ProtonVPN isn’t the biggest, the flashiest, or even the cheapest VPN, yet it’s one of the best services available. It places an enormous emphasis on security and user privacy and has an excellent client that’s very easy to use. It also offers a suite of advanced privacy tools usually reserved for far more expensive products. For all that, and for its amazing free version that has no limit on data usage, it’s an Editors’ Choice winner and one of the best VPNs. If you’re dipping your toe into VPNs, it’s a great way to start with no risk.
What Is a VPN?
When you activate your VPN, it creates an encrypted tunnel between your device and a server operated by the VPN company. Sending your traffic through the tunnel keeps it hidden from anyone on the same network as you, and from your ISP that is all too willing to sell your anonymized data. A VPN also hides your true IP address, making it harder for advertisers to track you across the web. If you select a distant server, you can even spoof your location to make yourself appear to be connecting from a distant country.
VPNs are valuable tools for improving your privacy online, but they can’t do everything. We also recommend everyone use a password manager, activate two-factor authentication wherever it’s available, and install an antivirus app.
How Much Does ProtonVPN Cost?
Most VPN services offer the same set of features across all pricing tiers. For those services, the tiers are less about upgrades and more about longer-term subscriptions at a reduced rate. ProtonVPN goes in the opposite direction. There is a 20 percent discount for annual versus monthly subscriptions, but more generous features are also unlocked or added as you move up the four price tiers.
On its pricing page, ProtonVPN includes speed classifications for its subscription tiers. These are just estimations based on the expected number of users. ProtonVPN does not throttle your speeds, regardless of the subscription you use. The Free subscription has “Medium” speeds because ProtonVPN expects it will have many users crowded into a few servers, while the paid subscriptions have “High” speeds because they have access to more servers and fewer users per server. We put this to the test below.
The first subscription tier of ProtonVPN is its free offering, which includes just three VPN server locations, and only allows one device to be connected at a time. You’ll also have to create an account with ProtonVPN in order to access even its free tier. Despite those limitations, ProtonVPN is unique in that it does not limit the amount of data a free subscriber can use, as mentioned earlier. TunnelBear VPN’s free offering limits you to 500MB of secured traffic per month, Hotspot Shield tops out at 500MB per day, and KeepSolid places no data restrictions on its limited free version. Other free VPNs pile on other restrictions. Because of all that, we recommend ProtonVPN over all the other free VPNs we’ve tested.
The second tier is ProtonVPN Basic, which costs $5 per month ($48 annually). This tier grants access to all the VPN locations ProtonVPN has to offer, but it limits you to just two devices and a subset of servers. P2P file sharing is allowed at this tier. Editors’ Choice winner Mullvad offers unfettered access to its service for a smidge more, at €5 ($5.87 at writing) per month.
For this review, I signed up for a $10 per month Plus account, which is the third of four pricing tiers. This is slightly below the average monthly price of a VPN, and still less than competitors with similar features, such as Editors’ Choice winner NordVPN. This tier lets you access all the VPN servers in ProtonVPN’s network and use up to five devices—the average for the industry. It also grants access to Plus servers. These are servers restricted to the highest two tiers of ProtonVPN and are intended to be less crowded and therefore higher performing. Plus subscribers also get access to the Tor anonymization network, a rare feature. You don’t need to pay or use a VPN to access Tor, but it’s nice to have. There are also specially designated servers for streaming media at the Plus level.
While ProtonVPN has an average monthly price, the same isn’t true of its annual fee. The average annual cost of a VPN is $73.40, thanks to the hefty discounts most companies offer for longer term subscriptions. A ProtonVPN Plus account runs $96 per year. Kaspersky Secure Connection, for example, is just $29.99 per year. That said, we caution against starting with a long-term VPN subscription. Instead, get a short-term of free plan and see how the VPN works in your home and with the sites and services you need before making a high-cost commitment.
Note that ProtonVPN now offers a two-year subscription option. This costs $79 every two years for the Basic plan, $159 for the Plus plan, and $479 every two years for the Visionary plan.
The Plus tier also includes access to multihop Secure Core servers, which are a bit unusual and merit further explanation. These are servers owned by ProtonVPN and kept in secure facilities (in one example, an old military base). This way you can be assured that no one has tampered with the servers, to expose your information. When you connect via Core Servers, your VPN connection makes two hops. First, from your device to the Core Servers, and then onward to the VPN server you select.
While a VPN protects your data with its encrypted tunnel, that doesn’t mean anything if an attacker has taken control of the VPN server. What the Core Server scheme does is guarantee that your information is secure from your computer to the Core Server, which is under lock and key. If the next VPN server you connect to after the Core Server has been compromised, whoever has taken control won’t be able to glean anything about you because your traffic will appear to be coming from the Core Server and not your actual computer. This is similar to Tor, but Tor is much more complex with many more hops in between you and your destination.
