What is the most dangerous thing about VPNs?
For me, it is a false sense of security.
It’s so easy to install a VPN, especially a free one, and consider oneself protected. Now that your IP is hidden, nothing bad can happen to you, right?
Unfortunately, no, it’s not.
The danger lies in the possibility of your real IP-address getting leaked to the websites you visit despite the security measures you take. It is especially vital if you use a VPN for torrenting, as leaks in this case may result in legal consequences.
And while best VPN services are known for protecting your real IP well, what interests me today is the performance of several free virtual private networks.
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In today’s study, I have researched more than 100 servers offered by several free VPN providers. I tested them for IP leaks including DNS leaks and WebRTC leaks. And what can I say, the results are sad but not too shocking:
- 41.2% of servers turned out to be fake;
- 24.5% of servers turned out to leak the real IP;
- 65.7% of servers turned out to be unsafe.
Diagram showing the amount of unsafe free VPN servers
A quick clarification: what I mean when I say “a fake server” is a server that is physically located not in the place the provider claims it to be located in.
Later on in this study, I will explain why I include fake servers under the “Unsafe” category.
In the next chapter, you will see all the details of my tests and their performance. I also will enumerate more reliable alternative tools to hide your IP later on.
For this study, I have tested five VPN providers that offer free plans. Here are their names:
- Hotspot Shield Free VPN
- ZenMate VPN
- TunnelBear VPN
- Hola VPN
- Free VPN
There are several things that I would like to point out first:
First, I tested free VPNs specifically not to discredit them in any way. My goal was to find out if they are good enough and safe enough to use. However, it is not a secret that free VPNs are often dangerous, as some of them sell users’ data or bandwidth.
I’d like to remind everybody that this website takes no side and never solicits or accepts monetary or other payments from anybody, including but not limited to providers of the services I review and their competitors.
Second, the VPN services I used in this study are not identical to each other. They all offer different numbers of servers and server locations. Moreover, I should note that Hotspot Shield VPN, TunnelBear VPN, and Hola VPN also have a paid version each besides the free ones I test in this study. I do not test their paid versions here not to make it unfair towards the other providers. I also won’t test VPNs that are considered to be among the best, like NordVPN.
If you are interested in TunnelBear’s and Hola’s paid versions and their performance not only in terms of security but also speed and more aspects, you should check my respective reviews of those VPNs.
Third, I deliberately chose several quite famous VPN providers (namely Hotspot Shield renowned for its part in the Arab Spring and Hola) and several less known, such as Free VPN (don’t let the name fool you, this one is about as well-known as the “Automobile” brand of cars and the “Computer” company that produces PCs). The reason for that is my firm belief that brand recognition is no merit on its own right. Therefore, I decided to give equal chances to both famous and more obscure virtual private networks.
Fourth, for this research I used VPNs for PC. If you’d like to find out about good VPNs for Android, you may want to see this VPN for Android list.
With that said, let us begin with the detailed analysis of the free VPNs’ reliability.
As I have tested more than a hundred servers, this webpage would be quite unwieldy if I put every single test result on it.
This is why I decided against it and will instead put enough info for you to see the whole picture but not enough (hopefully!) to bore you to death.
1. Hotspot Shield Free VPN
I have tested three servers which are the majority of what Hotspot Shield’s free version provides:
- One in Russia
- One in Germany
- And one in Canada
As you can see in the screenshots above, Hotspot Shield actually does hide my IP.
Sounds good? Yes.
Do I recommend it? No.
Link to the detailed review of Hotspot Shield.
2. ZenMate VPN
ZenMate VPN offers four locations on the free trial:
- Hong Kong
None of the available servers showed any leaks during my tests. However, just like with Hotspot, there have been IP leaks reported in the past. This is why I can’t fully trust this provider with my privacy, and you shouldn’t either.
Third on my list is TunnelBear. I have reviewed this one before and did not spot any IP leaks. However, today I will show you how its free servers fare.
I have tested for leaks the following servers:
- The Brazilian one
- The Indian one
- The US one
- The Mexican one
- And the Romanian one
All in all, TunnelBear performed pretty well and didn’t leak my IP. There are no DNS leaks or WebRTC leaks as well.
