Can I Use My VPN With Netflix?
A virtual private network or VPN, is an enormously valuable tool. It ensures that your data is safe from anyone snooping around your internet connection and that advertisers will have a harder time tracking your movement across the web. But government snoops and people who want to make money by tracking your habits aren't the only opponents of VPNs. Streaming services like Netflix also do their best to stop users from connecting with VPNs, too.
With an eye toward maintaining control of what content users can see, and from where, Netflix, Hulu and other streaming video services have started blocking VPN users. Even if you're connected to a VPN server down the street, you'll be blocked. It's an annoying and complex situation that I'll explain later in this piece. Thankfully, there are some VPN services (listed above and below) that still work with everyone's favorite video streaming platform.
Note that these VPN services worked with Netflix at the time I tested them, but that the functionality is subject to change at a moment's notice. If streaming Netflix is your primary VPN concern, don't sign up for a year-long subscription to a VPN service. Instead, you should go month-to-month. This will give you the flexibility to cancel, should you find that Netflix has blocked your VPN of choice.
What Is a VPN?
When you browse the web, a startlingly large amount of your personal information is accessible to anyone with the wherewithal to snag it. You're especially vulnerable on unsecure Wi-Fi networks, such as you find in coffee shops and other public places.
When you activate a VPN, it routes all your web traffic through an encrypted tunnel between your computer and a remote server operated by the VPN company. No one on the same network as you—even the person operating that network—can see inside the encrypted tunnel to monitor your activity. Neither can your ISP, which is handy, because Congress, in their infinite wisdom, recently gave companies the green light to sell anonymized metadata on customers.
Once your web traffic reaches the VPN server, it exits to the public internet. If the websites and services you're accessing don't use HTTPS, your data can potentially be intercepted between the VPN and the website. But because your data is emanating from the VPN server and not your home computer, anyone watching will see the server's IP address instead of your own. While law enforcement and advertisers have advanced methods for tracking people around the web, hiding your IP address behind a VPN is a great first step towards avoiding such tracking.
VPNs have also been used around the world by activists and journalists working in countries with particularly repressive internet policies. VPNs can unblock censored websites, and protect dissident transmissions, too. Everyone needs a VPN service, whether they use it all the time or not.
Why Does Netflix Block VPNs?
When computers attempt to divine your physical location on the internet, they typically do it by looking at your IP address. These identifiers are divvied up by geographic location, and can be remarkably close to where you are actually sitting when you use the web. Thus, changing your IP address with a VPN also changes where you appear to be located, as far as a computer is concerned. Think of it as astral projection for the internet.
Spoofing your location can be handy when you're trying to access localized versions of particular websites. But it's particularly handy if you want to access region-locked video content. These are streams that are provided only to certain geographic areas. For example, the BBC lets those in the UK stream video for free. Everyone else is out of luck, unless they use a VPN to make it appear as if they are in the UK by connecting to a server in London.
The same is true for Netflix. Far from being a monolithic repository of film and television, Netflix has different content available depending on your location. It all has to do with licensing deals. At one point, for example, Netflix had licensed Game of Thrones, but only in Australia. Such licensing deals that Netflix are a big reason that Netflix has begun blocking VPN users.
This might not seem fair, at first. If you've paid for a Netflix subscription, you should be able to watch whatever is on there, right? Unfortunately, that's not the case. If Netflix hasn't paid a producer like HBO for people in the US to watch Game of Thrones, they'll no doubt be irate if too many people watch the show on Netflix via VPN to avoid subscribing to HBO.
Being blocked from free stuff is a bummer, but it's especially annoying if you actually do have the right to view the content. Let's say you're from the UK and you're watching your favorite show on Netflix. If you travel to the US and try to watch it, you can't because it's not available in these United States. With a VPN, you could conceivably keep watching as if you were back in England.
Even worse, let's say you're from the US, and you want to watch a show in the US, but you're on an insecure network, because you're concerned about security (as you should be). Using a VPN is the sensible thing to do in this case. Unfortunately, even in this case, where you've paid for the right to watch everything that's locally available, Netflix will still do its best to block you if you connect with a VPN. That doesn't, however, mean that there's no hope for watching Netflix via a VPN.
