What is Private Internet Access (PIA)?
However, in recent months we’ve noticed a surge in the number of complaints about the service. This, added to an ever increasing amount of competition in the VPN market, has caused us to take another look at PIA.
Are criticisms about Private Internet Access VPN fair? Has PIA’s service slipped in recent times? These are important questions, and I’m keen to find out! Let’s take a closer look at this respected VPN to see if it is still deserving of the reputation it once had.
PIA’s Pricing and Plans
When it comes to pricing, Private Internet Access is enticing. The VPN rewards consumers for committing for a longer period of time. The various plans are the same other than their prices. The most expensive option is the single month subscription, which at $6.95 per month is still very cheap for what you get.
Next, you can opt for the $35.95 six-month plan ($5.95 per month). This is much more reasonable, though why you wouldn’t pay just $4.00 more to get the $39.95 yearly plan is beyond me. Paying annually brings down the monthly cost to $3.33, which is amazing considering the privacy levels that PIA provides.
Of course, the problem with committing for longer is that you are stuck with the VPN for that period, and Private Internet Access certainly appears to be having some troubles of late. As such, please be sure to read this article in its entirety before jumping in at the deep end.
PIA accepts many different payment methods, including credit cards, PayPal, and various other online payments. Users can also pay with “hundreds of different gift cards,” including Starbucks, Bestbuy, and Walmart.
In addition, PIA accepts Bitcoins, so you can pay anonymously for added privacy if you wish. Ripple did use to be an option, but PIA appears to have removed it since last time we reviewed the VPN. However, a new option to pay with Z-cash is now available.
PIA has a seven-day money back guarantee. As such, you can test the VPN on whatever platform you intend to run it on. We recommend checking the VPN on all the platforms you intend to use it on, to make sure it runs properly on all your devices. That way, if you have any trouble you can decide to get your money back!
- Cheaper than most VPNs of a similar nature
- Very private and secure
- Lots of encryption options (including OpenVPN, our recommended protocol)
- Fast connection speeds for streaming
- Servers all around the world
- Very bad customer care with exceedingly long waiting times for responses to questions
- Not great for beginners who require support
- Some complaints about the PIA software for Mac and iOS
Private Internet Access Features
Private Internet Access is based in Michigan in the US. The VPN provides access to 3,253 servers in 25 countries. Although that is fewer countries than some VPN providers, it’s still an awful lot of choice considering how cheap the VPN is. In addition, those servers are fantastically well placed around the world and will certainly allow you to unblock most things we can think of.
PIA has plenty of pro features such as a kill switch, Domain Name System (DNS) leak protection, a built in Socket Secure (SOCKS5) proxy, a choice of encryption protocols, an auto connect feature that connects the VPN as soon as it is launched and apps for all platforms (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Linux, and Chrome). It also permits five simultaneous connections.
Another sweet feature is that the website shows server counts, locations, and bandwidth stats.
Here is a video about Private Internet Access that the BestVPN.com team created last year:
Is Private Internet Access Secure?
As I mentioned, Private Internet Access VPN is based in the US (in the state of Indiana). This is far from ideal from a privacy standpoint because the US is known to impose warrants and gag orders. In addition, the US is home to the NSA and the CIA. It is also part of the Five Eyes surveillance agreement.
The good news is that PIA does somewhat make up for this by keeping no logs. Though, of course, because it is in the US it could be served a gag order and a warrant and its users wouldn’t know. This is always a concern with US-based VPN providers. It’s one reason why we really value VPNs that are based in better locations.
Having said that, as far as we know PIA has never disclosed any information about its users to the authorities. As such, it seems likely that the vast majority of people will be secure using PIA as their VPN.
As far as encryption is concerned, PIA is very secure indeed. It gives you plenty of options including Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP)/Internet Protocol Security (IPSec), or OpenVPN. Here at BestVPN.com, we strongly recommend OpenVPN. That’s because it’s leaps and bounds ahead of those other encryption protocols. If you do get a PIA subscription, please be sure to connect using OpenVPN!
