It’s possible the minds behind Private Internet Access (PIA) were marketing gurus and realized that their product after a popular Google search term — “how to get private internet access” — would get them thousands of free clicks. It’s also possible they thought the initials, by themselves, sounded cool. Like an invitation-only club for internet security geeks.
I don’t think we’ll ever know what happened there. One thing I do know: Private Internet Access VPN has been turning heads since 2009 for its humongous RAM server network, fast WireGuard connections on up to 10 devices at once, and its tantalizing suite of privacy add-ons.
But does PIA have enough to take on a killer, all-around VPN service like NordVPN? After all, we tested NordVPN and found it to be our second favorite VPN of all time, with network speeds and privacy features that are nothing short of impressive. Don’t worry – we used both VPNs for days on end. Now let’s find out how these two options measured up.
NordVPN and Private Internet Access VPN: The Big Picture
What’s the ideal VPN service? NordVPN has thought long and hard about this. They’ve decided it’s fast, easy, and totally secure connections on beautifully engineered apps with powerful hardware we don’t really need to see.
They’ve also banked on VPN subscribers gravitating to more than just VPNs to protect their online privacy, and now offer a premium password manager at a steal, along with encrypted cloud storage, and dedicated IP addresses for secure remote working.
NordVPN’s higher-than-average monthly price tag is no secret. But when you add up all the convenience and benefits of joining the NordSec family, NordVPN’s numbers begin to make sense.
Private Internet Access has taken a totally different tack. They’ve developed a user interface so advanced you can actually program your PIA connection via command line script. That isn’t going to be a selling point for the majority of home VPN users. In fact, it’s not even going to be a talking point for most of us.
Does all that advanced customization actually translate into a better user experience? The jury’s still out. But PIA did perform surprisingly well in my speed tests (more on that in a sec) and comes with some great gadgets anyone can use; plus, it’s substantially cheaper than NordVPN. So let’s take a closer look.
Did You Know: Private Internet Access is owned by Kape Technologies, which also owns popular, budget VPN CyberGhost.
NordVPN and Private Internet Access: The Nitty Gritty
Private Internet Access operates 35,000-plus servers. To put that into perspective, NordVPN has a bunch of servers (5,000-plus), but that’s not even making it to the base camp of PIA’s Everest-like numbers.
But VPN privacy isn’t about server numbers, it’s about how airtight their servers are. How do NordVPN and Private Internet Access VPN rate in terms of their server infrastructure?
While both claim to be 100 percent diskless (i.e., they don’t save potentially hackable data on their servers), neither claims to own and operate its own servers like, say, ExpressVPN, another of our top-rated VPNs this year. While it’s highly unlikely that this could pose a security risk, especially with a provider as serious about security as NordVPN, it’s a benchmark I’d like to see NordVPN reach soon.
Pro Tip: Not sure what makes a reliable VPN service reliable? Learn the ropes fast with our easy-to-read, fact-packed Total VPN Guide.
The good news is that NordVPN appears to be moving firmly towards private ownerships of all their servers.1 That’s something I’m sure their 12 million customers will definitely appreciate. Could Private Internet Access ever get there if it wanted to? With 35,000-plus servers in its fleet, it’s doubtful.
That said, when I checked for actual DNS leaks via IPleak.net, both NordVPN and PIA were airtight. So private or rented, physical or virtual, those servers are doing their jobs.
The winner: It’s a draw.
NordVPN has another distinct privacy advantage over Private Internet Access: the independent cybersecurity audits it runs yearly, which cover its entire server infrastructure (including logging policies). While almost all of PIA’s software is open source (very nice for public bug checking), PIA has yet to put their totally naked logging claims to an independent test. And when I say “naked,” I mean PIA says it doesn’t even record session data like bandwidth or connection times.
To their credit, an undated “transparency report” claims PIA has turned down multiple government requests to access user data. But guess what? Without an audit, it’s just words. More to the point, NordVPN is based in Panama, which means they’re outside the jurisdiction of any government requests to begin with, the final nail in U.S.-based PIA’s privacy coffin, I’d say.
FYI: NordVPN isn’t the only VPN provider to fall outside the jurisdiction of international intel-sharing agreements.2 ExpressVPN (the British Virgin Islands), ProtonVPN and VyprVPN (both based in Switzerland), and CyberGhost (Romania) don’t have to hand over user data to snooping governments either.
