NordVPN currently sits in the silver-medal position on our best VPN list. If you head over to our NordVPN review, you’ll see that we are impressed by almost every aspect of it. The security is reliable, and it offers ample features for almost anyone, while still being easy to use.
ProtonVPN sits further down the rankings, but it offers a few things that NordVPN doesn’t. As you can read about in our ProtonVPN review, it has a free plan with unlimited data and a well fleshed-out split tunneling system.
We want to see if those extra features will be enough to help ProtonVPN hold its own in a head-to-head matchup with NordVPN, and we hope you’re as curious as we are, because there’s a lot to talk about. Let’s dive in as we compare ProtonVPN vs. NordVPN.
Setting up a Fight: NordVPN vs. ProtonVPN
As with any competition, we need to lay down the rules first. This matchup will be broken down into five rounds, which are, in order, features, pricing, ease of use, speed and security.
We’ll briefly introduce each round with an explanation of what we’re looking for and what we want to see avoided. Then we’ll give an in-depth rundown of each VPN for the category. At the end of each round, we’ll draw a definite conclusion and declare a winner. Each round is worth one point, and the VPN with the most points by the end wins.
- : PayPal, Credit card
- : 10
- : Credit card, Google Pay, AmazonPay, ACH Transfer, UnionPay, Crypto Currencies, PayPal (via Paddle)
- : 6
Just like with our dedicated reviews, the first thing we like to look at are the features that each VPN offers. Looking at the features first is a great way to jump right into the meat of the comparison, and it generally gives a good idea of how the rest of the matchup will play out.
There are tons of unique features hitting the VPN market. Those include proprietary protocols, which you can read more about in our VyprVPN review, or various kinds of ad-blockers and threat filtering, like we’ll see from NordVPN in this section.
Although bells and whistles are great, there’s a shortlist of critical features that impact the security of the VPN. These include a kill switch and a way to automatically connect to the VPN on startup. Any VPN without these will immediately lose major points.
Cracking open the settings on the NordVPN desktop client quickly reveals that all of the major features are covered. In fact, NordVPN’s implementation of a kill switch and auto-connect feature are some of the best out there.
For starters, there are two kill switches on the first page of the NordVPN settings. The first, labeled as “internet kill switch,” works just like any other standard kill switch, cutting off all internet traffic if the VPN’s connection is lost.
The second kill switch is called the “app kill” and does exactly what it sounds like. You can define a list of programs that will be terminated if the VPN’s connection is lost.
This is great if you’re working on something while using the VPN that you might not want to lose progress on due to being disconnected. You can set up the app kill switch to close a torrenting program, for example, while leaving Chrome unaffected. This feature helped NordVPN earn the top spot on our best VPN for torrenting roundup (read our piece on NordVPN and torrenting).
On top of the double kill switches, the settings dedicate an entire page to auto-connect settings. You can choose whether the VPN connects on startup or only on wireless networks. This is a great way to avoid the dangers of public WiFi.
You can also choose which country you want to auto-connect to, or you can more broadly choose a region to connect to, if you don’t need a specific country.
Moving past the critical features, NordVPN packs in a few additional features. NordVPN offers a double VPN option, which sends your connection through multiple VPN servers to further hide your identity online.
There are also a handful of DNS options that we’ll look at more in the “security” section, as well as a new feature called CyberSec. This acts as an ad-blocker while also protecting you from malware, phishing and other threats.
CyberSec does this by simply blocking sites that contain potential malware or phishing attacks, which is a bit of a forceful way to ensure the user is safe, but it is something that many people will certainly appreciate. Additionally, if it bothers you to get blocked or you need to use a blocked site, it’s easy to turn this feature off.
Unlike NordVPN, ProtonVPN puts the auto-connect options on the first tab of the settings menu. You are given the ability to choose whether or not the VPN connects automatically, and you can select between the fastest available server or a random one if you decide to turn auto-connect on.
For some reason, the kill switch for ProtonVPN is put in the “advanced” tab, along with DNS leak protection and something very impressive that NordVPN doesn’t have: split tunneling.
ProtonVPN’s split tunneling is very well executed and allows you to choose whether you want to define a list of programs that will be excluded from the VPN’s connection or, vice versa, define a list of programs that will use the VPN so that any program not on the list is automatically excluded.
