Private Internet Access Review

Private Internet Access logoScore:
7.7/10

A great VPN provider and one of the industry's leaders, Private Internet Access offers everything you need in a VPN. From a functional newly redesigned client and fast servers to a strict no logging policy and excellent security features, it all comes at a price that easily beats most competitors.

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Pros
  • Proven no logs provider
  • Top-notch encryption and security
  • Very affordable
  • Good server speeds
  • Excellent newly redesigned apps
  • Allows torrenting and P2P
Cons
  • Located in the US - not ideal for privacy
  • Poor Netflix and BBC iPlayer support
  • Short 7-day money-back guarantee

If you’re in the market for a VPN, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Private Internet Access (also known as PIA). Operating for close to a decade, they’re arguably one of the biggest providers around.

PIA is known for being an inexpensive VPN service that delivers solid performance and support. Curious to see if that reputation is well-deserved, I took it upon myself to put them to the test.

And, in this Private Internet Access review, I’ll go over all that I’ve discovered – the good, the bad, and the borderline ugly.

PIA Overview

To help put things in better context, let’s start with a bit of background on Private Internet Access and the people behind it.

A subsidiary of a company called London Trust Media, PIA has been around since August of 2010. For a VPN service, that makes them something of an elder statesman.

The company is involved in a wide range of open-source and privacy-focused projects through their support of non-profits like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Creative Commons.

PIA is also one of the very few VPN providers that offer an open-source repository on GitHub. The repository includes their browser extensions and some (but not all) of their client software.

So far, everything sounds pretty good. Unfortunately, there are also a few skeletons in PIA’s closet.

London Trust Media – and by extension, Private Internet Access – is headquartered in Denver, Colorado. That means they operate out of a somewhat risky jurisdiction privacy-wise.

They also recently brought on criminally convicted Mark Karpeles, of the Mt. Gox Bitcoin exchange collapse infamy, as CTO. It was a move that, not surprisingly, caused an uproar among PIA’s userbase – and which still hasn’t completely died down.

All of this adds up to something of a mixed bag.

Yes, PIA operates very much like a company dedicated to transparency and privacy. But, at the same time, they picked a hard jurisdiction to maintain it and a CTO associated with one of the most expensive and disastrous hacks in recent memory.

Curious, indeed.

With that bit of food for thought, let’s dig deeper and review what PIA’s service offers.

Features

Feature-wise, there is plenty to like about what PIA brings to the table. They have a very complete VPN solution that includes all major security and privacy features we have come to expect from a top-level provider.

Security Features

The number of encryption options PIA supports is second to none.

For data encryption, you have four choices:

  • AES-128 (GCM)
  • AES-128 (CBC)
  • AES-256 (GCM)
  • AES-256 (CBC)

128-bit protection is faster but a bit less secure. The industry-standard 256-bit, on the other hand, while a tad slower, is next to impossible to break.

On the data authentication and handshake side of things – which is what the VPN does to confirm the connection and sent data have not been tampered with – you also won’t be starved for choice.

You can set your data authentication to either SHA1 or SHA256 – though only if you’re using one of the two AES CBC encryption methods.

The handshake, on the other hand, can be set to any of the following regardless of other settings:

  • RSA-2048
  • RSA-3072
  • RSA-4096
  • ECC-256k1
  • ECC-256r1
  • ECC-521

The defaults are AES-128 (CBC), SHA1, and RSA-2048 – a perfectly fine selection for casual VPN use. But, for a level of security that’s as good as it gets, definitely crank things up.

The software client includes a fully-featured kill switch to prevent any accidental data leaks. I tested it in every way imaginable, and, in all cases, things worked just as expected.

PIA's kill switch activating

The PIA kill switch can be configured to one of three modes:

  1. Off: The kill switch is completely off and won’t ever block any traffic
  2. Auto: The kill switch will block only outside traffic if the VPN connection drops
  3. Always: The kill switch will block all traffic if the VPN connection drops

It is set to Auto by default.

PIA runs their own private DNS server – as any self-respecting VPN provider should – and that’s what is used out of the box. If you prefer, you can also set a custom DNS or stick with your existing no VPN settings.