Which VPNs Work With Netflix?
The truth is, Netflix and VPNs are locked in a cat-and-mouse game. A VPN may find a way to avoid being blocked today, and Netflix will pounce and cut off access again tomorrow. There's no guarantee that a VPN that plays nice with Netflix today will do so tomorrow, or next week.
That said, I always make sure I check and see if Netflix is accessible when I do my hands-on testing with VPNs. In my most recent round of tests there were several services that Netflix had not blocked. They are: AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite VPN, Avira Phantom VPN, Buffered VPN, IPVanish VPN, Golden Frog VyprVPN, and NordVPN.
Note also that when I tested to see which VPNs were blocked by Netflix, I did so while connected to a VPN server in these United States. You may have different results if you connect via one of these services to a server in a different country.
Of these services, NordVPN has the highest score. It offers a very robust service, with over 1,000 servers and numerous advanced features. It also has special streaming servers, intended to offer the best experience when streaming video over VPN.
Golden Frog VyprVPN is the most affordable of the services that work with Netflix, costing just $9.95 per month. Avira Phantom VPN is a close second for most affordable, at just $10 per month. I highly recommend that if Netflix streaming is of paramount importance to you that you not purchase long-term subscriptions, but rather stick with month-to-month payments. The money you'd save with a longer subscription will likely be greatly offset by heartache if Netflix blocks the service just a few months in.
Alternatively, you could simply pay nothing for a VPN. There are several excellent free VPN services out there, although most will place some kind of limitation on your use. Of the VPN services I recommend for Netflix streaming, Avira Phantom VPN, Hotspot Shield Elite, and NordVPN offer free versions. Note that not all free versions are created equal. Some are merely trials, like NordVPN's, and others are no-limit but only in certain contexts. Hotspot Shield Elite, for example, is free as a browser plug-in.
While Netflix is among the most popular streaming services, it is by no means the only service to block VPN users. Anecdotally, I can say that Hulu is almost as aggressive at blocking VPN users as Netflix.
I've also found that mobile games struggle to work properly when I use a VPN. And local streaming schemes, like Google's Cast feature, are out of the question simply because your traffic is being encrypted.
Using a VPN can also have weird side-effects for web browsing. If you use a VPN server in another country, it's very likely that you'll find yourself visiting localized versions of those sites. Google is particularly good about loading up a localized version of its search page depending on your IP address. It's a minor issue, but it can sometimes mean that the content you want is inaccessible as long as your VPN is running.
Other Streaming Tactics
If you already have a VPN that you like, or you don't like any of the Netflix-friendly ones I've listed above, take heart. There are other ways to access your favorite streaming service and get most of the benefits a VPN has to offer.
Some VPN services, like PureVPN, offer split-tunneling. This feature lets you designate which apps send their traffic through the encrypted VPN tunnel and which don't. Simply whitelist the Netflix mobile app, if you're on a smartphone or tablet, and you'll have no trouble.
On a desktop it's a bit trickier, since you probably access Netflix through the browser. If that's the case, you can download a separate browser that you only use for Netflix and whitelist that browser.
Split tunneling is a rare feature, but it's far more common for a VPN service to offer a browser plugin. Once installed, the browser plugin routes all your browser traffic through the VPN, and leaves everything else in the clear. That means some of your data won't be protected, but that can work to your advantage. Again, by downloading a different browser solely for using Netflix, you could secure the traffic of your primary browser with a plugin.
VPN services that offer browser plug-ins include: Hotspot Shield Elite, IPVanish, KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, Private Internet Access, and TunnelBear. Alternatively, you can install the Opera browser, which includes an excellent free VPN built-in.
If you don't like the idea of picking and choosing between what uses a VPN and what doesn't, you could purchase a static IP address from a VPN company. Normally, you are assigned the IP address of the VPN server. But with a static IP, the VPN company gives you all the protections of a VPN and ensures your traffic emerges from a specific IP address that you own. VPN companies sometimes call these "clean IP addresses," the implication being that they are not associated with VPN activity. Using an IP address not known to carry VPN traffic might be enough to sneak by Netflix and others. TorGuard VPN offers these, as do other VPN services.
