The internet is everywhere.
It touches every part of our lives. You’re reading this article online. You likely checked your social media before that. And before that, maybe you did some online banking or bought your cat a new outfit on Amazon. Hey, I’m not judging.
But you need to understand that everything you’re doing — the websites you’re visiting, the search terms you’re entering, the people you talk to, the emails you send — they’re all about as secure as Swiss cheese.
That’s why a growing number of folks are relying on virtual private network (VPN) services like Private Internet Access (PIA) to keep safe online. I know, lots of acronyms.
Aside from winning the “Most Literal Name on the Planet” award, Private Internet Access VPN deserves recognition for its strong security posture and its depths of customizability. You can really get up to your elbows in the technical ins and outs of the service, or you can leave the hood closed and run one of the most secure, user-friendly VPNs I’ve encountered. The choice is totally up to you.
But before we get into the finer details of this service, let’s take out our broad brush and look at some of PIA’s pros and cons.
Private Internet Access is one of the more affordable services I’ve come across. Here’s how their pricing breaks down:
|Subscription Duration||Monthly||Yearly||Two Years|
|Cost||$9.95||$3.33 Per Month||$2.69 Per Month|
Something to quickly note here. If you select the two-year subscription plan, you’re also going to get a one-year license for Boxcryptor, a service that will encrypt the files you keep in cloud storage like Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, and others. If that sounds interesting, check out my guide to Private Internet Access’ costs to learn more.
One thing that I always like to see is the ability to pay for your VPN using cryptocurrencies. While this doesn’t make things totally anonymous, it does add a layer of ambiguity between the VPN provider and your wallet. If you think about it, it does seem a little weird to hand over your credit card information to a service you’re paying to keep you anonymous, right?
FYI: Cryptocurrency’s reputation for being completely anonymous is a bit of an urban legend. If anything, they’re pseudonymous, like an author writing under a pen name.1
Luckily Private Internet Access allows you to do just that. Not only do they accept the most popular crypto — Bitcoin — they’ll also take some of its lesser-known cousins, specifically Bitcoin Cash, Ethereum, and Litecoin (sorry, no Doge yet).
Once you’ve selected your payment option, you’re going to be given the opportunity to add on a dedicated IP address for $5 extra per month. What’s a dedicated IP address? Glad you asked…
Most VPNs use shared exit nodes, meaning that at any given time, someone else might have used the same IP address. Dedicated IP addresses, on the other hand, are accessible to you and you alone.
Now, why would you want a dedicated IP address?
Using a dedicated IP address will result in a smoother browsing experience overall. Many ISPs recognize regular VPN users as bot traffic, and you’ll be interrupted by CAPTCHAs and other identity verifications. Activities like online shopping and banking can be disrupted, and in restrictive countries, IPS protocols might even be blocked.
FYI: VPNs can make modern telecommunications platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams act a little wonky, but a dedicated IP address will help smooth things out. So I was happy to see that Private Internet Access makes the option available.
I’d say this is a pretty great add-on. I’m not exactly thrilled that you’ll need to pay $5 extra per month for it — especially considering that when you check out my review of NordVPN you’ll find that a dedicated IP address comes included. Still, at the end of the day it’s a pretty reasonable price to pay. That is if PIA is all that it claims to be.
So let’s dig a little deeper.
Once you’ve paid, setting up Private Internet Access VPN is a piece of cake. You’ll download the program and install it on your computer, just like you would any other piece of software. Since we’re on a Mac, that involved downloading the installer, executing the program, and dragging it over to our applications folder. One thing worth noting, though, is that PIA works on any number of platforms, including Windows, iOS, Android, and Linux. They also have extensions for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera.
Once the VPN is installed, you’ll have the option to sign in immediately or take a quick tour of the service. I usually recommend the latter, especially if you’re new to VPNs. Most are pretty user-friendly, but some of the features might be kind of complicated to the layperson. Unfortunately, PIA’s virtual tour is a little lackluster, especially considering the amount of technical customization available to you.
