When it comes to selecting a VPN, you have a lot of options these days. However, it can be difficult to decide which one to use, especially if you’re not tech savvy. If you don’t know the difference between a protocol and a potato, then separating the decent services from the — ahem — less than decent can be tricky. Don’t worry, that’s why we’re here.
Today we’re going to talk about two of the best VPNs out there: ProtonVPN and ExpressVPN. We’ll get to the bottom of things like security and privacy features, speed, cost, and other important things to consider.
ExpressVPN vs. ProtonVPN: A Primer
ExpressVPN and ProtonVPN are both top-tier services that keep the average internet denizen protected from most cyber threats and digital snoops, but functionally speaking, there are significant differences between the two. Before we get into that, though, let’s learn a little more about each provider.
FYI: Want to learn more about VPNs in general? Check out our 2021 VPN buyer’s guide for all the information you could ever need about virtual private networks.
ExpressVPN has been on the market for a little over a decade, and during that time they’ve made quite a name for themselves. They were the first VPN in the industry to run a network made entirely of RAM-only servers, which means their commitment to not log client data is one of the strongest in the biz. Headquartered in the British Virgin Islands, they aren’t beholden to international data-sharing agreements, and in my test of ExpressVPN, I found their security and performance to be beyond reproach.
ProtonVPN was developed to piggyback off of ProtonMail, an email service designed to protect activists and journalists. Located in Geneva, Switzerland, Proton users benefit from some of the strongest privacy laws on the planet, and the company has a long track record of fighting back against internet censorship and promoting online civil liberties. In my ProtonVPN review, I was quite impressed with their security, features, and overall performance.
How Are They Similar?
As I mentioned, Express and Proton are both industry leaders, so they’re both going to offer a great list of features, little-to-no latency, and elevated levels of security. Let’s rattle off a quick list of the items that both services offer, then take a more in-depth look at some of the really important ones.
ExpressVPN and ProtonVPN both offer:
- Split Tunneling
- Kill Switch
- Large Server Networks
- Unlimited Bandwidth
These are undoubtedly great features, but in all honesty, they’re all to be expected with higher-end VPN services. For more details, let’s drill down into the nuanced features that both services have in common.
This is always difficult to put your finger on, but ProtonVPN and ExpressVPN both clearly value their user experience. Both offer simple-to-use interfaces, have a tremendous wealth of resources available to their users, and provide great customer service. They’re also both well-designed on mobile and desktop, and their clients are extremely intuitive in day-to-day use.
In my extensive tests of both services, I never ran into any difficulties in navigation and experienced no headaches related to functionality. Both services earned top marks in that regard.
One of the most common security vulnerabilities you’ll see with VPNs is DNS leaks. This means that your site queries travel over your traditional ISP rather than through your VPN’s encrypted tunnel. Express and Proton both deal with this issue by running their own private DNS servers so that requests are never leaked, and your IP address is never exposed.
Both ExpressVPN and ProtonVPN use military-grade AES-256 encryption to protect your traffic. How strong is that exactly? Using the world’s most powerful supercomputer, it would take about 200 times the age of the universe to brute force attack.
While we’re talking about encryption, it’s worth pointing out that Proton might edge out Express in this regard, but only slightly. ProtonVPN only selects encryption keys that have perfect forward security, meaning encrypted traffic cannot be decrypted later if a subsequent session becomes compromised. New keys are generated with each new connection, so they’re never used more than once. Think of it this way — it’s like changing your deadbolt every time you leave the house.
FYI: Encryption is a fancy word for scrambling data at its origin and unscrambling it at its destination, so that if third parties get their hands on your information for any reason, it will be unreadable to them.
With all these similarities in mind, it might seem like Express and Proton are two sides of the same coin, and you could flip that same coin to decide which service to go with. I wouldn’t recommend that, though. Instead, let’s take a look at their differences.
How Are They Different?
While this isn’t what I’d consider a critical determining factor, it is worth pointing out that the user interfaces of both services differ significantly. ProtonVPN takes a map-based approach, where ExpressVPN feels a little more akin to a light switch.
As I mentioned, both services’ user experiences are exceptional, but their approaches differ significantly. If you’re looking for a “set it and forget it” VPN, Express is the better option. But if you want to feel a little more like James Bond, and don’t mind fiddling with settings, then Proton might be the right VPN for you.
This difference is a little more significant. ExpressVPN’s network is made up entirely of RAM-only servers, which means that once the server is reset, everything stored on it is irretrievably lost. This goes a long way in protecting their no-log policy — even if they wanted to violate the privacy of their users, it’s simply impossible to do so. The data simply no longer exists.
