Hotspot Shield’s free VPN service is one of the better complimentary offerings we’ve seen, but that by no means makes it a good choice.
Its excellent performance is severely restricted by the 500MB daily bandwidth cap, lone available server and single-device limit.
Previous controversies with the app mean that we’re still not convinced by Hotspot Shield’s claims that it protects your personal information. It’ll do for securing you on public WiFi but we wouldn’t recommend it for much more than that.
We want to clarify that this review is for the unpaid version of Hotspot Shield VPN. If you wish to read our review for the premium version, you can find it here.
Speed & Reliability
Considering we test from the UK and the only option we had was to connect to Hotspot Shield’s US server, it performed pretty well in our speed tests, peaking at 80Mbps up and 20Mbps down.
In theory, this means you should be able to do virtually anything you want to online without having to wait around, however the stingy 500MB data cap will massively restrict your activity.
As is to be expected connecting over such a long distance, latency is extremely high, coming in at around 200ms in each of our tests.
The story is much the same for uploads – 20Mbps isn’t too bad, but torrenters ideally want to be able to connect to a local server for the best possible performance.
To read about our speed testing methodologies, please read How We Review VPNs.
Hotspot Shield Free VPN users only get access to one server location – the US. While this probably won’t be an issue for those living in that country, for those based in Europe or Asia this is far from ideal.
Annoyingly, this isn’t clear on Hotspot Shield’s website, nor is it mentioned on the app. You’re even displayed with the full ‘premium’ server list, but if you try and click on any other locations you’re simply prompted to upgrade to the paid plan.
If you need access to more locations, consider one of our paid providers such as HideMyAss!, which offers over 190 countries.
Platforms & Devices
The free version of Hotspot Shield VPN is available on Microsoft Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android. There are also proxy extensions for Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.
There’s no way to manually configure the software to work with routers or any other devices, but with the paltry daily data cap of 500MB it’s unlikely that you’d want to install it at router level anyway.
Unlike with the premium version of the service, it’s only possible to use Hotspot Shield’s free app on one device at a time, so if you want to protect your family’s devices as well as your own you’ll need to upgrade.
Streaming & Torrenting
It’s impossible to stream on popular sites or torrent using the free version of Hotspot Shield VPN.
Because you can only connect to the US server you can’t even attempt to stream video content from UK-based sites like BBC iPlayer, even if you’re located in that country. Despite being connected to the US, we weren’t able to access US Netflix either, and a warning popped up to say “access to this content is premium feature”.
It’s the same story for torrenting, which doesn’t appear to be permitted on Hotspot Shield VPN’s only free server. If you’re looking for a VPN to protect yourself while torrenting, consider our top pick IPVanish.
Encryption & Security
Hotspot Shield has had a rough couple of years recently, making it difficult for us to recommend it to those with stringent privacy needs.
The free version of the app uses exactly the same VPN protocol as its paid counterpart, but the level of security offered by HydraVPN isn’t completely clear, so it’s difficult for us to compare it directly to our preferred protocol OpenVPN.
Your data is encrypted using top cipher AES-256, though, which is considered impossible to hack.
Hotspot Shield Free VPN also comes with a couple of advanced features, including a VPN kill switch and protection against IP leaks, which prevent your true IP address from being exposed in case of a VPN connection failure.
We didn’t experience and IP or DNS leaks during our tests.
Sadly, this is where the positives end, as there have been allegations made in recent years that would be enough to put off even the most committed of subscribers.
It emerged in 2017 that the company had allegedly been injecting affiliate links into users’ traffic in order to monetize it – you can read the full complaint by the CDT (Center for Democracy & Technology) here.
Up until then, Hotspot Shield also didn’t class user IP addresses as ‘personal information’, therefore it could (falsely) claim not to collect ‘any Personal Information about you when you use the Service’, which was an outright lie.
Another recent controversy was a software flaw that made it possible for hackers and snoopers to view your true location through your WiFi network name – this was discovered in February 2018 and you can read more about it here.
