Private Internet Access Review
If you're looking for a fast, no-frills VPN service, Private Internet Access deserves your attention. It does what it needs to, no questions asked, though we do wish PIA had a little less trouble getting into Netflix and other streaming services. Read our full review to know more.
Private Internet Access may be the most well-known VPN out there thanks to its vocal stance in the battle for the net, the ultimately failed campaign to keep net neutrality in the United States. You may think that this means its dedication to privacy and security equals that of any of our best VPN providers, and you’d be right: if those are priorities for you, PIA is a great choice.
The downsides to PIA are that there isn’t much of an interface, as everything is handled through pop-ups on your system tray, it’s not that great for streaming and its server network outside the U.S. is underwhelming when compared to other services like ExpressVPN (read our ExpressVPN review to see what we think a network should look like).
If, however, the combination of great speed, complete privacy and low price sounds about right to you, we recommend you go ahead and try out PIA’s seven-day trial. If not, we have plenty of VPN reviews you can take a look at.
- Easy & fast server switching
- Malware blocker
- Gets into Netflix U.S.
- Mediocre server network
- Doesn’t get into most streaming services
- Can be a pain to use
- No live chat support
- Easy to use
- Split tunneling
- Accesses all streaming platforms
- No ad or malware blocker
Though not as feature-packed as, say, NordVPN, PIA has some nice little extras that should keep your interest. First up is the insanely fast server switching times: connecting to a server takes little time as it is, but PIA also allows you to connect directly to another without disconnecting first, a handy yet strangely unique feature among VPNs.
On top of that, PIA is also fast as greased lightning, as you can read in the “speed” section, below. This is partly because it relies on 128-bit encryption using the OpenVPN protocol. The upside of this protocol is that it’s easily configurable: setting encryption to the more secure 256 AES is a matter of clicking a single button. This will, however, slow you down a bit.
PIA also comes with MACE, its built-in malware and ad blocker. We gave it a quick spin, and it worked a charm, blocking the crap that fills your screen on YouTube and torrent sites. It also has a foolproof killswitch installed, so torrenters need not worry being caught with their digital pants down.
While handy, MACE isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a replacement for the best antivirus software. It blocks malware in ads, but not everything else, so make sure you use an antivirus like Bitdefender to stay secure (read our Bitdefender review).
Missing, however, is split tunneling, a handy feature ExpressVPN and StrongVPN have (read our StrongVPN review). It allows you to set which programs use the VPN and which don’t, which speeds up your connection to, say, your wireless printer, while keeping your torrenting secure.
Astrill, a ultra secure provider with the price tag to match, also offers split tunneling, as you can see in our Astrill review.
Watching Netflix with PIA (& Other Streaming Services)
PIA will get you into Netflix U.S. and a handful of other countries (very much luck of the draw, it seems), but that’s about it. During our testing iPlayer blocked us, as did Hulu. Amazon Prime Video kinda worked, but as the only server we could find that was really slow, it might as well not have.
If finding the best VPN for streaming is your top priority, you may want to give Private Internet Access a miss and check out our articles on the best VPN for Netflix and best VPN for BBC iPlayer, instead.
Private Internet Access Features Overview
PIA’s pricing is probably the best of all top-tier providers, being the only service that’s not too bad going month-to-month on. You can find the pricing schemes in the table below, all of which come with a seven-day money-back guarantee.
6-months plan $ 5.99 / month
$35.94 billed every 6 month
Save 14 %
1-year plan $ 3.33 / month
$39.95 billed every year
Save 52 %
2-year plan $ 2.91 / month
$69.95 billed every 2 years
Save 58 %
Despite the monthly cost being pretty low, going for a one or two-year package is the smarter play here. When it comes to these two, no other service of comparable quality costs as little, though the three-year plans of CyberGhost and NordVPN work out $5 cheaper (read our CyberGhost review). That said, if money is tight and hard to get, PIA is the way to go.
Accepted payment options are the usual major credit cards and PayPal, as well as a number of more exotic methods of which we only really recognized bitcoin. In each case, though, they are aimed at keeping your identity secret, so we can only applaud PIA for allowing the option.
Overall, if not spending too much money at any one time is your top priority, you can’t beat PIA. If, however, you have a few bucks to spend and aren’t too hooked on PIA’s features, there are better options.