The problem with a static VPN is that once a service like Netflix blocks it, you're out of luck. You can purchase another IP address (they're typically leased on a monthly basis), but the costs can add up fast.
The Limitations of VPN
VPNs are powerful tools that do a great job securing your data between your computer and the server—and hiding your real IP address. But there are real limitations to the anonymization and protection that they provide.
As I said before, without HTTPS, your data is potentially vulnerable once it leaves the VPN server. VPNs are also not intended to be used as a replacement for anonymization services, such as Tor. And while some VPNs claim they block malware, ad trackers, and phishing sites, they can't beat the dedicated tools for those jobs.
I find it helpful to think of security a lot like getting dressed for winter. One heavy coat is fine, but many layers will do a better job keeping the heat in and the cold out. For the best protection, a VPN should be only one layer in your defenses, along with strong antivirus, a good password manager, and so on.
A perennial concern when using VPNs is sacrificing speed. When a VPN reroutes your data through another server, it's adding physical distance to the normal path your data takes. Data also has to pass through more machines, and, in general, go through more hoops. All this serves to slow down internet connections. For video streaming, this is a recipe for stuttering audio and a low-resolution experience.
Fortunately, there are some superfast VPN services out there. PureVPN, the fastest VPN service in my testing for two years running, is one example. I found that it increased download speeds by over 300 percent when connected to a nearby VPN server and over 400 percent when connected to a far-flung VPN server. Unfortunately, the last time I used PureVPN, it didn't work with Netflix.
Among services that worked with Netflix in my testing, Anchor Free Hotspot Shield Elite VPN has the best download scores. I found that when connected to a local VPN server, Hotspot Shield Elite actually improved download speeds by 45 percent. NordVPN, my highest-rated VPN that works with Netflix, did fairly well in the local speed tests, lowering download speeds by only 4 percent.
I've spent a good chunk of my time at PCMag working to dispel the myth that security must come at the price of convenience. While I've been pleased to find that using a VPN isn't the same as browsing the web at 1990s speeds, I have been disheartened at the complications it sometimes causes for mundane activities, such as watching TV and movies online.
That said, I still use a VPN every day, and I encourage others to do so as well. Whenever it gets annoying, I switch it off, but I try to keep it on as much as possible. The internet, sadly, wasn't made with security and encryption in mind. Maybe when VPNs become commonplace, companies like Netflix and others will figure out how to adapt to a better, and more secure, world.
The table above (and the list below) summarizes the best VPNs I've found that worked with Netflix when I last tested them, and you can click through to the full reviews that detail all the testing and additional features offered by each of these VPN services. Again, I can't guarantee that any particular VPN will work with Netflix at any given moment however, due to the ongoing battle between VPN services and Netflix. I'll update this list from time to time to reflect any changes as I learn about them.
Featured Netflix-Friendly VPN Reviews:
%displayPrice% at %seller% NordVPN is a robust VPN service with an excellent collection of features, all wrapped in a slick Windows client that can easily secure your online activities. It's an Editors' Choice winner. Read the full review
IPVanish VPN Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% VPN service IPVanish secures your web traffic from prying eyes. It's not for newcomers, nor is it cheap, but it does pack some powerful features for experienced VPN users. Read the full review
Golden Frog VyprVPN Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Golden Frog VyprVPN offers advanced features, a robust service, and a friendly interface, but you won't be able to cover as many devices as the competition. Read the full review
AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% AnchorFree Hotspot Shield Elite is a fast and capable VPN that throws in antivirus protection along with other extras. But it's still expensive for what you get. Read the full review
Avira Phantom VPN Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Avira Phantom VPN secures the web browsing of as many devices as you like, and allows you to torrent to your heart's content, but it's light on features and likely won't please speed-conscious users. Read the full review
Buffered VPN Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Buffered VPN offers strong international speed test scores and a colorful client, but it's expensive and doesn't offer much in the way of advanced features. Read the full review