OpenVPN encryption is handled via a military grade AES-256 cipher, with strong SHA256 for authorization, and handshake of RSA 4096. This is excellent. The handshake could even arguably be a little weaker and you would still remain secure, so feel free to set it manually to RSA 2048 if you intend to do streaming with your VPN.
Having so many options might seem a little confusing to VPN beginners. However, having those options means that those who want the very strongest encryption can get it. Those who don’t really need it can lower it manually. As such, this is a positive aspect of the service.
The only trouble with more features and options is that, for beginners, the rather serious lack of customer support can lead to the feeling of despair. This lack of support has led to many complaints over the last few months. As such, please be sure to check the “Customer Care” section below before purchasing a PIA subscription.
The PIA website is well designed, looks great, and doesn’t attempt to hide anything. Details about encryption are readily available, and the firm makes no attempt to hide that it’s based in the US. We applaud PIA for its transparency.
At the top of the homepage, you’ll find a navigation banner, which easily connects you to all the different parts of the website. Those are clearly labeled: Home, How It Works, Downloads and Support, Contact Us and Join Now. In addition, there is a link in the top right that says Member Login.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Private Internet Access website is its blog. That blog is written by the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, Rick Falkvinge. Falkvinge acts as head of privacy at PIA, and writes the blog. That blog is available to all, whether they subscribe to PIA or not. It is an excellent source of privacy news.
In addition, PIA has an excellent guides and an FAQ section that includes video tutorials to help you solve problems. These range from setting up PIA VPN on a DD-WRT router, to changing and updating your password.
This is an excellent resource. It is intended to allow subscribers to keep the service running smoothly without having to contact support. Despite this, when compared to other services the lack of easily attainable support is what lets Private Internet Access VPN down.
The website can be viewed in 18 languages. This is astounding, and demonstrates the international aspirations of this VPN.
This is without a doubt the most lacking part of Private Internet Access’ VPN service. While the best VPN services are proud to have 24/7 live chat support, PIA’s customer support is close to non-existent. Here at BestVPN.com we hear stories, time and time again, about PIA users seeking help using the ticket system, only to be left waiting for a response up to two and three weeks later.
This rightly raises concerns from subscribers, who ask questions like:
“If they can’t be bothered to provide adequate support, how can I be sure that they are running the servers and the business with the privacy that they claim?”
This is a valid question. For a VPN provider that clearly wants to sell its services globally, the lack of desire to support its clients leaves me utterly cold. A VPN service is there to help people to get privacy and online freedom. PIA appears to have forgotten this critical side of the service.
Only a few years ago, PIA was gaining endorsements from online hubs like LifeHacker, Wired, and Gizmodo. Now, however, PIA is living off of those endorsements, which it plasters on its homepage like badges of honor.
With an obvious will to gain subscribers from all over the world, one wishes that PIA would employ the few staff necessary to man a 24/7 live chat support service. This has become a staple ingredient of running a world class VPN service, and PIA is falling short.
Subscribing and setting up Private Internet Access VPN is an easy job. All one has to do is register with an active email address and make a payment. The level of anonymity depends entirely on you, and whether you decide to use Bitcoins or a gift card to subscribe. Doing this means that you could use a fake name in order to further protect you digital footprint.
Once you subscribe, you can head over to the download area and get the software you need for your platform. The software is available for all the most popular platforms. The .ovpn files are available for people who want to connect using third party OpenVPN GUI, OpenVPN connect (iOS) or OpenVPN for Android.
The PIA Windows VPN Client
The Private Internet Access software is a fully featured custom VPN client. It has lots of top-end features and options. It might not be the most stylish front end to look at, but in terms of functionality it’s good.
You can easily access all of the settings by using the Simple/Advanced button in the bottom left corner. In simple mode, the client shows login setting options and a drop-down menu for selecting from server locations.
In advanced mode, you can select your encryption preferences. The Connection button brings up useful features such as port forwarding – you can use this to get around firewalls. You can also turn on a per-app kill switch to protect your data in case the VPN drops out.
