Unlimited free plan
No live chat support
Split tunneling only available on Android and Windows
Occasional speed dips
Proton AG, the Swiss-based internet privacy company behind Proton Mail and other products like Proton Calendar and Proton Drive launched Proton VPN in 2017. In a few short years, Proton VPN has quickly developed a reputation for being a VPN with a strong commitment to privacy, security and transparency.
Proton VPN is an excellent choice for techie VPN users who like to inspect the source code of the apps they use, as well as for anyone whose location or occupation requires an extra layer of security from their VPN. It features open-source apps, full-disk encryption, Secure Core servers and Tor over VPN. But Proton is also a solid choice for casual VPN users who only need general privacy on public Wi-Fi or just want to unblock streaming content online. Speeds are fast, and the VPN's apps are intuitive and easy to use across platforms regardless of whether you're a VPN pro or beginner.
We're impressed with Proton VPN's straightforward, transparent approach, especially in contrast to the general atmosphere of secrecy and shiftiness in the VPN industry. Proton VPN's largely unlimited free plan is also remarkably impressive. If you're in need of a well-rounded VPN service that puts its money where its mouth is, take a look at Proton VPN.
Read more: How We Test VPNs
Speed: Third-fastest VPN we've tested
- 17% speed loss in autumn 2022 tests
- Number of servers: 1,891
- Number of countries: 67
Proton VPN's overall speed remains impressive, losing only 17% of its speed in our latest round of tests. Granted, that represents a decline from our summer 2020 tests, where we registered a mere 9% speed loss. But you can typically expect to lose about 50% of your regular internet speed when you connect to a VPN, so when we measured a 17% speed loss this time around, we were still satisfied with the results.
Proton VPN's speeds now rank third among our picks for best VPN, behind NordVPN's 13% speed loss and just ahead of Surfshark's 19% speed loss.
We tested Proton VPN's speeds over the course of three days from Ohio to the provider's VPN servers in New York, the UK, Australia, France, Germany and Singapore while connected via the OpenVPN protocol. Our regular internet speeds averaged 366.25 megabits per second during the test, while the average overall speeds we measured through Proton VPN's servers came out to 303.71Mbps.
Speeds were mostly in line with what we expected based on the physical distance between our physical location and those of the servers we tested. However, we did on rare occasions experience a few unexpected and significant dips in speeds on certain servers in Europe and Singapore -- even on servers showing a light load. Speeds were otherwise fairly consistent across the board.
As expected, the fastest speeds from the US were to Proton VPN's servers in New York, where we averaged 332.72Mbps. European servers registered just a bit slower at 320.12Mbps, while speeds to the UK averaged 307.78Mbps. Speeds halfway around the world to Australia and Singapore were the slowest -- but averaged an admirable 302.62Mbps and 255.25Mbps, respectively, despite the distance our data had to travel.
What we didn't expect was the impressive speed from Proton VPN's free servers. The provider says that its free servers offer "medium" VPN speeds, but we calculated only a 7.64% speed loss when we tested Proton VPN's free servers -- close to 10 percentage points faster than with the paid servers. These results are exceptional for any VPN, let alone a free VPN service, even if the sample size was smaller with servers in only three countries to test speeds on.
We registered speeds of up to 360Mbps to the Netherlands, 349Mbps to Japan and 345Mbps to New York using free servers with loads ranging from 55% to 96%. That's plenty of speed for pretty much anything you'd want to accomplish online, which is exceptionally hard to find with free VPNs.
Read more: How to Speed Up Your VPN Connection
Cost: Not the cheapest VPN, but pricing is straightforward and free tier is legit
- $72 per year or $10 per month
- Payment options: Credit/debit card, PayPal, Bitcoin, bank transfer, cash
- Money-back guarantee: 30 days
- Unlimited free plan
Proton VPN's pricing is straightforward and unambiguous at a time when it feels like you need to dust off your old TI-85 graphing calculator from high school just to make sense of most VPNs' complex pricing schemes. Proton VPN avoids tricky introductory prices that later spike in dramatic fashion and two-year plans that later morph into annual plans while the price remains the same.
