Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and we may receive a referral fee (at no extra cost to you) if you sign up or purchase products or services mentioned.
If you’re like many of us, you’ve been spending a heckuva lot more time at home during this pandemic. And right now, streaming services are busy providing entertainment to folks at home. But living outside the U.S. generally warrants a VPN to access that same entertainment.
I’m sure you’ve heard that term “VPN” before, but even if you’re not very technical, I’m going to get you on the right page with what you need to know.
Today I’ll talk about why a VPN is so valuable for folks living or vacationing abroad. I’ll also tell you how we have ours configured as well as how most people will want to set it up to keep it simple.
And even if you’re someone who doesn’t plan to be spending time in another country, using a VPN has become more essential in our lives. It’s something that most everyone should consider using for both security and privacy regardless of where you live.
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. Without dragging you into the technical realm too much, a VPN creates a secure tunnel from point A to point B for network traffic to pass back and forth. Point A is usually your computer or a network of computers and point B is the endpoint which is generally a server, router, or firewall at some other location.
Many of you might be familiar with using a home computer to connect through a VPN to your office location. By doing so, it’s like your computer is now sitting on the office network and can access resources on that network as needed like files, printers, etc.
The most important facet of the VPN tunnel is that it’s secure. All requests and data going back and forth between point A and point B are encrypted. Nothing in between can see what’s going on – not your ISP or possible hackers in the middle trying to intercept your data.
VPNs used to be very complicated to set up and use. Today though, they’re much easier to get configured and roll out. Accordingly, more and more VPNs have rolled out for personal use.
Why do I want or need a VPN?
Even though VPNs were initially used to connect remote workers to their offices or connect multiple office locations, things have changed. Yes, they’re still used for that functionality, but now VPNs are becoming more commonplace for the everyday user for different reasons.
The inherent nature of a VPN is to securely connect you to another location. For all intents and purposes, it’s as if you’re computer is wherever that endpoint is that you’re connecting to. And nothing in between can see that information passing back and forth.
Although there are other benefits, this provides two fantastic uses for a VPN on a personal level:
1) Protect your data from prying eyes
We’re now in a world where so much personal information is passed back and forth online. For privacy and protection, you need to keep snoopers from seeing what you’re doing.
Whether that snooper is your ISP or a hacker, without a VPN, they can see where you’re going and what you’re doing. That’s scary.
It’s a little less likely that a hacker will target your home network, but they can. More likely though is that when you connect to an open WiFi connection at places like coffee shops, restaurants, stores, hotels, or airports, you now have a target on your back. Hackers can easily do what’s called a man-in-the-middle attack to intercept all of your data going back and forth.
But if you’re using a VPN on your phone or laptop and connect to that same open WiFi connection, they can’t see diddly-squat (that’s the technical term!). All they see is a bunch of gibberish and useless information.
In other words, a VPN secures your connection from prying eyes. Like it or not, this is what we need to be doing in today’s world.
2) Access sites that are normally locked out from the country you’re in
If you ever travel abroad, you’ll notice that some regular websites you use just won’t come up. The same goes for streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, etc.
This is because the companies that run these sites have geo-blocked them. They’ve basically tagged them so you can only access them from the countries they’ve allowed.
That can be problematic if you need to get to your bank back home, for instance, and they’ve locked out access from the country you’re in. Or maybe you’re on vacation abroad and want to watch a movie on Netflix (a service you’re already paying for) and can’t do it. Here are a couple of the errors I would get even from the free services while here in Panama…
That sucks. But remember how a VPN puts your computer on the same network as the endpoint? So if you connect with a VPN to your home country, websites and streaming services now see you coming from that country and not where you’re physically located.
VPN turned on and… *BOOM* – you’re now back in your home country!
How’s that for cool? So now you can do business as usual without all the headaches.
Why not use a free VPN?
So now that you know what a VPN is, how do you get one of those suckers? Ok, what’s cool is the simplicity of the software for end users – it’s so much easier than the old days. You just sign up for their service, install their VPN software or app on whatever devices you want, and you’re done! You simply toggle it on or off as needed and go about doing whatever you’re doing without all the privacy or geo-blocking concerns
There are a ton of free VPN services you can find. I’ve tried a bunch of them over the years and some are better than others. The problem is that you’re almost always going to have some major hurdles that make them not worthwhile:
- Limited bandwidth – Some free services limit your traffic before you’re either locked out or are pushed to upgrade to their “premium” plan anyway.
