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More than 40% of VPN subscribers use them for streaming – here's why

More than 40% of VPN users unblock streaming content – but why?
(Image credit: Nattawit Khomsanit/Shutterstock)

When you think about the best VPN services, personal privacy, staying secure online and keeping your activity anonymous may well be the first things that come to mind. However, in our recent VPN usage survey, a substantial 41% of subscribers use their chosen service as a streaming VPN.

Initially a side-effect function of VPNs, accessing content that is geo-blocked in certain territories is one of the most popular VPN uses overall. This can be explained by the fact that VPN tech is becoming more mainstream by the day, and with that comes a less specialized user base – a user base that is perhaps less interested in personal privacy, and more interested in making their Netflix subscription go further.

Why would you use a VPN for streaming?

If you’re not quite sure what we’re talking about yet, let’s run down what we mean by accessing geo-restricted content.

If you’re in the US, your Netflix account will comprise a huge amount of Netflix Originals and licenced titles from worldwide production companies. If you're in the UK, you'll see the same Originals, but the licenced content available will be different.

For example, in the US, the world’s most-streamed comedy The Office is a Peacock TV exclusive, but in the UK every season is available on Netflix. If you don’t have a premium subscription to Peacock, you miss out on watching The Office. So those people already with Netflix access may decide that grabbing a solid VPN is a more price-effective solution than shelling out for yet another streaming service.

By switching on the VPN and connecting to a UK server, every episode of The Office is suddenly available to stream on Netflix. The same also goes for entirely geo-locked services like BBC iPlayer – only usually available in the UK, US residents can connect to a UK server and get access to free BBC content.

A VPN achieves this by rerouting your traffic through its own servers and changing your IP address – it sounds complex, but most modern apps make as simple and choosing a location and clicking on it.

From geo-restrictions to restricted rights

If that all sounded too good to be true, you're right – to a certain extent, at least. Using a VPN to watch US only Netflix shows from abroad is well and truly against the streaming site's Ts&Cs, and the same is true for just about every other service out there. 

Even more contentious is the use of VPNs to access BBC iPlayer outside the UK. Seeing as the BBC is funded by the TV licence, which is mandatory for anyone who watches the BBC, watching iPlayer from anywhere else circumvents this and is definitely against the rules.

When we look at the numbers, though, it's evident that many people are quite happy to take the risk to access more content – and that risk appears to be very small indeed. While Netflix threatens to terminate accounts found using VPNs to get around geo-blocks, we've never come across a single user report that this has happened. 

So, on paper, VPN users are taking a certain amount of risk by circumventing streaming providers' geographic restrictions – but while user accounts are technically in jeopardy for those who are caught, we've never heard of it happening in practice.

More than 40% of VPN users unblock streaming content – but why?

(Image credit: CBS)

Sports and public events are high priorities

While unblocking streaming sites like Netflix and iPlayer for daily use might be enough for some, usage really goes through the roof for one-off and live events. A great example is Oprah’s interview with Harry and Meghan, an event which saw VPN usage spike in the UK and globally.

In that case, although the interview was available to stream for free in a number of countries – including the US, UK, Australia, and Canada – the broadcast was delayed for all but the US. To watch it as soon as possible, Brits flocked to VPNs to watch the free CBS stream on Sunday night, rather than the BBC broadcast on Monday evening.

And for those in a territory where it wasn’t broadcast, a VPN was the only way to watch the interview at all.

The same also goes for worldwide sporting events – we’re talking the Super Bowl, World Cup, Champions League, the Olympics, boxing and UFC title fights, and many more. While these may be available for free in some countries, others charge a premium, and those abroad when an event airs may not be able to access certain sports streaming services they pay for – well, not without a VPN, that is.

So, it seems like a VPN can all but eliminate any streaming woes you might have, and more and more people are realizing that – but it’s still not a priority for many.

Security and privacy is still at the forefront

While 41% of users might sound impressive, a huge 66% of our 1,400 surveyed individuals claimed that they used their VPN for general day-to-day security and privacy – and that’s the way we think it should be.

While VPNs are incredibly powerful tools for accessing more content anywhere in the world, it’s still important for anyone considering downloading one to be aware of any risks involved in using a substandard provider.

When turned on, every last byte of your traffic is routed through your VPN. That’s not a huge problem if you’re using a reputable provider (and, in fact, the top-rated services tend to perform better in both streaming tests and security features), but there are plenty of duds available hidden in app stores and ready to crop up on Google.

Our biggest piece of advice? Do your research on secure VPN services, and then check if your chosen provider can unblock Netflix, BBC iPlayer and the like. You might discover that you can kill two birds with one stone.

Which VPN do we recommend?

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Mo is eCommerce Editor at Tom's Guide. Day-to-day he oversees privacy and security content, and his product guides help his readers find the best software and products for their needs. When he's not testing VPNs, you'll find him working on his classic car or plugged into a guitar amp.