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If you’re in a country where there’s a torrenting ban in place, using a VPN to download files over BitTorrent is an absolute must. Elsewhere, though, torrenting without a VPN is less of an issue.

If you’re a torrenter, you probably have heard the many warnings about needing to use a VPN while using BitTorrent to download files. Do you really need to heed these warnings, though, and can you maybe torrent without a VPN?

It Depends On Where You Live

The answer depends almost entirely on your location. If you’re in a country without torrenting controls—and there’s a surprising number of those—then, no, you don’t need a VPN to torrent. However, if you’re not in one of those places, then you really, really should use a VPN, or run the risk of some skyhigh fines and maybe even jail time.

Countries That Have No Torrenting Controls

First, let’s go over some of the countries where torrenting isn’t too big of an issue. There is a nice overview on Reddit, though we recommend that you do your own research before torrenting, just in case. For example, anecdotal evidence (your author was nearly fined) suggests that it’s very much a bad idea to torrent in the Netherlands, despite what redditors claim.

Still, though, in large parts of Africa, Asia, and even in big swathes of Europe, you should be able to get away with torrenting without a problem. Copyright watchdogs either don’t exist, or if they do, they only bother with large cases. Some simply don’t have the means to track torrents.

Countries With Torrenting Bans

However, in a large number of countries, torrenting is quite simply banned in some form or another. The United States, Canada, and a large number of European countries it’s quite simply not okay to torrent.

Interestingly enough, in these countries the bans are usually enforced not by the authorities—cybercrime divisions have more interesting things to do than chase down small-scale copyright infringement—but instead by copyright watchdogs.

The United States has DMCA, the Netherlands and Belgium have BREIN, the list goes on. What they have in common is that they have the power to levy fines or even take you to court. That said, the number of people who have actually ended up in jail is quite small and seems to be reserved for people that somehow made money off copyright infringement, which would explain the involvement of police.

How Watchdogs Discourage Torrenting

The strategy used to deter torrenting is almost always the same: on the one hand, access to sites is shut off. Since that’s usually not that effective since sites will just pop up at a different address, the other tactic is to place trackers on certain torrents, recent Hollywood blockbusters are a popular lure, and then track whoever torrents the file.

How VPNs Protect You When Torrenting

The only way to prevent this tracking is to use a VPN. Though you could use a VPN alternative, in most cases there’s a chance you’re still leaving yourself open to tracking, and the fines are no joke.

Why are VPNs the answer? Because of the way tracking works. When you try to track people online, the best and easiest way is to figure out their IP address, the set of numbers that shows your location in the real world.

VPNs directly counteract this by rerouting your connection to a VPN server, giving you the IP address associated with that server. On top of spoofing your IP in this manner, a VPN also encrypts your connection so trackers can’t see beyond the VPN’s server, either. It’s a win-win for you.

If you don’t use a VPN, or a less secure alternative like a proxy, chances are you’ll be found out. This is because proxies don’t hide your traffic in the same way as a VPN does, meaning a tracker can likely figure out who it really is downloading a certain file. The Onion Router—an anonymous browser—has a similar issue, which is why you shouldn’t use Tor for torrenting.

As a result, if you’re torrenting files—even legal ones—and you’re in a country that takes a hard stance on copyright infringement, you should really use a VPN to cover your tracks. They’re the best—maybe even only—tool that will protect you from copyright notices and an essential part of the torrenters’ toolkit.

Be Careful Which VPN You Choose for Torrenting

That said, VPNs aren’t all created equal. For example, some untrustworthy VPNs won’t secure your connection like they’re supposed to, leaving you open to tracking. Others won’t destroy logs—the records that show when you connected and from where—meaning that the VPN could hand over your details if they’re sued by a copyright watchdog.

Because of these reasons, you need to be careful which VPN you subscribe to if you plan on torrenting. We’ve put together a list of the best VPNs, all of which should keep you safe while using BitTorrent to download files. Our favorite is IVPN, but Mullvad or ExpressVPN will do an equally excellent job. Sure, it’s an extra expense, but it’s a lot cheaper than any DMCA fine.

The Best VPN Services of 2023

Best Overall VPN
ExpressVPN
Private Internet Access
Best Budget VPN
Private Internet Access
Best Free VPN
Windscribe
Proton VPN
Best VPN for iPhone
Proton VPN
Best VPN for Android
Hide.me
Best VPN for Streaming
ExpressVPN
Best VPN for Gaming
TorGuard
Best VPN for Torrenting
IVPN
Best VPN for Windows
NordVPN
Best VPN for China
VyprVPN
Mullvad VPN
Best VPN for Privacy
Mullvad VPN
Profile Photo for 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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