How can I watch UK TV abroad?
BBC iPlayer, Channel 4oD and ITV Player allow viewers to watch TV streaming to your computer online but these services are all restricted to access within the UK. Fortunately, it is still possible to access them outside the UK by signing up to a VPN service which operates within the UK
What is a VPN service and why do I need one?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) provides a secure connection to a server (computer) at a different physical location from you.
BBC iPlayer and other online TV services check your computer’s IP address when you access their website. Each computer or router has a distinct IP address (such as 98.765.43.21) which uniquely identifies it while connected to the internet. Your internet service provider (ISP) will randomly assign you a distinct IP address from a pool of addresses when you connect to the internet. Your ISP has a pool of IP addresses registered to your city or area. Each time you connect, you are assigned a free IP address from this pool. Once connected, any website you visit can see your IP address and can use this information to lookup the city or area where you are physically located. You can try this yourself using a website such as whatismyipaddress.com, which will show the name of your ISP and where your current IP address is registered.
A VPN service provides access to dedicated servers such that you can securely connect to one of their servers and access the internet directly through it. This hides your physical location, so that any website you access will think you are physically located at that VPN server. These services initially became popular due to privacy concerns while browsing the internet. Some websites track your activity on their site in order to understand their user’s better and adapt their offerings to your preferences and interests. This kind of tracking is a concern for some people. However, these same VPN services are now becoming increasingly popular for people who want to access TV while abroad. By connecting to a VPN server located in the UK, you can access the full range of online TV offerings available to UK residents.
Is VPN easy to setup?
Yes. Assuming you have a computer and a good broadband connection, all you need to do is sign up to one of the many available VPN services, download a simple to install VPN program, connect to their servers and off you go.
4 things to look for in a VPN service
There are a wide range of VPN services currently available. Most importantly, the VPN service you are considering must provide servers located in the UK (assuming you want to watch UK TV abroad). Many VPN services are targeted at a US audience and only provide access to servers in the US. Of course, this might also be of interest if you want to access US services such as Hulu outside the US.
Some services offer a wider selection of countries to connect through. This can be useful if you are interested in accessing services in other countries, say for European TV networks, or even Australia or Japan. It is also particularly useful you are also concerned about privacy as some VPN services even offer the ability to randomly connect to servers across multiple countries while you are browsing the internet.
While it is essential that the VPN server be located in the UK, it is no less important that the server has sufficient capacity to support high quality streaming TV content.
Any service you consider should guarantee sufficient speeds to support streaming content. Some VPN services only provide enough bandwidth to support web browsing so any attempt to watch TV or other video content will be choppy or completely unwatchable. To get an unbiased opinion, it’s recommended do a Google search, looking for forum discussions which validate that a given service works specifically for iPlayer. It also goes without saying that you should go with a VPN provider which offers unlimited bandwidth, since streaming TV does use a lot of bandwidth.
Poor server performance, either from an overloaded or outdated server, can also severely affect streaming TV quality. Be careful with very low cost VPN providers, as they might be cutting corners on server quality in order to offer a cheaper service. This may be justifiable if you are only using VPN to browse the web, but certainly isn’t worth it for watching TV online.
Selection of Servers
It is highly recommended to choose a VPN service which offers a wide selection of servers within the UK. At peak times, some servers will become heavily loaded, regardless of server quality, so it’s important to have the flexibility to switch to another server if this happens. The best VPN services have the facility to interactively check the load on all their servers, easily switch servers and to automatically select a server with low load when connecting.
Aside from server load at peak times, there is also a small risk that online TV services will block access from one of the servers used by your chosen VPN service. If you don’t have the option to switch to another server, your only option will be to find a new VPN provider. It’s probably best to avoid services which only offer a single point of connection to the UK to avoid loss of service.
Which VPN service to choose?
There are a wide range of VPN services to choose from, although admittedly the quality varies and not all of them are suited for watching UK TV abroad. It’s worth doing a Google search to compare the offerings of different VPN providers, using the above key points as a guide. We have tried out quite a few VPN services ourselves using these criteria, but our personal favourite is Hide My Ass. Despite the slightly risqué name, it’s a very solid VPN service. We have found the speed and performance is nearly always at a high standard. When the speed is occasionally sluggish, it’s very simple to switch over to a faster server. They have an impressive setup, with over 200 servers in 50 countries, thousands of IP addresses and over 20 servers located in the UK alone. The company itself is based in the UK so presumably they put a high priority on the quality of their UK servers, compared to VPN services based overseas.
If you’ve had good experiences with other VPN services that you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you. While Hide My Ass is our current favourite, we’re very interested in any recommendations you might have, to help fellow expats and holiday makers around the world!