Why we have a free VPN

And even the best VPN is no guarantee against a well-resourced state agency that decides to target you specifically.

How does a VPN work?

Posted on November 4th, 2020 by Douglas Crawford in Privacy deep dives.

An illustration of examining a VPN.

A virtual private network (VPN) provides privacy and a host of other benefits when connecting to the internet. Our blog post What is a VPN? explains what this technology does and some reasons you might find it useful to install your own VPN on your device.

In this article, we will go deeper and explain the more technical aspects of how a VPN works in a way that’s easy for anyone to understand.

We’ll start with some internet basics and then talk about how a VPN fits into the picture, followed by a question-and-answer section at the end.

How the internet works (without a VPN)

Your internet service provider (ISP) connects your device to the internet, so all data between your device and the servers (e.g., websites) you connect to on the internet flows through your ISP’s servers. Each device on the internet is assigned a unique number known as an IP address.

When you type a website’s URL into your browser’s address bar, your browser will send a request known as a DNS query to your ISP, asking for the correct computer-friendly IP address that you wish to connect to.

DNS is similar to a big telephone directory that maps URLs like “protonvpn.com” to their corresponding IP addresses. Once your browser has obtained the correct IP address from your ISP, it will initiate a connection with the website (or other internet resource).

A diagram of how the internet works without a VPN.

What your ISP can see

Your ISP (such as Verizon, Vodafone, or Comcast) knows the IP address of the router you are using and whose account it belongs to. It also knows which websites you have visited because just about every ISP in the world logs the DNS queries they process (together with a timestamp of when you make the query).

Even if your ISP doesn’t perform the DNS lookup (for example, if you manually typed in the IP address or used a third-party DNS service), it can still see the DNS request because these usually are not encrypted.

In recent years there has been a growth in third-party DNS services that do, in fact, encrypt DNS queries made to them. This is good, but your ISP can see which website you visit anyway, thanks to the fact that even if the DNS query is encrypted, the IP destination information required to correctly route your data isn’t.

HTTPS is an encryption protocol that secures the connection between a website and your device. Thanks in large part to the heroic efforts of the Let’s Encrypt campaign, the use of HTTPS has increasingly become the norm, rather than the exception it was just a few short years ago.

A screenshot of the padlock you see when the site you are visiting is HTTPS-encrypted.

Without HTTPS, your ISP can see everything you do on a website. This includes the individual pages you visit, any payment details you enter, and any form data that you submit. HTTPS prevents this. Even when HTTPS is used, though, your ISP can still see and log which websites you visit (just not what you do on them).

And what your ISP can see, so can your government.

What websites can see

Websites can see the last IP address in the chain of connections between your device and the webserver. Without a VPN, this is the unique IP address that your ISP has assigned to your router.

Websites routinely log this information, together with timestamps, frequency, and duration of visits, in order to understand how the website is being used and how it is performing. Should the police need to identify a particular user of that website, it’s a simple matter of asking the ISP to identify the customer it has assigned that IP address to.

Identifying an individual in this way is, of course, quite unusual. It may even sometimes require legal coercion, although most ISPs are happy to voluntarily cooperate with legitimate law enforcement requests.

Even without uniquely identifying you by your IP address, however, your IP address always tells websites which country you are in, and probably even in which city. This is thanks to the fact that ISPs usually assign IP addresses to home users in the same geographical vicinity in blocks, and databases of where these blocks of IPs have been assigned are publicly available.

In short, the internet was not built for privacy, so you should not expect any when using it as is.

With a VPN

When you use a VPN app on your device, it establishes an encrypted connection to a VPN server. This connection is made over the internet (so you still need your ISP), and is often referred to as a “VPN tunnel.”

This VPN server handles all DNS queries and acts as an intermediary that sits between your device and the internet, routing your data to the correct destinations.

An illustration of how a VPN works.

What your ISP can see

Your ISP can see that you are connected to an IP address belonging to a server. It won’t automatically know this is a VPN server, but it wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure it out, since it is the only IP address you appear to be connecting to.

