WHAT’S IN THIS REVIEW?
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Despite the unwieldy name, Private Internet Access (PIA) is seen as one of the best virtual private networks on the market.
The software is open-source, while it’s a cheaper option compared to much of the competition. As of August 2020, they’ve been around for over a decade, cementing their spot as one of the more respected providers you’ll find.
This review will take you through everything you could possibly need to know about PIA, including whether it’s able to handle the increased competition in 2020.
Competitively priced, and packed to the rafters with security features, PIA has long been seen as one of the more trustworthy providers on the market. With new owners as of 2019, do they still deserve their reputation as a strong choice if you value privacy above all?
We’ve checked out PIA to bring you the following in-depth review, considering everything from typical connection speeds to how they deal with the prospect of censorship.
About Private Internet Access
PIA was originally released in 2010, building up a dedicated following as they continually proved to be one of the better providers on the market. It was a bit of a Wild West back then, and PIA was known to be one of the few VPNs that could definitely be trusted. They’re located in the US, with their HQ found in Colorado. They claim that;
“Being in the US is optimal for VPN privacy services since the US is one of the few countries that does not have a mandatory data retention policy. Countries in the EU are forced to log, even though some claim they do not.”
However, the U.S. is well known for the intrusiveness of their intelligence services, so it’s not ideal if you’re worried about the NSA, PRISM, or even the ‘14-eyes’ SIGINT network.
In 2019, PIA was sold to Kape Technologies, who claim to be “the first truly global privacy and security company”. Kape has a somewhat murky past, having rebranded from Crossrider PLC after a ‘strategic transformation’ in 2018.
This Forbes report details Crossrider’s past focus on injecting unwanted adverts, as well as the companies ownership;
“A vast number of companies are affiliated with ad injectors, either packaging their tools or funneling ads down to them. One of the biggest is Crossrider, the majority stake of which is held by billionaire Teddy Sagi, a serial entrepreneur and ex-con who was jailed for insider trading in the 1990s.”
Kape now owns three high-profile VPN providers, which are as follows:
- CyberGhost VPN
- Zenmate VPN
- Private Internet Access (PIA)
It’s no reflection of their current standing, but it’s hard to trust a VPN provider that has a vested interest in others on the market. There’s nothing to suggest that the company has changed the way in which they operate since being taken over, but it’s worth mentioning.
Once again, there are others who are definitely not owned by anyone else, and they would probably make for the best ethical choice overall.
Pros & Cons
We’ve condensed the review into a range of bullet points in which we will discuss the main drawbacks and benefits you’ll find with PIA. It’s not as detailed as the full lowdown, but you’ll have a better idea of exactly what the VPN has to offer.
The pros do outweigh the cons, but they’re worth noting nonetheless. We’ll begin with the positives, of which there are many.
So, what’s so good about PIA in the first place? The benefits we found during testing are as follows:
- PIA allows a user to connect up to 10 devices, which is double the norm. (They raised it from 5 devices to 10 following a slight price increase a few years ago)
- Cheaper than many premium options, especially for either 12 or 24 month subs
- Allows the user to access a variety of streaming platforms, including U.S. Netflix
- Great connection speeds, comparable to the fastest VPNs when looking at local servers
- Seven-day money-back guarantee
- The software is open-source, and PIA are committed to releasing the code to the community
- Over 11,000 servers altogether
- Decent ad-blocking software
- A range of encryption options for advanced users, which can help to boost either speed or security, depending on the situation
- Can pay with credit cards, PayPal, various cryptocurrencies, or MINT prepaid cards. Each option offers differing levels of security and anonymity
There weren’t many drawbacks to mention during the testing phase with PIA, although that doesn’t mean that there weren’t aspects that couldn’t be improved on! Here’s a rundown with the flaws we found during testing:
- Not much flexibility in terms of pricing, but still fairly cheap
- Some issues when trying to purchase the VPN for the first time
- There aren’t many additional features, which is disappointing
- Despite their ‘no-logs’ claims being verified in the past, it would be great to have an independent audit of some kind for true confirmation
- The VPN app froze twice during testing, forcing me to restart my device
- A number of minor graphical glitches appeared over time
There are a number of pros and cons to consider with any VPN, but PIA is one of the better providers on the market.