After you’re logged in, getting protected is a breeze. Click the big “connect” button, and you’re all set.
The basic, day-to-day functionality of PIA is as simple as that — clicking on that single big button.
In fact, it really reminded me of the experience I had while testing NortonVPN. It’s an extremely simple dashboard that lives up in your toolbar. Once you switch on, you can sort of forget about it.
And for your average internet user, that’s really all they’ll ever have to worry about. But unlike NortonVPN, which was a pretty basic service, the technical tinkering you can do with PIA is pretty astounding. Let’s take a look under the hood
I’ll just say it right off the bat: Private Internet Access VPN is one of the most highly customizable, highly technical VPNs I’ve ever worked with. But that doesn’t mean that it’s inaccessible to the layperson. I don’t think PIA is as easy of a service as I found when I reviewed Surfshark, but the UI is really simple to figure out — sleek, even — and all of the operations are pretty intuitive. Let’s start by expanding the dashboard to see what we’re working with.
Let’s just work our way down the column. First, by clicking the arrow to the right of the world map, you’ll pull up your server list. This is really extensive. At the time I wrote this, PIA was running about 3,000 servers across 76 countries — one of the larger VPN networks available.
For comparison, our top-rated VPN — NordVPN — operates 5,200 servers across the globe.
Something to note here, though. See that globe next to Malta, Andorra Algeria, and the like?
That indicates those servers are geo-located. This means the physical server isn’t located in that country, but the IP address will be registered there. This helps VP services operate in countries where service might be unavailable due to government restrictions or lack of secure hosts.2
Moving down the line, you’ll see your performance and your usage. Performance shows you how long you’ve been connected and your current through-put, and your usage shows you your totals for the individual session.
Will this be extremely necessary information in your day-to-day use of PIA? Not likely, but it’s great information to have on hand for certain use cases or to diagnose issues once you get into some pretty advanced customization.
Next up we have the quick settings. Here you can toggle the ad blocker on and off, accept LAN traffic, allow port forwarding, and select between light and dark mode. Phew.
You know what’s next. Let’s go through these one by one.
There’s also a feature that isn’t on your Quick Settings menu, but it’s worth talking about.
Right. So now we have one last piece to discuss in terms of settings and functions: PIA’s highly detailed connection configurations.
So here is where you can get into some extremely fine-tuning with Private Internet Access VPN. If you open up your settings and click on connection, you’ll see this menu:
I don’t recommend fiddling around in here if this looks like gibberish to you. With the wrong settings, you might accidentally decrease the speed and/or the security of the VPN. Don’t worry, you’re not going to break anything. However, unless you have a specific reason for changing things around here — like you want to install PIA on a router you soldered together using a broken radio and a microwave oven — you’ll likely want to avoid messing with these settings too much. That said, if that screenshot gets your motor running, PIA is likely a great choice for you.
FYI: PIA offers both 128- and 256-bit encryption. The main difference between the two is the number of rounds of encryption your data goes through — 128 uses 10; 256 uses 14. The more rounds of encryption, the more complex the code.5
Now I could write an entire article on just this window alone, but rather than bore you with the really particular technical aspects of all of this, I’ll point you in the direction of PIA’s resources.6 They do a great job of explaining the more advanced aspects of their service for those who are interested.
So that about does it for PIA’s more advanced features and settings. If this sounds a little overwhelming, you might be interested in checking out our comparison of this service to one that’s a lot more user friendly — read our ExpressVPN vs. PIA guide for more information on that, or you might want to see how they perform against another favorite in our NordVPN vs. Private Internet Access comparison.
If you’re still on board, though, Let’s pull ourselves back out of the weeds, now, and take a look at some real, concrete factors that will help you determine if this is the right service for you.
The most important factor to me when I’m testing a VPN is how secure it is. The good news is that PIA’s security is pretty much flawless. Although the company has changed hands a few times, their security audits have come back clean, and in my own tests, there didn’t appear to be any problems.
Solid security, and they’ve got the proof that they’re not lying about their logging. That’s exactly what you want to see when you’re selecting a VPN.