Handshake Naming System (HNS)

Speaking of DNS, it has long been the Achilles heel of many VPN providers when it comes to internet anonymity. After all, a DNS server can keep records of every site and service you connect to, even if you’re using a fully-encrypted connection.

DNS-level blocking is also an often-used method of internet censorship.

To give you another way of getting around both problems, PIA lets you avoid DNS altogether. You can instead use the Handshake Naming System (HNS).

HNS is a decentralized, blockchain-based replacement for DNS. The developers hope it will finally bring an end to the security, reliability, and censorship issues that plague the DNS infrastructure.

While HNS is still in its infancy, it’s great to see PIA adopt it and offer it as an option. Using it will ultimately mean even greater privacy as well as a fully censorship-resistant internet experience.

MACE Ad Blocker

Like many competing VPN services, PIA’s client comes with ad-blocking functionality. Unlike some others, though, it isn’t customizable. It’s either on or off – with no options.

PIA's MACE ad blocker settings

The feature, which PIA calls MACE, aims to block ads and malware when you’re connected to the VPN network. In practice, though, I find the results a bit underwhelming.

I expect MACE to work like browser-based ad blockers or even a DNS-based solution like Pi-Hole (which, by the way, I wholeheartedly recommend). In my tests, however, MACE blocked less than half of the ads and known malware pages that other services block with ease.

Although I can’t prove it, I suspect the weak performance to be somewhat intentional.

The client app can’t currently whitelist URLs. And without that, PIA can’t take the chance of being too aggressive with the blocking, or they may prevent us from reaching sites we want to visit.

Still, MACE is better than nothing. I’m also hopeful Private Internet Access will continue to develop it and, over time, bring it up to its full potential.

PIA Netflix and other Streaming Support

One of the most popular uses of a VPN is to stream geo-blocked content from other regions of the world. I’m talking about sites like Netflix, Hulu, or the BBC iPlayer.

The problem is that content providers are well aware of this fact and have, for years, been on a crusade to prevent VPN access to their services. And PIA is, sadly, on the losing end of that war.

Netflix US proxy error when using PIA

With a few small exceptions, Private Internet Access does not work with Netflix. The vast majority of servers are blocked. Other countries don’t fare much better either.

The same is true of just about any other streaming service. For example, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t manage to unblock the BBC iPlayer.

These results are, however, not surprising. A few years ago, PIA admitted that getting around geo-blocking was not their priority, and, clearly, they meant it.

So, if streaming video from other countries – or your own when abroad – is what you’re after, I recommend looking elsewhere. Any of the VPNs that unblock Netflix will usually be a great choice.

Torrenting and P2P Support

Private Internet Access is a P2P friendly VPN and doesn’t keep logs. So, if you’re using the service for torrenting, you can do so without fear of anyone tracing your activities back to you.

The fact that PIA operates out of the US may make some of us uncomfortable and fair enough.

But, to their credit, Private Internet Access has proven in multiple court cases that their no logging claims are true. Ordered to turn over logs, they didn’t – simply because they had none.

If, despite that, using PIA for P2P is outside your comfort level, you have other options. There are plenty of other non-US based no-log VPNs you can turn to for all your torrenting needs.

Does PIA Work in China?

This often-asked question was one that I struggled a bit to find the answer for.

First, since I’m not in China, I cannot test the service myself. Second, PIA makes zero guarantees that the service will work from behind the country’s Great Firewall.

And indeed, many users do report having issues using PIA from China. But, some also say they can get through using the IPSec/L2TP protocol.

Unfortunately, unlike VyprVPN – one of the best VPNs for the Chinese market – PIA doesn’t have a stealth protocol available to evade blocking.

So, based on the information I gathered, it seems that while Private Internet Access may work in China, your mileage will vary – a lot. And, you’re probably better off picking a different provider.

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PIA Privacy and Security

Many of us use a VPN to increase our privacy and security online. In that regard and from a technical standpoint, Private Internet Access is as good as any service I have ever reviewed.

PIA is also a proven no-logs VPN provider and retains no personally-identifiable information that could tie us to any of our online activities.

The elephant in the room is that PIA is US-based – not exactly ideal for privacy. But, as we’ll see, that may not be such a huge deal after all.

Jurisdiction

As just mentioned, Private Internet Access and its parent company operate out of Denver, Colorado. That puts them squarely with US legal jurisdiction.