Above all, the price alone is enough to generate interest with the majority of users, but how does it match up in terms of features?
In 2020, most VPNs will offer a range of additional extras. Many are tied to online privacy in some shape or form, such as ad blockers, or even cloud storage. They can be free, or may come at a premium.
Some providers prefer to pay more attention to the VPN itself, and PIA is firmly in the second camp. In other words, PIA isn’t the most feature-laden software, especially when compared to pricier options. Nonetheless, it does have a couple of extras that we’ll discuss below.
PIA MACE is one such example, working to limit access to domains used by ads, trackers and malware. In essence, this should lead to a more unobstructed browsing experience, although I did find numerous websites were begging me to turn off my adblocker.
It’s not the best ad-blocker I’ve ever used, but PIA MACE is handy if you’d like another layer of privacy on top of whatever you already have.
In terms of extra features, they have a host of strong encryption protocols, which we’ll discuss in a further section found below. PIA also has a killswitch, which can be used to block all traffic to a device in case the VPN connection drops unexpectedly:
The app itself has heaps of information, including when your sub is due to expire, performance stats, and the ability to put the VPN on snooze for a set amount of time. PIA comes with both a light mode and a dark mode, while it has the ability to port forward if necessary. It’s one of the better native apps in terms of functionality, but the same can’t be said if you’re hoping for lots of extra perks.
PIA doesn’t have many features compared to the average provider, preferring to focus on their VPN service instead. It’s not a bad decision by any means, but it does lead to their apps being more basic than you might expect.
- 1 Month $9.95/mo.
- 12 Months: $3.33/mo.
- 2 Years: $2.69/mo.
The price can make or break a VPN provider, especially when factoring in for the sheer number of competitors on the market. It’s not enough to have a great service anymore. It also needs to come in at an affordable price, offering further savings for lengthier subscriptions.
The PIA one-month plan comes in at $9.95, which isn’t particularly expensive when accounting for the speeds and security features.
As with most VPNs, they aim to tempt prospective users to sign up to one of their longer subs, with a yearly deal priced at $3.33, while 2 years is priced at only $2.69. It’s so cheap that some people are probably suspicious, but PIA clearly prefers to grow its user base, and you will have to pay for the entirety of the contract up front. Even so, it’s an insanely affordable price, especially if you plan to use the VPN extensively.
One flaw is a lack of options between one month and 12 months. It might only be $39.95 per year, but it’s not really flexible enough. A six-month sub would be a good addition in the future.
They are flexible in terms of payment options, and that includes allowing for various forms of cryptocurrency. You can also use prepaid cards, so you’ll be completely anonymous if you’d prefer to limit your interactions with the provider. Potential methods of payment are as follows:
- Credit Card
- Google Play (through our Android app only)
For one-time only payments, they have a host of different options:
- Paygarden (Supported US Gift Cards)
- Ticket Surf
I actually had a few issues when attempting to buy a one-month plan, and it only took a bit of Googling to find that others have faced the same problem in the past. Essentially, it hangs at the final purchasing page, and that was after I attempted various different methods, including PayPal.
In the end, I had to use my phone to sign up, and it worked the first time. If you do run into any issues, it’s probably a good idea to send a message to customer support, or use a different device/browser like I was forced to.
Overall, PIA comes in at a significantly lower price point compared to the majority of providers, and it’s enough to make it one of the better options when weighing up the package as a whole.
After all, it’s comparable to a number of premium options in terms of overall speeds and servers, while you can get it for a couple of dollars if you’re prepared to go for a 24-month contract.
A logging policy describes what a VPN will do with the data they collect, so it’s incredibly important. This includes sites and online services you use, as well as if the provider will get rid of the data instantly.
Their logging policy details exactly how and why PIA collects the minimum amount of info from their users;
“While not having logs does make things harder in some cases, specifically dealing with Support Tickets, outbound mail, advanced techniques to handle abuse issues, and things of that nature, this provides a high level of security and privacy to all of our users. Logs are never written to the hard drives of any of our machines and are specifically written to the null device, which simply acts if the data never existed.”
“The Mandatory Data Retention logs in the EU and many areas applies to Telecommunications and Internet Service Providers as they are a “Public Communications Network”. This is not applicable to our VPN service as we are a private network.”
