Try to access just about any US streaming service from outside the country, and you’ll be greeted with the following:
Sorry, but this content isn’t available in your area.
The reverse is true as well. Try to stream UK favorite BBC iPlayer from the United States, and you’ll get a similar message.
What you’re seeing is geo-blocking in action. It’s a commonly used technology and has become the bane of internet users’ existence worldwide.
What is Geoblocking?
Geo-blocking, also called go-locking, geo-fencing, or geo-restriction, is a technology that limits access to online content based on geographical location. It’s effectively a way to divide the global internet into multiple markets.
The average internet user will most frequently run into it when trying to stream video or audio from other countries. Think streaming US Netflix from Canada or watching the BBC iPlayer in Australia.
Geoblocking is often used to enforce licensing agreements and copyrights. That’s the case with the examples above.
But, it is also deployed to block illegal content or services and set product prices – a practice also known as price discrimination.
How Geo-Blocking Works
When your device connects to the internet, it’s assigned a unique identifying number known as an IP address. The IP is sent along with any content requests you make. That way, the host server knows where to return data.
Your IP address comes from your internet service provider (ISP) or phone carrier. In turn, the ISP gets blocks of IPs to give out to its users from a higher authority. And that higher authority distributes IP address blocks to ISPs based on geographical location.
In other words, your IP address is always tied to the region you’re in.
Because of that, anyone that sees it can easily figure out where you are. In fact, they can usually pinpoint your location to within a few miles.
When you try access online content only available in a specific country, before sending anything back, its provider checks your IP. If the IP address shows you’re in a place where the content is not available, your request is denied.
Geoblocking can also happen with content you’re paying for. Netflix is a great example of this.
Although you may have a subscription to Netflix in the United States, you will lose access to it after you leave the country. Why? Because your IP address will no longer be US-based.
Yes, you’ll now be able to stream your current country’s version of the service. But the programming there may be drastically different than what you get back home (and pay for).
Why Does Geoblocking Exist?
Different content providers, services, and sometimes even entire countries use geo-blocking for different reasons. They are as follows:
Probably the most common form of geo-blocking we see online is because of content licensing.
When streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, or BBC iPlayer purchase rights to programming, they often do so only for a specific region.
Maybe a streaming service is only interested in a handful of markets. Or maybe the rights to a show in a given country have already been sold to someone else. Or maybe those rights are too expensive.
Whatever the reason for not having content rights, when it happens, media companies make use of geo-blocking to prevent outside access and avoid breaching their licensing agreements.
Companies also use geo-blocking to turn regions of the world into separate markets.
International online retailers may, for example, charge different amounts for a service or product depending on where in the world you are.
This practice, sometimes referred to as price discrimination is, for example, common in the travel industry. Airlines often sell domestic flights for less if you’re already in a country compared to booking from somewhere else.
Content creators can also geo-block to stagger release dates.
Because it may make sense to Disney (due to marketing efforts, for example), the company can choose to release their latest tv shows on Disney+ in the United States a week earlier than in the United Kingdom. Geo-blocking lets them do it.
And then there are sporting events blackouts.
Sometimes, a streaming service may be unable to show an event in a specific market. The reasons for that may include:
- A local television stations is broadcasting the event
- A national network has exclusive rights to showing it
- The event needs to end before it is made available
When a blackout is needed, geo-blocking is deployed.
Regulations in a given country may also be a cause for geo blocking.
Gambling laws are an excellent example of this. In Australia the Interactive Gambling Act of 2001 makes it illegal for real-money online gambling portals to offer their services to residents.
In these cases, websites can make use of geo-blocking to avoid breaking the law.
Internet censorship is yet another reason for georestrictions.
Governments in countries like China, Iran, Turkey, and most of the Middle East (among many others) like to control the information their citizens access. They do so by using geolocking to block western news websites, select online services, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.
Online censorship is, in a way, reverse geo-locking. Instead of blocking an outsider, it keeps those already in from getting out.
Is Geoblocking Legal?
In nearly all parts of the world geo-blocking is legal. That said, some regions are starting to take a bit of a stand against it – or at least a few forms of it.
Countries like the United States, Canada, or Australia make use of geoblocking left, right, and center. It’s an accepted method of enforcing licensing and copyright agreements, and the law allows it across the board.
In China, Iran, Egypt, and other countries where internet censorship is rampant, geofencing is also, of course, completely by the books. The governments themselves are heavily reliant on it.
Where things start to get interesting, though, is in Europe.
Up until recently, geo-restrictions were used in the EU as freely as in other western nations. But, in 2018, the European parliament adopted a regulation that doesn’t allow “unjustified” geoblocking and other similar forms of discrimination based on someone’s location or nationality.
Though that sounds promising, the regulation, unfortunately, only applies to anything that is not copyrighted.
So, while country-specific price fixing on physical goods or services should no longer happen, geo-blocking content like music, games, movies, television shows, ebooks, and sporting events is still fair game.
But, overall, it’s a step in the right direction by the European commission.
How to Bypass Geo Blocking
While ultimately, geoblocking may make sense in some cases, most of us internet users don’t care much for it. We just want access.
Thankfully, there are several ways of getting around geoblocking. So, access we can get.
As described in detail above, digital geographical restrictions trigger based on your device’s IP address. If the IP comes from a region where the content is restricted, the gates are shut.
