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ProtonVPN Free review: A free VPN without the catch?

Stuart Andrews
29 Oct 2019
Our Rating 
Free

ProtonVPN Free is a decent offering without the usual restrictions, but there are other limitations that hold it back

Pros 
No monthly data limits
Unblocks BBC iPlayer abroad
Netherlands server has reasonable speed
Cons 
Servers in only three countries
Doesn’t unblock Netflix
Slow, inconsistent long-range speeds
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ProtonVPN Free is a no-cost version of the privacy-focused Swiss VPN and it promises you that rarest of things – a free VPN without the usual catches. There are no ads, no speed limits, no data limits and very little in the way of the traditional constant urging to cough up for the paid service if you want more features.

Of course, you’ll have to live without some of ProtonVPN’s more advanced privacy protection features but what can you expect for everyone’s favourite price-tag – gratis?

In fact, ProtonVPN lives up to these promises but that doesn’t mean it’s the perfect free VPN. There are some limitations and, while these won’t affect some users, they could be a dealbreaker for others.

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Proton VPN Free review: What you need to know

ProtonVPN was originally developed as the VPN partner to ProtonMail, a hugely popular encrypted email service. Like ProtonMail, its focus is very much on privacy and encryption. The paid-for version routes your traffic through special “Secure Core” servers that make it even harder to trace your online activities to your real identity or IP address, even if the VPN servers themselves are under surveillance.

It also encrypts your traffic using cyphers with “Perfect Forward Secrecy”, a rather mind-boggling process that makes it near-impossible to capture encrypted traffic and decrypt it later, even if those doing the capturing can get their hands on an encryption key.

Even the physical security of the firm’s core data centres is a step beyond what you’d expect. The one in Switzerland is located in a former Swiss army fallout shelter one km below ground level, while the Iceland servers are located in a secure former military base.

Most of these features cross over to the free version, including Perfect Forward Secrecy and AES-256 encryption with a 4096-bit RSA key exchange. However, those Secure Core servers are off the server menu. Another of the paid version’s key security features – routing over the Onion network for added obfuscation – is also gone.

And, where paid-for ProtonVPN gives you a choice of Secure Core servers or standard servers in 41 countries, only three locations are on offer for ProtonVPN Free: USA, Netherlands and Japan.

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Proton VPN Free review: Setup and basic use

ProtonVPN Free uses the same client as the Pro version and even gives you access to the same server list and features for a seven-day trial (shame about the annoying upgrade prompts during that period). The desktop application looks like something you’d see in the situation room of a Tom Clancy thriller, with a map filled with green triangles that represent all the different exit points, and a big Quick Connect button at the top left.

Beneath that sits the server list, while there’s a data readout on your current session below the map, detailing the time you’ve spent online using the VPN, the upload and download data that’s come through it and the connection speed in both directions. The list shows you the available servers, with useful colour-coded circles indicating just how jammed they’re getting. Move your cursor over one of these and a percentage helpfully appears.

There’s no visible ping info or speed estimate, but it’s not hard to guess that a red or amber circle means a slower connection. Nor will you be surprised to hear that the free servers nearly always seem to be amber or red.

You can create your own profiles for streaming or file-sharing by selecting the right county, server and VPN protocol. And, while the general Settings tab doesn’t go beyond how the app starts, when it auto-connects and the default protocol, the Advanced tab includes a VPN Killswitch (off by default), DNS Leak Protection (always on), IPv6 Leak Protection (on by default) and Split Tunneling. You can use the last feature to either include or exclude specific programs on your PC from going online through the VPN.

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Proton VPN Free review: Privacy and security

ProtonVPN’s privacy focus is reflected in its operations and policies. It doesn’t log, track or record your VPN activity and, because it’s based in Switzerland, it operates under Swiss law – rather than general EU law – and only works with Swiss law-enforcement agencies. Even then, it only provides any information once a court has approved a criminal case.

There’s no formal audit to back up its privacy claims but the firm wins points for a permanent transparency report page where they highlight any new cases as they turn up. The last one available, for January 2019, covers a data request from a foreign country approved by the Swiss court system, but where ProtonVPN hadn’t stored the customer IP information requested, which is always a good sign.

While ProtonVPN Free users don’t get the Secure Core servers or TOR over VPN, the service still delivers a good basic level of privacy protection, and our testing through DoILeak.com didn’t throw up anything to suggest otherwise.

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Proton VPN Free review: Performance and speed

While you don’t get much of a choice when it comes to servers, ProtonVPN Free isn’t necessarily slow. We tested the VPN on a home broadband connection that has an average of 30Mbits/sec download speed and 10Mbits/sec upload speed.

Connections from the UK to the Netherlands’ Free exit node were actually pretty decent during testing, losing under 5% of the VPN-free download speed. At longer distances, though, it’s slower. A VPN link to Japan saw download speeds drop to an average of 4.8Mbits/sec, while the free US server wasn’t a whole lot faster, with speeds roughly one-third of the non-VPN norm.

Compare this to speeds that you can access with a Plus account, and the difference is night and day; there, the drop was less than 45%. If you want a good range of locations and solid performance around the globe, you’ll have to pay but if you just want a short-hop VPN for privacy and security purposes, ProtonVPN won’t make your browsing feel painfully slow.

There’s still just about enough speed to stream video from US streaming services, but you’re going to need the paid-for version to make the most of it. While we could stream US Netflix through a paid-for Plus server, we couldn’t do so through the free US server – the old Proxy Error message reared its ugly head. We had no problems streaming BBC iPlayer through a UK VPN, however, and free US services such as Comedy Central were happy to play ball.


Proton VPN Free review: Mobile apps

ProtonVPN’s apps for iOS and Android mirror the general look and feel of the desktop client: all dark backgrounds and the same map view, although the interface defaults to a straight server list. There’s no Killswitch – although we’re told that the same function is enabled by default in the Android app – and the only protocol available is IKEv2.

Some advanced features, like split-tunneling, are available in the Android app, though not the iOS version, while you can create your own VPN profiles for different purposes in both apps, just as you can in the desktop client. Speeds in both iOS and Android are roughly on par with the desktop client, too, though we did see some faster connections to the free US server using the iOS app.

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Proton VPN Free review: Price

You can guess how much ProtonVPN Free costs but if you want access to faster servers and the full range of features, then you’ll need to find $4 per month (or $48 per year) for the Basic plan, or $8 per month (or $96 per year) for the Plus plan. To get more of an idea of what this buys you, read our full ProtonVPN review.


Proton VPN Free review: Customer support

Support is primarily online through a knowledge base section, a Reddit forum and an email contact form. We were slightly alarmed upon being informed that a contact form response may take up to two days but, thankfully, I had responses to all my questions within two hours.

Replies were polite, clear and thorough, covering all our enquiries in detail, letting me know where to go and change settings in the Windows client, or answering questions about existing and future features. I’d prefer a 24/7 live chat option but at least the email support appears doesn’t seem to be tardy.


Proton VPN Free review: Verdict

How much you like ProtonVPN Free will depend on what you’re looking for in a VPN. On the one hand, that price – free – and the lack of any usage limitations are pretty attractive; other free VPNs come with ads and constant upsell hassle, or a strict monthly usage limit. ProtonVPN’s whole approach to security and privacy is impressive for a cost-free option.

On the other hand, you are only getting access to a meagre selection of servers. Our favourite free VPN – Windscribe – gives you more features and more servers plus more consistent speeds. If you can live with Windscribe’s usage limits, it’s the better free VPN overall.

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