ProtonVPN Free is an interesting free VPN offering from the people behind ProtonMail, the popular Swiss-based encrypted email service.
As usual with free VPNs, there are some major restrictions. You get to choose from only three locations (US, Netherlands, Japan); there's support for just one device being connected at a time; there's no P2P or Tor; oh, and free users are bottom of the priority list, so speeds could be low.
Sounds terrible, right? But there's a major plus: unlimited bandwidth. Forget the stupid '200MB a day' restrictions you might have elsewhere– you can use ProtonVPN Free as much, and as often as you like.
- Want to try ProtonVPN Free? Check out the website here
Even better, and unlike many other free VPNs, ProtonVPN comes from a respected team with a long track record in security. You don't have to cross your fingers and hope the promises on the website are true – you can investigate the company and get a real idea of who they are and what they do (start on the About page).
If you're keen on the service and would like to upgrade later, there are several paid options. ProtonVPN Basic gives access to 29 countries and 325 servers, supports P2P in some locations and delivers the best possible speeds, all for a very reasonable $5.20 (£4) a month billed annually. ProtonVPN Plus charges a relatively expensive $10.40 £8 (£8), but supports up to 5 devices and gets you routing through ProtonVPN's Secure Core network, Secure Streaming to unblock streaming websites, Tor over VPN support, and more.
Privacy and logging
ProtonVPN's Swiss base 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 not a member of the ‘Five Eyes’ surveillance network, making it a little more difficult for your data to be shared with others.
A provider may still log what you're doing, of course, wherever you are, so it's important to check the small print. But in ProtonVPN's case, this is refreshingly short and simple.
The company explains that it doesn't "log users’ traffic or the content of any communications"; "discriminate against devices, protocols, or applications"; "throttle your Internet connection." Which suggests that not only is your internet history safe, but the service isn't going to artificially slow down if, say, you spend all day streaming HD videos.
A support article explains that there is a little session logging, though it's probably the smallest amount there could possibly be:
…"we store a single timestamp of your accounts most recent login. Here again, we do not store any information about where you signed in from, how long you were logged in or where you logged in from."
That is, they're recording the login time of your last session, but that's it. No incoming or VPN IP addresses, no disconnect times, no bandwidth use, nothing that could even begin to identify your VPN account with any online action.
There's an extra benefit with ProtonVPN Free, in that you don't have to provide any payment details to sign up. The company does require an email address to create your account in the first place, but this can be whatever you want. Use free encrypted email account with ProtonVPN's sister service, ProtonMail – which doesn't require any other email address to authenticate it – and you can be completely anonymous.
Whichever account you choose, the ProtonVPN network and apps do a good job of protecting you online. Our tests showed all ProtonVPN servers were in the locations promised, and the apps correctly shielded our identity by blocking DNS and WebRTC leaks.
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Creating an account with ProtonVPN only takes a moment, and its web control panel points you to everything you need: client downloads (Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux), OpenVPN files for third-party clients and routers, and a brief help page with some troubleshooting advice.
We grabbed a copy of the Windows client. This installed with ease, then announced that it would run as a trial of the full version for seven days, giving us full-speed access to all 325 servers across 29 countries. That's unusually generous, as many VPN providers don't give you a trial until you hand over your payment details, and some don't allow a trial at all.
The ProtonVPN Windows client looks great, with a professional and polished interface. A zoom-able world map highlights all the server locations, there's a separate list of countries, assorted menus and settings, and a Quick Connect button for folks who just want to get online straightaway.
The interface is relatively bulky, at least compared to most VPN apps, but fortunately it's also very configurable. If you think maps are a poor way to choose VPN locations, for instance, collapse the map view and you're left with little more than a simple list of countries and a Connect button.
Location picking is generally straightforward. You can select a country and allow the app to choose the best server, or make your selection manually. Upgrade to a paid plan and you'll be able to view and access servers which support P2P or Tor. And enabling Proton's Secure Core (another paid-only feature) allows routing traffic through two servers. For example, you could connect to the US via Switzerland or Iceland, making it even more difficult for an attacker to figure out who and where you are.
Switching servers is just as easy. There's no need to close the current connection before you start another, just pick an alternative server and the client switches for you.
The client also gives you the option of connecting via Profiles, a flexible favorites system. There are bundled profiles to connect you to a random location, or the fastest server, and you can add specific profiles as required ('free Netherlands server #2', or 'a random server in the US').
