ProtonVPN

Badge Art Once mysterious but now mainstream, VPNs are services that protect your web traffic from being snooped on by your ISP (and others) and make it harder for advertisers to track you online. ProtonVPN can’t claim to be the biggest, the flashiest, or even the cheapest VPN, yet it’s still the highest-rated VPN we’ve reviewed. It places an enormous emphasis on user privacy and has an excellent client that’s easy to use. It also offers a suite of advanced privacy tools usually reserved for more expensive products. For all that, and for its excellent 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.

How Much Does ProtonVPN Cost?

We don’t like tiered pricing schemes in VPNs, because they’re usually a ploy to hide the real cost of a product and upsell customers. Most VPNs have thankfully avoided this model, instead pushing the longer subscriptions with increasing discounts. ProtonVPN does lock advanced features behind subscription tiers, but its approach seems to be less about upsells than about accessibility. You can get a perfectly good VPN experience with ProtonVPN without springing for the priciest plan.

The first subscription tier of ProtonVPN is its free VPN offering, which includes just three VPN server locations (Japan, Netherlands, and the US) and only allows one device to be connected at a time. You also have to create an account with ProtonVPN to access even its free tier. Neither Mullvad nor IVPN require any information for even their paid subscriptions.

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 VPN Lite places no data restrictions on its free version but does limit users to a single server. Other free VPNs pile on other restrictions. Because of all that, we recommend ProtonVPN over all the other free VPNs we’ve tested.

The app while disconnected

The second tier is ProtonVPN Basic, which costs $5 per month ($48 annually, $79 every two years). 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 and BitTorrent file sharing are allowed at this tier, as well as the NetShield ad and tracker blocker. Editors’ Choice winner Mullvad offers unfettered access to its service for a smidge more, at €5 ($6.03 at writing) per month.

For this review, I signed up for a $10-per-month Plus account ($96 per year, $159 every two years), which is the third of four pricing tiers. This is almost precisely the average monthly price of a VPN ($10.05 per month) we’ve tested, 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 simultaneously. It also grants access to Plus servers. These are servers restricted to the highest two tiers of ProtonVPN. Plus subscribers also get access to the Tor anonymization network via VPN, 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.

If all that is still insufficient, you can upgrade to a $30-per-month ($288 annually, $479 every two years) 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 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. ProtonMail also includes a secure address book, private ProtonCalendar, and the forthcoming ProtonDrive file locker.

While ProtonVPN has an average monthly price, the same isn’t true of its annual fee. The average annual cost of a VPN we’ve tested is $71.58, thanks to the hefty discounts most companies offer for longer-term subscriptions. A ProtonVPN Plus account runs $96 per year, or $159 every two years. Kaspersky Secure Connection, on the other hand, is just $29.99 per year. Despite the savings, we caution against starting with a long-term VPN subscription. Instead, get a short-term or 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.

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, though. ProtonVPN says it will also accept cash sent directly to its HQ, an option I’ve only seen with Editors’ Choice winners Mullvad and IVPN. That said, ProtonVPN has announced its own cryptocurrency, suggesting that anonymous payments could someday be more tightly integrated with the service.

If you find you need more simultaneous connections, ProtonVPN will let you purchase them à la carte. From the subscription portal, you add a ProtonMail Professional account. After that, you can add as many VPN connections as you wish for $2 per month, with a reduced price for longer subscriptions. However, some VPN companies have done away with these limitations entirely. Among the services we’ve tested, these include: Avira Phantom VPN, Encrypt.me VPN, Ghostery Midnight, IPVanish VPN, Surfshark VPN, and Windscribe VPN. (Note that Encrypt.me and IPVanish are owned by J2 Global, which also owns PCMag’s publisher Ziff Davis.)

VPNs are valuable tools for improving your privacy online, but they can’t protect against all threats. We also recommend everyone use a password manager, activate two-factor authentication wherever it’s available, and install an antivirus app.

What Are Core Servers?

The ProtonVPN Plus tier also includes access to multihop Secure Core servers, which are a bit unusual and merit further explanation. ProtonVPN says that these servers are only in countries with strong privacy laws and that it owns them directly. Physically, they reside in secure facilities (in one example, on an old military base). 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.

