Speeds are inconsistent, but mostly usable, and the generous 10GB monthly allowance makes Windscribe one of the best free VPNs around.
- 10GB free data allowance
- P2P support
- Unblocks Netflix
- Lots of billing and payment options
- Some locations have poor and inconsistent speeds
- No 24/7 support
- Couldn’t unblock BBC iPlayer
- Underpowered mobile apps
The network is a decent size, with locations in 110 cities spread over 60 countries.
An array of apps means you’re covered on Windows, Mac, Android, iOS and Linux. Chrome, Firefox and Opera extensions give you even more ways to connect, and the website has guides to help you set up the service on routers, Kodi, Amazon FireTV, Nvidia Shield, and via any OpenVPN-compatible software or device.
Windscribe subscription options:
IKEv2 and OpenVPN support with strong AES-256 encryption keeps all your tunnel traffic safe from snoopers, while stealth technologies try to obfuscate your VPN usage, perhaps allowing you to get online even in countries which actively block VPN traffic.
R.O.B.E.R.T. is a new DNS-based tool for blocking ads, malware, trackers and various internet content types (gambling, port, ‘fake news and clickbait’, and so on.) NordVPN and a few other providers do something similar, but R.O.B.E.R.T. stands out for its configurability. You’re able to choose exactly what type of threat you’d like to block – just malware-related sites, say – and to add custom rules which block your choice of domains.
The browser extensions are another highlight, with some unusual and appealing bonus features.
They don’t just get you connected via one server, for instance. You can opt to route your traffic from one location, through the Windscribe network to another, then exit to your destination, making it much more difficult for others to track your real location.
The extensions can employ many other tricks to hide your identity online, including changing your browser time zone to match the Windscribe location, monitoring and deleting cookies set during a VPN session, and randomly rotating your browser user agent to reduce the chance of fingerprinting.
Options include a static IP address. Adding a residential IP address costs $8 a month, for instance, but should greatly improve your chances of accessing any blocked sites. (Once you have a static IP, you can also enable port forwarding in the WindScribe web console.)
Support is available via chat and ticket, if you need it, and Windscribe even has its own subreddit. That’s valuable as it allows potential customers to see what real Windscribe users are talking about, the questions they have and the issues they’re facing, a level of transparency you rarely see with other VPNs.
Windscribe’s free plan offers a generous 10GB of data transfer a month if you register with your email address (2GB if you don’t). You’re limited to just 10 servers (US, Europe and Hong Kong), but that’s still better than you’ll get with many services.
Upgrading to a commercial plan gets you unlimited data, access to all 110 locations, and the ability to generate custom OpenVPN, IKEv2 and SOCKS5 configurations.
There are no annoying limits on simultaneous connections, either. You can set up and use the service wherever you like, as long as the devices are yours (the small print forbids sharing your account with others).
Plans and Pricing
Prices are fair. Monthly billing is only $9, for instance – many top VPNs charge $12-$13. Pay for a year up-front and the price plummets to an equivalent $4.08. That’s a good discount, and better than some of the competition (ExpressVPN asks $8.32, IPVanish $6.49), but providers including CyberGhost, and NordVPN have plans priced between $2.50-$3.
A new ‘Build A Plan’ scheme might allow you to save money by choosing just the locations you need, for $1 each. Each location adds 10GB to your free bandwidth allowance, and your plan must have a minimum of two locations.
For example, if you register with your email address, you’ll get 10GB data allowance a month. Build a plan with the US and UK locations, and you’ll get 30GB of data for $2 a month. You can upgrade to unlimited data for another $1, or a total of just $3 a month, billed monthly. That’s great for an extended trial of the service, or if you only need the VPN while you’re away on a trip.
Another new option, ScribeForce, enables signing up a group of users (a business, a family) with the same account. There’s a five-user minimum, but you’ll pay just $3 each, billed monthly, for access to the full and unrestricted service.
Whatever your preference, Windscribe gives you a wider than usual choice of payment options, which include card, PayPal, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies via CoinPayments.net, and gift cards and assorted other options via Paymentwall.
Windscribe isn’t the cheapest commercial VPN provider, then, but it’s better value than many, and its flexibility is a major plus. If you don’t require a full service all the time, for instance, the free plan may be enough for casual use, and you could, say, buy three months of unlimited bandwidth a year for a total of $9, no lengthy contract required.
Privacy and logging
Windscribe’s privacy features start with its industrial-strength AES-256 encryption, with SHA512 authentication, a 4096-bit RSA key and support for perfect forward secrecy (keys aren’t re-used, so even if a snooper gets hold of a private key, it will only allow them to view data within one session).