Conveniently, the Quick Connect button can launch whatever profile you like. If you don't want to connect to the fastest server by default, you can have this connect to a specific server you use most often, or perhaps a random location in a particular country. (Using the random option could help reduce the chance of being tracked online as your IP address would change regularly.)
Whatever server you've accessed, the client provides an unusual amount of feedback on the 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, even a graph showing recent data transfers.
The client has a kill switch to reduce the chance of identity leaks if your connection drops. To test how this might work, we killed the VPN connection process, and watched as ProtonVPN stepped in immediately, displaying a 'disconnected' message and blocking our internet access, exactly as we hoped. Unexpected VPN connection drops are always a hassle, but at least the client minimized any privacy risks, and hitting the Quick Connect button got us back in business within seconds.
ProtonVPN's Android app has a very similar interface to its desktop cousin, with a map view and country list using the same graphics and color scheme, just reorganized into separate tabs to squeeze it onto a mobile screen. It looks good and generally works well.
The Android app didn't include a kill switch, but otherwise there were more settings than we expected: DNS leak protection, an MTU tweak, and support for split tunneling, which enabled excluding specific IP addresses or apps from the VPN traffic.
The iOS app is ProtonVPN's latest addition to the range, fresh out of beta during this review, so it's no surprise that it can't match the Android app in a few areas (the map wasn't as clear or usable, Profiles don't allow you to choose random servers in a location, there are barely any settings.) It did manage to include a kill switch, though, and if you're mostly happy with a country list and Connect button, it should serve you very well.
Our performance tests found that it took noticeably longer to connect to ProtonVPN servers than with most VPNs. The difference isn't great – ExpressVPN took 6 seconds to get connected on our review system, ProtonVPN required around 8 – but it could be a small irritation if you're used to snappier VPNs.
ProtonVPN says its free plan is relatively slow, but that wasn't our experience. We connected to our nearest Netherlands, and both Ookla's SpeedTest and Netflix' Fast.com both returned excellent download speeds of around 50-55Mbps, comparable with many commercial VPNs (and better than some.)
US speeds varied widely, though were always acceptable at 30-55Mbps. Going long-distance to Japan gave us much more of a speed hit, with downloads dropping to around 15-25Mbps, and upload speeds sometimes reduced to a crawl, but even these were enough for general browsing and streaming tasks.
The free plan offered decent speeds to us, then, but there's an important caveat. There are only a few free servers and they have much higher loads than the paid locations, so although our results showed they can deliver good performance, we wouldn't be surprised to see speeds plummet at peak times.
Having the ability to view blocked content on Netflix and other big sites is a key selling point of many VPNs, but ProtonVPN isn't quite so up-front about it. The company suggests you will be able to unblock some sites (including Netflix), maybe, but only if you're using a ProtonVPN Plus server, and only on desktops, and even then, it 'might not always work.' (Read the official support page and user comments here.)
This didn't give us much hope for ProtonVPN's free service, but we logged on anyway, tried accessing US-only YouTube clips, and were able to stream them without difficulty. That's good, although it's also the easiest unblocking test there is, because YouTube seems to make no significant effort to detect or block VPNs.
The picture changed drastically when we moved on to check BBC iPlayer and US Netflix, and found both services spotted our use of a VPN and refused to stream content.
ProtonVPN's free account does a poor job of unblocking big-name services, then, and its website doesn't show much confidence that its high-end commercial plans will deliver over the long term. If accessing geoblocked content is top of your priority list, you'll almost certainly be better off elsewhere.
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If ProtonVPN isn't working as you expect, the support site is always available to try and point you in the right direction. Or at least, that's the theory.
The reality is a little disappointing, with only a few articles available, and even those lacking in detail. Open the Troubleshooting section, for instance, and you'll find only six topics covering IPv6 leaks, connectivity issues, OpenVPN authentication failures, speed issues and (bizarrely) 'how to disconnect'. These mostly contain the kind of obvious advice which even relative VPN novices will figure out on their own, such as switching to a closer server or a server which isn't under load to try and improve speeds.
If that's not good enough you can contact support directly, but it doesn't take long to realize the service here isn't always what you might expect. The official contact page says you can email firstname.lastname@example.org, for instance, but recommends you use the contact form, because 'email is not always monitored.' Really? It's hard to know how to score that on a scale of feebleness, but we'd say it's probably near the top.
There's no live chat for a guaranteed quick response, either, but you can fill in a support form and explain your problem. This is more limited than we would hope, with no ability to attach any files (screen shots, logs), but our test question did get a helpful response in around 12 hours, and that's comparable with many other services.
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