Our ProtonVPN review starts by noting that they are a new (June 2017) service offered by ProtonVPN AG which is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. This means its users benefit from some of the world’s strongest privacy laws. Although technically separated from Proton Technologies AG, which operates ProtonMail, it has access to their support. Thus, ProtonVPN benefits from both their technical expertise in online security and favorable reputation in privacy circles. Their service utilizes a unique feature, “Secure Core”, to create a multiple hop VPN network path to increase your privacy while surfing the Internet.
ProtonVPN offers a free VPN service as well as a paid one. We will primarily discuss the paid service in this section. ProtonVPN markets their service as three different subscription packages: Basic, Plus, and Visionary. They provide these in monthly and yearly term plans. Monthly prices are as follows:
- Basic plan – $5/month;
- Plus plan – $10/month; and
- Visionary plan – $30/month.
Signing up for one of the ProtonVPN yearly plans will save you 20% off the monthly pricing.
All paid plans provide access to all 14 countries currently in the ProtonVPN network. Each varies in speed, number of servers, number of simultaneous connections allowed, and included extra features. Plus and Visionary subscriptions include the highest speed network and extra features that include the following:
- Plus servers – access to exclusive high bandwidth servers.
- Secure Core network – provides additional privacy and security protection against compromise of endpoint servers in countries with high surveillance or less restrictive privacy laws like “five eyes” countries.
- Tor servers – servers which allow all traffic to go through the Tor network with a single click.
In addition to these extra benefits, the Visionary plans also include ProtonMail Visionary, which is ProtonMail’s full-featured version of their secure end-to-end encrypted email service. This could be a good choice for you if you want the extra security provided by encrypting all of your email.
The best value for those who do not need this service is their yearly Plus plan. This plan offers unlimited access to all locations on up to five simultaneous devices. It also lets you use the fastest dedicated ProtonVPN servers, provides access to the Secure Core network, and allows one-click Tor network access for $8 a month.
You can pay for the ProtonVPN service using euros, dollars, or Swiss francs. They accept most major credit cards. If you would rather keep all of your online transactions in a central place, they take PayPal. Additionally, if you would like to remain even more anonymous, you can arrange to pay by means of Bitcoin.
ProtonVPN Free Service and Special Offers
ProtonVPN does offer a free plan for their service. This plan has the following features:
- Access to three countries – Japan, the Netherlands, the United States
- One connection
- Limited number of low speed servers
We also heard that you could be placed on a waiting list to get access to the free servers due to their limited number and overwhelming number of people wanting free accounts. By their own admission, these servers have low speeds and are subject to high percentage loads. Because of this we do not think that the free service is suitable for day-to-day VPN users. However, it could provide online privacy and security for those who only occasionally use a VPN to connect to the Internet or those with financial hardships.
ProtonVPN also has a prorated 60-day money back guarantee. This means that within 60 days of subscription, you will receive a refund for of any unused service period. While not a full money back guarantee, its length is unusual for the VPN industry. To claim your refund, you must send an email canceling your service and requesting your refund to the ProtonVPN support staff within 60 days of purchase.
ProtonVPN has a fair number of country locations and a medium amount of servers (about 110) which we really did not expect from a service that is only a few months old. This bodes well for what we can expect from their service in the future. Currently, they have server locations in 14 different countries with multiple IP addresses available in each. These are spread between Asia, Europe, North America, and Oceania. These countries include the following:
- Asia – Japan, Hong Kong. Singapore
- Europe – France, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom
- North America – Canada, the United States
- Oceania – Australia
Basic, Plus, and Visionary subscribers get access to all of the countries on the ProtonVPN network.
Almost half of these countries have servers that support P2P and Tor traffic. Most of these allow users one-click entrance to the Onion network. Plus and Visionary users also gain access to these P2P servers, dedicated faster (10 GB bandwidth) servers, and the Secure Core VPN network servers. We will discuss these in greater detail later in our ProtonVPN review.
Free users can only use a small number of server locations in Japan, the Netherlands, and the United States. These are smaller bandwidth servers that are often made even slower due to overcrowding.
ProtonVPN Network Security
ProtonVPN believes that although PPTP and L2TP are easier and cheaper to implement, the protocols are not secure enough for a VPN network. Therefore, their network only supports OpenVPN which is widely considered the most secure VPN protocol. This allows them to make their network encryption more secure.
