What’s the Deal With Streaming Services and VPNs?
The relationship that has developed between major streaming sites and VPN privacy services over the past decade or so has been a complicated one, a story filled with enough twists and turns to warrant its own series on Netflix.
As streaming sites began to surge in popularity around 2008-2010, subscriber numbers for VPN services responded in kind due to the many restrictions that streaming portals were putting on their featured content. Whether blocked due to geographical content licensing issues or just because a government didn’t like what a particular YouTuber had to say about them, streaming enthusiasts around the globe have found it increasingly difficult to enjoy the content they want, when they want, and most importantly - from wherever they want in the world.
But what are the specific policies governing the use of VPNs on streaming services, and how do they change from portal to portal? Read on in our guide to streaming services and VPNs to find out everything you need to know and more!
As a U.S-owned, U.S-based business, it’s no surprise that the TV streaming portal Hulu currently only works for users streaming inside US borders. Of all the streaming services out there, this level of location-based regulation makes Hulu one of the strictest streaming services operating on the net today, tied only with BBC iPlayer and its UK-only ruleset.
On its website Hulu claims that this is due to the time it takes to “reach agreements with content holders”, and that the company is working to expand its content licenses beyond the US market. That said, currently 21st Century Fox owns around a 30% stake in Hulu, and they’re known for being one of the most stringent studios and distributors when it comes to global content licensing practices. Plus, now that 21st Century Fox has been purchased by Disney Corporation (who will transfer all their holdings to the company including their ownership stake in Hulu), it’s likely that these restrictions will only continue to grow tighter in time.
All this is to say that even though Hulu claims that it is working diligently to “expand their content portfolio globally”, everything on the corporate side of their investments points in exactly the opposite direction. This means that we probably don’t expect Hulu to work anywhere besides the U.S for the foreseeable future, so if you’re either visiting outside the country or just want to watch any of the hundreds of different TV shows and movies the service offers from anywhere but within the US, you’re straight up out of luck right now.
Hulu and VPNs
- Hulu Subscriber Statistics: 20 million
- Hulu-ready Server Locations: United States
- Recommended VPNs for Hulu: NordVPN, ExpressVPN, VyprVPN
Like Netflix, Hulu is one of the many streaming sites that are currently on the warpath against VPNs, doing everything they can to prevent their use and ban any traffic that looks like it may be coming from an IP block sourced within a VPN’s server cluster.
The methods that Hulu uses to detect VPN traffic are a closely guarded secret, though it’s widely assumed they utilize a similar IP blacklisting system as Netflix. Unfortunately because Hulu is more of a niche product as far as the rest of the world is concerned (at least when compared to streaming giants like Netflix), many VPN providers haven’t focused as much of an effort on making sure Hulu is unblocked for all their customers.
This means that while larger providers may still offer Hulu functionality, smaller providers can only afford to keep buying IP blocks for Netflix functionality since that’s where the majority of their customer demand lies.
If you’re trying to stream Hulu using a VPN, we recommend picking a VPN provider that’s well-known and well-funded, preferably options like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, or CyberGhost VPN. This won’t necessarily guarantee access to Hulu whenever you want it, but going with a large provider will still give you a better shot than you’ll get with most mid-to-low tier services in the marketplace.
When it comes to the case of streaming YouTube, things get a bit more complicated than simply trying to protect copyright license holders. While that is a big part of why so many users find the dreaded “This video is not available in your country” message popping up on their favorite channels, it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to why YouTube might be blocking you from viewing a particular piece of content.
It’s true that many major US-based networks like NBC, CNN, Fox and CBS will geo-restrict their videos on the basis of content licensing, which is understandable but still a pain to deal with. However where things get more complicated are in the governmental restrictions, which vary wildly from country to country and can be based on a myriad of factors that would be impossible even for an expert in law to keep up with given how often they change on a day to day basis.
Some countries may restrict any content that has negative propaganda targeted at their administration, while others may put a blanket ban on anything that remotely resembles violence. Others could have strict regulations that govern what’s considered “sexual content”, while another might simply ban people from viewing anything that has a swear word in it.
Because these restrictions change so often depending on where you’re connecting from and the types of content being posted, it can be difficult to get a consistent content experience on one of the biggest streaming sites in the world.
YouTube and VPNs
- YouTube Subscriber Statistics: N/A
- YouTube-ready Server Locations: All countries
- Recommended VPNs for YouTube: Any VPN you like!
Luckily unlike many of the other streaming portals on this list, for the time being it doesn’t look as though YouTube is actively attempting to block VPNs or related privacy tools from accessing the service. This means just about any VPN you sign up for should work perfectly fine on YouTube without a hitch.
To make it easier to figure out which server locations you should connect to in order to view a specific video, head on over to this link to use the YouTube geo-restriction checker. This tool lets you see which countries ban a specific video, or where it’s licensed to play. As long as your VPN is connected to a server located in a country highlighted in green then you should be all good to stream YouTube with a VPN to your heart’s content!
BBC iPlayer is a favorite streaming destination for millions of users from all over the globe, but unlucky for just about all of them, access to iPlayer is currently limited to residents of the United Kingdom alone. But unlike Hulu which is restricted due to regional content licensing agreements set by studios and distributors (and their many, many lawyers), the reason iPlayer is restricted to the United Kingdom’s borders actually goes back much further than before computers were even invented.
See, although the BBC as a broadcasting group first started as a private entity, within a few years it made the transition to a public service, run and managed by the British government itself. The UK government charges every citizen who wants to receive a broadcast TV signal within the country’s borders £147 every year, which acts as sort of a “TV tax” which helps to fund the programs produced and shown on the service.
