A virtual private network (VPN) is an important barrier between your network traffic and outside perpetrators, so you should seek out a company with strong security credentials. ProtonVPN, from the creators of the secure ProtonMail platform, fits that bill. ProtonVPN for Android is a slick and secure VPN service with an excellent free version and privacy-first protections. That said, pricing tiers are restrictive and the speeds in our testing are below average. Still, if privacy is your main concern, or you already use ProtonMail, ProtonVPN should make your short list.
What Is a VPN?
If you connect to public Wi-Fi networks often, your privacy is at risk. Your connection to such networks is vulnerable to attacks from people looking to steal your data. Even your home network is not entirely secure; your internet service providers (ISPs) may be selling your data.
Everyone should be concerned about their network privacy both at home and abroad, which is why you need to use a VPN even for your Android phone. A VPN helps secures your internet traffic by routing it through an encrypted tunnel to a server controlled by the VPN service. When you are connected to a VPN’s server, your public IP address appears as that of the server. In other words, it is difficult to trace back any activity to your point of connection. Since your data is also encrypted in the process, neither aggressors on a local network nor your ISP can see your actual traffic.
Although it’s important to know what a VPN does in theory, most VPN apps make it easy to set up and use a VPN service, without knowing specific details. That said, users should know that a VPN does not make you invincible on the web. Using a combination of a VPN, the Tor network, and privacy extensions, such as Privacy Badger, is a more comprehensive approach. Always keep in mind however that perfect security is a myth.
A VPN is also subject to the same exploitations and failures as any other app or service. Take Facebook’s Onavo VPN app for example. The app, which Apple has since pulled from the App Store, actively tracked its users’ web traffic, the exact behavior a VPN should prevent. In any case, you can investigate your VPN on your own by following our guide on how to tell if your VPN is leaking your real IP address.
Threats to your privacy and security are always evolving, but a VPN is a substantial first step towards securing your privacy online.
Pricing and Platforms
ProtonVPN is one of the few VPN services to offer a completely free option. The main limitation of the free tier is that it restricts you to just three servers: one in Japan, one in the Netherlands, and one in the US. The free account also only allows you to use the VPN on a single device. However, as far as free VPNs go, ProtonVPN is your best option, since it does not impose limits on your data usage or serves ads. Take a look at our roundup of the best free VPNs to see how it compares.
ProtonVPN’s Basic account costs $4 per month and opens up access to all countries. In addition, you get two simultaneous connections and support for P2P sharing. The Plus account costs $8 per month and supports up to five simultaneous connections. This tier also unlocks Plus Servers, Secure Core, Tor Servers, and the Secure Streaming feature. The Secure Core servers prioritize physical security and introduce multiple redirects (think of them as additional stops along the path to your secure connection). We go into more detail later on about the Secure Core servers. In any case, both of these plans are below the current average price ($10.16) of our top VPNs.
Users can also opt for the Visionary account tier, which includes a ProtonMail account in addition to everything you get in the Plus account. The $24-per-month Visionary plan also increases the device limit to 10 concurrent connections.
ProtonVPN is a bit weird in how it structures its plans. Most VPN services offer the same features at every price tier and offer discounts for longer commitments. ProtonVPN, on the other hand, restricts higher-end features to more expensive account levels. The difference between these plans might not be immediately evident to first-time VPN users either.
As for payment options, ProtonVPN accepts credit cards, PayPal, and Bitcoin. Aside from Android, ProtonVPN is available on Windows, macOS, Linux. ProtonVPN also recently released a dedicated iOS app. We installed ProtonVPN on a Google Pixel running Android 9.0 and tested with a ProtonVPN Plus account.
One of the criteria we use to judge VPNs is the number of server location and servers it offers. The more servers and locations, the less likely it is you will experience slow connection speeds due to overburdened servers or significant geographic distances.
At the time of publishing, ProtonVPN offers servers in 30 different countries across the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Belgium, New Zealand, and Portugal are the most recent additions. A total of 30 countries is not the fewest number of locations we’ve seen; TunnelBear currently only offers servers in 20 countries, and PIA is not too far ahead with its count of 33 countries. However, other VPNs, such as NordVPN and CyberGhost, offer servers in 62 and 60 countries, respectively.
ProtonVPN’s geographic distribution is decent though it could use more servers in Africa, South America, and the Middle East. In particular, countries such as Cuba, Russia, Syria, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are not represented. Of course, given these countries’ repressive internet freedom policies, the consequences of a VPN failing are severe for the end user.
ProtonVPN offers 330 servers at the time of publishing, which is low compared to other top VPNs. For example, NordVPN maintains around 5,100 servers and PIA sits at over 3,100 servers. One thing to consider when it comes to server offerings is whether a VPN company actually maintains physical servers in all of its locations. Some companies use what are known as virtual servers, which can be configured to appear in a different place than their physical location. The problem with virtual servers is that your metadata may pass through countries other than the one you initially chose. And those other countries may not have as privacy-focused data retention laws. ProtonVPN does not use any virtual servers, which is one potential explanation for its low server count.
ProtonVPN operates under ProtonVPN AG, which is based in Switzerland. Switzerland is notably not a member of the 14 Eyes initiative. We aren’t confident enough in our knowledge of international agreements to make a definitive judgment of a VPN company based on this alone, but this is still good information to know.
Third-party audits are becoming increasingly common in the VPN industry and we appreciate whatever effort a company makes to independently verify its product. ProtonVPN has not published any public results of an audit, but it does offer a transparency report about data requests it has received.
