[Updated late June 2018 with new test results, availability of Firefox and Opera browser extensions and Arch, Debian and Mint Linux applications. Originally published April 5, 2018.]
A VPN service encrypts all the data traveling between you and a far-off server, rendering the data invisible to anyone else. VPN protection is essential when you're using airport or cafe Wi-Fi, but it can also be used to watch foreign streaming services, evade government snooping or protect your privacy from your internet service provider.
Private Internet Access (PIA) outdoes other VPN services by delivering excellent performance with a low subscription price and one of the largest networks of connection points available.
The service's U.S. location means that PIA is under the jurisdiction of U.S. authorities, but it doesn't log user sessions and lets you sign up and pay anonymously. If you're concerned about the FBI, try the Canadian service Windscribe, which costs a bit more than PIA but is almost as flexible and fast.
The $39.95 ($3.33 a month) annual subscription is the cheapest of the seven VPN services we evaluated.
There are more than 3,000 PIA servers worldwide in about 30 countries and more than 40 cities, beating the numbers for most other VPN services. There's a good chance PIA has a connection point near where you are or where you're going.
On the downside, you can't use your own name to log in. But PIA's use of a randomized set of letters and numbers can further help hide your online identity.
Costs and What's Covered
PIA has a $6.95 monthly service plan, and the $39.95 ($3.33-a-month) annual subscription is the cheapest of the seven VPN services we evaluated. If you up the ante to a two-year plan, the price drops to $2.91 a month. Unlike two other services, VPN Unlimited and Hotspot Shield, PIA doesn't offer a lifetime subscription.
You can pay for a PIA subscription anonymously with bitcoin, Cashu and other services, as well as with major credit cards or PayPal. You can even use old gift cards that have small balances. PIA doesn't offer a free trial, but it does have the next best thing: a seven-day money-back guarantee.
Like most VPN services, PIA lets you run up to five VPN sessions on individual devices at the same time. This makes it useful for a family, or a small business, that wants to fly below the radar. (Windscribe lets you use an unlimited number of devices simultaneously.)
PIA offers client software for Windows PCs (Windows 7 or newer), Macs (OS X 10.8 or newer) and several Linux distributions (Ubuntu, Mint, Arch and Debian are officially supported). The company's phone and tablet apps cover iPhones and iPads (iOS 8.0 or newer) and Android phones or tablets (Android 4.0.4 or newer).
There are also extensions for the Chrome, Firefox and Opera web browsers. But keep in mind that a VPN browser extension won't protect the internet traffic of email clients, instant-messaging apps, streaming clients, online games or other browsers.
If you'd like to protect all the devices connected to your home network at once, PIA offers detailed instructions for using PIA with home Wi-Fi routers that are running DD-WRT, Tomato or pfSense open-source software. (Too complicated? You can buy routers pre-configured with PIA from third parties.)
PIA offers VPN connections based on the PPTP, L2TP/IPSec and OpenVPN protocols, and each can be used with or without PIA's client software, although PIA warns that only OpenVPN provides adequate encryption of data.
Windows, macOS, iOS, Android and Chrome OS support L2TP/IPsec "natively" without client software, and Windows also handles PPTP that way. Chrome OS handles OpenVPN natively, but other OSes will need some form of client software (such as the free OpenVPN client).
PIA's Mace ad-blocking software is included and can stop advertisements and interruptions. In case Mace gets too onerous, it can be controlled in the application's configuration panel.
With more than 3,000 servers in about 30 countries, PIA has a widely dispersed network. Its reach is outdone by CyberGhost's presence in more than 50 countries, but PIA has more than twice as many servers at its disposal. Like many VPN services, PIA lacks servers in Russia and China, two countries that are known to interfere with domestic internet connections.
Features and Interface
PIA has a hybrid interface; it's upfront when you need it, but it can exist in the background. On a PC, you'll need to right-click on PIA's Windows taskbar robot icon to activate a connection. That brings up a white-and-green window, which can't be viewed full-screen but includes options for logging in, automatically starting the service upon startup and assigning which region you connect from.
