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Whoever said that the best things in life are free has never shopped for VPNs. There are plenty of VPNs with free tiers, but their data limits render them impossible to use for streaming or gaming — the last thing you want is to be in the middle of an epic Call of Duty match when you hit your data cap.
When I heard that ProtonVPN had a free tier with no data limit, I have to admit that I was highly skeptical. But that was before I put both the paid and free tiers of ProtonVPN to the test. If you are at a standing desk, please sit down, because this one could get intense!
I love being able to try a VPN for free, and ProtonVPN makes that incredibly easy to do. Between their incredibly generous free tier, the 7-day free trial of their Plus tier (no credit card required), and their 30-day prorated money-back guarantee, it’s hard to imagine how they could make it easier to try out their service.
When I first installed ProtonVPN on my Macbook, my attempts to connect to a server were all met with the same uninformative error message. This seems to be a common issue, and a quick Google search informed me that all I needed to do was restart my computer. This is not a step I’ve had to take with other VPNs, and there was no in-app indication that such a step would be necessary. While hardly a dealbreaker, this wasn’t a great first interaction with the ProtonVPN user experience.
Fortunately, things got much better from there. My biggest annoyance with most VPNs is that I can’t know which servers are too congested before I connect to them. If I want to find a server that is running at full speed, I usually have to rely on trial and error. When I logged into ProtonVPN and saw that they include load indicators in their server list, I let out a couple of words of excitement that I can’t repeat here. Making it easy to find a server that isn’t overloaded with users is an amazing feature that every VPN should incorporate immediately.
Over the next several hours, I tried out the iOS app, the Windows app, and the macOS app. All these apps had easy-to-use and informative interfaces. I was never uncertain about where to find a feature, and that’s not something I can say about the majority of VPNs. The ProtonVPN interface is a bit crowded, but it was nice to have everything I needed right in front of me at all times. You can even set up custom profiles if there are certain settings and server defaults that you want to be able to easily and quickly switch between.
So far, so good, but I hadn’t really tried anything exciting yet with ProtonVPN, so let’s talk streaming. VPNs and streaming services don’t always mix well. Streaming providers often block access to VPNs entirely or at least strive to prevent them from bypassing regional blocks on content. VPN providers fight back, but only the best manage to break through.
I tested ProtonVPN with Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+. These three make an excellent test set because they all have region-locked content and they all use very different ways to block VPN access — any VPN that works with all three will likely work with almost any streaming service.
When connected to a server in the United States (my home region), I was able to access content from all three of the streaming services I tested for. Netflix had some problems logging in while the VPN was active, but once I logged in, everything worked fine. On many international servers, I was able to stream region-locked content on Netflix (yay, Modern Family!) as well as on Disney+ (Ice Age, anyone?). Unfortunately, Amazon Prime Video did not work at all on any of the international servers that I tried.
One of my biggest concerns with ProtonVPN is its limited number of servers. ProtonVPN has just over 1,000 servers spread across 54 countries. That’s a decent number of countries, but the server count is low compared to other leading VPNs like CyberGhost that boast several thousand servers. One of the best tools that streaming services have for blocking VPN access is simply the ability to block servers one by one. The fewer servers a VPN provider has, the more prone they are to being shut out by Netflix and other providers via this simple method of blacklisting servers. And, of course, having more servers helps distribute the user load, avoiding favorite servers being slowed to a crawl.
If you are looking to do file-sharing, ProtonVPN is a fantastic option. They don’t support these protocols on all of their servers, but the icons in the country and server list make finding their many P2P- or Tor-supporting servers very easy. All of the Tor servers also support Tor over VPN in case you are looking for extra privacy.
ProtonVPN doesn’t include a ton of extras, but they do have blockers for ads, trackers, and malware. By default they only block malware, but they include a button for activating the additional blockers — or deactivating the malware blocker — right on the main screen of their app for simplicity.
One other great feature, which unfortunately only exists in the Android and Windows apps, is split tunneling. This feature allows you to run some apps through your VPN while other apps on the same device use your raw internet connection. Since there are still apps that don’t work correctly with VPNs, split tunneling is a great way to maximize the usability of your VPN-secured computer or mobile device.
ProtonVPN gives you access to either OpenVPN, IKEv2, or both, depending on which device you’re using. Those VPN protocols are both fantastic options for security, but I’d have preferred it if ProtonVPN had included both options on all of the platforms they support. I was particularly surprised to find out that, on Windows — a platform where apps usually have lots of customizability — ProtonVPN only allowed me to use the OpenVPN protocol. Most users probably won’t care about this, but there are certain times where having multiple protocols can be important for advanced users.