Signing up for Private Internet Access is as easy as clicking the plan you want on the website. You’re then shown a screen of payment options; click the one you want and you’re transported there so you can do the business.
In our case, we went for PayPal and PIA automatically used that email to create an account. We’re not entirely thrilled about this as we usually use a different address for this purpose. We can only assume using a different payment method would work, well, differently.
Within a minute or so you’ll receive three emails from PIA: a receipt, an email with links to the installer and one with your login details. These are randomly generated to increase security; they can be changed if you want an even stronger password. Log into the website, and you’ll be greeted by a control panel.
Below that header, you’ll find options to change your password, upgrade your subscription, change your email address, join beta programs and also give feedback to the PIA team. The control panel is intuitively laid out, so it shouldn’t provide any difficulties. There’s also a chat button at the bottom right (more on PIA’s support in the “customer service” section below).
The next step, of course, is to install the PIA client. As your reviewer is a Linux user and PIA ranks as the best VPN for Linux, we went for the client aimed at that OS. Installation isn’t quite as one-click as it is with Windows, but the installation instructions were clear (and copy-paste is, as always, your friend). PIA claims both clients behave exactly the same way and our secondary testing on a Windows VM bore that out.
Once installed, you’ll be asked to log in. We like that several important options are right there from the get-go. All are set to “on” by default and we recommend you keep them that way; there’s nothing wrong with having your VPN fire up at the same time you start your computer.
Once you click on “save,” the window disappears completely. Unlike most VPN providers, PIA is entirely controlled through a tray icon — read our e-VPN review for another provider who does it this way.
Your reviewer admits it took some getting used to, but at the same time it works well: you set your VPN and forget about it. There’s also a browser extension, which works much the same way but is a little easier to manipulate.
Still, if you feel you particularly need a UI, we recommend you give our NordVPN review a read. On mobile, that same minimalism prevails, though we liked the feel of the mobile app a little better. It’s just nice to see what’s happening when you connect.
Connecting with PIA
Setting up a VPN connection with PIA is easy: just right-click on the tray icon and up pops the small menu (we’re not sure what Mac users are supposed to do, except upgrade to better software and cheaper hardware). Select either “connect auto” or “connect to” and then a country or region, and you’re in business.
We should mention here the difference between a “country” and “region” according to PIA. “Country” calls up a list of all the countries PIA has servers in, while “region” subdivides some of those countries (the U.S., Canada, Australia and the UK) into different regions; it’s not a list of servers per continent like your reviewer first thought.
The region list gives you a long ladder of spots to choose from, while we prefer the easy overview of the “countries” tab, especially as we found the pop-up menu to be a bit fickle. By keeping it shorter, it disappeared less often.
There’s also no good way to filter the results. If you need a specific country you just go through the alphabetical list, or add it to your favorites, which you can do through the “settings” screen.
The mobile experience isn’t much different, though looks a little sleeker than the desktop app. Clicking on “selection” opens up a server list. Tap the one you want and you’re brought back to the central screen, as shown earlier.
Connecting takes a few seconds, making PIA easily the fastest VPN in this regard (actual speeds we talk about a bit further on). You get a little pop-up notification that you’re connected and that’s it. This speed carries over to the automatic server switching (a feature we wish other VPNs had, too), which takes around three seconds on average.
The minimalist feel carries over to all the options. The right-click menu, besides allowing you to connect to servers and access the full options menu, only lets you send a slow connection report and report blocked websites; there’s also a shortcut to the support section of the website (more on that in the “customer service” section below).
The actual options screen is a little fuller, but not by much. You’re first greeted by the same screen you are at startup, but when you click on “advanced” another screen folds out and gives you a single menu to play with. Though it looks limited, it actually offers a wide range of different options, though it’s no VyprVPN (read our VyprVPN review to see what we mean by that).
The top four of the right-hand options should not be messed with unless you know what you’re doing; the next two are off by default, but extra malware blocking is never amiss and a killswitch is pretty important for those living in countries with internet censorship or who torrent. We recommend you leave the next three as is, as well.
The bottom menu is “encryption,” which normally we would also not recommend messing with, except that AES-128 isn’t a good idea if you’re trying to tunnel under the Great Firewall, so switch to 256-bit encryption if you are (and increase the handshake to RSA-4096 while you’re at it). Though PIA is not one of the best VPN services for China, this should tide you over well enough.
