I know bears don’t really live in tunnels, not even in Canada, but after a week of tunneling with TunnelBear, I’d believe it.
Sound too good to be true? I wanted to find out, so I took TunnelBear out for a weeklong test-drive. Before we get into the nitty-gritty — which you may be happy to learn TunnelBear keeps to the “bear” minimum — let’s start with a quick VPN test.
If you put a check in the following three boxes, TunnelBear is probably a good candidate for your next VPN:
TunnelBear is a different sort of VPN company. They want you to enjoy using their apps and seeing their bear (he’s everywhere, even roaring when you connect on your phone.) They also want to make the whole process of using a VPN as simple as humanly possible. So if you’re looking for a VPN that’s people-first (as well as privacy-first) with straight-talking policies and features, this is your VPN.
If the first thing you do when you unbox a VPN is head straight for the settings to check out the protocols like a kid at 6 a.m. on Christmas morning — sorry, you’re not going to have that kind of fun with TunnelBear. TunnelBear doesn’t even let you choose protocols. On the other hand, if you don’t care how you connect to your VPN as long as it’s ultra secure and keeps your online activity hidden, then you’re going to be roaring happily with TunnelBear.
At $3.33 per month over three years, TunnelBear is attractively priced. To put this into perspective, that’s almost a third of the price of industry giant NordVPN’s basic plan ($9.99 per month). But you can find cheaper. Cyberghost’s three-year plan ($2.25) costs less, for instance. And VyprVPN — another straight-talking, super transparent VPN that does look like it was designed by the CIA — will only run you $1.67 per month for three years of protection! Curious about that? Check out our VyprVPN pricing guide.
Bottom line: TunnelBear is a very cool-looking, budget-friendly, privacy-focused VPN service that takes great pains to keep all their tech where many of us want it: under the hood and out of the way.
FYI: There are currently 51 bears working behind the scenes at TunnelBear, including Jean-Luc Bearcard, Obi-Wan KenoBear, WereBear, Meme Bear, and GodzillaBear.
Don’t blink when you’re installing TunnelBear because you’ll miss everything. I downloaded and installed the TunnelBear app on my Mac in under a minute. In case you’re wondering, I went with the one-month plan ($9.99) because the free plan only gave me 500 MB per month on one device. Not enough to do much more than check my email.
The only weirdness I can report in the installation process is the TunnelBear helper tool, a bit of infrastructure TunnelBear needs in order to secure a stable connection. And, actually, the only reason I know that is because TunnelBear took the time to explain it — in a handy FAQ. So, thank you, TunnelBear. Installing the helper tool only took a second, by the way.
But what I really loved about installing TunnelBear was the four-point animated tutorial I got right after I created my TunnelBear account. It was a great introduction to the brand and an easy-to-follow walkthrough of my new VPN service. Best of all? It ended with a button that let me verify my email right from my desktop. Superb. I was all set up.
Ok, I’ve seen the TunnelBear Windows client, so I know it’s an expandable map (filled with tunneling bears). It’s a good thing the map is expandable, too. TunnelBear has about 3,000 servers spread out over 26 countries. Squashing them all into a mini-controller on your desktop wouldn’t make much sense.
So why is my Mac app so itty-bitty, with no way to expand it? I actually put that question to TunnelBear support, via email because there’s no chat support. I’m still waiting for the answer as I type.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with tiny VPN apps. I’ve actually gushed about them in my VyprVPN review. The problem with the TunnelBear Mac app is that it’s stuck to my menu bar. I can’t move it. And, remember, it’s an actual map (not a mere servers list like you get with VyprVPN). While a tiny map view might work on your mobile where you’re scrolling with your fingers, mousing from New York to Ethiopia on a 17-inch desktop is no fun at all.
My take on this? I don’t think TunnelBear’s mini-app is a deal breaker for Mac users. I’m just trying to figure out why TunnelBear decided that we were better off this way. (Stay tuned for TunnelBear’s response!)
Pro Tip: After you download your VPN app, always get to know your settings before you launch your connection. Some apps activate their kill switch automatically, for instance, while some don’t. Most apps ask you to toggle on push notifications, which are extremely important to have when you’re using a VPN. Connecting to your VPN will be even safer once you’ve nailed the basics.
