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ProtonVPN review: A secure service with a solid reputation that costs a pretty penny

Higher-than-average costs hold this VPN back from the head of the pack, but its privacy safeguards may be worth the price for some.

ProtonVPN

Like

  • Strong reputation of parent company
  • Multihop and split tunneling
  • Open-source

Don't Like

  • Limited torrenting capacity
  • Connection time-stamps
  • No connection in China

It's hard not to be impressed by how far Proton has gone to shore up security and privacy in both its ProtonVPN and ProtonMail service. 

Is it the fastest VPN out there? No. Can you use it outside of China? No. Can you game with it? Meh -- it depends. But do you want to send your internet traffic through a cache of privately owned servers hidden in an underground Swiss bunker? Yes. Of course you do. We all do.

While its cost is higher than other top VPN competitors, I recommend ProtonVPN for its commitment to transparency and its high-security product standards. 

Read more: Best free VPN: Try these services for up to 30 days, risk-free

Speed

  • Average speed loss: 9%
  • Number of servers: 1,318
  • Number of server locations: 55 countries

We ran our speed tests over the course of three days with dynamic IP addresses, using both wireless and Ethernet connections -- one location offered slower broadband speeds and the other offered higher speeds via fiber optic internet. Internet speeds in the US vary widely by state and provider. And with any speed test, results are going to rely on your local infrastructure, with hyperfast internet service yielding higher speed test results. 

That's one reason we're more interested in testing the amount of speed lost (which for most VPNs is typically half or more) across both high-speed and slower connection types, and in using tools like Speedtest.net to even out the playing field. In the case of ProtonVPN, I saw only 9.6% speed loss compared to average speeds clocked without a VPN. 

ProtonVPN's base speeds sent it blazing past most of our roster of tested services and into second place behind ExpressVPN, which clocked a speed loss of less than 2% the last time it was tested. On speed testing, that puts it well ahead of our last tests for Surfshark and NordVPN (which averaged 27% speed loss and 32% speed loss, respectively). Like Surfshark, ProtonVPN pulled off these kinds of speeds with a relatively smaller VPN server fleet than its larger competitors. 

Read more: How we review VPNs

The sticking point on speeds was three-fold, however. The time required to connect to a VPN server was longer than some of the other services I've tested. I noticed some larger-than-normal disparities in upload and download speeds. And ping times (how long it takes a bit of data to make a round trip from you to your destination and back) were up across the five regions I tested, suggesting some potential latency issues. That last bit could hamper you if you're looking to use a VPN for gaming, but overall speeds were high enough that you should have no problem functionally torrenting via one of their four peer-to-peer servers. 

Overall peak speed was reached on US servers at 214Mbps in a testing round with non-VPN speeds in the 70s. US servers ranked fastest overall among the tests, with average download speeds of 92Mbps compared to our overall non-VPN average speeds of 83Mbps. 

UK servers came in at a close second place with about 85Mbps, topping out at 206Mbps. They were followed by Australian servers at 73Mbps, which beat out those in Paris, Berlin (a combined average of about 65Mbps) and Singapore's 61Mbps. 

pv-secure-core-mac-view

In our tests, ProtonVPN only caused about 9% of internet speed loss. 

ProtonVPN

Security features and privacy

  • Jurisdiction: Switzerland
  • Encryption: AES-256-GCM, RSA-2096, Perfect Forward Secrecy
  • No leaks detected
  • Includes kill switch, IPv6 and DNS leak protection 

There's immediate appeal in the idea of a VPN service with a jurisdiction safely inside the legendary neutrality of the Swiss border. Switzerland is a formal member of neither the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes nor 14 Eyes international intelligence-sharing agreements. It's not a formal EU or EEA member state and, as such, is often exempt from GDPR data retention laws. The Swiss' international privacy cachet is carried far past its storied banking system and into the fundamental rights to personal data privacy embedded in its constitution. 

If that weren't embedded enough, ProtonVPN's got a cache of 40 privately-owned servers it uses for its Secure Core feature, a type of multihop VPN feature. The servers are stashed across a former Icelandic military base, an underground Swedish data center, and a former Swiss army fallout shelter 1,000 meters below the surface. A multihop feature like this jumps your connection through multiple countries to hide your trail. 

Read more: All the VPN terms you need to know

One small problem: The majority of ProtonVPN's server fleet is leased, and Switzerland isn't the data-surveillance safe haven it used to be. 

Following the outcome of a 2016 national referendum, the country's government now has the right to bug private property, tap phone lines and monitor internet traffic in the name of antiterrorism. It's unclear exactly how much of the data gathered under that expanded surveillance authority ends up in the hands of Five Eyes countries. But it's worth pointing out Switzerland's Onyx international communications surveillance system has been intercepting intelligence since at least 2000, long before anticybercrime efforts in the country further deepened certain multinational intelligence-sharing relationships. And the Swiss are far from immune to US intelligence operations taking place within their borders. 

That's one reason I don't like that ProtonVPN logs timestamps for connection sessions (even if they're only verifying your account login credentials, and the data is anonymized and overwritten by each successive session). But it's also the reason why I love ProtonVPN's transparency policies: it's completely open-source with routinely published audits, and includes a built-in route to VPN into a Tor server.

Its encryption is standard AES-256, and its apps avoid outdated protocols and use OpenVPN by default. You can use IKEv2 protocol on the Android app, but Proton has wisely eliminated the use of less secure options like PPTP and L2TP, which are still hawked by some VPNs. It also supports Perfect Forward Secrecy, which means it frequently changes encryption keys to avoid security compromises. The company offers a useful kill-switch feature, which prevents network data from leaking outside of its secure VPN tunnel in the event the VPN connection fails. 

No IP address, DNS or other potentially user-identifying data leaks were detected during our testing, and ProtonVPN offers IPv6 and DNS leak protection features. But the service appears to have hit a block in China, preventing connection. 

Cost 

  • Usability: Nearly zero learning curve
  • Platforms: Windows, Android, MacOS, iOS, Linux and router support
  • Price: $8 a month ($96 charged yearly)
  • Simultaneous connection number: 10

ProtonVPN imposes no data caps and allows unlimited server switching. I also had no problems using it to access Netflix and other streaming platforms. Its desktop and VPN app interfaces are attractively minimal with a user-friendly map feature, and plenty of options for a VPN user to explore under the hood. 

Price-wise ProtonVPN's standard package, called Plus, runs $8 per month ($96 charged yearly). That price is higher than our Editors' Choice VPN, ExpressVPN, whose best subscription plan is priced at $6.67 a month for an annual package. ProtonVPN also gets beat on price by NordVPN's two-year plan at $5 per month ($60 a year), and Surfshark's current $6 monthly ($72 a year). 

ProtonVPN also offers a free version of the VPN service and a version for $4 per month, but since the typical must-have VPN features are missing under those options, they aren't really worth considering. Those missing features include reduced connection speed, no access to blocked content or the Secure Core server feature, and no Tor-over-VPN feature. (I never recommend a free VPN, no matter how strong the paid product from the same VPN provider may be.)

Along with credit or debit, you can pay for ProtonVPN's service with PayPal or Bitcoin, and be assured of a 30-day money-back guarantee. The VPN service also offers a seven-day free trial. The site offers 24/7 chat support, and a healthy amount of support articles and tutorials. 

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First published Aug. 28, 2020.