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Once the domain of spies and hoodie-wearing hackers on Nineties TV shows, VPNs are now used by regular folk to browse the web anonymously.
A virtual private network routes all of your internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel – a black box that nobody, besides you and the VPN service itself, can peek inside. As a tool, a VPN has many uses, from connecting to public wifi networks without exposing your device, to bypassing local or national firewalls.
A VPN can help you access your Gmail account when travelling in China, where Google is blocked, or to privately access help and resources that you might not want a college network administrator knowing about. It can help journalists working in dangerous parts of the world where the internet is strictly controlled, just as much as it can help you watch Drag Race on your iPad while hungover in Marbella.
Private Internet Access is one of the most popular VPNs around. It costs less than similarly featured VPNs, while outperforming rivals in a few critical areas. It has a strong roster of 35,550 servers and a global selection of 78 countries to connect through, and delivers fast speeds, stable connections and reliable streaming quality.
To review Private Internet Access we tested it on a range of platforms including desktop and mobile apps, each time measuring speed and latency, and testing compatibility with the most popular streaming services. We considered the cost of a subscription to other VPNs with similar server capacity and features, and compared the VPN’s track record on customer privacy against other services.
Private Internet Access: From £1.69 per month, Privateinternetaccess.com
Number of servers: 35,550
Server locations: 78 regions
Devices supported: 10
Operating systems supported: Windows, macOS, Linux, Fire TV, Android, iOS, Chrome, Firefox, Opera
Pros: Fast speeds, lots of servers, great design, good value
Cons: No third-party audit, no streaming iPlayer from outside the UK
Private Internet Access has three price tiers to choose from. The monthly tier costs £8.09 per month. Pay for six months and it’s £32.34, which works out at an equivalent monthly rate of £5.39. The price comes down even further if you opt for the two-year plan, which includes an additional two months for free and costs £43.94, equivalent to £1.69 per month.
For an additional £3.39 per month (£81.36 up-front) you can add a dedicated IP address to your subscription for two years. Usually, each time you connect to a VPN you’re randomly assigned an IP address from a grab bag shared by all users. A dedicated IP address is like a reserved locker at the gym, and because you’re the only one using it you’re less likely to find that it’s been flagged as suspicious by streaming services.
You can also add on a subscription to PIA’s Windows anti-virus software, which costs £1.25 per month (£30 up-front) for two years.
You can try out the Android and iOS apps free for seven days, but there’s no free trial of the desktop version of Private Internet Access. However, you can cancel within the first 30 days to receive a full refund. This requires jumping through a few hoops and submitting a support ticket along with verification information, so Private Internet Access can funnel you through their customer retention process before letting you go.
Payment can be made in GBP with PayPal or via a credit card. Private Internet Access also accepts payment in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, for added security and anonymity.
We ran a series of privacy tests while connected to a number of Private Internet Access VPN servers and found the service performed excellently when it came to obscuring our identity.
Your IP address and DNS form a big part of your online fingerprint. They can’t be used by sites to reveal your most sensitive personal information — such as names, addresses and credit card details — but they do allow websites and streaming services to see which city or town you’re in and for your internet service provider to track which sites you visit and when.
Any working VPN will make you appear to have a different IP address and DNS, but some can accidentally leave a trace of your true details behind. Sites can detect these details if they’re actively searching for them. Netflix and Prime Video look for these leaks to catch out VPN users trying to get around geo-restricted blocks.
To check for leaks we ran tests on IPleak.net and DNSLeakTest, which confirmed that Private Internet Access was successfully obscuring our identity as we browsed. Private Internet Access was also WebRTC secure and prevented IPv6 traffic leaks in our tests.
By default, Private Internet Access uses AES-128 encryption, but this can be toggled up to the top-level AES-256 standard in the setting menu. Available on desktop as well the iOS and Android apps, a kill switch feature shuts down all internet access the instant the VPN disconnects, so that no data is accidentally exposed mid-transfer.
Private Internet Access uses WireGuard, a new and efficient protocol, and OpenVPN, a popular and trusted open-source protocol used by many leading VPNs, so there are no privacy concerns there. There’s also an option to block ad tracking and malware-related domains as you browse, similar to how an ad-blocking extension works.
When you use the internet without a VPN, your internet service provider keeps a record of the names of the websites you visited, as well as when you visited them. Switching to a VPN doesn’t make this information go away, it simply changes who gets to see it.
Most VPNs have a zero-logs policy, meaning they claim not to store any information about how you use their service. Some VPNs use external auditors to prove this claim, while others ask you to take them at their word.
Private Internet Access has a zero-logs policy, but it hasn’t released any independent verification of this yet. The VPN promised a full third-party audit of its systems would take place in 2021 to reassure users that their privacy is safeguarded, but this didn’t happen. A PIA representative posted on Reddit in late 2021, saying that the company was aiming to release a third-party audit in the first quarter of 2022. Obviously, we’re past the first quarter now and no audit has taken place as of yet.