ProtonVPN offers the typical set of extra security and privacy features and a couple of nice-to-haves. In particular, their kill switch feature and DNS leak protection — both available on most of their apps — prevent your data from leaking outside of the VPN in various edge-case scenarios. Features like Secure Core servers and Tor over VPN are not as useful for the average user, but when you need extra security and privacy, it’s good to know they are available.
ProtonVPN is owned by a Swiss company. There’s a reason that country comes up so often in finance and security stories: The Swiss data privacy laws are very favorable to users. In Switzerland, data requests require an approved Swiss court order, and the target of any such investigation is always notified. ProtonVPN even posts these notifications on their website, so anyone can see if ProtonVPN’s user data has been requested. In case you were wondering, there has been only one request since they set up the page in 2018, and ProtonVPN’s strict no-logging policy meant they did not have the data requested in that investigation.
ProtonVPN has not submitted for an independent audit of their privacy standards. Although such audits are not yet standard, ProtonVPN’s competitor NordVPN and a few other services have proactively used third-party audits to show that their no-logging policies are being followed properly. ProtonVPN may lack an audit for its privacy and record-keeping policies, but the company did take the impressive step of open-sourcing their apps and even commissioning and publicly releasing an independent audit of those apps. This level of transparency is laudable and provides a huge reason to trust ProtonVPN.
Security and privacy are good, but they don’t matter without speed — and there are some really slow VPNs out there. Every VPN slows down your connection a little because of how they re-route your traffic, but the slowdown is virtually unnoticeable with the best VPNs. I had a feel for ProtonVPN’s speed from my earlier tests, but I used Ookla’s Speedtest to get more exact measurements of its performance. I used several servers including the quick connect default and a few overseas options.
Without my VPN, I was getting download and upload speeds of 40 Mbps and 50 Mbps, respectively. ProtonVPN’s quick-connect button, not surprisingly, brought me to a VPN server that was very close geographically — which provided no noticeable slowdown compared to my standard connection. When I tried connecting to servers in other countries, I got mixed results. I was able to find several servers that kept my download speed above 30 Mbps, but the upload speeds often dropped below 10 Mbps. For regular streaming, that was fine, but it was often noticeable when streaming content. The load indicators were quite helpful in avoiding the slowest servers.
ProtonVPN has apps for all the major desktop and laptop operating systems (Windows, macOS, Linux) and mobile devices (Android, iOS). They also have an app for Android TV. However, they don’t yet have apps for other streaming devices (Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV, etc.), smart TVs, or video game systems. Since they also aren’t compatible with most routers, there isn’t a great way to cover those other devices.
ProtonVPN’s monthly pricing starts at $5 for their 2-device Basic plan. Their five-device Plus plan ($10 per month) and 10-device Visionary plan ($30 per month) introduce higher-speed connections and additional security and privacy features like Secure Core VPN and Tor over VPN. There is a 20 percent discount on any of the plans if you pay for a year in advance and 33% if you pay for two years in advance.
If you only need the Basic plan, that is an excellent monthly price. However, most users will need the Plus plan, which is average-priced for a monthly VPN plan. The annual and 2-year plans offer decent discounts, but they are far from impressive.
It would be reviewer negligence for me not to mention the value of ProtonVPN’s free plan. Offering a free tier that has no data limit is almost unheard of amongst quality VPNs, but ProtonVPN has done it anyway.
ProtonVPN is fast, secure, and works with a wide range of streaming services. Those are some effective selling points in my book. The tiered plans give extra options for users that don’t fit into the typical five-device mold that most VPN plans are built around.
There are really only two things about ProtonVPN that give me pause in recommending it: the low server count and the limited device coverage. The former doesn’t seem to cause any issues in my testing, particularly since the servers still operate at good speeds and unblock region-locked streaming content. And, of course, the device coverage only matters if they are missing apps for devices that you need your VPN to cover.
The fact that ProtonVPN has no data limit on their free tier still blows my mind. If you want a highly-usable free VPN, that makes them a very compelling option. If the free tier isn’t enough, the seven-day free trial of their Plus plan will give you a chance to try out the full breadth of their service. No company gives you that level of free access unless they truly believe their product is worth the money, and ProtonVPN has earned that confidence.