This free VPN unblocks Netflix, but has real privacy and security concerns; Hola VPN Review
Hola is a free VPN that bucks a lot of trends. Most free VPN services place harsh limitations on things like server choice and bandwidth, but Hola doesn’t. The catch is that Hola VPN isn’t a real VPN, in that it doesn’t have dedicated servers for you to connect through. What it has instead is a peer-to-peer network of users that have agreed to provide access to their internet connections in exchange for free access to the network.
What We Like
- Free version works well
- Most connections are fast
- Easy to use
- Unblocks most sites
What We Don’t Like
- Free version uses your bandwidth for others
- Uses other users’ internet connections
- Browser plug-in is per-site
- Collects a lot of data
The way this works is that when you use the service to unblock Netflix Japan, you’re actually plugging into a Japanese user’s home internet connection. If you pay for the premium version of the service, you can opt-out of placing your own device into the pool of available connections.
Since a peer-to-peer VPN network like Hola VPN brings up a lot of security questions, we installed it on both desktop and mobile devices to put it to the test. We checked out things like whether it can really unblock sites, the speed and latency of connections, and more.
Setup Process: One-click installation of Hola VPN
Hola VPN is easy to install on both desktop and mobile. We found that the process consists of downloading and launching the app, logging in, and then the app takes care of everything else. There is very little actual setup to speak of, and the VPN is ready to go right away.
Design: Easy and intuitive to use
We tested the Windows and Android Hola apps, and we also installed the Firefox and Chrome Hola browser plug-ins. In each instance, we found the installation process to be relatively pain-free, and the app or plug-in to work in a fairly intuitive fashion.
The Windows app is very minimalist. When you launch it, you’re presented with a choice of which country you want to connect through. The list is fairly exhaustive, as Hola boasts over 200 million users, and the service actually connects you through their devices instead of dedicated servers.
The Android app works a little differently. It presents you with a choice of country and allows you to choose which app you want to connect to the VPN. For example, you can choose the United Kingdom or Japan, and then choose Netflix to access region-locked content.
The browser plug-in may be a little confusing for some users because it works on a site-by-site basis. You can either browse to a site, and then activate Hola for that one site, or choose a site to unblock, choose a country, and have Hola open the necessary webpage for you.
Performance: Free users give up their system resources and bandwidth
When we tested the premium version of Hola, we found it to work just as well, or better than, other VPNs that we’ve tested. With the Windows version of the app running, we found the websites loaded quickly, and we were able to achieve a maximum downstream connection speed of 231 Mbps. Some connections are significantly slower, but we were able to stream video on sites like YouTube without a hitch.
The catch is that if you don’t opt for the paid version, your device is placed into Hola’s P2P network. Once in that network, other users are able to access the internet through your device. Hola promises that your devices will only be used in this way when they are otherwise idle, but the fact remains that your system resources and bandwidth will be used by the Hola P2P network.
Streaming: Better than your average VPN
As an unblocking service, the premium version of Hola works extremely well. The reason it’s able to work this well is that it isn’t a real VPN. Instead of operating VPN servers that streaming services can swat like flies, Hola VPN provides premium users access to the internet connections of free users.
Since you literally connect to the internet through the consumer-level internet connections of other users, streaming services have no easy way to block these connections that wouldn’t also block legitimate viewers.
During our testing, we were able to access the BBC iPlayer on the first try, stream an episode of Carole & Tuesday on the Japanese version of Netflix, access the US version of Netflix and Hulu, and more.
According to Hola VPN, they monitor everything you do on their network. That includes the web pages you visit, how much time you spend on each site, your personal IP address, the node that you connected to the internet through, and more. They say that they monitor activity to identify hackers and cyber-criminals so that their information can be passed on to the proper authorities.
The bottom line here is that privacy-minded users should stay away from Hola VPN. If you’re using a VPN to protect your anonymity or privacy, this isn’t the service you’re looking for.
