ExpressVPN has been at the top of our VPN rankings for some time now, and it’s proven time and again that it has earned its spot there. If you look at our ExpressVPN review, you’ll see that there’s almost nothing we don’t like about it. It’s fast, easy to use and has split tunneling, a highly in-demand and hard-to-find feature.
Private Internet Access, or PIA, is often high in our rankings and is a well-known brand like ExpressVPN, but it has always had a few shortcomings. In our PIA VPN review, we saw that it was slightly lacking when it came to streaming performance and server locations.
Recently, PIA has made some upgrades to its software and added split tunneling, one of ExpressVPN’s signature advantages over most of its competitors. With this change, PIA has begun to encroach on ExpressVPN’s territory, so we thought it would be appropriate to have a head-to-head ExpressVPN vs PIA matchup to see if ExpressVPN can defend its split tunneling crown.
Setting Up a Fight: PIA vs ExpressVPN
To ensure a fair ExpressVPN vs Private Internet Access comparison, we have to lay down some ground rules. We’ve broken our comparison down into nine rounds. In each round, we explore one aspect of VPN performance, such as speed or security.
We look at each VPN’s performance in that category, then decide which one is better in that particular field. Each round that a VPN wins earns it one point, and the VPN with the most points at the end of our matchup wins.
- : PayPal, Credit card, Bitcoin, regional payment systems, WebMoney
- : 5
- : PayPal, Credit card
- : 10
If you head over to our fastest VPNs article, you’ll see that ExpressVPN and PIA have been the two fastest VPNs available for some time now. However, both had a bit of a rough showing today compared to normal. This could be due to increased traffic in the face of current events, but regardless of the reason, it seemed to impact both VPN services to some degree.
Both VPNs only gave back about half of our bandwidth when we were on the local U.S. servers, and more distant servers didn’t fare much better. PIA has a strong advantage over ExpressVPN in upload speed across the board, while ExpressVPN has slightly better download speeds in every location except Israel.
ExpressVPN also touted lower ping times in every location but one. Ping time and download speed both have a much greater impact on the average user’s experience than upload speed, which, once past a certain minimum, mainly improves the performance of large file uploads.
The performance of each VPN’s worst server is also one of the deciding factors in this round. ExpressVPN’s outlier location, Israel, still had decent performance and felt fast and responsive. ExpressVPN got more than 50Mbps of bandwidth, which is more than enough for HD streaming.
However, PIA’s weakest link was Switzerland. Here we saw a mere 3Mbps which made web surfing painfully slow, and streaming was only possible in very low resolution. ExpressVPN won a majority of locations in both download speed and ping time, as well as feeling much better overall when it comes to responsiveness and loading times.
While some VPN services offer specialized streaming servers, neither ExpressVPN or PIA choose to take this path (check out our Windscribe review for an example of a VPN with dedicated streaming servers.)
Despite this lack of dedicated servers, ExpressVPN does an outstanding job when it comes to streaming. In fact, it’s earned some of the top spots in a number of our best streaming lists, such as our best VPN for Hulu and best VPN for Netflix articles.
Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu and even BBC iPlayer all work flawlessly when connected to ExpressVPN. There is little or even no noticeable difference in loading times, and the videos almost always load in at full HD looking nice and sharp.
PIA, on the other hand, struggles by comparison when streaming. During our testing, we got Netflix to work with PIA, but it took a very long time to load a video, around 30 to 45 seconds. Aside from this, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and BBC iPlayer all blocked us. This means ExpressVPN is the clear winner in this round.
3. Security and Privacy
Both ExpressVPN and PIA cover the most basic security features that we expect every VPN to have, such as a kill switch and some way to connect automatically. ExpressVPN’s kill switch is simpler than PIA’s and is either on or off. When on, it automatically blocks all internet traffic if the VPN disconnects, which is exactly what a kill switch should do.
PIA’s kill switch, on the other hand, has three options. It can either be set to off, auto or always. In “auto” mode, it blocks only outside traffic while the VPN is on, and with it in “always,” it blocks all traffic if the VPN is off.
The “always” setting is the only one that ensures your traffic will stop if the VPN disconnects unexpectedly, but this setting also stops all traffic when you turn the VPN off on purpose. This gives ExpressVPN’s kill switch a slight edge in usability and security.
As for the automatic connection capability, both VPNs have just a basic checkbox that lets you tell the VPN to connect to the most recent location on startup. We also tested the leak protection of each VPN and found that both were able to keep our IP address and DNS queries safe and private.
