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Private Internet Access (PIA) review

The veteran provider has made some changes and upped it game

Private Internet Access review
(Image: © Future)

Our 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.

For

  • No logging
  • Unrestricted torrenting
  • Reliable kill switch
  • Highly configurable

Against

  • No iPlayer access
  • 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 CyberGhost and ZenMate), PIA has seen an explosion in the number of servers in its arsenal, reaching a heady zenith of over 33,000 individual servers world wide – more than any other VPN we’ve tested.

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 $9.95, 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, but the star of the show is the two-year plan which is just $2.69 a month – seriously competitive.

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 250-270Mbps. In Europe things were similar, at around 240-320Mbps, and WireGuard saw speeds boost a little to 280-350Mbps. So, speeds are very usable, but not the quickest of the bunch.

PIA can unblock US Netflix, but a number of other libraries such as Canada and Japan were off limits. Improving from last time, Disney+ and Amazon Prime were reliably unblocked, which will be good 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)

Latest updates

The biggest news is PIA's massive increase in server count, which at the time of writing is almost a dizzying 34,000. While over 17,000 are in the US, that alone is more than the closest competitor's full count. 

We’ve also seen PIA remove some old authentication and handshaking options. We’ve previously praised PIA for the expert-level configuration this allows, but due the way these were implemented (custom OpenVPN patches that potentially cause instability), we can see why the decision was made. This isn’t so much a negative, but rather the loss of a minor positive that, realistically, very few people would use.

Along with ExpressVPN and NordVPN, PIA’s Android app has been certified by the ioXt Alliance.

Dedicated IPs in Australia, UK, US, Germany and Canada.

Slightly less recent updates include the addition of live chat, which was one of PIA's biggest previous failings, and the introduction of the super fast and modern WireGuard protocol.

Private Internet Access on paper

Number of servers: 33,000+
Number of countries:
78
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

Private Internet Access review - price

(Image credit: Private Internet Access)

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 $9.95/month, although even this is better value than much of the competition. The yearly plan costs the equivalent of $3.33/month, and the two-year plan is the equivalent of just $2.69/month. The two-year plan also includes a license for Boxcryptor, a service that you can use to encrypt cloud files on Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, and more.

The two-year plan positions PIA as an incredibly cheap VPN, and very nearly matches the price of Surfshark’s cheapest two-year plan. It’s worth noting, though, that PIA’s renewal price is the same as the initial term (sans the one-time two free months). Compare that to Surfshark, and in the long term you’ll be saving a good chunk of cash.

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?

PIA scores highly for privacy. Its apps use OpenVPN and WireGuard, two of the latest, most secure protocols. 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 server, 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.

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.

Private Internet Access review - features

(Image credit: PIA)

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 two 1Gbps lines, one in the UK, one in the US. We tested at various times throughout the day to ensure reliability, and we also used a number of different speed tests and services. We tested both OpenVPN and WireGuard speeds.

First up, US OpenVPN speeds. PIA’s connections were competitive, delivering speeds of 250-270Mbps. That’s up there with ExpressVPN (270-280Mbps) and ProtonVPN (280-290Mbps), and while it’s not an absolute class-leader, it’s more than usable.

However, switching to WireGuard in the US saw speeds drop to a quite pitiful 35-40Mbps. We’re not sure why exactly this happened, but speeds were reliably slow, so we’re fairly sure it wasn’t a brief glitch.

In the UK, OpenVPN speeds were about the same, at 240-320Mbps, and although not making a huge difference, at least WireGuard improved speeds a little, delivering 280-350Mbps.

So, PIA seems to be able to deliver good speeds, especially with OpenVPN, but there’s an evident need for further WireGuard optimisation, as some competitors like NordVPN and ExpressVPN can reach over 600Mbps, be that with a bespoke protocol or WireGuard.

How good is PIA for streaming?

One of the most popular VPN uses is to change location to access geo-blocked content on sites like Netflix and iPlayer – and we put PIA through its paces to see how it performed.

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 often proves difficult to access, and unfortunately the BBC’s defences were too much for PIA. We simply weren’t able to access iPlayer content.

However, performance improved when we tried to access restricted content on Disney+ and Amazon Prime, and we had success every time we tested.

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

How good is PIA for torrenting?

On the surface, Private Internet Access is a very capable torrenting VPN, with full P2P support on its vast selection of servers worldwide. There are no bandwidth limitations, and speeds are acceptable, so it’s definitely a good candidate. And, in our testing, we had no issues when downloading some test files.

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.

Private Internet Access review - desktop client

(Image credit: PIA)

How good are the PIA desktop apps?

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.

Private Internet Access review - app

(Image credit: PIA)

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.

Initially, the Android VPN app is clean and stripped back, with just a big on/off button, your IP address, and your chosen region displayed on the main interface. 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 to the Android client. 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?                

PIA has a support center with articles for troubleshooting technical issues and problems with your account. The articles aren’t as detailed as those offered by competitors like ExpressVPN, but they’re numerous. A news page alerts you to reasons for any system outage.

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

Private Internet Access impresses with its ease of use, wide range of clients, support for torrenting, and advanced features – and it’s also great value if you sign up for the three-year plan.

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 in consistency, and while PIA can unblock some 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.