One of the beautiful things about the internet is just how accessible it is. You can be anywhere in the world at any time of the day and still be able to email your friends, find the football results, discover delicious cupcake recipes, and find the best open café in your 200-metre vicinity.
But dig beneath the surface and the more you use the internet, the more you realise that there are actually a lot of areas that you can't access. From pure geo-restrictions that mean you have to be in a certain country to view a site, to localised TV broadcasts or sites that countries have flat-out banned, a tool to unblock websites is a useful thing to have on your laptop and phone.
That's where using a VPN comes in. It's affordable, versatile software that has crossed over from being a niche business tool to being widely used across the world to access banned web pages and getting around blocked services. Below we'll explain what they are, how to use them and which ones are best to help you unblock websites with ease.
Today's best 3 VPNs to unblock websites
1. ExpressVPN is the world's #1 overall VPN
ExpressVPN has proved time and time again in our testing how good it is across the board. When it comes to the combo of speed, security and service, nobody tops it. It's just so easy to use for unblocking websites on laptops and mobiles. And its 30-day risk trial means you can try it out for free.
2. NordVPN - the world's most famous VPN
Pushing ExpressVPN hard to our top spot is NordVPN. It plays an excellent security game and is also really easy to operate (although its Android app could do with a facelift). And there's loads of online and live chat support available if you hit a banned or blocked service that you just can't budge.
How does a VPN help to unblock websites?
VPNs work by channelling all of the internet traffic you receive (whether that's through your computer, mobile phone, TV streaming device, games console or anything else) through a secure server owned by the provider. Not only does this make your internet use really secure - everything is strongly encrypted - but it also means you can effectively spoof the IP address of your device. Simply put, that means you can appear like you're in completely different zip code, city or country to the one you're actually in.
So if, for example, you're physically in China where loads of online services like Google, YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp and many more are banned, you can use your VPN to virtually relocate yourself to a country where they're not.
The same method applies if, say, your school or office has cut access to social media and video sites. And this even extends to more far-reaching uses like watching Netflix content or live sports that are only available in other regions.
How to change location with a VPN and unblock websites
Believe it or not, it's really very straightforward:
- Find and download a reliable VPN – or simply head straight to ExpressVPN
- Install it on to your computer, mobile or other chosen device
- Once everything is ready, open the VPN application
- Log-in with your details, follow any welcome prompts, and you should soon be offered a list of VPNs to connect to
- Pick the country you want your computer to change to (so somewhere that the site is not blocked) and click the appropriate button
- Head to the blocked site. As your device now thinks it's somewhere that the service is allowed, you'll now discover that it is an unblocked website
Unblock websites: which sites and services can I unlock?
The short answer here is: pretty much any. In our experience, the best VPN providers out there have a very impressive hit rates when it comes to how they unblock websites.
Below is a far from exhaustive list of websites that are banned around the world or carry geo-restrictions. When it comes to TV, films and sport, it's certainly a very common practice that coverage is blocked to specific regions. But some of the more surprising additions to the list are the kind of sites that the most censor-happy countries in the world ban or have banned.
- Amazon Prime Video
- BBC iPlayer
- Facebook (and Messenger)
- Google Apps (e.g. Calendar, Docs, Hangouts, Maps, etc)
- New York Times
- Sling TV
- Wall Street Journal
Where am I most likely to want to unblock websites?
As we say, governments in some countries are less fond of internet freedoms than others. It's no great surprise that people using VPNs for China has grown massively, as its communist ruling party have put bans in place on pretty much every site on the above list.
But China isn't alone in this, and if you're visiting any of the following countries any time soon, then we'd advise you to grab a VPN before you go:
What else can VPNs do aside from unblocking websites?
Rather a lot - they are really versatile pieces of kit and there are many VPN uses available
Their primary function really is as an extra layer of security for your online life. When turned on, all of your internet activity is encrypted and you're effectively completely anonymous. So if you don't like the idea of being tracked online, then they're probably a better fit than more traditional antivirus software. We think they're especially useful when you use public, insecure Wi-Fi.
It's a similar theme if you're somebody who torrents a lot. A virtual private network is an essential piece of kit these days to ensure that your internet service provider - or anybody else for that matter - can't see what you're torrenting... or if you're even torrenting at all!
Some uses are a bit more niche. More and more people turn their VPNs on when shopping for flights and such. By not giving the site any clues as to your true IP address, you circumvent any targeted price increases. As we say... the list goes on!