If you think effective antivirus costs good money, you'll be pleased to know you can get it completely free. It's not a scam, either: many makers of security software offer their core antivirus protection for nothing.
Of course, they do keep some advanced features, or extra tools (such as a password manager) locked away so that only paying customers get the full set.
Most of the software here is available for Windows, macOS, Android and iOS, though you tend to see fewer features on iOS in particular. Windows users tend to get the most, but because this is all free, you can install it on as many devices as you like.
Windows comes with Defender and you might be surprised to learn that it's just as capable as (if not better than) the protection you get from paid-for antivirus. It's certainly the easy option if you use Windows, but know that it doesn't have some of the extra features you get elsewhere such as browser add-ons that warn you of fake websites to protect you from phishing attacks.
Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition used to be one of our top recommendations but, unfortunately, the company no longer offers it. All you can get now is a trial for Total Security.
Should you get free antivirus?
The catch with free antivirus is that it doesn't always offer the most complete protection. It is better than having none at all but free versions often lack some of the advanced layers of protection that you get with the paid-for equivalent.
This is why using the term 'antivirus' can be misleading. Antivirus is typically just one component of a good security product, which can also include specific protection from ransomware as well as spam filtering, parental controls, password managers, VPNs and cloud storage. However, that's not to say those features can't be found in free products - you'd be surprised what you can get without paying or even handing over your email address.
If you want the comprehensive protection and support a paid-for version includes, you'll find recommendations in our best antivirus roundup.
Best Free Antivirus for 2022
Avast One Essential
- Excellent protection
- 5GB VPN usage per week
- Some features require you to upgrade
- More limited protection for Android & iOS
Avast One is a new security suite that combines antivirus, anti-phishing, VPN and other protections into one app. If you visit the website, the ‘Free download’ messaging is a bit confusing but there is a completely free version called Avast One Essential.
It has a friendly, light interface which is easy to understand and use on all the devices it supports: Windows, macOS, Android and iOS. Although it also works on iPad, it’s really just the iPhone app scaled up.
Windows and macOS get the lion’s share of features, though, with iOS the most limited. That’s standard, mainly because of the way iOS works.
Underneath that new interface is the same excellent antivirus engine from Avast Free Antivirus, and it scores exceptionally well in testing by independent labs. As well as blocking viruses, it’ll reliably warn you of fake websites (where you might inadvertently type your login details) and by default prevents ransomware from encrypting files saved in typical folders.
There’s also a decent VPN built in which offers a generous 5GB per week of bandwidth. Quite a few big-name, paid-for security suites offer less than that, so for free, this is great. The bad news is you can’t pick from the list of 35 countries available in Avast One Premium. It just connects to the fastest location, which is usually in your own country, so it won’t unblock websites or streaming services for you.
Essential will check specific email addresses and tell you if they’ve been included in breaches, but to monitor an address and get alerts, you’ll again need to pay for Premium.
However, limitations are inevitable: Avast can’t give absolutely everything away for free and what you get with One Essential is surprisingly generous. It’s our new top pick for free antivirus software.
Kaspersky Security Cloud Free
- Top-notch antivirus & ransomware protection
- Desktop & mobile apps
- Limited VPN
- Virtually no iOS features
Kaspersky is a big name in antivirus, and it offers a free version for PC. But rather than merely a free antivirus app, this is a pared-back version of Security Cloud, its flagship product.
In some ways this is a good thing, as you get the same VPN that's in the paid-for version. There are also other features such as a file shredder and scan for any weak security settings in Windows. However, although other menus exist, their features are locked away until you pay to upgrade to the full version of Security Cloud. Either that, or they're really cut down: there's a basic version of Kaspersky's password manager, which lets you store a paltry 15 items.
The VPN is similarly limited, offering just 200MB of data per day. But oddly, that's the same as you get with the paid version of Security Cloud.
The big draw here is Kaspersky's brilliant core antivirus protection including file, email and web-based threats, automatic updates, quarantine and more. What's particularly good to see is effective ransomware protection.
In the independent SE Labs' latest report, Kaspersky achieved near-perfect scores for protection (on Windows computers), which is especially reassuring.
There's also an Android version that includes antivirus protection, and this scored full marks in AV-Test's most recent tests. But this isn't realtime protection: you have to run scans manually. Only the paid version will monitor for threats constantly.
AVG AntiVirus Free
- Great malware protection
- Some useful extra features
- No VPN
- Slows down web page loading times
AVG is owned by Avast but unlike Avast's One suite, AVG hasn't had a recent interface refresh, with the dark grey and green highlights not quite conveying the same friendly atmosphere.
Regardless, AVG's free offering include antivirus, ransomware protection, and will stop other forms of malware such as spyware.
AVG AntiVirus Free offers six different scan types, including Deep Scan, USB/DVD scan, single file or folder scans, and a boot-time scan, which runs before Windows starts up, thereby running before any lurking malware has a chance to start up and protect itself from the product.