The winner: NordVPN.
On the Day-to-Day
When I tested Private Internet Access, I uncovered an unusually sophisticated arsenal of security and performance tweaks lurking just under the hood. Or what else would you call being able to adjust the size of your MTU data packets or specify your AES key length? Even on a more practical level, PIA delivered on the tech, letting me watch my data transfer rates and usage in real time.
Did I actually watch those numbers? No. Was I happier getting NordVPN’s server recommendations for whatever I happened to be doing at the time, i.e., streaming HBO Max abroad, sharing files with a colleague, masking my VPN to check my bank account? You bet.
Ditto for NordVPN’s virtually seamless connections. (Click “quick connect” and you’re browsing securely in literally seconds.) Sure, being able to “snooze” my VPN connection with my PIA app was cool in theory. In practice, I’m not sure it’s any cooler than snoozing my phone alarm. So, PIA team, I think I’ll pass on that. But pass and go with NordVPN’s clean map view and cleaner expanded menu.
Pro Tip: Specialty servers and quick connect are just two of the time-saving connection tools you get with NordVPN. If you like a particular server in a country, just click the heart icon next to it and it’ll be added to your favorites list for safekeeping.
Speaking of the extra tech you might actually need under the hood, both NordVPN and Private Internet Access both had me covered. Kill switch, check. Auto-connect, check. Ad and malware-blocker, check. (Though, for the record, NordVPN’s Cybersec did a better job blocking ads than PIA’s Mace.) NordVPN also has a neat security feature that PIA doesn’t have — the Dark Web Monitor.
While the dark web isn’t as scary a place as it sounds, you still don’t want your email addresses or passwords ending up there for sale like Jawa scrap on Tatooine. NordVPN’s Dark Web Monitor combs dark web networks for any leaked data connected to your email addresses. If it finds a match, it alerts you.
Did You Know: You don’t need to download the Tor browser to access the Tor network if you have NordVPN. With NordVPN’s Onion Over VPN specialty servers, you can access the dark web without leaving the comfort of your VPN.
The last time I tested NordVPN (against TunnelBear), NordVPN’s speeds were off-the-charts fast. That was mainly due to NordVPN’s hand-engineered, WireGuard-based protocol, NordLynx. It’s just lean and fast by design.
Private Internet Access doesn’t have a reputation for speed, but it is WireGuard-compatible. When I speed tested PIA — on a slower 100 Mbps line — I didn’t see any loss in download or upload speeds. Honestly, this was impressive, even if it wasn’t the 396 Mbps I hit on my 400 Mbps line testing NordVPN.
But that’s the thing about point-in-time tests. They can vary radically depending on how smoothly your base connection is running and how busy the particular server you’re connecting to is. In other words, no two point-in-time tests will yield exactly the same results, even on the same router with the same VPN.
A VPN feature like quick connect, which uses an algorithm to find your fastest connection for you, is useful here, and both NordVPN and PIA have it. In all my tests, this proved to be the best way to use these two VPN services.
There are very few situations when I wouldn’t recommend NordVPN for sheer speed. That said, if you’re leaning towards PIA because you want to hand rig all your Android devices with an APK file, Private Internet Access is not slow by any means.
The winner: NordVPN.
FYI: AES-128 and AES-256 encryption algorithms have 2128 and 2256 secret keys, respectively. That means an AES-256 algorithm has 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 times as many keys as an AES-128 algorithm, making brute force attacks considerably tougher.
NordVPN vs. Private Internet Access: Pricing Options and Plans
Dark Web Monitors and specialty servers both sound great on paper, but for better or worse, cost is the bottom line for many of us. The problem is, pricing is rarely black and white with VPNs.
Both NordVPN and Private Internet Access VPN offer two-year plans at a substantial discount. Two years on NordVPN’s premium pricing plan, for instance, is $3.67 per month. The equivalent Private Internet Access package costs $2.69 per month. Even if you threw in a dedicated IP, the price would be about the same: $5 per month for PIA, $5.83 for NordVPN. So where’s the catch?
