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Private Internet Access (PIA) VPN review

A low-cost VPN with a pile of interesting features

Private Internet Access
(Image: © Private Internet Access)

Our Verdict

A likeable VPN which gives you plenty for your money: a wide range of feature-packed apps, instant Netflix unblocking, some very useful expert-level tweaks, and a decent-sized network which is very fast in many areas.

For

  • Above-average speeds
  • Hugely configurable
  • Unblocks Netflix
  • Great value

Against

  • No trial and only a 7-day money-back guarantee
  • Can't unblock iPlayer
  • No live chat support

Private Internet Access (commonly known as PIA) is a capable VPN provider which delivers more features than many of the competition for a fraction of the price.

The network is a reasonable size, with 3,394+ P2P-friendly servers in 32 countries. Wide platform support includes 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.

You're able to connect up to 10 devices simultaneously. That's twice the allowance you'll get with most VPNs, although Windscribe, Surfshark and a few others have no limit 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 there's 24/7 support (though not via live chat) to help solve any problems.

New features introduced since the last time we reviewed this service include major app refreshes with a new interface, support for the cryptocurrency BEAM as a payment method, and the ability to resolve names with the Handshake Naming System. There is also an 'experimental peer-to-peer root DNS' (we're not entirely convinced, but read the PIA blog entry here).

If all that sounds appealing, you even get more choice of payment methods than usual, with support for cards, PayPal, Bitcoin, gift cards and more.

Private Internet Access

Private Internet Access supports a wide variety of payment methods including PayPal and even Bitcoin

(Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Plans and pricing

The Private Internet Access monthly plan costs an amazing $6.95 as we write, one of the best deals around. It may be back at its regular $9.95 by the time you read this, but even that is better than providers such as CyberGhost ($12.99), Hotspot Shield ($12.99) and VyprVPN ($12.95.)

The six-month plan is a mild improvement at $5.99, but pay for a year upfront and the price plummets to just $3.33. There are marginally cheaper deals around – CyberGhost, VPN Unlimited, and Surfshark all offer plans under $3 – but you may have to sign up for three or more years to get them.

The closest we can find to an issue is that there's no free trial, and the money-back guarantee period is a relatively short 7 days (CyberGhost and Hotspot Shield give you 45 days, most companies allow 30).

While that sounds stingy, there's a good reason. Some 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'll be eligible for another. That's unusually generous, but it's easy to imagine how some users might abuse it, so it's no surprise that the company limits the money-back period.

ProxyRack

Private Internet Access includes both DNS and IPv6 leak protection to help shield your activities online

(Image credit: ProxyRack)

Privacy

This VPN's privacy features start with its use of the highly secure OpenVPN protocol on desktop and mobile devices. That does a lot to protect you, all on its own, but experts can go further, tweaking protocol settings to suit their needs. In a click or two you're able to set encryption type (AES-128 or 256, CBC or GCM, maybe turn off encryption entirely if you're just after speed), data authentication and handshake methods, choose the connection type and set local or remote ports.

PIA's MACE feature blocks access to domains used by ads, trackers and malware, giving you an extra layer of protection.

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 Leak Test

Private Internet Access managed to protect all of our data from leaking in the DNS leak tests we performed

(Image credit: DNS Leak Test)

There's also a kill switch to disable your internet access if the VPN drops. Unlike some of the competition, this isn't only available on the desktop – the iOS and Android clients get it, too.

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.

Perhaps best of all, Private Internet Access has opened up its browser extensions, iOS apps and Apple libraries up to scrutiny by making them open source. 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.

This is an unusual step, and we like the idea, but there are limitations here. The source code isn't for the latest production software, for instance (at the time of our review, we can view the source for 1.8.0 beta, while the production version is 2.1.1). And although the source for the desktop clients has been 'coming soon' for a long, long time, it's not here yet.

Private Internet Access

Private Internet Access keeps no logs on its users

(Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Logging

Check out the Private Internet Access website and you'll see the company claims it keeps 'no traffic or request logs.' That's encouraging, but we couldn't immediately see any information to back this up, or explain further. Even the privacy policy is mostly focused on website issues, leaving the VPN to be covered in a single uninformative sentence: "The data controller does not collect or log any traffic or use of its Virtual Private Network ("VPN") or Proxy."

Does this mean the company is trying to hide something? No – there's more information available on its logging policy, it’s just buried deep in the Support section.

The 'Do you log the traffic of your users?' article states 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."

If you've checked out VPN provider policies before, you'll know that these kind of claims can't always be trusted. But you don't have to entirely take Private Internet Access at its word, because another page points users to public court documents demonstrating the point. These record a subpoena served on Private Internet Access but show that 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 detailing any official requests for information, and user data handed over. The full six-month report for January through June 2019 records two subpoenas and one warrant received, with no data produced for any of these requests.

While this is encouraging, we'd like to see Private Internet Access do more. The company could start by making it easier to find the current logging policy, but we'd also like to see it follow providers like NordVPN by allowing a third-party audit of its systems. That's the best way to reassure potential customers that any VPN is living up to its no logging promises.

SpeedTest.net

We test the speed of every VPN we review

(Image credit: Ookla)

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.

Starting off by connecting to a sample of 20 Private Internet Access locations. We logged the connection time, ran ping tests to look for latency issues and used geolocation to verify that every server appeared to be in its advertised location.

Just trying to connect to a VPN can tell you a lot about the service, and Private Internet Access performed very well. We ran the connection test twice, and didn't have a single issue. Connection times were faster than usual, and although these unsurprisingly increased with distance, this was never more than we expected, and not enough to become an issue at any time.

Our geolocation tests also gave positive results, with all test server locations matching those claimed by Private Internet Access.

Download speeds from our nearest UK servers were excellent at around 65-66Mbps on our 75Mbps test connection. That's only around 4% slower than our regular speed with the VPN turned off, such a minimal overhead that you're unlikely to notice any change.

We also measured download speeds from a US location, connecting to our nearest US server, but this time using an ultra-fast 475Mbps connection.

The results were hugely impressive. While many VPNs average 150-200Mbps, PIA's lowest median speed across four sessions was 314Mbps, while the fastest was 452Mbps, only a 3.4% drop compared to our non-VPN performance.

That might seem rather irrelevant if your connection speed is limited to 50-100Mbps, but it's still good news. Even if you'll never use that level of performance, it suggests Private Internet Access servers have more bandwidth than many competitors, meaning they're less likely to get swamped by other users at peak times.

Netflix

While others have claimed Private Internet Access couldn't unblock Netflix, it managed to do so for us

(Image credit: Netflix)

Netflix

Connecting to a VPN 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 connected to multiple US and UK locations, then attempted to access US-only Netflix and YouTube content, as well as BBC iPlayer.

Bypassing YouTube's protection is relatively easy, and as long as you have an IP address which seems to be in the right country, you should be fine. Sure enough, Private Internet Access allowed us to view US-only content on each of its US servers.

BBC iPlayer is more of a challenge. Private Internet Access didn't get us into the service during our last review, and unfortunately it didn't work this time, either.

Accessing Netflix is the real test of website unblocking, though. Private Internet Access failed with two of our test US servers (Chicago, New York), but it got us in with three (Atlanta, Texas, Washington), and that's good enough for us.

uTorrent

Private Internet Access allows you to torrent files without bandwidth limits or restrictions

(Image credit: uTorrent)

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.

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.'

Even the port forwarding document 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

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 and assorted browser extensions (Chrome, Firefox, Opera).

These aren't just file links. We clicked the Windows client, 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. Instead of having a single Windows download link, for instance, you can choose from 32 and 64-bit builds. If, for some reason, a recent update is causing problems, you can download a previous version, and the site lists the changes for every new build.

Advanced features included a download 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.

We've seen marginally better setup support – ExpressVPN's activation code system allows setting up clients without manually entering usernames and passwords, plus its tutorials are more numerous and detailed – but Private Internet Access offers more help than most, and the chances are you'll have your devices set up and working with minimal hassle.

Windows Client with locations

This is the interface of Private Internet Access' updated Windows client

(Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Windows client

The Private Internet Access client installs easily, and opens with a simple and very straightforward client window. Tap the big Connect button to connect to your nearest server, tap 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 and Favorites system help you quickly find and access whatever server you need.

The Settings dialog gives you a high level of control over how the VPN works. The Windows client only supports OpenVPN, for instance (there is no IKEv2, L2TP, PPTP or anything else), but you can choose UDP or TCP connection types, as well as selecting a custom remote port (53, 1194, 8080, 9021) and defining your own local port.

Private Internet Access settings

Private Internet Access lets you change the type of encryption your VPN uses as well as the connection type

(Image credit: Private Internet Access)

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

The default encryption is only AES-128, but the Settings dialog enables changing that to AES-256 (GCM and CBC), and you can also alter the authentication method (SHA1, SHA256) and handshaking (RSA-2048 by default, RSA-4096 and other RSA and ECC options are available). You can also turn encryption off entirely, which isn't great for security, but will boost your speeds in situations where encryption doesn't matter much (watching streaming media, say).

There's an unusual technical plus in a Use Small Packets feature, which sets the client to use a lower MTU setting to improve reliability on some connections. If you can't get or stay connected, that may be effective, and the Private Internet Access client makes it quick and easy to try this out. (Other providers typically hide this idea away in their support website, and force you to work through various Windows dialog boxes to find and change the relevant setting.)

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 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.