The service use algorithms with AES-256 that support Perfect Forward Secrecy for encryption. This means that your encrypted message cannot be saved and later decrypted, even if a future encryption key is compromised. Initial handshake and key exchange is implemented using 2048-bit RSA. Finally, messages are authenticated using HMAC with SHA256. This shows that ProtonVPN really thought about your online security when they designed their VPN network. You can be assured that all of your Internet traffic is secure while using their VPN service.
ProtonVPN and Your Personal Privacy
The first thing to consider is that ProtonVPN is headquartered in Switzerland which has some of the world’s strongest privacy laws. It is also not part of the European Union or subject to United States jurisdiction. Furthermore, Switzerland is not a member of any of the so-called “eyes surveillance networks”.
Data we retain from ProtonVPN sessions:
Each time a user connects to ProtonVPN, we only store a timestamp of the last successful login attempt. While it is stored indefinitely, this gets overwritten the each time you log in.
Why do you retain a timestamp:
We retain this limited information to know how many devices are being connected and ensure users do not make excessive number of connections.
What we don’t do when you use ProtonVPN:
Log user’s traffic or the content of any communications
Discriminate against devices, protocols, or applications.
Throttle your Internet connection.
Thus, you can see that they believe in keeping you Internet activities private. The timestamp is minimal information and not really related to your privacy. This means that from a personally identifiable information (PII) standpoint, ProtonVPN is a true no-log VPN service.
In addition, they have other privacy features on their VPN network:
- DNS leak protection – they route all DNS queries through their encrypted VPN network to guard against DNS leaks which could expose your online activity.
- Kill switch – their software has a built-in kill switch that will interrupt your Internet if your VPN server connection drops. This will help to keep your true IP address from being accidentally shown.
- Tor network access – they provide selected Tor servers to allow you to route all of your Internet traffic to the Tor anonymity network with just a single click.
- Secure Core network – ProtonVPN’s hardened network of servers that allows their users to multi-hop before they access their final VPN server which may be in a less privacy oriented country.
Given the combination of ProtonVPN’s essentially no-log policy and their advanced privacy features, it is clear that they care about and protect your personal privacy. Additionally, you can use an anonymous email address to sign up for their service and Bitcoin to pay for it. This will increase your privacy and anonymity even more.
ProtonVPN Customer Support
ProtonVPN has a support section on their website. It contains general information about their VPN network along with some troubleshooting advice. It also contains illustrated guides to download, install, and use ProtonVPN with OpenVPN on a variety of devices and operating systems. These include Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Android, iOS, and DD-WRT routers. It also shows you how to connect your device to one of their servers. This includes connection to their Secure Core and Tor entrance servers. They also have a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. Finally, you can email their support staff if you need additional answers or have other requests.
Hands-On Testing of ProtonVPN
Creating Your ProtonVPN Account
Regardless of the ProtonVPN plan you choose from their pricing page, it will prompt you to create an account. This is a two stage process. You must first enter in a username, password, confirm password, and email address.
Next they will have you verify your account, either by email or SMS. After you enter your email address or phone number and click the “Send” button. ProtonVPN will send you a verification code using your chosen method. Enter this code, and then click the “Get ProtonVPN” button to finish account creation. Note, you must create an account even if you choose the free plan.
Manually Configuring your Device for ProtonVPN
Being a new service (June 2017), ProtonVPN only has a custom client for Windows at this time. They do however support Mac OS X through the Tunnelbick open source VPN interface via OpenVPN. You can connect to the ProtonVPN network with your Android device via the third-party OpenVPN clients: OpenVPN for Android or OpenVPN Connect which can be downloaded from the Google Play store. Similarly you can download OpenVPN Connect from the iTunes store to connect to their service with your iPhone or iPad.
Before you install one of these third-party OpenVPN software clients, first sign in to your account on the ProtonVPN website. Choose downloads from the left menu. Selecting the button for your device will open the step-by-step guide to help you manually download and install the appropriate software and OpenVPN configuration files you need to connect to their service.
Clicking on the button for Windows will open the download page for the ProtonVPN Windows client. Click on the “Download for Windows” button to download the client software to your PC.
