Used by “over 199 million people worldwide,” Hola VPN Free is clearly a popular choice for anyone looking for a free VPN to bypass website blocks.
Does this “community powered VPN” deserve such a large following, though? Is it even a VPN service?
- Is Hola VPN safe to use?
- How fast is it?
- Does Hola VPN work with Netflix?
- Is it easy to set up and use?
- What’s a ‘peer-to-peer’ VPN?
We’ve discovered some troubling things, and we’ll reveal all in the following Hola VPN review.
Let’s begin with a look at its pros and cons.
Speed & Reliability
We’re not going to compare Hola’s speeds with the other VPNs we’ve tested because it’s not really a VPN service – it’s more like a proxy.
Hola uses an unencrypted connection, which means that there’s less slowdown but considerably more risk, and only browser traffic is routed through the peer nodes.
For that reason we’ve not taken the speeds into account when giving Hola VPN its overall score.
Your internet speeds might also be affected by the internet speeds of the node you’re connecting to.
So if the peer you are routing your traffic through has poor internet speeds yours might suffer too.
When we connected to a node in the same country as our physical location we experienced practically no drop off.
Downloads peaked at 32Mbps in the UK (we test from London), which is decent enough, but nowhere near as quick as we’ve seen from other providers at a similar price point.
If you’re going to be connecting over longer distances regularly, stop reading now. Out to the US from Europe came in at an appalling 4Mbps, Japan and Singapore averaged around 1Mbps apiece, and the Canada server failed to connect at all.
Latency was another major issue, failing to get below 30ms even on same-country connections. We usually expect it to increase internationally but this was the most dramatic we’ve ever seen – over 700ms in Japan is virtually unheard of.
To read about our speed testing methodologies, please read How We Review VPNs.
The way Hola VPN works – by routing traffic through other peers on the network – means that there are no fixed number of locations you can connect to.
It completely depends on where the current users are located, but Hola VPN lists all 195 of the world’s countries within its app.
Sometimes when we selected a particular country Hola VPN didn’t even change our true IP address, which is worrying.
We can only assume that is because no users from that country were using Hola at that point, but Hola’s app still indicated that it was connected to the country. Our leak tests showed otherwise.
To make it worse, some popular websites and services aren’t available to free users of Hola VPN, including popular streaming services and the BBC news website.
If you attempt to visit those sites, Hola will ask you to upgrade. If you choose not to, Hola will not route your traffic through its network while you are browsing that particular site, meaning that it hasn’t even spoofed your IP address.
The browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera are not part of the peer-to-peer network, so Hola uses standard servers for this service.
There are no details about the locations of the proxy servers on Hola’s website, but customer support told us this:
“Hola VPN has servers in over 40 countries. We don’t need to have servers in each
and every country as we leverage our peer-to-peer network in other countries.”
However, when we tried to connect to Bangladesh we were given an IP address associated with the UK.
This suggests that the service isn’t working as it should, making this VPN service even more dodgy.
Platforms & Devices
Hola VPN provides free (unencrypted) VPN apps for Windows and Android devices. However these apps don’t work like normal VPNs, more like proxy browsers.
Instead of routing all device traffic through the tunnel they only route traffic within the app, which acts as a web browser.
There is an option to route certain external apps through the VPN on the Android app, but it works on an app-by-app basis rather than routing all the device’s internet traffic by default.
For MacOS users there is no custom app – you just have to use the browser add-ons for Chrome, Firefox, or Opera.
If you want to use Hola on iOS you’ll have to upgrade to the paid-for subscription.
But why would you when there are all of these safe, free iOS VPN apps available instead?
Hola VPN provides browser extensions for Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera.
These work at a browser level, so they won’t change the IP address of any traffic linked to apps outside of your web browser and don’t use encryption.
According to Hola VPN the browser extensions “operate as a standard VPN service” aren’t part of the peer-to-peer VPN network, so at the very least your IP address isn’t being used by strangers.
Games Consoles & Streaming Devices
Hola VPN doesn’t have any custom apps for streaming devices or games consoles, but the premium version does come with a DNS proxy that is compatible with smart TVs and routers.
Like all of Hola’s software, we don’t recommend due to its lack of security and privacy protection.
