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Private Internet Access (PIA) review

The old-school favorite remains a quality choice

Private Internet Access review
(Image: © Future)

Tom's Guide Verdict

PIA is an excellent VPN service that offers some unusual features not often seen in run-of-the-mill providers. While speeds are fairly average, power users will appreciate its great privacy, torrenting tools and all the added extras, while its capable Netflix unblocking is the cherry on top.

Pros

  • +

    No logging

  • +

    Unrestricted torrenting

  • +

    Reliable kill switch

  • +

    Highly configurable

Cons

  • -

    Average speed results

  • -

    No third-party security audit

Founded in 2009, Private Internet Access is a well-established and trusted VPN provider known for its in-depth apps and extra functionality. Acquired in 2019 by Kape (also owner of competitors ExpressVPN, CyberGhost and ZenMate), PIA is known for its huge network offering. While it hasn't disclosed the exact number, it's certainly at 10,000, if not over the 35,000 mark - more than any other VPN we've tested offers.

It has also recently upped its server spread from 83 to 84 countries, and in the grand scheme that's a good variety of locations to choose from. 

Numbers on paper mean nothing if the service doesn’t work well in practice, though. So, here we’ll be running down every important aspect of the service in our in-depth Private Internet Access review – from user privacy to streaming – to make sure it’s the best VPN for your needs. All you need to do is keep on reading.

Private Internet Access 1-minute review

If you only sign up for a month, Private Internet Access isn’t hugely affordable at $11.95, although even that’s cheaper than much of the competition’s rolling monthly plans. Sign up for a year and that drops to $3.33 a month. If you're prepared to commit for a longer period, the 3-year options drops it to a very tempting $2.03 a month – and you'll also get 3 months free.

PIA also has excellent privacy and security credentials. You’ll get access to OpenVPN and WireGuard, and you’ll also be able to choose your level of encryption, plus data authentication and handshake methods. The apps are open source, the kill switch was totally effective in our testing, and the no-logs policy seems watertight – although an independent audit would make that concrete.

Speeds were changeable in our testing, and when using OpenVPN in the US, we saw averages of around 320Mbps. On WireGuard we saw speeds peak at a relatively disappointing 250Mbps. While speeds were middling, PIA was neither the best or worst performer, and for many these speeds will be just the job.

PIA can unblock US Netflix, but a number of other libraries such as Canada and Japan were off limits. Improving once again from our last round of tests, PIA adds BBC iPlayer to the list, alongside Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video which were reliably unblocked. Great news for streaming fans. Torrenting is permitted on any server, and the port forwarding function is tailored to P2P sharers.

Desktop apps are simple and effective, with easy access to tons of additional features. A neat addition is the ‘piactl’ command line tool, which allows you write scripts for the app to follow – something quite unique in the consumer VPN market – as well as other useful features like port forwarding. Mobile apps are similarly powerful, which makes a nice change from the bare-bones offerings from a number of other providers.

Finally, we get to one of PIA’s weaker points – support. Unfortunately the written articles are a little sparse, but a positive is that while we haven’t been able to test it out yet, a live chat feature was recently introduced, so that should cut query time down substantially.

Overall, if you’re after a secure, stable VPN and don’t hugely care about streaming, Private Internet Access is a very worthwhile option that’s also eminently affordable if you commit for three years.

Private Internet Access review - homepage

(Image credit: PIA)
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Latest updates

Smart DNS is the newest addition as PIA now fully supports the technology. This is great news for people looking to unblock some websites in a quick and easy way. While this isn’t a replacement for a VPN, and there’s no encryption nor it’s nowhere near as powerful as a VPN - it can be used on games consoles, Smart TVs, and similar devices that don’t normally support PIA’s apps. 

Less recent updates include PIA's Android app being certified by the ioXt Alliance, alongside ExpressVPN and NordVPN.

Private Internet Access on paper

Number of servers: 10,000+
Number of countries:
84
Platforms supported:
Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, Chrome, Firefox, Opera
Simultaneous connections:
10
Split tunneling:
Yes
Kill switch:
Yes
Supported protocols:
OpenVPN, IKEv2, WireGuard
Country of registration:
USA
Support:
24/7 live chat, email, knowledgebase

Pia pricing plans

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PIA price: how much is it, and is there an PIA free trial?