A good indicator that a no-logging policy is legitimate is to check whether the VPN has ever been compelled by the police to hand over customer information. A publicly available court record from 2016 describes an instance of Private Internet Access being unable to comply with an order to hand over user information to investigators, as no such user records exist.
Private Internet Access performs well and ranks alongside other top-rated VPNs we’ve tested, with fast speeds and reliable connections across most of its available locations. We used Ooklah and Google to measure our internet speeds from our test machine in London.
Connecting to nearby VPN servers inside the UK, speeds were barely impacted, only dropping by between 5 and 10 per cent depending on the time of day. That’s not enough to be noticeable when streaming or browsing.
Routing our connection through servers on the east coast of the USA had a bigger impact on page loading times. Speed tests showed drops of nearer to 20 per cent at some points, though again this wasn’t enough to degrade video quality when streaming. Most of the time, internet speeds were incredibly fast, considering our data was pinballing halfway around the planet.
When it comes to usability, Private Internet Access is about as friendly as VPNs get. By default the desktop app minimises to the system tray and presents you with an easy-to-find power button to switch the VPN on and automatically connect to any server. The user interface resembles a mobile app, with buttons for quickly toggling common settings.
Dive into the settings menu and there’s plenty for the more technically minded to tinker with. You can switch from OpenVPN to the WireGuard protocol and configure ports and proxies – something most users won’t need to do. One useful feature tells Private Internet Access to automatically cycle through these settings in the background if the connections stops working.
Private Internet Access for Netflix
You can watch region-exclusive shows on Netflix using Private Internet Access, so long as you have a Netflix subscription.
We tested out US Netflix, which streamed shows and movies reliably in maximum definition. In countries where Private Internet Access has fewer servers, such as the UK, we had less success and were blocked more often.
Netflix uses geo-restrictions to protect its licensing agreements with copyright holders in different parts of the world. It’s not piracy to use a VPN to watch Netflix, but it does breach the platform’s terms of service.
Most streaming sites are in a perpetual game of whack-a-mole with VPNs, blocking IP addresses as quickly as new ones are added. This means that the best VPN for watching Netflix can change over time, and services that once worked can suddenly be blocked.
Private Internet Access for Prime Video
You can watch Prime Video shows not normally available in your country using Private Internet Access. In our tests, streaming in HD was smooth and buffer-free using VPN servers based in North America.
You’ll need to be a paid-up member of Prime Video, of course, and while it’s perfectly legal to use a VPN to watch Amazon Prime Video shows from the US or other countries, disguising your location by any means is against the platform’s terms of service.
Amazon focuses its efforts on identifying VPN traffic and blocking it en masse, rather than going after any individual users. If the site detects you’re using a VPN, you’ll be shown a notification and will be unable to watch any content until you disconnect from it.
Private Internet Access for BBC iPlayer
You can’t watch BBC iPlayer using Private Internet Access.
If you’re travelling abroad and want to keep up to date with Eastenders on iPlayer, then we’re afraid you’re out of luck with this VPN. The BBC redirects you to its international front page, and when trying to watch shows on iPlayer it displays the message: “BBC iPlayer only works in the UK. Sorry, it’s due to rights issues.”
With a relatively small number of IP addresses in the UK, it’s probable that the BBC has been able to successfully flag each one as belonging to Private Internet Access. To watch iPlayer from abroad using a VPN, we recommend NordVPN or another service from our list of the best VPNs for streaming and entertainment.
Android and iOS apps
Private Internet Access is one of the best-designed VPN apps on Android and iOS, with a clean and easy-to-navigate interface. It closely resembles the desktop version and has much of the same functionality and protocol options.
Split tunnelling allows certain apps direct access to the internet when connected to the VPN, which is especially useful on mobile where you might not want all of your internet traffic to be routed through a different IP address.
Android has its own kill switch feature built-in at the OS level, which overrides the one provided by Private Internet Access. Other mobile-specific features include the option to connect to a VPN as soon as the phone is switched on. Ad-blocking features seen on the desktop version aren’t available on mobile.
The verdict: Private Internet Access
Private Internet Access is a smart and stylish VPN with strong encryption standards, fast speeds overall, a transparent policy of using open-source software and a proven track record in protecting customer privacy.
The recent overhaul of the VPN’s design completes a professional and consistent look and feel across the desktop, iOS and Android apps, and the Chrome and Firefox extensions. Appearances are the least important factor in choosing a VPN, but the app’s clean interface feels reassuringly polished.
When it comes to streaming, Private Internet Access successfully unblocked US Netflix and US Prime Video, but was regularly detected when trying to access shows in the UK or other smaller countries. The 10-device limit is more generous than NordVPN’s, but other services are beginning to offer unlimited devices.
Though it’s slightly more expensive, NordVPN remains our top pick for those primarily looking for a VPN for streaming. NordVPN unlocks entertainment services in a wider selection of countries, and reliably accesses BBC iPlayer from outside the UK. Read our full review of NordVPN to find out more.
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