Does ProtonVPN’s radical approach to online security make its service a better all-around choice than industry giant NordVPN?
What if I told you there was a VPN network engineered by privacy-minded CERN scientists based in Geneva, Switzerland? What if those same privacy geeks were the email encryption geniuses behind ProtonMail, and their basic VPN service only cost $48 per year?
Don’t click subscribe yet. The fact is, when you’re committing to a VPN provider, you want more than just a name or a niche, even if they both come from Geneva. In my NordVPN vs. Norton Secure VPN comparison guide, for example, I saw that a great virus shield didn’t necessarily make the ideal all-around VPN service, simply because it didn’t have the features to compete.
That said, ProtonVPN has a lot going for it. It’s got plenty of slick privacy and security options, and makes some bold transparency claims worth exploring. But does it have enough to give industry giant NordVPN a run for its money? I gave both VPN services a test-drive to see how NordVPN and ProtonVPN would actually compare.
NordVPN and ProtonVPN: Where They’re Alike
Let’s start where NordVPN and ProtonVPN both want us to start: privacy. Both of these services are fundamentally committed to your privacy with no-nonsense zero-log policies, native ad blockers, and Tor support. Don’t know what a logging policy is? This is pretty important.
When a VPN provider touts a zero-log policy, it means they don’t collect any records of your online activity while you’re using their apps, except maybe crash reports and the timestamps of your current sessions (just so they know you’re not connecting to eight devices when your limit is, say, six). In other words, what you do online stays hidden from your internet service provider (ISP), which has, let’s just say, a vested interest in collecting it.
But here’s the thing. Just like ISPs, there are VPNs that collect and farm out your data to whoever they feel like: big data brokers, advertisers, even governments. So, if there’s one takeaway here, it’s this: Always check out a VPN provider’s logging policy before your click subscribe.
Beyond watertight logging policies, both NordVPN and ProtonVPN are also industry standard-bearers for VPN transparency, submitting to regular, full-scale audits of their entire systems. ProtonVPN has gone so far as to release the source code for its apps on Github.1 So if keeping your digital footprint hidden is a priority, keep reading.
Ease of Use
NordVPN and ProtonVPN clearly both understand user interfaces. They’ve designed clean, usable desktop dashboards, and have carried that experience over to their mobile apps, so moving back and forth between the two is easy. Both give you the option of using a server map view or a simple countries list, too, which isn’t something you find everyday. But take my word for it: It’s a great thing to have if you’re constantly switching from desktop clients (great for maps) to mobile apps (not always enough room).
DNS Leaks and Encryption
Here’s something else you’ll like: Both NordVPN and ProtonVPN operate their own DNS servers, so you won’t have to worry about DNS leaks, and both secure their networks — and all your activity — with unbustable AES-256-GCM encryption.
While AES-256 encryption is pretty much the industry norm these days, in my experience, it’s much rarer to find VPN providers that maintain, and take full responsibility for, their own DNS servers and networks. So this is a huge plus in both NordVPN and ProtonVPN’s columns.
Did You Know: Client-side encryption is what makes email and messaging services like ProtonMail and Signal so secure. With client-side encryption, your messages stay encrypted the whole time they travel through the internet. They’re only decrypted when they get to wherever you’re sending them because only the recipient has the key to decipher them.
Specialized Servers and Platform Support
If you’re using a VPN for bufferless gaming or streaming, or to torrent anonymously, you’re mostly good to go with both providers, though it’s worth pointing out that ProtonVPN only operates five peer-to-peer (P2P) servers at present, compared to NordVPN’s hundreds. If torrenting is your thing, that may be a deciding factor.
And just in case you were wondering: No, you won’t have any problems integrating NordVPN or ProtonVPN into your platforms of choice. Both have Mac and Windows support, and both have full-fledged Android and iOS apps.
Can I say that it’s nice to finally see a straightforward pricing table without reams of tiny, hidden fine print? (Thanks, ProtonVPN!) Without reaching for my totally unencrypted magnifying glass, I can tell you that both ProtonVPN’s yearly plans and NordVPN’s options are roughly the same price — if you opt for ProtonVPN Plus. And you’ll probably want to.
And without an insanely cheap price tag to distract us — I’m thinking of VyprVPN’s costs here — we can move on to the interesting stuff, like where these two top-notch VPN providers really distinguish themselves. (Then again, if “insanely cheap price tags” have got your Spidey savings sense tingling, you might want to check out my hands-on VyprVPN review.)
Pro Tip: VPN providers have all sorts of special offers to bring you onboard. So always track down the bottom line: the yearly or bi-yearly rate after the special offer expires. If you’re on the fence about two services, calculate how much you’ll end up spending over a four- or five-year period. That’s usually the best way to get a sense of VPN pricing.
