ProtonVPN has been around for some time and the company also has secure email services. The quality and features you’ll find here are a mixed bag, which isn’t all bad – just make sure that it can do what you want before you sign up for a long-term plan. Learn more.
September 29, 2020•
ProtonVPN isn’t the most established Virtual Private Network (VPN) provider around and, in fact, started out providing secure email services in 2014.
Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, they give reassurance to users in part by relying on the tight privacy regulations of their host country.
Pros of ProtonVPN
Cons of ProtonVPN
Switzerland is the home of the Alps, great milk chocolate, the famed Swiss Army Knife, and many more things. However, it is also famed for the rabid ferocity with which it guards privacy. The right to privacy is guaranteed under the Swiss Federal Constitution (Article 13):
“Every person has the right to privacy in their private and family life and in their home, and in relation to their mail and telecommunications.”
This makes it an ideal location for a company specializing in privacy and security to base their headquarters in. ProtonVPN is one of those companies, with their base of operations secure in Geneva.
Encryption is one of the hallmarks of VPN service providers since their entire presence revolves around the premise of privacy and security. There are various protocols and levels of encryption which they can offer. Some VPN service providers allow users to select the level of encryption they want, but ProtonVPN has decided to go the whole hog and only opt for the best.
It only offers the best protocol available for the device you’re using. For example, their Windows application only supports OpenVPN (both TCP and UDP), while you can only use IKEv2 for mobile devices. Encryption is also set at the highest possible level – AES-256.
Key exchange is accomplished with 4096-bit RSA while message authentication is via HMAC with SHA384. This is about as secure as you can get for personal use.
As a note of interest, these settings, while optimal for security, might not be the best for everybody. Different people use VPNs for different purposes and protocol/encryption is one of the ways which can be used to modulate performance in some way.
For example, if I were to only want to use the VPN for bypassing geo-locks on content, I would probably like the option to reduce encryption to squeeze as much speed out of the connection as I could get.
Part of my tests always include basic leak tests that include DNS leaks and WebRTC leaks. ProtonVPN is as secure as they say and no leaks were found during the process of my evaluation. The company also has a strict no-logs policy.
While many VPN providers state this, ProtonVPN has gone one step further and established a Transparency Report where it lists requests for information that it has received from authorities and what action it has taken with regard to those requests.
Although the information there is quite rudimentary and doesn’t really tell us much, it is a positive strep forward. After all, companies need to balance on a fine line, especially VPN companies when it comes to the law.
The ‘Secure Core’ concept by ProtonVPN is, in fact, what most VPN providers simply call a ‘multi-hop solution’.
This means that your connection is routed through a series of VPN servers for additional privacy potential. In the case of ProtonVPN, their ‘Secure Core’ is made up of servers in three countries – Switzerland, Iceland, and Sweden.
If you enable the ‘Secure Core’ option in your VPN client, then your connection will be routed through one of these three countries before heading towards the country that you’ve selected as your VPN server location.
Speed is one of the most sensitive issues when it comes to VPN services and there is always an ongoing argument between customers and service providers. Customers normally complain about ‘slow speeds’ while service providers struggle to explain that speed is dependent on so many factors.
For testing purposes, I need to clarify a few things before you simply take my results at face value. The first is that the device you’re using it on does matter – encryption takes up processing power and the capabilities of your device might be a factor.
The second is the distance from the selected VPN server – the further away a server you’ve chosen, the slower your connection is likely to be (in terms of latency). With that in mind, I’m running these tests on a desktop PC from a physical location in Malaysia.
The base speed of my Internet connection (theoretically) is 500Mbs and when connected locally, I am able to get almost full speeds. Of course, this will drop as I connect to servers which are further away.
As you can see, speeds offered by ProtonVPN are a bit of a mixed experience. I suppose that since they show very strong performance in some areas that they’ve staggered the capabilities of their servers depending on demand.
Still, it is for the most part enough to be streaming high quality 4k video if necessary. The only time you’ll likely notice you’re on the VPN is if you were trying to download a huge file – which might take a bit more time.
As with most good VPN service providers, ProtonVPN has a good presence around the world – in 41 countries, where they maintain over 500 servers. While not the largest number of countries and servers around, it is still a decent number.
Infrastructure (both hardware and bandwidth) costs a bomb and as a user, I would be very skeptical of a service provider that claims to offer massive numbers of servers for rock bottom prices. Some can do so, but not that many.
Personally, one of my main reasons for using a VPN is that I want to access Netflix US region content. This is a factor which is important to me. Running ProtonVPN I was able to stream Netflix US content smoothly at most times, so I’ll give them a pass on this one.
Do note though that there have been some cases of ProtonVPN servers being unable to connect to Netflix. I haven’t been able to test all 500-odd servers, but the ones I have worked fine so far.
