There's a lot to like about ProtonVPN. It's a security and privacy-oriented service, with fast servers, excellent software, and offering several handy features other providers don't bother implementing. Yes, they're on the pricey side, but if staying anonymous on the internet is your goal, few VPNs do a better job of it.
- Excellent privacy and security features
- Double VPN offered in every supported country
- No logs
- Easy to use client
- Good server performance
- Torrenting and P2P friendly
- Offers a free version
- No live chat support
- P2P servers in four countries only
If you like your digital privacy, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of ProtonMail – the free, encrypted email service developed by the scientists at CERN in Switzerland.
What you may not know, however, is that the very same developers have moved into the VPN arena, with a service called ProtonVPN.
As VPN services go, ProtonVPN is somewhat unique, in that it offers a free-to-paid account structure. That means you can access a basic version of the service at no charge, without most of the typical drawbacks of free VPNs.
But, that’s not all ProtonVPN has to offer. Far from it.
To bring you up to speed, here’s my ProtonVPN review.
ProtonVPN’s parent company, Proton Technologies AG, is a well-known champion of digital privacy. In addition to email and VPN services, they’re also responsible for a handful of widely-used open-source encryption tools, like OpenPGPjs and GopenPGP.
Clearly, they’re rather serious about extending digital privacy to the masses. So, how well did they do with their VPN offering?
As you might expect, ProtonVPN is a very safe VPN, with security and privacy its’ biggest selling points.
The service relies on state-of-the-art encryption standards and operates out of privacy-friendly Switzerland.
On top of that, ProtonVPN has a strict no-logging policy. They keep only a timestamp of the last time you signed in to your account for brute-force attack prevention. Since that information is overridden with every login, you leave no trail, and your privacy remains intact.
ProtonVPN is one of the few providers to offer a double VPN solution and can work hand-in-hand with the Tor network. A kill switch and DNS leak protection are, of course, also available.
Beyond privacy and security, ProtonVPN has other benefits too.
Performance is good across their entire network.
They implement an always useful split tunneling feature which lets you fine-tune your traffic and decide what should go through the VPN and what shouldn’t.
P2P is also allowed on many of the servers, although not on the free plan.
ProtonVPN is of the few consumer VPN services that still work with US Netflix too, as well as Disney+, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and the BBC iPlayer. If you want to stream a few shows while abroad, or just maintain your security while doing so at home, that’s a nice bonus.
And their VPN apps, while limited to Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android, are as good as it gets. All versions offer excellent performance and an intuitive, user-friendly experience.
You can also run ProtonVPN without a client application on Linux as well as Tomato, Asus WRT, and DD-WRT routers.
No VPN provider is perfect, including ProtonVPN.
One of the most notable cons is the cost. ProtonVPN offers multiple price plans, but they’re not cheap (except for the free version, of course).
While they offer a 30-day money-back guarantee, it is prorated, meaning if you cancel after 15 days, you only get half your money back. No other VPN I can think of does this.
ProtonVPN also lacks a bit in the customer service department. The only way to get help is via email, which may translate to longish wait times – though at least the responses are helpful and not of the copy-and-paste variety.
I mentioned that ProtonVPN works with US Netflix.
Unfortunately, the picture isn’t as rosy with other countries. I was able to get the UK, German, and Japanese versions of the service working, but that’s it.
To me it feels like many of the cons come with the territory of sustaining the free VPN tier – though that’s just a hunch.
As is always the case, for this review, I made sure to explore ProtonVPN as extensively as possible. The one anomaly is that, unlike most other VPNs, ProtonVPN offers different features depending on your subscription.
Since the Plus package is the most popular option, it is what I decided to cover. I will, however, point it out if feature is not available on any of the less expensive plans.
ProtonVPN is a privacy-centric VPN. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that they offer a built-in kill switch function.
The feature automatically blocks your device’s internet traffic in the event of an unexpected disconnection from the service. Those can happen with any VPN.
By activating in those situations, the kill switch prevents any data from going out over the unencrypted standard internet connection, revealing your activities to the world at large.
The kill switch is only available in the Windows and macOS versions of the client.
On the iOS and Android apps, ProtonVPN instead offers an always-on option to reconnect to the service when the connection fails. And that’s fair enough. A kill switch on an unstable mobile connection would be a nightmare.
