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Private Internet Access (PIA) VPN review

A high value VPN with a pile of interesting features

Private Internet Access Running On Various Devices
(Image: © Private Internet Access)

TechRadar Verdict

Pros

  • +

    Lots of features

  • +

    Unblocks Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus

  • +

    Great value

  • +

    Excellent kill switch

Cons

  • -

    Doesn't unblock BBC iPlayer

  • -

    Below average speeds

Private Internet Access (commonly known as PIA) is a capable VPN provider, now owned by Kape, which also owns CyberGhost, ZenMate and ExpressVPN.

The company's 'NextGen VPN Network' has locations in 83 countries, spread all around the world. (That's up from 78 in our last review, with PIA expanding into Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Indonesia and Malaysia.)

We're not talking cheap shared servers, either. PIA says NextGen servers 'utilize better hardware components', have '10Gbps network cards instead of 1Gbps', use RAM disks to ensure 'all sensitive information is lost as soon as the server loses power', and now support both WireGuard and OpenVPN.

You're able to access this VPN network via apps for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS and Linux, browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox and Opera, and there are detailed setup tutorials for routers and many other device types.

PIA supports connecting up to 10 devices simultaneously. That's twice the allowance you'll get with many VPNs, although Windscribe and Surfshark have no limits at all.

Extras range from the simple and straightforward (built-in blocking of ads, trackers and known malicious websites) to the more low-level and technical: a SOCKS5 proxy for extra speed, port forwarding support, the ability to select your preferred encryption, authentication and handshaking methods, and more.

And if that sounds too complicated for you, no problem – there's 24/7 live chat support to talk you through any tricky bits.

Private Internet Access Server Locations

PIA offers plenty of server locations, as well as Smart DNS tech (Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Recent additions

PIA now supports Smart DNS, a handy technology which provides a quick and easy way of unblocking some websites. This isn't as powerful as a VPN – there's no encryption, it doesn't change your IP address – but you can use it on devices like Smart TVs, games consoles, and many others which don't support running PIA's apps.

The Android app has been certified by the ioXt Alliance (opens in new tab), verifying that it complies with standards in areas like cryptography, software verification and updates.

A capable command line app for Windows, Linux and Mac enables automating VPN operations from scripts.

App updates are mostly about fixing bugs and making smaller incremental changes, but some could still have far-reaching effects. The desktop now automatically measures and selects the real MTU value after connecting, for instance, a technical tweak which could make a big difference to connection speed and reliability.

Payment Methods

Private Internet Access provides a range of payment methods (Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Private Internet Access pricing

The Private Internet Access monthly plan (opens in new tab) is fair value at $9.95. The annual plan (opens in new tab) is cheaper than most at a low $3.33 a month, but opt for the three-year plan (opens in new tab) and this drops to just $2.03 ($2.19 on renewal). That's less than half the price of CyberGhost ($4.29) and HideMyAss ($4.99), and less than a third of the price charged by Hotspot Shield ($7.99).

PIA offers dedicated IPs in Australia, Canada, Germany, Singapore, UK and US. This gets you the same IP address every time you log on, and as no one shares it, you're less likely to find you're block-listed due to someone else's dodgy activities. But using the same IP also means you're more likely to be recognized by websites, so this isn't an option for everyone.

Pricing for a dedicated IP is reasonable at $5 a month, $4.25 on the one-year plan, $3.75 over three years. NordVPN is a little more expensive at $5.83 a month on its annual plan, but Ivacy undercuts everyone at just $2.41 a month on its annual plan, $1.99 over two years.

You can pay for PIA via Bitcoin if you're looking for extra privacy, and there's the usual card and PayPal options, too.

There's a free 7-day trial for mobile users, and you're also covered by a 30-day money-back guarantee.

PIA's Terms and Services (opens in new tab) has another surprise (and unusually for small print, it's a good one). Many VPNs say customers are only allowed one refund, ever. Private Internet Access says that if you purchase a new account more than three months after the last refund, you're eligible for another. Works for us.

