Jurisdiction: USA | 3rd party audit: No | RAM-only servers: No | Native apps: Windows, MacOS, Android, iOS, Linux | Simultaneous connections: 10 | Browser extensions: Chrome, Firefox, Opera | Advanced features: Kill Switch, Split Tunneling, Ad Blocker | Servers network: Over 12000 servers in 75 countries | Streaming and P2P: Yes | Free trial: No
PrivateInternetAccess (also Private Internet Access, PIA, PIA VPN, or PrivateInternetAccess VPN, depending on who’s writing their name) is one of the world’s largest providers of VPN services. The company works out of a corporate office in Colorado. As we’ll get into below, it has one of the largest networks of servers in the industry.
In this PIA VPN review, you’ll learn more about who this company is, how they work, their features, and what you should know before making a final purchasing decision.
For more information about VPNs and how they work, see our VPN 101 page. For a quick guide to the best options for most users, check out our Best VPNs page. Finally, if you’re just here to unlock Netflix, click here. Private Internet Access Netflix options are robust, but it’s certainly not your only option for that.
Kape Technologies PLC (“Kape”) is a global infrastructure software company registered on the Isle of Man. Kape also owns and operates Cyberghost and ZenMate, alternative VPN choices. While most users like PIA itself, this PIA VPN review wouldn’t be complete without a look at Kape Technologies and why it may be a problem for users.
Kape Technologies started up in 2014, but it didn’t use the same name then. Instead, people knew it as Crossrider, a company best known for creating adware. The company has been active in the same area through at least 2018, with MalwareBytes reporting on an interestingly persistent version of their software.
At this point, you may be thinking, “Wait, a company that recently produced adware owns this VPN?” and that’s a reasonable reaction. The VPN industry fundamentally relies on trust. Users were not happy about Private Internet Access merging with Crossrider (after the latter renamed itself to escape the association with their past).
In the review industry, this is what we often call a “sticking point.” VPN services are built on trust, so if anything suggests that trust could be violated, it’s hard to recommend the service even if they sound like they’re good on paper. Let’s take a closer look at some other details about this company.
Private Internet Access is a US-based company with its headquarters and most of its employees located in Colorado. While the US does not have data retention laws, VPN companies must respond to any court orders and turn over any data they possess on-demand. This is fundamentally worse than VPNs based on privacy-friendly areas.
How Transparent Is PIA?
Private Internet Access is somewhat transparent about their information. They maintain six-month transparency reports that include information on court orders, subpoenas, and warrants received by the company and whether they produced logs or not in response.
Their website claims to have information about their team on it. However, each time we visited the site and attempted to get information about the team, the website automatically redirected to the About Private Internet Access page. This was despite trying to reach the team information through several different routes.
What matters for a VPN company is what they do, not what they aspire to be. In this case, the company isn’t anywhere near as transparent as some of its competitors, which is a problem when it’s already operating in a jurisdiction with limited privacy options.
The good news is that their actual encryption technology is pretty good. PIA uses OpenVPN, which is more-or-less the industry standard and allows users to pick from various encryption options. They also include clearly-labeled suggestions for users in different situations, which is a nice touch.
PIA mainly uses ephemeral keys for transmitting data, which are discarded and deleted after use. The purpose of ephemeral keys is to prevent access to encrypted data later on, even if an attacker gets the encrypted data and tries to break into it. That’s a great piece of technology for a VPN to have, and it’s one of the points in PIA’s favor.
PIA is an activist company, which means it actively invests in other groups and organizations to support their goals. While the company does not list exactly how much they’ve given to different organizations, the list is comprehensive and includes everything from open-source software creators to cryptography.
Unfortunately, without more information on how much they’ve invested, we can’t give PIA VPN additional points for this category. For example, if they only sent $5 to each of the companies on their list, that’s not a particularly serious commitment and shouldn’t sway your opinion.
If a company does not prove that it’s providing significant support, the correct answer is always to assume that it’s providing minor, limited support. However, if you read the individual descriptions, a few details pop out. Notably, they claim to be the lead supporter for HackPrinceton, which includes reimbursing travel expenses.
That’s enough to show that they’ve committed a moderate amount of money, but it’s still not quite enough for us to accept their claims of activism at face value.
Private Internet Access VPN supports a variety of browsers. As of mid-2020, it supports devices running the following:
- Windows: 7, 8, and 10 only
- macOS: 10.12 and 10.13
- Mac OS X: 10.10 and 10.11
- Linux: Ubuntu 16.04, 17.10, and 18.04; Debian 9+, Mint 18+, Arch Linux
- iPad: PPTP, IPSEC/L2TP, OpenVPN, WireGuard
- iPhone: PPTP, IPSEC/L2TP, OpenVPN, WireGuard
- Android: PPTP (2.3.4), IPSEC/L2TP, OpenVPN (root), WireGuard
- dd-wrt: DD-WRT PPTP, DD-WRT, OpenVPN
- Tomato: OpenVPN
- PfSense: OpenVPN
In layman’s terms, this is most modern devices, albeit with the need to stay mostly with newer software updates. Changes to devices and operating systems can affect the way VPNs function, so if you don’t update your devices as necessary, PIA and other services may not be able to help.