DNS Leak Protection
Another privacy feature offered by ProtonVPN is DNS leak protection.
All native ProtonVPN apps automatically route DNS queries to servers operated by the company.
Those servers follow the same no-logging policies as the rest of the service. So, your DNS history cannot be used as a roadmap to your internet activities.
Together with a kill switch, DNS leak protection stops any attempt to track your online habits in its tracks.
For those of us who prize security above all else, ProtonVPN offers what they call Secure Core servers. In everyday VPN talk, this is double VPN. But, it comes with an interesting twist.
The twist is that the Secure Core servers that provide the first hop in the double VPN chain are owned and operated by ProtonVPN, rather than through a leased provider.
They’re also housed in some insanely secure places, like a decommissioned Swiss army fallout shelter located 1000m underground.
That all but guarantees no third party will ever gain unauthorized access to the hardware and compromise your security.
ProtonVPN’s Secure Core servers are located in Iceland, Sweden, and Switzerland.
The downside to Secure Core, and indeed any double VPN solution, is an unavoidable performance hit. Your data now needs to travel an extra distance to the second VPN server and then be handled by it.
How much slower is performance? Here are the speed test results for the Netherlands for a regular VPN connection and one using Secure Core.
|Secure Core Speed Test
We’re looking at about a 2/3 reduction in speed which, frankly, is quite good. It’s typical to see performance at least half with other VPN providers that implement a double VPN solution, so kudos to ProtonVPN there.
Please note that Secure Core is not available on ProtonVPN’s Basic and free plans.
Not all internet traffic needs to go through a VPN. And that’s what ProtonVPN’s split tunneling feature is for.
It lets you pick which applications and IP addresses should use the service and which should not.
It’s an excellent feature for when you want to, for example, download a torrent while at the same time streaming local TV. The torrent can get pulled down through the Netherlands, while you watch locally, as though not connected to a VPN at all.
By not sending everything through the VPN, you can also improve connection performance.
Split Tunneling is currently only available on ProtonVPN’s Windows and Android clients.
For extra privacy, ProtonVPN also offers support for using the Tor network together with the VPN service. The catch is that not all of ProtonVPN’s servers support this kind of setup, so you’ll have to drill down through the app to figure out which do.
Still, even offering limited Tor support is somewhat rare in the VPN industry, so it’s a welcome feature.
Tor servers are not accessible if you sign up for the Basic or free plan.
ProtonVPN Netflix and Other Streaming Support
In my testing, I found that ProtonVPN does work with Netflix, despite the streaming giant’s efforts to stamp out VPN use.
Getting around geo-blocking is not an advertised feature, mind you, and ProtonVPN makes no explicit guarantees that it will always work. For that reason, Netflix servers are not marked in the app, and you have to use trial-and-error to find one that works.
My tests found only servers in the US, the UK, Germany, and Japan currently unblock Netflix. For access to the rest of the global Netflix catalog, you may need to look elsewhere.
Beyond Netflix, however, I had no issues connecting to Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Disney+. I was also able to get several of the UK servers to unlock the BBC’s iPlayer, as well as ITV Hub and All 4.
All in all, ProtonVPN does an impressive job when it comes to streaming and you should have no issues accessing all the major players. But, be aware that your mileage may vary with less popular services or locations.
Torrenting and P2P Support
As I alluded to earlier, paid subscribers of ProtonVPN can use the service for torrenting and other P2P filesharing applications.
If you want to use P2P on ProtonVPN, however, you’ll have to connect to a compatible server. And only four countries (the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden, and Switzerland) have those.
P2P servers are marked in the client, though, unfortunately, there is no quick way to show only those that are. You can use ProtonVPN’s handy connection profile feature (which I’ll get to a little later), but it should be easier than that.
Even if you don’t intend on sharing files, I recommend you take note of which servers offer the functionality. But, instead of using them, avoid them.
On average, the P2P servers suffer from the heaviest loads and, therefore, tend to offer slightly slower performance. The speeds are still more than good enough, but if you don’t need to use a P2P server, why do it.
Like most other VPN services, ProtonVPN lets you connect with multiple devices at the same time with a single subscription.