Streaming & Torrenting
The free version of Hola VPN doesn’t work with popular streaming platforms like Netflix, BBCiPlayer, and Hulu – you’d have to pay for the PLUS service to access those.
It costs $11.95 per month or $6.99 per month if you commit to a yearly subscription. You can use the PLUS account on up to 10 devices at any given time.
Even then, you might as well pay for another VPN service for streaming that doesn’t log everything you do online.
Encryption & Security
Hola Free VPN isn’t really a VPN – it doesn’t encrypt users’ internet traffic and only routes traffic within the web browser/client app, not at an OS level (device-wide).
Users’ traffic is routed through nodes (other users’ devices), and spoofs your IP address (using that device’s IP address) to get around website blocks.
That means that other people – complete strangers – are using your IP address to do with as they please. That could get you into a lot of trouble.
According to a member of the customer support team, users’ traffic is first sent to Hola servers before it reaches the peer nodes for security reasons, but this still doesn’t make Hola secure enough for our liking.
There are no security features – like a kill switch or leak blocking – to keep your personal data safe, either. The Windows app does come with an ad-blocker, though.
We experienced WebRTC leaks during our tests, which means that our true IP address was left exposed.
The very architecture of Hola Free VPN means that your personal data is not secure or private. Hackers can still intercept your traffic and your ISP can still see the websites you visit.
Hola VPN PLUS, which is the paid-for product, does use standard VPN protocols and encryption, and doesn’t use your device as a peer, but you’ll still be subject to Hola’s intrusive logging policy, so we still strongly advise against using it.
- Ad Blocker
Hola VPN doesn’t come with any obfuscation tools to beat the Chinese censors.
The lack of encryption means that you won’t be able to access blocked content in China due to the Great Firewall’s use of deep packet inspection (DPI).
IP leaks also make Hola VPN particularly unsafe to use in high-censorship countries where accessing banned content can get you into a lot of trouble.
If you need to access blocked content safely and securely in China (or any other high-censorship country) be sure to look at our dedicated guide.
So, as you’ve read above, Hola VPN isn’t very secure, but is it private?
In fact, we rarely see logging policies as intrusive as Hola’s.
Here’s what Hola VPN stores when you use its service:
- The websites you visit
- Time spent on those websites
- Your true IP address
- Connection timestamps
- Your browser type
- Your name, email address, screen name, payment and billing information
If you choose to register through a social network account, Hola has access to even more information including: your home address, birth date, profile picture, friend list, personal bio, and any other publicly available information on your account.
Hola tries to reassure users that it doesn’t “rent or sell any personal information,” but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t share it with third parties:
“We may disclose Personal Information to other trusted third party service providers or partners for the purposes of providing you with the Services, storage and analytics. We may also transfer or disclose Personal Information to our subsidiaries, affiliated companies.”
What’s even worse, Hola will retain all of this information for “as long as necessary.”
This is not a service you want to entrust all your personal data with.
Hola VPN was founded by Ofer Vilenski and Derry Shribman under the company name Hola Networks Limited, based in Israel.
The product was launched in 2012 and gained traction in January 2013 when it shot up from 80 downloads a day to 40,000 overnight. It’s backed by top investors DFJ, Trilogy, Magma, Horizons Ventures, and Orange.
Before Hola, Vilenski and Shribman started up Jungo, a company used to develop and operating system for home gateways, which was NDS (Cisco) acquired for $107 million in 2006.
Hola Networks Limited provides a free consumer ‘VPN’ service, as well as a premium subscription and corporate service called Luminati.
Luminati uses free users’ bandwidth, which is charged per GB, without reimbursing the free user – something that has sparked criticism among cybersecurity professionals.
Thankfully, this is now clearly advertised when you download the app.
So what actually is Hola VPN and how does it work?
It’s a peer-to-peer overlay network that employes peer-to-peer caching and routing for quick access to blocked content.
What does that mean in plain English?
Users of Hola VPN essentially throw their IP address into a pool of IP addresses for other users to use as they please.
When you use Hola VPN, your internet traffic is routed through other peers (called nodes), but it’s not encrypted.
While some users may be using Hola VPN as a website unblocker, there’s no way to stop others using your IP address to access unlawful content.