As I mentioned above, TunnelBear’s apps don’t give you much “monkeying room,” certainly nothing like the full range of customizations NordVPN or ProtonVPN’s feature-packed dashboard give you. A lot of you will probably find that refreshing. But, even if you’re not hands-on with VPNs, you’re going to want to do a little basic customizing.
One small point I want to make about customizing with TunnelBear: If you’re on a Mac, clicking on the settings gear doesn’t actually open up the settings, it opens up a drop-down menu with a “preferences” tab. The settings are buried in that preferences tab. For that — and it pains me to do this — I’m officially deducting one user experience point from TunnelBear. A nice, slide-out menu drawer would be so much handier.
Now for our tweaks.
First off, if I were you, I’d enable “Launch TB on start-up” and push notifications, two very nice internet safety touches. This isn’t just fluff. Our desktops — and lives — are crammed with distractions. It’s really easy to forget to launch apps we want running in the background, especially if we’re security-conscious and like to open our apps ourselves. So why not let TunnelBear remember to do that for you?
Otherwise, the only other tweak you’ll notice under the “general” tab is TCP Override. This is a protocol tweak, and it’s actually kind of interesting.
When you transfer data from your devices to the far reaches of the internet, your VPN tunnel does the heavy lifting. But it’s your protocols that provide the operating instructions, encryption included.
TunnelBear uses industry standard OpenVPN and IKEv2 protocols, the last for Windows and iOS only. OpenVPN protocols come in two varieties: UDP (the default) and TCP. The problem is, sometimes internet service providers (ISPs) intentionally slow down or even block OpenVPN protocols that use UDP. TCP Override lets you bypass those blocks. Which is another very nice touch. But no need to flip that switch unless you notice a choppy connection.
Still with me? Great.
Some of you may have noticed that WireGuard wasn’t on TunnelBear’s protocols list, and that’s a good catch. WireGuard can really give your VPN rocket power, and it’s gaining serious market traction.2 Why doesn’t TunnelBear use WireGuard protocols? My gut tells me that like TunnelBear’s Trusted Networks feature (see below), which is in the pipeline for Android 8+, WireGuard will be a TunnelBear protocol option in the not-so-distant future.
Did You Know: OpenVPN is the go-to protocol for many VPN providers. There are two kinds of OpenVPN connections: TCP and UDP. TCP uses a connection to deliver data packets in the exact order you send them. UDP is connectionless and gives you faster speeds, but is generally less reliable.
When I clicked the TunnelBear security icon, which is a bleached bear skull (Yikes, TunnelBear!), I found my kill switch, aka VigilantBear. I also found something called GhostBear, which seems to be the equivalent of NordVPN’s Obfuscated Server feature or VyprVPN’s Chameleon protocol.
If you enable GhostBear — which TunnelBear doesn’t recommend unless you need to outsmart government censorship restrictions or snooping ISPs — TunnelBear will make your VPN-secured traffic appear like normal internet traffic. Just keep in mind that if you’re connecting via an iPhone, GhostBear doesn’t have iOS support yet.
TunnelBear gave me two ways to use my VPN: a blanket “connect to all networks” option and the option to whitelist networks I trusted. Unfortunately, when I tried to whitelist my own network, I couldn’t. A glitch? Don’t know.
One more related feature I’m putting on my TunnelBear wishlist? A connection by app feature. Surfshark has one, NordVPN also has one. In fact, if you’d like to see how they both compare, check out my NordVPN vs. Surfshark comparison guide.
Whitelisting apps, or excluding them from my VPN tunnel, is the only way I can access my banking app, for instance. (Banking apps generally won’t let you enter using a VPN.) On a more serious note, if I’m casting “Better Call Saul” from my mobile to my TV and I’m connected to a TunnelBear server in Germany, without the ability to whitelist Netflix, I’ll be forced to watch “Rufen Sie besser Saul.” Which, no. So pretty please, let’s get on this Bears.
Connecting to my server was a breeze with TunnelBear, and it was actually kind of fun. TunnelBear zapped a blue beam from my closest (underwater) tunnel entrance to my destination tunnel exit. When my connection was secured, a bear shot out of the destination tunnel. (When I connected from my phone, that bear actually roared, and it scared the bejesus out of me the first time, so heads up.)