How many you can use, however, is dictated by which plan you choose.
The Basic plan offers up to two simultaneous connections, while the Plus allows up to five. The Visionary plan will get you ten concurrent connections, but it will cost you, in my option, way too much.
If it’s a lot of connection you’re after, look into the excellent VPN service Surfshark which currently has no concurrent connection limits.
Privacy and Security
By now, it should be clear that ProtonVPN is all about privacy and security. After all, you wouldn’t build a data center in an underground bunker if you weren’t serious about it.
It’s no surprise then that this is an area where ProtonVPN shines.
To start with, ProtonVPN makes its home in Switzerland, which has some of the strictest privacy laws in the world. In fact, they’re something of a magnet for privacy-focused services because of it.
The team behind ProtonVPN also has a long history of advocating the keep Switzerland a safe haven for digital privacy rights.
It’s important to note that Switzerland is not a party to any multinational intelligence-gathering arrangements, such as the 5, 9, and 14 eyes alliances that connect much of the western world.
That means that, by default, they don’t share any information with foreign governments. And any requests for information must conform to Swiss laws, which heavily favor individual privacy rights.
Even Swiss authorities have to notify electronic surveillance targets that they’re being watched. So, the odds are slim to none that any but the most serious foreign requests would ever be entertained.
Another benefit of ProtonVPN’s Swiss operating jurisdiction is that it allows them to offer a comprehensive no-logging policy.
No provision in Swiss law requires a VPN to perform targeted logging of their users even if the authorities requested it. So, ProtonVPN does not and clearly state so:
ProtonVPN is a No-Logs VPN service.
When you use ProtonVPN, we do NOT do any of the following:
- Log users’ traffic or the content of any communications
- Discriminate against devices, protocols, or applications
- Throttle your Internet connection
As mentioned earlier, the only usage data ProtonVPN saves is a timestamp of when you last signed in to your VPN account.
That timestamp includes no personally identifiable data and no IP address information of any sort.
The timestamp is also replaced on every login attempt. It exists only to help ProtonVPN prevent and fight brute force attacks on your account.
Protocol and Encryption
A big part of ProtonVPN’s commitment to security is their choice of protocols and encryption standards.
Unlike many other VPN providers, ProtonVPN does not offer any technology that has known vulnerabilities. For that reason, you won’t be able to use the PPTP protocol, even as a fallback for compatibility’s sake.
What you will find instead is a VPN that relies on high-end encryption and as many security features as can be reasonably offered.
To begin with, every connection to ProtonVPN uses 256-bit AES encryption, with 4096-bit RSA key exchange and HMAC-SHA384 message authentication.
On Windows or Linux-powered devices, that encryption is carried over the OpenVPN protocol, which is the industry standard for speed and security.
All other platforms use the IKEv2/IPSec protocol, which is comparable to OpenVPN in nearly all respects.
While other providers focus on broad device support through multiple protocols, ProtonVPN prioritizes security, offering just the highly-secure options above.
As an added layer of protection, all encrypted traffic passing through ProtonVPN uses Perfect Forward Secrecy (PFS).
PFS is a system that forces a VPN to negotiate a new set of encryption keys with every new connection or when the old keys expire.
That works to minimize the risk associated with third-party key theft, as each key would only work to decode a minimal amount of data over a limited time frame.
As mentioned in the featured section above, ProtonVPN offers DNS leak protection on all of its client software.
The way it works is simple. ProtonVPN operates its own DNS servers, and the client software forces all DNS requests to use those servers for the duration of the session.
In my testing, all of ProtonVPN’s clients passed DNS leak testing with flying colors.
I feel it necessary to add a slight caveat when it comes to ProtonVPN’s mobile clients, however. That’s because while they do make an always-on feature available on Android and iOS and present it as an alternative to a kill switch, the two things are not the same.
Always-on functionality may, in some cases, result in a brief DNS leak.
If your cellular service degrades enough to terminate your VPN connection, a kill switch will bring all your traffic to a halt. The always-on feature merely starts attempts to reconnect to the VPN.
Before the reconnect happens (as admittedly small as that time is), you are vulnerable to data and DNS leakage.
In practice, it’s almost impossible for this to compromise your security – we’re talking milliseconds, after all. But in the interest of full disclosure, it’s something you should be aware of.
