At the end of last year, I found PIA still providing an excellent service for the cost. However, in some regards, it had allowed itself to slip from the benchmark set by other providers. Speeds were OK, but not quite as fast as top competitors. Customer care was causing complaints for being too slow. In February, PIA claimed to have fixed those parts of its service, so I thoroughly tested it and found the claim to be true. Now, four months on, I have decided to check to see if Private Internet Access is still performing to those improved standards.
Pricing and Plans
Private Internet Access is a cheap VPN that rewards subscribers for committing for a longer period of time. Amazingly, since the last time I reviewed PIA, it has added an even cheaper two-year plan.
Of course, it is worth remembering that if you do choose to subscribe for a longer period of time, you will be stuck with PIA for longer too. So please be sure that you definitely want this VPN before jumping in at the deep end. It is a great VPN, so you may well be happy with it – but I still recommend reading this review in its entirety.
In addition, don’t forget that PIA provides an excellent seven-day money back guarantee! That means you can test the VPN thoroughly for a week and then get your money back if you wish.
When it comes to paying, PIA accepts credit cards, PayPal, and various other online payment systems. Users may also elect to pay with “hundreds of different gift cards,” including Starbucks, Bestbuy, and Walmart.
PIA also accepts some cryptocurrencies. Bitcoins and Z-cash are accepted, though Ripple appears to have been removed as an option for about a year now.
Cheaper than most similar VPNs
Great for privacy and security
Lots of encryption options (including OpenVPN, our recommended protocol)
Fast connection speeds for streaming
Servers all over the world
Not the best VPN for beginners who need hands-on support
Doesn’t unblock some popular websites (Netflix US and BBC iPlayer for instance)
Private Internet Access is a US-based VPN located in Michigan. The VPN provides access to 3,236 servers in 28 countries. Although that is fewer server locations than some premium VPN providers – it is still a considerable amount of choice. What’s more, the servers are well-located around the globe and permit subscribers to unblock most online content.
PIA has a lot of advanced features. These include a kill switch, Domain Name System (DNS) leak protection, a built-in Socket Secure (SOCKS5) proxy, a choice of encryption protocols, auto-connect feature (that connects the VPN as soon as it is launched), port forwarding, best server detection feature, and apps for all platforms (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Linux, and Chrome). It also permits five simultaneous connections and allows P2P torrenting.
Another nice feature is that the website shows server counts, locations, and bandwidth stats. In addition, users can select each individual VPN server and perform an on-the-spot speed test to see how it is performing. This is a unique feature, which I test later in this review.
Private Internet Access VPN is based in the US (in the state of Indiana). This isn’t ideal because the US government can impose warrants and gag orders on any firm located there. This literally means that PIA could be served a warrant telling it to begin retaining and handing over all user data AND be told to keep it a secret. The US is also home to the NSA and CIA – and is part of the Five Eyes surveillance agreement. For this reason, privacy-conscious organizations such as PrivacyTools.io tend to warn against using US-based privacy firms – their guarantees can’t be completely trusted.
The good news is that PIA does attempt to make up for this by providing a zero logs policy (which is as good as logging policies ever get). However, as mentioned, PIA could be served a gag order, and a warrant, and subscribers would have no clue. This is always a concern with US-based VPN providers and is something that you will need to consider on a personal level.
At the end of the day, we have no reason to suspect that PIA is under warrant and gag order, and for general privacy and unblocking it is more than likely a perfectly good option. As far as I can tell, PIA has never disclosed any information about its subscribers to the authorities. In addition, it has proved its no logs claim in court (which only very few VPNs have ever done) not once but twice! With that in mind, the vast majority of people will be more than happy using PIA.
In terms of encryption, PIA is highly secure. It gives users a choice of options including Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP/IPSec), or OpenVPN. Here at BestVPN.com, we recommend against using PPTP, because it is outdated and insecure. With that in mind – users only really get two secure options.
We recommend OpenVPN because it is by far the most secure (open source) encryption protocol. If you do get a PIA subscription, we strongly encourage you to connect using OpenVPN.
Data hash auth
Control hash auth
Logs & Legal
OpenVPN encryption is implemented excellently, which is one of the best things about PIA’s service:
Data channel: AES-256 cipher, with strong SHA256 for authorization and a handshake of RSA 4096. The Control channel is protected with AES-256cipher with SHA384 authentication. Perfect Forward Secrecy is delivered with a DHE+RSA exchangefor RSA handshakes, or ECDHE+ECDSA for ECC handshakes.
Encryption set to those levels is extremely strong. In fact, you could argue that the handshake could be made a bit weaker and your data would still be secure. For this reason, you can make use of PIA’s advanced settings to set it manually to RSA 2048. If you intend to do a lot of streaming with your VPN this will make it perform at optimum levels. PIA gives users a lot of customizable options where encryption is concerned.
