How to Use a VPN to Watch Netflix From Other Countries

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If you’re trying to view the latest Netflix show while traveling overseas, or you want to watch a show that’s only available on Netflix in countries other than the one in which you reside, you’re in for a tough time. But with a VPN service and a bit of persistence, you should be able to see most of what you want to watch, no matter where you are.

Your Netflix Is Not My Netflix

It’s easy to assume that the video streaming services we use every day are the same everywhere on earth, but that’s simply not true. What’s available on streaming services, in particular, can be wildly different from country to country. 

That’s because streaming services like Netflix make agreements with other media companies to supply movies and TV in specific markets. A great example is Star Trek: Discovery. In the US and Canada, you need a CBS All Access account to boldly go where no one has gone before. Most of the rest of the world, however, can enjoy Discovery without signing up for yet another streaming service because it’s easily available from Netflix.

That might feel like a bit of a raw deal for Netflix subscribers. They’re paying for a subscription, so shouldn’t they get all the sweet, sweet video content Netflix provides? But that’s just not the case. You’re only entitled to the shows in the country where you created your account.

Writing this article, I tried to focus on a particular scenario: You’re traveling overseas and can’t watch a show you were already watching on Netflix. That’s a real problem, but I imagine a good many readers are perhaps more interested in accessing Netflix content that’s unavailable in their home countries.

This raises a thorny question of ethics. Using a VPN to watch something isn’t exactly the same as downloading copyrighted content without paying for it, but it still breaks rules—even when the content you want isn’t available in your country at any price. I have often been told to vote with my wallet and support the content that I enjoy. That’s why I do have an All Access account specifically so I can watch Star Trek: Discovery. I want there to be more seasons, and I feel compelled to follow CBS’s rules in the hopes that there will be more seasons.

Perhaps I am naïve, or perhaps there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. Regardless, if you feel differently and see no issue in using a paid service in ways beyond the intent of its creators, that’s up to you. We at PCMag are not lawyers, nor are we ethicists, but we definitely advise you to think carefully before you break any terms of service.

Tunneling Around the World

Every device on the internet has an IP address assigned to it, and these addresses are generally handed out geographically. All the IP addresses for people in the New York City area should be similar, but different from the IP addresses in London. By looking at a device’s IP address, it’s pretty easy to roughly determine where a device is located.

This is where VPNs come in. A VPN enshrouds your internet traffic with encryption that prevents observers from being able to see what you’re up to. It tunnels your information to a remote server operated by the VPN company. If that server is in a different country, then you’re using the web as if you were sitting within that country. Your device will even appear to have the IP address of the VPN server, effectively hiding your true IP address and making it much harder to correlate online activities directly to you.

There are lots of reasons why you need a VPN, but if you need to appear as if you are in a wildly different location from that of your home country, it’s indispensable. For one thing, you don’t have to worry about acquiring or reconfiguring your computer or mobile device to use a foreign IP address—the VPN company manages a fleet of servers with numerous IP addresses available. For another, VPN apps make it extremely easy to switch from one location to another. Just click, and your traffic is rerouted.

Keep in mind that IP addresses aren’t the only ways to figure out someone’s true location over the internet. Other pieces of information such as cookie data, specific browser and device settings, or even your connection latency may also communicate something about your location. On a mobile device, an app might simply request access to your GPS data. But IP addresses are readily available for inspection, and generally don’t require special permissions or tricks to see.

VPN: The Master of Unblocking

Connecting to a VPN in another country effectively makes it appear like you are in that country, which is good for your privacy but can also sidestep regional restrictions on streaming content. 

Here’s how it works: Let’s imagine you’re from the UK and have been watching a Netflix show at home in London and you’re taking a trip to New York City (this assumes a pre- or post-COVID-19 reality). When you arrive in the US, you may not be able to continue watching your show because it’s not available to US Netflix subscribers. If you set up a VPN, connect to a server near to your London home, you should be able to pick up watching your show where you left off.

