High-level protection at a reasonable price point
Ah, Switzerland. Refuge for the Von Trapp family, location of the most pristine mountain ranges in the world, and home of some of the strongest privacy laws on the planet.
They’re also the headquarters to ProtonVPN — one of my personal favorites. Built as a counterpart to the legendary ProtonMail, an end-to-end encrypted email network developed for privacy hawks by CERN engineers,1 ProtonVPN offers some of the most high-tech protections and features on the market today.
And we’re not talking about I-want-to-stream-Canadian-Netflix features, here. We’re talking about I’m-a-journalist-embedded-in-Turkey features. Overkill for most day-to-day internet users? Perhaps. But if you’re looking for security, don’t you want the best VPN out there? You wouldn’t use a bike lock to protect a bank vault, so why would you trust your most valuable information to a service that only kinda works?
Did You Know: The internet is not a monolith. Depending on where you’re accessing it from, you’re beholden to certain rules and regulations dictated by governments and internet service providers. VPNs can level that playing field, though, and make the internet a more fair and equitable place.
Before I get into all of ProtonVPN’s features, though, let’s take a look at their pros and cons to give you an idea of what we’re going to be discussing.
There’s a lot to like about ProtonVPN — it’s fast, it’s secure, it’s reliable. But in the review process, I did find a few things that I wasn’t so wild about — we’ll get into all of this in more detail, but for now here’s the punch list of pros and cons.
So now that you have some context, let’s get into my full experience with ProtonVPN!
One of the first things you’ll notice is that ProtonVPN offers a free option. Although it’s an extremely scaled-down version of the service, it’s a great entry point to see if you like what Proton is bringing to the table. I’d recommend starting there, and scaling up as you notice services you think you’d utilize.
That said, let’s take a look at what each plan offers, and how much it’ll cost you.
|Proton VPN Service||Free||Basic||Plus||Visionary|
|Server Locations||3 Countries||55 Countries||55 Countries||55 Countries|
|TOR over VPN||X||X||✔||✔|
|Cost||Free||$5 per month||$10 per month||$30 per month|
As you can see, the feature list is pretty extensive, but the prices remain fairly reasonable. For context, if you check out my guide to ExpressVPN’s pricing, you’ll see they’re charging almost $13 per month for similar services with no options to choose between tiers of services.
For our purposes, we’re going to be discussing the Plus service package. This way we can cover the full suite of ProtonVPN’s services, minus ProtonMail. It’s a little beyond the scope of this review to get into the ProtonMail service offered by the Visionary package.
Did You Know: ProtonMail was first developed in 2013, and since that time they’ve grown to over 20 million users worldwide.
Purchasing a ProtonVPN plan is pretty straightforward. You’ll select the package you want and decide if you want to pay month-to-month, for a year, or for two years. As with most services, the longer the duration of your service, the more you’ll save. I get more into that in my breakdown of ProtonVPN’s plans and pricing, so be sure to check that out, too.
Then, you’ll select a username, a password, confirm your email address, and enter your payment information.
Something to note here, though: You won’t be able to pay with cryptocurrency. While they do require two-factor authentication to make your purchase, those who are really concerned about their privacy might be turned off a little by this. Just something to keep in mind.
Also — just a funny detail to point out — the default name in the “name on card” field is Thomas Anderson. Sound familiar? That was Neo’s name when he was still trapped inside “The Matrix.” Nice little nod, there, Proton.
On the next page, you’ll be prompted to download ProtonVPN. Select which platform you’re using, or choose if you’re downloading configuration files for third-party VPN clients, or if you’re going to be setting up the VPN on a router. Take a look…
Once you’ve downloaded the files to your computer, you’ll be prompted to re-enter your name and password to complete the setup, and — boom — you’re good to go. Now let’s see how this VPN performs.
Upon first startup, you’re going to be given the option to take a tour of the VPN’s features and functions. I always love it when services do this. Although they’ve become a lot more user-friendly over the years, some of this stuff can still be pretty confusing — particularly for folks without a lot of tech knowledge.
The tutorial explains how the quick-connect feature works, where you’ll save your preferred settings and servers, where you can manually select which country you want to connect to, and how to toggle your Secure Core, NetShield, and kill switch features on and off. More on that stuff later.
After the tutorial, I went ahead and hit quick connect. In an instant, I was routing my traffic through the fastest server, and just like that, I was invisible to any prying eyes and ready to hit the internet with absolute anonymity. Simple enough, right? But before we start going a little more in-depth with the service, let’s take a moment to talk about this dashboard.
