To keep yourself secure online, even on your iPhone, you need a virtual private network, or VPN. Private Internet Access VPN offers a robust VPN service at an affordable price. The company puts more emphasis on technology and performance than interface design, however, and this is especially noticeable on the iPhone, where consumer expectations for design are at their highest. Private Internet Access delivers excellent security, but its performance wasn’t great out of the box in our testing. If you’re willing to get your hands dirty you can speed it up, but it would be challenge for the inexperienced. For an excellent experience with less work, consider one of our Editors’ Choice Winners for iPhone VPN: NordVPN and KeepSolid VPN Unlimited.

What Is a VPN?

Your internet connection may not be as safe as you’d like to think. If you’re connected to a public Wi-Fi network, for example, it’s possible that another person on the same network could be sneaking a look at your internet traffic. And if you’re not connected via secure HTTPS, a compromised server might compromise your data.

Another all-too-possible scenario is an attacker creating a bogus network that simply mimics a familiar Wi-Fi network. Your iPhone, always wanting to be helpful, might connect to that network automatically. The attacker, meanwhile, can decrypt and read anything you pass through it.

To protect against these and other attacks, you need to use a VPN app on your iPhone (and on your desktop, too, of course). Once you’re connected via the VPN, all your internet traffic goes through an encrypted tunnel. That means that no one else on the network, even someone performing a man-in-the-middle attack, can see what you’re up to.

The encrypted tunnel leads to a server managed by the VPN company, and your traffic exits from there to the wilds of the open Internet. This means that you can spoof your location by connecting to a VPN server far from where you’re located. Spies and advertisers who might be watching your movements only see the VPN server’s IP address, keeping your device’s real IP address hidden.

Journalists and political activists use VPNs to reach the outside world when operating in places with restrictive internet access laws, such as Turkey or South Carolina. You can also use VPNs to access region-locked content, like streaming BBC TV shows, or watching Netflix content that’s only available outside of the region in which you subscribe. It’s up to you to research whether this causes you to break terms of service—or even local laws.

Generally speaking, your cellular data is more secure than your Wi-Fi data. There are, however, exotic attacks in which hackers jam the LTE and 3G bands, thus tricking phones into connecting to a nearby portable cell tower (called a femtocell) over the 2G band. Data isn’t as secure over 2G, which gives attackers the chance to steal your stuff. For maximum security, you can leave your VPN running all the time to protect all your communications.

Our research shows there’s a good chance you’ve never used a VPN before. If that’s the case, don’t worry! We’ve got a whole feature on how to set up and use a VPN.

Features and Pricing

The Private Internet Access iPhone app is available for free from the Apple App Store. The app works just fine on both iPhones and iPads. Considering the features and quality of its service, a $6.95 monthly subscription with Private Internet Access is a good value. The company prorates longer plans with a year-long plan for $39.95 and a two-year plan for a very attractive $69.95. KeepSolid VPN Unlimited (for iPhone) used to cost about the same, $6.99 per month, but it has gone up to $9.99.

Editors’ Choice–winning NordVPN (for iPhone) costs significantly more, at $11.95 per month, but offers a more user-friendly experience. The average price for current products is about $10.50.

PIA Main Window

With a Private Internet Access subscription, you can connect five devices simultaneously. That’s average for VPNs, though NordVPN offers six, CyberGhost VPN (for iPhone) gives you seven, and VPN Unlimited lets you add more devices for an incremental charge

The service allows P2P file sharing, maintains no traffic logs, and does not place limitations on bandwidth. It also blocks ads and malware at the network level. This is an excellent set of features.

Private Internet Access is among the most robust VPN services, infrastructure-wise, offering almost 3,300 servers in 28 countries. NordVPN is even more widespread, with 3,400 servers in 59 countries. TorGuard VPN (for iPhone) comes close, with 3,000 servers in 55 countries.

PIA Countries

Private Internet Access offers servers in Australia, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and India, as well as Central, North, and South America. The company does have servers in some countries with heavy restrictions on internet access, such as China and Turkey, but pulled its servers out of Russia when the company felt it could not guarantee the privacy of its customers.

