The following is my test report for Private Internet Access VPN, which is done independently. Tested on Windows, MacOS, Android, iOS and others. If you have any questions, you can contact me and I will answer your questions.
Antivirus will take care of your computer, but a virtual private network, or VPN, protects your internet traffic from spies, hackers, advertisers, and your ISP. Private Internet Access is among the best VPN services we’ve tested. It offers a robust collection of features, has thousands of available servers, allows file sharing, and crams all of that into a feather-light package that costs less than the price of a Netflix subscription. For all that, Private Internet Access is a 10Beasts Editors’ Choice winner among desktop VPNs.
What Is a VPN?
When you connect to the internet, you probably assume that your activities aren’t being observed. But that’s an unsafe assumption, and it’s especially dubious when you connect to the web from the coffee shop, the airport, or even at work. When you use a VPN, on the other hand, your traffic is routed through an encrypted tunnel to a server controlled by the VPN provider. From there, it heads out to the world wide internet.
Nothing can penetrate a VPN’s encrypted tunnel, so no one snooping on your local network (be it at home or at the office) can see what you’re up to. It also prevents your ISP from monitoring your activities, which is especially good since Congress gave ISPs the green light to collect and sell anonymized user data. Because your data is emanating from the VPN server, and not your home router, your IP address—and therefore your geographic location—is hidden.
In short, you need a VPN because the internet has not been built with privacy or security in mind. Especially not this version of the internet that we live in.
VPNs have been used by journalists and political activists operating in countries with repressive regimes for years. That’s because the VPN allows them to tunnel past censorship and access the internet freely by connecting to a foreign VPN server. You may wish to use a VPN to spoof your location, too, as it’s an effective tool for streaming region-locked content. If you log in to a VPN server in the UK, you’ll be able to watch BBC streams for free. Streaming platforms like Netflix have started to block VPNs, however.
There’s a good chance that you may have never laid hands on a VPN before. If that’s the case, don’t worry! We’ve got a whole feature on how to set up and use a VPN.
Features and Pricing
Private Internet Access has three billing options, starting at $6.95 per month. You can also get a year of service for $39.95 or two years of service for a very attractive $69.95. I like that all the tiers provide the exact same features, and don’t reserve advanced tools for the higher-paying customers.
The average price of one of 10Beasts’s top-rated VPNs is currently around $10.68, well above the entry price for Private Internet Access. NordVPN, a five-star Editors’ Choice winner, costs nearly twice as much as Private Internet Access at $11.95 per month, but it also offers more features, more server locations, and a more approachable interface. Kaspersky Secure Connection, however, costs $4.99 a month. And the first pricing tier of ProtonVPN, which costs only $4.00, but doesn’t include all the features available at higher tiers.
Private Internet Access offers excellent value, but there are also many worthy free VPN services to choose from. Private Internet Access does not offer a free version of its service to try, however. TunnelBear does offer a free version, but limits you to 500MB per month, with the opportunity to raise that cap to 1GB by Tweeting about the company. AnchorFree Hotspot Shield has a more generous 500MB per day for its free version. ProtonVPN, however, is the best free VPN we’ve yet tested, simply because it places no data restrictions on free users.
Purchasing a subscription to Private Internet Access can be done in several ways. The company accepts Amazon payments, Bitcoin, and PayPal, as well as credit cards. Private Internet Access also accepts gift cards from 90 different retailers, including Starbucks and Bloomingdales. Buy one of these cards with cash, and your payment becomes reasonably anonymous. Should you ever tire of Private Internet Access, your account page has a large Cancel button, which is handy.
The company offers clients for Android, Chrome, Firefox, iOS, Linux, macOS, Windows. Your Private Internet Access subscription lets you use up to five devices with the service, which is average for the industry. NordVPN allows up to six devices at a time, while CyberGhost an even more generous 10 device. Avira Phantom VPN and Windscribe place no limitation on the number of devices.
If that’s not enough devices, you can opt to purchase a router with Private Internet Access software preinstalled, or install it yourself. Doing so lets you protect every device on your network without exceeding at the cost of just the one license for the router. I’m happy to see that the list includes some of the best routers, such as the Editors’ Choice-winning Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Router AC 1900 (WRT1900AC). If you’re keen on installing a VPN on devices besides smartphones and computers, some services go even further. TorGuard VPN, for example, sells Apple TV and Roku streaming boxes with its software preinstalled.