Unsurprisingly, multihop connections come at a pretty hefty trade-off in terms of speed and performance, but it is a unique feature that should put even the most paranoid mind to rest. Other companies may offer similar multihop VPN connections, and CyberGhost also boasts about the integrity of its NoSpy data center. ProtonVPN brings it all together.
If all that is still insufficient, you can upgrade to a $30 per month ($288 annually) Visionary plan, the top of the four pricing tiers. This includes all of the features listed in the previous tier but raises the number of devices that can be simultaneously connected to 10. What you’re really getting with a Visionary plan is access to the highest paid tier of ProtonMail, the encrypted email service also operated by ProtonVPN. That means 20GB of ProtonMail storage, 50 email aliases, support for 10 email domains, and up to five users on a single email account.
ProtonVPN subscriptions can be purchased via major credit card or PayPal. You can make Bitcoin payments, but only when you upgrade from one plan to the other. Note that you can create a free account and then upgrade using Bitcoin. Editors’ Choice winners Mullvad and IVPN, for example, offers several different payment options, including cash sent directly to their respective HQs. That said, ProtonVPN has announced its own cryptocurrency, suggesting that anonymous payments could someday be more tightly integrated with the service.
VPN technology has been around a long time, and there are many different flavors of encrypted tunnels to choose from. We prefer VPN services that make use of the OpenVPN protocol, which is thoroughly vetted by virtue of being open source and has a reputation for being fast and reliable.
ProtonVPN tells me that it uses OpenVPN UDP/TCP and IKEv2, another good protocol, in all of its Android, iOS, and Windows apps. The macOS app is limited to just IKEv2, but ProtonVPN says it plans to roll out OpenVPN support soon.
All that might matter less with the arrival of the super-fast heir apparent to OpenVPN: WireGuard. Only few VPN companies like NordVPN and Mullvad have already widely deployed WireGuard, so ProtonVPN isn’t behind the curve, yet. A ProtonVPN representative told me the company does plan to implement WireGuard technology.
ProtonVPN Servers and Server Locations
In terms of distribution, ProtonVPN covers a respectable 54 countries, a smidge above the 52 countries provided by VPNs on average. CyberGhost covers 90 countries, and ExpressVPN an impressive 94. Having more server locations is good because it means you’re more likely to find a VPN server near to you, giving you better performance. It also means more options for spoofing your location.
ProtonVPN deserves credit for improving its geographic distribution. The company now offers server locations in Africa, an entire continent often ignored by VPN companies, as well as India. ProtonVPN now has several locations in South America, another oft-ignored locale. ProtonVPN has been slowly but significantly expanding its global presence, and actively seeks feedback from users on what countries to add.
ProtonVPN provides servers in regions with repressive internet policies, including China (Hong Kong), Russia, and Turkey. Having servers in these regions does not necessarily allow users to circumvent censorship, but it may provide a modicum of security and privacy to the populace. Note that recent legislation has prompted some VPN companies to remove their Hong Kong servers.
ProtonVPN has nicely sized networks of servers, and one that has grown steadily over the years. It now stands at 1,048, which is a far cry from the 5,000-plus servers available from CyberGhost and NordVPN. While numerous servers are certainly nice, they don’t necessarily mean better service.
Virtual servers are software-defined servers, meaning that a single, physical server can play host to many virtual ones. Virtual locations are VPN servers configured to appear somewhere other than their physical location. Neither are inherently problematic, but we prefer VPN companies to be transparent about its infrastructure and where it is located. A representative for ProtonVPN told me that the company only rents “bare metal” servers that are dedicated to ProtonVPN, meaning they are not shared with other renters and are exactly where they say they are.
Your Privacy With ProtonVPN
In conversations with me and in the company’s documentation, ProtonVPN says it does not log user activity. In order to prevent brute-force password attacks, it only stores a timestamp of the last successful login, which is overwritten after the next login. That’s excellent.
A representative from ProtonVPN tells me that ProtonVPN only makes money through subscription sales, not by selling user information. ProtonVPN is owned by the parent company Proton Technologies AG and is based in Switzerland and operates under Swiss law. As such, it only responds to requests for information from an approved Swiss court order, which also requires that the individual who is the target of the investigation be notified. That’s in stark contrast to the practice of the US sending National Security letters to companies, requiring information and preventing them disclosing the request. Even if ProtonVPN were required to respond to a request, it would only supply login timestamps. The company’s transparency report indicates it has not responded to any requests for information. This is all excellent from a privacy and security standpoint.
ProtonVPN has open-sourced its apps, meaning any researcher can verify there are no potential vulnerabilities. Its apps are also available on F-Droid, a Google-free third-party app store. ProtonVPN has not, however, undergone a third-party audit of its service, but does note that it passed muster with Mozilla. That’s all good, but it hasn’t undergone a no-logs nor an infrastructure security audit. TunnelBear, for examples, has committed to annual audits of its service. Audits are imperfect, but still useful for establishing trust.