This has been put to the test a few times, such as when PIA was involved in a hacking case in 2015. Ross M. Colby allegedly shut down five servers owned by news organisation Almanac Online, as well as causing the erasure of internal file servers. It went to court, where they brought in London Trust Media, who owned the VPN at the time.
Their legal representative John Allan Arsenault testified that PIA “intentionally don’t retain logs of internet activity of their clients so that they cannot be produced in response to subpoenas from law enforcement or others”, and that “the only record of the customer maintained is the email address provided when signing up for the service.”
In other words, it’s going to be difficult for anyone to get their hands on your data, as there are no logs to pass over in the first place. And they’ll go to court to prove it if necessary.
A couple of high-profile VPN providers have allowed third-party companies to produce independent audits to verify their claims, such as NordVPN. It gives the user additional peace of mind, and it would be great if PIA would do the same to show that their service is still as reputable as it was a few years ago.
Regardless, they score highly for the strength of their logging policy, as well as their decision to collect minimal user info for payments.
Connection speeds will give you a better idea of how the VPN will perform during day-to-day tasks. As you’ll be using their servers to hide your IP address, it can take slightly longer than usual to connect, so you’ll want the VPN to be as fast as possible.
I tested the speeds of both the US and UK servers, with the results found below. As PIA is one of the more affordable providers, I wasn’t sure of what to expect, but they do have a long list of servers.
The baseline test gives you a better idea of my internet speeds with no VPN connected, whilst using Wi-Fi:
Everything was fairly normal, aside from the ping being ever so slightly lower than usual. You’ll be able to compare these speeds to the results seen below.
Next, I tested one of their UK servers, which should see good results as it was also located in London. I used the recommended server location for the following results:
It’s still located in London, and you can see that the server name has also changed, although my IP address remained the same. There was a slight increase in ping, but both download and upload speeds were actually improved ever so slightly. (Or maybe there was a little less traffic on the network.) Either way, it’s a great result.
It’s good enough to use for gaming, or for group Zoom meetings, so PIA gets high marks here.
Lastly, I connected to one of their U.S servers, which would be used to access the most popular international version of Netflix:
As the image above shows, the ping took a major hit, which is to be expected when connecting to servers located halfway across the world in Washington, DC. However, download speeds were almost halved, although upload speeds were hardly affected.
Both my IP and ISP info were switched to a U.S. version, which means it was working correctly on the surface.
Overall, I would have liked to have seen slightly faster speeds from the DC server, especially given it’s supposed to be a US-centric service. Maybe the server was under a lot of stress at the time, so I decided to try a different location:
Once again, both my IP and ISP were changed accordingly, and download speeds were up to an acceptable level.
PIA is competent in terms of connection speeds, while it’s consistent enough to stream content without having to worry about buffering. However, if your speeds aren’t the fastest to begin with, a loss of 50% is going to be noticeable, so it’s worth testing the service out first before committing to one of their longer plans.
Speeds were a mixed bag, and it’s clear that much will depend on the server itself, and how much stress it’s under at any given time.
Server Locations & Network
On that note, it’s worth discussing PIA’s massive server network, as well as the locations they have on offer. The locations are what you use to connect to a different IP, so the higher the number, the better.
PIA currently has the largest network among VPN providers, with 35,425 VPN and Proxy servers in 99 locations across 78 countries, which we’ll list below:
United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Romania, Sweden, Austria, Spain, Japan, Singapore, Italy, France, Belgium, Czech Republic, UAE, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Andorra, Armenia, Cyprus, Algeria, Georgia, Greenland, Isle of Man, Iran, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Sri Lanka, Morocco, Monaco, Montenegro, Malta, Nigeria, Panama, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Brazil, Slovakia, Serbia, Latvia, North Macedonia, Moldova, Estonia, Albania, South Africa, Argentina, Portugal, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Greece, Bahamas, Ireland, Poland, India, Hong Kong, Luxembourg
It’s a fairly comprehensive list, and one that puts most others to shame. Best of all, almost every region or country is covered, or has a location nearby which can be used.