ProtonVPN has one of the sleekest designs I’ve seen yet. The map functionality is pretty similar to what I saw when I reviewed NordVPN (one of my top picks, for the record). Everything just felt natural. All of my features were where I expected them to be, and everything felt snappy and responsive. I also really appreciated that I could move the window around and resize it to my liking. You’d be surprised at how many VPNs don’t have that functionality for some reason.
FYI: While it’s nice to have a service that offers a suite of features and a bunch of buttons to push, at the end of the day you want something that you can rely on to run in the background with reliability and security. I found that ProtonVPN offers both.
Speaking of those features and knobs, though, let’s talk about the three most prominent ones.
On the right-hand side of the dashboard, right above the list of countries, you’re going to find three key features. From left to right they are
Secure Core, NetShield, and the kill switch. We’ll talk about all three in that order.
First up we have Secure Core. This is one of those unique, high-tech features I mentioned in the introduction. What this does, essentially, is take your data and run it through secure servers in privacy-friendly countries before sending it out through less-secure channels and endpoints.
To understand exactly what this means, though, you need to understand how VPNs actually work. A common analogy is that a VPN creates a secure tunnel for your data through the internet that no one can access. While that’s true in a basic sense, it’s more accurate to say that your secure tunnel has a few checkpoints and toll booths throughout it. If an attacker or suspicious government agency is so inclined, they can attempt to take control of one of those points and match VPN clients to their traffic.
Did You Know: Some countries’ internet access is so restricted that they can actually recognize VPN protocol traffic and terminate your connection. Features like Secure Core can help prevent this from happening.
ProtonVPN’s Secure Core network, though, significantly decreases the likelihood of such an attack, since the threat will only be able to trace the traffic back to the secure network it originated from, instead of tracing it back to you. Think of it as a double VPN.
In fact, this is really similar to the multi-hop feature I saw when I reviewed Surfshark; however, Proton’s Secure Core takes it a step further by only routing traffic through servers in countries with strong privacy protections like Sweden, Switzerland, and Iceland. Additionally, the physical locations of these servers are extremely secure. Seriously — Proton’s data center in Iceland is located in a former military base.2
That said, with Secure Core engaged, you might experience some noticeable slowdowns in your speeds, which is understandable. You’re going to have to go to Switzerland before you go to Facebook. So consider only turning this on when you really want privacy, or if you’re doing something higher risk than everyday browsing like paying your taxes or transferring money.
The next feature is a little easier — the ad blocker. Everyone hates annoying pop-ups and sites clogged with targeted advertisements, and this feature helps eliminate them. While it wasn’t 100 percent, I did notice a much more manageable load — particularly on sites notoriously choked with ads.
Did You Know: Certain websites and internet service providers mine your data and sell it to third parties who compile it into profiles that they then sell to advertisers … all without your consent. There are a few ways to opt-out, though — and a VPN is one of the most effective.3
And finally, we have the kill switch. In my humble opinion, a kill switch should be considered basic functionality on any VPN. These terminate your internet connection should your VPN be interrupted for whatever reason. This prevents your IP address from ever becoming accidentally exposed during a technical hiccup. ProtonVPN has a kill switch, and it worked as expected. Nothing much to report there.
And that does it for the ProtonVPN day-to-day functions. Now we’re going to turn our attention to one of the most important aspects of its use — its speed.
Whenever you’re using a VPN, you should expect to see a little dip in performance. Just how significant that dip is, though, depends on the sophistication and size of the service’s network. How’d Proton stack up? Pretty well, honestly. Here — take a look.
This shows you my speeds without running ProtonVPN during a normal, point-in-time test. I’ve seen things move a little faster, but this is pretty standard for my run-of-the-mill connection.
And here’s how things looked with ProtonVPN engaged, using their “quick connect” optimization.
There was a slight decrease in my download speeds, and my upload speed actually ticked up a hair. Again — this is a point-in-time test; speeds fluctuate depending on myriad circumstances. But with that said, in my tests, I never noticed any significant changes in my speeds unless I was purposefully doing things I knew would slow it down like engaging the Secure Core function and connecting through Australia.
Even then, Proton was still running faster than my old dial-up days. Ahh, the good ol’ days.
That’s one side of the VPN coin, so what about the other? Speed without security is pretty worthless, so how did ProtonVPN fare in that regard?
Again — really well! In my tests, there were no IP address or DNS leaks.
Now if you don’t know what that means, it’s fine. Without boring you with techno-jargon, it means that the VPN is working as intended. There’s no stray information going over my traditional ISP connection — everything is traveling through the VPN network which keeps your privacy complete.
And that’s about all you need to know as far as the functionality of ProtonVPN. While it’s not a perfect VPN, it is easy to use, the interface is well-designed, it’s fast, and it’s secure. What more could you want? Well — there are a few items left to mention.