Private Internet Access Encryption

PIA offers AES-128 or AES-256 CBC or GCM encryption (Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Privacy

All VPNs claim to deliver great privacy, but Private Internet Access combines an unusual mix of features which go further than most.

PIA's apps mostly use only the latest and most secure protocols, for instance, in OpenVPN and WireGuard.

Private Internet Access provides its own DNS to reduce the chance of DNS leaks. The apps are flexible, though – the Windows client can be set to use your default DNS, or any custom DNS of your choice.

DNS Leaks

Private Internet Access managed to protect all of our data from DNS leakage in the tests we performed (Image credit: DNS Leak Test)

There's a kill switch to disable your internet access if the VPN drops. PIA uses its own kill switch on the desktop, and integrates with device features on iOS and Android (it uses the Android system kill switch, for instance).

PIA's desktop apps have an option to send anonymous connection data back to the company, to help improve the product. But unlike some of the competition, the installer doesn't turn this on by default. Nothing gets sent unless you go into the Settings panel and turn it on (it's the 'Help improve PIA' option in the Help area, if you're curious).

Get connected with the Chrome extension and you'll find a bunch of bonus privacy features (block location access, third-party cookies, website referrers and more). You could set these up separately and for free, but the extensions make it easier, and they do add worthwhile extra layers of protection.

PIA's MACE feature blocks access to domains used by ads, trackers and malware, further limiting the ways in which companies can follow you around the web.

Perhaps best of all, Private Internet Access has open-sourced its desktop clients, mobile apps and many other components and libraries. This allows other developers to freely examine the source code, assess its quality, report bugs, and maybe check to see whether it's doing anything which might compromise the user's privacy.

Private Internet Access No Log Policy

Private Internet Access keeps no logs on its users (Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Logging

While most VPNs claim they don't log customer activities or traffic, there's rarely much to back this up. You're expected to cross your fingers and trust they're being honest.

Private Internet Access is far more confident, claiming to be 'verified' as 'the only proven no-log VPN service.'

The company seems to be referring to court cases (opens in new tab) where subpoenas have been served on PIA asking for account information, but the only data provided was the general location of the server IPs. Absolutely no user-related data was given up.

Private Internet Access also publishes a Transparency Report (opens in new tab) detailing any official requests for information, and user data handed over. The report covering the first three months of 2021 records two court orders, three warrants and 12 subpoenas received, with no logs produced for any of these requests.

The Privacy Policy is normally the best place to look for more details about what a VPN is doing, but PIA's is mostly about the website, and says almost nothing about the VPN.

Eventually we found a support article (opens in new tab), 'Do you log the traffic of your users?', which stated that Private Internet Access "absolutely does not keep any logs, of any kind, period." It explains that logs which might otherwise be maintained are redirected to the null device rather than being written to the hard drive, which means they simply disappear.

The article also includes this paragraph, which explicitly states that the firm doesn't log session data or your online activities: "We can unequivocally state that our company has not and still does not maintain metadata logs regarding when a subscriber accesses the VPN service, how long a subscriber's use was, and what IP address a subscriber originated from. Moreover, the encryption system does not allow us to view and thus log what IP addresses a subscriber is visiting or has visited."

While this all sounds great, we're left to take most of it on trust. Even the court cases PIA says prove it's a no log service date from 2018, so they can't tell us much about what's happening now. Top VPN names including TunnelBear, NordVPN, ExpressVPN and others have all allowed third-party audits of their systems, and it's time PIA did the same.

Speedtest.net performance benchmark

We test the speed of every VPN we review (Image credit: Speedtest.net)

Performance

Every VPN promises a high-speed, ultra-reliable network, but the reality can be very different. That's why we look past the enthusiastic marketing, and put every VPN we review through our own intensive tests.

This starts by installing PIA's latest Windows 10 VPN app on systems in a UK data center and a US location, each with a 1Gbps connection. We used the app to connect to our nearest location, then measured download performance using several speed testing sites and services (SpeedTest's website and command line app, nPerf, SpeedOf.me and more). We ran the tests using WireGuard and OpenVPN connections, then did it all again in an evening session.