However, there are some concerns about its reliability. The biggest of them is the fact that this VPN provider belongs to McAfee, which is a US-based company. And as you may know, the USA is a part of the Five Eyes agreement, as is Canada, where TunnelBear itself is situated.
It is not an ideal situation for a VPN service, as it opens up too many possibilities for surveillance. You also should not forget the fact that TunnelBear collects some data on its users, including information about their operating systems, email addresses, Twitter accounts (for those free version users who have twitted about this VPN to increase their data limit), amounts of data used, etc.
4. Hola VPN
Hola VPN is another service that I have reviewed in detail before. But now, since it has a free version, it is time to see if it can protect your IP well enough on all the servers it has (or claims to have).
Hola is interesting in that it can boast a formidable amount of servers even on the free version. Even more interestingly, this huge number comes from the fact that it has a server almost in every country on the globe.
Or so it claims.
Naturally, there must be a catch. And we’re about to find out what it is exactly.
I’ll start from the top, so the first server location is Afghanistan—no, wait, it’s not!
As you can see, instead I am connected to a Swiss server in Basel. While it is not what I wanted, my real IP isn’t leaked. Therefore, it is a so-called virtual server or, as we should call it in all honesty, a fake server.
But things get more serious when I try to connect to an Albanian server. Now it doesn’t just misinform me what country it is located in but also doesn’t hide my real IP. (Please note that as it is sensitive information, I had to censor parts of the following screenshot that showed my real location).
Then I try a US server. It works just fine, no problems at all:
But as I keep on testing, I find out that there are also many more fake servers that are not located in the countries that they claim to be in. This “Cambodian” server is really situated in the US:
And this Mongolian server is actually in the US as well. Ah yes, the famous steppes of New Jersey!
While there are many, many fake servers on Hola’s list, I found that there are but a few of those that pose as them. For example, we’ve seen this one before. Back then, it was pretending to be in Cambodia but now it seems to have changed its mind and “moved” to Myanmar:
I think it is certain that there are servers in the USA, the UK, and Switzerland that do change your IP at the very least. However, the long list of available countries in Hola’s drop-down menu seems to have been just copypasted from Wikipedia’s page that lists all states in the world.
Further confirming my idea about Wikipedia, Hola even offers a server in Vatican City. Yes, I’m sure it is physically there. Yep. No doubts whatsoever.
If you’re wondering about what that “No, fix it!” button does, then brace for a disappointment: all it does is try to reconnect to the same server or to another one that is still nowhere near the one Hola advertises.
Additionally, I have tested servers reputedly located in
only to see the same American, British, and Swiss servers and IPs.
On the other hand,
all appear to actually host a Hola server.
Here I repeat the test with Albania. The results suggest that everything is worse than just a few fake servers.
As you can see in the picture above, this time Hola managed to connect to one of its fake servers. But let’s recollect what had happened the first time when I’d chosen Albania.
Right, then it just had leaked my real IP like it’s no big deal. And now it connected to a fake server.
What it means is such a thing can happen any time you connect to a location that Hola claims it has servers in but in reality doesn’t.
So you are constantly at risk of leaking your real IP-address and location while using Hola VPN.
To be fair to Hola, I have experienced very few instances of my IP being leaked as opposed to connecting successfully to a fake server. However, and I can’t emphasize it enough, even a low number of IP leaks makes it extremely dangerous to use Hola.
I strongly recommend that you do not take any chances and use an affordable paid VPN to protect your Internet security and really hide your IP.
5. Free VPN
Free VPN is a Google Chrome browser extension the name of which speaks for itself. It is not as popular as the others on our list, and frankly, I think that its name has much to do with it. It is simply too generic to stand out and not to be disregarded as annoying (and probably false advertisement).
The country list provided by Free VPN is quite exhaustive
But does it do what a VPN must and hide IPs of its users?
Let’s find out!
This extension offers a wide variety of countries to choose your virtual location from. It immediately makes me a bit apprehensive. However, I will not let any bias cloud my judgment.
Quick note: Free VPN is quite slow. Well, I suppose there has to be a downside.
So I connected to an Austrian server.
At first glance, everything seems to be alright, as IPleak.net shows that my IP is Austrian… but wait, something is amiss!
