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Private Internet Access (PIA) review

This veteran VPN remains a consistently reliable provider

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 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.

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 the long haul, the arrival of its 3-year plan replaces the former 24-month option, and makes it even more competitively priced at a rate of only $2.19 a month.

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 190-300Mbps. On WireGuard we saw speeds peak, reaching 430Mbps. 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)

Latest updates

There have been relatively fewer big changes this time around since our last round of testing, but that makes sense when we consider the leap PIA had taken. Still, there are a few points worth noting, including added another country to its network, bringing it up to 78.

It's also become that bit more accessible with the introduction of its 3-year plan, replacing its 2 year + 2 month offering. Sign up and get PIA at a rate of just $2.19 a month, a truly competitive price point.

For keen streamers looking to get their fix of Doctor Who or the latest BBC drama will now be able to use PIA to unblock BBC iPlayer while outside of the UK. In the past, this proved a tricky nut to crack, but we've now been able to stream content through PIA without issue.

Other new additions include Smart DNS and updates to its browser extensions for faster, more powerful performance.

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:
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 $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 $2.19/month. This 3-year plan 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 drops below the price of Surfshark’s cheapest two-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?

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 190-300Mbps. That’s up there with Hide.me (310-330Mbps) and ExpressVPN (250-270Mbps), though not quite as good as ProtonVPN (460-510Mbps). While not an absolute class-leader, it’s more than usable.

However, switching to WireGuard saw speeds drop to 90-110Mbps, though in the UK they truly peaked at 430Mbps. Using OpenVPN in the UK, speeds were about the same, at 220-230Mbps.

So, PIA seems to be able to deliver good speeds, particularly on WireGuard, but there’s an evident need for further optimisation in order to run with the leaders in this category with the likes of IPVanish (750-900Mbps) and NordVPN (760-880Mbps) leading the charge.

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 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?

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 and ProtonVPN, who is climbing up the rankings, 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