UK OpenVPN speeds were a little disappointing at 170-190Mbps. Switching to WireGuard improved our results, as PIA's downloads stretched to 200-250Mbps. But the best performance was in the US, where PIA's OpenVPN connections reached 320Mbps.

If that's faster than your internet connection, or you're only using PIA for browsing and similar tasks, it'll almost certainly be quick enough.

If raw speed is a priority, though, some providers deliver much more. CyberGhost, Hide.me, IPVanish, Mozilla VPN and TorGuard all reached 850Mbps or more in recent tests.

Netflix menu showing popular shows

Private Internet Access was able to unblock US Netflix in our tests (Image credit: Netflix)

Netflix and streaming

Connecting to a VPN to use with Netflix or other streaming services can get you access to all kinds of geoblocked websites, hopefully avoiding those annoying 'not available in your region' error messages.

To test the unblocking abilities of Private Internet Access, we attempted to access US-only Netflix content, Amazon Prime, BBC iPlayer and Disney Plus from several test locations.

Accessing Netflix is a big test of website unblocking chops. PIA gave us two options in its US East and West Coast Optimized locations, though, and they both got us in.

(Although we only count US Netflix unblocking performance in our final scores, we noticed that PIA couldn't get us access to UK Netflix. If you need other libraries beyond the US, make sure you test them carefully during your trial period.)

BBC iPlayer's solid VPN defenses were more of a challenge, and Private Internet Access couldn't bypass them this time. Whatever we tried, it detected the VPN and warned that content 'wasn't available in your location.'

Performance picked up for our remaining test sites, though, as PIA got us easy access to both US Amazon Prime and Disney Plus.

Private Internet Access Torrenting

Private Internet Access allows you to torrent files without bandwidth limits or restrictions (Image credit: BitTorrent)

Torrents

Private Internet Access supports P2P, and we don't just mean on a couple of specialist servers hidden away somewhere. You can use torrents from any location, with no bandwidth or other limits to restrict your activities.

We verified this by connecting to three sample locations and successfully downloading torrents, with no connection or other issues.

There's an unusual bonus in Private Internet Access' support for port forwarding. This enables redirecting incoming connections to bypass a NAT firewall, and in some cases, may help improve P2P download speeds.

You shouldn't expect much help with any of this, at least from the website. Searching for 'P2P' or 'torrent' in the knowledgebase mostly pointed us to not-so-relevant articles, such as 'My ping/latency is really high (opens in new tab).'

Even the port forwarding document (opens in new tab) only mentioned in passing that the technology could "potentially optimize torrent performance", without offering any further clues.

Still, the company scores well on the fundamentals – large network, no logs, Bitcoin support – and on balance it makes a fair torrenting choice.

Private Internet Access Platform Support

Private Internet Access provides clients for mobile, desktop and even browsers (Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Client setup

Sign up for Private Internet Access and the company does its best to streamline the setup procedure. We were immediately redirected to the Download page, where there were direct downloads for Windows, macOS, Linux, and links to the Android and iOS apps plus assorted browser extensions (Chrome, Firefox, Opera).

These aren't just file links. We clicked the Windows link, and as well as pointing us to the installer, the website redirected to a page displaying a setup guide.

There are some unusually thoughtful touches. Wondering why you should update, for instance? The site lists the changes for every new build. You've installed, but something is broken? You can download previous versions of the app, too.

Experts will appreciate a download option for the Android APK file, allowing you to manually install it on devices where necessary.

Private Internet Access does a particularly good job with OpenVPN configuration files, which are necessary if you're setting up many third-party apps.

These are sensibly named with the country and region or city, such as 'US Chicago.ovpn' (contrast that with NordVPN's 'hr16.nordvpn.com.udp1194.ovpn').

