ProtonVPN is a side project from the same developers that gave us ProtonMail. If their former product is anything to go by, you should expect only the best security features, guaranteeing your online anonymity.
Considering that their Visionary plan includes both products, it should raise a question: is ProtonVPN just as good as their landing page tells you? In this ProtonVPN review, I’ll look at their privacy chops, features, pricing, speeds, and customer support options. This should serve you as a helpful guide if you’re wondering whether you should get ProtonVPN.
|Support:||Guides, FAQs, support tickets, subreddit|
ProtonVPN pros & cons
- Great free version
- Customizable Quick Connect
- URL, app, and inverse split tunneling
- Tor over VPN for maximum safety
- Bundle with secure email service
- Mac version lacks most features
- Lack of guides on how to set it up on router
Is ProtonVPN safe & secure?
ProtonVPN is safe and secure as VPN services go. ProtonVPN is equipped with powerful encryption and tunneling protocols. As you would expect, Proton developers know a thing or two about security. No matter what goal you have for using ProtonVPN, you can rest assured that it will contribute to your safety.
Like many popular VPN service providers, ProtonVPN uses AES-256-CBC encryption for its connections to the server fleet. So, it’s using a key length of 256 bits, which is unbreakable by brute force even with the most powerful current hardware. For you as a VPN user, this means that no one will be intercepting to see what you’re doing online.
To establish a connection between your device and the VPN servers, the service uses several tunneling protocol options: OpenVPN (TCP or UDP variant) and IKEv2/IPsec.
You can opt for more safety (TCP) or more speed (UDP). IKEv2 is a good addition available on their mobile apps. Still, it hardly solves the lack of Wireguard – a currently rising tunneling protocol that is not only very secure but much faster.
In the past, ProtonVPN used to be a closed source provider, like many other VPN providers on the market. Not that long ago, they did a complete 180 turn and went open-source with all of their apps. You can go to their GitHub and read through all their documentation yourself.
They also publicly declared they would invest in third-party security audits. So, not only was it a smart PR move, but it also creates additional reassurance. There are no results yet, but we’ll keep you in the loop when that changes.
Their clients recently had an update that not that long ago could only be found in the beta version – NetShield. Sadly it’s only available to Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS, so no goodies for Linux users. However, this may change in a short while. It’s already in beta for Linux users.
Once toggled on, Netshield blocks all blacklisted domains of phishing and malware websites. Besides, it also blocks trackers used by intrusive tech companies that spy on your movements across the web.
This is done by using stronger checks in your domain name system (DNS) requests. So, instead of a DNS database supplied by your Internet Service Provider (ISP), or Google, you’re using a DNS resolver managed by ProtonVPN. So, while you’re using a VPN, your online travels will stay private.
Having that said, there are some exceptions to the rule. They do log timestamps of your connection that get overwritten on each session. They claim this is to maintain account security from brute force attacks.
When creating an account, you still have to provide confirmation that you are human. Among the possible options for confirmation are another email, SMS, or a small donation. That’s a very odd authentication method, and I’d like to see how many donations they get to keep this button active.
Having said all that, ProtonVPN is certainly a privacy-friendly VPN service.
Although you would never guess that from the name, Secure core servers have nothing to do with being more advanced than the rest of their fleet. In reality, it’s a double VPN feature that lets you connect through 2 VPN servers. The connection goes from your device to a VPN server. It then connects to another VPN server and finally reaches its destination.
However, what is new is that the first VPN server in the chain is always located in a privacy-friendly location. Naturally, the speeds are going to be very slow because you’re using two VPNs. Secondly, it raises the question of whether you should even bother with it anyway if all the servers are no-logs. Still, the additional security is welcome.
ProtonVPN’s kill switch reliably cuts off your internet connection if your link to the VPN server is disrupted. However, it may also be the culprit in some other issues.
During tests, I had trouble disabling my internet connection after disconnecting from a VPN server. The problem was present on Windows only, so that could be an isolated issue. Still, the only thing that fixed it was uninstalling the TAP drivers.
When you install the ProtonVPN app, you’ll immediately notice that there is a Quick Connect icon. By default, it’s set to connect to the fastest server automatically. However, you can tweak it to your liking.
You can specify the countries or server types that you want to connect to when you press the Quick Connect button. It saves time and is shared between the apps, provided that the chosen tunneling protocol is supported on the device. Keep this in mind because if you configure the client on Windows to use OpenVPN, it won’t work on Mac, which only supports IKEv2.
Similar to the Quick Connect customization, it’s also possible to use custom connection profiles. You can specify the color, the protocol, country, and server type. This way, you can avoid the hassle of manually selecting multiple settings each time you want to use torrents or watch a Netflix show.