ProtonVPN’s Android app uses the IKEv2 protocol by default, but users can configure the OpenVPN protocol manually with a configuration profile. We prefer the OpenVPN protocol for its open source nature. ProtonVPN also says that its “network traffic is encrypted with AES-256, key exchange is done with 2048-bit RSA, and HMAC with SHA256 is used for message authentication.”
As previously mentioned, ProtonVPN’s Secure Core servers provide an extra emphasis on physical security over its regular servers. When you connect to one of these servers, your data travels through one of ProtonVPN’s physically secured servers before getting rerouted to an exit server of your choice. These secure servers are located in Iceland, Switzerland, and Sweden. ProtonVPN stores the Icelandic servers in a former military base, while the ones in Switzerland and Sweden are kept safely underground.
ProtonVPN’s Android App
We installed the latest version of ProtonVPN on a Google Pixel running Android 9.0. We had no problem logging in to the test account. The app performed quickly in testing and did not suffer from any lag or crashes. Since you are relying on a VPN to secure your connection at all time, app reliability is an important metric to consider.
ProtonVPN’s dark theme looks great and the green accents throughout the interface help guide navigation. The app interface is divided into three different header sections on top: Countries, Map View, and Profiles. A hidden left-hand menu hosts items for App Settings, Account Settings, Logs, Bug reporting, and Help. If you want to just connect to the closest available server, tap the Quick Connect icon in the lower right corner. This icon is present in most of the app, so you should never be more than a tap away from a secure connection.
From the settings, you can configure ProtonVPN to start with Android and automatically connect to either the fastest or a random server. You can also enable the split tunneling feature, which lets you exclude certain apps or IP addresses from routing traffic via the VPN. This feature is useful for services that will not work while you are connected to a VPN.
From the countries list, you can select any of the ProtonVPN servers available for your subscription. Each country has several servers with helpful labels showing which are P2P or Tor ready, for example. ProtonVPN moves the fastest server to the top of the list, but also includes helpful color-coded indicators of server load to the side. Common sense dictates that you should select the fastest server at each location unless you specifically need one for P2P or Tor.
Premium subscribers can toggle the Secure Core option to connect to those servers. This option restricts the list of available servers to 23 exit locations at the time of publishing. The Secure Core server available to you (Iceland, Sweden, or Switzerland) depends on your initial selection, though a few locations offer more than one option. While you can connect to whatever server you want, you will likely get the best performance by connecting to the location closest to you.
In the Map View section, ProtonVPN displays green triangles over a map of the world and you can connect by tapping on any one of them. When you switch on the Secure Core option, the map centers on Iceland, Sweden, and Switzerland and labels them with small circles. You can tap on any circle to see the potential connection points and tap again on any of the triangle markers to connect.
The last section, Profiles, lets you save individual servers for quick access at a later time. For example, it preloads options for the fastest server and a random one. Additionally, you can set up a custom color-coded profile for a location and server of your choice.
ProtonVPN and Netflix
Some VPNs don’t work well with video streaming services, including Netflix. That said, the majority of the Android VPNs we tested did not cause any problems. We tested these VPNs with Netflix on a Nexus 5X running Android 8.1, since we had issues with streaming content on our other test device, a Google Pixel with Android 9. ProtonVPN worked fine with the Netflix app in our tests. If you do experience issues, ProtonVPN offers a support page on the topic. A representative also noted that “In general all our Plus servers are optimized for secure streaming.“
You can check out our list of the best VPNs to use with Netflix, but note that these are not guaranteed to work in the future. Video streaming companies continue to find new ways to detect and block VPN traffic.
Getting a definitive measure of a VPN’s performance isn’t simple since results can be affected by any number of variables, including your geographic location, the server you select, and the strength of your Wi-Fi connection. As such, consider our test results more of a comparative snapshot of Android VPN performance than a definitive verdict. If speed is a priority, check out our roundup of the fastest VPNs.
See How We Test VPNs
To test the speed of Android VPNs, we run Ookla’s internet speed test app several times to establish a baseline network performance with the VPN turned off. (Ookla’s Speedtest.net is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag’s publisher.) Then, we let the VPN connect to the closest server (or switch it to the nearest US-based one), and rerun the tests. We calculate the median of each category of results and compare the percent change between the values recorded with and without a VPN connection. For each test, we use the download (Mbps), upload (Mbps), and latency (ms) results.
In our speed tests, ProtonVPN did not perform well compared to the competition. Some reduction in speeds is expected, but other VPNs turned in faster results across the board. For example, ProtonVPN increased latency by about 150 percent in our tests. Similarly, its upload speeds were among the slowest; it decreased them by around 82.6 percent. ProtonVPN’s download speeds were closer to average, but still at the high-end with a 78.5 percent decline. In all three tests, ProtonVPN produced results worse than the median across all VPNs we tested.
Speedify is the fastest in our Android download test, only decreasing speeds by 3.4 percent. NordVPN also produced good download test results and is the quickest in our upload test; it slowed down speeds by 48.7 percent and 22.6 percent respectively. In our latency tests, PIA, TurboVPN, and NordVPN all only increased latency by around 20 percent.
When PCMag Software Analyst Max Eddy tested ProtonVPN’s Windows app, ProtonVPN performed close to the top in the domestic download and upload test, as well as in the international upload result. That said, ProtonVPN did falter in the international download test. Note that if you do experience slow speeds, you may be connected to a traffic-heavy BitTorrent-specific server. As Max noted in his review, even the fastest server preset may automatically connect you to one of these servers, even if the app doesn’t always do a great job of identifying each server type.
Use ProtonVPN for Privacy