What it can’t see are any websites or other internet resources that you connect to through the VPN server. This is because the VPN server handles DNS queries and routes your data to the correct IP address.

You ISP also can’t see the contents of your data (including IP destination data and DNS lookup requests) because all data traveling between your device and the VPN server is encrypted.

So when using a VPN, your ISP can’t see which websites you visit, and it can’t see the contents of your data (even when HTTPS is not used). The same is true of WiFi hackers, public WiFi router operators, or anyone else who might normally be able to see your data as it travels between your device and its destination.

What websites see

When using a VPN, the last IP address in the chain of connections between your device and the webserver is that of the VPN server. The VPN server, therefore, shields your real IP address from websites you visit, which will only be able to see the IP address of the VPN server.

In addition to its clear privacy benefits, this feature of a VPN is useful spoofing your geographic location, since you appear to access the internet from wherever the VPN server is located.

What the VPN server sees

In many ways, the VPN provider takes over the role of your ISP. It handles DNS queries and can monitor the IP addresses you visit.

Although the connection between your device and the VPN server is encrypted by the VPN, the connection between the VPN server and the websites you visit is not. This means that (like your ISP normally can), the VPN server can view the content of traffic that is not protected by HTTPS.

It is, therefore, of critical importance to choose a VPN service that is trustworthy and secure.

How Proton VPN ensures privacy and transparency

At Proton, our commitment to users’ privacy is well known. Proton VPN and Proton Mail, the largest encrypted provider in the world, are trusted by journalists and activists in the field, and we have taken a number of steps to strengthen your security and privacy:

  • Unlike most ISPs, we keep no logs that can compromise your privacy. A timestamp is kept of your last successful login attempt, but this is not connected to the IP address you connect from or to any activity while using our service.
  • Our apps are all fully audited and open source, so anyone can check them.
  • We are based in Switzerland, a country with no ties to the USA-led Five Eyes mass surveillance alliance, and which has among the strongest data privacy laws in the world.
  • We use only the most secure VPN protocols, with strong encryption and forward secrecy.
  • We offer a specially hardened Secure Core VPN service for those who need it.
  • Our apps offer DNS leak protection to ensure DNS lookups are handled exclusively by Proton. IPv6 leak protection ensures no data is ever routed outside the VPN tunnel.

FAQ

What is encryption?

Encryption is a mathematical process that converts data into illegible characters so that no one without the correct key can access it. It is the cornerstone of keeping your data safe on the internet. Proton VPN uses only the strongest encryption suites; please see our post on strong encryption for more information.

What is AES-256?

AES is a symmetric key encryption cipher used to secure large chunks of data at rest. AES-256 is AES implemented with a 256-bit key size, which is its strongest setting.

AES is approved by NIST, and the US government secures its top secret data with AES-256. This has led many VPN services that use AES-256 to describe their encryption in terms such as “military grade.” AES-256 is, indeed, very secure, but it is only one of the components required to ensure a VPN connection is secure.

What is an encryption tunnel or a VPN tunnel?

A VPN encrypts your data as it travels between your device and the VPN server, thus preventing anyone who would otherwise be able to access the data (such as your ISP or public router operator) from seeing its contents.

An illustration of how a VPN's encrypted tunnel works.

Individual “packets” of data are encrypted on your device and then decrypted on the VPN server. The tunnel analogy is a useful way to think about this encrypted connection.

What is a VPN protocol?

A VPN protocol is the set of instructions used to establish a secure connection between two computers (your device and the VPN server). Various VPN protocols exist, but Proton VPN supports OpenVPN, IKEv2, and WireGuard.

OpenVPN – A battle-tested VPN protocol that is still widely regarded as the last word when it comes to VPN security.

IKEv2 – A more modern VPN protocol that is fast while also considered by experts to be very secure.

L2TP/IPsec – Although believed compromised by the NSA, under most circumstances, this protocol is still considered secure. It has, however, been superseded by the superior IKEv2.

PPTP – A highly insecure protocol that some providers continue to support for compatibility reasons.

