Private Internet Access full review
PIA, as its known by its users, is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2020. We've tested the service several times over the years and it has got better and better.
In just a year, PIA has added a few hundred servers to the 3000+ it already had and now covers 48 countries up from 32 in 2019. Its network can compete with some of the biggest VPN players. It offers apps for Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, Amazon Fire TV, Linux and browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox and Opera.
Unlike some VPN services, it doesn’t have speciality servers for streaming, P2P or other tasks: you can connect to any of them and do whatever you need to do. It unblocks Netflix, for example, no matter which of the US servers you choose. It can also unblock other Netflix regions and other streaming services including Hulu and Disney+.
Unfortunately, it still does not unblock BBC iPlayer.
Features & apps
Starting with the Windows app, which is simple to install from PIA’s website, the main panel is simple to use. There’s a large connect button which automatically connects you to the best server. Initially, it looks like the panel is permanently attached to the taskbar, which is annoying, but dig into the (many) settings and there's an option to have it as a floating window instead.
It's nice that it shows your current IP address and, when connected to a server, your virtual IP address. Not many people will need this information, but it's a nice visual reminder that you're protected anyway.
The panel is expandable, which is brilliant for geeks, as it displays current upload and download speeds, plus the amount of data sent and received. There are shortcut icons to enable and disable advanced features (more on those shortly) and a handy 'VPN snooze' timer which lets you set a short period when the VPN will be disabled, then automatically reconnected.
Settings are split into several sections, and include options to launch PIA on startup, connect on launch and, under ‘Privacy’, the kill switch settings.
It’s great to see the kill switch is enabled by default, so all traffic will be blocked if the VPN connection drops.
There’s also MACE which is an advert and tracker blocker.
Under ‘Network’ you’ll find the option to use PIA’s DNS servers (the default) but you can also use your ISPs (not recommended) or even your own custom server settings. PIA offers leak protection for both IPv4 and IPv6, and there's now the option to use WireGuard instead of OpenVPN. Unfortunately, we couldn't test any speed difference - or not in a meaningful way - as we tested out PIA during the coronavirus lockdown when we couldn't access our office's 100Mbps up+down leased line.
There really are features galore in the Windows app, including the ability to forward ports, which might speed up P2P downloads, and a new Proxy section where you can configure extra protection. You’ll need to know what you’re doing, so these are for power users.
Even more unusual is the ability to select the type of encryption, handshake and connection type used: by default PIA uses AES-128, but most VPNs use AES-256 which is more secure. However, it does mean you get a generally faster connection and there’s help on PIA’s website with examples of how you might change these settings depending on whether security or performance is your priority.
A feature which was missing last time we looked at PIA is split tunnelling. You’d use this to run specific apps through the VPN rather than all internet traffic. Fortunately this is now included and is - like the other settings - very configurable.
The list of servers is found in the main interface and is sorted by latency. You can search and add servers as favourites for quicker connections.
If you only want your web browsing to be secured by the VPN you can install the Chrome, Firefox or Opera extensions. These look much like the main Windows app and work in the same way so are easy to use.
You'll find virtually the same interface and set of features on macOS too.
Android and iOS apps often lack a kill switch, but with PIA, you get a kill switch on both platforms which is great to see. This is the Android app:
PIA is headquartered in the US, which is a red flag to anyone who knows about the 5-eyes (and 14-eyes) group of countries. However, while PIA can be asked to hand over data by authorities, its no-logs policy means there is no data to hand over.
You have to search the support section to find these, but the good news is that no logs of any kind are kept so PIA doesn’t know when you use its service, how long for or what you do while you use it.
Add to this the fact that you can pay anonymously via gift cards or Bitcoin and no-one should write off PIA as an option simply because it's based in the US.
PIA fared well in our initial tests, with no DNS or IP leaks. This means our real location was always concealed.
Testing the speed of a VPN is a tricky business as speeds vary all the time and are affected by many factors. However, all the tests we ran (bar a single anomaly with a US server) showed that PIA has fast servers all around the world.
Connection times are fast and we only had one occasion where a connection was dropped, at which point the kill switch kicked in as it should have to cease all internet activity.
Testing (which we carried out before the coronavirus outbreak) of the three UK servers saw performance that was pretty much the same as our leased line, with a highly impressive 93Mb/s upload speed to the London server, the nearest to us.
Download speeds weren’t the fastest we’ve seen, but all were more than adequate for streaming HD video.
Speaking of streaming, Netflix worked first time, every time, so PIA is a great choice if you want to watch US shows from the UK or another country.
It wasn’t all plain sailing: as we found in 2017, 2018 and 2019, PIA still does not unblock BBC iPlayer in 2020, so it’s one to scrub off your shortlist if you want to catch up on EastEnders while you’re abroad.
The company has recently set up 24/7 live chat, addressing the main criticism that we had previously about its support. No longer do you have to fill out a contact form with details of your problem and wait for a response.
Plans & prices
PIA doesn’t offer any free trial, and its money-back guarantee offer must be used within seven days of starting your subscription, which is a much shorter period than the usual 30 days most VPN services offer.
However, prices are competitive, with a month’s subscription costing £2.37 / $2.91 if you go for the two year option. Like other cheeky VPN services, PIA was - at the time of review - displaying '+ 2 months free' and factoring them into the monthly price to make it look lower. So, you either count it as £2.19 / $2.69 for 26 months, or £2.37 / $2.91 for 24 months.
Either way, PIA isn't the absolute cheapest, but it's still very affordable. Note that it now lets you have 10 devices connected to the service at once, not 5 as before.
As mentioned, PIA offers a few ways to pay anonymously with various crypto currencies and even gift cards. In the US that includes Starbucks, Walmart and Best Buy. UK residents can pay with Topshop, Wallis, Burton, Miss Selfridge, Gant and Dorothy Perkins cards.
If PIA doesn't suit, then you'll find our other recommendations in our roundup of the best VPN services.
Private Internet Access is a great VPN service overall. It keeps no logs whatsoever and allows you to pay anonymously. Prices are reasonable and there are some advanced options you won’t find in other VPN apps.
The service has been updated and improved with more servers, live 24/7 chat, split tunnelling and WireGuard.
As long as you don't need to unblock iPlayer, PIA is a great VPN service for both geeks and those looking for solid privacy. There’s certainly a lot to like here.