FYI: One of the ways you can test the security of a VPN is to see if it’s leaking DNS requests. IPLeak.net will do that for you.
But that’s only one side of the coin. If you’re super secure but you’re unable to connect at reasonable speeds, you’re likely not going to want to use that particular VPN. So how’d PIA do at the racetrack?
So I like to talk about VPN speeds in two ways — anecdotally and demonstrably.
To the former: In the time I was testing PIA, I never noticed any significant slowdowns in my speeds. I worked, I banked, I streamed. All fine. They’ve got a huge network, which really helps their overall performance, and their “quick connect” feature seems to work just fine in deciding which server will give you the best speeds. No complaints there.
To the latter: When I ran my speed test, PIA performed admirably. Keep in mind, this is a point-in-time test, and it’s only specific to my connection. I’d expect you’d get similar results, but every configuration and connection is unique.
When I took my baseline, I was running a little slower than I normally do. This was my speed without running the VPN:
When I switched it on, though, I got the slightest bump up in my download speed, and my upload took a bit of a ding:
Totally normal and to be expected, and not at all enough to notice in regular browsing. So great news there, too.
At the end of the day, what does all this mean? Is Private Internet Access VPN the best? Is it bunk? Or is it somewhere in between?
PIA definitely checks the two most important boxes for any VPN — speed and security — so we’re able to judge them on more nuanced criteria. Here’s what really stood out to me.
I really liked that PIA kind of gives you the best of both worlds in terms of customization and technical tinkering. On the one hand, it can be a really simple, easy-to-use service that doesn’t require much fiddling from the operator at all, but if you’re so inclined, you can turn the wrenches and punch the buttons and twist the dials to tune the service to your exact specifications and needs.
That said, I wouldn’t say this is a VPN for everyone. If you’re uninterested in button punching and dial twisting, PIA is only going to provide you basic protections. Sure, you’ll be secure and your speeds won’t suffer, but that’s about it. You’re going to be using a service you’re only scratching the surface of, and there are plenty of more user-friendly options on the market that offer more for the layperson — just check out our list of the 10 best VPN services on the market today if you want a better idea of what those might be.
However, if you’re the type that built a computer before you could walk, I think you might have found the perfect service. There’s no limit to the permutations of configurations you can experiment with, and their wealth of technical resources is really unrivaled. This is a great service for the more advanced folks out there, and while you don’t need to be Lenard Adleman to use it, I’m confident in recommending it to folks who know who that is.
PIA offers three subscription options. Month to month, it’ll cost $9.95. For a year, it costs $3.33 per month, and for two years it costs $2.69 per month.
PIA has one of the largest server networks of any VPN service on the market today, and its speeds are among the best I’ve tested.
Yes, PIA has been audited by a third party to confirm they do not log user data, and in our tests they showed no vulnerabilities.
While you can stream with PIA, there are no specific optimizations for streaming platforms.
Yes, PIA is available on both Android and iOS devices.
Mcloughlin, Pamela. (2020, Dec 8). How Anonymous Is Cryptocurrency? HelloSoda.
D., Kaneesha. (2021, Mar 16). Geo-Located Servers We Offer. Private Internet Access.
D., Kaneesha. (2021, Mar 16). What is MACE?. Private Internet Access.
Steve Smart Home Guide. (2021, Mar 16). Understanding Port Forwarding – Beginners Guide.
N-Able. (2019, July 29). Understanding AES 256 Encryption.
Private Internet Access. (2021). VPN Encryption.
With a decade of experience as a journalist, Derek Prall has been covering cybersecurity for seven years. He has spent more than 1,000 hours researching digital privacy and has covered almost 100 topics related to VPN and identity theft protection. Previously, Derek has covered tech issues at American City & County magazine, where he won numerous national awards for his cybersecurity coverage. His areas of expertise included network security, big data analytics, and AI applications in public safety. Derek graduated with dual bachelor’s degrees in English and Communications from Furman University and now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife and two cats.