WireGuard – A very new VPN protocol that, while fast and secure (at least in theory), is still experimental. Proton VPN is watching the development of WireGuard (now out of beta phase on Linux) with great interest and has helped to fund its development.

Will a VPN slow my internet down?

Yes, but not too much. Encrypting and decrypting your data requires processing power, which, in theory, can slow down your internet connection. In practice, even low-end modern smartphones can handle VPN encryption with no noticeable slowdown.

A bigger issue is how far your data travels. Connecting to a VPN server adds another “leg” to its journey, which inevitably slows it down. This is particularly true if the VPN server you connect to is located on the other side of the world from you.

If you connect to a VPN server fairly nearby, however, (for example, anywhere in Europe if you are based in Europe), then it is unlikely you will notice any slowdown. In addition to this, our unique VPN Accelerator technology can increase speeds by over 400% under certain conditions and is particularly effective at mitigating speed loss when connecting to geographically distant servers.

Learn more about VPN Accelerator

Another factor to consider is the “server load” of the VPN server you are using. That is, how many people are using it at the same time as you and thus making demands on its resources.

This is the only reason that our free servers, which can get a little busy during peak times, do not always allow the speeds that are available when using our Plus servers, which tend to be less busy.

What is IPv6 leak protection?

Every device connected to the internet is assigned a unique number to identify it. The huge expansion of the internet in recent years, however, means that numbers assigned using the old IPv4 system are running out. Fast.

IPv6 fixes this problem by using 128-bit web addresses, making some 2^128 (around 340 billion billion billion billion) new numbers available, which should keep us going for quite some time.

All modern operating systems support IPv6, but most of the internet still uses IPv4. As a hybrid compromise solution to this problem, your device will send connection requests to websites you visit using both their IPv4 and IPv6 addresses.

If the website supports IPv6 then it will accept the IPv6 connection. If it only supports IPv4 then it won’t even be aware of the IPv6 connection attempt and will initiate an IPv4 connection.

Many VPN apps from other VPN services are also IPv4 only, and thus only route IPv4 connections through the VPN tunnel. When an IPv6 connection is established, the VPN app is not aware of it, and the connection is thus routed by your OS outside the VPN tunnel.

An illustration of how IPv6 leaks work.

The website you have connected to can therefore see your real IPv6 address, even though you are using a VPN. This is an IPv6 leak.

Proton VPN applications block all IPv6 traffic by default to ensure this does not happen. This has no effect on our internet experience.

What is DNS leak protection?

When using a VPN, DNS queries are supposed to go through the VPN tunnel so that only the VPN service can see and resolve them. A DNS leak occurs when a DNS request is somehow routed outside the VPN tunnel so that it can be seen by (and usually also resolved by) your ISP.

There are a number of reasons this can happen, and while Windows tends to be the worst offender, it can happen on any platform. DNS leak protection solves the problem by using firewall rules to ensure no traffic can leave your device outside the VPN tunnel.

You can follow us on social media to stay up to date on the latest Proton VPN releases:

To get a free Proton Mail encrypted email account, visit proton.me/mail

Douglas Crawford

Starting with ProPrivacy and now Proton, Douglas has worked for many years as a technology writer. During this time, he has established himself as a thought leader specializing in online privacy. He has been quoted by the BBC News, national newspapers such as The Independent, The Telegraph, and The Daily Mail, and by international technology publications such as Ars Technica, CNET, and LinuxInsider. Douglas was invited by the EFF to help host a livestream session in support of net neutrality. At Proton, Douglas continues to explore his passion for privacy and all things VPN.

Why we have a free VPN

Posted on August 31st, 2021 by Lisa Whelan in Proton Stories.

The internet was designed to facilitate the free exchange of ideas and information. However, organizations, governments, internet service providers, and hackers can all pose a threat to that freedom.

Since the internet was created, we’ve seen geo-restrictions, mass surveillance, and censorship prevent people from accessing all kinds of websites and online content. Although using a VPN isn’t the solution for all of these problems all of the time, it’s a good place to start in the fight to defend your access to a free and fair internet.