NordVPN and ProtonVPN: Where They’re Different
NordVPN operates 5,700 servers worldwide, and 1,900 of those are in the U.S. This basically means that NordVPN has two times as many servers in the U.S. alone as ProtonVPN has, period.
That said, the bulk of Proton’s servers are in the U.S. and Europe, so if you live in those regions, server numbers shouldn’t be an issue. It’s also worth noting that when you compare locations, ProtonVPN has a pretty decent country spread (54 to NordVPN’s 59), including coverage in some out-of-the-way places like Brazil, Hong Kong, and South Africa.
So, unless you’re using your VPN to do heavy lifting, i.e., downloading or uploading large files regularly, I’d say the server gap wouldn’t be a reason to write ProtonVPN off. Proton’s network is growing. In fact, if ProtonMail’s warp-speed leap from 2 million to 10 million users in 2018 is any indication of growing demand for Proton products (and not just disgust with Google),2 higher server numbers for ProtonVPN are likely on the way.
Household Connection Limits
Have you got a busy household where everyone’s doing five things online at once? That’s fine. As long as your 9-year-old isn’t mining dogecoin, while your 12-year-old is searching for “underground North Korean TikTok” on Tor, you’ll probably be OK with NordVPN’s six private connections or ProtonVPN’s five.
Just keep in mind that Proton’s basic plan only protects two simultaneous connections, which, I have to say, feels a little miserly. To get the full five, you’ll need to bump your subscription up to the next pricing tier, ProtonVPN Plus.
If there’s a winner here, I won’t call it. I’ll just say that ProtonVPN’s basic plan with its two-device limit will leave many households in the cold. In Proton’s favor, ProtonVPN Plus (with its five simultaneously connected devices) costs less annually than NordVPN’s basic plan.
FYI: Tor has got a bad rap for being the anti-web, a dark and evil place where arms dealers, drug pushers, and human traffickers connect to sell their goods. But the Tor Project (2002-present) is actually just a non-governmental organization — created by the U.S. navy and funded (60 percent) by the Department of Defense3 — that researches and develops tools for online privacy and anonymity. The Tor Browser lets you surf the web in almost complete anonymity.
User Interface: Desktop
Why do you want a VPN? This isn’t a rhetorical question, and I’ll tell you why. A lot of us, when we get swept up in our searches for the perfect VPN, get bogged down in particulars that won’t necessarily affect our day-to-day VPN use. We read about a feature in an article or hear something from a friend, and then we start combing reviews for a service that has it (and rejecting those that don’t).
Don’t get me wrong. If you travel to countries where outbound connections are scrutinized or even blocked, or you’ve survived a hack that went beyond phishing, then NordVPN’s Double VPN is worth considering. (With Double VPN, you can bounce your original server connection off another server somewhere else before connecting to your final destination so that even Kim Jong Un won’t have a clue where you came from. Pretty neat.)
NordVPN’s dashboard is packed to the gills with advanced features like Double VPN — features like obfuscated servers, so you can hide the fact that you’re even using a VPN, and dedicated (unique) IP addresses, which you may need if you’re connecting to company networks or super secure websites that don’t allow VPNs. You even get an auto-connect switch for privacy on the go. Plus, installation is pain-free, the design is gorgeous, and NordVPN’s extra security features are actually easy to use once you learn the ropes.
Sound like your kind of VPN? Then you’ll probably want to check out my latest top-to-bottom NordVPN review.
On the other hand, if you’re “VPN and proud” (no obfuscation for you, thank you), and you’re foggy as to the exact whereabouts of North Korea, the ProtonVPN dash probably has everything you need.
ProtonVPN’s desktop client is clean and slick with its dark red-on-black theme. You get a map view that I actually prefer to NordVPN’s minimal, but cluttered version. Just zoom in and out to see what’s going on in different regions and hover over servers to check out specific locations. When you’re ready, click and connect. Easy.
Don’t like maps? Proton’s got a simple countries list, too. This is very similar to other VPN services we’ve reviewed. For example, IPVanish gives you a handy choice of dashboard views, too (read all about it in my in-depth IPVanish review). When you find a location you like, just drag it open and you’ll see servers and server loads, color-coded from red (high traffic) to green (low traffic).
Where ProtonVPN stands apart, though, is in its custom profiles. These smart VPN presets work just like a Favorites list, but with an unusual degree of control. Choose a location and ProtonVPN will find the fastest connection for you (and save it for you for next time). There are similar smart customizations for private browsing on Tor and torrenting over P2P servers. If customization is what you want, but you’re looking for something a little less expensive, I recently tested CyberGhost and really liked what I saw.