Pro Tip: So far, we’ve only encountered one other RAM-only network. If this is something important to you, consider checking out our Surfshark review.
While RAM-only servers are pretty much the gold standard in the VPN industry, that doesn’t mean that providers that use more traditional setups aren’t valuable. Proton goes to great lengths to ensure the physical security of their servers (some of them are in decommissioned military bases). In fact, every single one of their servers is fully encrypted, meaning that if they were ever seized, it would be near impossible to recover data from them.
Simply put, ExpressVPN offers support for more protocols than ProtonVPN, including Lightway, a proprietary protocol developed by Express to make its connections more reliable and considerably faster.
Proton takes a more old-school, security-minded approach. Rather than offering support for numerous protocols, they only offer support for those that have been thoroughly tested with demonstrable security — IKEv2 for Macs and OpenVPN for everything else. So if you’re looking for the best thing in protocol support, you’re not going to find it with ProtonVPN.
Tor Over VPN
ProtonVPN is one of the handful of VPNs that we’ve tested that comes Tor-ready right out of the box. If you’re not sure what this means, here is a really brief breakdown.
Tor is an open-source browser that allows you to access the internet through the Onion network. Onion browsing is a specific networking protocol that optimizes online anonymity. Using a VPN coupled with Tor is the most effective way for average folks to bolster their privacy online. Also, if you’re wanting to poke around in the deep or dark webs, this is how you’re going to do it.
Did You Know: “Onion” routing was developed in 1995 by engineers at the U.S. Naval Research Lab who were looking for a way to create internet connections that wouldn’t reveal who was talking to whom.
In all fairness, most folks won’t need this functionality, but if you’re someone who does — like a journalist who deals with really sensitive subject matter governments might want to get their hands on — ProtonVPN is the obvious choice.
There are many reasons you might want to use a VPN, and some of them are more serious than others. Some folks’ freedom and safety depend on online anonymity, and some folks just want to watch U.S. Netflix while vacationing in Germany.
If you fall into the second camp, you might enjoy using ExpressVPN a little more. Streaming on ProtonVPN is more of an involved process, and only certain geo-restricted content can be unlocked. With Express, however, the process is a lot more straightforward, and you’ll have access to more media libraries across different platforms.
It’s a similar story for torrenting. While only a select number of Proton’s servers allow for torrenting, Express’ entire network is fair game. Torrenting is certainly possible on both platforms, but it’s a bit of an easier process when you’re using Express.
So as you can see, it’s a bit of a mixed bag here. In some aspects Proton is the clear front-runner, while Express leads in other ways. This brings us to one of the most important questions, though: How much does all this cost?
How Are Express and Proton Priced?
Proton and Express take different approaches to their subscription structures. The former is based on the service you need, the latter is structured around duration. You can read more about this in our guide to ExpressVPN costs and our ProtonVPN pricing guide, but here’s the quick rundown.
ExpressVPN’s Pricing and Plans
|Duration||1 Month||6 Months||12 Months|
As you can see, ExpressVPN is a little on the pricey side, and you can only connect five devices with one subscription. If you select a longer-term subscription, you’ll save money, but it’s still not as affordable as some of the cheaper VPNs on the market, like VyprVPN for instance (see our guide to VyprVPN plans). But, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. These prices get you one of the best services in the industry.
On the other hand, Proton’s pricing is based on the features you need.
ProtonVPN’s Pricing and Plans
|Features||17 servers in 3 countries, 1 connection, slower speeds||350 servers in 40 countries, 2 connections, P2P support, faster speeds||1,200 servers in 55 countries, 10 connections, streaming support, torrenting support, Secure Core VPN, Tor into VPN||“All ‘Plus’ features and ProtonMail subscription|
Personally, I like ProtonVPN’s structure a little more than Express’ since you can select the options that are important to you. If you’re looking for an experience without all the bells and whistles, you can go with a basic ProtonVPN plan for cheap, although you’re only going to be able to use the service on two devices. So if you have more than two devices in your home (and who doesn’t?), then this is something to keep in mind.
Pro Tip: There are tons of opportunities to save money on a VPN subscription, no matter which service you ultimately decide to go with. Check out our 2021 overview of VPN sales and deals.
With the similarities and differences out of the way and the costs understood, there’s really only one last question before we get down to the final recommendation. It’s a given that VPN use will usually negatively impact your performance; so how do Proton and Express handle this inherent latency?