The apps use multiple techniques to reduce the chance of data leaks, limiting IPv6 traffic, redirecting DNS requests through the tunnel to be handled by the VPN server, and optionally using a firewall to block all internet access if the connection drops.
We enabled the Windows client’s kill switch and forcibly closed the VPN connection, to see how it would behave. The results were almost perfect: our internet access was immediately blocked, the client interface updated to show there was a problem, it then immediately began reconnecting, and displayed a Windows desktop notification once we were online again. We’d like to have seen a desktop notification to tell us when the connection had dropped, but otherwise the client and kill switch worked exactly as it should, protecting our privacy at all times.
Long-term logging is limited to the total bandwidth you’ve used in a month (essential to manage usage on the free plan), and a timestamp of your last activity on the service to allow identifying inactive accounts.
The system does briefly collect some connection details – user name, VPN server connected to, time of connection, bandwidth used during the session, number of devices connected – but these are held in the VPN server’s RAM only, and are lost when the session closes.
As there is no data on your activities, Windscribe points out that there’s nothing to share. This is backed up by a Transparency Report which covers the numbers of DMCA and Law Enforcement data requests over the year, and in both cases states that ‘Exactly zero requests were complied with due to lack of relevant data.’
We would like to see Windscribe go further. Competitors such as TunnelBear and VyprVPN have had their systems publicly audited to check for logging or other privacy issues, and that gives far more reassurance to potential customers than warm words on a website. We hope that Windscribe and other VPN providers will soon do the same.
In the meantime, it’s worth remembering that Windscribe will give you 2GB of data per month, for free, without requiring an email address or any other personal data. The data limit will be an issue for streaming users and heavy downloaders, but if you’re just looking to protect email and basic browsing, this automatically gets you more anonymity than you’ll have with most of the competition.
To test VPN performance, we first use an automated tool to log into a sample group of servers – UK, Europe, US, rest of the world – and check the connection time, look for latency issues, and use geolocation to verify that each server is in the advertised country.
We were able to connect to all Windscribe servers first time, without a single connection error. But connection times were a little higher than usual. A few were relatively speedy at 2-2.5 seconds, but many were 8 seconds and longer, twice as long as the best providers. These figures were based on logins using OpenVPN, and if you connect using the app’s default protocol (IKEv2) you may not see any issues at all, but this still has to be a small annoyance.
Once we got past the connection time, at least, the rest of our initial checks went well. There were no latency problems, and all servers appeared to be in their promised locations.
Windscribe’s fastest servers delivered more than enough download power for most applications. Our local UK servers managed 50-68Mbps on our 75Mbps fiber broadband test line. Peak European speeds were even better, at 66-70Mbps in the Netherlands, the best US servers gave us 50-70Mbps, while even Australia gave us up to 20-40Mbps.
Unfortunately, many locations and servers were much slower, more inconsistent, or both. Germany would normally have matched the high speeds we had seen from the Netherlands, but its real-world performance varied drastically between testing sessions (12-15Mbps with our first, 20-40Mbps on the next.) US servers were occasionally very slow, dropping to under 10Mbps. And many Asian locations were regularly under 5Mbps (India, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam.)
These tests may not be a totally fair representation of Windscribe speeds, as they were using OpenVPN, and the company recommends using IVEv2 for performance. That’s not going to be a complete explanation, though – other VPNs use OpenVPN and get far better and more consistent speeds than Windscribe – and we’d recommend you spend plenty of time testing service performance before you sign up.
Connecting to a VPN server in another country may, in theory, allow you to access content you wouldn’t be able to see (viewing US-only YouTube clips, for instance.)
Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple, as many content providers now attempt to detect and block visitors they think are using a VPN.
To test a VPN’s unblocking abilities, we log in to various US and UK locations and attempt to view US YouTube, US Netflix and BBC iPlayer streams.
YouTube is usually the easiest to access, as it appears to do very few, if any VPN checks. Sure enough, Windscribe allowed us to view US-only content without any issues, even with its free plan.
BBC iPlayer has more in-depth connection checking, and although most VPNs can bypass this, Windscribe isn’t one of them. We tried all three UK servers and iPlayer was blocked, each time.
Netflix is normally the most difficult site to unblock, which is why most VPN providers take care not to mention it specifically. They know that even if they can deliver Netflix access today, it could be blocked tomorrow.
Windscribe is far more confident, so much so that its paid plans include a virtual location called WINDFLIX US, which allows customers to access Netflix without having to manually try different servers until they find one which works. We tried this and it worked just fine, enabling us to freely stream whatever content we liked.
Unlike our last review, we weren’t able to view US Netflix content from any servers available on the free plan. That’s a pity, but it was never the best of Netflix solutions, as streaming HD content will quickly eat into your free data allowance.