We believe everyone should be able to access the internet securely and without restrictions. Our free and unlimited VPN is a crucial part of how we put that belief into practice.

The impact of a secure, free VPN

Providing a free, privacy-focused VPN means that everyone can access the internet securely. The benefits of using a VPN range from bypassing geo-restricted content to protecting people from government surveillance and hackers.

Stop your ISP from seeing and interfering with your browsing activity

When you browse the internet without a VPN, your internet service provider (ISP) can see all of your unencrypted network traffic. This means your ISP can know a lot about you, such as the domains you visit and what time you visited them.

In the UK, the government is using 2016’s Investigatory Powers Act to secretly test a new snooping tool, increasing the amount of information your ISP can collect on your browsing activity to hand to the government if requested. Meanwhile, with the repeal of net neutrality in the USA, the FCC handed ISPs the ability to monitor your browsing, sell that information, throttle your internet speeds based on what website you visit, or even limit your access to certain websites.

Using a VPN encrypts all your network traffic, so your ISP cannot see your browsing activity. In addition to protecting your privacy, using a VPN also enables you to access websites that would otherwise be blocked or slowed down by your ISP.

Your ISP needs to know your true IP address in order to keep tabs on your browsing activity or to impose speed restrictions on the websites you visit. A VPN hides your true IP address, making it harder for your ISP to track your online activity.

However, not all VPNs provide the same level of protection. Once you have connected to a VPN, that VPN essentially acts as your new ISP and can see your browsing activity. So rather than your ISP receiving that information, your VPN provider receives it instead. With that in mind, it’s essential to only use trustworthy no-log VPNs.

Proton VPN doesn’t keep any logs on you or your browsing history, whether you’re using a free plan or a paid one. We’re building a movement for better privacy online, and that means no one but you should be able to know about your browsing activity. (Our latest security audit results confirm our no logs policy.)

Bypass government censorship

When you connect to a VPN, you can choose the server that your traffic is routed through. This means that you can use a VPN to route your network traffic through a server in a different country and browse as if you were in that country.

We believe that your location shouldn’t determine the websites you can access. By using a free VPN that lets you select the country you are browsing from, you can bypass government censorship or access geo-restricted content.

This government censorship prevents citizens from accessing unbiased information on the internet and stifles free speech and political activism.

People who use our free VPN can choose to route their traffic through servers in Japan, the USA, and the Netherlands to bypass government censorship in their home countries.

Unblock geo-restricted content

It’s not just your government or ISP who can block you from seeing certain content. Sometimes, you may not be able to access an entire website, or parts of a website because the people operating the website have decided to deny some people access based on their location.

Most frequently, this is seen on streaming sites, such as Netflix, where some content is only available in certain locations. This can be particularly frustrating to anyone traveling away from their home countries when they are denied content they are used to having access to and for which they have paid..

While not being able to catch up on a TV series may be irritating, geoblocking also affects people’s ability to access certain news websites and popular online services. For example, some US news outlets blocked traffic from EU member countries once GDPR came into effect to avoid the need to comply with the regulations. Other websites block the internet traffic originating from entire countries in an attempt to stop hacking attempts or to comply with international sanctions.

In a dramatic example, The Conversation reported that an Iranian student was unable to apply for an overseas graduate school because it had implemented geoblocking, which prevented the website from being able to accept applications from Iran.

Like most free VPNs, a free Proton VPN plan will not enable you to access geo-restricted streaming content. However, you can use a free VPN to access geoblocked websites and online services by connecting via a country where those websites are not blocked. Accessing content from around the world, especially from news outlets, is an important part of a free internet, as it offers a broader view of international events.

Protect yourself from hackers

Anyone who uses the internet can be a potential target for hackers. Hackers may be looking for your identifying information to commit identity theft or looking for vulnerabilities in a business’s network in order to defraud a company. For political dissidents or journalists targeted by state-sponsored hackers, the stakes are even higher.