Overall, using PIA is unlike any other top provider, which is a mixed blessing. Though the minimalist interface may strike a chord with some, we feel an actual client would make the options a little easier to handle.
We also deplore the fact that we’re given very few ways to mess with advanced settings; though the most important stuff is there, a lot that’s going on is happening under the hood. Another service, ExpressVPN, does much the same, but still leaves you plenty of room to play with; PIA gives you none.
PIA plays nice with all desktop OSes and has support for all Windows versions, Mac and Linux (Ubuntu and Mint specifically, though you should be able to run it on other distros, too). As we mentioned earlier, it’s the only VPN to have an actual full client that runs on Linux, so Team Penguin is well served here.
On mobile, it has a great-looking app for both Android and iOS and it even works easily with most routers, so protecting your entire network shouldn’t be too much of a problem. You might not need to, however, as PIA supports five simultaneous connection without a limit on the total of devices you can hook up, earning it second place in our article on the best VPN for multiple devices.
PIA boasts 3197 servers in 52 locations across 33 countries; the network is strongest in the States (by far, very few other VPNs have a comparable spread in the U.S.) and Canada. Europe isn’t quite as strong and, as per usual with VPNs, Africa is badly underrepresented and Asia and Latin America fall slightly in the middle.
The balance is that if you live in North America or need regular access to it, PIA is a solid choice; if you need European access it’s a bit more of a crapshoot, if we’re honest: the countries that are covered are covered well, but the network is patchy. If you need regular access to different Asian countries, you’ll definitely need to find another provider.
PIA is one of the fastest VPN around as shown by our speed tests, which we performed by connecting to different servers from a coworking space in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and then measuring our speeds using speedtest.net. The results are in the table below.
|Location:||Ping (ms):||Download (Mbps):||Upload (Mbps):|
|New York City||109||16.25||6.96|
|Los Angeles, CA:||188||8.69||2.67|
As you can see above, Private Internet Access even stays fast across long distances (that Japan reading especially is something else), a feat only equaled by ExpressVPN — though we’ll note ExpressVPN is faster over short distances.
Ping is also pretty low across the board, which is why PIA is our second favorite pick among the best VPN for gaming. There isn’t much else to say here, except that PIA is very, very fast and the testing was made even quicker than usual thanks to the quick server switching. We’d also like to know what was up with that L.A. reading.
Thanks to its strong stance in favor of net neutrality and against government surveillance, PIA has become a byword for privacy; this is very much deserved as the service keeps no logs whatsoever, not even temporary ones. It requires next to no information from you to start an account (though don’t use PayPal or a credit card if that’s a priority for you) and is thus one of the best VPN for torrenting (if you’re more into other kinds of entertainment, PIA is good for that, too).
Security is also good: under normal circumstances PIA only uses OpenVPN, which makes the service easily configurable for when you need to. As explained in the “ease of use” section, you can set the level of encryption, as well as the handshake protocol yourself, giving you the option to shift between speed and security on the fly. You could, of course, set it all to zero, but that defeats the point a bit.
Switching to a different protocol is possible: available are L2TP, PPTP and SOCKS (that’s a proxy, we know), but only by requesting access separately. You’re then given a separate login and you can switch there. If, however, all the above is Greek to you, just stick to OpenVPN.
During the speed tests above, we also ran checks on DNS leaks, webRTC leaks and such and found zero problems; you can use PIA without worrying that either the company or anyone else is snooping on your traffic.
PIA has a decent knowledgebase: though it’s less extensive than that found with other VPNs, the quality of the answers is better, especially for Linux users. Most common problems’ solutions are laid out step by step and you can navigate your way through fairly easily.
If you do need help, you can use PIA’s email support system. There’s a chat button in the bottom right of the site, but it just sends an email; there’s no live chat. The company claims this is so they can guarantee the quality of their answers, and we’re inclined to agree.
We made up a problem and sent an email, the answer took a few hours to arrive (a bit slower than other services), but the message we got was polite and thorough, a winning combination. We eventually “solved” our problem, and we give PIA high marks here.
Taken altogether, PIA is a solid service that loses some of its luster thanks to its lack of a UI and smallish server network. If doing without a proper interface isn’t that big a deal to you and you just want a fast and cheap provider that guarantees your privacy and security, PIA is the way to go.
It might not have all the bells and whistles other services have, but if you don’t need them, why bother? What do you think of PIA? Do you prefer it over other services? Let us know in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading.