Private Internet Access, or PIA for short, is a veteran among VPN providers. It brands itself as the “world’s most trusted VPN,” and as the name implies, it emphasizes privacy above all else.
But all VPNs claim to protect your privacy these days. What makes Private Internet Access stand out? Can it do anything that NordVPN, Surfshark or ExpressVPN, can’t?
In my 2021 Private Internet Access review, I dug into the latest versions of PIA apps on both mobile and desktop to find out:
- How fast is PIA?
- Can PIA unblock region-locked apps and websites (Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime Video, etc)
- Is PIA as safe and private as it claims to be?
- Does PIA work in China?
- Is it better than the alternatives?
I’ll discuss all of that and more in this review.
Over the last few weeks, I used Private Internet Access to torrent, stream, secure public wi-fi, and prevent my internet service provider from seeing what I do online.
I summarized my experience with PIA below, but you can read the full review for an in-depth look into what makes this VPN service such a hit with customers.
Private Internet Access Summary
Private Internet Access is a lightweight VPN that users can extensively customize to their needs. It offers excellent security and decent speeds, but falls a bit short when it comes to unblocking region-locked content or bypassing government censorship in places like China. I recommend it to torrenters and other users who use a VPN to maintain privacy rather than those who want to stream video and unblock content.
Private Internet Access Key data
|OVERALL RANK: #14 of 43|
|Average Speed*:||43 Mbps|
|Video Streaming Support:||4K, HD video conferencing|
|Other Streaming Services:||BBC iPlayer|
|Encryption Type:||Up to 256-bit AES|
|Log Policy:||No logs|
|Value for Money||
|Lowest Monthly Cost:||$2.85|
|Money Back Guarantee:||30 days|
How does Private Internet Access compare to other popular VPNs?
Here’s how Private Internet Access compares to two of the most popular and highly rated VPNs out there, ExpressVPN and NordVPN. You can see a more detailed breakdown here of ExpressVPN and NordVPN.
|Private Internet Access||ExpressVPN||NordVPN|
|Average Speed||68 Mbps||135 Mbps||115 Mbps|
|Encryption typeType of encryption e.g. 256 AES||128-bit AES||256-bit AES||256-bit AES|
|Kill Switch||desktop only|
|Records identifying logs|
|Unblocks Netflix US|
|Unblocks Amazon Prime|
|Unblocks BBC iPlayer|
|Lowest cost per month||$2.69 per month||$6.67 per month||$3.30 per month|
|Money back guarantee||30 days||30 days||30 days|
Private Internet Access pros and cons
Here’s a summary of what I liked and didn’t like during my time with Private Internet Access.
- Strong security
- Zero logs
- Tons of customization
- Connect up to 10 devices at once
- Fast servers
- Blocked by some major streaming services
- Doesn’t reliably work in China
- Some outdated info in forums and support documentation
I’ll go into more detail about each of these points below.
Speed: Is Private Internet Access fast?
PIA lands in the middle of the pack in terms of download speed. I was able to stream 4K video and video conference in HD when connected to nearby servers. I never had issues with poor quality video or buffering.
Private Internet Access operates 3,386 servers in 42 countries. Most of its rivals have servers in 60 or more countries, so it’s on the lower end, but there are plenty of locations for most users.
Across all locations and times tested, PIA averaged 43 Mbps download speed.
We tested international servers in North America, Europe, and Asia. Here are the average speeds for servers in each region:
- North America (nearest): 76 Mbps
- Asia: 42 Mbps
- Europe: 31 Mbps
Nearby servers were suitable for online gaming without adding too much ping time. The nearest servers have a latency of about 50 ms, which when gaming isn’t a detrimental amount. This is dependent on where the nearest server is, but I was able to play fast-paced games like Brawlhalla and Rocket League without crippling lag.
Note that these tests can only serve as a general indication of the performance you might see and cannot be considered definitive. The inherent volatility of the internet adds a significant factor of randomness. Users with faster connections will likely see larger discrepancies in speed.
Apps: What devices work with Private Internet Access
A single subscription allows me to connect up to 10 devices at once. PIA makes apps for the following devices:
- Windows 7, 8, and 10 – 32-bit and 64-bit versions are available
- MacOS 10.12 and newer
- iOS 11 and newer
- Android 4.1 and newer
- Linux: Ubuntu 16.04+, Mint 18+, Arch, and Debian
- Amazon Fire TV
Web browser extensions are also available for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera.
The apps are very lightweight, meaning they work well even on low-powered devices.
Servers can be ordered alphabetically or by latency (ping time). You can “heart” your favorite servers or find them through the search bar.
PIA is one of the only VPN providers to offer a full app for Linux users, complete with a graphical user interface. The few other providers that even bother making Linux apps usually settle for command-line interfaces.
Users can customize the layout of their apps. Elements of the interface can be reordered or removed entirely. There are also dark and light themes to choose from.
PIA boasts a few cool features that you won’t find on many other VPNs. These include:
- A snooze function to temporarily disconnect the VPN for a few minutes
- A “private browser” for iOS and Android. This is a more secure and private browser than the stock Chrome and Safari browsers that come built into smartphones. It must be installed as a separate app.
- A built-in ad blocker
- Plenty of security and network customization options that I’ll get into later in this review
Manual setup without an app is also possible. You can get OpenVPN configuration files directly from PIA’s website. This is handy if you want to set up the VPN on a device that doesn’t have an app, such as a wi-fi router.