Installing the ProtonVPN Client for Windows
After you have downloaded the client software to your computer, run the setup file to finish installing it. Your will see a welcoming screen followed by a couple of setup screens. Click “Next” on these. Click “Install” to begin the client installation process. After a while you, will be prompted to install the ProtonVPN TAP network driver. After clicking “Install” on this screen, the client installation will complete. This may take a few minutes.
After the client finishes installing, you will see the login screen. Enter in the credentials that you used to create your ProtonVPN account. You can optionally choose to start the client when Windows starts up. After entering your “Username” and “Password”, click on the “Login” button.
This will open the ProtonVPN dashboard. All software features can be accessed from here.
ProtonVPN Plus 7-Day Free Trial
Before we take a look at the dashboard, we would like to discuss another topic. We were pleasantly surprised by the following screen as the client opened. It appears that ProtonVPN is currently giving new users a 7-day free trial of their ProtonVPN Plus service.
We had previously heard that there was a wait list for the free service and expected a screen like that shown on the right above. We think that the free upgrade is a better solution than the wait list but do not know how long the trial will be available.
ProtonVPN Windows Client Dashboard
Now, let us take a look at the main dashboard for the client. The left-hand side of the client shows:
- Your current IP address – true IP is shown when disconnected otherwise the virtual one assigned by the VPN server is displayed.
- Quick connect button – this will connect you to the fastest server to your location by ping or your default connection profile if you have created one.
- Countries tab – displays the countries you can connect to in alphabetical order. Selecting the “Secure Core” toggle modifies the countries to include Secure Core network servers and highlights them on the map.
- Profiles tab – it has two default profiles. Fastest will connect you to the fastest server from your home location. Random will randomly connect you to a country. You can also use this tab to create and manage your profiles. We will look at this later in this ProtonVPN review.
The main part of the screen contains the following elements:
- Interactive map – This map shows the locations of ProtonVPN servers. It allows you to zoom in/out on it. Selecting a location (upside-down triangle) will display the country name. Hovering the mouse over this name will allow you to connect to the fastest server at that country.
- Session traffic graph – This is a graph of the upload and download speed for your current connection. It also shows instantaneous numerical values for each, the total volumes, and the session duration.
ProtonVPN Windows Client Settings
Now that we have looked at the the Dashboard for the ProtonVPN client, let us examine its settings menu. This menu is accessed by clicking on the main menu icon (triple horizontal lines) in the upper left corner of the dashboard. This menu has the following elements:
- Profiles – allows you to manage your favorite connections.
- Settings – preferences that control how the client operates.
- Update – will let check for the latest client update and install it.
- Help – sends you to the support page of the ProtonVPN website.
- Report bug – opens an online form to make support requests.
- Logout – exits the client which but requires login information to reenter it.
- Exit – leaves the client but keeps your login credentials.
The settings are divided into three categories:
- Startup Options – preferences that affect how the client opens.
- Start with windows – opens the client when Windows starts up.
- Start minimized – minimizes the client to the system tray when it opens.
- Auto connect – automatically connects to the client using “quick connect” when it opens.
- Security – preferences to enhance your online privacy while using the ProtonVPN service.
- VPN kill switch – kills your Internet connection until it is restored if the VPN connection drops.
- DNS Leak protection – guards against accidental DNS leaks by tunneling all DNS requests through the VPN.
- Default OpenVPN protocol – only change the default protocol if necessary.
- UDP – is the fastest and default protocol for the client.
- TCP – can sometimes help if you have an unstable connection because it includes error checking and correction but is slower than UDP.
Using the ProtonVPN Windows Client
Connecting to a Tor Entrance Server Using ProtonVPN
Connecting to a ProtonVPN server with the client is easy to do. Simply click on the location that you want to connect to under the countries tab of the dashboard. A country can be expanded into the servers it hosts by clicking on the encircled + icon beside its name. An onion symbol beside a country means that it has a server which connects to the Tor network as shown for Hong Kong. The opposing arrows icon means that it has multiple servers that support P2P traffic as in the case of The Netherlands.
The circle symbol to the left of a server name is graphical representation of the servers current load. Mousing over this will display the percentage load (1%) as shown for HK#5-TOR above. Selecting the “Connect” button to the right of the server name will connect you to it. This will only be displayed if you move the mouse over the location.