ExpressVPN vs. ProtonVPN Performance
The long and short of it is that both Proton and Express handle performance issues in stride. When I was reviewing ExpressVPN, I didn’t really notice any significant slowdowns in my day-to-day use, and when I put them to the test, the latency was pretty negligible. Take a look …
This is my baseline for the ExpressVPN speed test. It’s not too bad as far as performance goes. Now here’s how we were looking after switching Express on.
Yes, my ping rate increased and there were some speed degradations, but if I’m being honest, this is still pretty good. It certainly was not enough to discourage me from using ExpressVPN.
One thing to note, though. Express does offer a “quick connect” function that didn’t seem to work too well during testing. In theory, it’s supposed to connect you to the fastest available server, but when I used it, there were significant issues.
Yikes. Those speeds wouldn’t be sustainable. We’re not exactly sure what was going on with Express’ quick connect functionality, but take it with a grain of salt. Everyone’s connections are different, and your speeds rely on an overwhelming number of factors.
Moving on to ProtonVPN, my speeds were a little more consistent. Again, in day-to-day tests, I never noticed significant performance issues, and the decreases in my speeds revealed in the test environment weren’t anything too troublesome. Here was my baseline:
And when ProtonVPN was switched on:
As you can see, It wasn’t too big of a deal. My upload speeds were pretty much unaffected, and my download speeds were impacted only slightly. They were definitely within the “usable” range.
One thing to note on Proton’s performance: If you’re using their Secure Core functionality — where your traffic is double-VPNed through privacy-friendly countries like Iceland or Sweden before it reaches its final destination — you will notice some significant lag time. This is to be expected, and you would only be using Secure Core if you really want what you’re doing to stay private.
So there you have it. Our complete rundown of two great VPN services. As you’ve noticed, there are certainly pros and cons to both, and different folks with different purposes might be more attracted to one versus the other. With that in mind, let’s get the final wisdom.
Pro Tip: Take advantage of the free trial period. ExpressVPN offers a 30-day free trial, while ProtonVPN only offers a seven-day trial. Either way, it never hurts to test-drive a VPN before pulling out the credit card.
ExpressVPN vs. ProtonVPN: The Final Verdict
Since these two services are so closely aligned, it’s difficult to say which one is better than the other. In fact, that might not be the best question to ask. Instead, let’s take a look at who might prefer which.
Why You Should Use ExpressVPN
If you’re looking for a fast, reliable, secure VPN that’s super simple to use, you can’t go wrong with Express. Although you’ll pay a little more, you’re going to enjoy best-in-the-industry security and reliable, stable speeds, regardless of where you are or what you’re doing. If torrenting or streaming is important to you, ExpressVPN has you covered. And if you’re worried that you might be overwhelmed with the technical aspects of VPN use, Express should be your selection. It couldn’t be any easier to use.
Why You Should Use ProtonVPN
If you’re looking for bullet-proof security and privacy protections, Proton is the way to go. Their security posture is one of the best out there, and it is trusted the world over by folks whose safety and freedom depend on online anonymity. Their compatibility with Tor is a big selling point, as is the company’s well-documented dedication to fighting for digital freedoms. Their privacy features will keep you protected from snooping ISPs and government interference alike, and the price tag is more than reasonable.
Overall, both VPNs will serve you well. If you’re more of an everyday user, I think you’ll like ExpressVPN, and if you’re looking for specialized features, you might start with Proton. If you’re not sold on either service, though, don’t fret. Head over to our list of the best VPN services of 2021 to see if any grab your attention. There’s a VPN for just about every use case and budget — it shouldn’t be too difficult to find one that’s right for you.
ProtonVPN and ExpressVPN FAQs
Both VPNs are reliable, secure, and fast; however, they prioritize different things. ExpressVPN is likely better for everyday users, while ProtonVPN might be better for those looking for elevated privacy functions.
In our tests, Proton performed slightly better than Express, but not by noticeable margins. Both VPNs are extremely fast.
ExpressVPN is one of the most expensive VPNs on the market. Proton is more affordable. That said, ExpressVPN is our highest-rated option, and the monthly fee is well worth it.
While the security postures of both VPNs are impressive, ExpressVPN’s RAM-only server network edges out Proton in terms of privacy.
ExpressVPN is one of the most user-friendly VPNs in the industry. It’s simple to set up and even easier to use.
Proton VPN has a few more settings to fiddle with than ExpressVPN, but their overall user experience is still exceptional.