Getting started with ProtonMail
ProtonMail is a secure email service based in Switzerland featuring end-to-end encryption, and a strong focus on privacy and security.
The service is available as a web version, and as applications for Android and iOS devices. The three core pillars of ProtonMail from a security and privacy point of view are support for end to end encryption, the service's zero access architecture, and use of open source cryptography.
Tip: Read our initial ProtonMail review which we published in 2014 as well.
End to end encryption means that data is stored in encrypted format on ProtonMail's servers, and that it is also encrypted when it is transferred. Messages between ProtonMail users are fully encrypted, a stark contrast to how regular email transmissions are handled (unless PGP or similar encryption is used).
Data is encrypted on the client side so that ProtonMail cannot access emails and other content. Since data is encrypted and decrypted on the user device, ProtonMail and any third-party cannot access these emails because of that.
Setting up a ProtonMail account
ProtonMail supports a free limited account, and several paid accounts. All plans support the same security features which makes the free account an ideal plan to start with as you can use it to test the service ProtonMail offers. Upgrades to paid accounts are always an option.
You get 500 Megabytes of storage with a free account, and a message limit of 150 messages per day. While storage may become an issue quickly, the number of messages should not.
ProtonMail does not display ads or uses other forms of monetization to make money off of free users. The service does add a "Sent with ProtonMail Secure Email" to messages sent using free accounts however.
The first paid account, Plus, raises the storage to 5 Gigabytes, adds four additional email addresses to the account, and enables email filters and autoresponder functionality. You do getÂ support for one custom address on top of that. It is available for $48 per year.
Extras can be purchased by paid subscribers: Extra storage is available for $9 per year and Gigabyte, extra domains for $18 per year, and extra addresses for $9 per 5 addresses.
Setup is straightforward. I suggest you start by creating a free account, but you may select one of the paid plans during setup already.
All you have to do then is to set the username and password that you want to use, and you are ready to go. You may add an alternative email as well, but that is optional.
ProtonMail requires no verification whatsoever (email, mobile phone), and can be used right after you have set up the account.
The web interface of the email service supports two layouts that use three or two columns respectively. The three column layout displays mail folders, mails of the selected folder, and the active conversation in columns; the two column layout only the folders and either the active folder or the active conversation.
You may want to do the following things during the initial setup:
- Open the Settings, and change the display name and add a signature.
- Disable daily email notifications.
- Decide whether you want to allow password resets. (this restores access to the account, but will make any email that is in the account up to that point unreadable).
- Enable Two-Password mode. This is a legacy mode which uses different passwords for login and mailbox encryption.
- Set "load embedded images" to manual.
- Check out the keyboard shortcuts, e.g. c to open compose, Ctrl-Enter to send messages, or / to focus the search field.
- Enable or disable email subscriptions (three out of four are enabled by default for free accounts).
- Enable Two-Factor Authentication under Settings > Security.
- Change the composer size and other layout related settings under Settings > Appearance.
You can download the PGP key to your system under Settings > Keys. This key can then be imported into programs that support PGP so that you may access your emails on these devices as well.
ProtonMail is a secure email service that focuses on privacy and security. No one but the user has access to emails thanks to the service's implementation of end to end encryption. The service does not display ads to you, and does not read emails either.
The free version is good to take the service for a test ride, but it is somewhat limited. The inability to remove the "ad for Protonmail" when sending emails, and the limit to one address, no filters and no custom addresses need to be mentioned in this regard. The 500 Megabyte limit may also be reached quickly depending on how you use the service.
The cheapest paid subscription is available for $48 per year; quite a bit of money especially since email is seen as something that is available for free by many Internet users. Still, if you don't want someone else snooping on your emails, or that your emails are read online by robots or even human beings, you need end to end encryption for that.
While you can set up PGP on your device and start using it, doing so may be too technical (still) for many users.
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