In terms of physical security, ProtonVPN says it limits access to its hardware and encrypts its servers, so the loss of one would not affect the rest of the fleet. Other VPNs have gone further, having their servers run only in RAM. The company also says that it will inform the public about any data breaches, “as soon as it can be guaranteed that disclosing the information will not put users at risk.”
Security is really an issue of trust. Even if a company does everything right, it doesn’t matter much if you, the customer, don’t trust them. We recommend that consumers consider this information and choose a service based on the trust it inspires.
Hands On With ProtonVPN
ProtonVPN offers clients for Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows. The company provides detailed instructions on how to configure a Linux machine to use the service. I had no trouble getting ProtonVPN’s Windows app installed on an Intel NUC Kit NUC8i7BEH (Bean Canyon) desktop running the latest version of Windows 10.
Because ProtonVPN puts such a heavy emphasis on user privacy and technological excellence, you might expect ProtonVPN would lack basic features and be a generally unusable mess. It’s a pleasant surprise that ProtonVPN actually has a slick and well-designed app that’s easy to use and doesn’t skimp on features. Moreover, it’s continued to be a pleasure to use over the years.
When you start up ProtonVPN, it appears as a skinny window similar to a mobile app. There’s a very obvious button that quickly gets you online, which we appreciate. The app also shows your connection status, a selection of servers so you can quickly change VPN location, and a toggle switch for the Secure Core servers. Clicking the small grey arrow in the upper right expands the window to reveal ProtonVPN’s servers spread out on a map along with a real-time assessment of network traffic.
You can search or browse the available servers, and we particularly like that you can drill down to the specific servers within a location. The app also displays how much load a particular server is experiencing, whether they are Plus servers (that is, servers reserved for Plus users), and which are specialized servers for Tor, streaming, file sharing, and so forth.
In addition to the specialized servers, ProtonVPN includes Profiles for specific activities. Two Profiles are included by default, one for connecting to the fastest server and another for connecting to a random server. You can also create your own Profiles to meet your unique needs by specifying a country and a specific server within that country with which you wish to connect. You can name your profile, mark it with a color, and require that it use the Secure Core servers, too. I recently realized that unlike most VPNs, ProtonVPN doesn’t let you mark a server as a favorite—that’s what Profiles are for. This is a pretty advanced feature, but you can easily ignore it if you’re not interested.
ProtonVPN does include a Kill Switch that halts web traffic on your machine should the VPN link become disconnected. That prevents your traffic from being exposed, even if only briefly. The app also includes an easy tool for split-tunneling—that is, routing the traffic from specific apps or IP addresses either into or outside of the VPN tunnel.
Ideally, a VPN will not leak information about your ISP, your true IP address, or your DNS requests. In testing with the DNS Leak Test tool, the server I used protected my information. Note that I only tested one server. Other servers may not be configured correctly.
ProtonVPN and Netflix
It’s really difficult to watch Netflix with a VPN because Netflix wants to enforce its distribution deals.
In our testing, Netflix was not blocked; rather, it failed to load while connected to a US server. After manually selecting a Plus server, as ProtonVPN advises you do when watching Netflix, I was out and out blocked. After sifting through about 10 other Plus servers, I eventually found one that Netflix didn’t block. This is frustrating, but note that I was only able to do this because ProtonVPN lets you select specific servers. That said, the conflict between VPNs and streaming sites is ongoing, and what works today may be blocked tomorrow.
Many VPN companies try to sweeten the pot by adding additional features beyond VPN protection. Hotspot Shield, for example, offers free access to three other security products for free with your Hotspot subscription. Other VPNs claim to block malware at the network level, although we don’t recommend using these instead of stand-alone antivirus software. Ad blocking is another popular feature, appearing in NordVPN, Private Internet Access, Cyberghost, TorGuard, and PureVPN.
ProtonVPN does not offer static IP addresses for purchase, which is a bit of a disappointment. A static IP address is a “clean” address that is unlikely to be blocked. A company representative has told me that ProtonVPN may offer static IP addresses in the future. ProtonVPN also does not include ad, tracker, or malware blocking—although I am told it plans to add some of these features soon. While we like to see these features, they can only complement and not replace standalone solutions, so their loss is no great issue.
As mentioned, the highest ProtonVPN tier does provide access to the highest paid tier of the encrypted email service ProtonMail (which is also available for free). You use the same login for both services. The company has aspirations to eventually offer a suite of services to compete with Google, but with a greater emphasis on user privacy. A ProtonDrive product is, for example, already in Beta testing.
