UPDATED with increase in number of virtual country locations. This review was originally published June 20, 2018.
Hotspot Shield offers 500MB of free data per day — even more than Windscribe provides when you add it up — and its network performance is better than those of most free VPNs. The trade-off is that the free version of Hotspot Shield shows you extra ads, as the service's support pages explain, and it lets you connect only to U.S-based servers.
Free vs. Freemium VPNs
We don’t recommend any totally free VPN services because too many of them borrow your bandwidth, sell your browsing history or inject ads. (Granted, the free version of Hotspot Shield does keep track of which sites its users visit, and at least the Android version shows you ads.) A service you don't pay has no incentive to keep your private data private.
Instead, we recommend the free service tiers of "freemium" VPN services, which serve mainly as teasers for the paid plans. Most of the free offerings have data caps or speed restrictions, but at least you know how the services make money.
Unfortunately, none of the free tiers is fast enough or generous enough to serve as a 24/7 home VPN connection. If that's what you want, you'll have to pay for it.
What You Get for Free
Hotspot Shield has client software for Windows, macOS, iOS and Android. You can't connect without the software, which leaves Linux and Windows Phone users out in the cold.
As mentioned above, you get up to 500MB per registered user per day, which comes to about 15GB per month — the most of any of the nine free-ish services we looked at. The catch is that once you hit 500MB in a given day, you've got to wait until the next day for more. Other free services let you burn through a whole month's allotment at once if you want to.
The Hotspot Shield paid service costs $12.99 a month ($5.99 per month if you pay for a year at once) for unlimited VPN protection, no ads and your choice of 62 countries to which to connect.
There have been allegations that Hotspot Shield, on both its free and paid plans, collects user data and directs user traffic to its advertising partners. The parent company, AnchorFree, denies those claims but states that it does collect "anonymous, aggregate data about which websites our users visit and which apps our users use." (Many other VPN services promise to never do this.)
The website also says that users will "see extra ads when browsing with Hotspot Shield" and that users who "would prefer not to see ads ... can purchase a subscription" to the paid service.
In the past, Hotspot Shield's free version injected ads directly into web pages displayed in a desktop browser. The company's head told Tom's Guide that that practice has been ended, and that ads now appear only when opening and closing VPN connections in the Hotspot Shield Android app. That was indeed our experience.
Hotspot Shield uses a proprietary VPN standard called Hydra VPN, which may put off privacy experts who prefer better-known standards such as OpenVPN or L2TP/IPsec. AnchorFree is based in California and hence subject to search warrants and other forms of investigation by U.S. law-enforcement agencies, although the company's 2017 transparency report states that it has never given any user data to law enforcement.
It took us only 2 minutes and 15 seconds to get and install the 19MB Hotspot Shield Windows client. The first screen you'll see tempts you to start a free trial of the paid plan by clicking a big, bright-blue button, and there won't seem to be any other option.
But squint, and you'll see a dark-gray "back" arrow barely visible against the dark-blue background, in the upper left. Click that, and you'll be in the HotSpot Shield free interface. It's very similar to the paid interface: deep blue and small, but with "Upgrade to Hotspot Shield Premium" in a banner below.
Click the big button in the middle to connect. Once you do, a small world map appears, along with the IP address Hotspot Shield assigns you and your current session's data usage. The interface warns you when you're at 250MB, halfway through your daily allowance.
Don't be fooled by the drop-down menu of countries to connect to; you'll have to pay to use any but the United States, and you're automatically assigned a server. In the upper left is a hamburger (three horizontal lines) menu to things like Upgrade to Premium, Settings (turn on VPN at startup, stop IP leakage, Kill switch and others), Help and Quit.
Hotspot Shield did pretty well in our tests, which were conducted in a suburban New York home using regular cable-company internet service.
Broadband speeds, connection time and network delay (latency) were tested using Ookla's Speedtest.net service. A baseline without any VPN connection was established before each individual service was tested.
The free offerings of nine services were tested: Avira Phantom VPN, Hide.me, Hotspot Shield, the Opera browser VPN, ProtonVPN, Speedify, SurfEasy, TunnelBear and Windscribe.
We connected to Hotspot Shield's server in an average of 3.2 seconds, which is not too bad and was right behind Windscribe and Speedify. Network latency was 29.5 milliseconds — 58 percent more than before the VPN connected and behind only Avira Phantom VPN among regular VPN services.
(Speedify was the fastest of all because it uses software to merge two independent internet connections, e.g. cable broadband and cellular data. But it can't work its magic if only one connection is available. It's so different from other VPN services that we're ranking it separately.)
The average download speed when connected to Hotspot Shield was 111.8 Mbps — a decline of 35 percent from the baseline. Uploads averaged 29.3 Mbps — 13 percent slower than the baseline. Both of those scores are right behind those from Windscribe, our top placer.
If you're fine with Hotspot Shield's free service tier showing you extra ads, and the privacy allegations don't concern you, then go right ahead and use this VPN service. Better yet, use both Hotspot Shield's free offering and Windscribe's similarly generous counterpart, and you'll have 25GB per month of free VPN data to play with.
Client platforms: Windows, macOS, Android, iOS
Protocols: Hydra VPN
Restrictions: 500MB per day; U.S. servers only