Private Internet Access PIA VPN review: Solid performance at a very low price (2024)

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There's an expression over in the UK that describes a product as doing 'exactly what it says on the tin.' And when it comes to VPN companies, Private Internet Access (aka PIA) is the very embodiment of that adage, leaving you in no doubt what its primary expertise and raison d'etre is.

With over ten years in internet privacy and a self-proclaimed customer base of over 15 million people worldwide, the US-based provider is among the biggest and best VPNs out there right now.

At its core – and as the name suggests – PIA is focused on delivering impregnable web privacy, with its open-source coding promising to leave fewer vulnerabilities and less risk of data breaches than the competition can offer. And when courts and independent auditors put its no-logging policy to the test, it has risen to the challenge admirably.

You may come to PIA for its reasonably-priced VPN, but you also get free secure cloud storage and the option to add a full Windows antivirus program. Single subscriptions start from less than $2 per month and cover as many devices as you like, with dedicated apps for Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, Chrome, and even Smart TVs. There's a 30-day money-back guarantee, too.

With servers in all 50 US states and a further 90 countries, it all sounds very promising on paper for PIA. But will it actually handle the tasks you need from your VPN and how is it to use day-to-day? That's where our Private Internet Access review comes in, to help you decide whether or not to pay for and download it.

Installation and Setup

Once you've chosen your Private Internet Access subscription (see our 'Pricing and Plans' section below), you are allotted a random username and password, the latter of which can be amended afterward.

From there, downloading and installing its various clients and apps is really easy. On desktop, for example, clear instructions are given every step of the way, and, once installed, there's a 'Quick Tour' option that lets you set basic preferences.

On mobile, it's as simple as finding the Private Internet Access app on the App Store or Play Store, downloading and creating a new account, or entering your login details. Simple.

It has to be said however, that its desktop client and mobile app aren't among our favorites of the major VPN providers. Choosing your server location is a little more clunky than others – although we appreciate the ability to keep a list of favorite locations for 'Quick Connect' – and the dashboard feels too cluttered and complicated. With other providers, it feels like you're ready to go from the minute you land on the dashboard. But with PIA, there's a sense that you could really do with spending 5 or 10 minutes configuring the app to your liking. It's not a disaster by any means, but we feel the user experience could be a bit friendlier for new users.

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Business Insider / PIA

Features

The flip side to the arguably over-complicated interface is that Private Internet Access's VPN is brimming over with useful – and, occasionally, less useful – features and tools. Head to settings from the dashboard's hamburger menu and fiddle to your heart's content.

There are the basics, of course. You can toggle automatic connection options, flick between protocols (OpenVPN and WireGuard only on most platforms), and activate dark mode. It offers your choice of 128- or 256-bit encryption, OpenVPN or the faster, more modern WireGuard protocol, and multi-hop proxy servers such as Shadowsocks and SOCKS5 to help further obfuscate your VPN connection.

Other PIA features include a kill switch to ensure that your data isn't leaked if your connection becomes broken, split tunneling that lets you pick and choose which apps will be governed by the VPN, and, unusually, port forwarding that may appeal to gamers who wish to use a specific port. There's Smart DNS to help you access overseas content on your streaming device (Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, or PlayStation). It's even possible to allow PIA to block ads, trackers, and malware.

For those who wish to dig deeper still, you can configure transport layer protocols, remote ports, DNS set-ups, and MTU reception. If you don't know what any of that means, don't worry – most everyday users will have no reason to adjust these settings.

Another uncommon feature PIA includes is a 'snooze' function that allows you to temporarily turn your VPN off for a set amount of time before automatically reconnecting. We're sure there must be a good use case for this, but we just can't seem to think of one!

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Business Insider / PIA

Server Locations

Private Internet Access has servers in 91 countries around the world, from the obvious (the US, UK, Canada, Australia) to the less common (India, China, Saudi Arabia, Greenland). That's fewer than industry leader ExpressVPN (105) offers but more than other big guns like NordVPN (60) and IPVanish (75). In the US, PIA has servers in all 50 states and there are servers in 154 different locations in all.

All of PIA's so-called 'NextGen' servers are RAM-only using 10Gbps internet lines. That gives the dual benefit of ensuring that no user data is stored on a more traditional hard disk drive, thus improving privacy and reducing the risk of bottlenecks leading to slower connection speeds.

We're left scratching our heads somewhat when it comes to pure server numbers. Subtlety on its homepage, PIA claims to have over 65,000 servers. That's an astronomical number, especially when compared to the likes of NordVPN (6,000+) and CyberGhost (11,000+), both of which boast an above-average amount.

If 65,000 is accurate, then why doesn't PIA crow about it more? And why would it need to have so many more servers than its competition? We're not suggesting there's any skullduggery at play, but it's just a slightly odd detail for a company that's ostensibly so transparent about everything else.

Performance and Speed

As mentioned above, the entire Private Internet Access server network runs on 10Gbps connectors. That doesn't necessarily mean that you'll get faster connection speeds, but it should ensure that there's no throttling when many users are trying to use the service simultaneously.

Testing the speed of PIA servers around the world from various UK test networks, we saw a mixed bag of results. Connecting to servers in the UK and France made very little discernible difference to our download and upload speeds, for example.

But some server locations were less forgiving. We saw download speeds drop by roughly half each time we connected to servers in South Africa and Luxembourg. And, closer to home, the results when using a server located in New York were a bit disappointing: download speeds went from 150Mbps to 128Mbps, 50Mbps to 35Mbps, and 31Mbps to 20Mbps. Not a disaster, but certainly not the fastest around.

We also conducted a DNS leak test on a selection of PIA's servers to make sure there were no compromises to our online anonymity and that our IP address remained masked: it was successful in every instance.