In addition to antivirus duties, AVG also warns you of unsafe web links, and can block unsafe email attachments. As the greyed-out tiles attest to, you're not getting the same level of protection as if you were paying for AVG Internet Security, but for free you can't really complain.
In independent lab tests, AVG scores very well. It achieved a perfect 18/18 in AV-Test's most recent report (Windows 10), for example. However, it does have a noticeable impact on page-loading times, with AV-Test recording an average of 30% slower compared to having no antivirus installed, and an industry average slowdown of 17%.
Unlike Avast One Essential, there's no VPN so although this is still a decent option if you're after free antivirus, there's better available these days.
And like Avast's free version, AVG's is available for Windows, macOS, Android and iOS.
Avira Free Security
- Scores top marks in independent tests
- Doesn't ask for any personal details
- Lots of features require an upgrade to Prime
Avira is a German company which has offered free antivirus software for as long as we can remember.
There's a paid-for version called Avira Prime, but the free version uses an identical malware detection engine which has previously received top marks from two of the big virus testing houses: AV-test.org and AV Comparatives. In the most recent report from the UK's SE Labs it snatched top spot, achieving the best overall protection of any antivirus.
This is obviously a great achievement. But as soon as you start using Free Security you'll realise why it doesn't appear higher up in this list. It seems designed solely to nag you into upgrading to Avira Prime, with features seemingly available, but when you click on them it's just an advert for Prime.
If you can live with this, and many people will (as it's not as if you open up your antivirus app on a daily basis) then it's nice that you don’t have to hand over any personal information at all - not even an email address - which is rare in this day and age. Avira clearly states on its website that it doesn’t sell data and never will.
There's also a Mac version, reviewed on our sister site Macworld, plus Android and iOS versions so you can protect all your devices for free.
- Class-leading malware protection
- Built into Windows
- Won't protect your non-Windows devices
- Lacks additional protections found elsewhere
Many people think Defender isn't up to the task. It's part of Windows 10 (and 11) and runs by default when no third-party antivirus software product is installed. But surely it can't be anywhere near as good as the expensive, paid-for security apps?
Wrong. In the latest SE Labs report, Windows Defender placed second overall, beating eight paid-for antivirus programs. AV-Test also found that it detects and protects against almost all attacks just as effectively as Kaspersky and others. Performance of any antivirus software varies from month to month, but Defender has an excellent track record.
The fact that it's already protecting your Windows devices if you haven't installed any other security software is very convenient, too.
There's a common perception that Windows Defender has no toys in the box beyond basic antivirus duties. This is not the case. For starters, there's ransomware protection that allows you to nominate folders that cannot be changed other than with your explicit say so. Integrated OneDrive support allows you to recover files that do become corrupted by malware.
You have to configure these - they're not enabled by default. But that's true of some rival products too.
Suspect samples can automatically be submitted for thorough cloud-based analysis. Being tightly integrated with Windows also allows Defender to provide innovative sign-in options, including Windows Hello, which allows you to log in with your face or fingerprint.
There's also the integrated Windows firewall, advanced exploit protection, and protection from code being injected by malware into innocent processes.
Secure Boot prevents rootkits or anything else from running and hiding before other software, including AV software, gets a chance to start up. Scanning duties include an offline scan that runs at boot time, before Windows starts, thereby denying rootkits and other stealthy malware a place to hide.
Bottom line: you could do a heck of a lot worse than Microsoft Defender.
Is free antivirus really free?
Yes it is. But you may well trade off some privacy. Some companies may record, use or even sell information when you download and use their free product.
You might be asked if you want to opt in to data collection during installation of these products. This is why it is absolutely crucial you read what you're agreeing to when you install an app, and are extra careful to opt out of any data sharing.
Otherwise, you grant the software the right to share some of your (anonymised) information to third parties, which may include advertisers and other companies.
The danger is that a company might work out how to de-anonymise this data, which is a risk you don't want to take.
And some free antivirus products will be supported by adverts, typically on Android versions. You can find out if it's worth installing antivirus on Android and whether iPhones need protecting from malware or not.
And these days, antivirus software should comply with GDPR in Europe and with other privacy regulations in other countries.
Does free antivirus software work?
Privacy is perhaps not the most important factor, depending on your outlook. Antivirus software is designed to prevent your PC and laptop - plus phone and tablet - from being infected by malicious code which could cause issues ranging from annoying pop-ups through to stealing your personal information or even deleting or encrypting your files.
The effectiveness of antivirus software changes over time, and a product that stops all viruses today may not do that tomorrow or in a month. No antivirus software offers a cast-iron guarantee that it will stop 100% of malware, but many achieve this figure. And it's essentially the same virus protection you get from the paid-for version of that product.
So, yes. It works. It's not an excuse to start downloading cracked software or visiting dodgy sites though. Security requires a multi-layered approach, and that includes being careful and sensible about the sites you use, the links you click on and the stuff you download.