While a VPN doesn’t entirely protect you from hackers, it does protect your browsing activity by routing your network traffic through an encrypted tunnel. This means that even if anyone were able to intercept your traffic (for example, by exploiting a vulnerability in the network), they would be unable to read it.

Using a VPN becomes even more important when you connect to public WiFi. Without a VPN, you put your data in the hands of a network that could be compromised or have poor security, as well as sharing your data with the public network’s ISP.

There are numerous free VPNs available for download, but you need to be careful. Many free VPNs are not trustworthy. Entrusting your data to an unknown service provider that is not completely transparent can, in many cases, leave your privacy and security in a worse state than without a VPN.

Several well-known VPN providers offer a free plan as well. These free VPNs are more secure but almost always impose some sort of data or speed limit on your connection, meaning you are only able to protect some of your online browsing.

At Proton VPN, we don’t impose any data limits or artificial speed restrictions on you, including those using our free VPN plan, and everyone who uses Proton VPN benefits from the same level of robust encryption. Our free VPN will always be free and unlimited, so everyone can protect themselves online.

Our free secure VPN

Proton VPN was built with security as the main focus, so everyone can enjoy online privacy and the freedom to access content from around the world. Proton VPN is the only free VPN that:

  • Imposes no data or speed limits on your browsing activity
  • Has no advertisements
  • Does not log your online activity
  • Is protected by Swiss privacy laws

Our free VPN isn’t funded by advertisements or by selling your data (in fact, we don’t log any of your online activity at all). We are able to provide a free VPN thanks to paid subscriptions to the Proton VPN Plus plan.

Although a Proton VPN Plus plan offers the same security benefits as our Free plan, Plus plans come with some additional features, such as streaming support, faster servers, and P2P file sharing support.

Proton VPN has a long history of protecting free and unrestricted internet access. As a secure and trustworthy VPN, activists, journalists, and NGOs around the world rely on Proton VPN.

Get a free, secure VPN from Proton VPN

It’s not just activists, journalists, and dissidents who need to protect their privacy online. Everyone has a right to control who holds their data, and using a VPN when you connect to the internet is one of the simplest steps you can take to protect your browsing activity.

You can sign up for a free Proton VPN plan here. All you need to sign up for Proton VPN is an email address, and once you have downloaded and installed the Proton VPN app for your device, you can connect to the fastest server for your location in just one click.

Can I trust Proton VPN?

At Proton VPN, we are committed to complete transparency, so anyone can check out our credentials for themselves. This is why all our apps are open source and independently audited, so you can be sure our apps do what we say they do. You can view our source code on GitHub.
We’re also open about who we are. The names and backgrounds of our leadership team have been publicly disclosed, and details of the company are available on the Swiss commercial register.
Read more about the steps we take to ensure transparency.

Is a free Proton VPN plan secure?

Yes. Our free plans offer the same strong level of VPN encryption and protection against DNS leaks as our paid plans do. The only security feature that is not available on a Proton VPN free plan is our unique Secure Core VPN, which routes your traffic through multiple servers.
We only use VPN protocols that are known to be secure and provide further protection by only choosing cipher suites that have Perfect Forward Secrecy. These benefits are afforded to everyone who uses Proton VPN.

Are free VPNs safe?

Unfortunately, many free VPNs are not safe or secure, and will harm your privacy more than not using a VPN at all. It is imperative that you only use trustworthy free VPNs, like Proton VPN. All our apps are open source and independently audited, so you can ensure that our apps do what we say they do and can be entrusted with your data.
As we are based in Switzerland, we are also protected by strong Swiss privacy laws, and your data is outside the jurisdiction of global intelligence-sharing agreements.

Which free VPN is best?

Proton VPN is the only free VPN that gives you the strongest available encryption without imposing any data or speed limits on your browsing. We are also ad-free, protected by Swiss privacy laws, and will never keep track of your online activity.

How does Proton VPN fund its free plans?