ProtonVPN includes split tunneling, and it’s one of the most advanced implementations of the feature I’ve ever seen. You can choose to encrypt the whole connection, exclude certain apps, or select only particular apps to use the encrypted tunnel. The choice is yours.
However, what is even more impressive is that split tunneling works not only on the app level but also at the IP level.
And that’s not all: suppose you want to apply this to particular websites. In that case, you might run into some trouble because a website may use several IPs. However, ultimately you can disable the VPN for specific websites as well. That level of precision is hard to find.
Tor over VPN
If you’re looking for a combination of the Tor network and VPN, ProtonVPN has a particular server type just for you. Under the current implementation, your connection first runs through the Tor network and then reaches their VPN server. It also means that you can access the dark web without going through the trouble of using the Tor browser. Just don’t expect the speeds to be high.
This feature is what all Proton services use to combat anti-censorship. Alternative routing is built into all their clients. It automatically kicks in when the apps detect that your connection is subject to censorship. Then, the app will try alternative connections to reach Proton servers.
This feature is turned on by default. To disable it, you will have to go to Advanced settings and turn it off. However, under normal circumstances, the Alternate routing method isn’t triggered, so there’s little harm in leaving it on.
Streaming performance: does ProtonVPN work with Netflix?
If you’re looking for a VPN to use it for streaming, ProtonVPN doesn’t disappoint. They don’t have dedicated servers for streaming or Smart DNS, but connecting to a regular server usually does the trick.
I was able to unblock US Netflix and access geo-blocked Twin Peaks on the second try. So, if you try to connect, and Netflix returns, “You seem to be using an unblocker or proxy” – just try to connect to a different server.
Unblocking BBC iPlayer, and YouTube video also worked without a hitch. Just make sure to pick a server with a lesser load to avoid slow buffering.
On their website, you can find hints and tips to use the service when unblocking services like Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, ESPN+, HBO Max, and more. We couldn’t realistically test them all, but ProtonVPN is a reliable option when it comes to streaming.
Plans & pricing
ProtonVPN comes in four editions: Free, Basic, Plus, and Visionary. I appreciate a free version any time of the week. Still, considering that there is a night and day difference between the Free and Basic edition, it makes it harder to get an informed decision if you want to try the service.
The obvious solution is a 30-day money-back guarantee, which you can only request if you switch back to the free version from the account dashboard. However, this whole pricing setup seems poorly thought out. Considering that other services offer a package of cybersecurity products, ProtonVPN should look at their competitors and streamline the experience.
|ProtonVPN Free||1 VPN connection, servers in 3 countries, medium speed||$0.00|
|ProtonVPN Basic||2 VPN connections, servers in 54 countries, high speed, P2P support||$5/month|
|ProtonVPN Plus||5 VPN connections, servers in 54 countries, fastest speeds (up to 10Gbps), P2P support, Secure Core VPN, TOR over VPN, better media streaming websites support||$10/month|
|ProtonVPN Visionary||10 VPN connections, and all the features from Plus package with ProtonMail Visionary account||$30/month|
ProtonVPN Free version doesn’t have any data caps and is free forever. Of course, the downside is that it restricts you to 1 connection with the same account. This is easily bypassable by using a separate account on each device, which you could also do.
You can choose from servers in 3 countries, and your speeds will be pretty bad. Yet as a free service, that’s quite a solid package that will protect your privacy. Sure, if you won’t be able to unblock Netflix, customer support agent’s won’t help you out. Regardless, we’ve managed to unblock it even on the free package.
As the name implies, ProtonVPN Basic expands on the Free version. With it, you can say goodbye to the location cap, because you can choose between 54 countries. There are also bonuses like two simultaneous connections.
There’s no speed throttling, which is important because it adds P2P support. If you want to download torrent files via an encrypted connection, this is the cheapest edition you should consider.
This edition costs $5 for a single-month subscription, $48 for a yearly subscription, and $79 for a two-year plan. If you’re on a budget, expect that you will be instantly charged the whole amount.
ProtonVPN Plus seems to be the one that they’re expecting most users to choose. You get five simultaneous connections, which should take care of all your needs.
In terms of locations, they are the same as with the Basic version – 54 countries. As a bonus, ProtonVPN allows you to use the highest speed servers that can transfer data at 10Gbps speeds. Note that your speed will still be limited by your internet connection.
The biggest selling points of the Plus version are Secure Core VPN and TOR over VPN features. The latter incorporates the Tor network into your VPN connection. The former is a modified double VPN feature with an emphasis on privacy-friendly locations.
This option is also on the pricier side. It costs $10 for monthly, $96 for yearly, and $159 for a bi-annual subscription. However, as with all the other options, you will be charged the full sum on purchase.
The Visionary plan is really a ProtonVPN Plus option with the number of simultaneous connections increased to 10 instead of 5. Otherwise, from a VPN features standpoint, the services are identical.
