ProtonVPN: Best Free Version We've Tested
PC Magazine|May 2020
ProtonVPN isn’t the biggest, the flashiest, or even the cheapest VPN, and yet it’s one of the best services available. It places an enormous emphasis on security and user privacy, and has an excellent client that’s very easy to use. It also offers a suite of advanced privacy tools usually reserved for far more expensive products. For all that, and its amazing free version that has no limit on data usage, it’s an Editors’ Choice winner and one of the best VPNs. If you’re dipping your toe into VPNs, it’s a great way to start with no risk.
MAX EDDY

WHAT IS A VPN?

When you activate your VPN, it creates an encrypted tunnel between your device and a server operated by the VPN company. Sending your traffic through the tunnel keeps it hidden from anyone on the same network as you, and from your ISP that is all too willing to sell your anonymized data. A VPN also hides your true IP address, making it harder for advertisers to track you across the web. If you select a distant server, you can even spoof your location to appear in a distant country.

VPNs are valuable tools for improving your privacy online, but they can’t do everything. I still recommend that everyone use a password manager, activate two-factor authentication wherever it’s available, and install an antivirus app.

PROTONVPN PRICING AND FEATURES

Most VPN services offer the same set of features across all pricing tiers. For those services, the tiers are less about upgrades and more about longer-term subscriptions at a reduced rate. ProtonVPN goes in the opposite direction. There is a 20 percent discount for annual versus monthly subscriptions, but more generous features are unlocked or added as you move up the four price tiers.

On its pricing page, ProtonVPN includes speed classifications for its subscription tiers. These are just estimations based on the expected number of users. ProtonVPN does not throttle your speeds, regardless of the subscription you use. The Free subscription has “Low” speeds because ProtonVPN expects it will have many users crowded into a few servers, while the paid subscriptions have “High” speeds because they have access to more servers and fewer users per server.

The first subscription tier of ProtonVPN is its free offering, which includes just three VPN server locations, and only allows one device to be connected at a time. You’ll also have to create an account with ProtonVPN in order to access even its free tier. Despite those limitations, ProtonVPN is unique in that it does not limit the amount of data a free subscriber can use, as mentioned earlier. TunnelBear VPN’s free offering limits you to 500MB of secured traffic per month, Hotspot Shield limits your bandwidth to 500MB per day, and KeepSolid places no data restrictions on its limited free version. Other free VPNs pile on other restrictions. Because of all that, I recommend ProtonVPN over all the other free VPNs I’ve tested.

The second tier is ProtonVPN Basic, which costs $5 per month ($48 annually). This tier grants access to all the VPN locations ProtonVPN has to offer, but limits you to just two devices. P2P file sharing is allowed at this tier. Mullvad offers unfettered access to its service for a smidge more, at $5.54.

For this review, I signed up for a $10-per-month ($96 annually) Plus account, which is the third of four pricing tiers. This is dead-on for the average monthly price of a VPN, and still less than competitors with similar features, such as NordVPN. This tier lets me access all the VPN servers in ProtonVPN’s network, and use up to five devices—the average for the industry. This tier grants access to Plus servers. These are servers restricted to the highest two tiers of ProtonVPN, and intended to be less crowded and therefore higher performing. Plus subscribers also get access to the Tor anonymization network, a rare feature. You don’t need to use a VPN to access Tor, but it’s nice to have. There are also specially designated servers for streaming media at the Plus level.

The Plus tier also includes access to Secure Core servers, which are a bit unusual and merit further explanation. These are servers owned by ProtonVPN and kept in secure facilities (in one example, an underground demilitarized NATO bunker). This way you can be assured that no one has tampered with the servers, to expose your information. When you connect via Core Servers, your VPN connection makes two hops. First, from your device to the Core Servers, and then onward to the VPN server you select.

While a VPN protects your data with its encrypted tunnel, that doesn’t mean anything if an attacker has taken control of the VPN server. What the Core Server scheme does is guarantee that your information is secure from your computer to the Core Server, which is under lock and key. If the next VPN server you connect to after the Core Server has been compromised, whoever has taken control won’t be able to glean anything about you because your traffic will appear to be coming from the Core Server and not your actual computer. This is similar to Tor, but Tor goes above and beyond with many more hops in between you and your destination.

Unsurprisingly, this comes at a pretty hefty trade-off in terms of speed and performance, but is a unique feature that should put even the most paranoid mind to rest. Other companies may offer similar multihop VPN connections and CyberGhost also boasts about the integrity of its NoSpy data center. ProtonVPN brings it all together.

If all that is insufficient, you can upgrade to a $30-permonth ($288 annually) Visionary plan, the top of the four pricing tiers. This includes all of the features listed in the previous tier but also raises the number of devices that can be simultaneously connected to 10. What you’re really getting with a Visionary plan is access to the highest-paid tier of ProtonMail, the encrypted email service also operated by ProtonVPN. That means 20GB of ProtonMail storage, 50 email aliases, support for 10 email domains, and up to five users on a single email account.

ProtonVPN subscriptions can be purchased via major credit card or PayPal. You can make Bitcoin payments, but only when you upgrade from one plan to the other; you can’t create a paid account using Bitcoin. TorGuard, to name just one, is a VPN service that gives you far more options for making anonymous payments. That said, ProtonVPN has announced its own cryptocurrency, suggesting that anonymous payments could someday come to the forefront.

VPN PROTOCOLS

VPN technology has been around a long time, and there are lots of different flavors of encrypted tunnels to choose from. I prefer VPN services that make use of the OpenVPN protocol, which is thoroughly vetted by virtue of being open source and has a reputation for being fast and reliable.

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