Indeed, Free VPN hides my IP… but what the DNS Address bar shows is my real IP.
This is what happens during a DNS leak
For privacy reasons, I cannot show what it is and so have to hope that you will take my word for it.
(Also, if you said that the word “Disconnect” is spelt wrong in the drop-down menu of the app, congrats—you have a keen eye!)
As I dutifully tested other locations, I was disappointed to see the same thing happen again with the Czech Republic…
…and again with Croatia…
…and again with Azerbaijan.
Unfortunately, Free VPN confirms once again that it is very hard to find a free service that would hide your IP reliably. Despite there being no IP leaks, it consistently leaked DNS requests every time I ran the test.
I have also tested Free VPN’s servers in the following countries:
The problem with the DNS leaks remained the same no matter what server I chose.
The bottom line here is: Free VPN is not a reliable service. You should never trust this provider with your online safety.
Unlike Hola VPN with its American, British, and Swiss servers posing as ones from all over the world, Free VPN may or may not have servers in such locations as Costa Rica, Ecuador, Chile, Jamaica, or Kenya.
However, its encryption is not strong enough to protect your IP from websites’ requests, so the abundance of exotic server locations is somewhat wasted.
By this point, you might find yourself asking: “But what do I do? How do I prevent my real IP from being leaked to websites?”
As it often is the case, you have to spend money on something if you want it to work well. This is true for good VPNs as well. Unfortunately, you cannot be safe and secure on the Internet without paying up.
But even if you do pay for a VPN, there is still no guarantee that your privacy will not be endangered. There always is a possibility that a dishonest provider who has lost the last bits of their decency would not only leak your IP or other data but also charge you a hefty sum for it.
But do not worry, gentle reader. In this final chapter of my study, I will give you 3 super-easy to follow tips on how to choose a good VPN.
1. No Logs Policy is Your Best Friend
Moreover, and this is another thing to keep in mind and check before buying a subscription, NordVPN’s claims of storing next to no users’ data are proven by an independent audit. This way, you do not have to trust the provider (who is, let’s face it, an interested party here) without any proof. As there have been cases of providers keeping user logs despite their claims before, don’t forget to check for a third-party audit.
2. Two Eyes Good, Five Eyes Bad
Another thing to consider is the jurisdiction under which a VPN provider is situated.
I have already mentioned what the dangers of a VPN provider being located in one of the Five Eyes agreement countries are. Just in case, and because it’s very important, I’ll reiterate:
- there is legislation in these countries that allows the government to demand (and get) customers’ personal info from telecom providers. An example of it is CALEA, enacted in the USA in 1994;
- their surveillance agencies may be forbidden to spy on their own citizens, but can easily spy on the citizens of the other states of the alliance;
- by the nature of being an intelligence-sharing agreement, they can and will share what data they gather.
Unfortunately for us, this five-eyed monster was not scary enough so the elites have made another one: the Fourteen Eyes agreement.
So, if a provider is located under the jurisdiction of one of the following countries, my advice to you is to search for another one.
The Fourteen Eyes states:
- New Zealand;
Cyanide Pill for Your Internet Connection
Since some governments are so intent on spying on us honest citizens, let us play spies as well!
You know how spies kept cyanide pills inside their teeth sometimes to be able to quickly kill themselves if captured not to give away any information? Well, we won’t be risking our lives here, so no worries.
But our VPN should.
I’m talking about a Kill Switch feature.
This feature automatically shuts down your Internet connection if a VPN tunnel fails to prevent your real data from getting to the wrong people. It is a crucial function for a VPN to have, as even the best ones, such as ExpressVPN or PrivateInternetAccess, can occasionally lose connection.
As you saw from this study, free VPNs are quite dangerous to use. Now, to recap:
- 66% of servers I tested across five providers turned out to not be trustworthy;
- 41% of servers were fake, i.e. located not where they claimed to be,
- 25% of servers leaked my real IP-address.
At the same time, you can’t be sure about the trustworthiness even of a paid service, unless:
- It keeps no user logs (which ideally should be confirmed by third-party audits);
- It is not located under the Fourteen Eyes jurisdiction;
- It has a Kill Switch function.
You can check out my Top 5 VPN services list to get a more substantial idea of what a good VPN service should include.