A couple of clicks is all it takes to connect to the Tor anonymity network. Be aware that your connection will be slowed while accessing the Tor network but your anonymity will be better protected. After you have connected to the HK#5-TOR server, you will see your connection shown on the map and the session traffic will start to be monitored. The VPN server that you are connected to and the virtual IP address assigned will also be shown in the upper right of the client screen.
Disconnecting from the network requires just a single click of the large “Disconnect” button or you can mouse over the “Connected” button beside the country or server and click on the green “Disconnect” button that appears. Selecting another server or country will also disconnect you from your current ProtonVPN server and reconnect you to your new chosen one. Now that we have seen how easy it is to connect and disconnect using the client, let us examine the secure core network in greater detail.
Using Secure Core Connections to Increase Privacy
Before we connect to the Secure Core network, let us take a closer look at what it is and how it works. Secure Core is a hardened network of servers in three countries (Iceland, Sweden, and Switzerland) who have robust privacy laws. These servers are located in high security datacenters. The servers are fully owned, provisioned, and placed with the complete control of ProtonVPN. Finally, Secure Core servers are connected to the Internet using their own dedicated network with IP addresses that are owned and operated by their own Local Internet Registry (LIR).
This allows them to guard against compromised VPN servers in less privacy oriented countries like China or high surveillance countries like Australia, the US, and the UK. Should the VPN server supplier in another country be coerced into monitoring VPN network traffic, they could perform time correlations to undo a users online surfing privacy. Such timing/correlation attacks could only follow the traffic back to the edge of the ProtonVPN Secure Core network. This makes it less likely that they will be able to trace it back to the users true IP address. Thus, helping to protect your online privacy.
User connections start by multi-hopping on the Sercure Core network before exiting one of its network servers to make the final connection to the destination VPN server. The edge server locations and their final destinations are as follows:
- Iceland -> Canada, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United States
- Sweden -> Australia, France, Hong Kong, and Japan
- Switzerland -> Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom
Now that we have examined what the Secure Core network is and how it is used to help increase your online privacy, let us use the client to connect to a VPN server using it. First, you need to toggle “Secure Core” on the Countries tab. Then select a destination VPN server via Secure Core server combination like Switzerland >> United States.
Clicking on the connect button is all that is necessary to complete the Secure Core network circuit. Once the connection is complete the network pathway (Home -> Switzerland Secure Core -> United States) is displayed on the dashboard map. Your new virtual IP address and the percentage server load will also be displayed in the upper left of the dashboard screen. Network traffic speed and volume will also be shown. As you can see, connecting using the Secure Core network is just as easy as connecting to a single VPN server. It takes only a couple of clicks.
Creating and Using ProtonVPN Client Profiles
The only thing left to examine for the ProtonVPN client is how to create and manage your profiles. We looked at the default profiles on the tab earlier in this ProtonVPN review. Selecting the “Profile” tab and then the clicking on the “Create new profile” button will allow you to create your own profiles with your favorite connections.
A profile is created by entering in the following fields on the profile screen: Profile name; Country/Server or Secure Core path if toggled. You can also choose a color for the profile icon and make it the default profile if desired. As an example, we have created a profile for our Secure Core Switzerland -> US connection and made it the default profile.
Saving this profile opens the “Overview” tab. This is the same screen shown when you click the “Manage profiles” link on the profile tab of the main dashboard. From this screen you can manage all of your current profiles. Notice, Secure Core profiles display a green icon. You can connect, edit, or delete current profiles. You can also change the default profile or create new ones.
Remember the default profile is the one that is used when you select “Quick connect” on the dashboard screen or choose to auto connect the client on opening. Notice also that the new profiles are now listed on the Profiles tab. This makes them easier to use.
In our case this will connect us to the “Core Swiss-US” profile connection since it is set as our default. This allows you to connect to the ProtonVPN network with a single click or even no click if auto connect is set.
As you can see, the ProtonVPN Windows client is easy to install and use. It has just a few user defined settings which allow you control over your security and how it starts up. It has advanced features like protection from DNS leaks and a kill switch. ProtonVPN has also created a unique Secure Core network connection to increase your privacy. Even with these extra privacy features you can connect to their VPN servers or Secure Core network with just a click or two using the client. Changing connections is also easy. Simply choose a new location. You can even use it to one-click connect to the Tor anonymity network.
