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Private Internet Access review: A cheap, powerful, open-source VPN

Overall, Private Internet Access is impressive -- as long as you're not trying to connect to India.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
private-internet-access-review.jpg

Private Internet Access

4 / 5
Very good

pros and cons

Pros
  • Good overall performance
  • Open source
  • US-based
Cons
  • Connections to India
  • App can be sluggish
  • Antivirus is an upsell
  • Some won't like US-based

Private Internet Access is a powerful, flexible VPN that does a good job of keeping your data and location safe. And that's fine. But can I tell you what I think is the standout feature of Private Internet Access (beyond the fact that it abbreviates amusingly to P.I.A.)? It's that you can download the complete source code from Github. Just click here and you can see what makes Private Internet Access tick. 

That's right. Private Internet Access is open source. Don't worry about the business model though. Of all the products you could release as open source, the one that's completely and totally dependent on a physical network is a VPN offering. Given that you can't offer a VPN without the network, it's a wonder other vendors don't release their code publicly.

Also: The top 5 fastest VPNs

Private Internet Access is also US-based. There's a lot of fuss in the VPN community about companies subject to government oversight, and competitors like Proton VPN even call the US "a high-risk nation." I like how Private Internet Access reframes that premise:

And as a US-based company, we operate in adherence to the most stringent business standards and practices, so you can use our service with confidence. We also have a strict, court-proven no-logs policy that has pioneered true privacy and anonymity online.

Of course, a VPN offering is a lot more than open source availability and government jurisdiction. Without a good price, strong set of features, and solid performance, the rest won't do you any good. Fortunately, we found that Private Internet Access has a good offering across the board -- as long as you're not trying to connect to India.

Private Internet Access VPN specifications

Spec

Private Internet Access 

Servers

??

Countries

84

Simultaneous connections

10

Ad blocker

add-on

Malware scanner

add-on

Kill switch

yes

Logging

no

Split-tunneling

yes

Best price

$79 for 39 months ($2.09/month)

Accepts cryptocurrency

yes

Accepts gift cards

yes

Trial/MBG

7-day free trial, 30-day MBG

Supported platforms

iOS, Android, MacOS, Windows, Linux

Additional support for

Smart TVs, game consoles, routers

How much does Private Internet Access VPN cost?

It's important to remember that VPN companies regularly change their fees, so what we're publishing here might well be different tomorrow. But with that caution, here's a chart showing Private Internet Access VPN's current basic fee structure:

Months purchased

1

12

39

What you pay

$11.95

$40

$79

Equivalent monthly fee

$11.95

$3.33

$2.03


Pricing (at least for the 3-year plan) is among the lowest for VPN offerings, and I was glad to see that one hidden "gotcha" common to a lot of cloud services wasn't waiting to "get you" once your initial purchase period is up. When you first buy the service, you're essentially getting a new buyer discount. Unlike many of those services, when you renew Private Internet Access VPN, you're going to be charged the same fee as when you initially bought the service.

Also note that the most cost-effective plan is for 39 months, not 36. This will become important (and confusing) when you look at the upsells. That's next.

Does Private Internet Access VPN offer additional options?

But, of course. Must. Have. Upsells. In Private Internet Access' case, it has a paid-for antivirus upsell and a dedicated IP address upsell. Let's look at the antivirus one first:

Private Internet Access Premium Antivirus

Months purchased

1

12

36

What you pay

$4.50

$24

$36

Equivalent monthly fee

$4.50

$2.00

$1


There's a real benefit to the integration of antivirus with a VPN, because the antivirus systems can act while the payloads are still in the network stack, before they even have a chance to invade the computer itself. Private Internet Access' Antivirus Premium offers cloud-based definitions, detailed security reports, and an adware blocker.

There are few issues to be aware of, though. This antivirus offering is Windows-only. And remember that 39-month period we spotlighted before for buying the VPN service? The antivirus is sold on a 36 month period, so re-upping could be confusing.

Dedicated IP address

Months purchased

1

12

36

What you pay

$5.00

$51

$90

Equivalent monthly fee

$5.00

$4.25

$2.50


Private Internet Access also offers a dedicated IP address, so if you want a fixed address for some verification need, to remotely connect to your home or office network, or to help provide a more stable interface for certain gaming activities, this option is available. It, too, has a 36 month maximum plan.

Can I use Private Internet Access VPN on all my devices, including my smartphone and tablet?