On top of this, both providers also offer a similar set of protocol options. ExpressVPN uses OpenVPN paired with AES-256 encryption by default, which is what is currently considered the gold standard for VPN security. ExpressVPN also lets users set the protocol to IKEv2 or L2TP IPSec, but these options are inferior to OpenVPN for almost any application.
PIA also defaults to OpenVPN, but it uses AES-128 instead. You can read more about what this means in our encryption article, but in short, it’s simply not as good as AES-256. You can switch this default option over to AES-256, though, which we suggest all PIA users to do.
On top of this, PIA also has a few additional protocol options, including L2TP IPsec and PPTP. However, in this case, it has to be done by requesting the necessary credentials from PIA rather than just changing the setting in the client, like ExpressVPN does.
You can read our VPN protocol breakdown to learn more about all of these options but, again, the short and sweet of it is that OpenVPN is the only one we really urge people to use.
ExpressVPN is based in the British Virgin Islands, which has some of the best internet privacy laws in the world. Compared with the laws in the U.S., which is where Private Internet Access is based, your data is much more protected in the British Virgin Islands. This slight difference is the deciding factor between these two very secure VPNs.
ExpressVPN is consistently the fastest VPN we test on paper, but we have seen it defeated before in torrenting speed, such as in our ExpressVPN vs NordVPN article. That said, it’s still among the best out there for torrenting (read our guide to torrenting with ExpressVPN).
We tested each VPN’s torrenting performance with a 1.4GB test download, which is about the same size as an HD episode of a 30-minute TV show. ExpressVPN reached speeds of about 5MB/s by the end of the first minute, and this was up to 7MB/s by about a minute and a half in.
Things kept speeding up slowly but consistently to about 10MB/s by the end of minute two, which is about where the download leveled off until it was completed after just over three minutes and 35 seconds.
PIA followed a very similar curve but only a bit slower. The download was coming in at around 4MB/s after the first minute and 7MB/s by the end of minute two. This was up to 9MB/s by about two and a half minutes in and shortly after this a sudden burst of speed came in peaking the download speed at up to 13MB/s.
This burst of speed helped the download finish in three minutes and 35 seconds. This is practically the exact same amount of time that ExpressVPN took. Both VPNs did very well with our test download and got the entire episode ready to watch in only a few short minutes. This round is too close to call, so we’re declaring this one a tie.
5. Server Locations
At a certain point, it becomes difficult to accurately track the exact number of servers that a large VPN provider has. What we know for sure is that both ExpressVPN and PIA have more than 3,000 total servers, putting them both in the same upper echelon of server network size.
Where the two differ is in how spread out these servers are. ”Private has servers in 49 locations around the world, and these are spread across only 29 countries. ExpressVPN, by comparison, has servers in 151 locations in 95 countries.
Although this still doesn’t put ExpressVPN at number one in terms of network size — read our HideMyAss review to hear about that — it does put it well ahead of Private Internet Access.
6. Simultaneous Connections
In order to prevent people from sharing accounts with friends and to limit the bandwidth strain on server networks, almost all VPNs impose a limit on the number of devices you can have connected on one account at a time.
ExpressVPN’s limit on this is a modest five devices. PIA allows users to have double that, up to 10 devices connected at a time. Clearly, PIA offers the better option here and wins this round.
As we’ve seen throughout this matchup, ExpressVPN has top-of-the-line performance that positions it as an industry front-runner. Predictably, this means that ExpressVPN comes with a rather steep price tag.
ExpressVPN is one of the costliest VPNs on the market. Its monthly plan is about as expensive as they come, and the next option up, which is a six-month plan, isn’t much more affordable. The best option is the 15-month plan, which still comes in at nearly the same per-month cost as buying a monthly Private Internet Access plan.
PIA’s pricing is better at every level than ExpressVPN. The six-month plan beats out any of ExpressVPN’s prices, and the one-year or two-year plans bring this price down significantly. Private Internet Access is arguably one of the best priced of the top-shelf VPNs.
Neither one of these providers offers any kind of free plan, so if you’re interested in protecting your online privacy for no cost, check out our ProtonVPN review. That said, both VPNs do have a 30-day money-back guarantee, which at least offers some way to try out the service risk-free.
As for payment options, both PIA and ExpressVPN accept credit and debit cards, PayPal or bitcoin. This is great for those who are extra security-conscious, as it means you can sign up with just an email address.