The main selling point is that you also get a ProtonMail Visionary subscription, which means that you get an encrypted mailbox with 20 GB storage, priority customer support, custom domains, and other bells and whistles.
This bundle of products costs $30 monthly, $288 yearly, and $479 for a bi-annual subscription. Not only is the option on the pricier side, it ties your most important services to a single provider. Since ProtonVPN reserves the right to change the terms of service at any time, and continuous usage of the app is enough to pass as acceptance of new terms, I would think twice before opting in.
Is the free version of ProtonVPN worth it?
Don’t get the idea that you can find a trustworthy VPN version just about anywhere. VPNs that offer a free version usually do it in the form of a money-back guarantee. The services that use the free forever model are hard to come by.
In this sense, ProtonVPN is one of the best options you could get. Especially when it’s free from such restrictions as data caps, which most other freemium VPN services use to lower the load on their server infrastructure. This can be a useful tool for protecting your privacy without spending a dime.
Speed and performance: How fast is ProtonVPN?
Baseline: 1ms/300mbps download/300mbps upload
|Country||Ping (ms)||Download (Mbps)||Upload (Mbps)|
|United Kingdom||50 ms||220 Mbps||48 Mbps|
|United States (NY)||107 ms||190 Mbps||18 Mbps|
|United States (TX)||141 ms||183 Mbps||12 Mbps|
|United States (GA)||127 ms||221 Mbps||16 Mbps|
|Japan||269 ms||160 Mbps||4 Mbps|
|India||165 ms||19 Mbps||4 Mbps|
|Russia||43 ms||21 Mbps||21 Mbps|
|Iceland > Germany (Secure core)||136 ms||19 Mbps||15 Mbps|
|Argentina||243 ms||18 Mbps||18 Mbps|
|Country||Ping (ms)||Download (Mbps)||Upload (Mbps)|
|United Kingdom||52 ms||72 Mbps||32 Mbps|
|United States (NY)||194 ms||40 Mbps||16 Mbps|
|United States (TX)||147 ms||29 Mbps||12 Mbps|
|United States (GA)||173 ms||30 Mbps||13 Mbps|
|Japan||278 ms||14 Mbps||3 Mbps|
|India||335 ms||21 Mbps||5 Mbps|
|Russia||43 ms||132 Mbps||28 Mbps|
|Iceland > Germany(Secure Core)||142 ms||34 Mbps||14 Mbps|
|Argentina||260 ms||16 Mbps||16 Mbps|
According to our table, speeds aren’t one of ProtonVPNs stronger sides. Using OpenVPN(UDP), the download speed reductions go from 26% up to 94%. In some cases, Secure core servers perform better than single layer VPN servers located in more remote locations.
If you’re using the more secure OpenVPN (TCP) variant, the speed reductions will be even more significant. For download speeds, they will vary from a 76% reduction up to even 99% if you’re connecting to most remote locations.
So, your experience will depend on the connection protocol, the distance to the server, and additional features. Naturally, the speeds will tank using Tor over VPN option, so you’ll have to balance the safety measures and speed if you want to have an enjoyable online experience.
As of writing this article, ProtonVPN has 1080 servers in 54 countries. For most up to date info, you can find it on their server page. What’s noteworthy is that some servers may be available to you only if you have a specific plan.
Free users can only connect to servers in Japan, The Netherlands, and the United States. So, you get some coverage, although all options are equally bad for users in South Africa. It’s also the only plan that doesn’t have P2P servers.
Servers with unique features like Secure Core VPN and TOR over VPN will only be available to Plus and Visionary subscribers.
Interface and ease of use
ProtonVPN desktop apps offer an intuitive and not over-cluttered design. The interface displays Quick Connect, Profiles, Secure Core toggle, and the world map with a sidebar with various countries. You can connect by either clicking on the map or choosing the option from a sidebar.
When you do that, you’re quickly informed about the progress of your connection. While you’re connected, you’re given plenty of metrics like connection time, how much bandwidth you are using, how long you have been connected to, and a graph of how much bandwidth you were using for the past 60 seconds. Most importantly, it indicates the server load, so you can estimate whether you should remain connected or find a server with a lesser load.
The UI is similar for all apps (well, except Linux), so the main downside is that the only way to check a server’s load is to connect to it. Which isn’t the most convenient implementation. Also, it isn’t possible to filter out P2P or Tor servers.
The Windows app has only OpenVPN (TCP and UDP versions) – there are no other tunneling protocols. When you install ProtonVPN, it will additionally add a TAP-ProtonVPN Windows Adapter to your Programs and Features. This is completely normal, and it includes the OpenVPN package to make your connection possible.
Out of all the available clients, the Windows app has the most settings. It includes Alternate routing, Split tunneling, and Custom DNS servers. So, if you’re a Windows user, you’re getting the best possible version for your money.
