Private Internet Access (PIA) is one of the best-performing, and one of the least expensive, virtual private network (VPN) services we've tried. It lets you sign up and pay anonymously and has more than 3,000 servers worldwide (albeit in only two dozen countries).
A minor drawback is that you can't create or change your own username; PIA randomly assigns you one. A major drawback, at least for some users, is that PIA is an American company and must yield to U.S. government demands.
But if you're fine with either of those caveats, then we can heartily recommend PIA. It's our Editor's Choice for VPN services.
Costs and What's Covered
At $6.95 monthly or $39.95 yearly, Private Internet Access is among the least expensive all-encompassing VPN services. It allows up to five devices on the same account to connect at the same time, making PIA a great deal for a security-minded family or a small business.
PIA doesn't offer any free trials, but does have a 30-day money-back guarantee if you don't like any aspect of the service. It accepts credit cards, PayPal, Bitcoin or Cashu. The service also lets you pay using a variety of gift cards, so long as each card has at least $10 of value on it.
If you've got a lot of leftover gift cards from your last birthday sitting around, this might be a good way to put them to good use. All you do is type in the code number on the back of the card into the payment page.
The Private Internet Access client software is available for Windows 7 and later; Mac OS X 10.8 and later; Ubuntu Linux and iOS; and Android phones and tablets. There's also a Chrome browser extension that will work on any desktop platform.
You don't actually need to install the official client software to use Private Internet Access on most operating systems. The service supports the PPTP, L2TP/IPSec and OpenVPN connection protocols. This extends manual-setup compatibility to most flavors of Linux, as well as the open-source router firmware packages DD-WRT, Tomato and pfSense.
There are manual-setup guides for each of these platforms — plus Windows, Mac, Android and iOS — on the PIA website. Alternately, you can simply install and run lightweight OpenVPN client software.
The PIA software includes the company's Mace ad-blocking program, but you'll have to turn it on to get its benefits; it's in Advanced Settings. The app can block annoying commercial interruptions for PCs, Macs and Linux computers.
The PIA VPN service has more than 3,000 connection points, which is easily the most of any VPN service we've seen. On the downside, these gateways are located in only 25 countries, mostly in the developed world, leaving out places like Russia and China.
Features and Interface
Rather than presenting you with a traditional user-application interface, PIA lives below the surface and makes you do everything with a right-click of its Task Tray icon in Windows. On a Mac, the icon lives among the icons in the top left of the screen.
From either, you can pick your connection point, get online and even send the PIA support people a note that your connection speed is disappointing. The icons turn green when the VPN service is active to show that your data stream is flowing through encrypted connections.
The Settings section is a small window that shows your name, whether you want PIA to automatically connect when you start the computer and which region you're in. The Advanced selection at the bottom opens an adjacent pane with choices for connection methods as well as which port to use and port forwarding.
The phone/tablet apps don't allow any extra customization, although their look is quite different from that of the desktop client software.
For starters, the mobile apps have real control windows. Up front, the mobile apps have a large slider to connect (to the right) or disconnect (to the left). It turns green when connected and shows your IP addresses before and after the connection. Below that, you can pick your connection point or let PIA automatically do it.
Below national flags that mark each gateway's location, there's an indication as to whether that connection point can perform port forwarding as well as its average latency (the time it takes for a data packet to get from one end to the other). The desktop client software doesn't do either of those.
PIA is based in the United States and must comply with U.S. law, which may turn off customers worried about the FBI or NSA. However, PIA claims it does not log user activity, so there may not be much information to hand over to the feds.
You can sign up for PIA with only a valid email address — no real name required. As earlier noted, PIA takes payments in Bitcoin, Cashu and gift cards.
PIA is one of the few VPN service providers that lets you fine-tune your own encryption settings, and there's a quite detailed page explaining the options.
By default, PIA uses the OpenVPN connection protocol with AES-128 encryption to protect data transmissions, SHA1 encryption to authenticate the data and RSA-2048 encryption to set up the secure server connection, but many types of encryption are available. You can mix and match encryption protocols as you choose, or select presets labeled "All Speed No Safety," "Risky Business" and "Maximum Protection." (Most VPN services default to AES-256, which is stronger in theory but perhaps not in practice, to encrypt data transmissions.)
As mentioned above, you can use the PPTP or L2TP/IPSec VPN protocols instead of OpenVPN, but PIA warns that those "should be used for masking one's IP address, censorship circumvention and geolocation" only.