From a user privacy standpoint, that’s not great.

According to the service’s legal counsel, PIA has never received any mandates to log user activity secretly or to hand over any encryption keys to US (or foreign) authorities. But, the fact is that those things could happen at any time, and there would be no way for us to know about it.

In the US, the authorities have almost unchecked authority to conduct surveillance when deemed necessary. It’s something that has happened before, as the story of encrypted email provider Lavabit demonstrates.

Of course, in practice, you have break pretty serious federal laws for the FBI to notice you. And, if you have their attention, you probably have bigger problems anyway.

So, for P2P users and the average privacy aficionado, PIA’s jurisdiction shouldn’t be a big issue. It is, however, something to keep in mind.

PIA’s Logging Policy

At its heart, PIA aims to be a privacy-focused service. As such, they’ve been a no-logging VPN provider since their founding and have proven those claims many times over.

They’re a VPN that has been challenged in court to produce logs. And in all cases, unlike several competitors who were caught violating their no-logging policies, PIA had nothing to hand over.

You can review the exact numbers of government and court requests for data in PIA’s transparency report.

Private Internet Access’ stance on logging is also summarized very well by a single sentence in their Privacy Policy:

The data controller does not collect or log any traffic or use of its Virtual Private Network (“VPN”) or Proxy.

So, despite a questionable jurisdiction, I believe that we can trust that PIA means it when they say they don’t keep logs. After all, they’ve put their reputation – and the company’s future – on the line in court to prove it.

DNS Leaks

As I would expect to be the case from a privacy-centric VPN provider, PIA does not suffer from DNS leaks on any of its supported platforms. That means no IPv4 or IPv6 leaks, no WebRTC leaks – nothing that would give away your real location or identity.

PIA passing a DNS leak test

If it’s perfect anonymity you’re after, from the perspective of leaking information, Private Internet Access is as good as it gets.

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Apps and Clients

Private Internet Access has apps for all major platforms and operating systems. They currently support:

  • Windows
  • macOS
  • Android
  • iOS
  • Linux (Ubuntu, Mint, Arch, or Debian)

PIA also has a browser extension for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera, as well as proxy support for other web browsers and P2P clients.

And if it’s network-wide protection you’re after, it’s even possible to set up the VPN on compatible routers, including DD-WRT, Tomato, AsusWRT, as well as several others.

Across the board, PIA does an excellent job with usability. They have recently completely overhauled the user interface of their apps, and it’s a massive improvement over the old ones.

To start, all clients and extensions share a very similar look. Here are screenshots of the Firefox extension, as well as the Windows and Android apps:

Reviewing the different versions of the PIA client app

The PIA apps I have reviewed – Linux is the only one I didn’t play around with – are simple to use, have a clear and easy to understand interface, and make all major settings a snap to configure.

All clients also contain similar features. The one notable exception is the Android and iOS apps, which lack the MACE ad-blocking functionality. But, I doubt that will be a deal-breaker for many of us.

I didn’t experience any freezes, crashes, or other problems common to custom-built VPN apps, so that’s a plus too.

Basically, there’s very little to dislike about PIA’s apps. They’re that good.

Private Internet Access Server Locations

With VPN servers at 52 locations in 32 countries, the geographical diversity of PIA’s network is on the smaller side. 50-ish countries seem to be the current average.

However, most of us don’t need to connect to Ecuador or the Philippines. And unless you do, odds are PIA offers every location you’ll ever want or need.

That said, if Ecuador is what you’re after, take a peek at PureVPN and their impressive 131 country network.

If you’re ever interested in the exact available locations, please review my detailed PIA server list.

Is PIA Fast?

Unlike most competitors, Private Internet Access doesn’t brag much about being the fastest VPN there is. But, they certainly could.

While not the absolute quickest, PIA’s servers put up impressive numbers, with downloads on the best server – as picked by the client app – clocking in at 72.8 Mbps, and an eight-location tested average of 51.9 Mbps.

Below are three sample locations taken from the full PIA speed test.