We are able to provide a free VPN to everyone thanks to our community of paying customers. If you would like to support the work that we do at Proton VPN, you can subscribe to a Plus plan. Subscribing to a Plus plan gives you some extra benefits, such as streaming and P2P file sharing support.
We do not fund our free VPN with ads or by selling your data. Proton VPN free is simply a free and unlimited no-logs VPN with a commitment to privacy at its core.

Does Proton VPN have ads?

No. Proton VPN is ad-free. We do not serve ads to people using a free Proton VPN account, and we will never sell your data.

Feel free to share your feedback and questions with us via our official social media channels on Twitter and Reddit.

Lisa Whelan

Lisa is an activist, writer, and internet privacy advocate. A defender of the right to privacy for people everywhere, Lisa joined Proton to spread awareness and further enable freedom online.

Should I use a VPN? — VPN benefits and limitations

Posted on June 12th, 2021 by Proton Team in Privacy basics.

This post was updated on October 21, 2022.

VPNs are not only a way to stream restricted content or hide your browsing activity. Learn how a VPN can increase your overall security, privacy, and freedom online, no matter how you use the internet.

We explain why and when you should use a VPN and some of the benefits and limitations of VPN usage.

What is a VPN?

A virtual private network (VPN) is a tool to protect your internet connection so that you remain private and secure online. It can also help you access restricted content online, bypassing internet blocks based on your location.

By encrypting the data from your computer, smartphone, or tablet, a good VPN can secure your web traffic against spies, criminals, or anyone else that gains access to your network, legally or otherwise.

What does a VPN do?

A VPN establishes an encrypted tunnel between your device and the VPN server. When you browse the internet using a VPN, all your traffic passes through this encrypted tunnel to a VPN server before reaching the public internet.

Encrypted VPN tunnel showing how a VPN protects you online

This means your internet service provider (ISP) cannot see what websites you’re visiting, and the website you visit cannot see your IP address or location.

What is a VPN used for?

You can use a VPN to protect your privacy and security whatever you’re doing online. But here are some activities for which a VPN is particularly useful:

  • Streaming: Some streaming services use “geoblocking” to restrict access to content based on your location. A VPN changes your public-facing IP address to make it look like you’re back home, so you can stream your favorite shows while abroad.
  • Gaming: As with streaming, a VPN can help you access cloud gaming services outside your region. A VPN can also help you avoid bandwidth throttling, when your ISP slows down your connection based on your online activity.
  • Activism: Using a VPN can help you access censored content and help hide your identity online. So a good VPN is an essential tool for political activists and journalists, especially in states with authoritarian regimes.
  • Peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing: A VPN hides your real IP address to keep you safe from potential malicious actors on the network while sharing files using BitTorrent. A VPN can also help you access torrent sites that your ISP may block.
  • Business: By encrypting your internet traffic, a VPN can help keep your business data secure. For example, a VPN can help you work from home securely and protect your confidential business transactions.

Do I need a VPN?

We believe that everyone deserves privacy online. Using a VPN to encrypt your internet traffic is the most impactful way to protect your browsing activity from prying eyes.

To protect your privacy all the time, we recommend using a VPN whenever you connect to the internet. The Proton VPN kill switch and always-on VPN features help ensure your browsing traffic is always protected.

It’s not just activists and journalists who benefit from VPN protection. Everyone can benefit from encrypting their online activity. Here’s why you should use a VPN:

Stop ISPs spying on you

When you use a VPN, it routes your internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel to a VPN server that sits between your device and the rest of the internet. That prevents your ISP from seeing which websites you visit.

Without a VPN, your ISP can see almost everything you do online. ISPs can exploit this capability to throttle certain websites or charge more for access to “premium” websites.

Block government surveillance

Many states, such as those in the 5 Eyes, 9 Eyes, and 14 Eyes agreements, also use ISPs to conduct mass surveillance on citizens. Government agencies, like the US National Security Agency (NSA) or the UK’s GCHQ, rely on ISPs to log their users’ browsing histories for this surveillance.

