Private Internet Access VPN
Private Internet Access VPN offers a great value to budget-minded users, as well as those users looking for the fastest possible VPN connection.
The service is priced competitively and offers excellent discounts for those willing to commit to a long-term relationship. The accessibility of the app and its ancient design could stand some improvement.
Ease of use
In this review, I’ll be taking a look at the Private Internet Access VPN service. The provider’s parent corporation, London Trust Media, is based in Denver, Colorado in the United States. The company offers basic VPN services to users.
As someone who has tried multiple VPN providers, for my private use as well as for work, I have become well-versed in what services a VPN provider should offer and what a user can reasonably expect from such services.
I have reviewed a good number of VPN services, and I write these reviews in a humble effort to provide my fellow users with information about said providers, hopefully allowing them to avoid some of the stumbling blocks I have encountered along the way.
What is Private Internet Access VPN?
Private Internet Access VPN (PIA) offers a cloaked and encrypted connection, which includes the ability to hide your actual IP address from prying eyes - be it from the bad guys, your Internet Service Provider or the government.
Private Internet Access is owned by a U.S.-based company, which operates under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government. As such, they are subject to the data-retention laws of the United States. However, PIA states on its website that it keeps no logs connected to a user’s online activity while connected to their service.
When Russian authorities seized PIA servers located in that country and ordered the service to immediately begin logging usage, the company’s response was to immediately shut down all operations in Russia.
PIA features apps for Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS and Android. It also offers a browser extension for use with Google’s Chrome browser and supports using the service with DD-WRT, Tomato and PfSense routers.
PIA provides high-grade encryption based on the Blowfish CBC algorithm. The encryption is used, along with the OpenVPN protocol, to secure your data transmissions. PIA also offers IPSec/L2TP, PPTP and SOCKS5 technologies.
Yeah, I suppose that all sounds like just so much lunchtime talk at the nerd table for most computer users, but what it all means is your butt is covered when you use a PIA connection to venture out onto the internet.
How Private Internet Access VPN Works
Private Internet Access protects its subscribers by allowing them to connect to the PIA servers, which cloak the user’s internet traffic by replacing their ISP-granted IP address with one from a PIA server. This causes the user’s internet activity to appear as if it’s coming from a location different from their actual locale.
While PIA’s cloaking capabilities allow access to websites and online services that might not normally be available in your area, PIA also encrypts your data, keeping it safe end-to-end from the prying eyes of governments, crooks, marketers and other bad guys.
P2P File Sharing (Torrents)
Private Internet Access allows the use of P2P and torrent connections via their service. They even offer suggestions in their support area about how to improve P2P connections by enabling port forwarding and a list of specific VPN servers to use.
While researching PIA, I checked out various reviews on the internet, and a good number of review sites recommend the provider for use by those who do a lot of P2P/torrenting. PIA’s user forums are full of information shared by users on how to make the best use of the service for P2P connections.
The Private Internet Access VPN Website
The Private Internet Access website has a bit of an old-school flavor, in my opinion, looking somewhat like an early 2000’s website. That said, the website has a clean design and offers a large amount of information on the front page of the site.
The front page offers pricing information, a decent amount of information about their services and what a VPN can be used for, as well as the number of connections, servers and countries the service offers, and much more.
The website includes an informative “How it Works” area, which offers diagrams and other information explaining and demonstrating how the VPN service works. It also includes information about what the advantages are of using a VPN to conduct your online activities.
Subscription Options and Pricing
Private Internet Access VPN 3 subscription options via their website. They offer a monthly subscription, a 6-month subscription and a 1-year option. PIA doesn’t offer a free trial, but they do promise a 7-day money-back guarantee.
Subscription terms and costs are as follows:
PIA also allows users to sign up via the app on iOS and Android devices. Subscription options via in-app purchase are limited to the 1-month and 12-month options. Subscriptions purchased via the mobile apps also work on other devices and desktop computers.
All subscription sign-ups and payments are performed via a secure HTTPS connection. The service accepts subscription payments via VISA, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, JCB, PayPal, Amazon Pay, Bitcoin, CashU, OK Pay and Mint. iOS and Android users must pay via in-app payment, through iTunes and Google Play, respectively.
In addition to the options above, PIA also accepts major gift cards as payment. I am beginning to see this option offered more and more by VPN providers, and it provides an excellent anonymous payment option for users who don’t have access to a Bitcoin account. PIA accepts Starbucks, Best Buy, Walmart, Starbucks, Target and a number of other gift cards.
Out of curiosity, I tried a Walmart gift card that I knew had a small balance left on it. I was asked to select the name of the merchant, and then enter the gift card number and PIN.
In a few moments, the system told me I had $14.25 left on the card, and that if I decided to use it for VPN service, it was good for 55 days of PIA service. (Your card isn’t charged until you confirm you want to trade-in the balance for VPN service.)
If you decide to complete the trade, your username and password will be sent to whatever email address you enter. If you use a disposable email address, this offers another excellent anonymous payment method in addition to Bitcoin.
PIA offers refunds if requested within 7 days of the purchase date. Requests made later than the 7-day purchase date window will be denied. Refunds for gift-card based transactions are not available under any circumstances.
As is traditional for my reviews, I signed up for a 1-month subscription to Private internet Access using my business credit card. The charged showed up on my card as “PRIVATEINTERNETACCESS DENVER CO.” While not grammatically correct, it at least leaves no doubt as to what the charge was for when it comes expense account settlement time.
When signing up for an account, you supply an email address, where you will receive your username and password when payment is completed. The username/password combination is created by Private Internet Access. While the username must remain the same, users can change the password if they wish.
When it comes to rock-bottom pricing, no other VPN provider that I’ve reviewed can beat Private Internet Access when it comes to subscription pricing. If you can deal with their rather thin global server coverage, PIA is an excellent choice for penny-pinching users.
Installing the App on Your Computer
Private Internet Access offers apps for Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS and Android devices. They also provide setup guides to setting up the service on a number of compatible routers.
While set-top boxes - including gaming consoles and streaming boxes - will work with the PIA VPN service, there aren’t any native apps available for them. These devices require a VPN-connected router or a shared connection from a VPN-connected Windows or Mac computer.
As usual, the setup experience I share with you will be on my Mac computer and my iPhone. Windows and Android users can expect a similar experience. If there are any major differences, I will be sure to point them out.
The macOS app is a direct download from the Private Internet Access website. When I visited the Mac download page, the download started automatically. I saved the file to my Mac’s Downloads folder and waited a few moments while the download completed.
The downloaded installation file is a .dmg file, which, when double-clicked, is mounted by the macOS operating system as a disk. Once mounted, a window opens to access the installation files.
While most VPN apps have consisted of a file you simply drag and drop into the Applications folder, the PIA installation disk offers an installation app that installs the actual app and its support files when run.
I ran the installation app and waited while the PIA app was installed on my Mac. The installation takes only a few moments to complete. When the installation was finished, I visited the Applications folder and clicked the PIA VPN app to run it.
The Windows PIA app is supplied as a Windows .exe file, so installation on Microsoft-powered PCs should be simple as pie. The installation instructions on the PIA website indicate you will need to run the install program as Administrator, so be prepared with the Admin password.
Installing the App on a Mobile Device
The installation of the PIA VPN iPhone app will be a familiar process to any iPhone user. All installation of the app is done via the iOS App Store. The download takes under a minute or so and can be run via a tap of a finger on the app’s icon.
Upon login, the app will request permission to install a certificate to allow the device to trust the Private Internet Access VPN connection. At this point, users will be required to enter the device’s PIN or use their fingerprint to approve the certificate installation via Touch ID.
Android users will find that the installation of the app on their devices is quite similar to the iOS version. The app is installed via the Google Play store, although it can also be downloaded directly from the PIA website and be installed manually on an Android device.
Features & Use
Once the app was installed on my Mac, it ran immediately. I was asked to enter my PIA-supplied username and password to get started. At the login screen, you can connect via the “simple” method, which uses a default setup to connect to the VPN service, as seen below.
They can also click the “Advanced” button, which allows access to a number of settings for connection type, remote ports, a VPN kill switch, debug mode and more. The advanced mode is shown below.