AnchorFree (Hotspot Shield’s parent company) dismissed these claims as ‘unfounded’, but Paulos Yibelo, who found the bug, said it only took him a few seconds to write the code and expose users’ true IP addresses.
Thankfully, Hotspot Shield said it would remove any software components capable of leaking ‘generic information’, which is good to hear, but it shouldn’t have taken a security breach this large to make it realize that change needed to be made.
While it has to be acknowledged that Hotspot Shield has made a lot of changes and is now moving well and truly in the right direction, events like these leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
- IPV6 Leak Blocking
- VPN Kill Switch
Hotspot Shield states on its website that connection may be ‘intermittent’ in countries where ISPs and governments are known to block VPN services, and has even included a list of the countries currently affected, including China, Iran, and Turkey.
These issues are most likely due to the lack of additional obfuscation tools available in-app, making it really easy for censors abroad to detect you’re using a VPN and block your connection.
It also explains that while the VPN may be blocked on one platform, it might be possible to use it on another, so expect a lot of trial-and-error.
Hotspot Shield doesn’t monitor anything you do (as an individual) while you’re connected to the VPN, but it does collect the following:
- Your originating IP address (encrypted and deleted upon disconnecting from the VPN)
- Aggregated sites that users visit while connected (for troubleshooting purposes)
- Your device’s advertising ID, IMEI, MAC address and wireless carrier (shared with third parties)
We don’t like that certain information, including your city-level location, is shared with third parties in order for them to display personalized ads.
The policy even states that these companies “may be able to access your IP address if your device is not connected to the Hotspot Shield VPN”, which is very concerning. Avoid if privacy is your priority.
The US may be one of the least privacy-friendly jurisdictions in the world, but that’s where Hotspot Shield has chosen to base itself.
This makes it subject to intrusive surveillance laws and intelligence-sharing agreements with other nations such as the UK, Canada, and Australia.
Hotspot Shield also released a Transparency Report in January 2019, stating: “[we have] never provided the identity or other personal information regarding our users to a government, law enforcement agency, or other third party,” which goes some way to reassuring us that your personal information is safe.
Ease of Use
The free version of Hotspot Shield’s app is exactly the same as the premium version in terms of design, with just a few limitations when it comes to features.
It’s not made clear that you’re only able to connect to the US server, so we spent a good while trying to access other locations and becoming frustrated when we were prompted to upgrade.
Once you’re connected, you can see your new virtual location and IP address, along with info about your data usage – you’ll receive an alert when you’ve used 50% of your daily allowance, which is helpful.
It’s incredibly easy to get started with the free version of Hotspot Shield VPN as you don’t have to provide any personal information whatsoever – not even an email address.
Simply go to the ‘free VPN’ section of the website and download the relevant app for the device you want to protect. The software will automatically launch once installation is complete.
Free users of Hotspot Shield aren’t able to access the same level of customer support as its premium users. This is most evident when looking at the resources on the website, as some articles are limited to paid subscribers only.
On the whole, Hotspot Shield’s online resources are pretty poor, only covering basic troubleshooting topics.
Nevertheless, it has recently improved live chat support to be available 24/7, for users of both the premium and free service.
The Bottom Line
- Download speeds of up to 80Mbps
- User-friendly apps for popular platforms
- VPN kill switch and DNS leak protection
- 24/7 live chat support
- Can only access US server
- Stingy 500MB daily limit
- Company history of selling user data
- No access to Netflix or BBC iPlayer
Hotspot Shield is a reputable VPN provider, but its free service is in need of a fair bit of improvement. Performance is very impressive but a stingy 500MB daily bandwidth cap will massively limit what you’re able to do online.
It offers a good level of encryption along with a VPN kill switch and DNS leak protection, but past controversies will be enough to put off anyone who values their personal information.
Hotspot Shield’s Free VPN has potential but needs to work on regaining user trust before we can rate it any higher.