Because a VPN prevents your ISP from seeing the information you send and receive online, it becomes more difficult for the NSA and other agencies to monitor you.

Browse anonymously online

It’s not just your ISP or government who can spy on you. When you visit a website without a VPN, the website can see your IP address and location. A VPN can prevent websites from tracking you across the internet because it masks your IP address and replaces it with the IP address of your VPN server.

There are, however, other ways for websites to track users, which is why it’s also important to use a privacy-focused browser. For even more anonymity, you can use the Tor network (you can access Tor servers with one click with Proton VPN).

Access censored content

ISPs don’t just spy on you, they also monitor your online activity so they can slow down or block certain websites or file-sharing protocols like BitTorrent.

In some countries, governments also impose internet censorship to prevent citizens from accessing certain websites. These blocks are put in place to stifle protests or limit the spread of opinions critical of the government.

Using a VPN is your best protection against your ISP or government tampering with your ability to use the internet without restriction.

Proton VPN also includes anti-censorship tools like alternative routing and the Stealth protocol to prevent our app itself from being blocked. And we’ve made our VPN available for download in places that are hard to block, like GitHub.

When to use a VPN

Although you can use a VPN every time you connect to the internet for maximum protection, there are times when using a VPN is crucial — when your data is more at risk or when you cannot otherwise access censored or restricted content.

Browse securely on public WiFi

The most important time to use a VPN is whenever you’re connected to a public WiFi hotspot. Public WiFi has some vulnerabilities that criminals can exploit, making it risky to connect to public WiFi without a VPN. These attacks can include:

  • Man-in-the-middle attacks (MITM) — A hacker intercepts traffic between your device and the router, often without you noticing at all.
  • Malicious hotspots — A hacker creates a hotspot that mimics legitimate public WiFi to gain access to your network traffic.
  • Malware — A hacker sends a malicious program to your device when you’re connected to unsecured WiFi.
  • WiFi sniffing — Attackers monitor a hotspot’s network traffic to analyze your data and try to steal passwords or private information.

To find out more about these risks of public WiFi, read our public WiFi safety guide.

Using public WiFi without a VPN can also mean that the hotspot provider can sell your browsing metadata to advertising and analytics companies (this metadata includes the domains you’ve visited, when you visited them, and for how long).

If a website doesn’t use HTTPS, WiFi hackers and “evil twin” hotspots can also monitor everything you do on that website. HTTPS secures the connection between your browser and a website, so the widespread adoption of HTTPS over the last several years means that using public WiFi hotspots is not as dangerous as it once was.

Access blocked video streaming and other content

One of the most popular reasons for using a VPN is to access video streaming services or other content that is unavailable in some locations.

Using a VPN server in a different country allows you to browse the internet as though you were in that country and access content that would otherwise be restricted. That way, you can use a VPN to stream your favorite shows when traveling abroad.

For example, imagine you live in San Francisco and take a trip to London. You have a paid US Netflix subscription, but you’re while in the UK, you may not be able to watch your favorite Netflix shows or movies as they’re only accessible from the US. But if you connect to a VPN with a US server, you can continue watching as if at home.

Please note that while it’s not illegal to use a VPN to watch a streaming service abroad, you need to make sure you comply with the service’s terms of use.

“You may access the Netflix content primarily within the country in which you have established your account and only in geographic locations where we offer our service and have licensed such content”.

So using a VPN to watch content that’s not licensed for the area you’re currently in is against Netflix’s policy. However, you have a right to watch content you pay for and can normally access when you’re home.

For more information about streaming with Proton VPN, check out our streaming guide.

Unblock censored content

If you live in or travel to a country with restricted or censored internet, a VPN can help you access blocked websites. Using a VPN can also help bypass censorship on a more local level, such as blocked websites on your employer’s or university’s network.

When you use a VPN, your traffic is encrypted, so your internet provider cannot see the domains you are accessing. The people running your network cannot block what they cannot see, making a VPN crucial in accessing restricted content.