Plus, ProtonVPN gives you the stats that matter: connection times, data transfer numbers, server loads and speeds. That last one may come in handy, for instance, if your VPN is running a little slow and you’re looking for a culprit that isn’t your ISP.
Is this no-nonsense dashboard experience enough to make up for the other privacy features ProtonVPN doesn’t have? Tough call.
Like Switzerland, home of ProtonVPN, I’d probably stay neutral here,4 unless I was doing a lot of torrenting — in which case I’d probably cast my vote for NordVPN.
Did You Know: It was the Swiss Banking Act of 1934 that gave Switzerland a name for banking secrecy. But Switzerland, which isn’t a member of the EU and so is outside its jurisdiction, also has ironclad data privacy laws (the Swiss Federal Data Protection Act), making it a hotspot for data storage service providers.
User Interface: Mobile
ProtonVPN’s iOS and Android experience is almost identical to what you get on the desktop. This isn’t a bad thing. We all spend a lot of time on our mobiles. Why learn two different interfaces?
Another plus for advanced users: ProtonVPN lets you transfer your OpenVPN files in batches. This means you can run your VPN off whatever OpenVPN-compatible devices or apps you want without having to upload those files one by one or use generic configurations.
Does this make ProtonVPN the VPN service for you? Sure, if batch transferring OpenVPN files to OpenVPN-compatible devices makes you think “Christmas in July.”
Otherwise, NordVPN is probably going to speak better to your everyday security needs: simple toggles to activate its native ad, phishing and malware blockers, an auto-connect feature that kicks in when you’re connecting to Wi-Fi hotspots you don’t know, and split tunneling, so you can whitelist any apps or websites that don’t accept VPN connections. All from your phone.
Even better news for Apple users: NordVPN now has a built-in iOS kill switch along with a super handy Specialized Servers list, which lets you filter servers depending on what you’re doing, i.e., P2P for torrenting, Double VPN for accessing VPN-blocking networks, etc.
Winner: NordVPN, because it’s got more of what you need.
FYI: If you’ve always had the feeling you were being watched, technically you are. Or at least you could be — by up to 14 different countries. Originally the 5 Eyes (the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, and New Zealand), the now-14 countries that make up the 14 Eyes have bilateral surveillance and intelligence-sharing agreements that let them do basically whatever they deem fit to protect the interests of their respective states, including monitoring your data.
Are you partial to OpenVPN like me? I mention this because if you decide on ProtonVPN, that’s going to be your only protocol option — unless you want to connect manually over IKEv2.
For anyone sitting in the back row raising their hand, protocols are the back-end systems that keep our VPN tunnels operational and safe. There are three main types: OpenVPN, IKEv2, and the newer, quicker, but more temperamental, WireGuard.
NordVPN runs all three. In fact, if you have a fast line, and really want to see your VPN blast off, you can try NordVPN’s WireGuard-based, turbo-charged NordLynx protocol. We did. See how NordLynx performed against another of our Top 10 Best VPNs in our nuts-and-bolts NordVPN vs. IPVanish comparison guide.
Speaking of speed, I have some numbers you may like.
Like the aptly named ExpressVPN, NordVPN has a reputation for speed almost as great as Vin Diesel’s.
FYI: In my latest comparison guide, I tested NordVPN against ExpressVPN. Give it a read to see how these two industry titans measure up.
But the key in my case — as in yours — isn’t necessarily how fast your VPN connection is, but how little, or much, it slows your router down.
I wanted an even playing field, so I let both NordVPN and ProtonVPN find the fastest all-purpose connection for me and I connected over OpenVPN, the only protocol ProtonVPN has built in.
On my 160 Mbps line, NordVPN only dropped my download speed by 5-10 percent. That’s an average of about 148 Mbps. Not bad at all. Even better, I saw my upload speeds shoot up by about 70 percent, a little faster than the last time I connected.
ProtonVPN was faster than I’d expected, but it couldn’t match NordVPN, with download speeds hovering around 95 Mbps. Though, to be fair, for this test my line was running at 115 Mbps. ISP throttling? Maybe. An even better reason to grab a service like NordVPN, which has obfuscated servers to mask your VPN traffic.
Just to see what it was like over in Europe, where Proton has a bunch of servers, I tested a German connection and streamed (at random, of course) Inside Borussia Dortmund on Netflix. Which means: a) ProtonVPN is fast enough for streaming European series, and b) you may be better off just sticking with good ol’ U.S. Netflix.
Full disclosure: I had to subscribe to Proton Plus ($8 per month or $96 per year) to unblock German Netflix and stream “Inside Borussia Dortmund.” The same goes for any other German classics you may find on Netflix or Amazon Prime Video. NordVPN, for the record, unblocks both platforms on their basic plan, which we’re going to unpack for you … right now.