I mention these details not because I like watching bears shoot out of tunnels (I kind of do though,) but because that’s really all there is to report about TunnelBear’s servers list. In the name of simplicity, TunnelBear doesn’t get bogged down in particulars like actual locations, server loads, latencies, or favorites lists. It’s just tunnels and bears, and a drop-down menu with countries.
Maybe a little too stripped-down, in fact. I think most of us could get used to it. On the positive side, beyond one dropped connection I had about a day ago, it’s been smooth sailing ever since.
In my view, TunnelBear’s Android app is what the desktop app should have been. The map is actually more handy on a smaller device (because you’re scrolling with your fingers, not a mouse), and the settings are where they belong, in a pop-up menu.
I was also pleasantly surprised to find a connection by app (aka split tunneling) feature on my Android app (absent for some reason from the desktop client), and an auto-connect feature, which gave me some extra insurance that I’d be covered in case TunnelBear ever took a nap while I was on the go. Because if there’s anything worse than being unprotected at the airport, it’s not knowing you’re unprotected at the airport.
Password vaults are pretty standard equipment for most households these days. The RememBear dash is pretty slick, though getting set up is a little clunky. I couldn’t use my TunnelBear log in, for one. I needed to create a new account. I also didn’t realize I’d just signed up for a 30-day trial. The premium service costs $6 per month, by the way, which is fine. That’s the market rate. But why not make this clear up front?
Thankfully, TunnelBear’s ad blocker is free. As Google ditches cookies for the possibly much creepier Flow of Learning Cohorts (FLoC) tracking technology,3 some of us will be jumping the Google ship for good.
If you’re a Chrome diehard, and TunnelBear wins you over, their ad-blocking browser extension will make your Chrome browsing private and maybe even faster. TunnelBear’s ad blocker also works against pixel trackers in emails and it blocks — I need to quote this — “the inaudible sounds being used to link your devices and behavior.” About that, I have no comment.
Pro Tip: Everyone knows that bad passwords lead to serious trouble, but we use them anyway, mainly because we have too many and can’t remember anything complicated. The fact is, you shouldn’t remember your passwords at all. If you’ve got more than 10 passwords, it’s time to consider a password manager. So, if you’re getting ready to subscribe to a VPN service, always check and see if bundling in a password manager is an option.
TunnelBear is the only VPN service I know besides NordVPN that has made an institution out of its security audits. They happen once a year. The last audit4 — in 2019 by cybersecurity experts Cure53 — covered everything but the bears guarding their tunnels: clients (mobile and desktop), browser extensions, service infrastructure, systems, and their customer-facing website. Cure53 did uncover two critical vulnerabilities, involving OpenVPN script execution and user account access, but TunnelBear fixed them immediately.
VPNs with secure tunnels aren’t enough to guarantee your privacy. You also want a VPN provider that isn’t keeping tabs on you. Ideally, your provider should collect nothing about you. They have a “zero-logs” policy if that’s their claim. TunnelBear generally lives up to its zero-logs pledge. According to its audits, besides the data it uses to keep its apps running smoothly (your OS and app version details and the bandwidth you use,) you’re completely anonymous.
Like the folks behind VyprVPN, TunnelBear is passionate about an open, private web. The only difference I can see is that TunnelBear puts their money where their mouth is. TunnelBear’s Internet Freedom Hub has handed out over 20,000 free accounts to activists and journalists to date. They also give student discounts, which isn’t something you see every day. If you want to read a down-to-earth, people-first manifesto on why privacy is a basic 21st century utility, check out TunnelBear’s 2019 blog post Privacy Never Sleeps: You Should Always Use a VPN.
The truth is, we don’t choose VPN providers because we identify with their company vision. We choose VPN providers because they protect our online activity from ISPs, hackers, and assorted bad company. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to figure out if our VPN providers are doing their jobs and actually securing our internet connections. It’s called a domain name system (DNS) leak test.
When you run a DNS leak test, you’re checking to see if your DNS requests are being sent to a server hosted by your VPN provider. To unpack that a little, every time you type an address into your browser window, your device sends a DNS request, which is basically just asking for the right IP address to send you on your way.