Of course, you might want to sample the forbidden fruit of foreign Netflix without the above pretense. If you’re in the US and want to watch something that’s only available on Netflix in another country, just connect to a VPN server in the appropriate country to spoof your location.

It sounds so simple in theory, but in practice, it’s a bit more complicated.

Netflix Loves to Block VPNs

In order to enforce regional restrictions for some content, Netflix makes an effort to block VPN use. That’s a bit unfair for folks who aren’t trying to sneak around digital borders. In fact, I’ve found that Netflix will sometimes block me even when I’m connected to a VPN server within my country of origin.

VPN companies, on the other hand, work hard to keep their customers connected to Netflix, partly out of convenience but no doubt because they understand that unblocking content is a major draw for VPN customers. It’s like a Cold War-era submarine movie, with adversaries slowly trying to outmaneuver one another.

Travel the World by VPN

Thankfully, your humble reporter has done the legwork of finding a VPN that works with Netflix in overseas conditions for you. Now, bear in mind, that these tests were performed before this story was published. By the time you try out the service for yourself, Netflix may be blocking the VPN services I tested. Still, reading the rest of this story should give you an idea of what’s required to find a Netflix-friendly VPN on your own.

If you’re in the US and aren’t interested in overseas streaming, what follows probably won’t be useful. You’ll be better served by my look at the best VPNs for Netflix article. For that piece, I tested Netflix availability using only US-based servers.

To do this testing, I installed each of our top-rated VPNs one at a time, and attempted to access Netflix while connected to different servers. In these tests, I looked at VPN servers in Australia, Canada, Japan, and the UK. Using a list of content available in specific countries, I was able to confirm that I was successfully streaming blocked content.

For each service, I tried my best to use all the unblocking tools each company provides. I gave each VPN location five attempts to load the content and tried to use a different server or IP address each time. If the VPN provides servers specifically for streaming, I tried those in the same manner. If the VPN provides a different connection type that hides VPN traffic, usually called a “stealth mode” or similar, I tried that as well.

In the instances when it was possible to select a different location within a country or a specific server, I tried to use as many unique options as I could. In instances where this was not possible, I simply disconnected and then reconnected. This will sometimes shunt you into a different server, but it’s not a sure thing. 

In my testing, I found that Netflix seemed to function in three different ways. The first state was as if I was connected normally in a different country. I could see all the content available in that region, and successfully watch any of it. The second state was similar to the first in that I could see content that was available in that particular region, but when I attempted to stream it I received a warning indicating I was blocked because of VPN use.

The third state was a kind of Netflix purgatory where I could only see and stream Netflix originals. It was as if Netflix recognized that I was a paying customer, but wasn’t sure which region I was in, so it just presented the content available in every region. While nothing was blocked in this state, the most desirable content wasn’t available at all.  

In some very rare cases a fourth state emerged. This time, Netflix served up what appeared to be my local, US-based version of Netflix despite my being connected to a non-US VPN server. In every instance this occurred, I was blocked from streaming. I am not entirely certain how this particular scenario occurred, but I speculate that Netflix believes those IP addresses to be from within the US and served me local content accordingly. I have no evidence that this was indicative of a security flaw with the VPN. In all other ways, the VPN appeared to function correctly.

When I encountered this unusual state, I thought Netflix had perhaps gotten wise to my research or had found an exotic way to identify me over the internet. I tried several different ways to test this, by clearing cookies, restarting, re-installing the VPN app, and occasionally reinstalling Windows. However, when I reverted to a VPN I knew had successfully streamed overseas content, I found I was able to do so again without issue. This makes me believe the issue is with the individual VPNs, and not me. 

From years of testing VPNs, I know that it’s often like working with a black box. You provide an input, observe the output, and make a guess at what happens in between. Testing VPNs and Netflix is like testing two black boxes at the same time. I have never before encountered so many baffling scenarios, so I and took great pains to check and recheck my work. That said, the world of VPNs changes quickly, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll have the same results as I did.