PIA provides apps mainly for Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, and iOS devices. Other devices, such as routers, typically require manual setup as detailed by PIA’s download and support pages. They have a help desk in case you run into problems, but live tech support may not be available at all times.
As is typical for VPN providers, you can get the PIA VPN download through their official website. While you can install the software anytime you want, it won’t start working until you sign up and configure your settings.
PIA VPN Browser Extensions
Private Internet Access offers browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera. These all work in fundamentally the same way: by redirecting all traffic from a browser to one of their secure proxy servers somewhere in the world. This allows access to all of the regions their servers are in.
While researching their browser extensions, their help desk provided a link to a more extensive browser extension guide, which our browser stopped us from accessing because the destination site was potentially unsafe. That’s not a good look for a VPN that bills itself on protecting people, particularly given its corporate owner’s history.
The browser extensions presumably work but expect limited access to information about them.
Unlike the main apps, you may need to get the Private Internet Access download for a browser through that browser’s extension home, rather than by downloading it directly from a website.
About PIA VPN Features
Like most VPN systems, PIA offers a variety of features to help you stay more secure. Here’s what you should know about their basic features.
Supported VPN Protocols
OpenVPN is the industry’s gold standard for VPN software. Initially released in May 2001, and upgraded frequently since OpenVPN mainly uses specialized encryption techniques to establish and maintain secure connections.
What sets this software apart from many competitors is the fact that OpenVPN is also open-source software, and users thoroughly vet every change to minimize the possibility of exploitation. Since its essential functions are public knowledge, people can trust the way it works.
OpenVPN is flexible enough to work with router firmware, and when installed this way, it’s possible to apply VPN services to entire networks instead of specific devices. The router-level implementation also removes the need to install OpenVPN on particular devices, further enhancing its overall usefulness for customers.
These are technically different services, but they’re used together so frequently that most people consider them components of one broader system.
IPsec, or Internet Protocol Security, is a system that encrypts and authenticates packets of data to ensure secure communications. Its primary application is as part of VPNs, although it’s not wholly compatible with the more-popular OpenVPN. Some services offer users their choice of OpenVPN or IPSEC/L2TP, so they’re not necessarily exclusive choices.
Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol, or L2TP, is the other main component of the system. This system allows data to move from one network to another, and some form of a tunneling protocol is essential for the internet to work.
However, by itself, L2TP does not provide any form of encryption, confidentiality, or anonymity. It relies entirely on an encryption protocol – usually IPsec – to give that sort of assistance. It’s based partially on the older PPTP protocol, described below.
The Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol, or PPTP, is a predecessor to L2TP initially released by Microsoft. Most people consider it obsolete these days because it has many security issues, including a lack of encryption options.
This service is not inherently useless. Adding additional encryption can negate most of the disadvantages. You may need to use PPTP if you want to access specific older systems configured to reject connection attempts that don’t use it.
Accordingly, while most users will never need to enable this, it’s good that Private Internet Access offers this option.
WireGuard is a free, open-source software suite designed to provide better performance and lower power consumption than either OpenVPN or IPsec. Though it runs mainly on the Linux kernel, it’s also usable on other systems, including Windows, Android, and iOS/macOS devices.
WireGuard is easily extended by additional scripts, allowing VPN services to offer more features and management overlays. These are deliberately excluded from the core codebase to help improve its overall security and stability.
WireGuard isn’t as popular as OpenVPN, but it’s still a practical alternative, and there are some compelling reasons to choose it over other options.
Blocking Ads, Trackers, And Malware
If anybody knows about ads on the internet, it’s PIA’s corporate owner. As we discussed earlier, they’ve created adware, which means they know it better than almost anyone else. That said, the expertise doesn’t always translate over to VPN subsidiaries.
The critical thing to know about these features with PIA VPN is that it can block most of them by applying various techniques, including firewalls and obscuring your identity. With no information to track, systems like trackers are functionally useless.
SOCKS5 is the fifth version of the SOCKS protocol, which helps exchange network packets between a client and a destination server by routing it through a proxy. This version of the protocol offers extra authentication and helps forward packets to the correct destination.
The main thing to note about SOCKS as a proxy is that it functions on a different level from regular HTTP proxy systems. This means that SOCKS5 can forward User Datagram Protocol (UDP) connections or even work in reverse, which is something an HTTP proxy cannot do.
For the average user, all of this technical jargon comes down to one thing, and it’s the only thing people genuinely care about: SOCKS5 is better.
Like most better providers, Private Internet Access offers a kill switch system. This automatically shuts down your network connection if you lose access to the VPN server, which helps stop you from accidentally transmitting unprotected data.
There are many potential reasons for dropped connections, and they can be unrelated to your VPN service. For example, if part of the internet is particularly active at the moment, your data may need some time to find a better route. Using the UDP protocol, experiencing bad weather, or using faulty hardware can also affect your connection’s stability.