However, it’s worth mentioning that as with most VPN providers, they have a strong emphasis on North American servers. Over 6,000 are found in the U.S. and Canada, which is more than half of the total number.
For example, South Africa has just 14 servers in one location, while Brazil has only 11 to choose from. If you look closely, the majority of countries only have basic coverage. While it’s better than nothing at all, the lack of options can lead to slower speeds, and you’ll have to hope that their servers don’t go down unexpectedly, as there won’t be any other local options to choose from.
Overall, PIA has a massive network of countries that will be helpful for many international users, although they’re spread thinly. It won’t mean much if you’re sticking with the thousands of US servers they have on offer, but it’s something to consider if you’re planning to use PIA to unblock a specific service.
They still deserve to be commended, as it’s comparable, (or better) than much of the competition. Over 35,000 servers is nothing to be sniffed at, and PIA do have one of the more comprehensive networks overall. Others won’t bother with exotic territories whatsoever, and they offer both quality and quantity.
You can find a full list with info about the PIA server network here.
Streaming & Torrenting
Despite originally being envisioned as a way to boost online privacy, many VPNs also double up as a great way to access online content. Many streaming platforms are geo-blocked in some shape or form, whether it be via restricting content based on the users location, or not offering the service in the market in the first place.
Take Netflix, for which the US edition is widely seen as the best version overall. They have the latest shows, and a massive content library that surpasses most international versions.
Despite being seen as a privacy app first and foremost, PIA can unblock some platforms, although results may vary. In terms of streaming, they boast of “unrestricted US, UK, NL, CA, Romania, Germany, France, Sweden and Swiss based Internet Services”, while they can access U.S. Netflix.
It’s not a bad result considering their reduced price tag.
Alternatively, torrenting is widely used as a method to access restricted content. This can be in the form of news or blocked videos, and that includes both the legal and illegal varieties.
PIA supports P2P on all of their servers, which is confirmed via the statement below:
“In addition, any blocked software by your ISP including P2P and other various software applications will be unblocked and unrestricted on our systems.”
Of course, we would advise against the use of torrents for downloading copyrighted material, but it’s not like PIA will have any data to hand over anyway. Whether it be torrenting or streaming, the VPN performed surprisingly well, and better than many others in a similar price range.
Speeds are more than capable enough to handle both streaming and torrenting, and you’re unlikely to receive any unwanted letters from your ISP. Again, PIA scores highly, so it’s worth checking out if you plan to use the VPN for entertainment purposes.
How does a VPN deal with censorship, and can they be trusted to take care of your personal data? These are some of the most important questions to consider before deciding on a new provider, so here’s what you need to know about PIA.
As the name suggests, they strongly focus on privacy above all, with a range of features to enhance anonymity. They have a killswitch that will block all traffic outside of the VPN, while we’ve also looked at the strength of their ‘no-logs’ policy above. It makes for a great combination of anti-censorship measures, and they have a host of extra encryption options if you’d prefer for the connection to be as secure as possible.
Real-world examples are the best way to understand a VPNs true intentions. In 2019, 10 major VPN providers were asked to submit to a list of banned sites and services to comply with the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor).
PIA had already exited the market in 2016, as they decided to stop doing business in the region entirely:
“The Russian Government has passed a new law that mandates that every provider must log all Russian internet traffic for up to a year. We believe that due to the enforcement regime surrounding this new law, some of our Russian Servers (RU) were recently seized by Russian Authorities, without notice or any type of due process. We think it’s because we are the most outspoken and only verified no-log VPN provider.”
It gives some indication of their stance when it comes to censorship, and the steps that PIA will take to protect their users. In the ‘Logging Policy’ section above, we noted how PIA have gone to court to testify that they collect absolutely no information about users, and they proudly use it as evidence of their trustworthiness.
At ‘Private Internet Access, we have designed our operations to prevent [authorities from grabbing personal information] in the first place. There are no logs. No identifying information can be collected, regardless of the amount of force applied to us. Several companies have claimed that they do not log but do anyway at the end of the day. In contrast, we have public court records that state (under threat of perjury) we don’t log anything, available for anyone to read’.
It does work in place of an audit, although the incident did happen a while ago, and they won’t be able to lean on it forever as proof. As such, it would probably be better if they were able to ratify their claims in 2020, but they still score highly nonetheless. As PIA is open-source, the code is also freely available to be viewed and checked online.
