ProtonVPN is an interesting Swiss-based VPN linked to the people behind ProtonMail, the popular end-to-end encrypted email service.
The company is strong on the security fundamentals. It ‘only’ offers servers in 14 countries, but many of these are selected for their strong privacy laws. The individual servers are owned and set up by ProtonVPN, and connected to the internet using the company’s own network.
Similarly, ProtonVPN only supports a single protocol, OpenVPN. That’s less convenient than almost everyone else, but it does guarantee your connection will always be using the strongest possible security.
ProtonVPN adds extra protection of its own. Traffic is routed through multiple servers before it leaves the network, so even high-tech snoopers monitoring an exit server won’t be able to trace individual users. Additionally, support for forward secrecy means the service uses a new encryption key every session. Even if that key is compromised, it can’t be used to decrypt other traffic.
You’re not a network geek? There are plenty of more familiar features here. The service is P2P-friendly, supports up to 10 devices, has a kill switch, DNS leak protection and built-in Tor support for accessing Onion sites. All this is surprisingly easy-to-use on Windows, thanks to an excellent app. OS X, Android and iOS users will have to set up an OpenVPN app, but there are instructions to help out.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all this functionality comes at a cost. The Plus plan delivers all the features we’ve described here, covers five devices, and can be yours for $8 (£10) a month, paid annually. That’s not bad, but you can get capable VPNs for half the price.
There are cheaper options available. The Basic plan doesn’t give you access to the premium servers, doesn’t route traffic through multiple servers, and only supports two devices, but it’s just $4 (£5) a month.
There’s a free plan, too. It covers one device only, gives you access to just three countries, and speeds are relatively low. You can’t just sign up on the spot, either – you have to register and wait to be offered a place. But there are no bandwidth limits, and if you can get signed up, it’s a simple way to check out the service.
ProtonVPN’s Swiss home gives it an immediate privacy advantage over most of the competition. The country has very strong privacy laws, is outside of US and EU jurisdiction, and isn’t a member of the 14 eyes surveillance network.
The company states its logging policy very clearly on the website: “ProtonVPN is a no logs VPN service. We do not track or record your internet activity, and therefore, we are unable to disclose this information to third parties.”
Session logging is almost non-existent. The company stores the timestamp of the last successful login attempt, but that’s it. This is overwritten when you next log in, so it only ever reflects the last session.
ProtonVPN associates your account with an email address when you sign up, but this address can be whatever you like. The company suggests using ProtonMail if you’d prefer to remain completely anonymous.
Sign up for the free plan and you won’t have to provide any payment details. Choose something else and you can opt to pay by Bitcoin. If you use PayPal or a credit card, the payments are processed by a third-party, and ProtonVPN won’t see your billing details.
Even the website is more privacy-conscious than we expected. There are no ads, and like Windscribe, ProtonVPN uses a local Piwik installation rather than Google Analytics. This shows an attention to detail that you rarely get with other providers.
ProtonVPN may be an expert in security, but it’s not quite so skilled in e-commerce. We chose a plan billed monthly, in dollars; it updated to show a yearly amount in Euros. You can pay in Bitcoin, but only if you can find the instructions – they’re not listed on the payment page. And when we chose PayPal, the site initially opened in German. Still, none of these issues held us up for long, and within a couple of minutes we were ready to go.
After handing over the cash, ProtonVPN directed us to our account dashboard, a handy web portal with useful files and information: account details, login credentials, an OpenVPN configuration file generator, a download link for the Windows client, and links to instructions for setting up Mac, Linux, iOS and Android devices.
We grabbed a copy of the Windows client. It downloaded and installed in seconds with no technical hassles. We logged in with the user credentials we specified while signing up, and the main console appeared.
The ProtonVPN client looks great, with a professional and polished interface. It opens with a zoom-able world map, which works exactly as expected (spin the mouse wheel to zoom in and out, left click and drag to move around). Server locations are highlighted, and we could connect to anything in a couple of clicks.
If you don’t need a map, you can collapse the client down to a regular list of locations. Icons highlight any special features (three locations support P2P, another three support Tor). Expanding any location lists all its available servers, with an indication of load, and you can connect with a click.
A Profiles feature works as a sort-of favourites system. The client comes with two profiles – Fastest connects to the fastest available server, whereas Random chooses a different server each time – but it’s easy to create more. If you’re a heavy torrent user, for instance, you could create a profile called P2P which automatically connects to the fastest server in a P2P-friendly location. Set this as the default profile and it’ll be launched whenever you click Quick Connect in the main window.
The client gives you an unusual amount of feedback on the current session. You don’t just get to see your new IP: there’s also the time connected so far, data downloaded and uploaded, and the current download and upload speeds.
Thoughtful design touches ensure the client is always very easy to operate. Icons are mostly intuitive, controls are where you expect them to be, and there are lots of information icons and tooltips to point you in the right direction.
In our performance tests*, speeds were consistently above average. Both the European and North American servers were always somewhere in the 20-30Mbps range. This didn’t necessarily reflect distance, either: UK-US connections were almost always faster than UK-Sweden.
ProtonVPN has some more distant servers in Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. Download speeds fall dramatically when your data has to travel that far, as with everyone else, but the service still delivered a usable connection. We typically got 4-5Mbps, and up to 10Mbps from Japan, maybe enough for 720p streaming (it’s not stable enough for 1080p).
The good news continued to the end, as we ran our usual set of privacy tests. All ProtonVPN servers were in the locations promised, and they all returned the same IP and DNS address, with no DNS or WebRTC leaks to give our real identity away.
We’d like to see some mobile apps, but even now ProtonVPN could be a smart choice for experienced VPN users who need and will appreciate its more advanced features.
*Our testing included evaluating general performance (browsing, streaming video). We also used speedtest.net to measure latency, upload and download speeds, and then tested immediately again with the VPN turned off, to check for any difference (over several rounds of testing). We then compared these results to other VPN services we’ve reviewed. Of course, do note that VPN performance is difficult to measure as there are so many variables.