Split tunneling is a massively convenient feature that not too many VPNs have at the moment — though our top pick, ExpressVPN does, as you can read in our ExpressVPN review — so this earns ProtonVPN at least some credit. ProtonVPN also has what it calls “secure core,” which functions just like NordVPN’s double-VPN system to add a little extra security.
Finally, one thing we noticed while perusing the software and menus is that there is a toggle switch simply labeled “early access.” Flipping this switch changed nothing, as far as we could tell. There were no new settings or features that we could find, despite our extensive experience with spot-the-difference games.
Round One Thoughts
Both VPNs came out swinging in this matchup, with each contender offering a form of double-VPN relay, kill switch and the ability to connect automatically. Each VPN also offered some things that the other does not.
Although ProtonVPN has a solid split tunneling feature that NordVPN lacks, NordVPN simply overwhelms ProtonVPN with the quantity and quality of its feature set.
For example, there is no simple way for you to choose where you automatically connect to with ProtonVPN, while NordVPN lets you configure it in several ways. The ProtonVPN kill switch cuts the internet, while NordVPN can do the same or terminate specific applications. Finally, CyberSec is a nice addition and helps NordVPN secure the points for this round.
Pricing is a great section to look at after features because it can often be a swing point. VPN providers who fall flat in terms of features can often spring back and win this round by offering a better value.
That said, cost is not the only thing we take into consideration in the “pricing” section. There is more to being a compelling VPN from a financial perspective than just costing less than the competitors. We also consider what kind of payment methods are available, what kind of return policy is offered and whether or not there is any kind of trial available.
NordVPN has a fairly straightforward pricing model with four options, all of which are fundamentally the same, allowing up to six simultaneous connections and unlimited bandwidth.
How these pricing options differ is by time frame. While the monthly pricing is not great, the plans quickly become affordable as you look at the yearly, two-year and three-year plans.
In the three-year time span, NordVPN is one of the most inexpensive VPNs on the market, costing only a few bucks a month. However, there are better VPN options out there for those who want to save as much as possible, like CyberGhost’s three-year pricing, which you can read more about in our CyberGhost review.
That said, any VPN that beats NordVPN’s price likely won’t be able to keep up with the features it offers. There is also a 30-day refund policy, which is great, and it accepts a wide variety of payments, including PayPal, credit or debit card and even bitcoin.
NordVPN has managed to strike a great balance of value and performance, but it still lacks in one regard. Unfortunately, there is no way to try NordVPN without paying money. Without a free trial, many people will be more reluctant to put down the lump sum that is required to get the better deals of the long-term plans.
ProtonVPN has one of the most convoluted pricing structures of any VPN. There are three different plans offered, and each one can either be purchased monthly or annually.
For starters, there is a free plan that is very generous and allows for an unlimited amount of use. Seeing as most free VPNs are merely a trial that is limited by either a time frame or a data cap, this limitless free plan earns ProtonVPN a spot on our best free VPN services list.
Naturally, this free plan has a handful of limitations placed on it. Only three locations are available to free users, only one device can be connected at a time and your speeds are capped, but at an unknown limit.
Moving up to the first option, labeled as the “basic” plan, you gain access to all countries in ProtonVPN’s network, can connect two devices rather than one, and the speed cap is removed. Additionally, the free plan forbids P2P file sharing, such as torrenting, while the “basic” plan and onward allow this.
The pricing for the “basic” plan is not bad, but even the annual option is more costly when it is broken down to its monthly price, compared to NordVPN’s three-year plan that offers more, including three times the number of connected devices.
The next plan, the “plus” option, reaches prices almost at the level of NordVPN’s monthly plan. This plan allows for five devices (still less than NordVPN) and gives you the secure core feature and access to some exclusive servers that should be faster and less trafficked, as well as Tor servers.
Finally, there is what is called the “visionary” plan, due to its inclusion of ProtonMail, which encrypts your emails for added security. If you plan to use this, then it could offer a good deal. For those curious about ProtonMail, you can learn more in our most secure email article, as well as our ProtonMail review.
However, on its own as a VPN plan, the “visionary” pricing is far too high. This plan also increases your connection limit to 10, but this simply isn’t enough to offset the ridiculous price of this plan.
Round Two Thoughts
This round is much easier to score than the first one. NordVPN is the clear winner here with better pricing and more offered on the plan than most of the ProtonVPN plans.
Although NordVPN has no free trial and ProtonVPN has one of the most generous free plans in existence, this simply is not enough to outweigh ProtonVPN’s overly complicated and, at the higher levels, overpriced plans.
