For an overview of streaming TV services in Japan, see our post Have a TV Party with Streaming Services in Japan.
These sinister eyes are a crime prevention measure - we're watching you!
These sinister eyes are a crime prevention measure – we’re watching you! | Photo by Gregory Lane

What is a VPN and why do I need one?

Think of a Virtual Private Network as a protected tunnel through the internet that surfaces far from your physical location. From your computer to this location (often a server in a different country) all the web traffic going from your computer is completely invisible to anyone on the networks in between. So what’s a VPN good for? The answer to this question used to be simple—to access streaming services like Netflix and BBC iPlayer. However, efforts to block VPNs by most streaming services have made it near impossible to bypass these geo-blocks (trust us, we’ve tried). At the same time, services like Hulu and Netflix are now well established in Japan. So are VPNs useless? No. What they offer are two increasingly important things—security and privacy.

Online security and privacy risks in Japan

As with most countries, there are two main groups that are interested in messing with your privacy and security. One is the criminals, the other is the government spooks (sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference). Public wifi networks are especially risky with the major risks being having your unencrypted data snooped on (most emails can be viewed by anyone with admin access to the network) and being tricked by a man-in-the-middle attack. What does this mean practically? It means when you go to login to your internet banking service, that login page might not belong to your bank. Additionally, Japan’s laws against illegal file copying are harsh by any standard. Illegal downloading of movies or games is not just a civil matter, it’s also a criminal offence punishable by up to two years in prison.

Choosing the best VPN

As your main goal is security, the best VPN is one that you can trust. Ultimately, the only VPN that you can trust 100% is a VPN that you made yourself. If you have some technical nous, you should consider making your own VPN. However, if you’re one of the other 99%, you have a tougher decision. Factors to consider might be the reputation of the company running the VPN, speed (overloaded VPNs will let you experience what dial-up was like), how long they’ve been doing it, data retention policies (whether they log traffic), the jurisdiction (a VPN in China is probably a bad idea) and lastly the price.

Making your own VPN

If you can do this, it’s highly recommended. Digital Ocean and Scaleway offer cheap VPS instances for $US5/month and €3/month respectively. Digital Ocean also has an excellent tutorial on setting up your own VPN that I was able to follow. If, for some reason, you must have your VPN surface in Japan, then one of the providers that will drive you less crazy than most is ConoHa VPS—available in English and provided by GMO internet.

The speed on speedtest.net on my custom made VPN through my own server is 60Mbps down and 18Mbps up (my regular wired home connection is 688Mbps down and 274Mbps up).

Low-cost VPN providers

Due to the nature of the internet (borders are for people not bits) you can choose a provider anywhere in the world. We don’t recommend Japanese VPN providers as we are yet to find a consumer-oriented service with English support.

CyberGhost VPN

CyberGhost reportedly has 7.5 million customers worldwide and is one of the lowest cost providers. The premium plan works out to US$2.75/month when paid annually.

Data traffic: Unlimited
Devices: Max 1 device at a time
Server locations: Any of 2,970 servers in 61 countries.
VPN Types L2TP and PPTP, apps for Mac, Windows, iOS and Android.
Tracking policy: No logs, yearly transparency reports
Company incorporated in: Romania
Prices & Sign-up: US$2.50/month (paid annually)
CyberGhost Website

Pure VPN

Pure VPN has one of the biggest networks among VPN providers with more than 500 servers in locations throughout the world. This is handy if you want to check geo-blocked websites from many different countries. They offer their service for as low as US$5.75/month if paid annually.

Data traffic: Unlimited
Devices: Max 5 devices at a time
Server locations: More than 500 servers in 6 continents.
VPN Types PPTP, L2TP, SSTP, IKEv2, OpenVPN & Stealth, apps for Mac, Windows, iOS and Android.
Tracking policy: No logs kept
Company incorporated in: Hong Kong
Prices & Sign-up: US$4.01/month (paid annually)
Pure VPN Website

Hide My Ass

Hide My Ass claims to have the biggest VPN network in the world with servers in more than 190 countries (there are only 193 member states of the UN).

Pricing is from US$3.99/month when billed for 36 months.

Data traffic: Unlimited
Devices: Max 1 device at a time
Server locations: 190+ countries
VPN Types L2TP and PPTP, apps for Mac, Windows, iOS and Android.
Tracking policy: No activity logs kept
Company incorporated in: United Kingdom
Prices & Sign-up: US$4.99/month (paid annually)
Hide My Ass Website

Private Internet Access

Private Internet Access claims to have more than 3,200 servers in 24 countries. The also put their money where there mouth is when it comes to internet privacy by sponsoring the Electronic Freedom Foundation and various free software projects.

Their pricing is from US$3.33/month when billed annually.

