It’s no secret that at Cloudwards.net we think ExpressVPN is the best VPN money can buy. It has great security, speed and features, which combine to make a streamlined virtual private network package that anyone can use. It isn’t perfect, though: it has one of the highest price tags we’ve seen for a VPN.
Private Internet Access is more reasonable and comes with similar speeds, security and features. In this ExpressVPN vs. PIA head-to-head, we’re going to see which provider is the best choice for you. We’ll compare them in five rounds to see if PIA really is a better pick or if that’s just wishful thinking.
This matchup will give a broad overview of the two providers in the context of each other. If you want more detail or to see how they stack up among VPN providers, read our ExpressVPN review and Private Internet Access review.
Setting Up a Fight: ExpressVPN vs. PIA
We’re pulling from the criteria set in our VPN reviews to compare ExpressVPN and PIA. Our reviews have quite a few sections, though, so we condensed some to be more concise here. For example, the second round covers pricing, but will also discuss the number of simultaneous connections with each plan.
That makes it easier to create a fair comparison, as not all sections would be weighted equally otherwise. For instance, supported devices is an important category, but a win in that area wouldn’t hold the same value as one in security.
We’ve condensed the battle to five rounds: features, pricing, ease of use, speed and security. We’ll start each with details about what we’re looking for, go over what the providers bring to the table, give our thoughts on how they compare and declare a winner. Whichever provider takes three or more rounds wins.
In order to avoid ambiguity, we’ll take a definitive stance in each round. That doesn’t mean rounds won’t be open to interpretation, though. We urge you to read through each section instead of skimming winners so you can form your own opinion.
While that is something we always recommend, it’s especially important here, as PIA and ExpressVPN are both great offerings. Unlike our PureVPN vs ExpressVPN comparison, you can’t go wrong with either provider.
- ExpressVPN★★★ Best VPN 2020 ★★★
30-day money-back guarantee
- PayPal, Credit card, Bitcoin
- 5 Simultaneous connections
- Unlimited bandwidth
- Can access Netflix US
- Allows torrenting
- No-logging policy
- Visit ExpressVPNExpressVPN Review
There are a lot of VPNs on the market, many of which will securely connect you to the internet. ExpressVPN is our gold standard, and it’s not just because of its core function. We’re going to look at the features ExpressVPN and PIA offer that separate them from the rest of the pack.
ExpressVPN is a plain application on its face, which has major upsides in ease of use. There are features, but most are hidden deeper in the client. The main focus is to get you connected as fast as possible.
There’s more under the hood. Our favorite feature is the speed test, which lets you automatically try each server in ExpressVPN’s network. The results are for latency and download speed, so you can get a good idea of which server you should connect to instead of doing so by trial and error.
Once you’re connected, you can verify the security of your connection with the IP address checker and DNS leak test. There are tools to test those online, but a sanity check in-application isn’t a bad thing.
If something goes wrong, you can use ExpressVPN’s diagnostics tool. It’ll spit out a bunch of text most users won’t be able to decipher. If you’re among the few that can, you can snuff out problems. Otherwise, it’s mainly there so you can send a log to the provider’s support.
The two most notable features are split tunneling and a killswitch. Split tunneling, which lets you direct some traffic through the VPN and other traffic through normal channels, can be configured with most VPNs. That said, the process is lengthy and annoying, as you can see with IPVanish (read our IPVanish review and see how the two compare in our ExpressVPN vs. IPVanish piece).
ExpressVPN’s split tunneling feature is configured in the client on a per-app basis, much the way Astrill handles it (read our Astrill review). You can set it to only allow certain apps through the tunnel or exclude them from the tunnel. That is useful, especially if you take part in an occasional online game that requires the fastest speeds possible.
A killswitch is an essential feature. If your connection to the remote server drops, it will sever your internet connection, never exposing your IP address. It is a major reason why ExpressVPN earned slots in our best VPN for torrenting and best VPN for China guides.
ExpressVPN’s mentality means a quick connection and the essential features are available if you’re willing to look. While it’s not as configurable as TorGuard (read our TorGuard review), it provides a streamlined experience with all the features you’ll need.