PIA is owned and operated by London Trust Media, a small company in Los Angeles. Unlike many other VPN services, PIA doesn't hide its website registration behind a proxy, and the officers of London Trust Media are easily found with a Google search.
PIA performed very well in our tests, which measured connection time, the VPN service's effect on network latency and upload and download speeds, and how long it took to download a large video file. PIA finished either first or second in all five tests, a feat unmatched by any of the other VPN services we evaluated.
It took an average of 7 seconds to connect securely through PIA's network, equaling ExpressVPN's connect speed but not quite as quick as that of Avira Phantom VPN. The service allowed me to stay online over a 12-hour period without any reconnects, but at one of my test locations, I was kicked off the network twice within 10 minutes.
The software also twice had problems running. When I was connecting, an error warning about an "Invalid TAP driver" — perhaps due to a conflict with previously installed software — popped up. Judging by the number of online discussion threads, this appears to be a recurring issue with PIA. Restarting the computer system solved the problem, but slowed me down.
The service's network latency (how long it took for a packet of data to get from one endpoint to another) of 13.7 milliseconds was phenomenally good. That's an increase of only 3 percent over the baseline (without PIA switched on), and an indication of streamlined servers.
By comparison, almost all other VPNs we tested doubled or tripled the baseline latency. The next best score belonged to ExpressVPN, which increased latency by 76 percent.
PIA had a moderate impact on download speed, slowing an 84.8 megabit-per-second (Mbps) baseline connection by 22 percent, to 66.2 Mbps. That's the smallest slowdown we saw among eight full-fledged VPN services, although CyberGhost was close behind. Only the limited, browser-dependent Opera VPN did better, with 14 percent.
(Because ISP connections speeds fluctuate so much, we compare slowdowns from immediately preceding baseline rates rather than absolute download or upload speeds.)
PIA's network sent uploads at an average of 35.8 Mbps, down 4 percent from a baseline level of 37.3 Mbps. Unlike PIA's download impact, that small dent is good, but not unusual.
However, PIA blew the competition away by downloading a 428MB, 4K-resolution video clip of astronauts in space from NASA's servers in 4 minutes and 25.7 seconds, a slowdown of only 34 percent from the baseline download time. Most other VPN services tripled or quadrupled the baseline time; the next best score was CyberGhost's, which doubled the baseline time.
In an informal media-streaming saturation test, Spotify music came through loud, skip-free and clear on an Android phone connected to PIA, while a BBC surfing video played without any artifacts to an iPad simultaneously connected to the VPN service.
Setup and Customer Support
PIA's Windows client software came in at 58.5 MB, and the installation process took about 11 minutes overall.
As the installer is running, you'll need to register an email address, which triggers PIA sending you an email for verification. The note contains a randomized username (mine was P5781440) and password.
Unfortunately, you can't change the username that PIA assigns you. That might make it harder for a hacker to break in, and serves to completely randomize and anonymize your identity, but it's a lot harder to remember than a username you made up yourself.
Customer support is via an email form on the PIA customer-support website. The site notes that the average response time is 4 to 6 hours. That's decent, unless you need to use the service immediately; some other services beat this by offering 24-hour chat assistance.
We found some complaints online about PIA's customer service, but we also noticed that PIA staffers responded to complaints on Reddit, and that the company recently (May 2017) said it was adding customer-support staff. PIA's Better Business Bureau rating was being "updated" when we last checked in June 2017.
Traveling in the 25 countries in which Private Internet Access's VPN servers operate just got a lot more secure, because you can connect and surf anonymously using the service. PIA is about as cheap, and about as fast, as a full-fledged VPN service gets.
On the downside, you can't use your own username for a PIA account — it's a double-edged sword that maintains anonymity but can be a hassle to remember. You also may want to avoid PIA if you're worried about the FBI or the NSA, as the service is based in the U.S. But if neither of those facts bothers you, then you'd be hard-pressed to find a cheaper, faster, more reliable VPN service.
Client software platforms: Win, Mac, Android, iOS, Ubuntu Linux, plus Chrome extension
Native support platforms: Win, Mac, Android, iOS, general Linux, open-source routers
Supported protocols: L2TP/IPSec, OpenVPN, PPTP
No. of servers: 3,251
No. of countries: 25
Country of registration: United States of America
Payment options: Credit card, PayPal, Bitcoin, Cashu, gift cards
Real name necessary? No
Encryption protocol: AES-256
Data usage: Unlimited
Bandwidth usage: Unlimited
Max. no, of simultaneously connected devices: Five
Customer support: Email
Credit: Tom's Guide
See Also : Essential Tips to Avoid Getting Hacked