Most users will find the Simple mode of operation will offer the best solution for their activities. However, it is nice to know the advanced options are available if needed.
Once the app is running, and you’re signed in, a VPN connection can be made by clicking the Private Internet Access icon in the Mac’s menu bar. You can then select which VPN server you’d like to connect to, or you can simply click “Connect Auto” to connect to the best available server.
If you want to quickly make sure your VPN connection is working correctly, just visit the PIA website, and it’ll show you where it thinks you are. The screenshot below shows my location as Piscataway, New Jersey. So we know it’s working, as I am located in the southeastern U.S.
Plus, no one lives in Piscataway, NJ, do they? (I stand corrected. Apparently, there are 57,602 hardy souls within the Piscataway city limits. Presumably, some of them work at Private Internet Access.)
PIA allows users to connect up to 5 devices simultaneously under one login, making it perfect for family and small business users who might want to protect more than one user at a time. Users who need more than 5 connections can make use of PIA’s ability to work with a number of different routers. (The service offers detailed step on their website to walk users through setting up their DD-WRT, Tomato, and other compatible routers to use the PIA VPN service.)
While the PIA app offers enough features to make it a formidable choice for VPN protection, its interface could use an update from its old-school look and feel.
Ease of Use:
The Private Internet Access app should be easy enough for beginners to use in its simple mode. However, if a new user clicks the Advanced button, the encryption settings could confuse them. Otherwise, the app allows connections with a single click of the mouse, and that’s a good thing
Connection Quality and Speed
While testing Private Internet Access VPN, I conducted the usual ping time, download and upload tests. I run the tests via the Speedtest website. All 3 tests are run first via a local internet connection, then a VPN connection to a server in the United States, and last but not least, through a VPN server in the United Kingdom.
In the case of the United States VPN service, I selected New York City, and for the United Kingdom connection, I selected London. No reason, other than for consistency. I performed all tests using the “Simple” option in the PIA app.
Ping, Download & Upload Speed
Local Internet Provider
U.S. VPN Server
U.K. VPN Server
While in the internet world it is generally accepted that faster is always better, this isn’t necessarily so when it comes to security. Users should always be willing to sacrifice a bit of speed for increased protection.
Looking at the numbers above, we can see that while Private Internet Access’ VPN speed numbers come in slightly lower than an unfettered internet connection, the difference in real-world internet use will be close to unnoticeable.
While ping numbers are affected by distance - as the farther away your location is from a VPN’s location, the longer it takes for a data packet to travel back and forth - the numbers seen above wouldn’t cause any issues during normal use. Even first-person shooter fans should find them satisfactory enough for a session of “blow the crap out of the other guy.”
As seen above, my ping number for the U.S. VPN was actually better than the one returned for my usual internet connection. That number could fluctuate a bit between tests, due to network connections and the location of the Speedtest server.
The download and upload speeds returned by PIA’s U.S. and U.K. servers are excellent, recording some of the best speeds I have ever seen in a VPN provider. Even the U.K. connection is fantastic. I thought it was a fluke, so I ran the speed tests multiple times, and received comparable results each time.
It should be kept in mind that server loads can affect a VPN server’s numbers. The heavier the load, the slower the performance. Think Amazon.com on Black Friday or Cyber Monday.
If your VPN provider offers a “Best Connection” option, use it if you’re simply looking for a protected connection. Or, if you need to select a server in a particular country, always look for the lowest usage percentage numbers if your provider provides that information. PIA does not, so instead, you would need to connect to each server in your target country until you obtained a satisfactory connection speed.
VPN encryption can also affect the speed of a connection, as the better the encryption, the bigger the performance penalty you’ll pay. That said, today’s encryption schemes are optimized for speed as well as security, making it worth it to at least try a connection with better encryption.
Last but certainly not least, keep in mind that your internet connection is only as fast as the slowest spot along the way. Your ISP might not have an optimum connection to your VPN provider’s servers, making your VPN experience less than optimal.
In addition to performing download and upload speed tests, I also like to put the VPN connection for each provider I review through a series of real-world tests. I attempt to simulate a normal day of use for the average user by browsing, making video and voice calls using Skype and FaceTime, and using the Google Docs online office suite.
