A remote control with a Netflix button pointed at a globe.
Syafiq Adnan/Shutterstock.com

There are plenty of reasons why you should use a VPN: they’re an important part of protecting yourself online and can help you get past censorship blocks in countries like China. However, one of the biggest reasons why regular people use VPNs is to get past regional restrictions on content, particularly the massive regional libraries of Netflix.

ExpressVPN is the best VPN for getting past the Netflix block, though Netflix made an update in 2021 to better detect and block VPNs. We go into details on how to use a VPN with Netflix below, but not before we talk a little more about regional restrictions.

What Are Netflix Regional Restrictions?

Depending on the country you’re in, the shows and movies Netflix offers changes, sometimes radically. The United States, for example, has the biggest library by far, with shows many people in Europe have never even heard of. However, Netflix in other countries has shows American subscribers can’t watch, either.

It seems silly that some shows can be viewed in one country and not in the one next to it, but this is due to the wide range of distribution deals Netflix has made with the makers of these shows and films. If a big studio, for example, has a lucrative deal with a network in one country, neither party wants Netflix to undercut that deal.

How to Watch Netflix With a VPN

However, there’s a very simple way to get around these restrictions, by using a VPN. A virtual private network is a service that reroutes your internet connection through one of its own servers, letting you pretend you’re somewhere you’re not.

In short, when you normally connect to a site, you do so by sending a connection request from your computer, via your ISP’s server to the site you want to access. When using a VPN, the connection instead goes from your ISP to the VPN’s server before going to the site you want.

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When you do this, instead of your own IP address—the series of numbers that shows your approximate physical location—changes to that of the VPN server. As such, if you’re in Canada and want to watch German Netflix, you can just connect to a VPN server in Germany and you’re good to go.

The Netflix VPN Block

At least, you would be if Netflix didn’t like you doing that and set up a system to block you. It’s a little unclear why exactly Netflix started blocking VPN users, but the most likely reason is that distributors realized a lot of people were getting around Netflix’s regional restrictions and thus pressured the company to institute some kind of VPN block.

There’s no good way of telling exactly how the block works, just that it does. What’s most likely is that Netflix identifies certain IP addresses as belonging to a VPN—that’s not too complicated, all it would need to do is keep track of which IP addresses connect more than a residential IP should—and then blocks that IP address from streaming.

VPN users have probably gotten fairly familiar with the “Pardon the interruption” screen on Netflix.

Netflix proxy error screen

Note that it’s not only Netflix that has a similar block in place: Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and a host of other entertainment channels block VPNs.

VPNs Started Dodging Netflix’s Blocks

Of course, VPNs weren’t going to sit back and let this happen, either. A good chunk of their revenue is made up of people using VPNs to watch other countries’ Netflix libraries and you can’t let that kind of money slip through your fingers without putting up a fight.

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What followed was a running battle where VPNs would switch IP addresses and Netflix would ban them. Some VPN services did really well at this game, like ExpressVPN and NordVPN, while others weren’t nearly as successful. This is probably due to these two behemoths being able to throw more resources at the problem.

How this exactly worked we’re not sure, but over the past few years, certain VPN servers would work fine until they didn’t, and then they’d work fine again. It could get a little annoying at times, but by cycling through different VPN servers you could, eventually, get through to the Netflix library you wanted.

The 2021 Netflix Crackdown

However, in August 2021, it seemed that Netflix had finally gained the upper hand: in one fell swoop, servers all over the world stopped working in what we at How-To Geek dubbed the VPN crackdown.

One of the ways VPNs had eluded Netflix was by using residential IP addresses. These are IPs that aren’t linked to rented server space like VPNs usually use, but instead ones that are linked to residential addresses. Netflix had gotten wise to this and blocked those, too, causing some annoyance with people who were not using a VPN and were still blocked.

On the other hand, Netflix now lets you stream Netflix Originals if it detects you’re using a VPN. You’re not blocked from streaming—you can just only stream shows that Netflix has a worldwide license for (in other words, the shows and films Netflix itself created.)

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It was a fairly elegant solution overall and it worked to block VPNs… for about a week. Some VPNs quickly caught up with Netflix’s tactics, and it seems that once again ExpressVPN and NordVPN, to name but two, offer servers that can connect to Netflix libraries in other countries.

It looks like the game of cat and mouse is continuing.

The Best VPN Services of 2021 for Netflix, Privacy, and More

Best Overall VPN
ExpressVPN
Best Budget VPN
SurfShark
Best Free VPN
Windscribe
Best VPN for iPhone
ProtonVPN
Best VPN for Android
Hide.me
Best VPN for Streaming
ExpressVPN
Best VPN for Gaming
Private Internet Access
Best VPN for Torrenting
NordVPN
Best VPN for Windows
CyberGhost
Best VPN for China
VyprVPN
Best VPN for Privacy
Mullvad VPN
Fergus O'Sullivan Fergus O'Sullivan
Fergus is a freelance writer for How-To Geek. He has seven years of tech reporting and reviewing under his belt for a number of publications, including GameCrate and Cloudwards. He's written more articles and reviews about cybersecurity and cloud-based software than he can keep track of---and knows his way around Linux and hardware, too.
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