If your DNS requests aren’t being processed by your VPN provider’s servers — i.e., if they’re being sent to one of your ISP’s servers, or potentially worse, if they’re intercepted by a third party — you have a leak, which means your VPN connection might be vulnerable to the bad actors I mentioned above.
How does TunnelBear hold up? I tested three TunnelBear connections on both dnsleaktest.com and ipleak.net. The first test was a bummer. Dnsleaktest.com identified my ISP, which means my activity was public. (For the record, ipleak.net did not.) For the second and third rounds of tests, I was squeaky clean.
My best guess? I’m going to give TunnelBear the benefit of the doubt here and assume I missed a push notification or that VigilantBear, my kill switch, was taking a nap, and that my VPN crashed without alerting me. Because up to that point, TunnelBear had gotten everything right.
TunnelBear makes some pretty bold speed claims. On its website, it actually uses the fighting words “lightning fast.” Personally, I’ve seen lightning fast: NordVPN clocking in at 330 Mbps on a 600 Mbps line. Even bolder is making those claims without help from WireGuard, the newer, smarter protocol technology that NordVPN uses to burn rubber.
The truth is, I was ready for a dud, but the results surprised me.
For my first test, I connected two times with TunnelBear over a 450 Mbps line, in about 6-10 seconds each time. Connecting to my fastest server in Canada, TunnelBear ran at 237 Mbps (download). My upload speeds only dropped by 10 Mbps. And, remember, that’s with OpenVPN. So not bad at all.
When I switched to a connection in Madrid, Spain, my download speed plummeted to 133 Mbps, though my upload speed was pretty stable at around 32 Mbps. Repeating the tests later in the week, I saw pretty much the same results.
Does this mean you’ll see the same speeds? Not necessarily. But while maybe not lightning fast, TunnelBear’s OpenVPN speeds are solid. Compare TunnelBear’s 230 Mbps to a close competitor like VyprVPN, for instance, which clocked in at a sluggish 64 Mbps using OpenVPN.
All of this makes me optimistic about an even speedier future for TunnelBear, especially if they integrate WireGuard into their protocol battery.
Pro Tip: Ever have Netflix freeze on you in mid-movie? It’s called buffering and it usually happens when your ISP slows your connection down because they think you’ve been using too much bandwidth. We call that “throttling,” and it’s no fun. If you use a VPN, your ISP is blind to what you’re doing online, so they can’t throttle your connection.
There are no surprises here. TunnelBear works with Windows and on Macs. It has support for Android and iOS, and browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera. If you’re wondering about those browser extensions, think of Skype, which gives you the option of downloading their app or running their software through your browser like Gmail. Browser extensions are nice to have if you live in your browser and would rather not fuss with bulky apps.
Where is TunnelBear a no-go? There’s a short but weighty list of devices you can’t use with TunnelBear. Here are a few: e-readers (Kindle included), Fire TV, Apple, and Android TV (too bad), and all gaming systems. You can also add your router to that list, which kind of makes sense because that would be too much tinkering for TunnelBear’s generally black box tinkering stance.
TunnelBear’s device limit is a slightly subpar five. You can’t really find anything lower than that besides, perhaps, ProtonVPN’s two-device limit (on the basic plan). For comparison, NordVPN gives you six devices, CyberGhost seven. IPVanish comes with 10 simultaneous connections, and Surfshark, another of our top picks, is a connection fiesta with unlimited devices anytime. If unlimited devices for $2.25 per month speaks to you, read all about Surfshark in our pro Surfshark review.
So, yep, TunnelBear could do a little better here. If you’re a busy household, you might feel squeezed. That said, TunnelBear does give you unlimited bandwidth and data.
Despite what I’d heard through the grapevine, I had zero trouble unblocking Netflix with TunnelBear. And you know what that means. Unlimited German Netflix!
24/7 chat support is great, no doubt. We all want answers to our questions “right now,” especially if our online privacy is at stake.
TunnelBear’s support approach is a little different. The “Support Bears” are email people, and they come with names like GlitterBear (couldn’t make this up even if I tried), greet you with a “rawr,” and sign off by wishing you a “sparkling day and night!”