So, logically, the best way to get around geo fencing is to change your IP address to one that will be allowed. While that may sound difficult, in practice, it’s rather simple. You can use one of the four methods below to do it.
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
The most popular way to change your IP address and bypass geoblocking are with a VPN. It’s a simple method that takes mere minutes to set up initially and only seconds to enable anytime you need it after.
You use a VPN by connecting your device to one of its servers, which are available worldwide.
For as long as your device is connected, its original IP address (the one triggering geoblocking) is hidden and replaced by that of your selected VPN server. Armed with your new IP, you can freely access content and services in the server’s region. It’s that simple.
Let’s look at a quick example.
Say you’re in America and want to stream the UK’s BBC iPlayer. You, of course, can’t do that with a US IP (which is what you’ll have).
So, simply connect to a VPN server in London. Doing so gives you a local UK IP address that will not be geoblocked and will let you watch.
With most providers, you get plenty of country choices too. Top-ranked NordVPN, for example, has nearly 6100 VPN servers available in an impressive 61 countries.
There are also other benefits to using a VPN beyond side-stepping geoblocking. The biggest is that your connection to the server is encrypted.
With encryption, you not only get an extra layer of security but no one – not even your ISP – can see what you do on the internet. It’s online privacy at its best.
A downside to VPNs is that the good ones are typically paid services. That said, well-reviewed providers like Surfshark literally only cost a couple of dollars per month – very little in the grand scheme of things.
Taking a slightly different approach from a VPN, a Smart DNS doesn’t hide or replace your georestricted IP address. Instead, it makes changes to your internet service provider assigned domain name system (DNS) server.
DNS is a technology used to translate domain names to IPs.
Once activated, a Smart DNS will intercept and “sanitize” all your connection requests to a service or website that would otherwise geoblock you – it removes or replaces all data that reveals your real location.
While a Smart DNS can indeed work very well, the downside is that they’re typically tied to a specific set of websites or services – they don’t work at a country level.
For example, with a VPN, connecting to a UK server should automatically let you watch the BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, Netflix UK, and all other British streaming services. A smart DNS service would have to explicitly support them all (and not many do).
You also don’t get encryption with a Smart DNS. While that may not be a big deal for most of us, it does mean third parties can see we’re accessing out of market internet content that should normally be geo-blocked.
Proxies are similar to VPNs. You connect to a proxy server, which hides and replaces your computer’s IP address with its own. As long as you’re using a proxy in the region where you want to access a geo restricted website or service, you should be able to do so.
However, proxies have several downsides.
They don’t offer encryption, so you don’t get any security and privacy benefits you do with a VPN service. They’re also not always the easiest to set up.
Proxy servers are often run by private individuals too. And, whoever runs the server can intercept and analyze any data that passes through it. This means they can see your IP address and, because there is no encryption, potentially some of your data.
So, unless you trust the operator of a proxy you’re using, you may be taking a risk.
Performance can also be an issue with proxies and affect download speeds and streaming video quality. VPNs run out of large data centers with plenty of processing power and bandwidth. Because proxies are usually small operations, most can’t keep up with demand.
Finally, a proxy covers only a single location. You need to find a new one for every country you want to access. It can’t match the geographical diversity offered by a Smart DNS or VPN.
The Onion Router (Tor)
Another way to change your IP and get around geo-locking is to use Tor. Tor is free and, like VPNs and proxies, hides and replaces your IP address.
Like a VPN, Tor encrypts the data stream. That prevents your ISP (or any other third party) from detecting you’re going around content based geo-blocking.
Tor also offers excellent geographical diversity – you should find an end node in just about any country.
The biggest downside to Tor is performance. Because it is architected for maximum privacy, your data may bounce around many locations around the world before getting to its ultimate destination. That can make large downloads or high-quality streaming painful.
Many ISPs frown upon Tor and tend to block its relays when discovered, making it less reliable.
Which Method is Best?
Of the four methods of bypassing geo-blocking, you’re best off using a VPN or Smart DNS. Both are easy to set up, have good performance, and reliably let you view geo-locked content.
Proxies can be a bit of a minefield when it comes to security and tend to suffer from sub-par performance. They often also need technical know-how to set up.
While Tor does offer excellent privacy and security, it too has speed problems. Plus, ISPs can easily block it.
I tend to lean towards VPNs. A Smart DNS has to explicitly include support for a website or service to unblock it. A VPN is a more robust solution and should, by default, give you access to everything in every country you connect to.
Is Bypassing Geo-Blocking Illegal?
In short, no, it is not illegal to bypass geo-blocking. However, depending on the geo-restricted content you’re accessing, it may be considered a terms of service violation. That is true for Netflix, for example.
But, violating terms of service is not punishable by the law. And while, technically, a company like Netflix could suspend your account for changing regions with a VPN, nothing of the sort has ever been reported (in other words, they don’t).
So, the takeaways about getting around geo-blocking are:
- It is not illegal
- It may be frowned upon
- No one will punish you for doing it
Geoblocking is a technology used by companies and governments to limit online content access based on your location. It’s a legal practice that may enforce licensing, create market segments, or censor the internet.
Popular sites like Netflix, YouTube, and the BBC make full use of geo blocking, as do countries like China or Iran.
But, while geo-blocking can be frustrating, we internet users have options. VPNs (my favorite tool), Smart DNS services, and a few other methods can all be used to get around it. And since doing so is not illegal, many of us do.