ProtonVPN Speed Tests
Plus Server Speed Test
Because ProtonVPN has both a free and paid service, we decided to test both. Additionally, we also decided to test the speed of Secure Core connections. Checking connections to their plus servers shows a small loss to our connection speed. We expected this given their high level of encryption.
The speed test shows that the encrypted connection lowers our base ISP download speed from 37.01 Mb/s to 32.15 Mb/s. This is a drop of about 13% to a server in Chicago, IL. Overall, our tests to other servers varied between 8% and 15%. We feel that this is a small price to pay thanks to the high level of security provided by using the ProtonVPN service. Despite the speed loss, our connection speed is still fast enough for any online application we might have including bypassing geo-restrictions and watching our favorite TV shows online.
Secure Core Network Speed Test
Testing Secure Core network connections show that the connection speed decreases quite a bit when we connect to the ProtonVPN service. This is expected as the path to the destination VPN server has been augmented by first multi-hopping on ProtonVPN’s Secure Core network. This increases the ping time significantly and slows down the Internet speed.
The speed test shows that the encrypted connection lowers our base ISP download speed from 28.22 Mb/s to 18.46 Mb/s. This is a drop of about 34.5% to a server in Wilson, KS. In various tests, we observed results that varied between 20% and 35%. This is a significant loss in connection speed, but still fast enough to conduct all of your Internet activities. If online privacy is your main concern, the increased protection could be worth the hit to connection speed.
Free ProtonVPN Speed Test
Testing ProtonVPN free server connections show that they have the greatest loss in connection speeds with some being over 50%. This is because they are on a limited number of low bandwidth servers that at times are near load capacity.
The speed test shows that the encrypted connection lowered our base ISP download speed from 28.22 Mb/s to 15.49 Mb/s. This is a drop of about 45% to a server in Wilson, KS. In various tests, we observed results that varied between 30% and 60%. Depending on your original ISP connection speed, this could produce a noticeable effect on your online surfing experience. We feel that it is not acceptable for those who routinely connect to the Internet using a VPN. It does however provide those who rarely need a secure Internet connection or have limited finances a way to securely surf the Web.
ProtonVPN Review: Conclusion
ProtonVPN is a new Internet security and privacy service that is supported by the the same team who developed ProtonMail, the popular end-to-end encrypted email service. Although new to the industry, they benefit from the technical expertise in Internet security and excellent reputation that ProtonMail enjoys. Utilizing this support, they have created a small, fast, and secure VPN network. Although a good choice now, they have the potential to be one of the premier VPN services.
ProtonVPN has created a custom software client for Windows. It is easy to install and use. It will have you connected to their VPN network in just a couple of clicks. The client allows you to connect directly to your destination server or increase your privacy by first multi-hopping through their Secure Core network. It also includes DNS leak protection and a VPN kill switch. They also provide access to other devices like Mac OS X, Linux, Android, and iOS through third party OpenVPN software and have guides to help you with these in the support area of their website.
The ProtonVPN service only supports OpenVPN because they feel that it is the most secure VPN protocol. Their network uses AES-256 for encryption with ciphers that support Perfect Forward Secrecy. Handshake and key exchanges are handled using 2048 RSA. They also uses HMAC with SHA256 for message authentication. ProtonVPN understands security and you can be assured that your data is protected while using their service.
ProtoVPN has a support area on their website with general information about their service features. It also has guides to help you connect to their service. They have a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. You can also make support requests via email.
What we liked most about the service:
- They have an excellent, easy to use client for Windows.
- Their Secure Core network that allows you to increase your privacy though a multi-hopping connection.
- Five simultaneous logins if you subscribe to the ProtonVPN Plus Plan.
- Advanced features like a kill switch and DNS leak protection in their custom Windows software.
- 60-day prorated money back guarantee.
Ideas to improve the service:
- Add custom software for Mac OS X, iOS, and Android
- Increase the number of locations they have VPN servers in.
- Ad chat support to their website.
Although smaller than some other networks, ProtonVPN has servers in Asia, Europe, North America, and Oceania. They have locations in 14 countries with about 110 servers. Their network is fast as shown in our test of their Plus servers. They offer a 60-day prorated money back guarantee. ProtonVPN is currently offering a free 7-day trial upgrade to their Plus Plan service for all new users. Consequently, now is a good time to test their service and see if its right for you. If you suit your needs, you can sign up for the ProtonVPN Plus Plan for just $8 a month.