If you tap Advanced Settings, the window's size doubles and you'll find a plethora of selections for making PIA work for you. You can activate a "kill switch" to automatically cut all internet access if the VPN session drops, turn on leak detection to prevent DNS queries, adjust the encryption level, change between UDP and TCP connections, and fine-tune the data flow by using small packets. Overall, PIA gives you a lot of freedom of choice while keeping you secure.
PIA was the quickest VPN service to connect in my tests. It took PIA's network an average of 3.3-seconds to establish a secure link.
On a Mac, PIA's icon is in the menu bar, and you can use it to open or close an encrypted session. On both Windows and Mac, PIA's robot icon is red when the service is disconnected but green when you have a secure VPN link.
There's also a Chrome extension that works with Chromebooks, making PIA a good choice for parents with school-age children. The PIA icon is in the upper right of the browser; just tap it to open an abbreviated interface to log in and initiate a secure session.
PIA's smartphone and tablet apps offer fewer customization options than the desktop clients do. The Android and iOS versions are dead ringers for each other and have the familiar three-lined "hamburger" menu icon in the upper left. You can set up port forwarding as well as the kill switch.
With the phone-tablet apps, you follow a two-step process to pick the country from which you want to connect to the internet. After tapping Region Selection, you pick the flag for the country you want to use. Each active server has its current latency listed, telling you which is the fastest connection.
By default, PIA is set up with 128-bit AES encryption, but it takes only a couple of seconds to boost that to 256-AES encryption. Authentication can be protected by SHA-1 or SHA-256 encryption, and handshakes between servers and client devices are set up with RSA-2048 public-key encryption. If you feel particularly paranoid, that can be increased to RSA-4096. No other VPN we've tested allows this level of customization.
To get started with PIA, you need a valid email address, but there will be no names, please. The company gives you a random eight-character username, providing extra anonymity.
You can pay using a variety of anonymous methods, including Bitcoin, Cashu, Zcash, OKPay, Paymentwall and shielded payments. You can also pay with a traditional credit card, PayPal, Mint, AmazonPay or any extra balances left on gift cards from last year's birthday.
Based in Denver and owned by a company called London Trust Media, PIA says it does not maintain logs of user activity. But because PIA is based in the U.S., it's subject to warrants and national security letters issued by U.S. government officials.
PIA used to not list its company executives or employees on its website, but now discloses the top brass's first names and the initials of their surnames, along with corresponding PGP keys. More information about the executives is not hard to find with some Google searching, and the company has a LinkedIn page. That's a lot more transparency than you'll get from VPN services owned by shell companies in offshore tax havens.
That One Privacy Site gives PIA generally good marks, except for the fact that it's based in the United States. (Tom's Guide may make some money if you purchase a PIA subscription through this website.)
As this review was being produced, PIA announced that it would be open-sourcing all its software, starting with its Chrome browser extension. Security and privacy experts will be able to examine PIA's code for flaws and other potential issues.
We tested PIA twice in 2018: first in January along with six other services, and then again in April after Windscribe changed its default VPN protocol and we retested both it and PIA to be fair. PIA was clearly the fastest in the first round, but Windscribe caught up in the second.
January's testing took place in the New York City area, the Netherlands, Germany and the Caucasian nation of Azerbaijan. PIA performed exceedingly well in connection time, download and upload speeds, and the time it took to download a large video file. The service also smoothly let streaming music and video files play on a phone and an iPad.
When our journeys took us to Baku, Azerbaijan, we found that PIA lacked a connection point in the country. But PIA's Romanian servers more than a thousand miles away were actually better than Windscribe's local servers.
It took PIA's network an average of 3.3 seconds to establish a secure link in January, more than 10 times as quick as VPN Unlimited's 36.5 seconds. The next-quickest connection was TunnelBear, which took 6.5 seconds, nearly twice as long, showing the strength of PIA's worldwide network.