PIA has a more robust feature list, but still doesn’t hit the level of NordVPN (read our NordVPN review). The features are more flashy than ExpressVPN’s, but they don’t affect the tunneling experience as much, which puts PIA at a slight disadvantage for this round.
Most notably, PIA doesn’t include a split tunneling feature in the client, something ExpressVPN and even lower tier providers, such as StrongVPN, offer (read our StrongVPN review). You can still configure it manually, but the process is rather difficult.
PIA is also missing testing and diagnostic tools. Neither is of the utmost concern, but they’re features that ExpressVPN offers that it omits.
A killswitch is available, though, which should help protect you in privacy-unfriendly countries or during torrenting binges. If you’re in the former, you will need to up the encryption level. PIA uses AES 128-bit by default, which is excellent for speed, as we’ll see later, but not for security. Thankfully, you can up the protection with a single click in the settings.
PIA includes a malware and ad-blocker called MACE, too. That is a somewhat common feature in VPNs, with providers such as NordVPN including their own flavor of malware protection. It’s not really a distinguishing feature and doesn’t hold a candle to the dedicated malware protection you get with our best antivirus software.
It’s not a bad inclusion, but it’s better to shop for your protection a la carte. We recommend Bitdefender as a dedicated antivirus (read our Bitdefender review).
Streaming performance is spotty, so ExpressVPN definitely has an edge in that area. We were able to access U.S. Netflix, but we had trouble getting into BBC iPlayer and Hulu. Amazon Prime Video worked, but only on one miserably slow server.
Considering ExpressVPN is the best VPN for Netflix, PIA doesn’t look great this round.
Round One Thoughts
PIA has goodies that ExpressVPN doesn’t, which can be enticing. That said, ExpressVPN has a more well-rounded range of features that allows you to configure and test your connection.
The major points are streaming and split tunneling, both of which ExpressVPN handles with grace. PIA’s clunkiness in those areas doesn’t compare well, meaning ExpressVPN distinguishes itself enough for a win this round.
While you shouldn’t go with a free VPN (check out our worst free VPN guide to see why), you shouldn’t have to empty your wallet for privacy. We’re going to compare ExpressVPN and PIA’s price, distribution of plans and number of simultaneous connections to see which provides the better value.
We aren’t going to beat around the bush — ExpressVPN isn’t cheap. The monthly plan is among the most expensive we’ve seen.
6-months plan $ 9.99/ month
$59.95 billed every 6 month
Save 23 %
15-months plan $ 6.66/ month
$99.95 billed first 15 months
and 12 months thereafter
Save 49 %
Plans include five simultaneous connections and unlimited bandwidth. The number of connections isn’t horrible, but it’s not well-suited for use beyond a single user. Attempting to setup ExpressVPN for a family would be like arguing over who’s streaming Netflix at the same time.
While we think the monthly rate is a bad value, the semi-annual and annual plans aren’t the worst we’ve seen. At $10 a month for six months and $8 per month for a year, the rates are respectable. If you’re buying ExpressVPN, we suggest one of them.
It doesn’t offer a free trial or longer term plan, though, which hurts. Biennial and triennial plans give loyal subscribers a better value and we’re disappointed by ExpressVPN’s omission of those options.
The lack of a free trial isn’t as bad, considering ExpressVPN offers a generous 30-day money-back guarantee. While you still have to pay upfront, ExpressVPN refunded our money without question when we tested the guarantee.
You get what you pay for, and ExpressVPN doesn’t cost more just for the sake of turning a profit. It’s an excellent platform that rewards you for putting in a couple of extra dollars. Compared to the cheaper PureVPN, which is far worse, its value is apparent (read our PureVPN review).
PIA is among the cheapest top-shelf VPNs. While the money-back window is smaller and there’s still no free trial, you get more simultaneous connections for less money.
6-months plan $ 5.99/ month
$35.95 billed every 6 month
Save 14 %
1-year plan $ 3.33/ month
$39.95 billed every year
Save 52 %
2-year plan $ 2.97/ month
$71.28 billed every 2 years
Save 57 %
We rarely recommend monthly plans because they’re not a good value. Such is not the case with PIA, with its monthly rate coming in around $3 less than most of its competitors’ prices. Compared to the rest of the market, the monthly rate is excellent. Compared to PIA’s lengthier plans, though, it’s still flat.
