Private Internet Access (PIA) is indeed among the most popular VPNs. Yet I am well aware that popularity doesn’t always translate to quality. Hence, this review.
There was much I wanted to learn about PIA. For example, how good are its security features? Does its huge server list translate to top-level performance? And, let’s not forget the question nagging many around the world: does PIA unblock Netflix US?
My updated Private Internet Access review presents the answers to these questions and others. Stick around to learn whether lower prices can get you just as much quality.
- Rank: #15
- Based in: United States of America (USA)
- Servers and locations: 3200+ servers in 30+ countries
- Logs: Minimal data collection
- Encryption and protocols: Main protocol is OpenVPN, AES-128 or military-grade encryption (AES-256)
- Netflix: Yes
- Torrenting: Yes, P2P allowed on all servers
- Apps: Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Chrome, Firefox, Opera
- Support: Email
- Price: from $3.33/month
- Free version or trial: No
- Website: privateinternetaccess.com
Is Private Internet Access safe to use?
PIA is not one of the biggest VPN services for its security. Much like everything else, its security credentials are mediocre.
The data encryption ciphers used by PIA are AES-128 and AES-256 – a great level of encryption. The app offers more cryptographic choices than are commonly available: you can pick your level of data encryption, the handshake, and the authentication standard.
PIA’s primary tunneling protocol is OpenVPN, but the service also has a mobile-friendly IKEv2 and L2TP.
Private Internet Access has a network kill switch – an important feature to protect from any unexpected connection disruptions. They also use their own private DNS to avoid leaking. According to reports, the service indeed does not have any DNS leaks or IPv6/WebRTC leaks.
In addition to the VPN, there are also PIA proxy services in the form of the Chrome/Firefox extensions and a separate SOCKS5 proxy.
PIA is operated by a US company called London Trust Media. The US is one of the most problematic places to register a VPN company. There are many reasons for this – the legal climate with legislation such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), government surveillance, including by the NSA, corporate surveillance by tech and telecommunications companies, and so on. It is also problematic because the US is part of the Five Eyes country group (and the extended Fourteen Eyes country group) – a robust intelligence-sharing framework.
While the United States does not have any data retention laws, the government can access financial data records quite easily. With that said, Private Internet Access has a clear no-logging policy. A US court case in 2015 has given credence to these claims, as do a few more recent cases where PIA personnel was called to testify and couldn’t produce anything useful to the prosecution.
In short, PIA gives adequate security for the casual user. Just don’t depend on it for your lives.
Handshake Naming System (HNS) for maximum privacy
In August of 2019, Private Internet Access announced a new feature – the Handshake Naming System (HNS). To put it in simple terms, the HNS is a blockchain alternative for the Domain Name System (DNS).
HNS completely decentralizes the domain name system and creates an additional layer of privacy for users. According to PIA, it also works as a tool against DNS-level blocking (something governments use to ban websites and online services). But how good is it, really?
The truth is that the HNS is definitely good and will be appreciated by power users. However, its use for common folk is exaggerated. It is no more effective for bypassing DNS blocking than regular PIA DNS servers. The only exceptions to this rule are extreme examples, and certainly not the blocking of websites like Facebook.
Speed & Performance
Connection speeds depend on location. Due to this, no average speed test in the world can give you a good answer to the question “how fast is this VPN for me?” In this particular case, you’re most likely to feel the negative effects of PIA server distribution if you’re based in Asia (including the Middle East), Africa, or even South America – most servers are simply not based in these locations.
If you are in Europe or North America – you’re in luck. PIA servers number 3200+, otherwise known as “a lot.” Our most recent speed tests demonstrate that the VPN has finally been able to capitalize on the large server count, despite having quite average speeds in the past.
I ran my speed tests from Europe where our download/upload speed without a VPN is around 280 Mbps. Here are the results for popular regions across the globe:
110 Mbps download (approx. 39%) and 231 Mbps (approx. 83%) upload are very good speeds.
US, New York
77 Mbps download (approx. 28%) and 57 Mbps (approx. 20%) upload are decent speeds.
128 Mbps download (approx. 46%), 97 Mbps upload (approx. 35%) is more than impressive, especially for such a distant server. You’ll notice that the ping has increased compared to New York.
68 Mbps download (approx. 24%), 9 Mbps upload (approx. 3%) is more than enough for about anything you want to do: streaming, torrenting, VOIP, etc.
74 Mbps download (approx. 27%), 4 Mbps upload (approx. 4%) for Australia is unexpectedly high. Of course, the ping is also high, as it should be.
How to download PIA
Just go to the PIA website and click the carrot-colored GET STARTED NOW button. You’ll be asked to choose one of three pricing plans, select a payment method and make the payment. Then you’ll create an account and receive an email with your username and password. Enter these into the Private Internet Access login screen when the app starts.
All versions of the app can be found on the Download page of the website, including the new app (currently available for Windows, macOS, and Linux).
How to install PIA
The page that starts your download has all the instructions on how to install PIA. You’ll have to:
- Run the installer from your browser or your Downloads directory.
- Choose a language for the installation.
- Allow the installer to make changes to your device (click Yes when prompted).
- Follow the installation wizard – it will install the client and the TAP driver.
- Click “Finish”.
How to use PIA
The Private Internet Access Windows 10 version is the one I’ll look at. PIA has recently launched a new app – it’s elegant, simplistic, and has some security benefits over the old one.
When you run the app, it will greet you with a screen offering to Log In or take a Quick Tour.