Sure, your $72 upfront cost for Proton VPN's yearly plan is more expensive than the $48 you'll pay for your first year with IPVanish. But over time, you'll probably be happier paying $72 every year for Proton VPN rather than $90 for each additional year you spend with IPVanish. NordVPN and ExpressVPN go for $100 a year after their respective introductory subscription periods. Out of our top five VPN picks, only Surfshark is cheaper per year than Proton VPN, at $60 annually. However, Proton VPN's monthly plan is the cheapest of the bunch at $10 per month. We don't recommend committing to a VPN provider for longer than a year at a time given the perpetually shifting nature of the VPN industry.
With Proton VPN's paid service, you'll have access to more than 1,800 servers in 66 countries and up to 10 simultaneous connections. We were able to access content on Netflix, Disney Plus, HBO Max and Amazon Prime Video through the paid servers.
Proton VPN apps are available on MacOS, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android, Chromebook and Android TV devices. Settings are nicely laid out and easily accessible in the app, but if you're looking for split tunneling, note that the feature is only available on the Windows and Android apps. Proton says it's working on implementing split tunneling for other platforms, but did not specify a timeframe for that implementation. Though many VPNs these days offer browser extensions in addition to their dedicated VPN apps, Proton VPN does not yet offer any at this time. The company told us that browser extensions have been taken into consideration and will hopefully be available at some point in the future.
And while most of the top VPNs in the industry offer live chat customer support, Proton VPN does not. To get in touch with Proton VPN support, you'll need to submit a support ticket via email or tweet it at @ProtonVPN. We submitted a support ticket and received a response in less than 24 hours. The website includes a pretty comprehensive help center with troubleshooting tips, setup tutorials and documentation related to general VPN issues. Proton VPN's blog also includes a lot of helpful information about the company and the industry in general.
You can pay for your Proton VPN subscription using a credit or debit card, PayPal, Bitcoin, bank transfer or cash (US dollars, euros or Swiss francs). And if for any reason you're not satisfied with your purchase, Proton VPN does offer a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Can you get Proton VPN for free?
If you don't want to pay to use Proton VPN, you don't have to. That's because Proton VPN offers a free plan that's actually good. Most free VPNs are practically useless because they typically put heavy restrictions on things like speed, server availability, data allowance and features. They also often provide weak encryption, sell your data, serve ads and can even contain malware. Proton VPN's free plan is secure and it doesn't throttle speeds or put limits on usage, which is a big reason why it's perhaps the only truly viable free VPN available.
While Proton VPN's free plan isn't set up to unblock streaming services and doesn't include premium features like its malware and ad blocker, Tor over VPN functionality, Secure Core servers or P2P support, it does give you what you need to protect your privacy online. The free plan offers a single connection at a time to over 100 fast servers in three countries (US, Japan and the Netherlands) and the ability to connect through its stealth VPN protocol.
Yes, there are a few limitations with Proton VPN's free plan, but we found that it performed exceptionally well overall in our tests -- we were even able to access US Netflix while connected to the free servers. So if you're a casual VPN user who's not into torrenting, only needs one connection at a time and doesn't need the advanced features or access to more than three countries or streaming services other than Netflix, you'll probably be just fine with Proton VPN's free plan.
Security and privacy: Excellent features for VPN users in need of heightened privacy
- Jurisdiction: Switzerland
- Encryption: AES 256-bit with OpenVPN and IKEv2, ChaCha20 with WireGuard
- Secure Core servers
- Open-source and transparent
With many players in the VPN industry operating in obscurity, governed by byzantine corporate structures, it's nice to see Proton VPN putting such a heavy emphasis on transparency. For one, its VPN software is fully open-source, meaning its source code is publicly available online for anyone to scrutinize. If analyzing code isn't your thing, Proton VPN routinely publicizes independent external security and no-logs audits as well, so you can see what professional cybersecurity researchers have to say about the software.
Proton VPN's most recent security audit was completed in September 2021 by Securitum, a security consulting firm based in Krakow, Poland, which identified "no important security issues." The most recent no-logs audit was completed by Securitum in March.
"As a result of the audit, it was confirmed that Proton VPN offers high privacy with its No-Logs approach, and the audit did not detect any issues that could make a negative effect on the user's privacy," Securitum said in its no-logs audit report.
However, Securitum noted in its report that Proton VPN inspects network traffic on its free VPN servers in order to block BitTorrent traffic, as it may hinder performance for free users. If BitTorrent traffic is detected, the connection is automatically dropped. But Securitum said that this doesn't affect user privacy because the process is done blindly, without logging any information related to the dropped connection or which user the BitTorrent traffic was originating from.