Toggle for Secure Core servers

While a VPN protects your data with its encrypted tunnel, that doesn’t matter if an attacker has taken control of the VPN server. The Core Server scheme guarantees 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 rarely seen feature that should put even the most paranoid mind to rest. Other companies may offer similar multihop VPN connections. Notably, CyberGhost also boasts about the integrity of its NoSpy data center, and while most services limit multihopping to set paths IVPN lets you hop between any two of its servers. 

What VPN Protocols Does ProtonVPN Offer?

VPN technology has been around a long time, and there are many flavors of encrypted tunnels from which you can choose. The new hotness in VPNs is the WireGuard protocol. This open-source protocol can be freely examined for flaws, sports the latest encryption technology, and appears to offer significantly better internet speeds than other options. ProtonVPN doesn’t offer WireGuard, but this isn’t necessarily a problem, given how new the technology is. In any case, the company says that it plans to roll out WireGuard support by the end of 2021.

ProtonVPN tells me that it uses OpenVPN (UDP/TCP) and IKEv2, both excellent and secure options, in all of its Android, iOS, Linux, and Windows apps. The macOS app is limited to just IKEv2.

ProtonVPN Servers and Server Locations

In terms of distribution, ProtonVPN covers a respectable 54 countries, a smidge above the 51-country average among the VPNs we’ve reviewed. ExpressVPN, by comparison, covers 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 and 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. Importantly, the company has been steadily expanding its global presence and actively seeks feedback from users on what countries to add.

Having VPN servers in regions with repressive internet policies does not necessarily allow users to circumvent censorship, but it may provide a modicum of security and privacy to the populace. ProtonVPN covers several such countries, including China (Hong Kong), Russia, and Turkey. 

ProtonVPN let's you access individual servers

ProtonVPN has nicely sized networks of servers, one that has grown steadily over the years. It now stands at 1,067, but this is still is a far cry from the 6,900 servers available from CyberGhost VPN. 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 be transparent about infrastructure and where it is located. A representative for ProtonVPN told me that the company only uses “bare metal” servers, meaning they are dedicated machines and are exactly where they say they are.

In terms of physical security, ProtonVPN says it uses full disk encryption, so any seized server would be inaccessible. The company also says that its dedicated servers are harder to attack by virtue of not being virtual servers, and any server that goes offline in “unforeseen circumstances” is immediately wiped and reprovisioned. Other VPNs have gone further, having their servers run only in RAM. 

Your Privacy With ProtonVPN

It’s important that every VPN company respect your privacy and protect your personal information. After all, the main reason to use a VPN is to limit access to your personal information. After reading ProtonVPN’s documentation and speaking with the company, we believe that ProtonVPN is acting in the best interests of its customers—but determining that with total certainty is all but impossible. If for any reason you feel you cannot trust a particular VPN company, look elsewhere. There are plenty to choose from. 

The company’s privacy policy clearly says it does not log user activity or IP addresses. Previously, the company stored timestamps of the last login, but no longer does so. That means the company has improved and does even more to protect customer privacy.

A representative from ProtonVPN tells me that the company only makes money through subscription sales, not by selling user information, nor does it “do any targeted advertising or any profiling.”

The app while connected

ProtonVPN is owned by the parent company Proton Technologies AG and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. It can be found in the Swiss Commercial Registry 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. Even if ProtonVPN were required to respond to a request, it would only supply login timestamps. The company’s transparency report indicates ProtonVPN received a valid request for information in January 2019, but it did not have any information to provide. 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. It also manages a bug bounty, paying researchers for the bug vulnerabilities they submit, and had its apps audited by SEC Consult. That’s all good, but we’d like to see a thorough no-logs and infrastructure security audit released to the public. TunnelBear, for example, has committed to annual audits of its service. Audits are imperfect, but still useful for establishing trust.

Hands On With ProtonVPN

ProtonVPN offers clients for Android, Android TV, Chromebooks, 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 be an ugly, unusable mess. That’s not the case. ProtonVPN has a slick and well-designed app that’s easy to use and doesn’t skimp on features. A small but noticeable visual update refreshed the app. A handy row of buttons now gives quick access to ad blocking, Secure Core, and the app’s kill switch features. 

When you start up ProtonVPN, the Quick Connect button makes it very obvious how to get online, which we appreciate. The app also shows your connection status, a list of servers so you can quickly change VPN location, a real-time network traffic assessment, and a map showing the available servers. Clicking the small grey arrow in the middle right collapses the map, leaving a thin strip.