We have a small concern over stability, with the client crashing a couple of times. We couldn't reproduce this, though, and close inspection of the crash file suggests a video driver conflict, so it could be an odd issue with our test hardware. Any kind of crash has to be an issue, but until we understand the cause, we're not going to mark PIA down.

PIA's Windows client 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

This is the interface of Private Internet Access' Android app

(Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Android app

The Android app has a clean and stripped-back interface. Most of the screen is white space, with a large On/Off button in the center of the screen, and your chosen region and current IP address at the bottom.

Tapping the current region displays a list of other locations. Each one has a latency figure, giving you an idea of its distance, but there are no other ways to sort or filter the list, and the app doesn't have a Favorites system.

It's all very easy to use. Tap a location, tap On, and you're connected within seconds. And the location picker looks and feels much like the desktop version: you can view cities and countries, ping times give you clues about server distance and speed, and there's a Favorites system to save commonly-used locations for easy access later.

Despite the simple interface, the app is surprisingly configurable, with more options and settings than many desktop VPN clients.

You can choose UDP or TCP connections, for instance, with the ability to set local and remote ports, and request port forwarding.

The app can be set up to automatically protect you when accessing unknown or untrusted wireless networks, or turn itself off when you're using cellular networks.

A Per App Settings box enables defining specific apps which won't use the VPN (that's the equivalent of the 'split tunneling' feature you'll sometimes see elsewhere).

As with the Windows client, you're able to replace the default Private Internet Access DNS servers with your preferred alternative.

There's support for using the app with a proxy, reducing packet size to improve reliability, and automatically connecting when the device or app starts. You can even have your handset vibrate to indicate when you're connected, far more convenient than the usual notifications.

As with the Windows client, you're able to choose from four encryption options, ranging from AES-128-GCM to AES-256-CBC, and six handshaking methods (RSA-4096 to ECC-521r1).

There's both a built-in kill switch to block internet access if the VPN connection drops, and a link to explain Android's similar and more capable 'always on' feature.

It's all very well put together, and a well-judged mix of power and ease of use. Whether you're a VPN expert or just looking for an easy life, there's something for you here.

Private Internet Access

Private Internet Access' iOS app looks quite similar to its Android offering

(Image credit: Private Internet Access)

iOS app

VPN mobile apps can look and behave very differently, but that's not the Private Internet Access way. Its iOS app is almost identical to the Android version, at least in terms of the main operations.

There's the same basic streamlined interface, list of locations, and Connect button. If you've ever used another VPN app, ever, you'll immediately know what to do (even total newbies won't be too far behind).

A Favorites system enables connecting to commonly-used servers, while Private Internet Access' ad and malware blocking MACE system keeps you away from dangerous domains.

There are a decent set of options and settings, especially for an iOS app. You can still switch protocol from OpenVPN to IKEv2 or IPsec, choose UDP or TCP connections, set a custom port, use your favorite DNS, take fine-tuned control over encryption and enable a kill switch to protect you online.

It can't quite compare with the Android app for low-level system tweaking, but that's not PIA's fault – Apple's security model places very strict limits on what apps can do. It's far more capable than most of the competition, though, and that works for us.

New browser extensions

Easily connect to your VPN right from your browser

(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, 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 almost identical to the other clients, making it very easy to use. A simple opening interface has a big Connect button to connect to the closest server, and there's a full list of locations (and a Favorites system) if needed. Latencies can optionally be displayed alongside each server, and you can enable the VPN from inside your browser with a couple of clicks.

Bonus privacy tools can prevent websites accessing your location, camera or microphone. It's able to stop WebRTC leaks, and variously block or disable Flash, third-party cookies, website referrers, hyperlink auditing, address and credit card autofilling, and more. It's a surprisingly capable setup, although you'll need to treat it with care, as disabling everything could break some websites.

If you do have problems, a 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.

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, where they'll find more features and functionality than just about any other VPN browser add-on we've seen.

Private Internet Access

Private Internet Access has a large knowledgebase with articles on a variety of VPN-related subjects

(Image credit: Private Internet Access)

Support

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

For example, a Security Best Practices encryption article 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, 14 articles on Android alone.

In our last review, we praised PIA's News page, which alerted users to new servers, app updates, service issues and more. Unfortunately, that's not been updated in the past six months, making it look somewhat less than relevant.

The service used to have a forum, too, but that was closed in June 2019.

If you can't solve your issues online, you can raise a support ticket. There's no live chat, unfortunately, but ticket response times are better than many, with our test question receiving a friendly and helpful response in under two hours. That can't compare with the under two-minute delay we've seen with providers such as ExpressVPN, but they're usually far more expensive, and for the most part, PIA's performance is probably good enough.

Final verdict

Private Internet Access isn't perfect, but it scores in all the most important areas: this VPN runs on almost anything, is easy to use, crammed with advanced features, and offers better-than-average performance for an excellent price. Go take a look.