Enter your credentials into the login screen. Once you have, you’ll see a simple home screen where you can click the large Connect button, choose the server, or enter the Settings screen (button in the top right).
The server choice screen lets you choose by name of latency (ping). You can expand or minimize the location lists in various countries. There are no fireworks, but the menu is easy to use and self-explanatory.
The PIA Settings screen is a change from the old version, where everything was crammed into one long list of settings. Here you will see choices divided by function:
- Privacy Preferences lets you customize the kill switch and toggle PIA MACE, which is a nice browser security feature combining an ad blocker, tracker blocker, and malware shield.
- Network Preferences lets you choose DNS servers, Request Port Forwarding (useful for seeding torrents or remote desktop connections), and toggle whether to allow LAN Traffic.
- Connection Preferences offers to choose the tunneling protocol (Connection Type), Remote/Local Port, as well as cipher settings. A feature that is almost unique to PIA is the option to use Small Packets, which should improve the experience for users who has connection stability issues.
Ultimately, this constitutes a good set of features, although power users may miss server information or stealth features for use in censorship-heavy countries.
Apps and Extensions
There are custom apps for all main platforms: Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, and Android. There’s no Private Internet Access router app at the moment, but you can still run PIA VPN on router devices if you follow the instructions on their site. Finally, you can also download Chrome, Firefox, and Opera extensions.
Both mobile versions have largely the same features as the desktop ones. You will be able to access the kill switch, choose where to connect using OpenVPN or IKEv2 and regulate the level of encryption.
PIA’s Chrome and Firefox extensions are HTTPS proxy addons. This is good, but keep in mind that only your web traffic will be affected. Chrome and Firefox extensions aren’t the only way to use a Private Internet Access proxy – each subscription includes a SOCKS5 proxy. You’ll need a separate password to use it, which you can generate on the Client Control Panel.
Private Internet Access for Netflix
I’ve tested Netflix from Europe, using fast.com to determine the nominal speed and check loading times (if the content was successfully unblocked). The original speed without a VPN was 230 Mbps, as per the fast.com test.
US, New York
64 Mbps, more than enough for UHD (4K). Loading times didn’t exceed a few seconds. Here’s the result:
US, Los Angeles
74 Mbps. More than once, I’m getting better Netflix results on the West Coast despite New York being closer.
92 Mbps and Netflix unblocked! Loading times were a couple of seconds at most, while streaming was as smooth as marble.
I tried a bunch of other locations as well – the UK, Canada, Germany, Japan – but none were able to unblock Netflix.
Private Internet Access for Kodi
With some reservations, I can recommend PIA VPN for Kodi.
In terms of security, Private Internet Access is a great choice for Kodi. However, in terms of compatibility, PIA has no Android TV or Amazon Fire TV (Firestick) app, although you can still run it on these devices following the instructions on their website.
On the other hand, PIA is not the go-to choice for geographically-impaired. Therefore, all in all, I can recommend PIA VPN for Kodi, but it’s not the best choice.
Private Internet Access for Torrenting
Private Internet Access is definitely not the worst choice for torrenting. European and North American users will find the speeds decent and the security features are sufficient. There’s also the Port Forwarding feature, which is great if your torrent tracker demands that you seed. Use this at your own risk, as it increases the chances of being found out.
Unlike some other VPN services, PIA doesn’t limit P2P traffic on the network – you can torrent on any server. Additionally, users can take advantage of the free SOCKS5 proxy. This allows you to secure traffic at the VPN app level, thus potentially saving some valuable bandwidth.
Is it good for users in China?
Private Internet Access has good encryption, and the US jurisdiction shouldn’t be a concern for someone in China. However, speed and PIA’s ability to fool the Great Firewall are in question. Of its 3200+ servers, very few are in the Far East, which makes overcrowding an issue. As for the Great Firewall, PIA themselves admit to having problems in China and their suggested solution is to use L2TP/IPSec instead of OpenVPN. The problem with that is twofold:
- IPSec/L2TP is not as secure
- This protocol needs to be set up manually.
PIA does not have any sort of “stealth protocol” to bypass Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) – an advanced method China uses to find VPN traffic on a network.
There’s no excuse for being this big on the VPN market and not having a quick way to respond to users’ requests.
Private Internet Access has limited customer support options. They are:
- Self-help resources – the Knowledgebase, Guides, News, a forum (Feedback)
- Support tickets
There’s no live chat option, let alone one that‘s functional 24/7. The “ticket” system is just not as good: it’s too slow, especially for queries that don’t require much time or attention. And as anyone who’s worked in customer service will tell you, an overwhelming majority of issues can be solved very quickly.
Additionally, I found that the internet is littered with angry comments about unresponsive PIA support, robotic and unhelpful answers, and the lack of a good way to take your grievances “up the chain of command.”
There are three different Private Internet Access pricing plans. You can get it for:
- 1-month plan: $9.95
- 6-month plan: $35.95 ($5.99/month)
- 1-year plan: $39.95 ($3.33/month)
I might bash Private Internet Access for not offering a free trial, but with prices so low I don’t blame them for skipping it. Instead, you get a 7-day money-back guarantee – fair enough, PIA. Also, a generous ten simultaneous connections limit will allow you to share the account with family and friends.
The bottom line of our Private Internet Access review
PIA is a trustworthy tool both in terms of security and entertainment. If you’re European or North American and your goals are to 1) torrent; 2) stream Netflix US; 3) protect yourself from cybercriminals whilst sipping a Starbucks latte – PIA is for you. Otherwise, better pick something from our list of VPN industry leaders.