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Private Internet Access (PIA) VPN review: This US-based VPN is fast and highly configurable

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
2.79
per month

It won’t be right for everyone, but PIA is a speedy, fuss-free solution for location spoofing and streaming

Pros 
Good speeds in Europe and the US
Unblocks almost all streaming services
Free seven-day trial for mobiles
Cons 
US jurisdiction could compromise your privacy
Disappointing long-range performance
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PIA is a VPN service that can keep all your online activity private, so not even your own ISP will be able to monitor which sites you’re visiting and which files you’re downloading. Like all VPNs, it works by encrypting your internet traffic and routing it through one of the company’s secure servers.

The company doesn’t say exactly how many servers it operates, but it proudly advertises that they’re spread out across 78 different countries, which means you can also use the VPN to hide your location. By picking a server in, for example, the USA, you can access video streaming sites and other services that are normally blocked in the UK. PIA also allows you to use your virtual presence to share and download files over BitTorrent, even if it’s not legal in your home country.

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A single month of service costs £8.09, which is around the same as most rival VPNs. As usual, it’s far more cost-effective to sign up for a full year: that costs just £32.49, which is equivalent to £2.71 per month. There are regular special deals, too: at the time of writing, you can sign up for a full three years plus three months free for £65, which works out at £1.67 per month.

A subscription lets you use the VPN on up to ten devices simultaneously. All the popular desktop and mobile platforms are supported, and you can install it on a compatible router to protect all traffic from any number of connected devices. If you have any trouble setting up and using the service there’s online support. The company claims this is available 24/7, although when we tried it the live chat feature was offline and we had to fill in a web form and wait several hours for a response.

If you’re still not satisfied for any reason you can exercise a 30-day money-back guarantee. It's also possible to try PIA for seven days before you buy, which is very unusual for a VPN service – although the trial only covers Android and iOS devices.

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Private Internet Access (PIA) VPN review: What’s it like to use?

We tested the PIA app for Windows and had no problem installing it from the PIA website. It lurks in your system tray most of the time, popping up a small rectangular window when clicked. A big round button lets you connect and disconnect the VPN, and you’ll also see details of the server you’re connected to. Clicking a fly-out arrow brings up a scrolling list of available servers. You can type to search for a location, or sort the list by name or latency – the latter providing a handy clue as to how speedy that particular server is likely to be.

You can also expand the interface into a full-height strip that provides quick-connect buttons for your favourite servers, a performance graph, and quick access to options such as desktop notifications, port forwarding and so forth. It may look overcomplicated, and the smaller icons and controls can be a little fiddly, but you can close or reorder the different modules – and in truth you probably won’t need to use them every day. In fact, you can configure the VPN to connect automatically and never have to interact with the software at all.

The Android app is laid out in much the same way, with a main screen that scrolls up and down to reveal similar controls and information as those found in the desktop app. Once again you can customise the order and visibility of the different panels, and again you can configure automatic connection, so after initial configuration you can stay protected without even having to open the app.

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Private Internet Access (PIA) VPN review: How fast is it?

All VPNs slow down your connection to some extent, but we’ve no complaints about PIA’s performance. We tested the service on a laptop running Windows 11, located in our own home with a 200Mbits/sec fibre internet connection. After installing PIA and connecting to a London-based server, we got an excellent download rate of 187Mbits/sec from Google’s internet speed checker – which in practical terms means there’s no noticeable slowdown at all.

When we switched to a server in New York, speeds naturally fell, but we still saw an impressive 123Mbits/sec, which is well above the 70 or 80Mbits/sec we often get from other VPNs. However, PIA suffered when we started selecting servers on the other side of the world. Sending traffic via Tokyo caused speeds to drop to 41Mbits/sec, and selecting a server in Sydney cut rates to 16Mbits/sec. Most other VPNs managed to deliver around 30Mbits/sec in the same test.

We tried the same test on a Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 tablet and were pleased to see very similar performance. The server in London gave us 170Mbits/sec downstream, while a New York connection hit 130Mbits/sec.

The desktop and mobile apps both support split tunnelling, so you can specify that only certain apps need to go through the VPN, while others can safely go through your ISP’s servers at full speed. You can alternatively tap or click a handy button to temporarily snooze the VPN for a preset period, after which it will automatically reengage.

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Private Internet Access (PIA) VPN review: Is it good for video streaming?

For top-quality 4K video, a download speed of 35Mbits/sec is recommended – and if you’re connecting to a server in Europe or the US then PIA easily exceeds that. Even if you want to stream something from Australia, you should still be able to watch in Full HD, on both desktop and mobile devices.

As for content, we found that PIA worked with almost every video service we tried. On my laptop we were able to browse and stream the US libraries of Netflix and Disney+, and BBC iPlayer, BritBox and Now TV also worked seamlessly through the VPN, so you can keep up with UK shows while you’re abroad.

However, as usual, Amazon Prime Video detected that our virtual location didn’t match our home address and offered only a limited selection of region-free content. And, while we had no problems using PIA on Android devices, the Disney+ app wasn’t fooled by the VPN, and we weren’t able to use our tablet to watch US-only content.

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Private Internet Access (PIA) VPN review: Is it secure?

PIA takes your privacy seriously – to the extent that you can pay for the service in Bitcoin or a selection of other cryptocurrencies so your subscription can’t be directly tied to your real-world identity. The company also promises that it doesn’t keep any logs of your online activity.

The app is designed with an eye on security, too. We’ve mentioned the auto-connect feature: on both Windows and Android you can create quite sophisticated rules to turn the VPN on or off for particular wireless or mobile networks (although note that the Android implementation is currently labelled “experimental”). In the desktop client, you can also nominate certain IP addresses that should always be accessed through the VPN, regardless of other settings, which is a great feature that’s found in few other VPNs.

On the desktop, a multi-hop routing option can also make it harder for anyone to track your location, and all PIA apps offer a kill switch that shuts down all internet activity when the VPN disconnects, to ensure that nothing gets inadvertently exposed.

There’s just one thing that makes us hesitant about PIA: it’s based in the USA, which is part of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance. This means that whatever information PIA has about you could theoretically be obtained by US agencies and shared with British authorities. We haven’t heard of this happening, but for greater peace of mind you might prefer a VPN that’s based in a more neutral location, such as NordVPN in Panama or ExpressVPN in the British Virgin Islands.

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Private Internet Access (PIA) VPN review: Should you buy it?

PIA might not be the right fit for everyone. Long-distance performance is disappointing, and the fact that the company falls under US jurisdiction means it shouldn’t be your first choice if anonymity is crucial to you.

However, if you just want everyday privacy and a location-spoofing service that works within your own hemisphere, PIA is a good choice that combines great speeds with a strong feature set and excellent availability of streaming services. The price is reasonable, too (especially if you’re able to grab a long-term deal), and the ten-device allowance is appealingly flexible.

Private Internet Access (PIA) VPN review: Quick facts

Based in:USA
Cheapest price:£1.67 per month (promotional price)
Money-back guarantee:Yes, 30-days
Devices; SimultaneousUnlimited; 10 simultaneous
Servers:Not stated, 78 countries
Speed:Fast
24/7 customer support:Yes
Netflix and Disney+:Yes
BBC iPlayer:Yes
Torrenting allowed:Yes
Killswitch:Yes
Multihop:No
DNS leaks:No
Activity logging:No

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