Private Internet Access has downloadable client applications for Macs and Windows machines, as well as iPhones, iPads, and iOS devices. It does not work on Windows for Arm, nor will it work under Parallels on the Apple Silicon Macs. On the other hand, the company does offer a number of guides for configuring Private Internet Access for a variety of home consoles, TVs, and other devices.

Private Internet Access supports up to ten simultaneous connections. For most home networks, and certainly for when on the road, that should be enough for most people. That said, it's not as generous as Surfshark's unlimited plan.

How fast is Private Internet Access?

I installed the Private Internet Access VPN app on a fresh, fully-updated Windows 11 install on a brand new HP i3 laptop provided by Private Internet Access. To do this kind of testing, I always use a fresh install so some other company's VPN leftovers aren't clogging up the system and possibly influencing results. This was a new, sealed-in-box laptop, so I know that it was a fresh machine.

I have a 1 gig fiber feed, so my baseline network speed is quite fast and, with this laptop, I'm testing over a Wi-Fi connection located in the room next to my router.

To provide a fair US performance comparison, rather than comparing to my local fiber broadband provider here in Oregon, I used speedtest.net and picked a server a few thousand miles away in Dallas Texas to test download speed.

I tested connections to every other continent except Antarctica. Tests originated in Oregon and connected to Stockholm Sweden, Taipei Taiwan, Perth Australia, Hyderabad India, Sao Paolo Brazil and Cairo Egypt.

You can see the results below.

pia-performance
David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Notice the red flag next to Taiwan and India? In Taiwan's case, that's because Private Internet Access increased performance tremendously. Doing a speed test without the VPN netted me about 1.8Mbps, but with the VPN, I was cooking along at a quite workable 93Mbps. Then there's India. I couldn't establish a connection to India. In the country selection interface, India is grayed out:

cleanshot-2023-02-28-at-02-59-502x
Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

With the exception of India, all connections took 3-4 seconds to establish.

Will a VPN slow down my Internet speed?

That depends a lot on your connection, where you're starting from, and where you're connecting to. For some of the other VPN offerings I tested, the VPN actually increased the speed. You can see that with Private Internet Access in the connection to Cairo, where the download speed actually increased by 9% (although the ping speed did go down). It's far more pronounced in the connection to Taiwan, which was virtually unusable without the VPN and quite workable with it. 

That's likely because the VPN takes a different route, optimizes the route, uses its own protocols, and probably lands more local to the servers than when I just used the speed test on its own.

But here's the thing about faster or slower when it comes to a VPN: Everyone's performance is going to be different. Truly the only way you can be sure is to install the software and try it out. That's why we pay so much attention to those money-back guarantees. Make sure you choose a VPN who will give you a refund (read the terms of service), because how you buy may determine your eligibility. Then test, test, and test.

Can I use Private Internet Access VPN to hide my IP address?

There are actually two considerations here. The first is hiding your location. There may be many reasons why you want to do this, from personal security to content access. If you're concerned about personal security and believe that the only thing standing between you and death, abuse, persecution, or imprisonment is the VPN you're using, I strongly recommend you read this article: When your VPN is a matter of life or death, don't rely on reviews

The second consideration is whether your VPN hides the fact that you're using a VPN. Many services will block anything they can tell is using a VPN, and VPN use is also illegal in some countries.

While connected to each of the continents, I also tested whether there was a DNS leak, which would potentially provide information to your ISP or other services about what sites you visit or your originating location or IP address.

I used dnsleak.comdnsleaktest.comipleak.net, and browserleaks.com for my testing process. Here are the results:

pia-leak-tests
David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Again, note the red flag next to India. Most connections did just fine and didn't leak either IP address or the fact that a VPN was in use. Neither did India -- but we don't know if it's leak free or not. We simply couldn't test the connection.

Is it easy to connect to remote VPNs?

Initiating a connection with Private Internet Access was quite straightforward. I'm going to demonstrate this on Windows, but the interfaces are somewhat similar for Mac, iOS, and Android.

Upon install, an app was placed in the system tray. As you can see, starting with the default connection is a matter of just pressing the amber power button:

initiating-connection
Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

There's a lot you can do from this interface, even before initiating a connection. For example, you can choose what server you want to use for your connection. You can get to that list by clicking on the greater-than sign to the right of the pre-selected server location. I did find the pop-up app a bit sluggish at times. It didn't impact my use of the VPN, but I did find myself tapping the little icon in the tray a few times before the interface opened.