For example, when Proton Mail was temporarily blocked in Turkey in 2018, Proton VPN provided a way for users to bypass the government internet censors. And Proton VPN has been an important tool in helping Russian and Iranian citizens fight censorship during government crackdowns in 2022.

Should I use a VPN at home?

We recommend using a VPN whenever you connect to the internet for maximum protection. Whether you work from home or just go online for leisure, a VPN helps to protect your privacy and security, whatever you’re doing.

A VPN helps prevent your ISP, governments, tech giants, or hackers from spying on you and allows you to browse the web more privately and securely. So if you’re sick of being tracked online, keep your VPN on as much as possible.

Limitations of a VPN

As with any security product, it’s extremely important to understand the limitations of a VPN to avoid any false sense of security.

Can I be traced using a VPN?

A VPN hides what you are doing online and masks your identity by hiding your IP address and location. But a VPN alone cannot make you completely anonymous. Snoopers can sniff out data that can help identify you even when you’re using a VPN.

For example, your ISP can see your connection logs showing the time you spent online and volume of traffic.

Websites cannot see your IP address but can still track you with cookies or browser and device fingerprinting.

Search engines, social media, and mobile apps have multiple ways to track you when you’re signed in, depending on the permissions you give them.

And even the best VPN is no guarantee against a well-resourced state agency that decides to target you specifically.

Remember, too, that your VPN provider will always know your IP address at least and will always be able to view and store your internet activity if it wants to.

So if you’re a journalist or activist and hiding your identity is critical, consider using other privacy tools, like the Tor network, which routes your encrypted data through multiple random servers.

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Can I trust a VPN?

When you use a VPN, all your online traffic passes through the VPN, so the VPN provider sees everything. You’re effectively transferring trust from your ISP to your VPN. So it’s essential you choose a VPN you can trust.

But not all VPN providers are worthy of your trust. According to one independent study of Android VPN apps, around 38% of the apps reviewed contained malware, and 18% were not even encrypted. Other VPN services claim to keep “no logs” but actually record large amounts of user data.

With Proton VPN, full details of the user information we store are laid out in our privacy policy. As we’re based in Switzerland, our strict no-logs policy is subject to Swiss privacy laws. Under current Swiss law, we’re not obligated to log user data, and the government cannot order us to start recording it either.

What’s more, all our apps are open source and independently audited, so you can be sure they’re trustworthy. And we’ve published our VPN threat model, so you can understand exactly what Proton VPN can and cannot protect you against.

Can VPNs beat internet shutdowns?

While a VPN is a great tool to help access censored content, it may not be effective against more sweeping forms of censorship. For example, an ISP may slow down or shut off your entire internet connection, or a website may block all traffic coming from known VPN servers.

Governments can also attempt to block connections to VPN servers, locking users into the local network.

However, VPN services like Proton VPN make it easier to bypass blocks by providing multiple VPN protocols and alternative routing. Proton VPN also has Stealth, a unique protocol that can avoid detection and help you defeat censorship.

Does a VPN protect me from viruses and other malware?

A VPN helps to protect your privacy and security online by hiding your IP address and encrypting your web traffic. But it cannot replace antivirus or malware removal software.

If you click on a malicious link and install software that turns out to be malware, a VPN cannot protect you. You still need to use antivirus software, which actively scans your device to detect and remove malware.

However, the best VPNs have additional security features to protect you online. Proton VPN has the NetShield Ad-blocker, which prevents many forms of malware, adware, and other trackers from being automatically downloaded onto your device in the first place.

Protect yourself with Proton VPN

Now you know why you should use a VPN, you can start using Proton VPN right away for free. Or, if you already have a free account, consider upgrading to a paid plan.

As a community-supported project, we rely on support from paying members of the Proton community. With your help, we can continue to provide a free VPN to millions around the world.

Feel free to share your feedback and questions with us via our official social media channels on Twitter and Reddit.

Proton Team

Proton was founded by scientists who met at CERN and had the idea that an internet where privacy is the default is essential to preserving freedom. Our team of developers, engineers, and designers from all over the world is working to provide you with secure ways to be in control of your online data.