Platforms & Devices
For the purposes of this review, I mainly tested PIA using the MacOS client app. Of course, this won’t mean much if you’re planning to use the service exclusively on Android and Windows, so what does the provider offer in terms of compatibility between various platforms and devices?
We’ve split the devices you can use with PIA into two different sections to make things slightly easier. We’ll begin with the most popular desktop/mobile options.
Mobile & desktop
You’ll want the native apps to be as consistent as possible to ensure no loss of functionality during use. This is true no matter how many servers they have, or what speeds they can offer.
PIA has native apps for the following devices:
It’s the typical range you’d expect, and should be good enough to cater for almost all users.
In practice, PIA has a great client app, with no serious issues to speak of during testing. It did freeze once or twice, but restarting my computer seemed to solve the problem in the long-term. There were also a couple of minor visual bugs that popped up after a couple of hours, but nothing that stopped the VPN itself from working in any way. For example, check the ‘Connection’ tab below for an example:
My stats were also garbled on the main app page, and it was solved by restarting PIA.
Their app is a step above many others in terms of the overall design, with great functionality which is ideal for advanced users. (When it works like it’s supposed to.)
PIA also offers browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera. They have guides for each one that can be found here. As an extension, it’s less intensive than the app, so it’s another viable option for some users.
Proxy & Router
Despite the fact that you’ll be able to connect 10 devices with a single account, that might not be enough if you’re in a busier home. A VPN compatible router is often marketed as a solution, allowing the owner to connect as many devices as they want while they’re at home.
Connecting via a router is perfect for using SmartTVs, Game Consoles, and many other devices that are not directly compatible with VPN software.
However, there is a catch, otherwise you see VPNs used with routers more extensively. The vast majority aren’t compatible, and probably won’t be for at least a few years. As such. PIA advise users to purchase models from either of the following manufacturers:
It’s not the widest selection, but in truth, VPN via router is probably only used by a minority of people.
Overall, they have a good range of native apps and browser extensions, although it was annoying to encounter a number of minor graphical glitches over time. As it had no impact on the VPN itself it’s not a massive bug, but you’d expect slightly better from a service you’re paying for. It should definitely be patched in the near future.
Encryption & Security
VPN encryption is a method which converts data from a readable format to an encoded, unreadable format with the help of an algorithm. This format can only be decrypted by using the right key, with AES-256 providing maximum protection.
PIA is notable for offering a host of different encryption options, depending on your platform and what you’d prefer. Check out the screenshot below, which takes you through some of the connection settings:
As you can see, they use AES-128 keys as the default, since they should provide greater speeds without too much of a loss in terms of overall security. You can switch to AES-256 if you’d prefer, and there are lots of different settings to play with.
The full range of protocols they offer are as follows:
- SOCKS5 (Proxy)
It’s a wide selection, and will allow users to pick the level of encryption they need to get the job done. Different protocols have different connection speeds, and it’s always better to have a choice, even if you plan to use the recommended settings.
In terms of security, it’s hard to find fault with PIA. Many providers have a hands-off approach, but the basic settings will keep you safe, and there are lots of options to choose from.
PIA has a solid service, with decent speeds and a range of encryption options. It’s true that they don’t have the most extensive list of features, but they offer a premium service for a fraction of the price compared to much of the competition.
There are some sacrifices along the way, but it’s still a capable option, and they’ve been proven to be trustworthy on multiple occasions in the past. The clue is in the name! If you’re looking for Private Internet Access, this VPN should have you covered.
However, much of their reputation was built up by the previous ownership, and it’s clear that Kape is in charge in the present day. With that in mind, maybe it’s better to think of PIA as a new provider, rather than associating them with all of the great deeds they’re best known for.
It’ll be interesting to see how they react to the next big privacy challenge, but I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt for now.
A few years ago, PIA might have achieved a perfect score, and it’s not like much has changed in the last few years. Maybe that’s part of the problem. Despite the new ownership, they only seem to offer more of the same, except now they’re owned by a company who has a stable of providers on the market.
It’s still ridiculously cheap, and offers great value for money if you’re willing to look past a few minor drawbacks.