- Slower speed – Other free VPNs throttle your bandwidth and make you want to pull your hair out while trying to do anything.
- Malware – Many free VPNs are really just a shell to either install malware or spyware on your phone or computer. Feeling lucky?!
- Ads – A bombardment of advertising in the software makes it into a horrible user experience.
- Tracking – Several free VPNs log your activity and sell it off to be able to target you better for ads… that’s the opposite of the privacy factor a VPN is supposed to offer!
I’m a pretty cheap guy so I can tell you that it takes a little bit to push me from a free service to a pay-for-service. But in this case, I didn’t need much of a push – the free VPNs I’ve used in years past were horrendous and the cost of using a better VPN service is now so inexpensive that it’s kind of a no-brainer.
So which VPN are you using, Jim?
NordVPN to the rescue!
I have this problem where I spend way too much time overanalyzing. I can’t just pick something and be done with it. If I’m buying something, I spend way too much time researching to ensure I’m getting the smartest buy.
Choosing a VPN service was no different. I spent days of my life comparing several services. I had several factors in mind that I was looking for:
- Speed – This was one of the most important to me. Nothing is more frustrating than a slow connection when on the Internet. I wasn’t about to allow the VPN I chose to be that headache.
- No limit on bandwidth – I also didn’t want to be locked into having to sit there constantly watching how much data I was using.
- Streaming availability – The biggest use would be to be able to watch streaming services not normally accessible from abroad so this is important. Not all VPNs are good at providing access to the big players.
- Concurrent connections – I wanted to be able to use the VPN on multiple devices at the same time if needed – streaming devices, computers, phones, etc.
- Privacy – I don’t plan on doing anything shady, but any VPN that is tracking my movements isn’t a company I want to work with.
- Price – And of course, I wanted a good value for my money. Paying crazy money just to be able to do things like watch movies would just be insane.
Long story short, after a lot of research, I settled on NordVPN. Here are just some of their bragging rights:
- Fast speeds with 5100+ servers in 62 locations
- Privacy – strict no logs of user activity
- 6 simultaneous connections
- Streaming – unblocks Netflix, Hulu, etc.
- Torrenting/P2P allowed
- Built-in ad and malware blocking
- Works in China (some don’t)
- Easy-to-use VPN apps
- Specialty servers like Onion over VPN, Double VPN
- 24/7 live chat
- 30-day money-back guarantee.
The reviews I read were highly supportive of the service as well.
I felt confident enough that I bought a 3-year subscription in September of 2019. And all I can say is that I’m very happy with my choice. It’s been extremely easy to use, it’s fast, and I can connect anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat.
They have software clients for everything you can think of: Windows, Mac, Linux, Chrome, Firefox, Android, Android TV, and iOS (iPhones, iPads, etc.). So you can run it at home on your computer, devices like an Amazon Fire TV Stick, and on your phones/laptops while out and about.
If you’re going to use a VPN service, I highly recommend NordVPN. You know I don’t recommend products or services that I don’t personally use or believe in so you’re getting a solid opinion here from me.
And, it looks like they’re running a promotion as I write this to get it for around $125 for 3 years! It comes out to only be about $3.50 per month (though you pay in full up-front). With a 30-day money-back guarantee, I’d grab it before the deal‘s gone!
NordLynx is a game changer!
I have to add something that’s made this even more crazy-cool.
One of the weakest points with VPNs has always been overhead. Because of all the work that a VPN has to do behind the scenes of encrypting and decrypting every single packet of information that goes back and forth, you ultimately get short-changed on your data speeds.
If you normally had a 50MB connection to the Internet, the overhead of a VPN might make that more like 40MB depending on various factors. That’s always just been something that you’ve had to suck it up and accept with VPNs.
However, just last month, NordVPN rolled out a new technology they’re calling NordLynx… and it’s bad-ass! It’s a technology based on the open-source WireGuard VPN protocol and offers some truly outrageous speed advantages.
By just switching to NordLynx in one setting in the VPN client/app (it’s turned off right now by default), NordVPN is claiming it makes the service twice as fast… TWICE AS FAST!!
They did all the testing, but I can vouch for this on a personal level. We don’t have the fastest Internet speed at our place in Panama and we would see some buffering periodically while streaming movies or TV. Since I made that one small change in the settings a couple of weeks ago, the buffering has really become a thing of the past.