3. Ease of Use
The third round looks at ease of use. Of course, this is a bit of a subjective matter, but we do our best to offer a good idea of what the experience of using each VPN is like and how smoothly things run.
An awkward layout can make things hard to find, a hassle to use or, worst-case scenario, entirely unusable. The flip side of that coin is that well-designed software and menus can offer a pleasant experience that feels weightless and intuitive. With that in mind, let’s see which side of that spectrum NordVPN and ProtonVPN fall on.
As you can read in our ExpressVPN vs. NordVPN matchup, NordVPN’s client manages to offer a good deal of visual stimulation while also looking sleek. There is a large world map on the right side of the screen with a bubble to show where servers are located.
Clicking on these will connect you to a server in that location (read our guide to why NordVPN is not connecting if you have trouble). The map is quaint and can be a nice way to find and select a server, but there is also a traditional list of servers on the left side of the screen.
At the top-right of the server list, there is a button to close the map portion of the window and only have the server list showing, for those who want to save on-screen space and want something purely functional.
NordVPN is one of the market leaders in the VPN sphere, while ProtonVPN has built a small, but extremely loyal following. In this ProtonVPN vs NordVPN battle we make the two services fight to see who’s best.That said, the map and layout of NordVPN is very well done and nothing in the interface ever feels cluttered. Even moving into the settings and menus of the software, things still seem clean and refined.
The tabs make sense, and everything within the settings feels like it is in just the right spot. Things are easy to find, and the VPN is a breeze for anyone to use, even those not familiar with VPNs or tech.
ProtonVPN has a cool black-and-green interface that looks like something out of The Matrix movies. You’re greeted with a layout similar to NordVPN with a map on the right and servers on the left.
Upside-down green triangles dot the map to show where servers are located, and you can connect to the VPN by either clicking on these or by simply finding the server you want from the list. ProtonVPN also lets you close the map window, just like NordVPN, if you want to maximize your screen real estate.
Below the map is some additional information regarding your connection that NordVPN does not include, such as a session timer and a graph of your connection speed, which adds to the feeling of being a hacker while using this dark software.
Although this main page of the client looks cool and modern, problems arise with the layout of the settings menu. Little things, like putting the kill switch in the “advanced” tab of the settings, make things just a bit harder to find than they should be.
On top of that, certain toggle switches seem to do nothing, like the early-access option, and some are not switchable at all, such as the DNS-leak protection being locked in the “on” position.
Round Three Thoughts
While the ProtonVPN interface is undeniably appealing in a dystopian, futuristic kind of way, and the layout of the client is far from bad, the settings menus have some kinks that need working out.
NordVPN, on the other hand, offers as close to a flawless user experience that you can expect from any software. There are some issues that we’ll look at in the “speed” section, but at the end of the day, from a user-friendliness perspective, NordVPN is about as good as it gets.
Moving away from the subjective world of ease of use, the next section is much more scientific and clinical. In order to compare each VPN’s speed, we put each provider through a gauntlet of five locations to record the ping, download and upload speeds.
This data can be compared to the control measurement of our internet speeds without a VPN to get a good idea of what each provider is capable of, in terms of speed. We also do a bit of real-world testing here to confirm whether or not the VPN actually performs like the numbers indicate on paper.
As we mentioned in our NordVPN vs. CyberGhost matchup, NordVPN has some issues with consistency when it comes to speed. It seems that the system for choosing your server in a given location is similar to drawing a random lot from a hat, and which server you’re given can be either great or entirely unusable.
|Location:||Ping (ms)||Download (Mbps)||Upload (Mbps)|
|United Kingdom #201||153||34.78||6.06|
|Double VPN (U.S. to Canada #4)||79||20.48||8.64|
With all that negativity out of the way, things either seem to be improving or we just got lucky with our servers this time. We saw solid speeds from four of the five servers we tried, with only one — South Africa — falling completely flat on its face.
Despite this poor performance on paper, this server still seemed serviceable for web browsing and even YouTube. Ultimately, it’s usually effective to just disconnect and reconnect to draw a new lot, so to speak, and attempt to get connected to a better server. Overall though, NordVPN offers solid, if not necessarily reliable, speeds. Read our NordVPN vs IPVanish piece, to see how the two compare.
