These days, most major streaming services, as well as sports, gaming, and gambling sites, are region-locked. This means they can only be accessed by users in specific countries. Additionally, some countries (such as China) restrict access to a wide range of services, some of which are incredibly popular elsewhere. Luckily, there’s an easy way to get around geo-blocking: connect to a VPN.
VPNs work by routing your traffic through a server in another country. This hides your real IP address — which is often used to determine your location — and replaces it with a temporary, country-specific IP address. As a result, most geo-restricted platforms can’t tell the difference between a VPN user and someone who’s actually in the required location.
As an added benefit, VPNs encrypt your traffic so that your employer, government, and Internet Service Provider (ISP) can’t see what you get up to online. This is particularly helpful if you’re in a country with strict internet censorship.
How to avoid geo-blocking with a VPN
With the right VPN, it’s easy to access region-locked services abroad. Just follow the steps below.
Here’s how to get around geo-blocking using a VPN:
- Start by signing up for a suitable VPN. We particularly recommend NordVPN but Surfshark and ExpressVPN are two versatile, high-performance alternatives.
- Download and install the VPN app, taking care to get the right version for your device.
- Connect to one of your VPN’s servers in the appropriate country. For example, you’ll need to use a British server to unblock BBC iPlayer or a US one for Hulu.
- Log in to your chosen service and play a video. In most cases, it should start immediately, but if not, clear your browser’s cache and cookies, then refresh the page.
If you continue to experience issues, it’s worth contacting your VPN’s support team directly to see if there’s a particular server you should use.
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When might I encounter geo-blocking?
There are two main situations in which you might experience geo-blocking. One is when you try to use a service like Netflix, BBC iPlayer, or ESPN abroad. Some streaming platforms have different content libraries for different regions, while others are completely inaccessible from outside of their required countries. Sling TV, for instance, prevents you from even viewing its website abroad, saying “We’re sorry. Sling TV is only available in the US.”
This is because streaming services usually only have the rights to show their content in specific countries. Other types of sites geo-restrict their content, too. For example, betting websites typically only serve people located in specific countries.
Another situation in which you may encounter geo-blocking is when trying to access content that’s restricted, banned, or against the law in your current location. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re up to no good; some countries just have different values, leading them to block things like gambling, dating, and social media sites.
Depending on where you are in the world, you might find that you can’t even use services that could be considered essential, like WhatsApp, Skype, or FaceTime. All three of these and more are blocked in countries like China and the UAE, which can make it difficult to communicate with friends and family back home.
How can websites and services tell which country I’m in?
Most of the time, services rely entirely on the user’s IP address to tell where they are in the world. However, more advanced platforms often employ additional verification measures. They could cross-reference your IP address with GPS location data if you’re using a mobile device, for instance, or check your IP address against a list of known VPN servers.
Sometimes, it isn’t even the website you’re trying to access that blocks the connection, it’s the government. For instance, China’s Great Firewall has an expansive list of blocked websites and monitors domestic traffic for specific keywords and recognizable VPN traffic patterns to see if you’re trying to access a blocked website.
Can I bypass China’s Great Firewall with a VPN?
It’s especially difficult, although not impossible, to bypass regional restrictions in China. You can’t just install a VPN and start browsing, though, as the government has tried exceptionally hard to block all access to privacy-focused services, including VPN websites. As a result, there are only a few VPNs that reliably work in China.
If you’re planning a trip to China (or any country which restricts access to VPNs), you’ll have to download and install the VPN ahead of time. We’d also recommend making a note of any mirror sites your VPN might operate, as well as instructions on how to manually configure the service. This information should be kept in a password-protected file and saved locally on your device, since countries with strict online censorship tend to block access to cloud storage platforms.
Not sure if a particular website is blocked in China? You can check before arriving by entering a URL into our Great Firewall tool. Remember: the Great Firewall is updated all the time, so even if a site is accessible right now, it might not be when you get to China.
Can I beat geo-blocking with a free VPN or proxy?
Free VPNs tend to struggle when it comes to unblocking services. They often have smaller networks than their paid rivals so it’s easier for platforms to blacklist all of their IP addresses, and with fewer resources, it’s more difficult to find a workaround whenever new VPN-detection features are introduced. Free proxies have similar performance issues and to make matters worse, they only protect your browser traffic, meaning anything you do in an app will still be visible.
These services usually have huge numbers of users, so you’ll almost certainly experience slow speeds. Even if a free VPN or proxy unblocks your chosen service, you’ll likely have to contend with long buffering times and laggy playback.
Free VPN services have a poor record when it comes to privacy. A survey of more than 280 free VPN apps discovered that almost 40% contained malware and over 80% leaked personal information over IPv6.
Worst of all, nearly one in five used no encryption whatsoever, meaning their users were no safer than when browsing the web normally. We’ve even seen major players in this space use shady business tactics, such as when Hola was caught selling its users’ bandwidth to facilitate a botnet.
Why isn’t my VPN unblocking a particular service?
Some platforms have stricter geo-blocking than others. For instance, a local TV live stream likely won’t have advanced geo-restriction and VPN-detection features built-in. However, Netflix, an international network that’s worth billions of dollars, absolutely does. This is why some users encounter errors like “You seem to be using an unblocker or proxy” when accessing geo-blocked services with a VPN.
Even if you see an error, it’s possible that your VPN is actually capable of unblocking your chosen service. Sometimes you’ll find that not every server works, so trying a different server is often all it takes. If you’re having problems, you can ask your VPN’s support team for help directly. The best providers offer 24/7 live chat, so you can often be up and running in a matter of minutes.
What services can I access abroad with a VPN?
With the right VPN, you can access a huge variety of geo-blocked sites and services from anywhere in the world. Below, we’ve listed some of the types of content you can unblock:
- TV streaming sites (Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime Video)
- Sports streaming sites (ESPN, beIN Sports, Sportsnet)
- Social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram)
- Gambling and gaming sites (Bet365, SkyBet, Steam)
- Messaging services (WhatsApp, Telegram)
- Dating services (Tinder, Match, PlentyOfFish)
- News websites (NYTimes, Washington Post, The Guardian)
- Privacy websites (NordVPN, Comparitech, OpenVPN)