PIA Servers Network
Private Internet Access has two primary VPN systems, and users can change between these for now. It’s likely that the older system – known as the Legacy network – will eventually phase out of use. The legacy network has 1500 servers in 46 countries, which is an impressive reach for any VPN service (if not the highest).
The “next gen” network, on the other hand, is in a wholly different league. While the company is still rolling this out as of mid-2020, they claim over 10,000 VPN and Proxy servers across 78 countries for this network. That makes it easily one of the world’s largest VPN services, with over 5,000 servers in the United States alone.
This is one reason why it’s hard for us to dismiss them in this PIA VPN review, even though we have some issues with their corporate owners. They’re also advertising useful setups like running the systems with RAM, which means no data is saved if the power is cut. That’s an essential security feature for modern VPN networks.
Streaming And Torrenting
Private Internet Access’ VPN network is suitable for streaming and torrenting, especially if you’re on their next-gen network. They have enough servers to provide reasonably high speeds from almost anywhere in the world, and it’s hard to understate the value of those connections.
The network uses Gigabit Gateways, which allow high speeds and immense traffic volumes to pass through the servers. Furthermore, their VPN network has unmetered bandwidth, which means the only thing that’s functionally likely to slow it down is a massive number of users connecting to it simultaneously.
While the company may meet this someday, it’s unlikely that you will experience significant slowdowns very often while using their network. The immense number of servers makes it easier to share the load between them as needed, and that helps keep each server running at the optimal capacity.
Private Internet Access has one of the most flexible payment systems of any VPN provider, to the point it’s slightly suspicious. That’s an odd thing to say about a VPN company, but here’s what you should know about it.
PIA currently offers three main plans for subscribers. The first plan is the basic monthly plan, available for $9.95/month. As the name suggests, this is a recurring monthly fee and would cost about $119.40 over a full year.
Users who buy the yearly plan have the cost reduced to $3.33/month, or slightly over one-third of the monthly price. This service retails for $39.95 for the year and is usually billed all at once.
The two-year subscription plan drops the price down to $2.69/month, or a total cost of $69.95 for the service. This represents a savings of about 73% over the monthly plan, though as always, prices are set to make the monthly plans look worse, and the longest-duration plan look better.
All of the above is completely standard for the VPN industry. Generally, less than $5/month for a VPN is a fair price, so there’s nothing out of the ordinary with the subscription plans. The oddity is their payment methods.
PIA VPN offers traditional direct payments and gift cards, the latter of which is reasonably anonymous. They also accept most major brand gift cards, and that’s the oddity. When an online company accepts payments in gift cards, that usually means the company is reselling those gift cards or buying products and then selling those elsewhere.
PIA vs. NordVPN
As explained in our NordVPN vs. PIA article, NordVPN is fundamentally a better service. However, there are a few places where PIA comes out on top.
The first of these is its support for the Opera browser, which NordVPN broadly doesn’t offer. If you want or need to use Opera, it’s important to have a compatible VPN system, and that can make all the difference.
NordVPN offers more features than PIA, including double VPN and Onion systems that further protect the most sensitive data. PIA’s next-gen network is larger than NordVPN’s, but at more than 5500 servers, NordVPN is still one of the world’s largest VPN services by server volume.
The biggest difference between them is that NordVPN has better privacy protections and a cleaner history than PIA. On that basis, it’s easy to recommend NordVPN over PIA unless you must use Private Internet Access.
PIA VPN Alternatives
Aside from NordVPN, here are some of the top alternatives to Private Internet Access.
Hotspot Shield is one of the fastest VPN services in the world, which makes it ideal for live-streaming video and doing many other time-sensitive tasks. It’s still not always fast enough for particularly time-sensitive processes like gaming, but if you’re looking for speed above everything else, it’s worth a look.
Surfshark is a robust VPN system with over 1700 servers, and it’s both extremely affordable and rich in features. They’re also more transparent than many other VPNs, offering features like private DNS, a strict no-logs policy, and camouflage mode that helps prevent even internet providers from knowing that you’re using a VPN.
Speedify is a limited VPN system, with only about 200 servers in 38 countries. That gives it a smaller footprint than most of its competitors, but it has the rare feature of using channel-bonding to get multiple internet connections at the same time.
This is a very unusual process, but it essentially allows you to use separate WiFi, 3G, 4G, and wired connections at the same time. This requires access to multiple channels on your device, but it helps create more-robust connections and is ideal for work where interruptions would be extremely problematic.
Reddit PIA VPN
Private Internet Access has its own subreddit, with over 10,000 registered users as of mid-2020. While far from the largest subreddit, it has enough people to answer most questions about the service. This is also a good place to make suggestions or get more information from actual users.
When looking exclusively at the features, our Private Internet Access review puts it at about a 4/5 as a service. The incredible number of servers and wide variety of features deserve praise, as do the robust security protections they use to help improve privacy while you’re browsing.
However, issues with their previous parent company and oddities with their website, and help desk make it harder to completely trust this VPN. That’s a consideration that this Private Internet Access VPN review can’t ignore.
For more information about the VPNs we do recommend, see our list of best VPNs here.