Also: The best VPN services right now 

Private Internet Access offers a good selection of extra features and options. You can get to this by right-clicking on the tray icon or tapping the three-dot menu at the upper right and then selecting Settings. The General preferences are relatively straightforward. You can decide whether to launch on startup and connect on launch, plus there are a few appearance options. I prefer the dark theme.

settings
Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Private Internet Access protocol choice is somewhat limited, giving you the option of OpenVPN or WireGuard. Honestly, both are quite good, so we have no complaints that some of the older, weaker, and fussier protocols aren't provided. I'm showing OpenVPN selected here, because -- while I generally fine WireGuard to be pretty stellar -- the OpenVPN interface worked better in my testing with Private Internet Access.

protocols
Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

A very useful feature is the comprehensive split-tunneling feature Private Internet Access offers. As you can see, you can choose whether to use the VPN or not based on both applications and IP addresses. This is powerful, for example, if you must visit a site or service without using the VPN. Some banks won't allow access if they detect you're using a VPN. 

Also: What is VPN split tunneling and should I be using it?

Another benefit is that you could use the Private Internet Access VPN for personal surfing, and then if you use the corporate VPN app, you could turn off  Private Internet Access, so you're on your company's provided connection.

split-tunnel
Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Private Internet Access' connection automation feature is interesting, but I do wish it was more feature-rich. As it stands, you can configure PIA to automatically connect or disconnect based on whether you're connected to an open Wi-Fi channel, an encrypted Wi-Fi link, or a wired connection.

automation
Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

That's all well and good, but I'd like to see the ability to turn on and off the malware environment based on a connection, modify which apps use the VPN connection, and change settings based on IP address or block of IP address. That way, for example, when you bring your laptop to work, one full set of profiles would activate. When you're at home, another set might activate, and so on. This is a good first step, but it's an area where Private Internet Access can certainly benefit from additional work.

Is Private Internet Access good for torrenting and streaming?

So, this one's kind of interesting. While using VPNs to bypass geoblocks is not necessarily illegal in most areas, it most definitely is a terms of service violation -- and streamers like Netflix and Hulu do not approve. 

But what about torrenting? Sure, torrents are great for downloading big Linux distribution images (better known as "distros"). But when people talk about torrenting in the context of VPNs, it's because they mostly want to illegally download images of movie and TV DVDs and Blu-rays -- which is basically just stealing.

Also: The best VPNs for torrenting

Private Internet Access does not mention torrenting, streaming, Netflix, or any streaming service anywhere on their site. Based on performance testing, if you have a fast enough initial connection, you should be able to do some streaming and torrenting. But I'm not going to test it, because I'd rather not violate the terms of service to the streaming video services that bring me so much joy. 

Also, since Private Internet Access is US-based, it's likely they're not going to talk up violating not only terms of service, but skating really close to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

How is Private Internet Access customer support?

I liked some of the documentation, but I found some of the guides a little thin. For example, there's a guide listed for setting up Private Internet Access with the Raspberry Pi, but the instructions are only three paragraphs long. If I were to give the online documentation a rating, I'd give it a solid B.

As for interacting with humans, I struck out. The only support mechanism provided is a web form. But I was unable to submit the form, due to this error:

support
Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Even though I fed the form all my data, including my account ID, I didn't have an order number, because my copy was provided to me by the company and was, technically, a trial. I think this is a bug in the form, because you can see that this field says the order number is required when requesting a refund or resetting a password. Since I wasn't doing either of those things, the form should have submitted. Probably shortly after you read this, it'll be fixed.

Is Private Internet Access VPN worth it?

There are three really important things to know when choosing a VPN:

  1. Does it log any of your data?
  2. Does it hide you while online?
  3. Is it fast enough to get done what you need to get done?

I can't independently verify the first question, but Private Internet Access says it doesn't log any data. That question is probably the hardest to answer definitively because few of the VPN vendors we've looked at have independent audits to verify their claims, but Private Internet Access is one who does. They recently conducted an audit with Big Four accounting firm Deloitte. You can read the results of that audit here.

As for the second question, Private Internet Access does hide your data, it does hide your originating location, and it appears to hide the fact that you're using a VPN. That's a solid result.

As for the third question, for the locations I was able to test (with the exception of India), the answer is a clear "yes." You can easily move files, stream YouTube, and do all your basic work while active VPN connection. 

Overall, I was satisfied with Private Internet Access. At $2.03 per month for three years, it's one of the more inexpensive plans I've looked at, and yet it's very full-featured. I liked the setup and configuration options, although seeing the automations turn into full-on profiles would be nice. I also like that Private Internet Access offers its client software in open source on Github.

As always, I recommend you take advantage of the 30-day money-back guarantee and give it a complete test. The only way you can truly know if it'll work for you is if you put it to work and find out for yourself.


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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