Recently, ProtonVPN partnered with Invizbox to provide routers preconfigured to work with the VPN service. This extends VPN protection to every device on your network, and those devices will not count toward your simultaneous connection limit. However, this may mess up some sites and services —especially for streaming boxes and smart devices—and may be more trouble than it’s worth.
Speed and Performance
When you use a VPN to secure your web traffic, your data won’t be taking the optimal route to and from the internet. Jumping through the extra hoops of a VPN server and the extra data cables involved tends to increase latency while reducing upload and download speeds. To get an impression of that impact, We perform a series of tests using the Ookla speed test tool. Note that Ookla is owned by PCMag’s publisher, Ziff Media. You can read How We Test VPNs for a complete breakdown of our methodologies, as well as the limitations of our testing.
In testing, we found that ProtonVPN increased latency by 58.8 percent, reduced upload speed test results by 65.5 percent, and reduced download speed test results by 49.8 percent. These are excellent results, and a staggering improvement over last year’s figures. The only reason it’s not included in our fastest VPN chart is because its upload results were just outside the median for that category, which was our cutoff for inclusion.
You can see how ProtonVPN compares in the chart below with the top performers among the nearly 40 services we tested.
In our testing, Hotspot Shield VPN had the best download and latency scores, making it a shoe-in for the title of fastest VPN. However, it’s extremely notable that Surfshark has a significantly lower impact on upload speeds than any VPN I’ve yet tested. Keep in mind that while our testing is useful for comparison, it may differ greatly for you. Also, we believe that security, privacy, and overall value are far more important differentiators than speed, which should not be the primary consideration when choosing a VPN.
Does ProtonVPN Get Faster if You Pay More?
ProtonVPN is unusual in that it makes more servers available at higher pricing tiers. It also has a limited free option, and Core Servers, all of which have an impact on speed. I re-ran the tests to compare the various means of connecting via ProtonVPN. The results are shown in the charts below. For the Free, Premium, and Secure Core tiers I let the app choose the server. I manually selected a Basic server.
The chart above demonstrates a pattern that repeated throughout our testing. The Basic and Premium tiers were closely tied, as were the Free tier and Secure Core servers. Our testing showed that that the Free tier had a 98.2 percent reduction in download speed test scores, the Basic tier a 61.5 percent reduction, and the Premium tier a 54.9 percent reduction in speed test scores. Using Secure Core reduced download speed test results by 96 percent, slightly better than the Free tier.
The upload speed test results saw a similar breakdown. The Free tier reduced upload speed test scores by 83.5 percent, the Basic tier by 60.8 percent, and the Premium tier reduced upload speed test scores by 72.7 percent. Enabling Secure Core reduced upload speed test results by 80.8 percent.
The pattern seen throughout testing was most pronounced in latency testing, to the point where the chart above is of questionable utility. Our testing showed that the Free tier increased latency results by 8,546.1 percent, likely a result of fewer servers being available. Free and Basic were closely tied, increasing latency results by 61.9 and 60.9 percent, respectively. Unsurprisingly, Secure Core servers had the most dramatic results, increasing latency results by 9,839.1 percent.
There are a few conclusions to be drawn from this. First and foremost, it demonstrates that the eccentricities of the VPN server you use have an enormous impact on performance. Second, the Core Servers will increase your latency like nobody’s business, the impact on performance is not necessarily catastrophic. In fact, it’s about the same as using the Free service.
Lastly, I found that the difference between the Basic and Premium servers is very small. This was echoed in the same tests we ran last year. Conventional wisdom dictates that a limited number of servers and a large user base would result in worse performance. While these results do prove that out, it’s not nearly as dramatic as you might expect.
A Smart and Flexible VPN
At first blush, ProtonVPN’s restrictively tiered pricing plans are a bit off-putting, but those tiers provide flexibility most competitors can’t match. The company also offers a rare, truly free experience that doesn’t limit your bandwidth or push ads. ProtonVPN has staked its reputation as a privacy-focused company, which is a refreshing change after seeing so many other VPNs emphasize speed and video streaming. It also has a remarkably good-looking client, which is not something every VPN can claim. All that, coupled with the company’s focus on technological excellence, is a powerful combination.
Since we first reviewed ProtonVPN, the service has more than doubled in size and reach and improved its speed test results as well. The company has shown that it can scale up its product without sacrificing security. It’s got a bright future, but it’s also a great choice right now. It’s an Editors’ Choice winner along with IVPN, Mullvad, NordVPN, and TunnelBear. ProtonVPN does take a slightly higher score than its co-winners, thanks to its excellent free version and peerless collection of privacy features.
The Bottom Line
ProtonVPN might seem small, but it has a lot more to offer than many of the bigger players. The free version is the best we’ve tested, and its paid subscriptions are affordable as well.
|Allows 5+ Simultaneous Connections||Yes|
|Geographically Diverse Servers||Yes|
|Server Locations||54 Countries|