One, NordVPN is $9.82 per month after the first two years, so I’d figure that into my budget. Two, PIA comes with one year of Boxcryptor unlimited encrypted cloud storage for free (thereafter $48 per year). Incidentally, the equivalent service with NordVPN will run you about the same, but with a 500 GB cap.
So, plenty of numbers, but not so much clarity. Let’s make it crystal clear by seeing what would happen if we purchased three years of NordVPN and Private Internet Access without their cloud storage plans.
Pro Tip: Secure cloud storage services like Boxcryptor give us an additional layer of security by encrypting our files locally on our devices before we upload them to Dropbox or Google Drive.
Three years of Private Internet Access would come out to $96.84. The equivalent NordVPN subscription would run $187.47, or almost double.
PIA’s pricing positions it particularly well against other tech-first VPN providers. Windscribe’s pro plan, for instance, starts at $4.08 per month. Over three years, that’s $148.88. The subscription situation with KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, another close competitor, is about the same.
So it goes without saying, even if NordVPN is competitively priced against other top-of-the-line, all-around VPN services like ExpressVPN and Hotspot Shield, Private Internet Access is the cheaper choice here.
The winner: Private Internet Access.
Did You Know: Dedicated IP addresses don’t just come in handy for outsmarting VPN-sniffing streaming platforms. If you work remotely and need to connect to a company network, chances are, you won’t be able to unless you have a unique static IP.
NordVPN vs. Private Internet Access: The Support Experience
The Private Internet Access Support Center is heading in the right direction. Their guides are easy to access and search, and they cover more than just the basics. They’ll show you how to manually install OpenVPN on your Android devices, for instance.
PIA’s knowledgbase is worth checking out, too, especially their five-part Security Best Practices series. Couple that with a news page that offers server status updates and a community forum (like Windscribe’s subreddit, an enormously useful resource), and I was happy with my PIA troubleshooting experience overall.
When it was time for chat support (now 24/7 with Private Internet Access), my experience fell apart at the seams, mainly because PIA’s chat interface was so glitchy. The first time, I couldn’t get on. The second time, it conked out in the middle of a chat. The third time, it worked.
Great, if I was Goldilocks. Otherwise, it was a wash-out that left me pining for TunnelBear VPN’s email support. (I’m serious. TunnelBear’s email support is great!)
So while I give PIA big points for putting a lot of effort into their help center, I’d go with NordVPN if I wanted quick, on-the-spot support — or an in-depth read on VPN security. For the latter, just consider that in one week in June (16-23), NordVPN published 17 quality cybersecurity deep dives on their blog.
The only thing I’d like to see NordVPN add to their online documentation? Easier-to-find setup guides. As of now, they’re lurking just underneath their FAQ.
The winner: NordVPN, across the board.
FYI: Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology (i.e., the prerecorded messages we interact with in lieu of an operator when we call the electricity authority or the bank), has been around since the 1970s. Perhaps, some would say, 50 years too long.
NordVPN vs. Private Internet Access: Which Is the Better Pick?
I like tweaking the MTUs on my data packets as much as the next guy, but, as a busy writer and dad, I’d much rather sit back and have my VPN do it for me.
But not every user is the same. I get that. If you saw my screenshot of the PIA desktop client a few paragraphs back and felt like you’d finally found a VPN that spoke your language, you should definitely give Private Internet Access a shot. Monthly costs for that much control couldn’t be better.
If, like me, you’d rather go about your online business with the best security and quickest connections on the market, packed into superbly designed apps that are a pleasure to use, NordVPN would be my first choice. And with that, NordVPN is my first choice.
Yes. NordVPN has P2P servers just for torrents and file sharing. PIA supports torrents on all its servers, with no bandwidth throttling.
As of this writing, for two years of service, NordVPN costs $3.72 per month and PIA $2.69 per month. The grand total for three years, when NordVPN flips to a $9.82 monthly fee, is $187.47 for NordVPN and $96.84 for PIA.
Yes. PIA actually claims to log absolutely nothing, not even session data, whereas NordVPN does log limited session data (like OSs for crash reports, etc.).
NordVPN has over 5,000 servers in 59 countries. Private Internet Access claims to operate more than 35,000 servers in 79 countries.
They do. NordVPN has Cybersec, which blocks both malware and invasive ads. PIA’s Mace also claims to put the kibosh on malware and ads, but in live testing, we found a few issues.