Although having so many options can be a bit confusing for VPN beginners, those options are a positive part of PIA’s service. More options allow the people who need the strongest encryption to get it. Those who don’t really need it can lower it manually. Please head over to the VPN encryption page (you can find a link to it in the menu at the bottom of any page) to understand the large list of encryption options that PIA gives you. This guide is comprehensive and it will stop you from accidentally making your encryption levels too weak.
The PIA website looks awesome and is easy to navigate. Unlike many VPNs, it doesn’t conceal or make it hard to find any important details about the service. Details about encryption are freely available, and the firm does not attempt to hide that it is based in the US (though it does attempt to make it seem like a positive aspect when in reality it isn’t).
I applaud PIA for its transparency. In fact, it is fair to say that I have never seen a VPN that provides such good navigation (specifically at the bottom of every page in the fine print menu). Users can find a huge number of links to data about a massive variety of issues such as the KRACK WiFi vulnerability, IoT security, Tor vs VPN – and many others.
At the top of the homepage, users will find a navigation banner, which easily connects them to all the most important parts of the website. Those are clearly labeled: Home, How It Works, Downloadsand Support, Contact Us and Join Now.
In addition, there is a link in the top right that says Member Login.
One of the best things about Private Internet Access’ website is its fantastic VPN 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 content. That blog is available to everybody including non-PIA subscribers. It is a truly outstanding source of privacy news and VPN information. We recommend this blog to everyone.
PIA also has outstanding guides and an FAQ section that includes video tutorials. These resources are truly fantastic and will allow most people to solve problems quickly. Topics range from setting up PIA VPN on a DD-WRT or Tomato router (advanced), to changing and updating your password (simple). Private Internet Access really does have one of the best VPN websites out there.
The website is a formidable resource, 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 24/7 support is what lets Private Internet Access VPN down. These days it is common for VPNs to have live chat support, and this is something that PIA does not have. However, considering how cheap it is, this is probably a reasonable tradeoff for most people.
Finally, the website can be viewed in 18 languages. This is pretty awesome and demonstrates the international aspirations of this VPN provider.
The very best VPN services provide 24/7 live chat support. Sadly this isn’t the case when it comes to PIA. Admittedly, the FAQ, blog, and website in general, are way above average. So it is a shame that PIA is lacking when it comes to this critical side of the service. Most annoyingly, PIA does advertise 24/7 support on its website. However, this was not my experience.
I decided to very carefully test PIA’s support, because they recently told BestVPN.com that they had improved their service. I tested the ticket system using my private email (instead of a work one), a fake name, and a very easy question. This, I thought, would allow them to get back to me as quickly as possible – without complications.
After clicking “submit”, I received the following message:
Moments later I received an automated email response with a tracking number. The message told me my request had been received and was in the process of being reviewed by support staff.
From that point, I had to wait seven hours for a response. This isn’t bad and is definitely an improvement on the wait I experienced last time. However, PIA claims that it has 24/7 support staff working in North America – so, in reality, a response should have arrived sooner.
Many premium VPNs have live chat support and even those that don’t often provide responses in 15 minutes or under. I would have been happy with even a two to three-hour wait, but longer than that is hard to consider 24/7. Still, seven hours is better than weeks.
Subscribing to Private Internet Access VPN and setting up the software is very easy. All that is needed is an active email address and a valid payment method. Your level of anonymity is completely up to you because you can use Bitcoins or a gift card. This means you could use a fake name in order to further protect your digital footprint.
Once payment is accepted, subscribers can navigate to the download area to get the software they need. The PIA client is available for all popular platforms. The .ovpn config files are also available for anybody that wants to connect using third party OpenVPN GUI, OpenVPN Connect (iOS), or OpenVPN for Android.
The PIA Windows VPN Client
The Private Internet Access client (VPN software) for Windows is a fully featured VPN client. It has all the most important, top of the range features and options. It might not be the best looking or most stylish front-end I have ever seen, but it is definitely functional, easy to navigate, and extremely feature packed.
Users can easily gain access to all of the advanced VPN settings by clicking “Advanced settings” on and off in the bottom left-hand corner. In simple mode, the client shows login setting options, and a drop-down menu for choosing between server locations.
Frustratingly, however, this version of the Windows client (V75) no longer has a “connect” button in the client. For this reason, you will need to connect to the VPN by right-clicking on the PIA icon in your system tray in the bottom right of your screen.
This isn’t a huge problem, but it certainly isn’t as ergonomic as other VPN clients on the market. The good news is that you can set PIA to auto-connect – so that you don’t have to manually connect in this manner every time you start up your computer.
In advanced mode, users can select their encryption preferences. The Connection button gives users access to useful features such as port forwarding (you can use this if you’re hosting mail or gaming servers). You can also turn on a per-app kill switch to protect your data in case the VPN connection drops out (this stops you from accidentally leaking data to your ISP). Users can also select between OpenVPN UDP and TCP. UDP is better for streaming media as it typically provides slightly faster speeds.
