The free version of ProtonVPN is one the best complimentary VPN offerings we’ve seen so far. Not only are there no speed or data caps, performance was on par with the premium version, both locally and internationally. Torrenters and streaming fans will want to look elsewhere though, due to a lack of P2P support and no access to popular sites such as Netflix and BBC iPlayer. User-friendly custom apps are available for all popular platforms but a one-device connection limit could potentially cause some issues.
ProtonVPN operates on the most secure VPN protocol, OpenVPN, and free users can benefit from top-rated encryption too. The logging policy is about as close to zero-logs as you can get, and it makes a pleasant change to see a free VPN that offers features such as a VPN kill switch and DNS leak protection. One minor downside is that there are only three server locations to choose from, but performance was so good you’re unlikely to even notice you’re connecting over a long distance. Customer support is improving with the introduction of live chat.
To clarify, this is our review for the free VPN service by ProtonVPN. If you want to read about the premium version, you can check out our independent review here.
Speed & Reliability
Despite ProtonVPN’s website stating that free users will only benefit from ‘low’ speeds, the results of our performance tests proved quite the opposite. In fact, speeds on the three available servers were exactly the same (if not better) than those we measured on the ‘Plus’ plan, which seems almost too good to be true.
As we test from the UK, the closest server to us was in the Netherlands, from which we measured excellent downloads of up to 80Mbps. This is more than quick enough for you to do whatever you want online, such as streaming, without having to worry about any buffering issues. We were impressed by speeds on international connections too, reaching 35Mbps in the US and 25Mbps in Japan – this level of performance is very similar to what we saw from the paid app.
Latency is above average but about the best we’ve seen from a free provider, coming in at 13ms on the Netherlands server. While this won’t be an issue for the majority of everyday users, those who are mainly going to be using a VPN while performing latency-sensitive tasks (such as gaming) might want to consider a paid provider, such as IPVanish, as these can offer ping times of 5ms or below.
Uploads were just as good as downloads, coming in at 80Mbps locally but dropping off internationally, which is to be expected. Torrenters will want to find an alternative though, as P2P activity isn’t supported on the free version of ProtonVPN.
We were pleasantly surprised by ProtonVPN Free’s overall performance, especially considering the speed offering is classed as ‘low’ on its website. Those looking to torrent will be disappointed, but you’ll have no problems if you want to stream in HD or download multiple files at speed.
To read more about our speed testing methodologies, please read How We Review VPNs.
The free version of ProtonVPN only allows you to access three different server locations – Japan, the Netherlands and the US. While this may not be a problem for users in or around these countries, those elsewhere in the world won’t be able to connect to somewhere nearby for the best possible performance.
It’s not possible to drill down to city-level servers, so even those in the US might experience a few issues, as it’s not much use connecting to a server in LA if you’re based in New York. Even a choice between East and West Coast would have made a lot of difference here, but currently that feature is limited to those on the Basic, Plus or Visionary plans.
It’s not unusual to see such a limited choice of locations from a free provider, but we really would have appreciated even just a couple more countries to extend ProtonVPN’s global reach, as right now users in South America and Africa have no options at all. It’s unlikely that this will happen anytime soon, though, as the limitations on the Free version are the main reason people will eventually upgrade to a paid subscription.
Platforms & Devices
ProtonVPN currently offers custom apps for Microsoft Windows, MacOS, Android and iOS devices, and there’s a simple manual workaround for Linux users that involves installing the third-party OpenVPN client. It’s also possible to install the VPN at router level – you can find the list of compatible models on the support section of ProtonVPN’s website.
There are comprehensive setup guides for all supported devices with a ton of useful screenshots, so you won’t struggle even if you’ve never used a VPN before. Be aware though, the Free plan only allows you to use ProtonVPN on one device at a time, so installing it at router level could be a huge advantage if you wish to protect multiple devices.
Streaming & Torrenting
The free version of ProtonVPN is not designed to provide quick, hassle-free access to popular streaming sites such as Netflix or BBC iPlayer, so if you’re looking for that you’ll need to consider other options. As it’s not possible to connect to a server in the UK, you won’t be able to watch BBC iPlayer, and the US server didn’t work to unblock Netflix. This is a pretty common issue, especially amongst free VPNs, as these sites are really cracking down on VPN providers.
Encryption & Security
Users of ProtonVPN’s free service benefit from exactly the same level of security as its premium subscribers. The desktop app runs exclusively on OpenVPN, the most secure VPN protocol, so you can be sure that your personal information will be protected. Encryption is via top cipher AES-256.
The VPN kill switch feature is absolutely essential, as it prevents your true IP address from being exposed in case of an unexpected connection drop – beware though, it isn’t automatically switched on, so be sure to activate it before you begin browsing. You’re also protected against DNS and IPv6 leaks, which is refreshing to see. We’ve tested a ton of free providers that claim to protect your online activity but in fact leak your true IP address at every given opportunity.
Unfortunately there are a handful of features that are limited to paid users, such as ProtonVPN’s Secure Core servers or servers optimized for use with Tor. Thankfully these are added extras rather than basic privacy tools, so not having access to them doesn’t mean you’re putting your confidential data at risk. By far the most secure free provider we’ve seen.