And you know what, I’m OK with that. Because GlitterBear, the Support Bear that answered my email in about two hours, was super helpful and friendly. She was also, well, human — even if technically a bear. In other words, I wasn’t barraged by canned support texts and our conversation didn’t go on for days to no avail. Everything was accurate, sweet, and to the point.
Oh, and in case you’ve read this whole TunnelBear review and were wondering if my Mac app question actually got solved, it sure did. GlitterBear reported that the Mac app map view was designed tiny.
Like everything else about TunnelBear, TunnelBear’s pricing philosophy is a little different from the rest of the pack. First off, you can pay in honey. (Check it out if you don’t believe me, right next to the Bitcoin icon.)
Second, they have a free plan. But the free plan only gives you 500 MB of data per month. So, unless all you’re planning on doing with your VPN is checking your email, I wouldn’t recommend it, even to test out the service. (More on that in a bit.)
That means you really only have one option with TunnelBear: the unlimited plan, which is $3.33 per month, or just under $40 yearly. But that isn’t the whole story either. One thing I’ve learned about TunnelBear is that behind one click, another three choices are always lurking.
When you click on the unlimited plan, TunnelBear gives you three more options: a monthly plan ($9.99 per month), a yearly plan ($4.99 per month), and a three-year plan ($3.33). Which makes more sense? I’ll let you make that call.
As I said way up top, $40 per year won’t be breaking most of our wallets. But there are significantly cheaper services that provide VPN security of the same quality and with more features.
To learn more about TunnelBear’s subscriptions, head on over to my in-depth roundup of TunnelBear’s options and pricing.
Boy, would it be tough to say goodbye to the TunnelBear bear. After a week, I feel she’s already part of the family. And, believe me, that’s a good thing because the TunnelBear bear is an integral part of the TunnelBear experience.
Also integral to that experience? A playful, jargon-free take on using VPNs in a market saturated with ultra-serious, tech-riddled services that make you feel as if you’re always, every waking minute, only a half-step ahead of a crippling privacy attack.
TunnelBear gets the seriousness of privacy — they wouldn’t audit their entire infrastructure yearly if they didn’t, or hand out thousands of free accounts to activists. It’s just kept under the hood, along with all the security and performance features that make TunnelBear good at protecting your privacy while you’re connected to the web.
My advice when recommending VPNs is always the same: If what you’ve read about TunnelBear speaks to you, test the service. In this case, though, I do recommend purchasing TunnelBear for a month because the free plan with its puny 500 MB of data won’t give you a very good idea of how TunnelBear will handle your everyday needs.
If you do take TunnelBear out for a spin, I can’t guarantee it will be your next VPN, but don’t be surprised if you have a roaring good time.
TunnelBear is roughly $120 for three years, so it’s not the cheapest service out there (VyprVPN is $60 for three years, for instance), but it’s reasonably priced for a VPN in its quality tier.
Compared to other VPN services in the same ballpark price range, TunnelBear is a little light on features. Most notably, split tunneling is absent from its desktop clients.
Running OpenVPN (TunnelBear’s default protocol), TunnelBear speeds are pretty solid, but nothing close to NordVPN’s blazing fast, WireGuard-based NordLynx.
Except for a few design glitches, you won’t find a VPN that’s easier (or more fun) to use than TunnelBear.
TunnelBear has great support, but it’s limited to email (with good response times) and a limited, but very clearly explained library of online support FAQ.
Finley, K. (2020, March 2). WireGuard Gives Linux a Faster, More Secure VPN. Wired.
Doffman, Z. (2021, April 10). Why iPhone, iPad And Mac Users Should Avoid Google Chrome’s FLoC Update. Forbes.
TunnelBear. (2020, January 28). TunnelBear Completes 3rd Annual Independent Security Audit.
Derek Prall is a VPN and cybersecurity expert with more than seven years of experience in the industry. He has spent thousands of hours researching identity theft protection, VPNs, and other ways to keep safe online. To date, Derek has written nearly 100 comprehensive resources for SafeHome.org. As a professional journalist, he has contributed to reputable publications such as TD Magazine, New Jersey Herald, and many others. Learn more about Derek here