Private Internet Access full review
When we last had a good look at Private Internet Access (PIA) in 2017, it was an impressive service which was somewhat let down by its unfriendly interface in Windows. That’s all been sorted now, and the service itself remains a solid choice for those who want control over the finer details of security and encryption.
PIA operates over 3,300 servers in 32 countries, so its network can compete with some of the biggest VPN players. It offers apps for Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, 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.
You'll find our other recommendations in our roundup of the best VPN services.
Plans and 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 $3.33 (approx. £2.70) if you go for the annual plan. Not the absolute cheapest, but still very affordable.
Best of all, PIA lets you 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.
Features and apps
Starting with the Windows app, which is simple to install from PIA’s website, the interface has been updated to look more like its competitors. There’s a large connect button which automatically connects you to the best server, but the interface is still immovable and locked to the Taskbar.
It shows your current IP address and, when connected to a server, your new IP address.
When you open the settings, they appear in a movable window. There’re split over five 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.
A bonus is the ability to forward ports, which might speed up P2P downloads, though you’ll need to know what you’re doing as there’s little help on this feature.
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.
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 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.
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:
A feature you might expect, but which is missing, is split tunnelling. You’d use this to run only certain apps through the VPN rather than all internet traffic. But PIA does offer an online guide which shows you how to set up split tunnelling manually in Windows and on macOS if you’re determined.
Similarly, there’s no Amazon Firestick app but there are instructions explaining how to install the Android APK: it’s fiddly and we’d much rather see a dedicated app as several other VPN services now offer.
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 zero-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.
We’re happy that this makes PIA a good choice if you value privacy.
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 usually 6-8 seconds 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 the three UK servers, we were happy to see that performance was almost on a par with our leased line, with a highly impressive 93Mb/s upload speed to the London server, which is 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, PIA still does not unblock BBC iPlayer so it’s one to scrub off your shortlist if you want to catch up on Line of Duty while you’re abroad.
We were also disappointed to find that PIA offers no live support, so if you do need help you’ll need to search the knowledgebase, use the online guides or if that fails, fill out a contact form with details of your problem and wait for a response.
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. If you’re after the easiest-to-use VPN, look elsewhere but for geeks and privacy buffs, there’s a lot to like here.