You don't have to live with the default OpenVPN settings, either. There are separate downloads available for different encryption settings, to switch to TCP connections and more. There's also an OpenVPN Configuration Generator on the website where you can build different setups for individual groups of servers, potentially saving you a lot of hassle.

Private Internet Access Windows App

This is the interface of Private Internet Access' Windows client (Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Windows app

The Private Internet Access app installs easily, and opens with a simple and very straightforward client window. Tap the big Connect button to hook up to your nearest server, tap it again to disconnect, and status areas tell you when you're connected, and display your original and new IP addresses.

The client's excellent and feature-packed location picker is just a click away. It lists countries and city-based locations, where available, and ping times indicate which is closest. You can sort the list by location name or ping time, and a search box plus Favorites system help you quickly find and access whatever server you need.

Looking for more functionality in the app? Clicking an arrow at the bottom of the UI displays a host of other panels you can add to its default display. A 'Quick Connect' section listed recently used servers; a Performance graph charts speeds; Usage figures listed how much data we'd uploaded and downloaded; a Subscription pane is supposed to display account information, although it was blank for us; a Connection panel displays details on your current connection (protocol, encryption algorithm and more); and finally a Snooze option enables turning off the VPN for a set number of minutes.

We thought the Quick Connect ('Recently Used') and Quick Settings panels looked most useful, and added them to the standard app display in a couple of clicks. We could even rearrange the panel positions by dragging and dropping; easy.

Maybe you're looking for simplicity more than extra features? That's possible, too. If you only ever need to connect to the nearest location, you can remove the location list and have an app which displays a Connect button only.

If you're happy with the standard interface, this may not matter very much. But if you like to tune a VPN app to suit your needs, PIA gives you far more tweaks, options and customization possibilities than we've seen from anyone else.

Private Internet Access Protocols

Private Internet Access lets you change the type of encryption used as well as the connection type (Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Windows settings

PIA's Windows app Settings dialog gives you a lot of expert-level control over how the VPN works. Choose OpenVPN rather than WireGuard, for instance, and you're able to select UDP or TCP connection types and encryption (AES-128/256-GCM), as well as choosing a custom remote port (53, 1194, 8080, 9021), and defining how your MTU is set (potentially important for connection speed and reliability).

Some locations support port forwarding, which makes it easier to set up and accept incoming connections to your system.

Elsewhere, a kill switch disables internet access if the VPN disconnects, reducing the chance that your real IP will be leaked. You get the option to use Private Internet Access' DNS servers, your own, or any other custom servers you prefer. And the DNS-based MACE system to block domains used for ads, trackers and malware can be enabled or disabled with a click.

VPN kill switches don't always deliver (some are almost entirely useless), so we were keen to run some in-depth tests. But whether we gently closed a couple of TCP connections or just terminated PIA's entire OpenVPN-based connection manager, the client didn't care. Each time it displayed a desktop notification to warn us of the problem, then quickly reconnected, without ever exposing our real IP.

It was the same story with WireGuard connections. No matter how brutally we dropped our connection, from closing PIA's WireGuard Windows service to turning our router off and on again, the client successfully blocked our internet access, warned us with a notification and reconnected at speed.

PIA's Windows VPN client for PC might look a little basic initially, then, but spend a few minutes playing around and you'll find it easy to use, with some interesting, advanced features.

Private Internet Access Command Line

Run piactl with no commands to see your options (Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Command line use

PIA's desktop clients now include piactl (opens in new tab), a simple command line tool which enables using the VPN from a script.

If that sounds like hard work then you might be right, but there could be advantages. What about setting up a scheduled task to automatically connect at a certain time of day, for instance? Or automatically connecting when your system boots, but only after it's performed some local network tasks first? Creating special shortcuts which connect to different locations, then open whatever app or website you need?

Getting this working could be easier than you think. The command 'piactl connect' connects you to the current default connection, for instance, while 'piactl disconnect' closes the connection. You don't need to be a developer to recognize what 'piactl set region us-atlanta' does, and there are commands to get and set more options, and monitor the service state.

