The service is '100% fast', the website boasts, '100% free', '100% anonymous', with unlimited bandwidth, blazing speeds, and 'free access to any website.'
- Want to try Urban VPN? Check out the website here
Tap the Products menu and Urban VPN hopes you'll be even more impressed, with free VPNs for Windows, Mac, Android and iOS, a proxy, and browser extensions. But then it starts to get a little odd, with separate listings for a 'Free Netflix VPN', 'Free Instagram VPN', 'Free Reddit VPN', 'Free PC/Laptop VPN', and the list goes on.
Select a few of these options, and you'll find they're not what they seem. The Mac and iOS products are flagged as 'coming soon', although as they've been that way for approaching a year, we're thinking that 'soon' should be dropped. And every else directs you to install the same Windows and Android apps, or the browser extensions.
Privacy and logging
Explore the website menus and you'll find a surprise. A 'Why free?' page explains that 'Urban VPN is powered by the Urban VPNr's community (Peer-to-Peer) VPN. ' It claims the company uses a Hola-type system where, once you've connected, your traffic is routed through other users’ systems, and some of their traffic will be routed through yours.
That approach to VPNs brings all kinds of questions. How does Urban VPN encrypt and protect your data? How much of your resources will Urban's apps use, once installed? What happens if another Urban VPN customer uses your IP address to perform some illegal action?
The document says Urban VPN collects you 'Agent Id, UDID, Android ID, and your IP address' to find your approximate location (country level) and provide the service.
An oddly phrased clause says, 'IPs collected for location purposes are deleted immediately following to the completion of use (not stored),' which presumably means they're deleted when you disconnect. But it goes on to explain that the IP collected when using Urban VPN for the desktop will only be deleted 'when you delete the VPN application and cease use of the Services.'
'We collect the URLs of visited websites which in most cases is aggregated Non-Personal Data, however, sometimes Web Browsing Data contains terms that could be considered as Personal Data. This data is deleted a short period following collection.'
We think the company is trying to say that it records the URLs you visit, but doesn't attach them to your account (it'll end up with a list of URLs generated by all customers, but with no way to tell which account visited which sites).
Full URLs can sometimes contain personal information (for example: domain.com/submit?name=this&city=that), and our guess would be that Urban VPN removes that data very quickly, but keeps the anonymized browsing information. (Guessing isn't good enough, of course; Urban VPN should be making this clear.)
Finally, there's the issue of Urban VPN's peer-to-peer technology. The website EULA gets closest to spelling this out:
"The software may make use of the Internet, among other means by re-routing some of your requests through other peer users. Your free use of the software will in turn enable other devices using the Services to be re-routed through your device. By using the Services you consent to the use of your device in the described manner and agree that other users or services may use your network connection and resources."
Some of your traffic is passing through other Urban VPN users' systems, and some of their traffic is passing through yours. How much traffic, how is it protected, are there any security or privacy considerations? We don't know.
Urban VPN could reassure potential users by documenting more of how its system works, or maybe putting itself through a security or privacy audit. None of that seems likely just yet, though, so in the meantime, you're left to take the companies words entirely on trust.
Getting going with Urban VPN should have been easy. There's no account to create, no password to remember – just download, install and run the Windows client.
But it wasn't quite that easy, because the installer failed, repeatedly. Close investigation of the Event Viewer showed warnings that Windows couldn't verify the digital signature for Urban VPN's virtual network adapter, and when we checked, we found it wasn't signed at all.
The Urban VPN site claims that: 'We are here to help whenever you need it. You can ask us anything through our live support'. However, this doesn't seem to be true. Urban VPN has no live support, no chat option, no support section on the website, not even an email address obviously dedicated to getting general help.
We weren't optimistic that the company would be able to help, anyway, as we'd had exactly the same problem the last time we looked the service, ten months ago.
Instead, we temporarily disabled Windows driver signature enforcement, and that allowed the app to install.
Urban VPN's Windows client is just about as basic as a VPN app can be, with no interface beyond a right-click menu for its system tray icon.
The first right-click displays the five continents: choosing any of these shows available countries, and choosing one of those gets you Connect and Disconnect options. And that's it. There's nothing else, no Favorites system to speed up reconnection, no auto-connect option, not a single setting anywhere.
The client apparently connects via OpenVPN. The logs don't give clear information on any encryption or security being used, though, instead reporting a handful of security issues ('WARNING: No server certificate verification method has been enabled.')
Whose network was Urban VPN using, we wondered? Maybe that would tell us more. We took a look, and found Urban VPN was connecting to servers run by a company called BI Science, which suddenly made a lot of sense. The Urban VPN website said it used a Hola-like peer-to-peer network, and BI Science owns a company, Geosurf, which uses just that type of technology.
It's so Hola-like, in fact, that Hola’s sister company Luminati filed a lawsuit against BI Science in January 2019 for alleged patent infringement. This was finally resolved in May 2020 when BI Science agreed to 'discontinue its proxy service business' and 'work together with Luminati in a strategic partnership to transition BI Science proxy service customers to Luminati’s service.'
There's very little else to test or look at here, but we were curious to see how it would cope with a dropped VPN connection. Urban VPN doesn't claim to have a kill switch, but what happens if the tunnel closes unexpectedly?
The answer turned out to be, 'it depends.'
If the OpenVPN process closes unexpectedly, the app displays a warning in a pop-up window. That's better than nothing, but your real IP is exposed immediately, and Urban VPN makes no effort to reconnect.
When we closed OpenVPN's TCP connection to the server, there was no warning and our real IP was still revealed to the world, but this time the connection was re-established in a few seconds. We'd much prefer a working kill switch, but that's a better performance than we've seen with many commercial VPNs.
Urban VPN's Chrome extension and desktop app connected almost immediately, like most proxies.
Performance was decent at around 60Mbps on our 75Mbps UK test line, and 150-200Mbps in the US. That compares well with many VPNs, though we suspect it doesn't have anything like the same encryption overhead. Remember also that this is a peer to peer VPN, where you get access to the resources of other users, and they get access to yours.
Real-world browsing seemed more affected by Urban VPN than the raw speed test results suggested, though, with many sites taking noticeably longer to load. The Chrome extension didn't help, as it appeared to display its own ads over some websites. That's probably why it requires the 'read and change all your data on the websites you visit' permission, but we're not yet clear why it also needs the right to 'manage your apps, extensions and themes.' Whatever it's doing, we'd hazard a guess that it's for Urban VPN's benefit, though, more than yours.
Urban VPN's peer to peer technology generally makes for effective website unblocking as you're not relying on a handful of central servers, and instead have access to a large number of residential IPs.
Our experience wasn't quite as smooth as we expected, with the desktop app failing to get us in to BBC iPlayer or Disney+. Very few VPNs succeed with all the top sites, though, and Urban VPN did have some notable successes, allowing us to stream content from both US Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
Free, unlimited bandwidth, unblocks US Netflix - sounds great. Until you realize it's funded by ads, maybe logging, who knows what else, and the bandwidth is only 'unlimited' because it comes from the users, including you. Factor in the poor apps, the total lack of detail on encryption and the absence of support, and this isn't a service we can recommend.
- Also check out our complete list of the best VPN services