Private Internet Access doesn’t offer much in the way of add-ons. You won’t be able to purchase additional connections or static IP addresses as you can with NordVPN and others. A company representative did, however, tell me that it uses multiple gigabit links in order to provide 4 Gigabits per server. The company also plans to add Tor servers, already offered by NordVPN.
Private Internet Access allows the use of P2P file-sharing networks and BitTorrent on its VPN servers. Better yet, Private Internet Access does not require that you limit your torrenting to specific servers. That’s convenient.
There’s also a Kill Switch included in Private Internet Access, which shuts down internet-connected applications should the VPN be suddenly disconnected. Other VPNs that include this feature require you to select the applications to shut down, but Private Internet Access goes the extra mile of simply cutting off all internet communications. That way, none of your information is accidentally transmitted in the clear.
In addition to everything Private Internet Access has to offer, it also garners a lot of customer loyalty. In 10Beasts’s first ever Readers’ Choice survey for VPNs, Private Internet Access beat out the competition for overall customer satisfaction.
VPN technology comes in a handful of flavors, with a few different protocols used to create the encrypted tunnel. My preferred one is OpenVPN, which is open-source and therefore examined by volunteers for potential vulnerabilities. It also has a strong reputation for speed and reliability.
Private Internet Access supports OpenVPN, as well as the older IPSec and L2TP. I don’t recommend using these other two, but it’s good to have options.
Servers and Server Locations
With a subscription to Private Internet Access, you get access to the company’s 3,522 servers spread out over 53 locations in 33 countries. While VPN services will spin servers up and down to meet demand, a large number of servers is a sign of the service’s robustness. It also means you’re less likely to have to share data with a lot of other users accessing the same VPN server.
For many years, Private Internet Access had the most servers of any service I had tested. NordVPN now takes that honor with 5,130 servers. Private Internet Access is in second place, just above TorGuard VPN’s$9.99 at TorGuard 3,000 servers.
The number of server locations is also important. If you travel, or live outside the US or UK, having a server nearby means you’ll get a better experience using a VPN. Numerous server locations also mean you have more choices to spoof your location. Private Internet Access has some of the best geographic diversity I’ve seen, with servers in Asia, Central America, Europe, India, South America, the UK, and the US. Although it’s a good mix, it could use improvement. Private Internet Access doesn’t offer servers in any African nations, but that’s unfortunately not unusual for VPNs. It also has only two options in all of Central and South America.
Note that while Private Internet Access used to support servers in Russia, it no longer does. This change was in response to new VPN laws in Russiathat Private Internet Access felt would have prevented it from adequately protecting user privacy. Other VPN services have weighed in on the issue, but Private Internet Access is among the very few to cease Russian operations entirely.
Some VPN services make use of virtual servers, which mimic a server in a given country but may actually be located somewhere else. While the practical upshot is the same—your traffic appears to be coming from the country you select—consumers may have legal concerns about where their data is actually going. Not every country has agreeable data and privacy protection laws, after all.
That’s not an issue with Private Internet Access. A company representative told me that while it does use virtual servers in its overall operations, it does not use virtual servers for forwarding user traffic. Each location you select is exactly where it says it is.
Your Privacy With Private Internet Access
VPN companies advertise their privacy and security bona fides, but they also come with risks. When you route your traffic through a VPN, the company could have enormous insight into what you do online—the kind of insight your ISP has and that you’re probably using a VPN to prevent.
Thankfully, most VPNs take consumer privacy seriously, and that includes Private Internet Access. A company representative explained that Private Internet Access does not insert advertising into your web traffic and does not profit from user data. “No user information is gathered during the entire connection life-cycle,” I was told. “No monitoring or logging is performed on either incoming or outgoing network traffic.”
While the technology that a VPN company offers is important, its physical location and the legal jurisdiction the company operates under also makes a difference. In this case, Private Internet Access is based in the US and operates under US legal jurisdiction. Given the checkered past of the US Intelligence apparatus, that might seem like a hard sell. It’s important to note, however, that the US does not have any legal requirements for mandatory data gathering and retention.
Hands On With Private Internet Access
I downloaded the Windows version of Private Internet Access from the company’s website and installed it within seconds on my Lenovo ThinkPad T460s running Windows 10. I received new login credentials in the purchase confirmation email, a practice that gives you extra anonymity but may be confusing for novices.
The client for Private Internet Access is markedly different from the offerings of other VPN services. It’s minimal to the point of being nearly nonexistent. There is a login window, which also acts as a settings page for things such as the encryption type, the servers to connect to, and proxy information. Everything else is buried in the system tray icon’s right-click menu.
