2023 Proton VPN Review
Disclosure: I have an affiliate link with Proton VPN that gives me a small financial payout if you sign up for a paid plan using it. You do not have to use this link; I provide a non-affiliate link at the end, and I tried my best to be unbiased in this review.
What is Proton VPN?
VPNs – short for Virtual Private Networks – are all the rage these days for various reasons, such as bypassing geographic restrictions to access foreign content. Unfortunately, VPN providers make misleading claims about what a VPN can and can’t do for their users. A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between your device and the provider's server, safeguarding all your traffic from prying eyes, including your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or whoever owns the router (e.g., a public Wi-Fi network). After reaching the provider's server, your traffic continues on to your desired destination like normal. Proton is a particularly popular service provider in the privacy community.
Why Do You Need a VPN?
You may not, to be honest. I recommend checking out IVPN's site “Do I Need a VPN?” As I mentioned, many providers, as well as YouTubers, often hype up VPNs as indispensable, life-changing tools that will solve all your problems with one click. Some providers even make ridiculously hyperbolic, outright false claims such as “it'll make you anonymous” or “it'll protect you from viruses.” A VPN only does two things: changes your IP address and protecting your traffic from local interception between your device and the server. While changing your IP address is definitely part of avoiding tracking, it’s just one piece of data used to track you, and a VPN won’t shield you from more advanced tracking methods like browser fingerprinting, tracking pixels, cookies, and others. Similarly, while it’s beneficial to protect your traffic from your ISP or potential man-in-the-middle attacks, you’re already usually covered if you enable your browser’s HTTPS-Only mode and make sure you’re using legitimate websites instead of spoofed or phishing sites. All that said, I do still consider a VPN to be a valuable part of your privacy and security toolkit if you can afford one. It can bypass censorship, prevent your ISP from selling your browsing data, obscure your IP address from tracking and logging, and protect your traffic from certain types of attacks. Just remember that there are many other free or low-cost strategies that will give you significantly more protection, so I recommend starting with those.
Why Not Tor?
Some people advocate using Tor instead of VPNs. Tor is an excellent service that I highly recommend, but it has limitations that make it unsuitable for certain situations. For example, many essential services – like banks – block known Tor IP addresses to prevent fraud and abuse, making those services nearly inaccessible through Tor. Second, Tor loses almost – if not – all of its anonymity once you log in to something tied to your real identity, such as a bank account. For this reason, I recommend reputable VPNs for tasks that are tied to your real identity, and Tor for casual browsing or accounts unrelated to your identity.
Proton is a titan in the privacy community for several reasons. Proton VPN is based in Switzerland, a country known for its robust privacy laws. They offer over 2,900 servers in more than 65 countries. Their apps are available on all operating systems and feature a sleek, modern design. They even offer a free tier to let you test the service and decide if it’s right for you. All their apps are open source and undergo regular audits by reputable third-party organizations.
Proton manages to stay competitive with most mainstream VPN providers, offering features like NetShield (DNS-based ad/malware/tracker blocker), P2P servers, Tor-over-VPN, killswitches, split tunneling, and (mostly) comprehensive documentation for various features or common use cases such as putting a VPN on your router. They also offer a range of features including Stealth, VPN Accelerator, and Smart Protocol to ensure that you can always connect at the highest speed possible.
Proton distinguishes itself from the other VPNs we recommend at The New Oil, however, in a number of ways. For example, they guarantee access to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. (I can confirm this works well.) They also allow you to use the IKEv2 protocol on their iOS app, enabling you to use Proton VPN alongside other content blockers like Lockdown or Blokada. Furthermore, Proton is the only VPN provider we recommend that still offers Port Forwarding although this feature may change due to abuse, as seen with IVPN and Mullvad.
Proton goes above and beyond other providers we list by offering a complete ecosystem. Your Proton account doesn't just provide a VPN; it includes email, calendar, cloud storage, and a password manager. As many people have pointed out – myself included in the past – Proton’s feature parity isn’t always consistent (meaning that a feature or functionality on one operating system may not be present everywhere else), but for those who are willing to wait out the growing pains in exchange for a smoother, more unified experience this is a worthy consideration. The whole ecosystem is available and growing, and in the privacy community that's no small thing. Proton is becoming the all-in-one privacy alternative to services like Google and Apple, offering simplicity, elegance, and user-friendliness.
However, Proton is not without its flaws. I previously noted issues with their Linux app, and since then I’ve seen this complaint pop up consistently across multiple communities, platforms, and people of various levels of expertise: Proton’s Linux app just sucks and it seems that they’ve made no effort whatsoever to fix this since last year. This is particularly discouraging for a company of Proton's size, as it may dissuade people from transitioning to Linux when they reach that stage in their journey if they decided to early on to use Proton. I expressed this view in my recent video about the Proton Drive Windows app.
I’m also waiting for Proton to improve upon their private payment options. While they accept cash, they have yet to adopt Monero (IVPN and Mullvad both offer this). They accept Bitcoin, but it’s rather difficult to make that truly anonymous. New accounts still require verification, either via a phone number, recovery email, or payment option (even for free users). This makes creating a truly anonymous account impractical – nearly impossible – for the “average” user they seem to target. While Proton claims to take steps to protect this data – even from themselves – but it stills feel misleading.
Actually let’s talk about that one for a minute: Proton, specifically their VPN department, has become increasingly prone to exaggeration and hyperbolic claims, the same kind that I criticized the mainstream providers for earlier int his post. I attempted to address these concerns with Proton here listing several specific complaints. As you can see from their reply, Proton dismissed all my points. (As you can probably guess, I find their counterarguments weak and irrelevant.) There are other marketing concerns. Many people argue that companies based in Switzerland tend to exaggerate the additional protection their location actually offers users. Proton also claims on their Features page to be anonymous because they allow for anonymous signup which, as I discussed earlier, is an exaggeration at best. I’m extremely concerned by the direction Proton VPN’s marketing has taken in recent years. While I still believe the service itself is solid and worth using, I hope to see their marketing department reduce the hyperbole and return to more fact-based and honest content. Let’s not forget that these “technically-correct” but poorly-worded half-truths are what landed them in hot water back when they were forced to log and disclose a user’s IP address for law enforcement back in 2021.
Finally, there are drawbacks to being the big guy. While writing this review, I tried to use Brave Search but was met with a CAPTCHA. Last year I reported these were so disruptive that I gave up after ten in a row and went to another search engine. While I haven’t experienced this as frequently as before, it’s still frighteningly common on mobile. (I’m also upset that Brave’s desktop CAPTCHAs require Web Assembly, essentially making Brave Search unusable with Proton VPN on Mullvad Browser, but that’s a complaint for another blog post.) I never notice any such CAPTCHAs with other VPN providers such as Mullvad and IVPN, suggesting that even if they do happen they’re quite rare. I can only assume that because Proton is such a major provider with free servers, the service gets abused a lot more, necessitating such measures.
Proton is a popular VPN choice in the privacy community for good reason. With open source apps, a great track record, and a plethora of user-friendly features, there are few negative points to highlight (aside from those already mentioned above). They're an excellent choice if you're still searching for a VPN provider, especially if you're a heavy content streamer. The included ecosystem just solidifies why they're one of the top choices in the privacy community. If you're in the market for a good VPN, you'd be remiss not to at least give Proton a glance. While they may be one of the more expensive options we recommend, in my opinion, they're worth every penny.