Private Internet Access has more servers than most competitors, but they are grouped in fewer locations than, say, NordVPN. Having lots of servers means that you’re more likely to find one with less traffic and better performance. VPN companies will sometimes maintain only one server in a country, but nine is the smallest number of servers Private Internet Access offers anywhere. While offering many servers is important, spreading those servers out to many locations is also important for consumers, since having a nearby server means better speeds when using a VPN while traveling.

We prefer the open-source OpenVPN protocol, and indeed Private Internet Access uses OpenVPN for its Android, Linux, and Windows clients. Apple requires extra vetting for any app that wants to use OpenVPN, and very few iOS VPNs go through that process. Private Internet Access relies on IPSec for its iPhone app. TorGuard and NordVPN, among others, support the newer IKEv2 protocol. VPN Unlimited is among the few that support OpenVPN under iOS.

Your Privacy With Private Internet Access

VPN companies advertise their privacy and security bona fides, but they also come with risks. When you route your traffic through a VPN, the company could have enormous insight into what you do online—the kind of insight your ISP has.

Thankfully, most VPNs take consumer privacy seriously, and that includes Private Internet Access. A company representative explained that Private Internet Access does not insert advertising into your web traffic and does not profit from user data. “No user information is gathered during the entire connection life-cycle,” we were told. “No monitoring or logging is performed on either incoming or outgoing network traffic.”

While the technology that a VPN company offers is important, its physical location and the legal jurisdiction the company operates under also makes a difference. In this case, Private Internet Access is based in the US and operates under US legal jurisdiction. Given the checkered past of the US Intelligence apparatus, that might seem like a hard sell. It’s important to note, however, that the US does not have any legal requirements for mandatory data gathering and retention.

We can’t comb each server to check security, and we’re not lawyers. We have, however, asked the company direct questions and been satisfied by the answers. Still, we encourage everyone to read a VPN company’s privacy policy for themselves. If you feel uncomfortable, look elsewhere. Trust, after all, is paramount when it comes to security companies.

Hands On With Private Internet Access

We’ve used the Private Internet Access VPN service on Windows as well as Android, so we were prepared for the extremely minimal experience that the iPhone app offers.

You can create an account and purchase a subscription on the Private Internet Access website using credit cards, PayPal, and anonymous options like BitCoin. Private Internet Access also accepts gift cards from 90 different retailers, including Starbucks and Bloomingdales. Buy one of these cards with cash, and your payment becomes reasonably anonymous. You can also purchase a subscription through an in-app purchase on your iPhone. We used an Apple iPhone SE for testing.

Note that you won’t find many of the more advanced features from the Android app in the iPhone version. The feature that designates which apps use a VPN connection and which don’t, for instance, isn’t possible on an iOS device.

The main screen of the app consists of a single toggle. Tap it, and you’ll connect to the nearest, and therefore likely the fastest, VPN server. The bottom of the screen shows the location of the VPN server and the apparent IP address everyone else sees once you connect to the Private Internet Access network. You can also manually select the location of the VPN server from a list that includes a color-coded latency figure for each.

A Settings screen lets you toggle on and off some features, like the Automatic Reconnect feature and the Safari content blocker. This feature replaces the old MACE malware and advertising blocker. A similar feature in Hotspot Shield correctly blocked the AMTSO phishing test page. Private Internet Access did not, but then, the page in question is a test, not an actual fraud.

PIA Settings

While we appreciate the simplicity of the tap-and-done interface Private Internet Access uses, we aren’t really fans. We believe that a friendly, approachable interface serves users better, especially for security software. Private Internet Access isn’t confusing per se, but we prefer the way the NordVPN app uses visual metaphors like maps to make VPN use more accessible. Some products, such as Hide My Ass and TunnelBear VPN (for iPhone), even try to inject a bit of fun into the VPN experience.

Speed Test Results

Regardless of what VPN service you chose, you’ll surely see some impact on your internet connection—usually a bad one. That’s not too surprising, considering that a VPN has your Web traffic moving further and through more hoops than usual. AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite (for iPhone)

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