The app's Profiles option

You can browse the available servers from the map or a list, or search for the location. 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. Four default Profiles are included: one for connecting to the fastest server, for connecting to a random server, for connecting to p2p servers, and for connecting to the Tor network. You can create your own Profiles 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. If this is too complicated, you can easily ignore it.

ProtonVPN includes 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 has 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. ProtonVPN also lets you run only the traffic of the apps you select through the VPN and run the rest in the clear.

Minimized app and split-tunneling settings

It’s really difficult to watch Netflix with a VPN because Netflix wants to enforce its distribution deals. In my testing, I had no trouble streaming from Netflix while connected to a US-based VPN server. That said, the conflict between VPNs and streaming sites is ongoing, and what works today may be blocked tomorrow.

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 and changed my public IP address. Note that I only tested one server, other servers may be configured incorrectly.

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 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. Generally, a VPN will 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 and find the percent change between when the VPN is on and when it is off. 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 reduced download and upload speed test results by 72.7% and 81.6%. Our tests showed ProtonVPN increased latency by 77.8%. These were poorer than last year.

This year, we’ve opted to conduct our speed tests in a rolling fashion, providing you with more timely results. This is also necessary because of our limited access to the PCMag Labs test network due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The chart below shows the most recent results. You can find more information in our fastest VPN feature.

Most recent fastest VPN results

Keep in mind that while our testing is useful for comparison, your results may differ greatly. 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?

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. ProtonVPN also includes the Core Servers feature, which has a profound impact on speeds. 

I re-ran the tests to compare the various means of connecting via ProtonVPN. The results are shown in the charts below. The Secure Core test results were based on a multihop connection from the US to Sweden.

Download results for different ProtonVPN subscription tiers

Our testing showed that the Free tier had a 98.4% reduction in download speed test scores, the Basic tier a 68.9% reduction, and the Plus tier a 72.7% reduction in speed test scores. Using Secure Core reduced download speed test results by 75.8%. Compared to the previous year, the Plus servers yielded worse results, while the Core Server results improved significantly.

Upload results for differnet ProtonVPN subscription tiers

Our testing showed that the Secure Core servers reduced upload speed test results by 98.9%, with the Free tier close behind at 97.3%. The Basic tier reduced upload speed test results by 85.4%, and the Plus tier by 81.6%. All of these results were worse this year than the year before.

Latency results for different ProtonVPN subscription tiers

Unsurprisingly, the latency results were lopsided to the point where the chart above is of questionable utility. Our testing showed that the Basic tier increased latency by 55.6%, the Plus tier by 77.8%, the free tier by 500%, and the Core Servers by 5,055.6%. Notably, the previous year’s testing showed the Free tier with an 8,500% increase and the Secure Core server with a 9,800% increase.

There are a few conclusions to be drawn from this. First and foremost, the eccentricities of the VPN server you use (and when you use it) have an enormous impact on performance. Second, the Core Servers will increase your latency like nobody’s business, but the impact on performance is not necessarily catastrophic. In fact, it’s about the same as using the Free service.

I also found that the difference between the Basic and Plus servers is fairly small, suggesting you could enjoy good service without springing for the highest tier. While the Plus tier won out against the Basic tier in latency and upload tests, Basic snagged a win with the download tests. 

Finally, the changes from year to year indicate significant improvements on the Secure Core performance. The latency results, in particular, look much better in 2021 than they ever have.

A Smart and Flexible VPN

At first blush, ProtonVPN’s restrictively tiered pricing plans might seem 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. Our only concern is that ProtonVPN has yet to roll out WireGuard, but that’s not a serious issue—yet.

Since we first reviewed ProtonVPN, the service has more than doubled in size and reach. The company has shown that it can scale up its product without sacrificing its integrity. It’s an Editors’ Choice winner. ProtonVPN earns a slightly higher score than its co-winners because of its excellent free version and collection of privacy features.

Cons

  • No public infrastructure audit

  • Fewer servers, locations than most

  • Lacks WireGuard support

The Bottom Line

ProtonVPN offers the best free subscription tiers we’ve seen, and its paid tiers provide access to numerous privacy tools at a reasonable price.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *