While the classic use case for VPNs is to hide your IP address and keep your ISP and other snoops from monitoring your online activities, it’s not the only reason. Once in a while you might need to appear like you’re in a different country without leaving the comfort of your own home. Perhaps you’re looking to evade some form of censorship, or access a localized version of a website. Maybe you just want to watch a foreign version of Netflix. Whatever your need, a VPN is an excellent choice for location spoofing.
Recently, I received a message from a Patagonia-based reader with just such a problem. It seems that their web traffic was being blocked because of their location. From our southerly reader, edited for brevity and privacy:
“When I go online, websites identify me as coming from Argentina, but some services will not respond because of my location. Now, I also have a website that is hosted by a Swiss provider. If I have control over my domain in Switzerland, can I somehow connect my PC to the site and have all my movements be seen as coming from Switzerland?”
The answer to the reader’s specific question is a bit complicated, but the solution to the overall problem is very simple: Get a VPN.
What’s a VPN?
A quick refresher: When you switch on a VPN, it creates an encrypted connection between your computer and a server controlled by the VPN company. Your data travels to the server, protected from prying eyes along the way, and then exits onto the internet as normal. Anyone watching will have a hard time tracking your movements across the web back to you, and your IP address will also be hidden. This is important, because one of the easiest ways to glean someone’s physical location is by looking at their IP address.
Most people will want to connect to a VPN server that’s physically close to their true location. This usually yields better speed, which is what most users are concerned about. But if you connect to a VPN server that’s farther afield, you’re effectively browsing the web as though you were sitting on top of that server. This is the trick that allows you to access streaming content in other countries. The streaming services see your traffic coming from the VPN server, and they lump you in with all the other viewers coming from the same region.
Hide and Seek Online
Our reader needs to get a VPN with servers in the region from which they would like their web traffic to originate. Then they simply have to switch the VPN on. That’s it! For slightly more detailed instructions to getting started, our story on how to set up and use a VPN is an excellent resource.
Finding a VPN that will for your particular situation, however, can be a little bit more complicated. You’ll first need to find a VPN with servers in your desired country. Most VPN services list their servers somewhere on their websites. In practice, however, simply having support for a country may not be enough. You may find that you’re not able to access the website or service you’d like for arcane network reasons. You might also need a more specific region than just a whole country—accessing the web from a random location within a country as large as Canada, for instance, could put you a long way off from your desired spot.
Some VPNs let you specify which servers and sometimes even which cities you’d like to connect with. Below are all the VPN services we’ve tested that let you choose among specific servers within a given country.
Express VPN, 94 countries
CyberGhost, 90 countries
VPNArea, 65 countries
Windscribe VPN, 61 countries
NordVPN, 59 countries
KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, 57 countries
Surfshark VPN, 55 countries
ProtonVPN, 54 countries
IPVanish, 52 countries
Mullvad VPN, 36 countries
IVPN, 31 countries
Note that you don’t need the VPN with the most countries available—just one that covers the countries you need. I’ll also mention HMA VPN, as it covers 190 countries, by far the most of any service I’ve tested. HMA VPN, however, does not let you choose specific servers. It also makes heavy use of virtual servers, which are configured to appear as if they were in one country but are actually located in another. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem, but it’s important to know.
Using a VPN in this way does come with some potential drawbacks. Some sites and services might also screen your location as part of their security measures. Many banks, for instance, might require you to present additional authentication if they see you logging in from a new or unusual location. Some sites might even block you altogether if they spot what appears to be VPN data, because the bad guys also know how useful a VPN can be.
Ideally, you could use a free VPN to test out locations to make sure the experience works the way you want. Unfortunately, most free VPNs limit your choice of servers, making it difficult to test this specific issue. Additionally, just about every VPN service requires you to enter a credit card number or create an account, even if it offers a free trial period.
Recommended by Our Editors
Note that some VPNs sell access to dedicated IP addresses. Depending on the service, these might be in a variety of countries. A dedicated IP will have only your traffic moving through it, hopefully making it seem less unusual than a VPN server and therefore less likely to be blocked.
Some quick benchmarks to consider when shopping for a VPN: The average cost of a monthly VPN subscription is $10.11, and the average cost of an annual subscription is $68.69. If a VPN is charging more than the average, make sure you’re getting something useful in exchange. Also, you will always save money with an annual subscription; but again, I recommend starting with a short term (or free!) subscription to test out a service before making a longer commitment.
Your Host May Beg to Differ
The second part of our reader’s question has to do with using their website host to reroute their traffic. This is partly possible; you can, in fact, host your own VPN. It’s likely, however, that any web host has specific expectations about how their service be used. They probably won’t allow, or at the least appreciate, your using a server meant for a website to reroute your web traffic. They likely have specific safeguards in place to prevent this.
If rolling your own VPN is your goal, I would recommend using a service such as DigitalOcean to rent a server. Once your server is spun up, you can deploy your VPN. Several DIY VPNs are available, but I’ll mention Outline VPN from Alphabet, since I’m most familiar with it. I had no trouble setting up and using my own VPN in this way, but I didn’t keep it long. While it was easy, I was never certain if I was using it correctly or in the most secure manner. I’d rather pay a little for professionals to run my VPN.
Better Browsing Through VPNs
Most of the time, people think of VPNs as a tool for hiding online activities. Our reader, however, has the unique issue of being excluded from services they need simply because of where their IP resides. It’s a reminder that technology is just a tool, and it can often do far more than its marketing implies.
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