunnelBear VPN’s cost — which looks like $3.33 per month at first glance. However, this rate is only good if you commit to three years. Otherwise, you’re paying $4.99 per month.
NordVPN’s pricing, on the other hand, starts at $4.17 per month for the first two years. But be careful here, too. Upon renewal, you’re looking at $9.82 per month.
Totally confused? Join the club! An apples-to-apples figure would really help here. So how about comparing the first three years of both VPN services? For three years of NordVPN, your bill would come out to about $220. With TunnelBear, you’re looking at $120, if you’re up for a three-year commitment.
But let’s put those numbers into perspective. If NordVPN is totally out of your price range, but you’re looking for a more sophisticated VPN than TunnelBear, CyberGhost’s plans and pricing start at a very reasonable $2.25 per month with a 45-day, money-back guarantee. If you like TunnelBear’s privacy stance, but don’t need as much under the hood as NordVPN gives you, you can also check out Switzerland-based VyprVPN. VyprVPN’s 3-year-plan costs $1.67 per month.
FYI: Virtual private networks, or VPNs, were originally developed to beef up corporate cybersecurity in the early 2000s. It wasn’t until around 2013, when Edward Snowden leaked thousands of classified NSA documents that exposed the extent of government snooping, that consumer VPNs really took off.
Password Managers (NordPass and RememBear)
If a VPN is in the cards, a password manager is a likely next step, and both NordVPN and TunnelBear offer them. NordPass, NordVPN’s password vault, costs $1.49 per month for two years. That’s pretty good value for money. TunnelBear’s RememBear, on the other hand, will set you back a hefty $6 per month.
A quick price comparison of NordVPN and TunnelBear, password managers included, gives us a new picture. Three years of TunnelBear now costs $336, whereas NordVPN comes out to $270.
The winner: TunnelBear, unless you need a password manager, in which case NordVPN with NordPass is the way to go.
Did You Know: In 2020 alone, hackers compromised over 36 billion personal records, an all-time high.
NordVPN vs. TunnelBear: What Kind of Support to Expect
Most VPN providers are veering hard towards 24/7 chat. I’m not complaining about that at all. There’s nothing more frustrating than running into a days-long tech brick wall that you could have solved by a live chat in minutes.
TunnelBear hasn’t jumped on the chat bandwagon yet. They’re still in email support mode, which, frankly, feels a little analog, considering they’ve got 22 million-plus users. Don’t get me wrong, TunnelBear’s email support is very friendly and fast. (I got a personal email from GlitterBear.) Still, there are VPN services that get it better. Like NordVPN.
NordVPN has instant live chat support around the clock. In my experience, unless you’ve run into a snag installing NordVPN on your Debian device, you’ll probably leave your chat happy. NordVPN also has a great online support library. In fact, I’d say that in terms of blog and knowledgebase quality, NordVPN and TunnelBear are two of the best services I’ve run across, with NordVPN getting the edge for the depth and breadth of its resources.
The winner: NordVPN (but “grizzly regards” from TunnelBear’s GlitterBear were great, too).
Pro Tip: A lot of VPN chatbots are pretty dumb. (Just try talking to “Garry” from Windscribe if you don’t believe me.) NordVPN’s chatbot, on the other hand, was refreshingly helpful, so don’t be surprised if you find an answer or two there.
Which Is the Better Choice, NordVPN or TunnelBear?
I would never recommend subscribing to a VPN service because its apps came with cute, roaring bears. But if you are partial to cuteness, value simplicity, and you’re ok with shopping elsewhere for your password manager, and don’t mind email support, TunnelBear is your bear (for three years).
Just remember what you’re giving up for those bears: NordVPN’s robust, yet elegant and intuitive apps, a native password manager that’s great value for your money, stellar 24/7 chat support, and a trove of top-of-the-line privacy tools under the hood, some of which you won’t find anywhere else.
The choice is yours. But if it were mine, I’d have to go with NordVPN.
In my tests, both NordVPN and TunnelBear were able to put the whammy on Netflix.
For three years of service, NordVPN is more expensive at $220 compared to TunnelBear’s $120. Throw in three years of NordPass and RememBear (their native password managers), and TunnelBear is more expensive at $336, compared to NordVPN’s $270.
Both companies are audited regularly by independent cybersecurity firms and have zero-logs policies. But NordVPN has the security edge because it’s based in Panama (and therefore not liable to international intelligence-sharing agreements) and runs diskless RAM servers.
NordVPN has over 5,000 servers in 59 countries. TunnelBear has 3,000 servers in 27 countries.
NordVPN has Cybersec, which blocks both malware and invasive ads. TunnelBear not only blocks ads and malware, but claims to have special tools to keep your email safe and prevent browser fingerprinting.