When you’re connected to a Private Internet Access server, the icon glows green. If you’re disconnected, it’s red. If the software is in the process of trying to establish a connection, the icon is gray. The service plays well with Windows 10 notifications, which makes it easier to tell what’s happening with your connection. Because the interface is so minimal, it’s impossible to find information like the load any given server is experiencing. NordVPN$2.99 at NordVPN – Limited Deal does a great job of conveying critical information like this.
Not having an app to poke around with might throw off some new users. I know I was confused the first time I used the service. Experienced security wonks, however, may appreciate having a VPN that stays out of the way. This is probably Private Internet Access’ most divisive aspect. If you feel more comfortable with a traditional GUI, you’ll prefer NordVPN or, friendlier still, TunnelBear VPN. Thankfully, Private Internet Access also offers 24-hour live chat support in case you’re confused.
While usability has trailed functionality in Private Internet Access, that seems to be changing. The company recently announced a new beta UI for its macOS and Windows clients. It’s much slicker than previous Private Internet Access clients, and it has customizable widgets so customers can make their experience as simple or complex as they like. The new UI even includes light and dark modes.
10Beasts doesn’t review products in Beta, but the new client from Private Internet Access (shown nearby) shows that the company is heading in a good direction. We’re eager for its release and will certainly evaluate it when it’s fully baked into the product.
Private Internet Access and Netflix
I always try to watch Netflix with a VPN as part of my testing. Many streaming services—be they music or movies—block VPNs, because they have geographically limited licenses for streaming content. The show Star Trek: Discovery, for example, is only available on CBS All Access within the US, but is streamed over Netflix in the rest of the world. I test with Netflix because of its enormous popularity and because it is particularly aggressive at blocking VPN users.
If streaming Netflix over VPN is a major concern for you, Private Internet Access will have your back. In mid-October, I attempted to stream Netflix content while connected to a Private Internet Access VPN server within the US. I had no trouble watching my show. In late November, I was able to stream from Netflix while connected to a Canadian server and a UK server, but not an Australian server. Still, that’s a strong showing. While I had little trouble using Netflix with Private Internet Access, by the time you try it, the service may again be blocked.
Many VPN companies include additional privacy and security features in order to entice consumers. To that end, Private Internet Access includes its own ad- and tracker-blocking tool called MACE. When engaged, this tool specifically blocks pesky advertisements plastered across web pages and trackers that allow companies to track your movements across the Internet. Of course, some might balk at the idea of blocking ads, since doing so makes it harder for those in the media, from solo webcomic artists to decades-old technology review websites, to earn a living. It’s worth noting that few of the VPNs I have reviewed offer ad blocking: NordVPN, TunnelBear$4.17 at TunnelBear – 2 Year Plan, AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite, and TorGuard VPN.
It’s important to remember that blocking ads isn’t just about saving yourself from annoyance or the ever-encroaching presence of late-stage capitalism. Savvy attackers will sometimes purchase ads from legitimate advertising networks and use them to launch “malvertising” attacks. In a blog post, Private Internet Access explained that its product blocks ads and trackers by running DNS requests through a black list. According to the company, “PIA doesn’t do anything besides block domains associated with advertisements, trackers, and malware at the DNS level.”
Using a VPN will protect your privacy, within certain limitations. Advertisers can identify you in a number of other ways, such as browser “fingerprinting,” which identifies your specific software and hardware configurations. The Tor service is far better at providing real anonymity than a VPN. You can access Tor through the specially made Tor Browser, but some VPNs include access to Tor as well. NordVPN has already deployed Tor integrations and Private Internet Access says it will be adding it soon, as mentioned above.
Speed and Performance
Regardless of the VPN you use, it will affect your web browsing speeds. To gauge the level of that impact, I measure latency, download speeds, and upload speeds using the Ookla speed test app.
Here’s how I test VPN speeds: I take five measurements with and without the VPN active on a nearby server, drop the highest and lowest results, average the remaining three, and then find a percent change. I then perform the same test, but connecting to a VPN server in Australia and an Ookla test server in Anchorage, Alaska. This is second round is a stress test of the service, while testing on domestic servers is more reflective of how average people more typically use VPN services.
For the latency tests, I found that Private Internet Access increased latency by 109.1 percent in the domestic test and 281.2 percent in the international test. The best domestic latency score goes to TorGuard VPN, which actually reduced latency by 6.7 percent. TunnelBear had the smallest impact on latency in the international tests, increasing latency by 270.3 percent.