VPN providers generally don’t boast about their torrent support, and it can be a challenge to figure out what you’re allowed to do. (TunnelBear was so quiet about its P2P policy that we had to email tech support, to ask.)
Windscribe is much more open and transparent. Just point your browser at the company’s Status page and you’ll see its full list of locations, which of them support P2P (most) and which of them don’t (India, Russia and South Africa, as we write.)
Your options are just as clear in the Windscribe apps. Locations where torrents aren’t allowed are marked with the same crossed-out ‘p2p’, but select anything else and you can download whatever and whenever you like.
Factor in Windscribe’s free plan and various anonymous payment options (cryptocurrencies, gift cards) and the company makes a better torrenting choice than most, although its occasional slow speeds could be a problem.
Tapping the Get Started button on the Windscribe site took us to the Download page. The website detected and highlighted the best choice for our laptop – the Windows client and Chrome extension – but there were also links to downloads for Mac, Android and iOS, extensions for Firefox and iOS, and guides to cover setup on routers, Linux, Kodi, Amazon FireTV and more.
There’s an unusual extra touch in direct links to old versions of the Windows and Mac apps. You may not care about that as a new user, but being able to rewind to a previous version could be very helpful if you find the latest build doesn’t work on one of your computers, or an app update turns out to be buggy.
We grabbed and installed the Windows client, and were surprised to see three quirky checkboxes in the Setup program: ‘Slow down the connection’, ‘Disconnect randomly’, and ‘Show random errors all the time.’
But it was okay, of course, as a caption explained: ‘Just kidding. These checkboxes actually don’t do anything.’ Humor isn’t normally an ingredient you expect in a VPN installation, but we have to applaud Windscribe for being different and showing a little personality.
Once setup was complete, we were prompted to create an account. Entering just a user name and password gets you 2GB of data a month, for free; hand over your email, too, and you get 10GB.
Manually setting up other devices can be more difficult, particularly if they’re using OpenVPN. You’re asked to manually define some low-level connection details, including type (TCP or UDP?) and port. You must repeat this for every server you’d like to download, and you can only do this at all if you’ve a paid plan (it’s not available to free users.)
This is a more awkward approach than you’ll see with some of the competition, where often you’re able to download perhaps hundreds of server setup files in an archive, then unzip and use them all immediately.
The kind of configuration generator does give you great flexibility, though. For example, you could have some locations use OpenVPN UDP for speed, others with TCP for reliability. And, unusually, Windscribe has similar web tools to generate IVEv2 and SOCKS5 configurations, giving you the ability to fine-tune all your manual VPN connections.
Windscribe’s Windows client looks very basic, at least initially: a small grey window with a location list, an On/ Off button, a little status information (current IP, data allowance left for free users) and not much else. Begin exploring, though, and it’s hard not to be impressed.
Tapping the default location displays the full list, for instance. This opens with a list of countries, but you can also expand any of these to view its available servers, complete with fun names (London’s servers are Tea and Crumpets, the Los Angeles servers are called Dog, Dre and Pac.)
Each server has a latency indicator to help you find the fastest option, and you can mark a single country as a favorite to move it to the top of the list.
Users on the free plan can only access a few of the servers and countries (US, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway, Romania, Hong Kong). Everything else will be marked with a star to indicate it’s for paying customers only, and those locations aren’t selectable.
Changing servers is very straightforward. The client doesn’t force you to manually close the current connection before you can browse to something else, unlike some of the competition. If you want to change to a London server, for instance, just find and click it in the list and you’ll be reconnected within seconds.
The client does a good job of keeping users up-to-date, both displaying a Windows desktop notification when you’re connecting, and changing the interface from its original grey to a more cheerful blue (a simple way to ensure you can see whether you’re protected at a glance.)
One standout feature is that Windscribe’s desktop clients can now import custom OpenVPN configuration files from other providers, and then display those servers alongside its own. That could allow you to use Windscribe’s client as a front end for multiple free VPN providers, for instance, making it easier and more convenient to switch service if your data allowance runs out.
A comprehensive Preferences dialog gives you an array of connection options. You can choose your preferred protocol (IKEv2, OpenVPN TCP/ UDP, Stealth or WSTunnel to try and bypass VPN blocking), use a special API Resolution system to remove the need for DNS, and set up a proxy (HTTP or SOCKS).
The client also supports setting up your system as a secure wireless hotspot (if your network adapter supports this) or a proxy gateway. Other devices on your network who support wifi or proxies can then connect to you and take advantage of Windscribe, without requiring any special VPN setup or software of their own.