"The whole mechanism is working fully locally on the specific Proton VPN server serving the connection, without notifying any central database," Securitum said. "There is no deep traffic inspection of such connections, just the type of traffic is detected."
No-logs audits are important for VPN companies to undergo as a way to remain transparent with the public, but a VPN company's no-logs claims are virtually impossible to verify with 100% certainty. Regular no-logs audits and actual court cases -- like the 2019 court case Proton VPN mentions in its Transparency Report -- where no-logs claims are challenged in a legal setting can offer effective testimony in favor of a VPN company's claim that it doesn't collect logs of users' activity.
As CNET's other top VPN picks do, Proton VPN employs industry-standard AES 256-bit encryption on OpenVPN and IKEv2 connections. WireGuard connections are secured using the ChaCha20 encryption cipher, which is generally faster while offering comparable security. The VPN's Secure Core servers offer additional security as they route your traffic through hardened servers owned by Proton VPN prior to routing it further through exit servers at your selected location. Proton VPN's Secure Core servers are physically protected with biometric security and located in Switzerland, Iceland (on a former military base) and Sweden (in an underground data center).
Proton VPN also offers standard VPN security features like a kill switch, DNS leak protection and obfuscation, along with Tor over VPN and an ad/malware blocker. The kill switch worked as expected and we detected no leaks during our tests of both the free and paid tiers. Proton VPN tells CNET that all security standards like encryption, leak protection and obfuscation are the same with the free plan as they are with paid subscriptions. However, free users don't have access to the Secure Core servers, Tor over VPN or the ad-blocker feature. The free tier is a great way to dip your toes in, but you'll need to upgrade to Proton's paid tier if you're going to engage in any online activity that's privacy-critical.
In 2020, Proton VPN disclosed a vulnerability in Apple's iOS, which claims that iOS devices fail to encrypt all traffic and leak data outside the VPN tunnel even when a VPN connection is engaged on the device. Years later, researchers reported that the issue still persists in later versions of iOS. It is a vulnerability that affects VPN apps on iOS devices in general and is not limited to Proton VPN. Until Apple issues an official fix for the vulnerability, Proton VPN recommends turning airplane mode on and then off again after connecting to a VPN server to effectively kill existing connections and reopen them within the VPN tunnel.
Proton VPN's Swiss jurisdiction is generally regarded as a safe jurisdiction for a VPN to reside in. Switzerland is not part of the 14-eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, and though the country does have mandatory data retention laws, those laws apply to large internet service providers and telecommunications companies. Proton VPN isn't bound by Swiss data retention laws and is otherwise not obligated to store logs of user activity.
In 2021, Proton Mail -- an encrypted email service developed by the folks behind Proton VPN -- found itself the subject of criticism after TechCrunch reported that the company disclosed a user's IP address and device ID number to Swiss authorities. The disclosure was part of an investigation involving a French climate activist who was part of a group protesting against gentrification in Paris that published information on police investigations and legal cases against individuals in the group. The protesters were using a Proton Mail address to communicate.
While Proton says it fights legal requests whenever possible, the company said it was obligated to cooperate with the legally binding order from Swiss authorities and that it wasn't possible for the company to appeal the request. But since Proton Mail emails are encrypted, the company was unable to provide information on the actual contents of the emails sent by those using the account to communicate. After the news broke, Proton Mail removed wording on its website that stated "by default, we do not keep any IP logs which can be linked to your anonymous email account."
However, under Swiss law, Proton Mail and Proton VPN are treated differently, a Proton spokesperson told CNET via email. While Proton Mail must comply with valid court orders from Swiss authorities, Proton VPN isn't bound by the same obligations.
"Swiss law does not provide the legal basis to order Proton VPN to retain user data or activity data," the spokesperson said. "We thus cannot be compelled to retain IP addresses of a VPN account."
Because of its commitment to transparency and its breadth of excellent privacy and security features, we recommend Proton VPN as a first-rate VPN for users with critical privacy needs like journalists, dissidents, lawyers, doctors and activists. Thanks to its stealth protocol and Secure Core servers, it's also a worthy option for people in regions where VPNs are restricted. One caveat here is that Proton VPN has had issues working for users in China, but the company is working on solutions.
"Mainland China has very sophisticated and effective censorship systems, and we can't guarantee Proton VPN works there," a Proton spokesperson told CNET. "But we are investing heavily in developing anti-censorship capabilities that will allow us to bypass attempts to block VPNs."