PIA offers semi-annual and annual plans, too, but we don’t recommend the former. You’re only saving about $5 for half the time. The annual plan is quite impressive, considering it cuts the monthly rate almost in half.
The annual plan is in the sweet spot of PIA’s offerings, as it provides a relatively low upfront cost for 12 months of protection. There’s a biennial plan that also lowers the monthly rate, but it’s only $20 cheaper than buying two annual plans.
Neither provider offers a free VPN, but most are bad anyway. The only exception to that is Windscribe, which has one of the best free plans we’ve seen, as you can read in our Windscribe review.
PIA’s only weakness in this round is its short refund window. ExpressVPN offers a month to mess around with the service while PIA only offers a week. It’s still enough time to try out the service, but you’ll have to be diligent to get your money back.
Round Two Thoughts
Besides a shorter money-back window, PIA wins in every aspect of the round. Features play a large part in price, though, and we still think ExpressVPN has the edge there. That said, PIA’s more limited set of features for a far lower price is enough to win this round.
Ease of Use
Some niche VPNs are notorious for their poor ease of use. That isn’t the case with ExpressVPN and PIA, which offer excellent user experiences and many settings. Because of that, we’re looking for small advantages in this round and relying on our preferences after using them.
ExpressVPN has a ready-to-go mentality, from checkout to starting the VPN. Signing up for a plan is as simple as choosing the duration, entering an email address and selecting your payment method. For true anonymity, you can even use a burner email and pay with cryptocurrency.
Once you’ve found the installer for your operating system and finished the download, ExpressVPN will send you to the main window of the user interface. It’s deceptively simple at first, with only three buttons populating the window. The large “on” button in the center will get you connected.
By default, ExpressVPN will choose a “smart” location. If you’re satisfied with the AI-assisted choice, click the “on” button to connect. The grey shield behind the button will turn green, letting you know the VPN is on.
We think the smart locations are subpar. ExpressVPN usually gets the geographical location correct, but it doesn’t always pick the best server. For example, during our review, it chose Amsterdam 1, which was the best location. Amsterdam 2 had better speeds for Netflix, though.
Thankfully, finding your own optimal server isn’t difficult. ExpressVPN’s speed test function helps a lot, in addition to its excellent server navigation. You click on “choose location” to bring up the server list, which has three tabs: “recommended,” “all” and “recent.”
The first tab just recommends servers like the smart function, so it’s not always spot on. You can scroll through the list of servers easily, though. ExpressVPN segregates them by continent and then country, making skimming simple. You can also use the search bar at the top of the window.
You can favorite servers you frequent by clicking the star icon next to them. Then, they will appear under your recently connected servers in the third tab.
Three buttons isn’t all ExpressVPN has to offer. You can find its advanced settings by clicking the three dashes in the top left of the UI. There, you can configure how the VPN behaves at startup, setup split tunneling and install the browser extension.
ExpressVPN’s strongest point in ease of use is its segregation of features. The interface is simple enough that even someone scared of a mouse and keyboard can get around it without sacrificing core VPN functionality.
PIA’s sign-up process is similar. After selecting a plan, you’ll be sent to the payment options to complete checkout. We used PayPal when testing and PIA automatically used that email to send our account details, which we weren’t thrilled about.
After a moment, our email pinged three times as a receipt, an email with download links and our account details arrived in our inbox. The password for your account is automatically generated to increase security. It’s a random bundle of numbers and letters, so you’ll need the best password manager to store it. We recommend Dashlane (read our Dashlane review).
Installers are found in the control panel, which is also where you can change your email and password, upgrade your subscription, join beta programs and more. We used Linux during testing, so we found that installer and got to work. We rated PIA as the best VPN for Linux, after all.
Don’t worry if you’re a Windows user, the installation process is just as simple.
There are quite a few options when you first load the application. You’ll be asked to log in, but you can also set how PIA behaves when starting up, handles notifications and auto-selects servers. The default configuration works, but you can tweak it before loading the VPN.
That is the only window you’ll see from PIA. The rest of the application is handled in the tray, which takes time to get used to. If you want something more in your face, you can use the browser extension, which functions in more or less the same way.