PIA has a monthly, yearly, and two-year plan. The monthly plan is a fairly pricey $11.95/month, although even this is better value than much of the competition. The yearly plan costs the equivalent of $3.33/month. PIA has replaced its two-year plan for the even better value 3-year plan, which costs the equivalent of just $2.03/month (opens in new tab) and includes 3 months free. 

The three-year plan positions PIA as an incredibly cheap VPN, and drops below the price of Surfshark’s cheapest 2-year plan.

If you’re looking for a dedicated IP address, you can rent one for $5 a month – there’s no discount for committing for longer. That’s a little cheaper than NordVPN, but CyberGhost is far cheaper at just $2.25.

There’s no VPN free trial, but there is a 30-day money-back guarantee. PIA supports a massive list of payment methods, from credit cards and gift cards to cryptocurrencies and bank transfers, so if you’re looking for a secure way to bag a bargain, PIA could be a great choice.

How private is PIA?

Private Internet Access mixed in some great and interesting features to improve the privacy and security of their customers. You’ll usually find only the latest and most secure industry protocols, like WireGuard and OpenVPN. 

OpenVPN uses AES-128 encryption by default, but you can bump that up to AES-256 in the settings. You can set the data authentication and handshake methods, including RSA-2048 and RSA-4096. To reduce the chance of DNS data leaks, PIA uses its own DNS servers, though you’re free to change this to your own.

If a VPN connection fails for any reason, there’s a chance that your real location is leaked. So, PIA includes a kill-switch that cuts your internet connection immediately until the VPN is re-enabled. Unusually, this feature is also included on the mobile apps, not just the desktop app, and in our testing it worked 100% of the time.

PIA’s apps are all open source, meaning developers can pore over the source code to search for bugs or leaks. This can give you more confidence in the security and privacy of the software, as opposed to proprietary solutions that don’t always have the same level of rigorous oversight.

Install the Chrome extension and you’ll get additional privacy features, like the blocking of ads, trackers, and third-party cookies. You can use the extension to connect to the VPN from within your browser interface, but this only protects your browser traffic. A nice feature in the Chrome extension is the bypass list, which allows you to selectively choose which websites will bypass the VPN and which will go through it. Again, PIA’s Chrome extension includes many configuration options, making it an excellent choice for VPN power users.

PIA’s website tells us that it absolutely doesn’t keep any logs of any kind, and goes on to claim how it’s ‘verified’ as a zero-logging service. Rather than referring to an independent third-party audit, however, PIA makes these claims on the back of its Transparency Report – you can read it yourself here (opens in new tab).

Essentially, PIA is regularly sent court orders, warrants, and subpoenas requesting information on its users, and the fact PIA has never handed anything over from one of these requests (because there’s nothing stored to hand over in the first place) effectively proves it does not log its users. That’s excellent news.

But, we still have to take this on trust – and we hope PIA takes the time and effort to undertake an independent audit to prove these claims once and for all.

PIA features

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How fast is PIA?

In our extensive testing, PIA averaged a connection time of 2 seconds when using WireGuard and 2.5 seconds when using OpenVPN, regardless of whether we were connecting to distant locations, which is very good.

We tested PIA 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.

How good is PIA for streaming?

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

To see how Private Internet Access fares with geo-blocked content, we tried to access US-only Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime, and Disney Plus from a number of test locations.

First up was US Netflix, and PIA certainly impressed. On every server we tried, we were able to unblock US-only content. However, unlike services that truly specialize in this, PIA wasn’t able to unblock exclusive content from Canada, the UK, Japan or Australia. For casual Netflix users, though, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue.

BBC iPlayer has often proved to be PIA's Achille's heel. However, the provider appears to have truly cracked the code with us able to break down BBC's defences and stream content through PIA. Great news for anyone finding themselves outside of the UK and in need of a Doctor Who binge.

That is another to add to the list, with PIA also finding success in unblocking Disney+ and Amazon Prime during our tests.

So, in the grand scheme, PIA is quite a capable streaming VPN. However, a select few providers like ExpressVPN and ProtonVPN are able to unblock the full gamut of services, as well as more regional Netflix libraries.

How good is PIA for torrenting?

There’s good news for P2P lovers as Private Internet Access is an excellent torrenting VPN. What’s more, the support isn’t for just a few servers. You can use any location for your torrenting activities, without any limits or restrictions. 

What’s more, for those looking to optimize their torrenting experience, PIA also offers a port forwarding function. By allowing incoming connections to bypass the NAT firewall, this can help improve download speeds – but be aware that this does put you at more of a risk. We’d only use it if you already know what you’re doing, and have a good grasp on what it does and doesn’t allow you to do.

Also, it’s worth noting that while PIA offers these features, there’s not much in the way of support on the website. Users are essentially given the tools and left to their own devices. This is quite understandable given the grey area that P2P sharing is, and most other providers do the same.

Otherwise though, PIA is very capable for torrenting, and has more dedicated P2P tools than most rivals. It’s certainly worth considering if you’re something of an expert and think you could get the most out of what’s on offer without any hand-holding.

PIA app in use

(Image credit: Future)
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How good are the PIA desktop apps?

Signing up for Private Internet Access is easy as the company has done its best to make the procedure painless and straightforward. We were immediately redirected to the Download page, where we could find the instant downloads for Windows, Linux, and macOS, as well as the link for mobile devices, Android, and iOS. In addition, we could choose to download Chrome, Firefox, and Opera browser extensions. 

Installation of PIA on the desktop is straightforward. We like that the download pages for each VPN client include a detailed changelog that shows you which changes have been made to the product over time, and old versions are also available to download if an update isn’t performing well. If you want to use your own app, OpenVPN configuration files are available, which is a nice touch.

Once you’ve installed the PIA desktop app and logged in, there’s a big Connect button that automatically connects you to the closest server. You can easily choose a VPN server from the list of countries and cities, with most showing you ping times so you can get an idea of expected latency.

Dig into the settings dialog, and you’ll find one of the most highly configurable VPN clients on the market. You can choose OpenVPN over WireGuard or UDP over TCP, for example. You can set a custom port, and choose an encryption level (AES-128, AES-256), although authentication and handshake configuration has been removed to stabilize the app’s performance and improve speeds. This is no huge loss, but we’ve got to note it. The Use Small Packets feature improves reliability on poor internet connections, and the previously-mentioned port forwarding is easy to access and switch on.

In use, it’s simple to find to the server list, which lists country, city, and ping times. You can sort servers by name or ping, and there’s an effective search function as well as a favorites system which definitely improves usability.

The PIA desktop client includes a kill switch that disables internet access if your VPN disconnects for any reason. In our testing, this performed admirably, always notifying us of an internet connection issue and reconnecting without once exposing our real IP address.

Interestingly, there’s a command-line client called ‘piactl’. This means you can administer the VPN through the use of a script. For example, you can easily set your VPN to enable and disable at certain times of the day. The documentation on this feature is minimal, but it’s easy enough to understand what a command like “piactl connect” will do. With the right amount of tinkering, you could have your VPN performing relatively intricate automated functions.

So, while they look pretty lightweight, PIA’s desktop are packed with extra features without making the interface uncomfortable to use – overall, they’re really quite impressive.

PIA Android app

(Image credit: Future)
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How good are PIA mobile apps?

PIA has mobile VPN apps for iPhone and Android, and in use they’re remarkably impressive. You can connect up to 10 devices simultaneously on a single plan, which is more than most VPN providers allow.

As soon as you open the Private Internet Access’s Android VPN, you’ll see a very simple and ordinary interface - with white space, a big On/Off button, and the usual stuff, like the IP address and location you chose. However, if you swipe up you’ll see plenty of other icons, buttons, and status details. 

Tapping the region brings up a list of the other available regions, with a guide on expected latency, so you can choose wisely. It’s worth noting that these settings screens are a little busy, and there’s a lot of info to take in. That doesn’t affect usability though, and also means everything you need is very easy to navigate to, and not hidden behind multiple menus.

The PIA iPhone VPN app is very similar in looks and functionality to its Android counterpart. The stylish interface, an intuitive location picker that shows server latencies, and of course the Favorites system. Also, you have plenty of customization options to make the console look the way you want it to.  

