Cord Cutting Guides, News, and Reviews
ExpressVPN vs Private Internet Access VPN
February 5, 2021
If you've narrowed your VPN choices down to ExpressVPN and Private Internet Access, then you've already made some smart decisions. These are two of the very best VPN services on the market. Along with other top-tier options like NordVPN, these services constitute the cream of the crop. But you don't need two VPN services — you only need one. That's why we're here for an ExpressVPN vs. Private Internet Access showdown. Which one of these two services is most worthy of your hard-earned money?
When you're shopping for a VPN service, it's very important to check out the server count. When a VPN service boasts a lot of servers, that's very reassuring. Spreading a user base across more servers helps keep speeds higher because it prevents bottlenecks. (Naturally, the number of users on a service matters, too — a less popular service can get away with fewer servers and still deliver top speeds. That's why we do speed tests like the ones we'll talk about in a later section.)
Having lots of servers can also help VPNs perform better with streaming services. Since streaming services sometimes block servers that they know to be associated with VPN services, having lots of servers gives a VPN service a better chance of staying one step ahead of streaming blackouts at Netflix, MLB.TV, and other streaming services that don't want to let you shift your location.
With all of that said, let's look at the cold, hard facts. ExpressVPN has more than 3,000 servers, which it has spread across more than 150 locations and more than 90 countries. That's pretty good!
But Private Internet Access is the gold standard in this department. It boasts a stunning number of servers: Nearly 20,000 at last count. Those servers are spread across about 100 locations in more than 75 different countries. That’s part of why Private Internet Access did so well in our PIA review.
Though ExpressVPN edges Private Internet Access out in locations and countries, country count tends not to be a huge factor in VPNs — most VPN users want to simulate the same locations, such as different parts of the U.S. (to evade MLB TV or NBA League Pass blackouts, for example) or one of the countries with the best Netflix catalogs (to unblock Netflix, of course). Both services have plenty of locations and countries, but Private Internet Access has a gigantic lead in servers. Score one for PIA here.
Simulating lots of locations is great for unlocking Netflix and other streaming services. But streaming services sometimes work to stop VPNs from working properly with their apps. The best VPN services stay one step ahead of Netflix, and both ExpressVPN and Private Internet Access do well in this department. Both reliably work with Netflix and Hulu. Like all VPN services, both of these services struggle to unlock Disney+ as of this writing.
Security is paramount to smart VPN users. You'll want to look for a couple of key things. First, you want to be as secure as possible when using the VPN, which means having great VPN protocols and strong encryption. Second, you'll want to know that your VPN provider itself isn't logging your data and strong records that could be subpoenaed by the government in your country.
ExpressVPN and Private Internet Access both do very well in the areas of security and privacy.
On the security side, both support the key protocols we like to see. ExpressVPN offers access to OpenVPN, L2TP/IPsec, IKEv2, and PPTP. Novice users should stick with the “automatic” option, which defaults to the best and most secure option for your particular device. Advanced users can choose their protocol manually (we recommend OpenVPN and suggest you steer clear of PPTP). Private Internet Access offers a nice selection, too — with PIA, you can choose between OpenVPN, WireGuard, IPSEC/L2TP, and PPTP. It's nice to see WireGuard, which ExpressVPN doesn't have. Private Internet Access defaults to OpenVPN unless you change the settings yourself. For most users, we'd recommend leaving that setting be.
Both Private Internet Access and ExpressVPN have no-logging policies. This means that they don't keep any records on your VPN use, so — at least in theory — they would have no data to sell to other companies and no data to answer a government subpoena with.
Speaking of prying government eyes, ExpressVPN is based in the British Virgin Islands. Overseas locations in countries like the British Virgin Islands are generally good news for VPN services because a far-flung location with few VPN-related laws makes it easier for a company to protect its users. Private Internet Access is located in Denver, Colorado, which makes it slightly less appealing in this department. Both companies are virtually guaranteed to protect your privacy, but ExpressVPN's location gives it a slight edge here.
Security is great, but it can also slow you down. Encryption takes time, and so does sending your data to a far-flung server in order to hide your location. That's why all VPN services slow you down at least a little bit. The best VPN services keep things as speedy as possible under the circumstances.
ExpressVPN is known for its speed. In our testing, it performed as well as just about any service we've ever tested, with the possible exception of the speed-obsessed Hotspot Shield. ExpressVPN's effect on our internet speeds was detectable, but only barely.
Private Internet Access does well in this department, too: At its best, PIA was just as speedy as ExpressVPN. However, we've found PIA to be a bit less consistent than ExpressVPN in this department. While Private Internet Access is never truly slow, some of its servers aren't as fast as others, and performance on the same server can sometimes fluctuate. Most users won't notice issues with either of these VPNs, but ExpressVPN wins this round: Its fastest speeds are at least as good as Private Internet Access', and its performance is more consistent.
It's also worth noting that Private Internet Access offers SOCKS5, a proxy protocol. We left this out of the discussion of VPN protocols because it's not technically a VPN protocol at all: SOCKS5 will shift your location, but it will not encrypt your data. If speed is all you care about, this protocol is an option. But considering how fast both of these services are even when running full VPN protocols, we'd recommend sticking with OpenVPN when possible.
VPNs are all designed to do the same basic things, so little things like bonus features and great user interfaces can make a huge difference between competitors. Not in this case, though: Both ExpressVPN and Private Internet Access are superb in these departments. They each have a lot of advantages over the competition, but not over each other — both are simply too good.
The user experience on the apps both services offer is wonderful. The interfaces are simple and intuitive, yet allow for a surprising amount of tinkering with settings. Both of these services make life easy for beginners while offering lots of advanced options for power-users. Both offer apps for a wide range of platforms, and both are easy to set up and get running.
Neither service has data caps, and both services offer strong multi-device support: You can use up to five devices at once on ExpressVPN and up to 10 devices at once on Private Internet Access.
Each of these services offers strong value to shoppers, too. ExpressVPN isn't the cheapest VPN service out there, but it's one of the best, which makes the ExpressVPN pricing look very reasonable. Private Internet Access is incredibly cheap, particularly when it’s running one of its frequent sales. Both services are cheaper when you pay up front for six months or more, which is typical of VPN services. Private Internet Access prices are clearly lower, though, which gives it an edge here.
Boy, is this a tough call. Both of these VPN services are superb options. ExpressVPN is a critical darling and a stable of our recommendations for the best VPN service — though we update our picks frequently, ExpressVPN is virtually always in the mix. But Private Internet Access is a favorite of ours, too, and it also often appears among our top picks. And if you ask the staff of CordCutting.com which VPN service they use at home, you'll find that each of these services has its fans among our staff.
ExpressVPN is, in many ways, the gold standard among VPN services: It's secure, fast, and an absolute pleasure to use. It performed exceptionally in our ExpressVPN review, and we highly recommend it. For most users, ExpressVPN is just about as good as it gets in the world of VPNs.
But Private Internet Access is also in the very top tier of VPN services, and there's almost no daylight between it and ExpressVPN. If the current prices make Private Internet Access cheaper (as is often the case), then you'd be wise to consider it. This is particularly true for advanced users who want to tinker with PIA's range of advanced options.
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