What is a virtual router, and why should you care?

What is a virtual router?
(Image credit: VicW/Shutterstock)

Using the best VPN can bring countless benefits – but what if you want to use a VPN on something that doesn’t natively support it?

Devices like Roku, PlayStations, Apple TV, some Smart TVs and other less advanced pieces of kit don't allow VPN apps to be installed directly, but that doesn't mean they can't benefit from the region-changing abilities and extra privacy they offer.

The quick answer to that is to set up a virtual router. However, this little-known bit of tech might sound intimidating, so here we’ll be answering the question of what is a virtual router, and running down why you might want to set one up, what you can use it for, and what you need to do it. Let’s get right into it.

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What is a virtual router?

We all know what a router is – in layman’s terms it’s a device that allows any device with a networking capability to connect to the Internet. A virtual router is the term for when you turn your desktop or laptop PC into a router itself.

By doing this, other devices can connect to your PC, much like a mobile hotspot on your smartphone. The biggest bonus is that by setting your PC up as a virtual router, you can share VPN connections with devices that can’t have VPN software installed directly – which includes game consoles, Roku, some Smart TVs, Apple TV, and other older devices that you’ve still got in action.

This is done by firing up a VPN on your PC, then connecting your other device to the network your PC is sending out rather than to your normal router. Your PC acts as a go-between, layering on VPN protection for devices down the chain to benefit from.

To find out exactly how to set one up, check out our guide on how to set up a virtual router and follow the steps.

Why do I need a virtual router?

The main reason for using a virtual router with streaming devices like Roku is to access geo-blocked content. With a streaming VPN this is super simple to do on more advanced devices like smartphones and PCs, but for more basic products a virtual router is essential.

By setting your Netflix VPN-enabled virtual router to a certain location – let’s say the UK when you’re actually in the US – you can access different media on sites like Netflix, and also access totally blocked sites like BBC iPlayer when you’re out of their service area.

This hugely enhances the usefulness of dedicated streaming devices, and can make your streaming subscriptions go a lot further with very little effort.

It’s worth noting that setting up a router VPN can do a similar job – and doesn’t require you to use a PC as a go-between – but it’s a lot harder to change location, setup can be intensive, and you may need to buy a new router. A virtual router allows you to change location at a moment’s notice, in the same way you normally would when using a VPN on your PC.

Apple TV remote in from of a TV screen

(Image credit: ShutterStock)

What do I need to set up a virtual router?

All you need is a VPN subscription (we usually recommend ExpressVPN for this kind of use as in our testing it’s proven to be the most reliable for content unblocking), a PC, and the device you want to share your connection with. And, of course, about ten minutes of your time.

What can I use a virtual router for?

As we previously mentioned, the most popular reason for using a virtual router is to allow VPN connections to be used by devices that don’t support VPN natively. That might be for unblocking regional Netflix content, but that’s not the only reason.

Many people use devices like their PlayStation as their main Internet browsing device. While you can use something called Smart DNS to access different content on PS4 and PS5, that doesn’t provide the anonymity a true PS4 VPN or Smart TV VPN does. However, connect your device to a virtual router with a VPN active, and you’ll have all the anonymity and security benefits a VPN can provide as well.

What is a virtual router – in a nutshell

Setting up a virtual router on your PC allows your computer to become a router itself. This is the easiest way to share VPN connections to devices that don’t support VPN natively, and allows you to access geo-blocked content on any device you own. It can also enhance the security of these devices, and is much simpler than setting up a VPN directly on your router.

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Mo Harber-Lamond
VPN Editor

Mo is VPN Editor at Tom's Guide. Day-to-day he oversees VPN, privacy, and cybersecurity content, and also undertakes independent testing of VPN services to ensure his recommendations are accurate and up to date. When he's not getting stuck into the nitty-gritty settings of a VPN you've never heard of, you'll find him working on his Peugeot 205 GTi or watching Peep Show instead of finally putting up those shelves.