Sign up for almost any major free VPN and you’re hit with a big restriction: a probably far-too-low data limit. Use it too much – which can sometimes be as little as 500MB a month – and, oops, that’s it, you’re locked out for a few weeks.
Proton VPN is a very rare exception which gives you unlimited data. There are no unexpected lockouts here: you can use the service as much and as often as you like.
That’s a very major plus, but the free plan does have limits in other areas. You can only access locations in the US, Netherlands, and Japan, for instance, and the plan only supports a single connection. (You’re able to install Proton VPN on as many Windows, Mac, Linux, Android or iOS devices as you like, but can only connect one of them at a time.)
Free users don’t get P2P or support for unblocking streaming services. A pity, but it also makes sense: if Proton VPN offered unlimited P2P-friendly bandwidth for free, it would be swamped with torrenters 24/7.
There’s no access to Proton VPN’s more advanced features, either: the NetShield ad and malware blocker, the Secure Core servers to further hide your traffic from snoopers, Tor over VPN for extra security. Also unsurprising, but not a critical problem – we can’t expect Proton VPN to give us everything for free, and the loss of these layers doesn’t affect the main functions of the VPN.
Privacy and logging
When you’re choosing a VPN, paid or free, one of the first questions to ask is whether it can be trusted – whether it has the knowledge, the experience, and the intent to properly look after your privacy.
Proton VPN’s backstory gets it off to a good start, because the company has a track record of security success. Founded in 2014 by a group of CERN-based scientists, the Swiss team began by creating ProtonMail, which now claims to be ‘the world’s largest encrypted email service.’ This is a company which clearly knows how to deliver secure web services worldwide.
Experts looking for more evidence can take an in-depth look at the apps. Unusually, they’re all open source, so anyone qualified can download the code and check for bugs or security issues.
In 2020, Proton called in security experts SEC Consult to audit its apps. The process uncovered some issues, but nothing major, and Proton fixed everything that mattered.
In real-world use, we found the apps did a very solid job of protecting our privacy. They use only the strongest protocols (WireGuard, OpenVPN), for instance. We found no DNS or other leaks. And whatever extreme techniques we used to stress test the kill switch, it successfully blocked our internet traffic, shielding it from accidental exposure.
All that said, there’s still more the company could do. TunnelBear now audits its apps, servers, website and backend infrastructure every year, and we’d like to see Proton VPN go through a more in-depth inspection, too. But even without that, the firm deserves real credit for its transparency, which goes far beyond what we see with almost all the competition.
Windows and Mac apps
Proton VPN’s Windows and Mac apps are well-designed tools which include loads of features and settings, while also looking good and proving very easy to use.
They open with a world map highlighting your choice of locations, and a more standard location list. The map works well, and you’re able to pan around, zoom in and out, and click a location marker to connect. But you can also choose a location direct from the standard text list if you prefer. And if you never use the map, you can resize the app window to the point where it disappears, and all you have is the location list and a handful of buttons and status panels.
We noticed connection times were longer than average at 10 seconds, occasionally more (many providers are ready to go in two seconds, or even quicker). But there seems to be a good reason for that. Other apps typically rush to connect, but fail and display errors if network conditions aren’t right. Proton VPN’s apps check network conditions first, which adds a short delay, but increases the chance of a successful connection.
Once the VPN is up and running, we had no further issues with the connection. Speeds appeared stable and we didn’t see any connection drops.
The desktop apps have a stack of settings, and we don’t always agree with the defaults. Proton VPN has an excellent kill switch, for instance, but it’s turned off initially. (Fortunately, you can access and fix this from the main app window in a couple of clicks.)
Most users can safely stay away from the main Settings box, but if you know what you’re doing, there’s plenty to explore. Port forwarding, NAT tweaks, custom DNS settings, split tunneling, DNS and IPv6 leak protection – there’s more control here than you’ll see with almost any other provider (although Hide.me and TorGuard arguably go even further).
Put it all together, and Proton VPN’s desktop apps are polished and professional, straightforward for beginners to use, but with the power to keep experts happy, too.
Android and iOS apps
Proton VPN’s Android and iOS apps have a very similar design to the desktop editions. They also support choosing locations from a map or a conventional text list, for instance; these are just accessed via separate tabs, rather than being displayed side-by-side, a smarter choice for devices with small screens.
Both the Android and iOS apps connected almost instantly for us, with none of the delays we encountered on the desktop. You may see different results, depending on your device and network, but this does show that Proton VPN is capable of fast connections in at least some situations.
We saw no technical issues once the VPN was up and running. In-depth testing didn’t reveal any DNS or other leaks, and there were no unexpected connection drops.
VPN providers sometimes keep their most powerful features on the desktop, leaving mobile users feeling a little short-changed. But not Proton VPN.
The Android app’s Settings box has almost as many options as Windows, including a kill switch, split tunneling, DNS leak protection, and some expert-level networking tweaks. It even beats Windows in one area, adding support for the IKEv2 protocol alongside WireGuard and OpenVPN.
Proton VPN’s iOS app can’t quite match that, but it still delivers more than most, with a kill switch, along with WireGuard, OpenVPN and IKEv2 support. There are also handy speedup technologies, useful logs to help troubleshoot problems, and even an iOS widget for easier connects and disconnects.
We test free VPN speeds from a UK data center with a fast and stable 1Gbps connection, giving us plenty of bandwidth to see just what a service can do.
Proton VPN’s initial results were a little below average, with our closest Amsterdam servers managing only 130Mbps. But when we switched to New York, even though our data was travelling much further, our speeds leapt to 380Mbps. We don’t know why – maybe there are more users in Europe, or more servers in the US. Whatever the reason, the results pushed Proton VPN to the top of our free VPN speed list, although PrivadoVPN (350Mbps), Atlas VPN (320Mbps) and TunnelBear (300Mbps) weren’t far behind.
The Proton VPN free plan doesn’t give you access to its streaming-optimized servers, suggesting there’s not much chance of unblocking anything important. We ran our usual tests anyway, but sure enough, we weren’t able to access US Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or Disney Plus.
Even the most experienced VPN user needs some troubleshooting help occasionally, so it’s good to see the free plan includes email support.
We posed a test question and the website explained that support ‘will get back to you as soon as possible (usually within 1-2 days).’ Two days, and maybe even longer? That’s not exactly encouraging, but our experience was much better. We had a helpful reply within a couple of hours, providing all the details we needed, a decent result which even beats some commercial VPNs.
A polished and professional free VPN with top-notch apps and great performance. We’d like more locations, but otherwise Proton VPN Free is an excellent package and a genuine alternative to a paid service.