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ProtonVPN review: Underground data centers, one-click multi-hop, and more make for a great choice

ProtonVPN in brief:

  • P2P allowed: Yes, on specified servers
  • Business location: Switzerland
  • Number of servers: 249
  • Number of country locations: 19
  • Cost: Free, $48, $96, or $288 per year
  • VPN protocol (default): OpenVPN
  • Data encryption: AES-256
  • Data authentication: HMAC with SHA-256
  • Handshake encryption: 2048-bit RSA

When you use a third-party VPN there’s always a certain amount of trust you have to have in your service provider. Sometimes companies make that really hard by hiding who they are or basing themselves in exotic locations. Then there are services that make trust easier—like ProtonVPN, from the creator of ProtonMail.

ProtonVPN is a great choice for new users. It offers no guesswork about who’s behind the service and offers helpful articles about what you should, and should not, expect from a VPN. It also posts an annual transparency report (as several other VPNs do), and explains the encryption it uses.

Note: This review is part of our best VPNs roundup. Go there for details about competing products and how we tested them.

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ProtonVPN’s interface.

ProtonVPN for Windows starts by displaying a map of the world with green triangles signifying the countries where ProtonVPN has servers. If you prefer to use the VPN without the map, there’s an arrow button on the top left to collapse it for a more smartphone-like interface.

On the left rail are your connection options. There’s a Quick Connect button at the top if you want ProtonVPN to choose the fastest server based on your current location. Otherwise, you can scroll down the list of countries.

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ProtonVPN’s U.S. server choices.

For a deep dive into the country-specific servers, click on the downward facing arrow to the right of each country in the list. This will show you all the server options for that location. There’s a circle with a green indicator for each server showing its current capacity. You can also hover over the circle to find out the capacity measured as a percentage. If you see a “P” in a square next to a server that means its available only to premium subscribers; there are also TOR servers, and the symbol with two arrows indicates the server supports P2P file sharing.

Once you’ve connected, the map transforms showing a line to your virtual location and the home symbol at the top center of the map. Below the map you’ll see connection information such as session duration, up and down bandwidth volumes and speeds, as well as a bandwidth graph.

Features and services

ProtonVPN offers a number of extras depending on which level of service you have. The Secure Core feature is for Plus and Visionary subscribers only, for example. Secure Core is a multi-hop VPN connection where it uses two VPN connections before exposing you to the open internet. But unlike typical multi-hop implementations, Secure Core is a one-click affair where you choose the exit country and have minimal options for the first connection.

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ProtonVPN’s Secure Core connections.

The first hop runs through either Iceland, Sweden, or Switzerland before shuttling you off to the country of your choice–only 11 country locations support Secure Core exits. Depending on the country, you may have some choice as to where the first hop goes through, but many countries have only one of the three options. France only supports a first hop through Sweden, for example, while for Germany it’s Iceland.

ProtonVPN says Secure Core puts your traffic through “privacy friendly countries” first (Iceland, Sweden, and Switzerland). The aim is to protect a user’s privacy as much as possible and defend against network traffic monitoring. ProtonVPN says that this method makes it harder for an attacker to discover a user’s true IP address or attempt to match browsing activity to the user. There’s a fuller explanation on the ProtonVPN website. Secure Core must be explicitly activated at the top of the country list in the left rail.

ProtonVPN also supports Forward Secrecy, which uses one-time session encryption keys to prevent someone from stealing encryption keys from a following VPN session and using those to decrypt earlier sessions.

If TOR is your thing, ProtonVPN supports TOR connections over VPN on specific servers. Again, this feature is only available to Plus and Visionary subscribers.

There are also the usual VPN features such as DNS leak protection and an Internet Kill Switch that halts your internet access should the VPN connection drop.

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Creating a new profile in ProtonVPN.

If you want to use different VPN connections based on contexts such as home, work, or travel, ProtonVPN lets you set profiles using the tab in the left rail.

When creating a profile you can choose to use a standard server connection, the Secure Core feature, P2P servers, or TOR servers. You can also choose to use OpenVPN over UDP or TCP, and the specific server you want to use.