In addition, I view streaming 1080p HD video via YouTube, attempt to view Netflix and Hulu content, visit Facebook and other websites, and play an online game. This gives me a general idea of how a VPN service’s connections might work for the average user during their day.
YouTube played its video content with no issues whatsoever. Video immediately played with no noticeable buffering time, and playback didn’t display any artifacts on both the U.S. and U.K. connections. Full-screen HD videos played well on either VPN connection.
Click here to see the best VPNs for Youtube.
I visited the Netflix website while connected to both a U.S. and a U.K. connection. In both cases, I was not successful in viewing any content on the Netflix website. I tested multiple connections and was still rejected by the Netflix video player for using a VPN to connect.
This isn’t unusual. VPN providers can only occasionally offer access to Netflix or Hulu, as there is a continual game of cat and mouse going on between VPN providers and Netflix. Netflix learns which IP addresses VPNs are using and blocks those, the VPN service gets new IPs added, and the game begins once again.
Click here to see the best VPNs for Netflix.
When I attempted to play content from Hulu on either connection, I ran into the same issues I did with Netflix. Both connections were rejected by Hulu, as it refused to play content due to a VPN connection being used.
Click here to see the best VPNs for Hulu.
Skype and FaceTim
I made my usual Skype calls to a friend of mine to test the VPN connections for both video and audio on both the U.S. and U.K. connections. In both cases, the audio was crisp, and the video was excellent. I experienced no lag or issues with the connections.
FaceTime performed equally as well. This is important to me, as many of my business associates and customers are Mac and iOS users, so much of my video and audio calls over the net are via FaceTime.
Click here to see the best VPNs for Skype.
My old reflexes aren’t what they used to be, so my hardcore first-person shooter days are behind me. However, I do enjoy playing an occasional casual type game.
I played a casual game over PIA’s U.S. and U.K. connections, and the connection performed well. First-person shooter players will likely be satisfied with the service’s connections, but I suggest trying your game of choice over the VPN connection before the 7-day money-back period is over.
Click here to see the best VPNs for Gaming.
General Internet Usage
I also used the Private Internet Access connections during my normal workday. I usually do much of my work in the Google Docs suite of online office apps, creating text documents, spreadsheets and presentations. In all cases, the PIA connections performed quite well.
I also stay in touch with friends, family, and business associates via messaging and social networking apps, and the U.S. and U.K. connections handled everything with aplomb.
The Private Internet Access VPN app for iOS is also an easy-to-use app. It quickly made any requested connection with just a few taps of my finger, and the connections proved to be extremely fast, as well as reliable. Both the U.S. and U.K. connections proved to be up to whatever I threw at them.
Ping, Download & Upload Speed
Local Internet Provider
U.S. VPN Server
U.K. VPN Server
I went through my testing list while connected to both the U.S. and U.K. PIA VPN connections on my iPhone. Skype and FaceTime both performed well. I also checked email, chatted with friends and business associates over LinkedIn, Slack, Twitter and others, all with no problems of any kind.
Streaming from YouTube performed quite well. However, I ran into the same issues as I experienced with the Mac VPN connections when I attempted to view both Netflix and Hulu video content over either the U.S. or U.K. VPN connections. In both cases, I was blocked from viewing video content due to the fact the services recognized I was on a VPN.
Private Internet Access connection speeds are much faster than you’d expect from a bargain-basement VPN provider. The provider ranks as second-fastest of all the VPN services that I have reviewed.
Global Server Coverage
Currently, PIA offers over 3,272+ servers located in 25 countries. While that number seems low compared to other VPN providers, it still offers a decent number of connection options and may be sufficient for many users.
To the provider’s credit, they have placed the servers in strategic locations around the globe, with plenty of coverage in the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia and Australia.
Global Server Coverage:
Private Internet Access does not shine when it comes to global server coverage. Their server coverage is the second-worst of all of the VPN providers I have reviewed.
Privacy, Security & Legal
PIA offers the open source, industry-standard OpenVPN to provide a secure VPN tunnel. The service also features multiple levels of encryption that can be used during a session. These include AES-128, AES-256 or none. While selecting “none” is not recommended, it may be acceptable for cases when you simply want to hide your IP address.