Apps and Clients
ProtonVPN offers custom-built clients for Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android. A command-line tool for Linux is also available.
Some would argue that puts them at a disadvantage compared to other providers that try to cover every type of internet-connected device you can think of.
I would argue that it allows ProtonVPN to focus on their small suite of apps to make them as user-friendly and stable as possible.
Besides, those four options are what the vast majority of us use anyways.
If you wish, you can also set up the VPN on several types of routers (namely Tomato, Asus WRT, and DD-WRT), but it’s a manual process.
On the whole, ProtonVPN’s client software is well-designed, intuitive, and simple to use, no matter what kind of device you have. It even includes a simple but informative tutorial when you fire it up for the first time.
The Windows client is a model of efficiency. It’s basically a fancy front-end for OpenVPN, with an easy-to-read server list that makes the features supported by each server (P2P, Tor, etc.) obvious.
That’s handy when you need to switch to a P2P-capable server, for example. Though, as mentioned before, I wish there was an easy way to filter the list by the various server features. Currently, you can only filter the servers by country.
As is fairly standard, the client has a single click “quick connect,” which connects you to the fastest available server at that moment.
In my testing, it was impossible to tell how well quick connect worked, except to say I never experienced an unusually slow connection when opting for it.
The hamburger menu in the upper left corner of ProtonVPN’s client’s main window takes you to a listing of user-configurable options.
That is where you’ll find the kill switch (or, in the case of mobiles, always-on functionality), DNS leak protection, and protocol settings. Split tunneling lives there too.
On the subject of split tunneling, it is the only major feature that the Windows and Android clients have but the other two lack.
Otherwise, the user experience is similar on all platforms.
A somewhat unique feature ProtonVPN’s client implements are connection profiles. They’re a way to let you save specific configurations for quick, single-click connectivity.
I found them quite useful.
Each profile lets you pick the VPN protocol to use (OpenVPN TCP or UDP only), as well as the country and server to connect to.
In the case of servers, you can pick a random one, a specific one, or let the client choose the fastest server currently available.
If there’s something you repeatedly use ProtonVPN for, create a profile. I quickly found myself saving a couple of P2P configurations, and one for US Netflix streaming.
In January 2020, all four ProtonVPN apps became open-source, meaning their entire code was made available to anyone who wishes to access it.
It’s a move that even further improves ProtonVPN’s already excellent security standards. It gives any developer or security professional a chance to dig into the code and analyze it for potential vulnerabilities.
ProtonVPN is currently the only top-tier VPN provider to run open-source clients and big kudos to them for doing so.
Around the same time, ProtonVPN released the results of an independent security audit of its apps. Only a handful of low- and medium-risk issues were found, and all were fixed or accepted by the time the audit reports were made public.
The decisions to go open-source and to undergo a 3rd-party security audit took ProtonVPN to a whole new level of transparency and trust. And in the world of VPNs, both are critical.
Competitors, take note.
ProtonVPN Server Locations
With 2964 servers in 99 locations and 71 countries, ProtonVPN does not have a large server network.
That said, every location I would expect is present and accounted for, and 95% of us likely won’t need anything else.
What’s unique to ProtonVPN is that you can connect to every country using their Secure Core solution. If online security and anonymity are of utmost importance to you, this is excellent news.
You can see the full list of ProtonVPN’s servers here. They’re broken down by region, country, and city, as well as functionality (P2P, Secure Core, Tor).
Is ProtonVPN Fast?
Not that long ago, performance issues plagued ProtonVPN. That no longer seems to be the case.
While not spectacular, every location I have tested showed very respectable and consistent numbers. Those speeds put ProtonVPN firmly in the top tier of all VPN providers.
Here is a sampling of three popular server locations taken from my more comprehensive ProtonVPN speed test.
All tests were run with a 500 Mbps down and 100 Mbps up connection out of Europe.
Using an internet capable of much faster speeds than any VPN server can handle lets us see the maximum performance they can deliver. A slower connection would simply cap the speeds to what the internet service provider (ISP) can do.
The best server was picked by ProtonVPN’s client using the “quick connect” option. It should, in theory, be the fastest server for me on the entire network.