PIA's average network latency, or the time it takes for a data packet to go from one end point to the other (and in these tests, back again), was 33.5 milliseconds in January, a drop of 150 percent from the baseline without any VPN enabled. That may sound bad, but compared to VPN Unlimited's 815 percent decline, PIA performed very well.
PIA delivered the most bandwidth of the seven services tested in January, with an average download speed of 48.8 megabits per second (Mbps), only 7 percent less than the baseline. PIA's upload speed of 14.9 Mbps also showed a decline of only 7 percent.
PIA downloaded a large file (a 780MB video clip housed at archive.org), with a top speed of 1.53 Mbps, a drop of 44 percent from the baseline. That's second place after CyberGhost, which saw a 35-percent drop; on the other end of the scale, Mullvad had a speed decline of 67 percent.
Over dozens of connections with PIA in January, we didn't experience any interrupted sessions. The service remained online for 12 hours and supported three devices at once.
PIA was not a perfect performer, though. Twice during January, we needed to reinstall the service's TAP driver, which controls the VPN data flow. There's an icon for doing this (it's a frequent issue with PIA), and the process took about 15 seconds.
April told a different tale. PIA's overall numbers weren't as good as January's, which could be chalked up to natural network fluctuations. (Tests were conducted in the New York City area and in Maine.) But the real story was that under the same conditions, Windscribe caught up.
Both PIA and Windscribe saw a drop of one-third of download speed in April: Windscribe was 32.7 percent down from the baseline, while PIA's was exactly 33.33 percent. Given the variability of network speeds, we'll call that even.
Windscribe's upload speeds were a lot faster, however, dropping an average of just 0.7 percent from the baseline, while PIA's average was a still-respectable 12.5 percent drop. Windscribe also had the edge in downloading the video clip, pulling it down at a speed only 15.9 percent less than the baseline, while PIA's speed was 22.3 percent less.
Windscribe also had the faster connection time, at 2.4 seconds vs. PIA's 7.9 seconds. Note that that's very different from January, when PIA took only 3.3 seconds to connect; this could be by chance. PIA's network latency beat Windscribe, with increased delays of 218 percent and 291 percent, respectively.
Setup and Customer Support
The only snag we had in setting up PIA's Windows interface is that the built-in Windows Defender warns against installing the software. But after we approved the 62MB installation package, everything loaded automatically.
We set up a PIA account, but as mentioned above, you can't use your name or email address as a username. Instead, PIA provides a random, cryptic (and hard to remember) set of eight letters and numbers.
While you can change the password, you can't change the username. This is inconvenient but adds an extra layer of anonymity.
All told, it took me a little more than 3 minutes to complete the PIA client installation and get online securely.
PIA offers tech support via resources on the company website, such as FAQs and tips for major problems. All personalized support is via email, with PIA promising a 6-hour response time to most queries.
This process worked well when I sent PIA's support staff a general question, but other VPN services offer online chat interactions that might solve problems more quickly.
Looking for a way to get online anonymously and privately without breaking the bank? Private Internet Access not only provides a good variety of servers worldwide, but also offers unbeaten performance, from connection time and network latency to download and upload speeds, among the 14 VPN services we tested in 2017 and 2018. It's also the cheapest paid service we tried, with annual fees running half that of many competitors.
Because it is located in the U.S., PIA is subject to U.S. authorities, but says it doesn't log user activity. While you have to use an awkward series of letters and numbers to identify yourself to the company, PIA provides excellent security and a wide variety of ways to customize it.
Overall, PIA is the best VPN service, with top performance, servers located where they're needed and an attractive price.
Client software platforms: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Ubuntu Linux, Chrome extension
Supported protocols: L2TP/IPSec, OpenVPN, PPTP
No. of servers: 3,000+
No. of countries: 30
Country of registration: United States of America
Payment options: Credit card, PayPal, bitcoin, Cashu, gift cards
Real name necessary? No
Encryption protocol: AES-256 (max)
Data usage: Unlimited
Bandwidth usage: Unlimited
Max. no, of simultaneously connected devices: Five
Customer support: Email
Credit: Tom's Guide