Pro Tip: When you’re measuring performance, after rock solid encryption, the most important performance metric isn’t speed alone, but how much, if at all, your VPN slows down your line when connected to your chosen servers. An unprotected 1 Gbps line giving you a speed of 500 Mbps when connected to your VPN, for example, is significantly slower than a 200 Mbps line running at 150 Mbps.
NordVPN vs. ProtonVPN: Pricing
I have to admit, perusing ProtonVPN’s pricing table, I was struck by the Proton Visionary plan all the way at the right. But on closer examination, it didn’t offer anything more than a ProtonMail account, and five more simultaneously connected devices.
Would a ProtonMail account make me a visionary? I don’t know. What I do know is that if you subscribe to the Visionary plan, you’ll be out $288 per year.
If you’re just shopping for a VPN, on the other hand, then you’ll probably want to stick with Proton Plus, which gives you all the goodies I mentioned so far, with five protected devices for $96 per year (or $79.50 per year on the two-year plan).
NordVPN is a little more expensive over the long haul, even though it might not look that way at first because their pricing scheme is sort of reversed. You get a really attractive, two-year honeymoon deal: $89.04 for the first two years. After that, it’s $119 yearly, which is $23 more per year than Proton Plus.
Too many numbers? Maybe this will help: Over the first four years, whether you go with NordVPN basic or Proton Plus, your bill will be almost exactly the same.
NordVPN vs. ProtonVPN: Support
If you’re hands-on with your tech and expect knowledgeable answers when you need them, either via live chat or a carefully curated online knowledgebase, then you’re going to like NordVPN.
NordVPN has email and 24/7 live chat support (which I used to track down NordVPN’s actual pricing plan). It was quick and relatively painless.
But what I really love about the NordVPN support experience is its online documentation. Their library is well organized, well stocked, and they’re very good at explaining things.
ProtonVPN doesn’t have chat support yet, which, frankly, you’d expect from a VPN service designed by CERN scientists. Their email support isn’t fast — expect a one-to-two-day response — but they do answer. Documentation-wise, ProtonVPN has what amounts to a random-seeming FAQ covering a few account, installation, content, and speed issues.
Bottom line? If I was on a desert island and I could only take one support center with me, I would take NordVPN’s.
Should I Subscribe to NordVPN or ProtonVPN?
Seeing that you’ve gotten all the way down here, I don’t think price is going to be the deciding factor in choosing between NordVPN and ProtonVPN. As we’ve already seen, they don’t have wildly different price tags.
If you’re already one of ProtonMail’s 10-million-plus users, you know what kind of product to expect from Proton. Privacy is Proton’s core value. It’s where they came from and why so many journalists and privacy activists worldwide trust them.
Proton’s also got the sheer science to set up and operate their own faultlessly secure network. And since it’s based out of Switzerland no less, it means — besides a shared legacy of the world’s finest cuckoo clocks, watches, and bank vaults — complete freedom from the 14 Eyes.5
That said, there are some notable consumer gaps in ProtonVPN’s service that NordVPN ably fills with its feature-packed desktop and mobile apps, consistently great performance, and outstanding customer support.
Simply put, NordVPN is a tough act to follow. On top of that, they’re no slackers when it comes to privacy either, offering unbeatable transparency backed up by full-scale, bi-yearly, third-party audits.
Bottom line? Here’s my best advice. Give them both a whirl. NordVPN has a 30-day, money-back guarantee. Check out their obfuscated servers. Connect to Canada via Barbados. Unblock German Netflix (or don’t).
Although Proton doesn’t give you a free trial, it does have a free basic plan. The free plan is limited to two devices, gates a few features, and throttles your speed, but it should give you a good taste of the interface. And that’s usually all you need to make a decision.
Of course, if you want to keep things simple and get the best VPN for your money, I give NordVPN the edge over ProtonVPN.
For the first four years, you’ll be paying about the same (if you subscribe to Proton Plus). After that, NordVPN is $119 per year and Proton Plus is either $96 per year (paid yearly) or $79.50 per year (paid every two years).
Running on an OpenVPN protocol — not its proprietary, turbo-charged NordLynx protocol — NordVPN is still the faster service.
NordVPN has more, with their 5,000-plus servers in 59 countries. Compare that to ProtonVPN’s 1,063 servers in 55 countries.
Both VPN providers have smart, well-designed desktop and mobile apps. While ProtonVPN gets some things right, NordVPN has more security and privacy features, some of which you may need.
No, neither provider offers those services on its basic plan. NordVPN does have NordLocker (secure file storage) and NordPass (password manager and breach tester), which you can add to your basic subscription as a bundle.
Yes. NordVPN has Cybersec. ProtonVPN has Netshield.