Free users also share their ‘idle resources’ (WiFi and cellular data) with the network, which means that Hola VPN doesn’t incur underlying operational costs.
Hola VPN defines ‘idle’ as “the device is not using battery but is connected to electricity; no mouse or keyboard activity has been detected; and the device is connected to the internet.”
Despite its “goal of making a better internet,” selling user bandwidth is not the only controversy Hola VPN has been embroiled in to date.
In May 2015, 8chan founder Fredrick Brennan claimed that his website had been DDoS attacked by users exploiting the Hola network, which Vilenski later confirmed.
A website named Adios, Hola!, created by nine security researchers, states that Hola is “harmful to the internet as a whole, and to its users in particular” and labels it a “poorly secured botnet” with “serious consequences.”
The researchers at Adios, Hola! discovered various vulnerabilities within the Hola VPN architecture, one of which reportedly allowed anyone to execute programs on your computer.
According to the website, Hola fixed some of the vulnerabilities, but others still remain.
Hola VPN is also vulnerable to IP address leaks and has facilitated data scraping, according to cybersecurity firm Trend Micro.
At least Israel is a good place for a VPN company to be based, right?
While Israel is not an official member of the Five Eyes (or Nine or 14 Eyes) intelligence-sharing alliance, it collaborates with it.
Hopefully, this has been enough to put you off this free VPN service, but if it hasn’t Hola VPN’s logging policy surely will.
Ease of Use
It’s really easy to download and set up Hola VPN on Android and Windows.
Just download the software from the website or Google Play Store, click through a couple of prompts, and accept that your bandwidth will be sold to unknown corporations for good or bad.
For MacOS users there is no ‘app’ – even if the downloads page misleads you to think so. The only way to use Hola with MacOS devices is to download the browser add-ons.
However we only found that out after downloading what we thought was a custom app. It turned out to be a shortcut to a web page asking us to download a browser extension.
In a nutshell, both the Windows and Android apps don’t work like other VPN apps, either. Instead of routing all your device’s internet traffic through the VPN, Hola’s apps work more like proxy browsers.
You have to do all your online activities within the Hola app – which is like a web browser – in order to change your IP.
The Android app gives you the option to route other apps through the VPN but you have to do this on an app-by-app basis through the Hola app interface.
To use the Windows and Android apps, it’s pretty simple.
All you need to do is select the service or website you want to access and then choose the country you want to access it from the drop-down locations list. A small flag will indicate which country you are connected to.
The proxy browser works tab-by-tab, so one tab could be connected to the USA, while another is connected to Germany, for instance.
But as if Hola VPN weren’t dangerous enough, sometimes when you connect to some countries it doesn’t actually change your IP address, despite telling you that you’re connected.
On other occasions Hola would give us an IP address associated with a different country to the one we selected.
If you have already downloaded it to your device and read this review you’re probably wondering…
How do I get rid of Hola VPN?
For the Windows app, go to ‘Programs and Features’ in Control Panel and uninstall Hola VPN. MacOS users should drag the Hola VPN client from Applications to Trash and restart their computer. Be sure to delete any of the software download files, too.
On Android and iOS it’s as simple as long-tapping on the app and clicking Uninstall or Delete.
On top of all of its privacy and security issues, Hola VPN’s customer support isn’t great, either.
There are a bunch of FAQs available on its website, but these read more like a disclaimer than genuine help.
Hola VPN came under scrutiny when it previously didn’t disclose the relationship between free users’ data and the Luminati corporate service, but that has since been rectified on the FAQs page.
You can find out how the VPN service works (by using your personal information and data), how it makes money (ditto), and some very basic troubleshooting tips.
However, there are no detailed set-up instructions or user guides. There’s no live chat support either.
Hola VPN does supply a support email address, and in the past all of our queries were left ignored. However, during our most recent tests we were relieved to finally receive some replies.
The replies we did get were initially unhelpful – redirecting us to the FAQs – but after some perseverance we got the answers we needed.
The Bottom Line
- Free version doesn’t use encryption
- Sells free user bandwidth to premium users
- Monitors & logs all your online activity
- A history of controversy
- Doesn’t work with Netflix or torrenting