There are unexpected but welcome extras, everywhere you look. You can sort the location list by continent and country, alphabetically or by latency, for instance. A local View Log option gives a detailed view of recent program actions, great news for anyone trying to troubleshoot an awkward issue. And experts can choose their preferred TAP driver and OpenVPN version, or add custom OpenVPN parameters, giving a lot of extra control over how connections work.
There’s a little room for improvement, here. Most VPN apps allow you to save multiple individual servers as favorites, for example – being restricted to one country only seems a little strange. But that’s hardly the biggest of deals, and overall Windscribe’s Windows client is a nicely-balanced mix of power and ease of use.
The Windscribe Android app covers the VPN basics, but doesn’t stand out in any way, and is really just a stripped-down version of the Windows client.
There’s the same grey interface, for instance, with a country list and an On/ Off button. Tap a location, then tap On to get connected; choose another location to switch, and tap Off when you’re done.
The latest app allows viewing city-level servers, with a server load indicator, and unlike the desktop clients you can mark any of these as Favorites. (The desktop allows marking the US as a Favorite, but not cities; on the app you can Favorite cities, but not countries. Go figure.)
A compact Preferences screen enables choosing between OpenVPN UDP, TCP or Stealth, and selecting your preferred port. The only significant bonus feature is a Network Security tool which enables automatically connecting to Windscribe whenever it accesses untrusted networks, while ignoring others. So, for instance, you could have the service automatically connect to protect you in the library or coffee shop, while staying offline when you’re at home or work.
The iOS app has a similar interface and location list, but doesn’t have a Favorites system, making it a little less convenient to use. Its Settings page is also more basic, with no option to change your protocol or define trusted and untrusted protocols, although it does gain a new ability to manually set an API Resolution IP address (a Windscribe method for avoiding direct DNS requests, perhaps helping to avoid VPN blocking).
It’s hard to get excited about Windscribe’s mobile apps, then – they don’t really stand out in any way. But they don’t make any major mistakes, either, and the apps should do a decent job for most people.
Windscribe’s Chrome, Opera and Firefox extensions provide a quick and easy way to connect to the VPN from your browser. This has its limitations – they’re simple proxies and only protect your browser traffic – but if you only need the VPN for basic browsing tasks, they’re your simplest and most convenient option.
Install the Chrome extension and it launches in Cruise Control mode, which in theory should switch locations if you try to access a blocked resource. That didn’t always work for us, but you can also choose locations manually from the usual list.
The real value here is the bunch of security extras, including options to block ads and trackers, remove social media buttons, randomly rotate your user agent, delete cookies set by a website when a tab is closed, and set your browser time to match the virtual location.
This isn’t going to match the ad-blocking power and configurability of uBlock Origin or the other big names, but it’s more than you’ll get with most VPN extensions, and the 4.7/5 rating on the Chrome store suggests most users are happy.
If you have any technical troubles, Windscribe’s Support site is a good place to start looking for answers.
Resources start with an array of setup guides for a very long list of platforms and devices (desktops, mobiles, routers, NAS, smart TV, torrent client and more.)
These tutorials don’t have the same range and depth that you’ll see from the best VPN providers, but there are interesting touches. NordVPN has setup guides for Windows Vista, 7, 8 and 10, for instance, using its app, OpenVPN or IKEv2. Windscribe’s Windows setup section only covers its app, Windows 10 and IKEv2, but in an unusual touch, it shows how you can install the client using PowerShell (it’s easier than you think). The Android guides also give you more choice than usual, with advice on how to get connected via IKEv2 using the Strongswan app, or via OpenVPN with OpenVPN for Android.
Once you’ve got the service up and running, a Knowledgebase has articles to help you with common problems (slow speeds, random disconnects, more.) These are easy to read and cover the very basics, but don’t begin to match the more advanced content in some of the setup guides.
If all else fails, you can contact support directly. There’s no live chat (beyond a simple support chatbot) and you can’t just send an email, but the website does have a form you can fill in to raise a ticket.
Exactly how long it’ll take to get a reply isn’t clear, and a Windscribe blog post explains why:
‘As we’re a relatively small company (13 employees), we’re unable to provide support 24/7, and since we provide support to all users, including millions of free accounts, things can be a bit overwhelming.’
But on the plus side, Windscribe points out that it does all support in-house, rather than using ‘outsourced minimal wage workers on the other side of the planet who are reading off a script.’
You might have to wait a little longer for a reply, then, but with genuine in-house expertise involved, it’s much more likely to be worth the wait.
The 10GB data allowance, P2P support and Netflix-unblocking are major pluses, and although Windscribe’s speeds are relatively average (and sometimes poor), this is still one of the best free VPNs around.