- OpenVPN (TCP/UDP)
- DNS Leak Blocking
- IPV6 Leak Blocking
- VPN Kill Switch
While its premium counterpart may be working to provide a (somewhat unreliable) service in China, the free version of ProtonVPN is no good for bypassing censorship measures. Not only does it operate exclusively on OpenVPN, the protocol that’s easiest for censors to detect and block, free users also don’t have access to the Secure Core servers that are designed to provide an additional layer of obfuscation.
This means that ProtonVPN also isn’t a good choice for those in other countries with high levels of internet censorship, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, as it’s very unlikely you’ll be able to get connected. What’s more, the incredibly limited server network means that you’d have to connect over a very long distance to the nearest free-speech country, meaning a massive reduction in performance. If you’re looking for a quick, reliable VPN for China, consider our top pick ExpressVPN.
The good thing about this is that it doesn’t contain any identifying information, such as your true IP address or physical location, meaning nothing you do while connected to the VPN can be linked back to you. This information is used to protect user accounts from password brute force attacks, and also to determine that nobody else is using your account. We really like this approach.
ProtonVPN is based in Geneva, Switzerland, meaning its users are protected by some of the world’s strongest privacy and data protection laws. It also means it’s exempt from any EU intelligence-sharing agreements with other countries such as the US and UK, so you can be sure your confidential data isn’t being shared with any third parties.
Ease of Use
ProtonVPN’s free apps are exactly the same as its premium apps, only with fewer server locations. The main screen displays your new server location and IP address, along with some useful stats such as the server load and estimated upload and download speeds. We didn’t see why the huge world map was necessary, as it means the client takes up almost an entire laptop screen, but you can always minimize it if it bothers you.
The server locations are usually arranged alphabetically, but ProtonVPN has helpfully pushed the three free countries to the top of the list to make them easier to find. The premium servers are grayed out, and if you click on them you’ll be told that these aren’t available on your subscription tier and prompted to upgrade. We really like that you can create ‘quick connect’ profiles too – this means you can simply open up the app and get yourself protected with one click every time.
Additional settings can be found behind the burger menu (three horizontal lines) in the top left-hand corner. We’re not really used to seeing any sort of configurable options from free VPNs, so it made a refreshing change to be able to configure the kill switch feature, DNS leak protection and toggle between UDP and TCP protocols. Contextual information can be found next to most of these settings, explaining what each of them does – this will be particularly helpful for VPN newbies.
Getting up and running with ProtonVPN is super easy and will only take you a couple of minutes from start to finish. To sign up for the free plan, you’ll need to provide your email address, and ProtonVPN will then send you a verification code. Once you click on this code, you’ll be prompted to create a secure password before you can begin using the service.
After you’ve created your account, simply download the VPN onto the device you wish to protect. This process is incredibly simple and self-explanatory, but there are setup guides available on the support section of the website should you need any extra guidance. Once the installation is complete, simply log in and you’re good to go.
ProtonVPN’s customer support is far better than that offered by most of our other free providers. There’s an online support center that will cover basic queries and troubleshooting issues, providing a series of general FAQs and short articles. We really like the handy search feature that saves you scrolling through to find what you’re looking for. There are also step-by-step installation guides for all supported devices, including those that need to be manually configured, which first-time users are likely to find very helpful.
ProtonVPN has also recently introduced a live chat feature, making it easy to get in touch with a support agent if you have any questions. It’s unclear at what times of the day this is available, as sometimes the chat icon is there, but other times it’s inaccessible – we’d really like to know if there’s any sort of pattern to this. When we were able to get in touch with someone, we received timely, detailed responses that were able to help us solve all of our problems.
The Bottom Line
- Peak local download speeds of 80Mbps
- Custom apps for all popular platforms
- Kill switch and DNS leak protection
- Friendly live chat support agents
- Minimal logging policy
- Can only access three server locations
- P2P not permitted on any servers
- No access to Netflix or BBC iPlayer
The free version of ProtonVPN offers exactly the same level of protection as its premium counterpart but lacks a few of the more advanced features. Despite only offering three server locations, performance was excellent wherever we connected to, meaning you shouldn’t suffer from slow speeds even if connecting over a longer distance. Torrenters and streaming fans will likely want to look elsewhere however, due to a lack of P2P support and no access to Netflix or BBC iPlayer.
ProtonVPN’s complimentary offering is ideal for those seeking the highest levels of privacy, with a minimal logging policy and advanced features such as a VPN kill switch and DNS leak protection. Jurisdiction in privacy-friendly Switzerland is another bonus, making sure your confidential information is protected from potential snoopers and hackers.
Custom apps are available for all popular devices, although be aware you can only use ProtonVPN on one device at a time. Customer support is loads better than we’ve seen from all other free providers, with a recently introduced live chat feature and loads of helpful online resources. If you’re dead set on not paying for a VPN, ProtonVPN is one of the safest options out there, and it doesn’t skimp on performance either.