The following chart breaks down my results. “Yes” means I was able to successfully stream content from outside the US. I regard this as the most desirable outcome. “No” means that I could select content from outside the US but was blocked from streaming it. “Netflix Originals” means that I could not view any content not from Netflix itself, but could stream Netflix original content just fine. “N/A” indicates that I could neither access the content from other countries, nor could I stream content normally available in my own region. This was the least desired outcome.

ExpressVPN and Hotspot Shield swept the results, proving to be capable streaming companions for all of the locales I tested. NordVPN and Surfshark always showed me overseas content, but only streamed it in two locales. ProtonVPN and Mullvad followed behind, providing access to content in two regions. Cyberghost, IPVanish, and VyprVPN worked in just one region. TunnelBear and HMA VPN were blocked to some extent in every location I tested.

I also tested Private Internet Access, but found that three out of four regions, Netflix seemed to serve me my local Netflix content. When I clicked, Netflix threw up an error message saying I was blocked for using a VPN. I attempted several times to connect normally over multiple days but was unable to stream content or access other regions.

One more note: IPVanish caused Netflix to periodically produce an unusual error when I attempted to connect to Canadian Netflix. This prevented me from using Netflix at all. It is unclear how common this error is.

I noticed some interesting trends when comparing this year’s results with those from 2018. In general, VPNs are doing a much better job accessing streaming content. Especially notable is that I was able to access content in Japan—a region that was entirely blocked last time. There also appear to be significant improvements in speeds, likely from both Netflix and VPN providers. In 2018, several tests needed to be scrapped because they simply timed out. I did not have that issue at all this time.

But What About Speed?

Streaming video can take up some serious bandwidth, especially if you want HD quality or better—which you should, because this is the 21st century, after all. Speed, in case you’re new here, is just the other side of the bandwidth coin. With a faster connection, you can get more data, and therefore better resolution, for your video. My previous testing found that TorGuard VPN was the fastest VPN we tested, with low latency and the least impact on download speeds. Unfortunately, it was blocked in every one of my overseas Netflix tests.

The following chart shows the top performing VPN speed test results for 2020. For admission to this list, the product had to meet or exceed the median result for each category. Again, note that your results will likely differ from these.

VPN speedtest results table

Comparing between the two lists, Hotspot Shield and Surfshark are strong overall contenders if you’re balancing speed and Netflix availability overseas.

Is That All I Can Do?

When trying to stream Netflix via VPN, there are a few things you can do help make a connection. Most important is to be persistent: Try multiple servers, and protocol settings. Try different times of day. While the vast majority of my testing was very consistent, some services took several attempts.

Also, be aware of the tools at your disposal. VPN companies know that their subscribers probably want to stream content. There may be servers specifically for streaming, or settings that can be helpful. Look through the VPN’s documentation and see what the company recommends.

Many VPN services will sell you a static IP address. This means that instead of having your IP address changed to whatever IP address has been assigned to the VPN server, you’ll have the same IP address every time you switch on your VPN. The downside is that you’ll lose some anonymity. The static address is yours and only yours; savvy observers will have an easier time correlating online activities to you directly. But Netflix and other services may not block static IP addresses. These can be pricey, so it’s a bit of a risk if you only are concerned about streaming online content.

On the subject of cost, we recommend using a short-term subscription for VPNs until you are certain it will work well for you. Just about every VPN offers steep discounts for long-term commitments, but if you start with a month-to-month plan, you can try out a service before lock yourself in.

You can also try to evade the blocks on known VPNs by setting up a roll-your-own VPN service. Jigsaw, which is part of Alphabet which owns Google, has a VPN product called Outline VPN. It requires that you bring your own server, or rent one, in order to use as a VPN server. Outline is smart enough and simple enough that I was able to set it up without any knowledge of renting cloud infrastructure. That said, maintaining this service and doing so safely will likely take some effort.

Watch Anywhere…Probably

If you’re patient and willing to do some poking around inside your VPN client (and maybe try more than one VPN service), there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find one that lets you watch your Netflix shows and movies from regions in which they are blocked. For more Netflix hack and tricks, you could also read our story on the best Netflix tips to boost your binge-watching.

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