I have noticed some people complaining that the kill switch can be bit temperamental. However, this is believed to have been improved in one of the more recent software updates. It certainly seemed to work fine during my time testing PIA, though, to be fair, I didn’t notice the VPN connection drop out.
PIA also provides DNS and Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) protection. You can see the results of my tests of these features in the next section. PIA users can also select “smaller packets” which “fixes issues on some networks.”
Finally, PIA now also has a feature called PIA Mace. This blocks malware, trackers, and adverts while you are connected to the VPN. It’s a nice extra. I disabled my adblockers on an advert-heavy website and found it to work fine (for blocking adverts).
One thing worth remembering is that the PIA client does not auto-update or have an update checker. As such, you will need to check the website from time to time to see if PIA has released a new version of the VPN client.
Performance (Speed, DNS, WebRTC, and IPv6 Tests)
In the latter part of last year, BestVPN.com invested in the world’s most efficient speed test system. It is a server-based solution that allows BestVPN.com to get much more accurate speed test results than any other VPN comparison website. For a detailed explanation of how our new scientific speed test system works, please look here.
Our new method of speed testing VPNs is far better than using online speed test websites and services. However, if you want to test your VPN’s speeds yourself you are welcome to do so using this website here. (It is the best site for this that I have discovered so far.)
All speed tests were conducted using OpenVPN config files. As you can see from the graph below, PIA provides average download speeds of 16.8 Mbit/s and Max speeds of 58.8 Mbit/s (average across all server locations). These results have slipped slightly since I tested them back in February.
As you can see, PIA is slower than a selection of popular providers. It simply does not compare to the current fastest VPNs.
I decided to compare PIA’s UK speeds using our reliable speed test methodology against the speeds provided by PIA’s website speed test system. I tested the London server using PIA’s website and selected GB in our speed test server front end. According to PIA, download speeds were 42.93 Mbit/s. Our test servers (I set the average to the last 24 hours) displayed results of18.1 Mbit/s.
This is quite a large difference, which makes me suspicious of PIA’s speed test system. Of course, it is possible that PIA is testing its servers with a PPTP connection, which might explain the faster speeds.
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. IPv6 leaks also came back negative (I had a colleague test for these types of leaks with IPv6 leak protection enabled).
I will mention that some people have discovered a WebRTC leak while using PIA in the past. The WebRTC bug can reveal your true location. For this reason, PIA users may want to plug this possible hole by disabling WebRTC in their browser. This is an easy job in Firefox (just Google it). In Chrome, you can use this browser extension to stop WebRTC leaks. As far as I am concerned this is unnecessary because I discovered no WebRTC leaks during my tests.
However, at BestVPN.com we do recommend using ipleak.net to check for leaks yourself from time to time. For more info on WebRTC leaks and how to plug them, please look here.
Private Internet Access VPN has compatible 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.
To make life easier, PIA has setup guides and tutorials to help set up every single platform. This means that even beginners should be able to set up and use PIA on any platform without much trouble.
Private Internet Access has a dedicated Android app. I decided to give it a quick look to see how it compares to its Windows counterpart. In the looks department, the Android client is exactly the same as its Windows counterpart. It even has all the same premium features, such as the kill switch and the wide variety of encryption options. The same is also true of auto-connect. In addition, it is also possible to select between Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and User Datagram Protocol (UDP), which is handy if you want to use OpenVPN UDP to stream.
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.
Strong encryption and lots of customizable options
Software of a high standard on all 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
Servers in 28 countries
Super cheap if you get a yearly or two-yearly subscription
Seven-day money-back guarantee
Easy to use
Amazing website and blog
Excellent FAQs and Guides
P2P is permitted
I wasn’t so sure about:
Customer care response took seven hours
Killswitch fails occasionally (according to consumers)
Doesn’t unblock US Netflix
Doesn’t unblock BBC iPlayer
PIA runs a high-quality VPN service that provides high levels of privacy. The software is easy to use and has all the best VPN features. In addition, customer care problems (that were being reported regularly last year) appear to have been fixed. I managed to get a response from their team within half a day.
PIA is perfect for people who are accustomed to VPNs and are confident with fixing any small issues that might arise. Even people with the patience to look through the website to sort out any issues should have a good experience with PIA. However, if you prefer 24/7 live chat support- please look elsewhere.
Speeds are ok, but they have slipped slightly since last time I tested them. However, on the whole, PIA should be ok for steaming and does represent good value for money. Sadly, my tests revealed that PIA VPN still does not unblock Netflix US or BBC iPlayer – you get what you pay for! If unblocking BBC iPlayer is a key feature you need, take a look at our iPlayer VPN guide to ensure you get the best VPN for BBC iPlayer 2018.
If you want the very best VPN, with super fast speeds and all the best unblocking capabilities – or perhaps a VPN that isn’t based in the US (with its warrants and gag orders) – you should probably spend a few extra dollars. However, if you are looking for a workable VPN for privacy – that costs very little – Private Internet Access still remains one of the best options on the market.