Data Authentication is limited to SHA1 and SHA256. Handshake Encryption can be RSA-2048, RSA-3072, RSA-4096, ECC-256k1, ECC-256r1 and ECC-521.
Private Internet Access is owned by a U.S.-based company, operating under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government. As such, they are subject to the data-retention laws of the currently user-security-unfriendly United States. That said, PIA explicitly states that it keeps no logs that are connected to its users’ online activity while using the service.
The provider also accepts two privacy-enhancing forms of payment for subscriptions, Bitcoin and gift cards from major merchants. Both are a great way to protect your identity when paying.
Private Internet Access states on their website that connecting to a VPN from within China and other restrictive countries is quite difficult, as the Great Firewall of China has been known to seek out and block VPN connections on the country’s network.
However, it usually doesn’t block most L2TP connections, so PIA recommends setting up an L2TP connection on your device. They supply information on how to do that on their website.
Private Internet Access is a strict “no logs” provider, keeping no records of their users’ online activities. In addition, they accept Bitcoin and merchant gift cards as payment, meaning your privacy is protected from end to end.
As seems to be the trend for VPN providers who are walking the tightrope between good customer service and keeping costs low, Private Internet Access only supplies customer support via an online trouble ticket system. There is no online chat or phone option available.
PIA does supply a searchable online support library where you can search for answers to any questions or issues you might have. The online library appears to offer a decent amount of information, as I was able to find an acceptable answer to most of my online queries.
I submitted a support question via the online trouble ticket system on a Tuesday morning at 9:30 a.m. Central Time, and received a reply a little less than 3 hours later:
While Private Internet Access doesn’t offer live support chat, they are reasonably prompt in answering inquiries sent by way of their online trouble ticket form. Just keep in mind that you might not hear back for a few hours at least. The service’s knowledge base is a good resource for those willing to dig for an answer.
Alternative VPN Options
While Private Internet Access offers fast connections and the cheapest pricing of any VPN provider I have reviewed, it is lacking in global server coverage. Luckily, there are better options for users looking for a wide variety of server locations to choose from.
Hide My Ass! has over 800 servers located in 220+ countries around the world. This means it can supply a connection to almost any part of the world. The provider also offers blazingly-fast connections and is the only vendor I’ve reviewed that edges out Private Internet Access when it comes to connection speeds.
VyprVPN also offers a decent amount of global server coverage, with 700+ servers in over 70 countries around the globe. The provider also boasts excellent connection speed numbers, ranking just behind Private Internet Access in that category.
IPVanish makes another good alternative to Private Internet Access for those looking for better global server coverage. The provider offers 850+ VPN servers in 60+ countries, all spread out nicely around the globe. Plus, the provider supplies connection speeds just slightly slower than PIA.
I must admit, Private Internet Access was a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t expecting much from the service, due to their low price, and their Mac app’s “retro” look and feel. However, their ultra-fast VPN connection won me over.
The service’s U.S. and U.K. VPN servers offered excellent speeds and ping numbers. The speed numbers came in very close to a normal internet connection.
I was so surprised by the initial results that I tried out a few connections around the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, and the numbers I saw assured me the servers I had picked for my speed tests were the rule, not the exception.
While video streaming from YouTube was of excellent quality, both Netflix and Hulu would not allow me to access their content, no matter what connections or settings I used.
While the service’s app showed its age, it completed VPN connections quite quickly, and the connections were speedy and solid, never once dropping while I made use of them.
Pricing is competitive with other services of this type, especially for users who are willing to commit to a 1- or 2-year subscription. Signing up takes only a few moments, and the service offers a wide array of payment options, including 2 anonymous payment options, via Bitcoin and merchant gift cards.
The service’s customer support options are limited to an online trouble ticket submission system and a support library.
Users who are looking for a fast, easy-to-use VPN option would do well to take a closer look at the Private Internet Access service. Users wishing to view streaming content from popular providers, such as Netflix or Hulu, would do well to look elsewhere for their needs.
For more information about Private Internet Access VPN, or to sign up for a subscription, visit the Private Internet Access website.