Private Internet Access Mac App

The Mac app has all the power of the Windows version (Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Mac app

PIA's Mac app has the same stylish and appealing interface as the Windows edition. It's so easy to operate that even total VPN newbies will quickly figure out the basics: tap the Connect button to use your nearest server, choose another from the Location list if you like, and you're ready to go.

'Simple' doesn't mean 'basic', though. We immediately noticed several usability plus points, including a sortable location list, ping times to help you spot the nearest servers, and the Favorites list for storing your most commonly-used choices.

That's just the start. The app interface can be customized just like the Windows build, with panels displaying 'recently connected' lists, speed charts, upload and download data transfer figures, a Snooze option to pause the VPN connection, and more.

The real surprise here is the Settings panel, which is absolutely crammed with useful features.

These start with the app basics. You might choose a light or dark theme, or select a protocol (WireGuard or OpenVPN), or specify to launch and connect to the VPN whenever your system starts.

But there's so much more, including just about all the advanced features available on Windows. Custom DNS settings; split tunneling; proxy support; Multi-Hop VPN; a sophisticated rules-based system to automatically connect (or disconnect) when you access particular networks; and more.

Some of these options assume a lot of technical knowledge, and there's not a lot of guidance to be found in the app. We would rather have these features available than not, though, and on balance, PIA's Mac app works well. It's easy enough for beginners to use right away, yet also has the power that even the most demanding experts need.

Private Internet Access Android App

This is the interface of Private Internet Access' Android app (Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Android app

PIA's Android VPN app opens with a very conventional interface – featuring white space, a large On/Off button, plus your chosen region and IP address – but swipe up and you'll find a mass of other buttons, icons and status details.

There are quick settings links to toggle the kill switch on and off or launch PIA's Private Browser, for instance (which is not installed by default). Or you can flag icons to quickly access a number of countries, plus there are snooze options to disconnect the VPN and automatically reconnect in 5 or 15 minutes, or an hour. And connection status details cover everything from your preferred protocol and encryption method to the amount of data you've uploaded and downloaded.

Private Internet Access Android App Clutter

Private Internet Access' Android app has more on-screen clutter than is ideal (Image credit: Private Internet Access)

This looks a little cluttered, but as with the Windows app, it's easily customizable. If you'll never hit the Snooze button and don't need to know you're using AES-128-GCM every time you connect, you're able to hide those panels in a tap or two.

Tapping the current region displays a list of other locations. Each one has a latency figure, giving you an idea of its distance, and a simple favorites system enables moving your most-used servers to the top of the list. It's all very easy to use.

The app is surprisingly configurable, with more options and settings than many desktop VPN clients. WireGuard and OpenVPN support, auto-connect when accessing Wi-Fi, a kill switch, split tunneling – it's all here. You can even have your handset vibrate to indicate when you're connected, far more convenient than the usual notifications.

As with the desktop builds, PIA's Android app is very well put together, and a nicely judged mix of power and ease of use. Recommended.

Private Internet Access iOS App

Private Internet Access' iOS app looks quite similar to its Android cousin (Image credit: Private Internet Access)

iOS app

PIA's iOS app looks and feels much the same as the Android version. It sports a stylish interface, capable location picker with server latencies and a Favorites system, and an array of customization options to make the console look exactly as you'd like.

There are a decent set of options and settings, especially for an iOS app. You get a wider choice of protocols than the desktop builds (WireGuard, OpenVPN, IKEv2), the ability to choose UDP or TCP connections, set a custom port, use your favorite DNS, or take fine-tuned control over encryption and enable a kill switch to protect you online.

An Automation pane makes it easy to set particular networks as trusted or untrusted, and instruct the app to automatically connect or disconnect whenever you access them.

There are a handful of useful iOS-specific features, too, including optional support for Siri shortcuts to connect or disconnect the VPN, and a Safari content blocker.

Overall, this is a quality app, easy to use and far more capable than most of the iOS competition. A must-see for more demanding Apple users.