Sadly, the ProtonVPN Mac client looks like a stripped-down beta of the Windows version. All the essential design elements are there, but you could sense that a lot is missing in terms of features. For example, you can only use the IKEv2 tunneling protocol.
This isn’t the only thing that’s lost. IPv6 Leak Protection, Alternate Routing, Split tunneling, and Custom DNS Servers are Windows-only. The only thing that the Mac client has which seems to be missing from Windows is Notify unprotected networks. This feature will give you a notification whenever you connect to an unprotected network. Although, it hardly passes as adequate compensation for missing important security features.
If you’re a Linux user, at this point, you should be familiar with tinkering when you want to perform simple tasks. However, ProtonVPN might prove to be a hard nut to crack even for you because they have three different guides with similar names on how to install it.
It isn’t that easy to sort out which one is the real one because the most recent ones provide outdated steps. Legacy commands used in current guides shouldn’t be encouraged.
Their previous app version supports all major distributions (Debian-based, Red-hat-based, and Arch-based), while the new version is only supported on Debian-based distributions. It may be that support for other major distributions will be implemented, but since the last update was half a year ago, don’t expect this to be sudden.
The app itself runs as root, which can be switched between a BIOS-like version with some UI elements, and a terminal. So, whichever option you prefer, you will be able to use it just the way you like.
ProtonVPN mobile apps
In terms of mobile apps, there is little variety, and that’s good news. More often than not, the iOS version is an Android app with half of the features missing. Not the case here.
Apple users even have the option to add the ProtonVPN Widget to your screen, which is a new addition in iOS 14. Its previous implementation allowed it to connect to VPN with one click. It was then changed, so now the Widget opens the app, connects, and then closes it. Their customer support agent informed us that this requirement was added due to Apple’s system design.
Otherwise, the iOS app is almost identical to Android (minus the split tunneling and alternate routing). On both apps, you can use the OpenVPN and IKEv2 protocol. If anything, this makes it even stranger that the macOS app doesn’t have OpenVPN, while the mobile version does.
What’s also surprising is that there are quite a few UI improvements. For example, go into the country list, and click on a particular country. You can see the server load directly from the list. There’s no need to connect to check it, like in the desktop version.
In terms of features, on both apps, you’ll find Secure Core servers and Profiles. So, you get about as much usability as you get on a desktop, too. Overall, ProtonVPN mobile apps can even rival their desktop clients, which is unusual.
If you run into any issues, the first line of help will be the ProtonVPN knowledge center. There, you’ll find several categories, like Speed and bandwidth, or Download and setup. Each category will address a particular kind of issues that you might have.
If you still can’t find your answer, you can create a support ticket. It will be sent through email, so you’ll get a reply directly to your mailbox. If you’re a paid user, expect to hear a response in a couple of hours, free users will usually have to wait a little longer.
European users will have the best experience because it seems that their customer support agents are located there. If you’re from other continents, your customer support waiting times will most likely be higher, so keep this in mind.
The service maintains its subreddit at r/ProtonVPN, so if you don’t mind sharing your issue with other users, you can find a solution there too.
Is ProtonVPN good, and should I get it?
ProtonVPN, as a product, has big shoes to fill, considering that its another product from the ProtonMail developers. However, whether their VPN service meets the expectations that you might have is entirely another matter.
The service itself is very uneven: in some regards, having much better offerings than the competition, and in others – shooting themselves in a leg. It’s a mystery why macOS doesn’t have OpenVPN while the iOS app does. They are a no-logs and open-source service that still reserves the right to change their terms and conditions at any time.
Having that said, they do have an outstanding free version that even manages to unblock Netflix. If you’re using Windows, you’re getting the best possible version of it, which has one of the most advanced spit tunneling options on the market. Tor over VPN and Secure Core is also a nice addition for safety extremists.
Overall, ProtonVPN is a quality VPN service that should be a trustworthy companion in pursuit of privacy. Especially for those looking for a free VPN.
More on VPN providers from CyberNews:
NordVPN review: what makes it one of the best VPNs
PIA VPN review: how safe is this provider?
Hide.me VPN review: overall good VPN service
Is ProtonVPN trustworthy?
Yes. As another child of the same developer who made ProtonMail, ProtonVPN should be considered trustworthy. They are a no-logs service, so your privacy is in good hands. The business itself operates out of privacy-friendly Switzerland.
Is ProtonVPN really free?
Yes. Just like their mail service, ProtonVPN is entirely free to use as long as you like. It means that you get a bit restricted version than you’d get if you were paying for your subscription. However, even the app looks the same.
Is ProtonVPN better than NordVPN?
ProtonVPN might be a better option if you’re looking for a free version. NordVPN is a paid-only provider, so the only way to use them is to pay for a monthly subscription. That said, as a paid service, they offer fewer features than NordVPN.