The placement of PIA could be a pro or a con, depending on what you like. For us, it’s a minor annoyance because VPNs require some hands-on configuration and we prefer not to handle that in tiny pop-up menus. If you fall on the “set it and forget it” end of the spectrum, though, we can see the appeal.
PIA’s speed stood out during testing. It connected to servers in a blink and the automatic server switching took no more than a few seconds. The lower level of encryption caused the speed boost, which is nice for ease of use, but not for security. Thankfully, you can up the encryption level in the settings.
You access the settings menu by right-clicking the tray icon. The full settings menu shows the same options that were there during login, but clicking on “advanced settings” will show controls for the killswitch, leak protection and MACE. You can also manage encryption there, which is set to AES 128-bit by default.
The controls are there, but we can’t help but feel that PIA’s dedication to a minimalist design hurts it in this round. It’s out of the way, but in a way, that makes you forget the application exists. We prefer a UI, but even those who want their VPN to be out of sight have to set it up at some point. PIA doesn’t make that as easy as ExpressVPN.
Round Three Thoughts
Neither service is unusable, especially compared to some providers on the market (read our AirVPN review for context). Even so, it’s clear that ExpressVPN offers a more fluid user experience, even if PIA’s isn’t bad.
Simple and streamlined is the name of the game, and ExpressVPN feels more familiar than PIA. If you want a less hands-on approach, then PIA may be a better option.
VPNs will eat your speed, so it’s important to keep the gap as small as possible. We tested ExpressVPN and PIA in five locations to understand how they perform under normal and extreme conditions. We’ll also briefly touch on the server count and spread in this round.
ExpressVPN has a leg up in this round, as it’s one of the fastest VPN providers we’ve tested. While many VPNs can maintain decent speeds in the same country, it is unique in that it stays relatively fast over long distances. As you can see from our speed chart below, you’re giving up little speed when connecting to ExpressVPN.
Our tests were run near Amsterdam using speedtest.net. The first, unprotected score is our comparison number. The network load was kept as close to the baseline as possible.
|Ping (ms)||Download (Mbps)||Upload (Mbps)|
|Amsterdam, NL (2)||17||33.84||3.47|
|New York City||106||11.76||3.53|
The ping stood out most. While you’ll naturally introduce more latency as you travel long distances, ExpressVPN stayed shy of 100 milliseconds when connecting to relatively close servers. That is one of the main reasons it beat the competition in our best VPN for gaming guide.
Download speeds are great, too, minus our testing in Taiwan, which we’ll get to in a second. ExpressVPN won our best VPN for streaming guide for this reason. It didn’t drop more than 7 megabits per second anywhere in our hemisphere.
Japan had surprising results, but we couldn’t reproduce them with much consistency. The outlier was Taichung, which destroyed our unprotected upload and download speeds. Latency wasn’t terrible, but the poor speed performance suggests that server has problems.
Thankfully, ExpressVPN has a large server network that can bypass a few mediocre options. While the number of servers isn’t massive — you can choose from 148 — the spread is impressive. ExpressVPN has a presence in 94 countries, including remote locations such as Vientiane and Algiers.
Some servers, especially in remote areas, are virtual, which doesn’t usually present a problem with connection. There are concerns about the security of them, though.
PIA also earned a spot in our fastest VPN guide by maintaining most of our unprotected speed. As with our previous testing, the numbers in the table below are courtesy of speedtest.net. We tested from a coworking space in Bosnia for this round, though.
|Location:||Ping (ms):||Download (Mbps):||Upload (Mbps):|
|New York City||109||16.25||6.96|
|Los Angeles, CA:||188||8.69||2.67|
The service stays fast across long distances like ExpressVPN, but there’s a more significant decline in speed on initial connection. ExpressVPN is faster when you’re connecting to a server close to your location.
Connections in Austria and the Netherlands ate 8 Mbps off our unprotected speed, which isn’t bad, but more than ExpressVPN took. New York and Japan took around half our speed and Los Angeles took almost two-thirds.
There’s a larger gap in speeds on your first connection and a more significant decline when connecting over long distances. PIA doesn’t post bad results, by any metric, but it’s not on ExpressVPN’s level.