Data traffic: Unlimited
Devices: Max 5 devices at a time
Server locations: 24+ countries.
VPN Types PPTP, OpenVPN and L2TP/IPSec
Tracking policy: No logs, yearly transparency reports
Company incorporated in: United Kingdom
Prices & Sign-up: US$5.99/month (paid annually)
More about Private Internet Access

japan free vpn Free VPN providers

The joke with free VPNs is that they are sponsored by the NSA. While that’s unfair, it does reinforce the idea that the security of the VPN (free ones included) comes down to trust in the people behind it.

Opera Web Browser

Opera tout themselves as “the first major browser maker to integrate an unlimited and free VPN”. While you could argue over whether Opera is a major browser maker, having a free and unlimited browser is an undeniably awesome feature. Muddying the waters on this is the acquisition of Opera by a Chinese company with a less than stellar reputation.

More about Opera’s integrated VPN

ProXPN

proxpn - (free japan vpn)

Sign-up for ProXPN is quick and painless. Once you have an ID and password you can use these with the client software that you can download from their site. Once started on the MAC, the VPN controller that allows you to switch it on and off resides in the notifications bar at the top right of your screen. On the free plan, you can only connect via the ProXPN server in Florida and the Speedtest.net test results indicated speeds were quite slow.

Apart from the speed, the downside with ProXPN is the constant nagging. Each time you load a new site, you’ll get the ProXPN splash page and an artificial delay before the page starts loading.

Data traffic: Unlimited (free version speed limited to 300kbps)
Performance:
Ping/Down/Up
240ms/0.57Mbps/0.46Mbps
Server locations: Florida
VPN Types OpenVPN (PPTP on paid plans)
Tracking policy: No logs kept
Company incorporated in: Netherlands
Website and download: https://proxpn.com/

VPN Book

VPN book doesn’t even have paid accounts—all their plans have a $0 price tag with their income from donations and the ads on their web site.  Set-up is not as easy as the others as it doesn’t come with a client—you have to download an OpenVPN config bundle and then run your own OpenVPN client. The user name and password for using it are the same for everyone. Although this might sound a little daunting, there is an easy to understand guide on their site. After connecting to a US server, my IP address displayed as Virginia. Despite the slow download speeds, the ping time was reasonable. For UK VPNs, your mileage may vary. The first UK server I tried to connect to failed. The second was so slow I couldn’t even load whatismyip.com  I connected to the third server successfully.

Data traffic: Unlimited
Performance:
Ping/Down/Up
288ms/0.44Mbps/1.09Mbps
Server locations: United States, Canada, Germany, Europe
VPN Types PPTP, OpenVPN
Tracking policy: IP Address logged. all connection logs are automatically removed every week.
Company incorporated in: Zurich Switzerland
Website and download: vpnbook.com

SecurityKISS

To use the free service, you need to enter your email to receive the PNPP login info (PNPP is a flavor of VPN).  As advised on their homepage, you’ll need to check your spam folder—that’s where my email ended up. Your initial information will contain your User ID and password along with some servers that you can connect to. Note that these IP addresses sometimes change, so keep this handy. To find up-to-date IP addresses you will need to log in to the client area on the SecurityKiss website. As with vpnbook, there are detailed instructions for every device you can think of.

At least when I tested it, speed was by far the best of the free VPNs. There were two UK servers—one failed, while I was able to connect to the other. The UK server was definitely faster than the VPNbook server, but not quite as quick as the US one. Also, there was a couple of erroneous results with very, very low download speed—so there might be connection dropouts. The big catch is that it’s limited to 300MB/day. So even though the streaming speed was awesome, the limit means it’s probably not practical for streaming or heavy use.

Data traffic: 300MB/day
Performance:
Ping/Down/Up
184ms/5.95bps/5.36Mbps
Server locations: UK, US, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Poland, Sweden and the Netherlands
VPN Types OpenVPN and L2TP/IPsec
Tracking policy: User’s IP address and connection time logged, automatically deleted after 10 days.
Company incorporated in: Dublin, Ireland
Website and download: securitykiss.com/

JustFreeVPN

Like VPNbook, JustFreeVPN is as the name suggests, an only free VPN provider. No sign-up at all is required with PPTP login information on the home page of the site. At first the speed on the US server seemed pretty good. However, it was the only VPN on which I got a “download error” on speedtest.net.  When it eventually ran, the results showed good latency (only 206ms) but low download speeds. Unlike the others, this VPN was checked in the evening rather than during the morning. JustFreeVPN could be a good VPN if you ever find yourself behind the bamboo curtain and you need to try a few different VPNs so you can check your Facebook. Although they also have a UK server, I was unable to connect to it.

Data traffic: Unlimited
Performance:
Ping/Down/Up
206ms/0.35Mbps/0.36Mbps
Server locations: UK, US, Germany, Canada, Netherlands, Hong Kong
VPN Types PPTP
Tracking policy: N/A
Company incorporated in: N/A
Website and download: justfreevpn.com
Watch this next


Get our Tokyo Cheapo Hacks direct to your inbox