Private Internet Access Browser Extension

The Chrome browser extension is more powerful than some desktop VPN apps (Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Browser extensions

Using the Private Internet Access apps isn't difficult, but having to keep switching between your regular application and the VPN client can still be a hassle.

Like ExpressVPN and NordVPN, Private Internet Access now offers add-ons for Chrome, Firefox and Opera (there's no Edge coverage yet), enabling you to connect to the VPN directly from the browser interface. This only protects your browser traffic, but if that's not an issue, the extension makes Private Internet Access much easier to use.

The extension looks and feels nearly identical to the other clients, so there's almost no learning curve. A simple opening interface has a big Connect button to connect to the closest server, and there's a full list of locations complete with latencies (and a Favorites system) if needed. At a minimum, you can enable the VPN from inside your browser with a couple of clicks.

A split tunneling-type Bypass List enables specifying websites which you don't want to use the VPN. If they don't work as they should with the VPN on, add them to the Bypass List and their traffic will be rerouted through your regular connection.

Bonus privacy tools can prevent websites accessing your location, camera or microphone. They're able to stop WebRTC leaks, and variously block or disable Flash, third-party cookies, website referrers, hyperlink auditing, address and credit card auto-filling, and more. We've seen dedicated privacy extensions which do less.

All this functionality means there are lots of settings to explore, but on balance the add-ons work very well. If you're looking for simplicity, you can just choose a location and click Connect, much like any other VPN extension. But more experienced users can head off to the Settings area, where they'll find more features and capabilities than just about any other VPN browser add-on we've seen.

Private Internet Access Support

Private Internet Access has a large knowledgebase with articles on a variety of topics (Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Support

The Private Internet Access Support Center has a web knowledgebase (opens in new tab) with articles covering troubleshooting, account problems, technical complications and more. These don't always have the detail you'll see with ExpressVPN or NordVPN, but they're not just bland descriptions of app features, either.

For example, a Security Best Practices encryption article (opens in new tab) gives users some useful technical background on encryption, authentication and handshaking methods, and more.

A Guides section has setup articles and tutorials for all supported platforms. Some of these are relatively basic, but there's still a lot to explore, with, for instance, 11 articles on Android alone.

In theory you can use a Search box to locate helpful articles, but in practice this can be a challenge. When we searched for 'Mac', for instance, only six out of the top 15 hits were in English, and none of these contained useful Mac information. (Titles included 'How to Activate a BoxCryptor license', 'PIA VPN Server List' and 'PIA Antivirus.')

A handy News page (opens in new tab) regularly alerts users to new servers, app updates, service issues and more. That could save you lots of hassle all on its own if you see your current problem is some known system outage, and that you don't have to spend time contacting support or trying to diagnose it yourself.

Private Internet Access Support

The support site now includes live chat (Image credit: Private Internet Access)

If you can't solve your issues online, PIA now offers support by live chat as well as email. We opened a chat session and asked a potentially tricky question about the old authentication and handshake options which were dropped in the recent update.

Would the agent know the product in that level of detail, especially with a change which had only just happened? Yes, pretty much – the agent didn't give us any real technical details, but explained they'd been dropped and pointed us to a support page where we could learn more. That's as good a reply as we'd expect from any provider.

Private Internet Access Open Source

PIA's code is entirely open source (Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Private Internet Access review: Final verdict

Private Internet Access isn't perfect, but it scores in many key areas and is a solid choice among the best VPN services out there. PIA runs on almost anything, is easy to use, crammed with advanced features, unblocks Netflix and almost everything else we tried, and all for a very low price. Go take a look (opens in new tab).

Mike Williams
Mike Williams

Mike is a lead security reviewer at Future, where he stress-tests VPNs, antivirus and more to find out which services are sure to keep you safe, and which are best avoided. Mike began his career as a lead software developer in the engineering world, where his creations were used by big-name companies from Rolls Royce to British Nuclear Fuels and British Aerospace. The early PC viruses caught Mike's attention, and he developed an interest in analyzing malware, and learning the low-level technical details of how Windows and network security work under the hood.