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Private Internet Access — or “PIA,” for short — is known for two things: Protecting users’ privacy online and being open-source. As an open-source program, Private Internet Access is transparent about how it works. That eases at least some concerns about logging and reporting, but it doesn’t get in the way of Private Internet Access’ main task of encrypting and anonymizing its users’ internet traffic. In this Private Internet Access Review, I’ll put PIA’s reputation to the test.
At their most basic, all VPNs do the same thing: They encrypt your online communications and tunnel them to a different server, effectively anonymizing your browsing by making it seem like your internet traffic is coming from somewhere else. Not even your own ISP will know it was you. Private Internet Access, as you might imagine, can do all of this — but it can also do more.
Like most things, VPNs only work when they’re turned on. This can be a problem if your VPN service is disrupted in the middle of a browsing session. Private Internet Access has a “kill switch” feature that covers this possibility: If your Private Internet Access VPN goes out, then it will cut your connection to the internet, too, rather than leaving you out on the web with an exposed connection. This feature is pretty typical among VPNs, but it’s a welcome one all the same.
Though it’s a very straightforward service, Private Internet Access’ app offers plenty of features and customization options for those who seek them out. Most importantly, the app let me change between different VPN protocols (the service supports the OpenVPN and Wireguard VPN protocols, which I’ll talk more about in our section on security). Further settings let me manage my data encryption and fine-tune other details.
I liked that Private Internet Access included a basic IP blocked for sites known to be associated with advertising. Though it’s a fairly bare-bones form of ad-blocking, it works well and is easy to manage.
Some of Private Internet Access’ most appealing features are the things that it doesn’t have — like bandwidth or data limitations, or any kind of rules governing peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing services like BitTorrent. Doing a lot of file-sharing can be rough on your bandwidth, so some VPN services block P2P services or restrict such services (or users in general) can use. Not Private Internet Access, though, which is great news for P2P fans.
Many VPN services take the same approach to user design: They focus on simplicity on the surface (usually in the form of a big ol’ button that turns the VPN on and off) and add some features in out-of-the-way places. That’s a smart way to come at the problem, but services don’t always pull it off well. Some, like Encrypt.me, can feel pretty bare-bones. Others can feel a bit too complex. Happily, Private Internet Access nails the balancing act: It surfaces very simple functionality but tucks plenty of features in well-organized menus that are easy for the more intense VPN users among us to access.
Private Internet Access goes with the tried-and-true “big ol’ button” approach for turning the VPN on and off, and it offers quick options for automatically finding the fastest server. But it’s easy to surf to different locations, and PIA organizes its server list with location-shifters in mind. A lot of this will feel familiar — the national flags all over the menus are a staple of VPN user experience design — but it’s all executed very effectively. Private Internet Access feels great to use and looks nice on the screen. I’d even argue that the little lock-shaped man who serves as PIA’s mascot is, in his own way, just as cute as the Tunnelbear bear or the HMA donkey, though I know some of my fellow writers have strong feelings for those cartoon animals. (They are rather cute, I’ll grant you.)
When I didn’t feel like it, I could skip the Private Internet Access interface entirely. By right-clicking on the program’s little toolbar icon, I could connect to the fastest server via a drop-down menu option — no big button required.
Within that same little drop-down menu, I could even navigate to specific location-shifting options around the world. This worked exactly the same way on both PC and Mac, and I found myself using these little menus more often than I used the app’s own interface. Anytime there’s a way to have fewer windows open, I’ll take it!
This little icon would only be around if Private Internet Access was running in the background, but I used a simple option in the settings to have PIA automatically launch whenever I booted up my computer. Private Internet Access also gave me the option of connecting to a VPN server on launch (rather than just starting up the app without actually opening a VPN connection).
In practice, I found myself using Private Internet Access as a “set it and forget it” VPN. When I did need to make a quick location change or tweak a setting, though, I found PIA to be a pleasure to use.
Using a VPN is smart security, but your privacy isn’t the only reason to consider on. VPNs like Private Internet Access can help you unlock Netflix and other streaming services, allowing you to stream titles from the service’s libraries in other countries (which are different from the library of movies and TV shows that we get here in the United States).
The trick here, though, is that services like Netflix aren’t necessarily keen on this arrangement. Netflix and other streaming services that have different international libraries tend to try to keep VPN users out. This usually involves identifying VPN servers and blocking them, though it can also involve more sophisticated techniques. Though Netflix and the rest of the gang aren’t all that effective at keeping out every VPN, they do sometimes manage to block certain servers — or entire VPN services. That’s why I tested Private Internet Access with the three streaming services that tend to do the best job of locking down their content: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+. Though there are no guarantees, you can generally assume that VPNs that work with these services will also work with others.
First, I tried a server here in the United States. I’m already in the U.S., but trying this server would tell me if the services knew I was running a VPN. The verdict: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ all worked like a charm.