ProtonVPN is a great choice for file sharing. They offer a strict no-logs policy, and since they’re headquartered in Switzerland, you’re protected by some pretty intense privacy laws. Their kill switch functionality will protect you if your service goes out, and they even offer a guide for safely using BitTorrent — one of the most popular protocols. Servers optimized for P2P file sharing will be indicated with a dual arrow icon, like these …
Be careful though — despite ProtonVPN’s protections, you can still run into problems if you’re sharing illegal or copyrighted materials, which neither ProtonVPN nor SafeHome.org condones.
Before we explain what this is, you need to understand how encryption works. In the most simple terms, the encryption process scrambles your data so that it’s unintelligible until it reaches its destination. There, it is unscrambled using a key. Certain cryptographic protocols include “forward secrecy” which is a feature of specific key protocols that guarantees keys will not be compromised even if the methods by which they were created and exchanged are compromised.
FYI: ProtonVPN uses some of the highest encryption standards around. All network traffic is protected by AES-256, key exchange is done with 4096-bit RSA, and HMAC with SHA384 is used for message authentication. If that doesn’t mean much to you — here’s some context. To unlock AES-256 encryption using today’s computers, it would take longer than the age of the universe by orders of magnitude.4
Think of it this way. Instead of using the same locks and keys for various sessions, a new lock and corresponding key are created every time you connect with ProtonVPN. In other words, it’s extremely secure.
I’ll start by saying this is an oversimplification for brevity’s sake, but here we go. Onion routing is a technique developed by the U.S. Navy for anonymous communication over a computer network. Traffic is buried under layers of encryption, similar to an onion. Hence the name.
Tor is open-source software that uses onion routing to anonymously access the internet. Using the Tor browser will not only protect you from certain trackers, monitoring software, and other prying eyes, but it will also allow you entry to areas of the internet inaccessible by traditional means — namely the deep and dark web.
That said, using Tor alone doesn’t make you completely anonymous. However, adding a VPN to the mix will greatly increase your security and shore up your privacy significantly. There are only a few VPNs on the market today that are using Tor, but — you guessed it — ProtonVPN is one of them.
Look for the above icon to indicate servers that are Tor-optimized, and read Proton’s detailed guide on how to use their service with Tor.
So that’s my full experience with ProtonVPN. It’s easy-to-use, fast, safe, and secure … all great terms you want to hear when you’re talking about your digital privacy and security.
So what’s the verdict here? Is ProtonVPN worth your consideration?
In the time I spent using ProtonVPN, I was extremely impressed by its functionality and security. I really appreciated the well-designed user interface. The price is more than reasonable when compared to their list of features, and the advanced functionality only sweetened the deal.
However, there were a few things I didn’t like so much — namely its customizability. There’s really not a lot of opportunity to tinker around under the hood. For example, you can’t even change which VPN protocol you’re using. Is that a huge drawback? No, not really — particularly when you take into account how well the service works right out of the box. But there were moments when I wished I could’ve gone a little deeper with ProtonVPN.
With all this in mind, I’d certainly recommend ProtonVPN. They’re absolutely going to get the job done for 99 percent of the internet-faring public, and they have beefy enough security to protect the 1 percent who need special considerations.
If you’re not sure Proton is the best fit for you, there are a ton of other options available. Be sure to check out our 2021 guide of the best VPNs available to continue your search.
There are four tiers of protection offered by Proton, ranging from free to $10 per month. If you couple your VPN with their ProtonMail service, though, it’ll cost $30 monthly.
Proton works on Windows, Mac, and Linux computers as well as iOS and Android devices. It can also be configured to run on routers and certain TVs.
Yes, although there are no specific optimizations for streaming services, common streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu work well with ProtonVPN.
Yes, ProtonVPN offers several optimized servers for P2P file sharing.
Yes, ProtonVPN allows access to the Tor network. Check their support resources for step-by-step guides.
Brooks, T. (2021, March 16). What Is ProtonMail, and Why Is It More Private Than Gmail? How-To Geek.
ProtonVPN. (2021). What is Secure Core VPN?
Avast. (2021). What Is Ad Tracking?
ScramBox. (2016, October 30). How long would it take to brute force AES-256?
Derek Prall is a VPN and cybersecurity expert with more than seven years of experience in the industry. He has spent thousands of hours researching identity theft protection, VPNs, and other ways to keep safe online. To date, Derek has written nearly 100 comprehensive resources for SafeHome.org. As a professional journalist, he has contributed to reputable publications such as TD Magazine, New Jersey Herald, and many others. Learn more about Derek here