Looking at an informal bandwidth test of download speeds I did here without the VPN turned off and then on, there’s barely any difference…
For any nerds like me who care, it crazy to realize the difference even in code between the VPN protocols…
Another benefit of WireGuard VPN protocol over other protocols is its easy deployment as there are extremely fewer lines of code involved. To give you a perspective, OpenVPN runs on 400,000 lines of code whereas WireGuard VPN has only 4,000 lines of code, marking a stark difference between the two.
So this is just an added major benefit of choosing NordVPN for your VPN service.
As a side note, it doesn’t look like this has rolled out to every platform yet. I have the option in my NordVPN Windows client and Android phone, but I don’t see it yet on my Amazon Fire TV Stick or Chrome extension as of right now.
The simplest way to use NordVPN to stream media
Most of you aren’t going to want to go down a path like I’m doing with our VPN setup because it’s a little more complex. I’ll talk about that shortly. But, there’s a much simpler way to do this and I know that’s what most folks are after – keeping it simple and making it work!
I’m here for you – I’m going to make this as easy as possible for you to stream online content.
You’ll only need two things to get up and running:
- An active subscription to NordVPN
- An Amazon Fire TV Stick (usually $39.99 or less)
You already know about the first one, now you just need to make sure you have an Amazon Fire TV Stick. The reason I recommend that over something like a Roku device (which I do love!) is that the Roku doesn’t currently allow you to install a VPN app on it.
Now, as far as which model of the Fire TV Stick you go with, that’s completely up to you. For most folks, the model that my link takes you to should be a perfect middle ground on cost and functionality. In fact, it’s the same one that I have.
But if you want to be able to stream 4K, you can scroll down on the page to see the comparison and grab that model. If you don’t know what 4K is, you don’t need it.
That’s it, folks – if you have those two things, you’re ready to go!
1) Setup your Amazon Fire TV Stick
Good news (at least for me!) – I’m not going to walk you through this.
Why reinvent the wheel? Follow the instructions that come with the Fire TV Stick.
It’s very straightforward and shouldn’t take you long to do.
2) Install and login to the NordVPN app
Now we’re onto something fun! With the Fire TV screen loaded up at the home screen, go ahead and install the NordVPN app on your Fire TV Stick.
1) You can search for NordVPN by going to the magnifying glass icon along the top left of your TV screen or you can just press and hold the microphone button on the remote and say “NordVPN.”
2) When it comes up, select “Get” or “Download” and install it.
3) Once it’s done downloading and installing, click on “Open” to launch it.
4) Login using the credentials you created when you signed up for the NordVPN service. I know that’s a little tedious to do with the remote, but don’t worry, you only need to do this once.
5) Then select the country you want to connect to. For us, we select “United States.”
That’s it – you’re tunnel to the U.S. is now active on the Fire TV Stick. If you just hit the “home” button on the remote from there, it’ll stay running.
3) Install media streaming apps
Go ahead and install any apps for streaming media you want to use. You already know the big guys like Netflix and Hulu so go ahead and search for and install those apps if you plan to use them (you’ll need a subscription). Amazon Prime Video is already installed by default so you don’t need to install that one.
But even more fun are some of the free apps you might not be aware of out there. Here are some we enjoy:
4) Enjoy the streaming content in whichever country you connected to!
You’re ready to go, folks! Now you can just toggle the VPN on and off as needed. You can also just leave it connected if you want.
Once it’s connected, I usually just hit the “home” button on the remote. Then you’re good to launch the streaming service you need to. If your Fire TV Stick is turned off, when it comes back up, you’ll want to go back into the NordVPN app and re-connect to your country of choice.
I’ll talk about one caveat with streaming over a VPN shortly, but otherwise, it just does its magic in the background.
Our streaming setup
Just so you’re aware, our setup is a little different, but that’s because I’m a former IT nerd and wanted things a little more streamlined for our needs. If you’re not a technology guy or gal, you might want to just skip ahead to the next section.
I’ve talked about this previously, but here’s the idea. I have a computer here set up as a Home Theater PC (HTPC) where we have the digital movies, photos, and music we own stored. Because this Windows computer is always on and directly connected to our cable modem, I decided to make this our own little VPN gateway.
I installed the NordVPN client on that computer and then created a mobile hotspot within Windows. I set it up so any traffic going through that WiFi hotspot will go through the VPN tunnel to the United States.
In essence, we have two WiFi hotspots we can connect to here: the normal one that’s on the cable modem and the one on our HTPC that takes you through the VPN.