Looking at the two tables, it is immediately apparent which of these two VPNs is faster. ProtonVPN’s speeds were unimpressive, to say the least.
|Location:||Ping (ms)||Download (Mbps)||Upload (Mbps)|
|Unprotected (St. Louis)||9||83.14||20.49|
|Illinois, U.S. #16 (recommended server)||15||51.13||20.51|
|U.S. Illinois #1 (Secure Core)||279||3.2||3.56|
While the nearby U.S. server performed well and the UK also saw respectable speeds, Japan and South Africa performed poorly. These servers were noticeably slow while browsing, as well, in ways that NordVPN was not, even at its worst.
On top of that, the ping times we saw during our testing completely rule this out for something like a VPN for gaming (despite the cool looks). With South Africa exceeding a half a second of ping time and Japan approaching that as well, surfing the web feels a bit like using dial-up at times when compared to NordVPN’s responsive feel, even on the slowest server we tried.
Round Four Thoughts
As we said at the start, this section is usually the most cut and dry. Looking at the data, NordVPN is objectively and significantly faster than ProtonVPN on almost every server.
The performance of each VPN on paper carries over to real-world use, as well, with NordVPN feeling noticeably faster than ProtonVPN when loading in websites or videos.
5. Security & Privacy
In the fifth and final round, we look at what most people would consider the most important functions of any VPN: security and privacy. To determine this, we test each VPN for DNS leaks, IP leaks or any other kind of detectable breaches in security.
NordVPN doesn’t offer users a choice of protocol or encryption, but instead locks you into settings that are known to be secure. It uses OpenVPN paired with AES-256 encryption, which is, at the current time, the most secure combination a VPN can use.
As for privacy, NordVPN has one of the shorter privacy policies we’ve seen. It’s also given a structure that makes it easy to browse and find the answer to specific questions, if you need to know how a certain piece of information is being used.
Overall, NordVPN does a good job of collecting as little information as possible while providing its service. The only thing needed from you to create an account is an email and a payment method.
If you’re someone who wants to maximize your anonymity, then you could use a throw-away email and bitcoin to make it so that NordVPN has no actual identifying information on you.
Aside from this, information is collected when you receive help from customer service, but this is all the information you need to willingly offer in the process of working with customer service. Some details are also gathered from cookies on the website, but this information is non-identifying and is only used to help optimize and maintain the site (read our is NordVPN safe to use? piece).
ProtonVPN, like NordVPN, does not offer options when it comes to protocol or encryption. Instead, it uses OpenVPN for the desktop client and IKEv2/IPSec on mobile devices. For encryption, it uses AES-256, which you can read more about in our description of encryption article.
Like we said for NordVPN, these are very secure options, and protocols like PPTP are avoided for their lack of security, as you can read about in our VPN protocol breakdown.
This means that even if you don’t want to go through the trouble of using bitcoin to purchase your VPN, ProtonVPN will still have no identifying information on you. In order for someone to connect you to the VPN, they would have to retrieve records from both ProtonVPN and the third party that handles billing.
Aside from this, ProtonVPN only collects a timestamp each time you connect. This timestamp is overwritten each time you connect and is non-identifying. This is a pretty bare-bones level of information gathering. On top of that, ProtonVPN is based in Switzerland, which has some of the best privacy laws in the world, making this a viable choice for privacy-conscious users.
Round Five Thoughts
Both VPNs offer the same protocols and encryption, with ProtonVPN differing on mobile devices by using IKEv2/IPSec while NordVPN uses OpenVPN across the board. Both VPNs passed every DNS and IP leak test we threw at them and offer reliable security.
Both also have solid privacy policies with some differences here and there. While ProtonVPN uses a third party to process payments so it never has that identifying information, NordVPN offers privacy-concerned users the option to pay in bitcoin to retain their anonymity.
This is too close to call, as both offer excellent security and privacy, so we have to call this one a tie and award a point to both VPNs.
6. The Verdict
With a final score of five to one, NordVPN is the indisputable winner in this matchup. Although ProtonVPN does offer some enticing morsels, such as the free plan, it’s overall pricing can’t match the value offered by NordVPN.
To make matters worse for ProtonVPN, its split tunneling does not make up for the disparity in the sheer quantity of features that NordVPN comes with, not to mention NordVPN’s superior speed and ease of use.
If you’ve used either of these VPNs before, we’d love to hear how your experience compares to ours in the comments. As always, thanks for reading.