Online services like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Spotify, Steam and many others have changed the way millions of people access media. They've brought upon an era of instant, on-demand digital media consumption in a world where linear programming, bundled content, and physical formats no longer fit many people's lives.
Unfortunately this is a revolution not everyone can partake in (not yet or not as easily, at least) as such services employ region locks to limit access from specific countries. More often than not it's not actually their fault, they just need to abide by archaic license agreements enforced by the actual content owners.
In this article we’ll offer you three alternatives to get around these restrictions. Each has their advantages and disadvantages and whichever route you choose will depend on the services you need to access as well as the devices you need to access them from -- not to mention whether you are willing to pay or not.
Most likely you'll only need one of these options. Here's a brief explanation of what you can expect from each of them, so you can jump to the one that better suits the task and quickly get on your way.
Quick and simple way to bypass websites’ geographic restrictions.
Many free proxies available, but most don't allow streaming.
Solid free alternative but limited to Hulu, YouTube and Grooveshark.
Paid proxies start at ~$5 per month (pay as you go).
Easy to configure on browsers, but not always on other apps or non-PC players (consoles, streaming box, etc.)
Access and stream from any region-blocked website.
Encrypted connections, better privacy overall.
Few free options available, with speed and data limitations.
Paid VPNs start at ~$7 per month (cheaper when bought yearly).
Easy to configure on PCs, but not always on other non-PC players (consoles, streaming box, etc.)
Access only supported region-blocked websites (most popular services are covered).
Few free options available
Paid alternatives start at ~$5 (pay as you go).
Paid services offer fast speeds, encrypted connections.
Easy to configure on PCs, easiest to configure on non-PC players (consoles, streaming box, etc.)
Alternative #1: Proxy
Using a proxy is a quick and simple way to bypass websites’ geographic restrictions. There are many public proxies freely available on aggregators like proxy.org, this database at Hide My Ass updated in real time, or via a simple Google search ([country name] free proxy). Ideally you’ll want to look for a “high anonymity” proxy, which doesn’t reveal your IP to the remote host or identifies itself as a proxy when connecting to websites.
To start using a proxy as an intermediary for your web requests simply enter the information in your browser:
Firefox: Tools > Options > Advanced > Settings > Manual proxy configuration.
Chrome: Settings > Network > Change proxy settings > LAN settings > Use proxy server > Advanced > HTTP.
IE: Tools > Internet options > Connections > LAN settings > Use proxy server > Advanced > HTTP.
Opera: Tools > Preferences > Advanced > Network.
As with almost anything that comes for free, though, there are a few caveats. For starters, most free proxies don’t allow streaming, so you’ll have to dig around. You may also need to change proxies frequently which is a bit cumbersome in the long run compared to a VPN. Lastly, since these are public proxies we’re talking about, there are really no guarantees of a secure connection, so you don’t want to leave them on all the time.
Another free alternative is ProxMate, a simple extension for Chrome and Firefox that unblocks region-specific content from YouTube, Hulu, and Grooveshark. Currently it’s limited to those services, but promises to add more in the future and also lets you set up your own proxy servers to automatically get around any country-specific blocks. Plus, you can conveniently enable or disable it straight from the browser toolbar.
If you’ll be using a proxy frequently, consider a paid service like FoxyProxy, which offers access to high-speed proxies in many countries and access to a VPN for $8 per month, or $4.50 if you buy the whole year.
Alternative #2: VPN
Proxies are okay for getting around region blocks occasionally but they are far from ideal if you want permanent, reliable access to media streaming services from your PC -- plus they only work with applications that actually support proxies, like browsers. Virtual Private Networks are a safer bet and you can even find some free alternatives, albeit with some limitations when it comes to speed and bandwidth caps.
Basically a VPN creates a connection between your computer and a server in a host country, which will assign you an IP and route all Internet traffic through that connection. This means your actual IP will be hidden and to any site you visit it will look like the request originated in the host server country.
Most VPNs offer some level of encryption for added privacy and security and some offer a choice of server locations; so if you want to watch Hulu, for example, you can connect to a server in the US. Switch to a UK server and you can access BBC’s iPlayer. Others even advertise total privacy packages with servers in the Netherlands or safe P2P downloads through servers in Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia, Estonia. But I digress.
HotSpot Shield is arguably the most popular free VPN service; it requires downloading a special app and you’ll be able to stream US-based content in no time, but you’ll have to put up with ads while browsing and very often with slow connections. Also, services like Hulu have been known to actively block HotSpot Shield.
My preferred free alternative and the one I’d recommend to anyone just getting started with VPNs is called TunnelBear. It works with a standalone app on OS X or Windows and it’s extremely easy to use. There’s no configuration involved, just install it and sign up for an account. Within the TunnelBear interface you’ll be able to turn the VPN connection on or off with a single click and switch between US or UK servers just as easy.
The only caveat (there’s always one with free services) is that you are limited to 500MB of data per month. On the upside, there are no ads, and you can always upgrade to a paid account with unlimited bandwidth for $5 monthly or $50 for the whole year, which is actually quite competitive. TunnelBear uses 128-bit and 256-bit encryption for its free and paid services, respectively, and doesn’t log any of your web activities.
Other paid alternatives I’ve tried ranging in price from $5 - $10 a month include StrongVPN and BlackVPN. Both are reputable services with their own advantages and disadvantages. Be sure to read their logging and privacy policies -- TorrentFreak ran a survey that gives you the gist of it on these and several other VPN services. In any case, for the purpose of this article which is getting around geo-blocks, you shouldn’t be too concerned about it. No one’s coming after you for streaming an episode of Parks and Rec overseas.
Setting up these paid VPN services is not hard but requires a little more effort. We won’t go into details as you’ll find specific instructions for the service you choose -- something like this: BlackVPN or StrongVPN.