Similarly, for those who want to watch the BBC’s iPlayer can take heart that it works just fine.
For the ultra-paranoid, if you aren’t satisfied with securing your connection with just a VPN service, then you will be happy to note that Tor Browser works with it as well.
But, take note that not all ProtonVPN servers support Tor (Click here for a list of their servers and what they allow on each).
P2P is also available, but similarly restricted to certain servers only.
One of the better things about ProtonVPN is that it gives its customers a choice of what they want to pay. Some users want a basic level of service for a better price and you can get that with ProtonVPN. In fact, they have a free plan as well.
The free plan is very limited in both speed and server location, but it doesn’t hobble users with limited bandwidth. You can also opt for other plan tiers which opens up access to more servers, number of devices supported, and extra features.
As far as VPNs go, I would say that their lower-tier plans serve a customer segment that not many service providers are willing to cater to. Their higher tier plans are more in-line with industry standards but can be considered pricey when compared to a few top providers like Surfshark and NordVPN.
Although ProtonVPN servers span across 41 countries, I noticed that only a few of those serve the Asia region. You do get a few key locations such as Singapore and Hong Kong, but for those who need country-level support in this region you will be disappointed.
While this might be acceptable for general use, customers who might have specific needs such as a local connection for business purposes or otherwise will be out of luck.
During testing I found that ProtonVPN is prone to getting blocked by more websites than most VPNs I’ve tried. This takes the form of either servers recognizing the VPN connection or outright blocking it to some that will end up having random errors such as CSS irregularities.
Unfortunately, the issues I encountered were not resolvable even after contacting their customer support.
While I acknowledge that it is nearly impossible for a VPN service provider to work at a 100% success rate, the issues that cropped up with ProtonVPN were noticeable – much more so than most others I’ve used to date.
Every company uses some form of marketing strategy, but the reason I simply had to add this in as a downside to ProtonVPN is that their marketing gimmicks can influence potential customers negatively in some way.
Take for example their premise of ‘Secure Core’ servers which they use as a key selling point to promote their services. The core comprises of Switzerland, Iceland, and Sweden, but Sweden is actually a member of the five eyes community.
That does make me feel a little uncomfortable and will bring us back to reliance on ProtonVPN’s word that they keep no logs and they’ve configured all their servers properly to ensure that.
Other selling points such as their servers being in previous underground military installations, while interesting, don’t really have much effect on your privacy.
As a big P2P fan, I was very disappointed to find that out of all the servers ProtonVPN has it only supports torrenting out of a handful of countries; Switzerland, Sweden, Singapore, and the Netherlands. This means that if you want to watch Netflix US and torrent at the same time you’re out of luck.
Your only option will be to use split tunneling and exempt your torrent client from the VPN service. That might not be a feasible solution for users in some countries with extremely oppressive copyright laws.
When I was faced with difficulties in reaching websites, I wanted to reach out for help, only to find that ProtonVPN doesn’t have any live support available. Your main avenue of support is via email – and they do take a while to respond.
It took them 24 hours to respond to my initial email (not counting automated response) and following that, each exchange took around half a day or so to get a reply to. The time lag wasn’t the greatest problem though, the replies were.
The underlying theme I got from responses were that: “we have many servers, if one doesn’t do what you want, try them all one by one until you get lucky.” You can tell that raised my blood pressure quite a few points.
Most VPNs today try and make it as easy for you to use their software as possible. As it is, the nature of VPN makes them a big obstacle for those who aren’t very technically inclined.
For the most part, ProtonVPN has a very sleek Windows application user interface. In fact, I love that cool old-school green neon lined world map.
However, when it comes to split tunnelling, something strange is going on. Split tunnelling is an option many providers have that lets you exclude certain applications or even websites from the VPN tunnel. To do this, it’s usually either by adding an app or a website URL.
For some unknown reason, to exclude a website from the ProtonVPN app you must find the IP address of that website. As an example of this, let’s say you want to exclude google.com from the VPN tunnel. Instead of typing that domain name in, you’ll need to find the IP address of Google (which is 188.8.131.52).
To be honest, this smells to me of laziness on the development front and for a company that’s been in business for so many years, simply inexcusable.
As you can see, there are around the same amount of arguments both for and against ProtonVPN that I can think of. However, at the end of the day, much will depend on what you are using the service for. For example, if you’re only interested in securing your connection, connecting to a nearby VPN server and forgetting about anything else – ProtonVPN will likely be just fine for you.
If you need a very flexible solution that will allow you to do many things at once (surf, torrent, stream, etc.) then you may need to search for an alternative provider. At its core, ProtonVPN is just fine but the price it charges users for the Plus plan (for access to Secure Core and more servers) – $8 per month, is a little steep.
Newbies to VPNs and light users should be fine though, especially ultra-lightweight users who can live with their Free or Basic plans.