But, are they legal? Read below to learn about when they are and when they are not.
What is a VPN?
A VPN creates what’s often referred to as a ‘private tunnel’ between your device and a server online. The data transmitted between these two points is encrypted and secure, safe from prying eyes.
Traditionally the technology has been used by businesses as a way of keeping company data safe while employees work on them from remote locations. But there usage has dramatically changed in recent years, for home users as as well as business users. The reason being concerns privacy, in general and because VPNs can change your location (making it look like you’re in another country), more and more people use it to get around region-locked services - mostly streaming video.
Is it legal to use a VPN?
In the majority of countries around the world, VPNs are perfectly acceptable.
For example, it is illegal - or certainly frowned upon to use a VPN in China, Russia, Turkey, Iraq, and the UAE. Some of these countries merely discourage the use of a VPN or limit the service’s capabilities.
The reasons for this are typically because the countries' governments want to restrict access to Western services and news sources. Whatever the truth of the matter, it's best not to be caught using one in any of these locations.
Having said that, it's difficult to find cases where any individual (travelling as a foreigner) has been prosecuted for using a VPN.
For people in the rest of the world, a VPN is a perfectly acceptable tool to use and in many ways is becoming increasingly important. Personally I wouldn't be without mine simply for the peace of mind it brings, by keeping my online activities private, they prevent companies and hackers from from acquiring my browsing habits and purchase history.
Can I watch US Netflix in the UK?
One very popular use for a VPN is watching overseas versions of Netflix and other streaming services. As each region has different shows and movies, it can be quite a temptation.
This could be construed as saying that viewing content from other countries is permitted, if not implicitly stated. And, in any case, you're not breaking the law if you do something that contravenes a service's terms and conditions.
Also see: Free hotel wifi can be risky!
Can I watch iPlayer when travelling abroad?
UK TV license payers might also want to use a VPN to watch iPlayer while travelling abroad, but the BBC is more strict about its usage.
‘If you download a programme on BBC iPlayer before you leave the UK you can watch it anywhere in the world…but due to rights agreements, you need to be in the UK to download and stream programmes or watch BBC TV channels.’
But this approach is not set in stone, as the corporation adds the following;
‘While we are interested in being able to allow UK license fee payers to access BBC iPlayer when they are abroad, there are complex technical issues to resolve which we are investigating as well as legal issues outside of the EU.’
For this reason, the BBC - as well as Netflix and other companies - actively crack down on VPN providers, blocking specific servers and generally attempting to thwart their use. This is why you might find you can't access Netflix in a certain country today even though you're using the same VPN service you used yesterday. It's a little unpredictable.
Do VPN's really work?
It’s true that your ISP - your internet provider - won’t know what you’ve been up to, but some VPN service providers will. This means that if you’re conducting illegal business, or generally up to no good, then the police can compel the VPN company to hand over whatever details it may have about your online history. That's why it pays to choose a VPN service which is located in a country where this can't happen, and which has a strict zero-logs policy.
There have also been instances where free VPN services have been found to spy on users, access sensitive information, or provide no encryption at all. That is why we highly recommend that you pay for a VPN service rather than use a free one. The free ones can also be very slow, unreliable and offer limited bandwidth.