Beyond this, ExpressVPN has about a dozen additional payment types you can use, including things like Sofort, UnionPay and Alipay. PIA accepts fewer third-party payment methods overall, but it accepts a few additional forms of crypto that ExpressVPN leaves out, such as Ethereum and Litecoin.
Although ExpressVPN is arguably the best VPN on the market today, the pricing is certainly a weak point for it. Almost any VPN out there is going to be more affordable than ExpressVPN, but you get what you pay for. However, the focus of this round is solely on pricing, so Private Internet Access wins this round for being vastly more affordable.
Both PIA and ExpressVPN take the route of having a compact and simplistic user interface, unlike some of the larger map-based software out there, such as NordVPN, which you can read about in our NordVPN review.
Both VPNs have a large button that takes up about half of the window that allows you to connect by clicking on it. Below this, each interface also features a small field that shows where your connection will be made. By clicking this in either software, you’re taken to the server list.
Private Internet Access shows quite a bit more information than ExpressVPN if you click on the arrow at the bottom of the window. This expanded view shows your connection time, how much bandwidth you’re using and a few settings options.
Moving into the settings menus, things are still pretty similar between the two. Unlike with some more user-friendly VPNs, neither PIA or ExpressVPN have much explanation in the settings as to what each option does.
As a minor detail, ExpressVPN’s website has a much cleaner look to it overall and is significantly easier to navigate. Setting up an account is just ever so slightly easier with the way that the payment window appears, and the experience on ExpressVPN’s website is just a bit more streamlined.
Given how subjective this round is and how similar these two software are, it’s very difficult to judge. However, Private Internet Access has a dark mode and an ever so slightly more informative layout, so we’re giving this round to PIA, but only very narrowly and for somewhat subjective reasons.
Both PIA and ExpressVPN now have what is possibly the most useful, and at the same time, the hardest to find feature for VPNs right now: split tunneling. ExpressVPN has had this for some time now, and it’s something that we’ve looked at extensively before.
ExpressVPN’s split tunneling is a tried and true feature that allows you to create a list of programs on your computer that are either exempt from using the VPN’s connection or must use the VPN’s connection if available.
Private Internet Access has only just recently added split tunneling, and the feature is still in beta. It works just like ExpressVPN’s split tunneling and lets you define a list of apps that are either exempt from using the VPN connection or vice-versa.
The fact that PIA’s split tunneling is in beta is noticeable, though. When we were trying to configure it and add programs to the exemption list, it would often freeze up and enter a “not responding” state for five to 10 seconds before coming back.
Aside from the split tunneling, ExpressVPN offers only a couple of minor extras, such as the shortcuts bar. Once you connect to the VPN, a row of icons appears that you can customize to let you quickly launch your favorite programs or sites once you’re on a protected connection.
Private Internet Access, by contrast, has a pair of eye-catching security enhancements. The first is that PIA offers a proxy with your VPN account. If you check out our VPN vs proxy vs Tor article, you’ll see that proxies are generally much less secure than VPNs, but PIA uses the proxy as an added layer of security to the VPN, rather than as a stand-alone security measure.
This lets you add an extra jump in your connection, improving security without having as much of an impact on performance as something like a double VPN. Private Internet Access also offers what it calls PIA Mace, which is essentially an ad blocker that also blocks malware and trackers to help improve your online privacy.
While this is helpful for preventing users from accidentally wandering onto a dangerous website, it’s simply not as good as something like a full-blown antivirus. Check out our Bitdefender antivirus review for a great example.
PIA has packed in more and more features over the last couple of years, so the troublesome and glitchy split tunneling is a bit of a dissapointment. Once the kinks are ironed out, PIA will be a contender for king of split tunneling, but for now, ExpressVPN still reigns supreme.
Since ad and malware blockers are a dime a dozen, and a well-configured VPN is enough security for most people without an added proxy, PIA’s features carry less appeal than ExpressVPN’s split tunneling, meaning ExpressVPN takes this round.
10. Final Thoughts
With a final score of six to four, ExpressVPN secures yet another win. While PIA has made several improvements and added some features since we last checked in, the problems with the still-in-testing split tunneling held it back greatly.
ExpressVPN’s speed, ease of use and fully functioning split tunneling were too much for PIA to overcome. If you have experience with either of these VPNs, we always love to hear about it in the comments below. As always, thanks for reading.