Private Internet Access OpenVPN for iOS

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Last week I discussed the Private Internet Access iOS app. In this post I am going to discuss using PIA with OpenVPN for iOS devices. The PIA app uses the IPSec tunneling and encryption protocol, and I am pretty comfortable with that. Many experts prefer the open source, OpenVPN protocol. Though this may sound like a somewhat daunting process it is definitely not! Also, even if you only use the PIA app, there is a really cool reason to add OpenVPN connect to your arsenal – that will be covered at the very end of this post.

Private Internet Access OpenVPN for iOS

To use PIA’s OpenVPN protocols on iOS requires the OpenVPN app. Download and install OpenVPN Connect for iOS. Once you have the app, you need to get some VPN configuration files.The configuration files contain the technical information necessary for your device to connect to the server. You will get these files from PIA. As you can see, I navigated to the configuration file page searching “private internet access openvpn ios”. A direct link is here: https://www.privateinternetaccess.com/pages/openvpn-ios. Choose the VPN server you wish to configure (US California, US East, etc.) by tapping it. On the next screen tap “Open in ‘OpenVPN'”.

Private Internet Access for iOS

The OpenVPN application will open. Click the green “+” to add the new configuration. On the next screen you will be prompted to enter your PIA username and password. Ensure that the “Save” slider is toggled on. And that is it – you are finished! To use OpenVPN as your VPN of choice simply open the application, toggle the connection slider (which will be labeled “Disconnected” unless a connection is currently active), and wait for the VPN to connect.

Private Internet Access OpenVPN for iOSYou can add as many OpenVPN configurations to the application as you wish. This could include multiples from PIA, a DIY VPN (that article is coming soon), or config files from another VPN service. Using OpenVPN does give you that level of flexibility. And as I mentioned earlier, many prefer OpenVPN over IPSec for security reasons. Also – and I haven’t benchmarked this to be suer – but I get the impression that OpenVPN is a bit faster than IPSec. So why doesn’t everyone do this?

There is a big downside to ONLY using OpenVPN Connect on iOS devices. Though OpenVPN will attempt to maintain a connection with the server, if this connection is dropped you have to manually enter the app and reconnect. This may not seem like a big deal to some; if you have the discipline to toggle it on before every usage of the phone, most of your traffic will be protected. However, I generally prefer the “always on” nature of the application. This protects all of the background “noise” that is being sent to and from my device.

One Other Thing

If you wish to import the configuration files from a computer you can. Simply download them to the location of your choice. Next, connect the phone to the computer with its USB-to-Lightning cable. Open iTunes and select the device. Click the “Apps” tab and scroll down to File Transfers. Make sure the OpenVPN app is selected. Drag the files onto the “OpenVPN Documents” window. When you are ready to upload them to your device click “Sync”. All of these profiles will now appear in the OpenVPN connect app. You will have to go through each one and set it up with your username and password.

Private Internet Access OpenVPN for iOS

The Big Question

I know some of your are already thinking it… Ok, I don’t know that you are, but I hope that you are: can you use the PIA app and OpenVPN at the same time? The answer is YES, and this is generally how I operate. I stay connected to the PIA app at all times. Before I initiate something sensitive like a browsing session I make sure that the OpenVPN connection is established. This gives me the best of both worlds:

  • a connection that, while perhaps not the absolute best security, is always on and provides encryption for traffic occuring the background, and
  • a connection that I can enable on demand to provide a higher level of security when needed.

This may seem like overkill to some, not enough for others, but it is pretty much “just right” for my needs. As I mentioned earlier, this tutorial works with other OpenVPN config files, allowing you great flexibility in service providers. If you don’t have another VPN, using Private Internet Access OpenVPN for iOS can greatly enhance your capability.

3 thoughts on “Private Internet Access OpenVPN for iOS”

  1. Justin –
    First, thank you for your wonderful coverage and insightful articles.

    Regarding VPN’s and their converging all traffic to one source IP. Some security researchers feel this is a ‘juicy’ known endpoint that may attract extra attention. What is your take on this? Would it be better to setup a home OpenVPN connection through your ISP and connect your phone through that? Say with a Raspberry PI or Ubiquiti router?

    1. Lee,
      Great question. There are a couple of ways you can do that – you can have the VPN server at your house and call into it when you are out. The big benefit to that is you don’t need to pay for a service. Both Windows and Mac have that capability built in. The downside is that it doesn’t cut your ISP out of the loop. They will still have access to everything because traffic leaves your router as it always has.
      The other way is to have a VPN-flashed router. This means that all the traffic from your home network goes through a VPN. This doesn’t change things much – it just changes how you get to the endpoint. It also doesn’t protect anything when you’re on public Wi-Fi, cell network, etc.
      I agree that endpoints are a rich target. Probably the best alternative to a commercial VPN service is to rent a Virtual Private Server (AWS, Digital Ocean, etc.) and build you own VPN on that. You pay for the server time but not a VPN service, and you are the only person using that VPN server. This has some other benefits like helping you get around sites that block VPNs because your personal VPN IP address is not blacklisted.
      I hope that answers your question. If not feel free to get back to me and I’ll do my best.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!
      Justin

  2. Thank you for both this and the previous PIA article. Have been using PIA on my iOS devices for a while – but now feel a great deal more knowledgeable about the options, pros and cons, etc.!

    Season’s Greetings; and all the best for a happy – and secure – New Year!

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