Security Features: Premium users get encryption
The way most VPN services work is that they route your traffic through their own secure servers, using encrypted data connections, which provides a lot of protection. Hola doesn’t do that, so it’s inherently less secure and more exploitable. In fact, the free version of the service doesn’t even encrypt data.
Paid users can opt into a protected connection by clicking a button, which provides access to AES-256 encryption. Additional user settings allow you to customize the VPN protocol and type of encryption that you want to use.
Despite the addition of encryption for paid users, we still can’t recommend this service to anyone who is especially concerned about data security.
Torrenting: No torrenting allowed
Hola explicitly disallows the use of torrent programs. In fact, they block all Bittorrent traffic on their network. Even paid users are locked out of using torrents. The good news there is that free users don’t have to worry about their bandwidth being sucked up by torrents, but you’ll have to look elsewhere if you need a free VPN that allows torrenting.
Ad Blocking: Not present
Some VPN services provide built-in ad blocking at the DNS level to provide a little extra added level of security, and this is just one more place where Hola stumbles. There is no built-in ad blocker, so details about your device and connection may be leaked to invasive ad trackers.
Customer Service: Difficult to locate
In the event that you have any trouble with the service, Hola doesn’t make it especially easy to find their support or customer service options. We were ultimately able to locate a support form buried several layers deep in a massive FAQ, and an email on the general contact page, with no specific information about support requests.
Price: From free to pretty expensive
Hola advertises itself as a free VPN, and the free subscription option works quite well. It provides unlimited bandwidth, speedy connections, and a lot of location options compared to other VPNs. The drawback, as we’ve mentioned before, is that the free version requires you to allow other users to connect through your devices.
The paid version, Hola Plus, is too expensive for what you get. It ranges in price from about $3 per month for a three-year subscription to about $14.99 for month-to-month. These prices are in line with what you’d pay for a real VPN with real security and privacy protections.
Hola Plus essentially gives you access to Hola’s network of free users, so it’s really good at unblocking websites around the world, but if you’re forking out that kind of money you’d be better off with a better VPN.
Competition: Competitors offer better security and privacy
It’s difficult to compare Hola to real VPN services in an apples-to-apples kind of way because Hola almost looks more like a Tor network than a traditional VPN service. It connects you through user devices instead of private servers, it aggressively monitors your activity, and it keeps extensive logs. The best VPNs, like NordVPN, ExpreessVPN, and ProtonVPN, all have strict no-logging policies.
In terms of performance, Hola compares favorably to premium services like ProtonVPN. For example, we found that our connection speed was reduced by half when connected to servers in the United States, and by 90 percent when connected to Japan. Hola left our connection speed nearly untouched when tested in the United States, Canada, Japan, and other countries.
Hola beats out competitors like Windscribe, ProtonVPN, and TunnelBear in terms of bandwidth.
When looking specifically at free alternatives, Hola beats out competitors like Windscribe, ProtonVPN, and TunnelBear in terms of bandwidth. Hola doesn’t limit the bandwidth of free accounts, while those competitors provide between 500MB and 10GB of data per month.
Say Hasta La Vista to Hola.
The bottom line is that Hola works, and it works well, as a website unblocker, but it throws up far too many red flags for us to recommend the service. Hola Plus at least removes concerns about other users connecting through your devices, but it’s so expensive that you might as well pay for a top of the line VPN and enjoy much higher levels of security and privacy.
Specs of Hola VPN
- Product Name: Hola VPN
- Price: $2.99
- Speed (Fastest Observed): 231 Mbps (Tested on a 1Gbps connection)
- Operating Systems: Windows, macOS, Android, iOS
- Devices10 devices at a time
- Server Locations: 42 Countries
- Number of Servers: No servers (millions of user connections)
- Streaming: Yes (Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer)
- Torrenting: No
- Encryption: None (free version), AES-256 (premium)
- Logging: Yes. Browsing data, personal data, and more
- Jurisdiction: Israel