PIA has 3,160 servers, but the distribution isn’t as wide as it is with ExpressVPN. There are 52 locations to choose from across 33 countries. You can’t access exotic locations because most of the servers are in major media centers such as the U.S. and UK.
Round Four Thoughts
PIA and ExpressVPN put up excellent numbers for speed, but it’s clear that ExpressVPN has an edge. Like many rounds in this comparison, PIA isn’t bad but it doesn’t reach the bar set by ExpressVPN. You get a narrower spread of servers and slightly lower speeds with it.
Security & Privacy
Security is the most important part of any VPN. After all, the purpose of the service is to protect you. We’re going to look at the encryption standards ExpressVPN and PIA use, as well as how they handle your data. We would normally take a look at customer service here, as well, but ExpressVPN and PIA are both excellent in that department.
You should be fine with ExpressVPN’s defaults, though. It secures your data with AES 256-bit, one of the strongest block ciphers available. That encryption is backed by a 4096-bit RSA key, which should be plenty to get you through the Great Firewall of China.
OpenVPN is the default protocol, but ExpressVPN also supports L2TP/IPsec, PPTP and SSTP. All servers support OpenVPN, but the other protocols are server-dependent. If you don’t mess with the encryption settings, you’ll use OpenVPN automatically, which is the best choice for most people.
We tested the security using third-party tools for DNS, webRTC and IP leaks and ExpressVPN passed for each metric. We trust ExpressVPN’s built-in tools, but using third-party services verified the claims in the application.
Its security is top notch and so is the privacy. ExpressVPN maintains a strict no-logging policy, meaning none of your information is kept on file, not even temporarily. If a government agency came knocking, the service would have nothing to hand over but a bundle of blank hard drives.
It’s unlikely anyone will come knocking, though. ExpressVPN is based in the British Virgin Islands, which has some of the best privacy laws in the world. Your data is safe from spying by the government and internet service providers.
PIA has excellent security, too, but, as we’ve discussed throughout this comparison, you’ll need to configure it to get the most out of it. Even so, PIA is known for its strong stance in favor of net neutrality and strict condemnation of government surveillance, meaning your internet traffic is in good hands.
The service uses OpenVPN with AES 128-bit by default. It isn’t as secure as ExpressVPN’s 256-bit default, but it has upsides for speed. That said, can change the level of encryption to match ExpressVPN’s in the settings.
There are other protocols available, too, but you’ll need to request them. You can get L2TP and PPTP, as well as SOCKS if you just need a proxy, though you can’t set them up in the interface. You’ll need to ask PIA for those protocols. It’ll give you a separate login that you can then use to switch protocols.
OpenVPN is the best choice for most situations, though, so that isn’t too big of an issue.
Like ExpressVPN, PIA didn’t have any leaks when we tested.
PIA has a strict no-logs policy, too, but its location in the U.S. is concerning. The country doesn’t have a retention policy, meaning PIA doesn’t need to keep logs by law. Given its track record, we’re inclined to believe that PIA’s privacy claims are true.
Some providers, such as HideMyAss, have claimed a no-logs policy only for it to be revealed in court that they are retaining information, as you can read about in our HideMyAss review. PIA has no such blemishes on its record, so you should be safe.
Round Five Thoughts
PIA and ExpressVPN have top-notch security and excellent privacy policies. No matter which you choose, you’ll be protected. The purpose of our comparison is to split hairs, though, and it’s clear that ExpressVPN has an edge when we do so. It has better default encryption, easier access to different protocols and a more comforting location.
ExpressVPN feels like someone took PIA and refined it. Both offer excellent services by almost any metric, including speed, security and features. ExpressVPN’s more intuitive interface, higher speeds and refined feature set make it a better option, though.
That shouldn’t put you off of PIA if you prefer its functionality and features. We like MACE a lot, and think the speed results put up a good fight. While it can’t meet the gold standard of ExpressVPN, few providers can, so don’t feel discouraged if it’s a more attractive option to you.
If neither feel like the right fit, make sure to read our other VPN reviews.
Do you like ExpressVPN or PIA more? Let us know in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading.