All VPN providers claim to be experts in privacy, but there's not usually much evidence to back that up. Swiss-based Proton VPN is different though, because the company has a track record in security – it's also behind ProtonMail, the popular end-to-end encrypted email service.
Proton VPN's network now offers 1,700+ servers across 63 countries (up from 61 in our last review). Most servers are in Europe and North America, but there are also locations in Australia, Brazil, Columbia, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Africa, South Korea and more.
Proton VPN owns and manages its own servers, too, and they're connected to the internet using the company's own network. Apart from giving Proton VPN great control over how the service is set up and managed, it's clear this isn't some shell company making profits from reselling other people's kit: there are real resources and expertise here.
- Want to try ProtonVPN? Check out the website here (opens in new tab)
You can see benefits of that control in Proton VPN's Secure Core, a smart technology which routes traffic through multiple servers before it leaves the network (meaning that even high-tech snoopers monitoring an exit server won't be able to trace individual users).
Most customers don't really need that level of protection, but Proton VPN has plenty more to offer. The service is P2P-friendly, supports up to 10 simultaneous connections, has a kill switch, DNS leak protection and built-in Tor support for accessing Onion sites. A versatile split tunneling system allows you to route specific app or destination IP traffic outside of the VPN, and WireGuard support aims to get you the best possible performance.
Elsewhere, the DNS-based NetShield web filter blocks malware, ads and trackers. There are now native apps for Windows, Android, Mac and iOS to enable using ProtonVPN on almost anything. Oh, and they're open source and audited, too.
Proton VPN: what's new?
Editor's note: Since our latest full test of Proton VPN in March 2022, the following noteworthy updates have been made to the service:
- May 2022: Proton announced massive changes to its suite of privacy products, together with a full rebrand. As well introducing a full Proton security suite (Proton Mail, Proton VPN, Proton Drive and Proton Calendar in one plan), it also ditched its Proton VPN Basic plan and renamed 'ProtonVPN' to 'Proton VPN'.
You can read more about the restructure here, and several edits have been made to our original review below to remove references to the Basic plan.
(Note: At present, all images in this Proton VPN review are taken from our original review and will be updated in due course.)
Proton VPN pricing
The Proton VPN Plus (opens in new tab) plan delivers all the features we've described above, covers 10 devices, and can be yours for $10 billed monthly, $6 on the annual plan, or $4.99 over two years. That's above average, and you can get capable VPNs for much less (Private Internet Access is just $3.33 a month on its annual plan, Atlas VPN charges just $1.99 a month over three years).
Proton VPN will take payment via card, PayPal, Bitcoin, even cash if you're looking for extreme anonymity.
Any payments are (sort of) protected by a 30-day money-back guarantee. The potential catch here is that you'll only get a refund for any unused subscription time. If you sign up for a month and ask for a refund after 15 days, for instance, the company only returns 50% of your subscription fee.
While that sounds a little mean, Proton VPN has a great defense; it already gives users an unlimited amount of time to sample its service with a free plan.
This has some significant limits. It covers just one device, supports 'medium speeds' only, and gives you access to 23 servers in just three countries (US, Netherlands, Japan).
But the crucial advantage is it has no paltry data limits: you can use Proton VPN Free as much as you like. That's a big deal, and makes Proton VPN interesting all on its own.
Edit: May 25, 2022
This section has been updated to accommodate the changes described in the Proton VPN: what's new? section above.
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Proton VPN's Swiss home gives it an immediate privacy advantage over most of the competition. The country has very strong privacy laws, is outside of US and EU jurisdiction, and not a member of the '14 eyes' surveillance network.
The company states its logging policy very clearly on the website: "ProtonVPN is a no logs VPN service. We do not track or record your internet activity, and therefore, we are unable to disclose this information to third parties."
Session logging is almost non-existent. The company stores the timestamp of the last successful login attempt, but that's it. This is overwritten when you next log in, so the most Proton VPN will know about your account use is the start time of your last session.
Proton VPN associates your account with an email address when you sign up, but this address can be whatever you like. The company suggests using ProtonMail if you'd prefer to remain completely anonymous.
Sign up for the free plan and you won't have to provide any payment details. Choose something else and you can opt to pay by Bitcoin. If you use PayPal or a credit card, the payments are processed by a third-party, and Proton VPN won't see your billing details. Or for real anonymity, you can just send the company some cash. Not exactly convenient, but you'll know you're not leaving any electronic audit trail.
Another step forward on the privacy front occurred in January 2020 when Proton VPN released independent audit reports on its apps, performed by security experts SEC Consult.
The results were good, with only 11 vulnerabilities found across the desktop and mobile apps, and those were only in the low or medium category. Proton VPN has already fixed everything it accepted as an issue.
Put it all together and Proton VPN deserves huge credit for exposing itself to this level of scrutiny. There's scope to go further, so for example TunnelBear's audits don't just cover its apps; they look at its infrastructure, backend and frontend systems, even the website, and the company has re-run the audit over several years. But Proton VPN still tramples all over most of the competition, who don't have the courage to put themselves through any audit at all.
Signing up with Proton VPN was easy, and within a few seconds we were looking at our account dashboard. It's a handy web portal with a bunch of tools to help the user get started: login credentials, download links, an OpenVPN configuration file generator, and pointers to instructions for setting up Mac, Linux, iOS and Android devices.
We grabbed a copy of the Windows app. It downloaded and installed in seconds with no technical hassles.
The app opens with a large world map displaying Proton VPN's various locations. We don't feel map interfaces are ever as easy to use as a good location list, but Proton VPN's is better than most. The map is large, you can resize the window to get a better view, then spin the mouse wheel to zoom in and out; left-click, hold and drag to pan around; hover the mouse over a server icon to see its location, and click to get connected.
If you really don't like map interfaces, no problem, you can collapse the app down to a standard list of locations. Icons highlight servers which support P2P (17 at the time of writing, up from 12 in our last review) or Tor (just seven: France, Germany, Hong Kong, Iceland, Sweden, Switzerland, United States). Expanding any location lists all its available servers, with a color indicator of load (green being low, red high), and you can connect with a click.
A left-hand sidebar allows you to enable, disable, or just see the status of three valuable privacy features: the kill switch, NetShield (Proton VPN's ad, tracker and malware blocker) and Secure Core, which routes your traffic through Proton VPN's 'safest servers in privacy-friendly countries' for extra anonymity.
We found the app took around six seconds to connect with WireGuard, a little slower than usual (IVPN's app connected in less than a second on the same system). This might have been some local issue, though, because the Mac and mobile apps typically connected in a couple of seconds.
We didn't see any initial connection problems with any apps. The VPN seems dependable, too, with only one connection drop during testing (and we can't rule out that also being some local issue).
Proton VPN seems to deliver on its P2P promises, too. We tried accessing torrents from five of the specialist torrent servers, and downloaded them all without any issues.
Proton VPN's apps support choosing cities within many countries, but the location list makes this procedure more difficult than we'd like.
When we expand the 'USA' list in most VPN apps, for instance, we see a simple list sorted by city name: 'USA - Denver', 'USA - Miami', 'USA - New York' and so on.
When we expand 'USA' in Proton VPN, we see every individual server in that country, sorted by state. That's 'US-AZ#10' to 'US#AZ-20' (Phoenix), then 'US#CA-20' to 'US#CA-72' (Los Angeles), and – you get the idea. You might have to scroll through hundreds of US servers to find the city you need.
Does the location Search box help, then? Entering 'Miami' displayed United States as a matching country, but when we hit Connect, the app connected us to New York. The Search doesn't seem to pinpoint city-level locations.
This is an annoying usability issue, but it won't affect everyone, and there is a workaround.
The app has a Profiles feature which works as a smart Favorites system. You could use this to create profiles which, say, connect you to New York or Colorado servers, but there are many more options. You can connect to the fastest server in a country or a location, maybe choose a random server to reduce the opportunity for tracking, select the best P2P or Tor-friendly server, and optionally choose to connect via OpenVPN TCP or UDP.
The Settings dialog allows you to enable or disable key features, configure what the Quick Connect action does (connect to the fastest location, a random server, a specific server of your choice) and set up the split tunneling system.
The app supports WireGuard, along with OpenVPN TCP and UDP. By default, the app chooses the best protocol for your situation, but you can select your favorite manually, if you prefer.
A 'VPN Accelerator' option, turned on by default, uses various low-level tricks (threading, network optimizations) to improve performance. It also has an interesting and related option in the Settings box. 'Auto Reconnection' looks out for speed issues with your current server, and connects you to a faster one nearby when necessary. A smart idea, and not one we've seen anywhere else.
Some lesser VPNs don't set up their OpenVPN connections with the best possible settings, so we dug a little deeper to see what Proton VPN was doing. The results were positive, with the app using rock-solid AES-256-GCM encryption with HMAC-384 for authentication.
We finished our look at the Windows client with some in-depth kill switch tests, and found it performed very well. The client didn't leave us exposed during normal operations, such as switching to a new server while connected to another. And if we simulated a major problem by manually closing a TCP connection or terminating a VPN process, the client instantly displayed an alert and blocked all traffic until we reconnected.
That's good news, and not just for the kill switch. The ability to cope with extreme and unexpected situations is a measure of code quality, and Proton VPN scores much better here than most of the competition.
Mac and mobile apps
Proton VPN's Mac and mobile apps have very similar interfaces to the Windows edition, with much the same map, location list and Favorites-like Profiles system. They performed even better in some cases (connection times were often faster), and connections were stable during our review.
The Mac app supports all the best Proton VPN features: kill switch, Secure Core, Netshield ad-blocking, WireGuard and more. It doesn't give you split tunneling, but there's support for an extra protocol (IKEv2, as well as WireGuard and OpenVPN), and overall, the app still outperforms most of the Mac competition.
The Android app uses portrait and landscape modes to do the best possible job of reproducing the desktop app interface. Its location list improves a little on the Windows app, sorting servers by city name rather than state. And it's powerful, too, with all the Mac features plus support for split tunneling.
Proton VPN's iOS app adds some neat visual touches to the interface. Out go the dull green and black location markers on the map, for instance, and in come colorful flags; much better. Also, there is a new Quick Connect button which immediately connects you to the best server, whatever tab you're viewing. But, like the desktop apps, it confusingly organizes servers by state, rather than cities. This really should be consistent across the range (and we'd like it to be configurable, too).
Otherwise, though, the iOS app delivers all the Android features, plus simple iOS widgets to connect and disconnect, check battery usage or view the logs to diagnose any connection issues. If you're tired of VPNs that never quite get around to porting the best features to iOS, Proton VPN's offering will be a refreshing and power-packed change.
Our speed testing began by connecting to the fastest server from two locations (a UK data center and a US residential location, both with 1Gbps lines), then checking performance with benchmarking services including SpeedTest.net (via the website and the command line app), nPerf, SpeedOf.me and others. We repeated each test five times, ran the full set in both morning and evening sessions, then analyzed the data to compare median speeds.
OpenVPN results were above average at up to 440Mbps. That's far better than we've seen from most big VPN names, although still fractionally behind Hide.me (440-450Mbps) and Mullvad (480-490Mbps).
Switching to WireGuard ramped up speeds to a peak of 670Mbs. That's above average, but not quite leading the way. CyberGhost, Hide.me, IPVanish, Mozilla VPN and TorGuard all reached 850Mbps or more in recent tests.
Netflix and streaming
Proton VPN sells itself mostly on privacy and security, but it has some serious unblocking abilities, too.
BBC iPlayer is well-protected against many smaller VPNs, for instance, but Proton VPN breezed past its defenses and allowed us to stream whatever we liked. We reconnected and repeated the tests with a couple of further IP addresses, just to confirm Proton's unblocking reliability, and they worked, too.
We were almost as successful with UK and US Netflix, streaming exclusive content with two out of three of our test connections.
Amazon Prime Video can be a challenge for some providers, but not Proton VPN. We streamed US-only content from all three of our test locations.
The service completed its positive run with Disney Plus, where we got to stream the full US library like a local on two out of three locations. A great result.
(Keep in mind that you need at least a Proton VPN Plus account to get this level of unblocking success. The free account won't do.)
Proton VPN's support site has a lot of detailed articles and guides, but these aren't always organized and presented in the most helpful way.
When we searched the knowledgebase for the keyword 'speed' for instance, the first hit was titled 'How latency, bandwidth, and throughput impact Internet speed', and included the advice 'To calculate the maximum throughput on a TCP connection, you can use the Mathis formula and this online calculator.'
The second article had more relevant advice, but was complex in places. For instance, after suggesting we change servers to improve speeds, it went on: 'To be effective, you should switch to a server with an IP address from a different range. For example, instead of switching from 22.214.171.124 to 126.96.36.199, you should switch to 188.8.131.52.' It's good to see a provider which goes beyond basic FAQs, but newcomers probably won't appreciate this level of technical detail in the first documents they see.
Fortunately, if you can't find what you need, Proton VPN's new live chat support enables getting help right away. Well, hopefully; it wasn't available when we tried on Sunday evening, but we did get to talk to an agent the next day.
Our chat couldn't have gone much better. The agent was friendly, listened to our question and paid attention to our responses, asked sensible questions of their own, offered good advice, and pointed us to online resources where we could get more help.
They even offered to convert our chat into a support ticket, so that if those suggestions didn't help, we'd then be able to carry on the conversation later, without having to describe our problem all over again. Impressive.
But if live chat doesn't work for you, then you can still raise a ticket manually or send an email, and in our experience these generally get helpful replies within a few hours.
Proton VPN review: Final verdict
Proton VPN unblocked everything we tried, its well-designed apps are open source and independently audited, WireGuard speeds are excellent and there's a free plan with no bandwidth limits. This is a great VPN, and it's getting better. Give it a try.
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