This fee makes it so the BBC never shows any advertisements during the run of its programs, and keeps the service profitable enough to continue producing content without the help of external studios or distributors. Unfortunately this means that the media organization is well within its right to restrict the usage of its digital streaming service, the BBC iPlayer, to UK residents only given that they’re the ones paying directly into the annual tax that keeps their operation afloat.
BBC iPlayer and VPNs
- BBC iPlayer Subscriber Statistics: 25.8 million
- BBC iPlayer-ready Server Locations: United Kingdom
- Recommended VPNs for YouTube: CyberGhost VPN, Faceless.ME, SuperVPN
As such, BBC iPlayer is one of several streaming services which has dove headlong into the daily battle against the usage of VPNs. BBC iPlayer regularly detects and blacklists IP addresses that can be traced back to popular VPN providers, meaning that those services need to constantly be purchasing new IP blocks from within the UK in order to stay one step ahead in the game.
Luckily there are a number of VPNs which specifically set out to make sure that BBC iPlayer functionality is available to their customers (for all the Planet Earth junkies out there like myself). Some of the bigger names that work with BBC iPlayer include CyberGhost VPN, Faceless.ME, and SuperVPN.
Amazon Prime Video
Amazon has made huge strides in recent years to throw their hat into the ring with major streaming companies like Netflix, beefing up their Prime Video selection by thousands of titles and dumping more money than ever into producing their own original content in-house.
During the early years Prime Video was only available in a few select markets due to many of the same regional content licensing restrictions that competitors like Netflix face, but recently the company expanded their reach to over 220 new markets around the world.
Unfortunately just like Netflix, Amazon has to change what content is or isn’t available in particular markets depending on everything from the number of subscribers that are listed in a specific region to which distributors have the rights to display shows in certain countries. In layman’s terms this means that the movies and TV shows available on the US-version of Amazon Prime Video may differ drastically from what you’d see if you were connecting from within the UK, for example. This is where VPNs come in.
Amazon Prime Video and VPNs
- Amazon Prime Video Subscriber Statistics: 90 million
- Amazon-Ready Server Locations: Any of the 220 countries Prime Video operates in
- Recommended VPNs for YouTube: NordVPN, ExpressVPN, PrivateVPN, SaferVPN
Amazon is yet another streaming service that explicitly bans the usage of VPNs on their network, though you won’t lose access to your account if the proxy error ever pops up.
Because of Amazon Prime Video’s worldwide appeal many VPN providers do what they can to buy new IP blocks that work on the service regularly. The major VPN services that feature reliable access to Amazon Prime Video include NordVPN, PrivateVPN, CyberGhost VPN and of course, ExpressVPN.
We’ve already covered the subject of Netflix and VPNs in detail in several other articles on the topic, which you can read here, here, and here. That said, when it comes to streaming services Netflix dominates far and away as the one that people want to be able to unblock the most.
This is why of all the services listed here, Netflix continues to be one of the most difficult to fool when it comes to the usage of VPNs. The company has a robust detection algorithm capable of automatically blacklisting IP blocks by the thousands, and they don’t look to be slowing down on this effort anytime soon.
Netflix and VPNs
- Netflix Global Subscriber Statistics: 125+ million
- Netflix-ready Server Locations: United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Netherlands
- Recommended VPNs for YouTube: NordVPN, ExpressVPN, PrivateVPN
That said, many of the top VPN providers like ExpressVPN and NordVPN have made it their sole mission to provide customers with a simple and effective way of getting around these blocks, and have teams of engineers working tirelessly to guarantee that as soon as one block of IPs gets banned, they’re already waiting with another fresh block at the ready.
Of all the streaming services out there that attempt to block VPN users in one fashion or another, Netflix is by far the most widely supported within the VPN industry. Quite literally hundreds of different VPNs claim to work with Netflix, and although the actual veracity of those claims differs pretty significantly from service to service, you’d be hard pressed to find a major VPN provider operating today that can’t get past the US Netflix ban in a few clicks or less.
What can you do if a streaming service blocks your VPN?
Try, try again. Whether this means trying a different server in the same region on the same VPN service, or going with a new VPN service altogether, unfortunately there’s no way for any VPN provider to predict when they’ll be the next ones to get hit by a streaming service IP blacklist.
As we mentioned earlier, the big providers can afford the manpower and resources necessary to keep buying new IP blocks as old ones go down and minimize the downtime between ban waves. This means if you want to guarantee the most consistent access, you should always choose a VPN provider that features subscriber numbers in the hundreds of thousands or more (ExpressVPN, NordVPN, etc).
If you’re subscribed to a large provider and hit a proxy error, we recommend either trying a new server in the same region first, and if that doesn’t work, simply wait a day or two and try again before you go and cancel your service entirely. VPNs are constantly getting banned/unbanned on a daily basis, so what didn’t work today might be back up and running within 24 hours or less if the provider is staying on their toes.
Smaller VPN providers may struggle to buy new IP blocks when old ones hit the blacklist though (if they’re able to buy new addresses at all). This means that if you’re on a smaller VPN and hit the proxy error multiple days in a row with no sign of access on the horizon, that VPN may be out of the running for good.
Before you cancel your service make sure to contact customer support and ask if there are any new IP block purchases on the horizon, and see if they plan to restore access to your preferred streaming portal anytime in the near future.
As long as geographical content restrictions exist, the constant game of cat-and-mouse that exists between streaming services and VPNs doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon. That said, as long as you’ve got a reliable VPN provider who consistently buys new IP addresses to circumvent the blocks put in place by the likes of Netflix and Hulu, you should be able to continue enjoying all your favorite TV shows and movies no matter where you choose to stream from in the world.