Best Server
Private Internet Access best VPN server speed test results
With VPN
Private Internet Access best baseline speed test results
No VPN
United States
Private Internet Access United States VPN server speed test results
With VPN
Private Internet Access Unites States baseline speed test results
No VPN
Netherlands
Private Internet Access Netherlands VPN server speed test results
With VPN
Private Internet Access Netherlands baseline speed test results
No VPN

You may have noticed the large discrepancy between VPN and no VPN speeds. Don’t take that as a bad sign.

I run speed tests using a 500 Mbps download and 100 Mbps upload connection, which is faster than any consumer-grade VPN can currently handle. And I do so intentionally so that we can see the actual maximum performance of each server, instead of numbers capped by my ISP.

The bottom line is PIA is fast, with server speeds more than good enough for any bandwidth-heavy activity, like streaming 4K video or large downloads.

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Customer Service

Although I didn’t run into any problems while testing PIA for this review, I did extensively look into their customer support works. It is, after all, one of the things they’re supposed to be known for.

What I found was a mixed bag and one of the big weaknesses of PIA’s overall service.

To begin with, if you’re trying to sign up and have a question, you can’t use PIA’s live chat system. Instead, you have to submit a support ticket and wait for a response via email.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get one fast, especially if you make a request during the day in the Mountain Standard time zone. Overnight, however, you’ll probably have to wait a bit.

Once you have an account, PIA’s live chat support is available, but only Monday through Friday from 9 AM to 6 PM MST.

Though I got a quick response through the chat service, I did read plenty of complaints from users, which indicates things don’t always go smoothly.

Some people said chat is disabled frequently when it shouldn’t be, while others claimed it took hours to get a response. Neither of those things happened during my testing, but it’s something to keep in mind.

There is some good news, however.

PIA’s website offers a very comprehensive knowledgebase and many helpful guides to solving common problems. And because of how well the apps work, I suspect the vast majority of us won’t run into issues anyway.

Overall, the support options were decent, but far from great – I expected better but have seen a lot worse too. If in the future I notice any changes, I will, of course, update this review accordingly.

Price and Value

Private Internet Access is long known as an inexpensive VPN provider. And that is still the case.

Private Internet Access' subscription prices

You can select from three different term lengths:

Monthly: $6.95/month
Six months: $5.99/month
Yearly: $3.33/month

That’s about the price of the average Starbucks drink (although I’m probably too kind). It’s also hard to argue that you won’t get your money’s worth at these prices.

You have plenty of ways to pay for a Private Internet Access subscription too. There are the usual suspects like all major credit cards (Visa, Mastercard, Amex, Discover, and JCB), PayPal, and Amazon Pay.

But, PIA also lets you pay anonymously with several cryptocurrencies, including:

  • Bitcoin
  • Bitcoin Cash
  • Ethereum
  • Litecoin
  • Zcash
  • Beam

PIA will even let you trade in a major-brand gift card (Starbucks, Walmart, Best Buy, etc.) in exchange for service. You will, however, pay a bit of a premium for doing so.

Of course, if your primary concern is anonymity, the trade-off is probably well worth it.

There is a 7-day full money-back guarantee backing all Private Internet Access subscriptions. If you’re unhappy with the service for any reason, you can get a refund, no questions asked.

Unfortunately, there is no PIA free-trial option, so you’ll have to use the refund route if you want to take the service for a test drive.

Private Internet Access Review Closing Thoughts

After using PIA for a few weeks, using it exactly how I would use my regular VPN service, testing and reviewing everything I could along the way, I came to these six conclusions:

  1. PIA’s service is fast, inexpensive, and does very well on privacy and security
  2. Their apps are well-designed and do everything they’re supposed to
  3. If you want to stream geo-blocked content, look elsewhere
  4. Their support, while passable, definitely has room for improvement
  5. PIA’s jurisdiction and choice of CTO leaves a bit to be desired, but their excellent track record almost makes up for it
  6. They’re a great way to get rid of gift cards you didn’t want in the first place

All of those factors mean that I feel comfortable recommending Private Internet Access to anyone looking for an inexpensive, reliable VPN.

That said, for a comparable price, there are other excellent VPN services that offer similar benefits without the drawbacks. My go-to providers these days are CyberGhost and NordVPN.

If you choose PIA, I’m sure you’ll be happy – but I would at least review a few other options first.

Private Internet Access logoScore:
7.7/10

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