That gives us options. For all our day-to-day traffic with our laptops, we just go through the regular WiFi. If there’s a site we can’t get to, we can toggle on the NordVPN Chrome extension on our laptops to tunnel to the U.S. for access. Or we could always connect to the other hot spot, but the extension is generally quicker.
But we also have the HTPC hotspot to use for our Amazon Fire TV Stick and our Roku Streaming Stick. Because they’re just connecting right to HTPC WiFi hotspot, we don’t have to use the apps on the devices – the tunneling is all handled on the VPN client on the HTPC. That’s more convenient and works well, especially because the Roku doesn’t allow you to install VPN apps on it.
That’s worked incredibly well for us and even better now that we’re using the NordLynx setting.
The VPN caveat
Be aware that most online streaming companies (Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, etc.) have an obligation to follow the licensing rules the production companies require. So if the production companies set geographic restrictions on a movie, they expect the online companies to work to ensure that it’s only available to be streamed in those locations.
Because of that, things can sometimes become a cat and mouse game. The streaming companies aim to block people in other countries from watching. They also know that users in other countries will use a VPN to appear to be in the country where the movies are allowed… so they work to block the IP addresses of the VPNs.
Please note that it is legal to use a VPN to stream media from these sites. However, the streaming companies still have to put in the effort to try to show the production companies they’re doing their due diligence.
NordVPN has a good reputation for getting Netflix to work. But sometimes there can be issues with not being able to use a big-name streaming service when the VPN connects.
I’ve learned that if that happens, you can just check NordVPN’s website and they’ll tell you which locations you can connect to be able to access the service. For instance, here are a few articles from NordVPN that are updated anytime you might have problems with a service:
- How to securely watch Netflix with NordVPN?
- How to securely watch Hulu with NordVPN?
- How to securely watch Amazon Prime with NordVPN?
For those and other services, here’s the main page of articles. Honestly, I’ve probably only referred to this once or twice over the past year, but it’s still good to be aware of regardless.
We’ve actually found ourselves watching Pluto TV more and more lately. That’s a free streaming service that’s gotten better and better over the past couple of years. And being one of the not-as-well-known services, it just works with no problem through the VPN.
If you’re looking to use streaming services while either vacationing or living abroad, a VPN is going to be your lifeline. But even if you don’t ever leave your home country, a VPN is becoming more and more of a service everyone will want for both privacy and security.
And with that, I think NordVPN is a no-brainer for the service to use on all of your devices.
Do you already subscribe to a VPN service for streaming or security? If not, has this post helped you understand why it makes sense to use one?
Thanks for reading!!
6 thoughts on “How We Use a VPN for Streaming & More While Abroad”
I recommend getting a VPN even in your home country for the privacy and security it offers, such as protecting yourself from snoopers as you mentioned
When I lived in China, having a VPN was a must as so many sites were blocked without it. I found NordVPN to be really slow so I switched to ExpressVPN and had much better speeds. But maybe that’s not the case in Panama
Agree 100% on having a VPN in place regardless of where you live for security and privacy, Max – it’s a different world we live in today.
I’ve never had a problem with the speed of NordVPN, but I would wager to bet with that new NordLynx protocol in place that NordVPN would now smoke most other VPNs. I would imagine that with as big of a deal this is that a lot of the other VPN companies will start working on figuring out how to integrate the WireGuard protocol into their offering at some point as well.
Thanks for this. One more caveat I’d add is that you generally need a US credit card for many of these services. I wouldn’t mind if we’d be able to sign up with a non-US card as we’re not US citizens, but perhaps that would be unfair to Amazon, Hulu etc.
Hmm, I can’t think of too much of a way around that one, Bob. I’m not sure if this would be feasible, but one idea might be to get a Visa prepaid card from the US (not sure if you could order one to be shipped) and then use that card number for services. You can then refill it online as needed.
Nord & express are both good but is really worth spending that much when you can get a premium VPN for cheaper. Take PureVPN for example, they even have a trial
I’m not that familiar with PureVPN, but just a little digging on the Internet didn’t really impress me much. Being based in China (Hong Kong) is enough of a reason for me to bail on that one. Throw in talk about erratic speeds and how it’s pretty hit or miss on working with Netflix and that doesn’t seem to align with what I’m looking for in a VPN.
To each his/her own though – if you like it, more power to you! 🙂
As a side note, NordVPN does come with a 30-day money-back guarantee.