One server doesn’t tell us a whole lot, though, so I kept on testing with servers in France, the United Kingdom, and a few other spots where Netflix and its peers have an international presence. Though I had mixed results on some servers, I was usually able to access Netflix’s foreign catalogs. Amazon Prime Video consistently worked and, like Netflix, believed the shifted location was real. Only Disney+ gave me real problems, but its foreign catalogs aren’t of much interest to U.S. consumers, anyway — and it worked on the U.S. VPN servers, which should please users outside of the country.
Location-shifting is a lot of fun, but serious VPN users tend to value privacy and security above all. Fortunately, Private Internet Access has a great reputation on this front.
First, let’s talk security. Private Internet Access supports OpenVPN and Wireguard, two VPN protocols that are both considered very secure. Private Internet Access also offers DNS protection, which is an important thing to have given the known vulnerabilities of DNS infrastructure. All of this is more than enough to keep your browsing secure, and if you ever lose your protection due to a VPN issue, Private Internet Access’ “kill switch” feature will kick in to protect you.
Running a VPN like Private Internet Access will protect you from prying eyes, including those of your own internet service provider. But all of the security and encryption in the world won’t matter if your VPN service itself is tracking you. Fortunately, Private Internet Access makes a pledge that should be familiar to any VPN users: PIA has a “no logging” policy, like just about every other VPN service.
The bad news is that, like most VPN services, Private Internet Access hasn’t yet submitted to a third-party audit. Though it refers to its privacy policies as “verified,” PIA hasn’t actually proven that it keeps no logs — though its representatives have stood firm under legal pressure, testifying under oath to their no-logs policy. While I’d prefer to see a third-party audit, I’m impressed by Private Internet Access’s legal track record and don’t have any concerns about its privacy policies beyond my usual paranoia.
Private Internet Access promised not to hold me back. This service has absolutely no limits: No bandwidth restrictions, no data restrictions, and no rules against P2P file sharing or any other bandwidth-hogging activities.
That’s great news — or, at least, it’s great news if you’re the one who is planning to hog bandwidth. The downside to this policy is that there are some big-time bandwidth users out there on Private Internet Access’ servers, which could slow you down a bit if you find yourself sharing a server with the power-users. I was a bit concerned that PIA’s servers could be a little slow.
Happily, I was way off: I found Private Internet Access to be lightning fast. In my tests, I got virtually identical speeds with and without the VPN running.
The differences between my two speeds could reach a handful of Mbps at times, but there were also moments where the speeds were virtually identical.
When I went looking for slower servers, I could certainly find them — and there were a few locations where none of the available servers were particularly speedy. Naturally, servers that were further away tended to cause more slowdowns and lag. Private Internet Access seemed a little inconsistent down in the heart of its server list, which wasn’t ideal but also isn’t a huge problem. Even the slower servers were generally fast enough to manage video streaming. For more bandwidth-heavy activities like P2P file sharing, I wouldn’t be inclined to pick any of the more remote server options anyway — I’d just go with the fastest one, which always performed well in my tests.
Platform support isn’t exactly a weak point for Private Internet Access, because the service has apps for the most vital platforms: Computers are covered with apps for Windows, Mac, and Linux, and mobile users can make use of the iOS and Android apps. There are browser extensions to choose from, too.
But platform support is one area where Private Internet Access is not exceptional. There are no apps for streaming devices like the Fire TV. There aren’t dedicated apps for Wi-Fi routers, either, though PIA is known to work with some open-source solutions, like AdvancedTomato.
There are many other VPN services that have similar gaps in their platform support, so this shouldn’t be surprising — but it surprised me all the same, because I’d gotten used to the idea of Private Internet Access exceeding my expectations.
The Private Internet Access pricing scheme is designed to encourage customers to sign up for long-term deals, which are paid for up-front but automatically renew. That’s about as unsurprising as a VPN pricing structure can get — virtually all of them do the same thing.
What I like about Private Internet Access, though, is that it seems to have resisted the urge to jack up the monthly price too much. It’s one thing when services offer stunning discounts on one-, two-, or three-year plans (I like that), and quite another when they start charging 15 or 20 bucks a month for a short-term plan (I do not like that). Private Internet Access has very competitive one- and two-year prices, but it keeps its monthly price at $9.95 per month — still about three times the equivalent of a month on the $39.95-a-year annual plan, but not as insultingly high as some competitors go.
VPN services can separate themselves from the pack in a few key ways: Their user design, their security bona fides, and their pricing schemes. Private Internet Access knocks it out of the park in every category.
Private Internet Access is a very good VPN service and we think it’s an excellent value. With Private Internet Access, you’re paying prices that are on the low end of average for a VPN that is among the elite. PIA is well-designed and easy to use, works with Netflix, and supports secure protocols, all while leaving your bandwidth and data entirely uncapped. While I would have liked to have seen a third-party audit and some dedicated apps for Wi-Fi routers, those complaints aren’t enough to keep Private Internet Access out of the upper echelon of VPN services. This is a VPN service that I’m very happy to recommend.