With this level of performance, ProtonVPN can easily handle even the most bandwidth-demanding tasks, including downloads of large files or 4K video streaming.
Unfortunately, customer support is not one of ProtonVPN’s strongest points. As I write this review, there is no live chat or phone support available. Email is all we get.
The good news is that the staff responding to the emails seems entirely on the ball and provides complete and useful answers. That’s refreshing at a time when many other VPNs use canned replies to create the illusion of quick service.
I did have to wait about 15 hours for an answer to my question about using split tunneling with Netflix. Spoiler: it doesn’t work unless you do some serious DNS kung-fu.
But, the reply was friendly and knowledgeable, so I can’t fault their effort.
For basic issues, the ProtonVPN website offers an FAQ and a search function to find help with common problems. It covers all typical questions most of us would have.
The bottom line here is that ProtonVPN doesn’t go overboard to offer help – but what they do have is useful and won’t waste your time.
Price and Value
As eluded to earlier, ProtonVPN won’t win any awards for low prices – unless you’re using the free tier.
It’s worth noting, though, that starting a free account will let you have a free 7-day trial of the Plus package. It’s not a bad way to go if you want to give the service a proper test drive.
Different pricing levels come with different features. They are as follows:
Price Multi-year: Free
Price Monthly: Free
On the free tier, you can only use servers in three locations: the US, Japan, and the Netherlands.
You won’t be able to use P2P software or any of the more advanced features. You’ll also be restricted to a speed-limited single connection.
For the price, however, the service is a steal compared to other so-called free VPNs. It will keep you safe without selling your data to any third-parties – so I call this a solid value.
Price Multi-year: $3.29 per month
Price Monthly: $5.00 per month
The Basic tier isn’t much different from its free counterpart.
You do gain access to servers in all available countries, the ability to use P2P, and lose the speed limit. But, while that sounds like a major upgrade, it didn’t necessarily feel that way.
The only real advantage is that you can connect two devices at once at this level, but that’s hardly worth paying for, in my opinion.
Price Multi-year: $4.99 per month
Price Monthly: $10.00 per month
The Plus tier is where you really start to see some added features.
You get access to the whole server network, including P2P, Tor, and Secure Core servers. You can also use up to five devices at once.
The Plus plan is ProtonVPN’s most popular option.
The $8.00 price tag (or $10.00 if you don’t prepay annually) is a bit on the high side compared to the competition. But for some of us, it may be worth it, considering you’re buying into ProtonVPN’s excellent reputation for privacy and security.
Price Multi-year: $19.96 per month
Price Monthly: $30.00 per month
As the name implies, the Visionary price tier is aimed at those of us who want to help ProtonVPN in its mission to provide data privacy to the masses.
It comes with a subscription to the Visionary tier of ProtonMail but is otherwise almost identical to the Plus package. Other than ProtonMail, with the Visionary plan you also get 10 simultaneous connections rather than 5.
If you have the money and a desire to support the cause, this is the deal for you.
When you sign up for ProtonVPN, you’ll have to pay with PayPal or a major credit card – which is a major disappointment to the anonymity-obsessed.
For free accounts, you’ll also have to go through SMS or email verification – and ProtonVPN is strict about blocking throwaway mail services.
You can upgrade a free account to a paid one using Bitcoin. But, at that point, you’ve already verified your identity so I doubt many of us would take advantage.
The other thing to consider is that while ProtonVPN does offer a 30-day money-back guarantee, it’s prorated based on how long you use the service. That means you get less and less back the longer you keep your account.
I encountered plenty of complaints about this online, but since you can get a 7-day free trial at the Plus-level, it shouldn’t present much of a problem to most.
So Is ProtonVPN a Good VPN?
ProtonVPN is a bit on the expensive side. And customer support, while knowledgeable, could use some quicker response times and more ways of getting in touch.
But, this is a VPN provider that has a dedication to security and privacy like no other. Between their strict no-logging policy, privacy-friendly jurisdiction, and top-notch security features, they cover all bases and do so very well.
The server network is speedy, the app is easy to use, and every feature you expect from a top-tier VPN (and even a few useful ones you may not) is there.
Overall, ProtonVPN is a great VPN service and one I have zero reservations recommending.