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Netflix / PIA / Business Insider

Streaming

We've already spoken about Private Internet Access's security-focused mission statement. But these days, a VPN's reputation lives and dies by its ability to unblock geo-restricted streaming services around the world.

PIA doesn't make any particularly bold claims about streaming on its homepage, but it features 'Streaming Optimized' server options in several countries like the US (East and West coast), UK, Australia, Japan, and Italy. When we put them to the test, the results were a bit patchy.

We started by trying different international Netflix catalogs where accessing shows and movies exclusively found in US, UK, and Canadian libraries was easy.

Only the very best streaming VPNs have the strength to unlock the notoriously tricky-to-access Japanese Netflix, and, unfortunately, PIA was unable to do so for us. And we were disappointed that Amazon Prime Video recognized we were on a VPN and wouldn't let us watch anything until we turned it off.

Watching overseas Disney+ content was a breeze. And PIA successfully let us watch live Australian Open tennis from Down Under on 9Now, Africa Cup of Nations soccer from South Africa on SABC, and live local news coverage from Canada on CBC. And we could access live and catch-up TV on the BBC iPlayer, ITVX, and Channel 4 in the UK with ease.

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PIA

Pricing and Plans

When it comes to cost alone – and depending on the commitment you're willing to make – Private Internet Access has some of the most impressive pricing you'll see in the VPN market at the moment.

Like pretty much every provider out there, the best value comes with PIA's multi-year plan. In this case, it's a relatively lengthy three-year subscription, but it brings the effective monthly cost down to a sensational $2.03.

Not only is that significantly cheaper than some of the sector's biggest players like ExpressVPN and NordVPN, but it even comes close to matching Surfshark – often thought of as one of the best value VPNs on the market, it costs from $1.99 a month at the time of writing (albeit for a two-year rather than three-year plan).

PIA's eye-catchingly low price includes an extra three months free – so the $79 upfront spend covers your next 39 months of VPN use – in addition to one year of 500GB cloud storage from provider pCloud and a free email breach monitor to check whether your address has been compromised.

PIA also has a one-year plan that costs $3.33 a month, or you can opt to go monthly for $11.95, which is on the high side of the industry average for a one-month rolling term.

Regardless of your plan length, there's the comfort of PIA's 30-day money-back guarantee, allowing you to cancel within that period for a full refund. At the checkout, you can choose to boost your security further by paying extra for full Windows antivirus and/or a dedicated IP that gives you a personal, static IP provided via PIA.

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Business Insider / PIA

Privacy and Security

For a company called Private Internet Access, you'd be pretty disappointed if its security smarts weren't tip-top. Thankfully, this is an element in which the provider excels.

We admire, for example, that PIA has open-sourced all of its apps – a rarity among its rivals. In short, it means that anybody can inspect the workings underneath PIA's hood and comfort themselves that everything is above board and as it should be. The corollary of this transparency means that there are fewer vulnerabilities in the code that hackers and other bad actors can try to exploit.

In 2022, PIA invited independent auditor Deloitte to review its server network, management systems, and zero-log policy. The auditor found that "server configurations align as of June 30, 2022, with internal privacy policies and are not designed to identify users or pinpoint their activities". In other words, any internet traffic you send and receive via PIA can't be traced back to you.

As mentioned above, PIA is based out of the United States. That may be a red flag for some particularly privacy-conscious users, considering the mass surveillance undertaken by the country's NSA (National Security Agency) and its participation in the Five Eyes state intelligence alliance. However, it may put your mind at rest to know that every time PIA has been issued with demands from the US government to release data and information on its users, the company has fought the claim and won.

Customer Support

Even in this day and age, it isn't a given that a VPN service will include 24/7 customer service. Thankfully, Private Internet Access is one of those that does offer round-the-clock support, with its staff on hand via email and chat to answer questions in English, French, German, and Romanian.

When we put the live chat function to the test to see how fast and effective it was, a customer support assistant always answered within 30 seconds or so. They were clear and proactive with their advice, which invariably answered the issue raised satisfactorily.

If you'd prefer to find the answer to your query yourself, then the PIA website has loads of useful resources online at its Support Portal. It lists the latest company and product news at the top with a massive wedge of guides, FAQs, and community posts available to help you get to the bottom of your issue – whether that be installation, connection problems, explanations of specific settings, or even the best servers to use if you're trying to access overseas streaming content.

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PIA Private Internet Access 3-year plan

PIA's excellent three-year plan gets you excellent VPN coverage at a price that essentially only costs you $2.03 a month (or your local equivalent). Alternatively, opt for one year, and it works out at a still reasonable $3.33 per month.

Adam Marshall

Freelance Writer

Adam finally took the plunge in the summer of 2023 to go freelance, and so far isn’t looking back! Behind him is over a decade in journalism, writing, research, and content directorship.Going even further back, Adam started life as a lawyer. Writing blogs on the side about his real passions — cinema and food — eventually encouraged him to retrain and he got his first taste of bylines on a series of independent film magazines.Adam has written on a variety of subjects: from sport (The Cricketer) and tech (T3, TechRadar, Tom’s Guide), to consumer affairs (Which?) and, of course, movies and TV (CinemaBlend, WhatToWatch, Vérité Magazine). He enjoyed several years at Future Plc where he was the Content Director for Subscriptions and Services, helping the company become an ecommerce powerhouse.In recent times, Adam has developed an expertise in consumer VPNs, including product testing, comparisons and advice guides. He has also written extensively on streaming, security software and ‘how to watch’ editorials.Cinema and the Oscars remain obsessions, forever fighting for Adam’s free time alongside singing in a choir, keeping chickens, and summers filled with cricket.

Private Internet Access PIA VPN review: Solid performance at a very low price (2024)
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