Streaming, Netflix, and Kodi
Does PIA unblock Netflix?
Yes, I used Private Internet Access to unblock Netflix US and UK. I could also unblock BBC iPlayer in the UK.
It did not work with Hulu or Amazon Prime Video (US), however.
So PIA isn’t the most adept at unblocking region-locked content, but it isn’t terrible.
For Kodi users, PIA works on both Android boxes and OpenELEC devices. It’s compatible with all Kodi addons.
Does Private Internet Access allow torrenting?
PIA has long been a favorite among torrenters. The apps include several features that P2P filesharers will find useful.
- Port forwarding allows you to bypass NAT firewalls and connect with more peers in a torrent swarm
- A kill switch cuts the internet connection to protect your data and IP address from being exposed if the VPN connection unexpectedly drops
- Split tunneling allows me to tunnel my torrenting app’s internet traffic through the VPN while using a normal, direct connection for other activities
Security, privacy, and logging
After signing up, PIA sent me a username and password in an email. This is separate from the email address and password I used to register my account. This can be a bit inconvenient—it’s one more password I have to remember, and I don’t get to choose what it is—but it adds a layer of privacy. If my VPN login details are somehow compromised, it won’t affect my account.
In the apps, PIA’s security can be customized to a great extent, which is not something you’ll find in many VPNs these days. In addition to the kill switch, ad blocker, and private browser options discussed above, some other notable tweaks include:
- Adjustable data encryption. By default, it’s set to 128-bit AES-GCM, but I can raise it to 256-bit encryption or even remove encryption entirely (not recommended). Although many VPNs boast 256-bit AES, 128-bit is just fine for the vast majority of users, and it takes less of a toll on performance.
- Adjustable handshake. Similar to data encryption, I can decide what level of encryption is used to secure and exchange the data encryption key.
- VPN protocol. OpenVPN UDP is used by default. OpenVPN over TCP is another option. Wireguard is also available, which promises to be a more lightweight and faster alternative.
- Remote port: If a network admin has blocked traffic on the standard OpenVPN port, I can choose a different one.
- Name servers: Most users will want to use PIA’s own private DNS servers to hide website lookup and request data from their ISP, but I can also opt for my ISP’s DNS servers, custom DNS servers, or even a fancy new peer-to-peer DNS system called Handshake.
- Allow LAN traffic. Disabling this will prevent devices on my local network, such as printers and smart home devices, from accessing my device’s local IP address.
- Proxy. I can add an extra hop to my VPN connection through an additional ShadowSOCKS or SOCKS5 proxy.
Private Internet Access is based in the USA, which might discourage some users wary of spying by national intelligence agencies.
PIA keeps no logs of what you do while connected to the VPN, though, nor any metadata such as timestamps and IP addresses. Minimal personal information (email address and payment details) is collected when you sign up for service and billing purposes.
I found no IP, DNS, or WebRTC leaks when connected to PIA. That means my real IP address is never revealed to third parties.
Does Private Internet Access work in China?
PIA does not work reliably in China. Furthermore, it was temporarily blocked in Hong Kong in September 2019. If you’re looking for a way to bypass the Great Firewall while in mainland China, I would look elsewhere. The same goes for other countries where VPNs are often blocked, like the UAE and Iran.
ExpressVPN is a good alternative.
Is Private Internet Access customer service any good?
It took about three minutes to connect to a live chat support agent through PIA’s website on a weekday evening. The agent didn’t respond quickly to my questions, though, and I had to wait a couple of minutes between questions, presumably so they could look up the answers. I also had issues with some of my messages not being delivered through the chat interface. The answers I eventually received could have been more clear.
Private Internet Access has a blog and plenty of support materials to help you troubleshoot issues and keep up to date with the service. It’s also one of the only VPN providers to run its own forum where customers can post questions and comments to the developers and other users.
On the downside, much of the material in the blog posts and forums is out of date. That made it difficult in some cases to find clear and accurate answers to my questions.
A debug logging mode in the apps can be useful when troubleshooting connection issues. Instead of trying to describe the problem to customer support, I can enable this mode and then hand over the debug log so technicians can quickly pinpoint the issue. Just remember to turn it off when you’re done to prevent unnecessary logging.
Private Internet Access pricing
PIA has a single service tier with three different subscription lengths:
- One month for $9.95 per month
- Six months for $5.99 per month
- One year for $2.85 per month
The annual plan is a great value and, at time of writing, comes with an extra two months free of charge.
Every plan comes with a 30-day risk-free money-back guarantee.
PIA accepts several forms of payment including credit cards, PayPal, Amazon Pay, and several anonymous cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin, Zcash, and Ethereum. You can even use gift cards from Starbucks, Walmart, Best Buy, and more.
Private Internet Access coupons
Do I recommend Private Internet Access?
If you use a VPN more to protect your privacy and less for streaming, PIA is a solid choice. It’s great for torrenters, Linux users, and securing unprotected wi-fi hotspots. I wouldn’t recommend it for people who want access to a lot of different streaming services or those living in China.
Private Internet Access alternatives
PIA is well-suited to privacy-conscious, tech savvy users who want to be able to customize their VPN security and network settings. But it’s not for everyone.
NordVPN is another great option with excellent security, albeit with slower overall speeds. It’s great for unblocking region-locked streaming services and also works in China.
ExpressVPN offers comparable security, faster speeds, and better unblocking capabilities. It supports a wide range of devices and works in China.