A Network Management tile adds the ability to set certain networks as automatically trusted or untrusted. You could use this to automatically enable your VPN when you’re at a coffee shop and disable it when you get home, for example. There’s support for Siri shortcuts too, so you can enable and disable your VPN with a voice command. Aesthetically, the iOS app is a little tidier than the Android version, and doesn’t sacrifice a whole lot in the process.

What’s really impressive about the mobile clients is their configurability. The settings menu contains a long list of options. You can choose from OpenVPN and WireGuard (IKEv2 is available on iOS, too), for example. Setting a custom port or DNS server is possible, and you can choose between UDP and TCP connections. Split tunneling is also available on Android – named ‘Per App Settings’ here – and small inclusions like a single vibration rather than a notification to tell you you’re connected shows real thought has gone into designing a stellar bit of software for mobile devices.

Finally, the mobile apps have a built-in kill switch that works just like the desktop app. If the VPN fails for any reason, your internet connection is blocked momentarily until the VPN connection can be reestablished. That’s notable because many major VPN providers don’t put a kill switch on their mobile apps.

Overall, PIA’s mobile apps – both Android and iOS – are real highlights of the providers suite of software, and if you’re a mobile-first user, PIA is definitely worth considering.

What customer support does PIA offer?                

In the company’s Support Center, you’ll find a web knowledgebase (opens in new tab) containing articles covering various account problems, technical complications, general troubleshooting, and more. While they are not always detailed like ExpressVPN or NordVPN support articles, they are also far from being unhelpful, with more than just short descriptions. 

If you need help from a human, your options are raising a support ticket or starting a live-chat conversation. In our testing, we typically received replies to support tickets within five hours, which is lengthy compared to some other VPN services, and the live chat is a new development we haven’t had a chance to test yet. However, we expect it to be fairly similar to competitors’, which means an initially script-based chat, followed by (hopefully) more in-depth advice.

PIA review: Final verdict

While it doesn't earn a perfect score, Private Internet Access still excels in many key points. It can be run on pretty much anything, it has a plethora of advanced features, is very user friendly and easy to use, it unblocked Netflix and almost everything else, and above all, it’s very affordable if you sign up for the three-year plan (opens in new tab).

It strikes the right balance between usability and features with plug-and-play apps for all manner of devices, plus advanced functionality such as command line VPN control and multihop servers – and that's not to mention the incredible number of servers.

However, it lags behind class leaders like ExpressVPN (opens in new tab) and ProtonVPN in terms of sheer performance power and unblocking prowess. While PIA can unblock most geo-blocked content and speeds are usually fine, other services offer more reliable content unblocking that’s always fast and always works. Overall, though, it offers excellent value, and is definitely one to consider if you’re glued to your smartphone or tablet 24/7.

Richard brings over 20 years of website development, SEO, and marketing to the table. A graduate in Computer Science, Richard has lectured in Java programming and has built software for companies including Samsung and ASDA. Now, he writes for TechRadar, Tom's Guide, PC Gamer, and Creative Bloq.

  • episani
    I had a yearly subscription and by mistake they sent me an offer to reactivate that subscription which wasn't expired. I clicked and paid into the offer, which was for a 2 year subscription, but it created a new subscription instead of extending the existing one. I ended up with 2 subscriptions. I was expecting the subscriptions to be merged. When I received an email saying that my subscription was expiring it took me by surprise. When I contacted customer service they said I should have merged the subscriptions within 30 days of receiving the second subscription. They basically stole 7 months of subscription from me. Customer service is horrible and you can't access a history of financial dealings in your account. Please keep your emails as it is the only proof you have of any charges made by this company. Very dodgy. Please avoid.
    Reply
  • rayh99
    Been with PIA since 2010 and own multiple accounts that I pay with Gift cards. PIA stole $50 from me and have refused to restore or refund the funds even after providing them with statements showing that the payment was legit.
    Private Internet Access charged me $50 for a year account. A few days later they close my account and have refused to refund me the money or reinstated the account. The excuse they gave was that a transaction had show on the card that I paid with after purchasing the year service.
    Even after I show a statement of the gift card that the PIA payment was the only one on the gift card pia refuses to refund or restore the account or refund the money.
    I have heard multiple you tubers knocking them down since they got bought over but I actually never tough they will steal $50 and refuse to make things right. STAY AWAY FROM THIS VPN, THEY SCAMMED ME AND WILL DO YOU AS WELL.
    Reply