Latency in particular can be of great concern to gamers. Fortunately, there are a handful of VPNs for gaming. You can also opt for a VPN that lets you select which apps send their data through the VPN’s encrypted tunnel and which don’t. That way, you can secure the most important information without restricting your game’s connection.
Private Internet Access fared better in the all-important download speed test, in which it reduced speeds by only 5.9 percent in the domestic test. It also had a strong international test score, reducing download speeds by only 61.9 percent. TorGuard VPN has the best speed score domestically, slowing download speeds by only 3.7 percent. AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite took that honor in the international download speed test, dropping download speeds by 36.9 percent.
In the domestic upload test, Private Internet Access brought speeds down by 5.7 percent. IPVanish$3.74 at IPVanish VPN – 2 Yr Plan took the victory here, reducing speeds by only 2.9 percent. In the international test, Private Internet Access slowed upload speeds by 97.3 percent, which is the best result I’ve yet seen.
The following chart shows results from the top-rated VPNs on 10Beasts as of May 2018.
Speed alone isn’t the best metric for choosing a VPN. For one thing, speeds vary depending on a number of factors. For another, the real value of a VPN is in the privacy and security it offers. If you’re primarily concerned about speed, however, Private Internet Access is unlikely to have a major impact. If that’s really your main concern, though, TorGuard is 10Beasts’s fastest VPN.
Private Internet Access for Android
The Private Internet Access Android app is among our favorites for the smartphone platform. It retains the company’s spare design aesthetic, but also includes excellent features, such as MACE DNS-level protection against malware and ads, and the ability to designate which apps should use a VPN connection and which can use a regular data connection. This is called split tunneling and it’s very handy, particularly for games and video streaming apps, which need to be whitelisted in order to function properly.
Private Internet Access for macOS
Those searching for the Private Internet Access Mac app in the official Mac App Store are sure to be disappointed, as the company only provides its VPN client through its website. Unlike most other VPN clients for macOS, however, Private Internet Access has an honest-to-goodness installer. Simply clicking and dragging the new app into the Applications folder is the norm for VPNs. Private Internet Access’ installer gets you up and running in no time.
When I last reviewed the macOS app, it was clear that Private Internet Access was not going to blend in with your other apps. It is thoroughly un-Apple in its design, with its spartan grey window imported directly from the Windows version. If you’d rather not look at it too much (and I wouldn’t blame you), you can select a server from the menu bar. However, the resulting pull-down shows every single location, making it just as ugly, but harder to use, than the core client.
Private Internet Access performed remarkably well in my Mac speed tests. When connected to a local VPN server, it had the best upload and latency scores I’ve yet recorded, and the second-best download speed score. When connected to an international server, it was the complete opposite. Here it had the worst latency score of any VPN service I’ve tested for Mac, and the second-worst scores for upload and download speeds.
As noted above, Private Internet Access is currently providing a beta UI for its macOS client. We were impressed with the slick new client on Windows, and look forward to its final release across all platforms.
Private Internet Access for iPhone
The Private Internet Access iPhone app is a free download from the iPhone app store. You’ll need a subscription to use the app, of course. Like the Windows client, the iPhone app is a stripped-down affair. It’s little more than a page on which you can toggle the VPN connection on and off, with hidden settings to change VPN server location. One nice but simple flourish is that the app clearly shows your actual and apparent IP address.
When I tested the app, I noted that, unfortunately, the iPhone app doesn’t offer all the features of its Android cousin. You cannot, for example, designate specific apps that must use a VPN connection. But the app does include the MACE ad and malware blocker, which uses blacklists to block ads and potentially dangerous websites at the DNS level.
The Private Internet Access iPhone VPN delivered strong performance in the download speeds test. I believe this is the most important test of the bunch, so that’s great. Unfortunately, it only managed so-so results in the latency test, and returned the worst upload score yet recorded in my upload tests.
The Simplest Security
Private Internet Access is easy to recommend, but only with an asterisk. Yes, it’s incredibly robust with powerful tools and an extensive network of VPN servers across the world. It also has a strong privacy stance when it comes to protecting customer information. And it’s incredibly simple, but (and this is the asterisk) it’s also stripped to the bone in terms of interface.
Private Internet Access is an Editors’ Choice winner for all it has to offer (and its very low price), but I’d love to see it reinvent itself with a user interface that is more approachable, and not simply, well, simple. NordVPN and TunnelBear, though both more expensive, are much more approachable. But if you’re looking for an affordable, powerful option, and can stomach some ugliness, Private Internet Access is an excellent choice.