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Private Internet Access (PIA) review

A great-value, feature-packed VPN with excellent configurability

Private Internet Access review
(Image: © Future)

Our Verdict

If you want to torrent, have access to the absolute maximum number of servers and enjoy tweaking all the settings of your VPN, Private Internet Access will be a very tempting option with comprehensive desktop and mobile apps. However, it's not perfect for unblocking content, and it’s somewhat let down by its average speeds.

For

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

Against

  • Doesn’t unblock all geo-blocked websites
  • Inconsistent speed results
  • No third-party security audit

Is Private Internet Access (also known as PIA) the best VPN for your needs? It certainly markets itself as a VPN service that aims to do it all. When you use a VPN service like PIA, all of your internet traffic is encrypted and routed through an intermediary server. This means your internet connection is much more private, anonymous, and secure. There are other benefits, such as the ability to watch geo-blocked content from streaming sites like Netflix.

In this Private Internet Access review we'll be re-examining the VPN service, as it has recently upgraded its VPN network. It previously offered 3,300 servers in 30 countries, and it now has over 20,000 servers in 73 countries, making it the provider with the largest number of servers we’ve tested. Servers have also been upgraded with faster network cards and improved security features.

Our PIA review covers this VPN service’s speed, pricing, privacy, logging, customer support, and user interface, so read on to see if PIA is the best choice for you.

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. Sign up for a year and that drops to $3.33 a month, but the star of the show is the three-year plan which is just $2.19 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 a moderate 70Mbps. In Europe things were better, averaging around 160Mbps, and WireGuard saw surges up to almost 400Mbps – however, these weren’t consistent.

PIA can unblock US Netflix and, surprisingly, BBC iPlayer, but a number of other libraries such as Canada and Japan were off limits. Disney+ and Amazon Prime worked with some select servers, but on a number of others were unavailable – so if you’re a big streamer you might want to consider another provider. Torrenting, however, 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. 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 20,000. While over 9,000 are in the US, that alone is more than the closest competitor's full count. 

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.

PIA on paper

Number of servers: 19,000+
Number of countries:
76
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)

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

PIA has a monthly, yearly, and three-year plan. The monthly plan is an unenticing $11.95/month, the yearly plan costs the equivalent of $3.33/month, and the three-year plan is the equivalent of just $2.69/month. The three-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 three-year plan positions PIA as an incredibly cheap VPN, and matches the price of Surfshark’s cheapest two-year plan, though you’re locked in for an additional year. However, that might well be worth it to some users thanks to PIA’s freshly enlarged server network.

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. While we have to take this on trust, public court cases where subpoenas have been served on PIA do seem to back this up, as no information on customer data was handed over to authorities.

Private Internet Access review - features

(Image credit: PIA)

How fast is PIA?

In our extensive testing, PIA averages 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.

The way that PIA servers work is sometimes convoluted. Connecting through some of PIA’s ‘virtual’ servers that specify that they’re in one country actually routes your VPN traffic through a different country. For example, you can connect to Iran and you’ll get an Iranian IP address, but the server that you’re connecting through is actually in Amsterdam. This allows PIA to offer VPNs for countries with restrictive VPN laws, but it can muddy the waters when it comes to speed.

PIA’s server speeds were inconsistent in our testing. Using OpenVPN, US speeds averaged 70Mbps, compared to the 360Mbps we got from Hotspot Shield. We saw significant speed improvements when connecting in Europe, bumping averages up to 160Mbps. Switching to WireGuard from OpenVPN saw further improvements, with bursts of speed of up to 373Mbps.

PIA can therefore be considered a fast VPN, but you’ll need to spend some time choosing a server and tweaking the settings to get the most from it.

How good is PIA for streaming and torrenting?

VPNs can be used to unblock Netflix and other streaming sites that force you to connect from within a particular country. In our testing, PIA could unblock some content, but not all. From the UK, we could stream US Netflix content, but not Canadian or Japanese Netflix. 

YouTube was unblocked without issue, as was BBC iPlayer. Disney+ and US Amazon Prime worked if we connected through certain servers, but not others. This makes PIA a rather unreliable streaming VPN compared to services like NordVPN that unblock just about everything without issue.

PIA is a great torrenting VPN, though. There are no restrictions or limitations on P2P traffic, and you can freely use any server. PIA even supports port forwarding, and this can be useful if you’re connecting to the internet from behind a NAT firewall to increase torrent speeds. 

PIA doesn’t offer much documentation on this feature, so you’ll need to do a bit of research on how to set this up for your particular network, but it’s another example of PIA offering advanced functionality that other VPNs lack.

Private Internet Access review - desktop client

(Image credit: PIA)

How good are PIA desktop apps?

Installation of PIA on the desktop is straightforward. We like that the download pages for each VPN client include a changelog that shows you which changes have been made to the product over time. 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, choose an encryption level (none, AES-128, AES-256), authentication method (SHA1, SHA256), and handshaking (RSA-2048, RSA-4096, etc.). The Use Small Packets feature improves reliability on poor internet connections.

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.

Private Internet Access review - app

(Image credit: PIA)

How good are PIA mobile apps?

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

The PIA iPhone VPN app is virtually identical 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.

What’s impressive about the mobile clients is their configurability. The settings menu contains a long list of options. You can choose from OpenVPN, WireGuard, and IKEv2, for example. You can choose from four OpenVPN encryption methods, two authentication methods, and six handshaking options. Setting a custom port or DNS server is possible, and you can choose between UDP and TCP connections. PIA offers one of the most versatile VPN clients for mobile devices that we’ve tested.

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.

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.

  • Read our comprehensive list of the very best VPNs