I’ve noticed people complaining that the kill switch is a bit temperamental. However, this is said to have been improved in one of the more recent updates. It certainly appeared to work fine during my short time testing it.
In addition, there is both DNS and Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) protection. You can see the results of my tests of these features below. One thing worth bearing in mind is that PIA does not auto-update or have an update checker. Thus you will need to periodically check the website to see if PIA has released a new version of the client.
PIA Performance (Speed, DNS, WebRTC, and IPv6 Tests)
Speeds were tested on a 50 Mbps Virgin Media fiber connection using testmy.net. As you can see from the base tests, my internet connection was being unusually sluggish on the day of the tests (averaging at just over 30 Mbps).
I tested the Netherlands and UK servers from a UK test server. The US server was tested using an East Coast (New York) test server. Speeds were impressive on all three servers. I tested each server five times, and some of the tests came out very close to the base tests. Certainly, PIA is good enough for streaming in HD – there is no doubt about that.
I used ipleak.net to test for IP leaks, DNS leaks, and WebRTC leaks. I am happy to report that there were no leaks of this nature during my tests.
However, I did note that some people have discovered a WebRTC leak while using PIA. The WebRTC bug could reveal your true location. Thus, if you use PIA, we recommend plugging this hole yourself by disabling WebRTC in your browser. This is pretty easy in Firefox. In Chrome, you can use this browser extension to stop WebRTC leaks.
This is probably unnecessary, as I discovered no WebRTC leaks during my tests. However, at BestVPN.com we believe it is always worth using ipleak.net yourself to check for leaks on your system. For more info on WebRTC leaks and how to plug them, please look here.
Private Internet Access VPN is compatible and has software for Android, Mac, iOS, and Linux, as well as the Windows client that I tested. In addition, it can be installed directly on DD-WRT and Tomato routers. It has guides for setting these up.
In fact, there are setup guides and tutorials to help set up every single platform. As such, despite its poor customer care, PIA does have just about every base covered – as long as you don’t mind not communicating with someone directly (without having to wait an excruciatingly long time).
Private Internet Access has a dedicated Android app. I decided to give it a once over. To look at, it is exactly the same as the Windows version. It even has all the same top end features, such as the kill switch and the wide variety of encryption options. The same is also true of the auto-connect and SSL features. Furthermore, it is possible to select between Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and User Datagram Protocol (UDP), which might come in handy when out and about using public WiFi.
I found the Android app to work well. A quick check of speeds revealed that they were no different to those experienced in the Windows version.
Private Internet Access VPN Review: Conclusion
- Strong encryption and lots of options
- Software is the same on various platforms
- Zero logs (but it’s based in the US, so could be served a warrant)
- Fully featured with a kill switch, DNS leak protection, and auto-connect
- Accepts Bitcoin and Z-coin
- Really cheap if you get a yearly subscription
- Seven-day money-back guarantee
- Unblocks BBC iPlayer
I wasn’t so sure about:
- Performance fluctuations on some servers (according to consumers)
- Kill switch fails occasionally (according to consumers)
- Doesn’t unblock US Netflix
PIA has a very professional client that does exactly what it is meant to. This leaves me almost in despair about the way that PIA is being run. It could be one of the best VPNs in the world if PIA just took care of its subscribers.
When it comes to PIA, the old adage of “you get what you pay for” couldn’t be truer. One can’t help feeling, however, that maybe PIA would be better off charging just a few extra dollars in order to employ some helpdesk staff.
In the end, PIA is perfect for people who are accustomed to VPNs and are confident with fixing any issues that might arise. Even people with the patience to look through the website to sort out any issues will probably be OK with a PIA subscription.
However, with the cost of a premium VPN service averaging as little as $70 per year, one can’t help feeling that, for most people, getting a VPN that has everything is a better way to go. After all, that really isn’t much of an investment.
With that said, if you’re looking for a workable VPN service that is a bargain then PIA still remains one of the best options on the market. I think PIA knows that too, so don’t hold your breath for a sudden improvement – PIA is what it is: a cheaper option that has a few flaws. It’s still much better than the vast majority of VPNs on the market!