It's hard to pinpoint when I found my friends in America - time gets a little fuzzy when I think back to the days of Tumblr and Skype! As for "why," well, that's a bit easier. All of us were young women, slightly isolated from our peer groups IRL, and drawn to internet communities to bridge the gap. Sites like Tumblr were an awesome place to meet, and all with a minimum of pressure and awkwardness; you'd connect over a few initial shared interests, strike up a conversation, and then realize seven years have passed before you know it.
Obviously, having friends in the States is challenging. The physical distance is frustrating even on the best days, and especially on those rubbish evenings where you'd give anything to just hang out and forget it all.
Online friendships come with their own unique set of obstacles and risks, and I've found that a virtual private network (or VPN) is a must-have piece of kit for anyone with international pals. In this article, I'll walk you through how my VPN comes in handy when staying in step with the US, and all the important things to keep in mind if you plan on getting one yourself.
Just in case you're new to the tech, or need a refresher, it's a good idea to cover what a VPN is as well as some of their more basic functions. A VPN (or Virtual Private Network) is a handy piece of software that you can install on any device you own, so long as it can connect to the web.
And as for what a VPN can do, here's the rundown:
🔍No more snooping
You might not know this, but your ISP and the websites that you visit can monitor some of what you get up to online. They do this by checking out your IP address, which a VPN will actually cloak when you connect to a server. Your ISP, and those websites, will only see the new, temporary IP address given to you by the VPN when they take a look, meaning you can dodge blanket government surveillance and invasive snooping.
Can you count how many times you've wanted to follow a link only to be denied access? These restrictions might've been put in place by your workplace or school, or even a strict government - a VPN can sidestep them by connecting to a server in a location where this content isn't blocked.
Streaming has always made up a huge part of my digital life, and doubly so during lockdown. However, Netflix content varies massively from county to country, and some shows are totally unavailable in the UK… without a VPN!
If you were to take a walk up the high street and look at the available Wi-Fi networks, you'd see dozens of shops and cafes and restaurants offering free hotspots, but it's a massive risk to actually connect to them. It's hacker heaven, and cybercriminals can duplicate networks in the hopes that you'll connect and hand over your personal data without ever knowing. Luckily, a VPN's encryption puts a quick stop to this.
Impressive, right? In truth, a VPN can do so much more for you, but this post is going to focus on the three ways in which my own VPN helps me stay connected to my friends in the States - and hopefully a VPN can do the same for you, regardless which side of the pond you live on!
Streaming is such an important part of international friendships! It's usually pretty simple, too. All you need to do is agree on something to watch and pick out a few snacks, and watching stuff amongst friends is a great way of working through that growing list of shows or movies you always meant to get around to watching.
However, as I mentioned earlier, Netflix's content varies from country to country - meaning if your American friends want to watch Hoarders, they'll be able to, no problem, but it's a different story for us here in the UK. Our friends in the US are spoiled for choice when it comes to fresh titles and old favorites, though there'll occasionally be a gem that crops up in the UK library that takes their interest.
In fact, unblocking Netflix libraries has become one of the main selling points for VPNs, and they use something called "location spoofing" to make it happen. That sounds a bit weird, but it's what makes it possible to stream content as though you were in the US, too.
Basically, when you connect to a VPN server in an American city, you'll be assigned an American IP address. The sites you visit, including Netflix, won't be able to tell that you're actually chilling in the UK, and will grant you access to all the shows and movies that were previously geo-restricted.
Again, that all sounds pretty good - and VPNs are an effective streaming solution, but it's not easy to pick out a provider that reliably unblocks the service. Different providers have access to different regional libraries, and to make matters worse, Netflix has gotten scary good at blocking the IP addresses of VPNs. You'll need to do a bit of research before subscribing to any VPN, to ensure that it can access the streaming services that you and your friends plan to frequent.
A lot of popular streaming services are simply not available to UK residents. This is pretty unfair, and many a movie night has been postponed or put off as a result. But, a VPN can unblock all sorts of platforms - including the following American services:
Hulu isn't a household name in the UK, and that's probably because it's only accessible in the US and Japan. As you can imagine, Hulu enforces super strict geo-restrictions to prevent anyone outside of these regions from enjoying its content, which is a shame, because there's some good stuff tucked away in there! A lot of VPNs aren't compatible with the service at the moment, so it's a good idea to get in touch with your prospective provider to see whether the VPN can unblock Hulu.
Nothing brings the UK and the US together like an abiding love for anime, and Crunchyroll is the best site out there when it comes to keeping tabs on new releases and revisiting old classics. Again, Crunchyroll reserves its best content for US viewers, and folks overseas might find themselves missing out on some awesome content. This is largely thanks to licensing agreements that Crunchyroll has to abide by, but that doesn't make us left-out Brits feel any better.
Has anybody not spent a sleepless night (or ten) going from one YouTube video to another? You've probably also come across a video that's not available in your region - and this kills the buzz pretty quickly, especially if you're sending links back and forth with friends over messenger. Using a VPN for Youtube ensures that you can watch as many cat videos, Vine compilations, or 12-hour LoFi music streams as you like, and all without relying on dangerous proxies.
We've got a handy guide to streaming with a VPN that you can check out for all the details, and if you reckon that you're interested in getting your hands on a subscription, keep these three key criteria in mind when making your choice:
- Speed - obvious, sure, but important. Nobody wants to watch a buffering circle or a pixelated, low-quality stream.
- Compatibility - sometimes you just want to chill out and look at your phone in bed, and the best VPNs will support that decision!
- Customer service - if you have trouble with your VPN, it's always better to know you can contact an expert team at any point for some immediate troubleshooting.
If streaming is the low-key, chilled side of the coin, then gaming is the flip-side! There are tons of multiplayer games available for PC and console that let you interact in real-time with American friends, and those virtual spaces can become just as important as IRL ones.
A VPN comes in handy for gamers in all locations, and can prevent DDoS attacks, optimize the path your packets take, and put a stop to ISP throttling.
But before we dig deeper into the benefits of a VPN for gaming, I should address the elephant in the room - and that's speed. Speed is a massively important factor for any player; MMOs, fighting games, competitive Overwatch - whatever you're doing, you won't want to be slowed down. But, because a VPN has to go the extra mile to encrypt and route your traffic via the VPN server, you could see a negative impact on your speeds if the provider in question has a shoddy network.
The more premium and polished providers on the market will still cause a bit of slowdown and latency, but these VPNs can also improve your stability and ping! Whether or not this is a reasonable trade-off is going to be a personal decision, of course.
But how does a VPN achieve this? Well, it's pretty simple - you just connect to a VPN server that's physically closer to the gaming server! If you're in the UK and find yourself connecting to a lot of US gaming servers in order to team up with friends, we'd recommend giving this tactic a go - though you'll see even better results if you can determine whether the gaming server in question is on the East or West coast of the US. Once you know, simply connect to a server in the closest city.
Like with most things, some trial and error is involved here. That might mean hopping from server to server until you find one that works perfectly with your setup, your current location, and the games you're playing.
There are alternatives to VPNs out there, and folks in the UK or US can check out ping boosters like MUDFISH and WTFast. How well the services work is going to be down to where you are in the world, but plenty of players swear by these boosters. However, they do lack the additional security and location spoofing features provided by a VPN.
Whilst we're on the subject, a VPN can save you money when browsing for new games, add-ons, expansions, cosmetic items - and just about anything else! These games are available around the world in all sorts of currencies, but economies can be vastly different in different countries. For this reason, prices vary depending on what people can typically afford. A VPN allows you to comb through international markets to make sure you're not overpaying for that new AAA title.
Be sure to head over to our main site and read up on our in-depth gaming articles, and if you're hunting down a VPN to use when challenging your American friends to some PVP, these factors are pretty much a necessity:
- Performance - don't settle for less; we pay a lot for our games and rigs, and a VPN should only compliment the overall experience.
- Speed - a premium VPN might come with a premium price tag, but you'll also nab unlimited bandwidth and blistering speeds capable of keeping up with any player.
- Servers - you'll want a selection of locations across the US to minimize ping, and servers around the world in key locations for when those sales hit.
💸 Can I get any of this for free?
I'd love to tell you that you can… but I'd be lying. This is disheartening, obviously, and subscriptions to online games can cost a pretty penny on their own - but don't waste your time on free VPNs for gaming. They're very limited, and will probably lack the resources and speeds you need to keep up with your US friends. Expect bandwidth caps, monthly data limits, and a reduced number of servers.
Now we've reached the serious stuff! Online friendships are just as real as any you'd strike up at uni or work, but they're practically stuck in your internet-enabled devices - and using these devices so often can be a risk in and of itself. Think of how much sensitive information you share with your friends, either over messenger, VoIP calls, or group chats; the last thing you want is for any snoopers to be reading it all over your virtual shoulder.
You might've heard the phrase "a pinch of prevention is worth a pound of cure" from your grandma, and it's true in this case, too. This is where a VPN comes into the picture.
A VPN creates a tunnel between your device and the internet, and this tunnel encrypts any and all data that passes through it. What's more, the data traveling to or from your device in the tunnel can't be read by snoopers - and that includes your ISP and the government.
How does a VPN manage this? I'm glad you asked; most modern services have a plethora of tools that can be applied to shore up your online privacy, including:
🔑 AES encryption - this is the same encryption used by the US government, so it'll no doubt do the job for us normal folks at home. A symmetric key cipher, AES encryption is pretty much uncrackable when implemented properly, seeing as it'd take about the same amount of operations to break it as there are atoms in the universe.
🔌 OpenVPN - widely considered the industry standard, OpenVPN is an open-source protocol that makes use of TLS, is massively configurable, and compatible with just about all devices via third-party software.
🚫 Kill-switch - VPN connections drop sometimes, that's just the naked truth of the matter, but when it does happen, your original IP address is at danger of leaking for anybody to see. A kill-switch eliminates this risk, and will cut off your internet connection entirely (but temporarily) in the event the VPN goes dark.
👁🗨 Zero-logs policy - when you sign up for a VPN, you're entrusting it to put your privacy first, and that means not handing over your connection and activity logs to the first authority that comes calling. The best services work with third-party auditors to prove that they don't keep logs, and as such, don't have anything to hand over even if they're asked!
So, VPNs can protect your online privacy and ensure your browsing sessions stay nice and snoop-free - but can they make you anonymous? That's the million-dollar question… and the answer is no. VPNs might claim otherwise on their flashy websites, but it's simply not true, seeing as the VPN itself can monitor your sessions. However, like I said earlier, the most trustworthy VPNs don't actively keep logs of this information - though this can change if the provider is hit with a subpoena.
We've got a ton of articles about protecting your digital privacy on our main site - it's sort of our thing - and you can check out everything from beginner's guides to detailed assessments of AES encryption. If privacy is your main concern and you want a VPN that can guarantee it, it should include the following three features:
- Encryption - there's really no point wasting time or money on a service that isn't packing OpenVPN or AES-256 encryption.
- Zero-logs policies - your digital privacy is a right, and your VPN should respect that as much as any ISP or website. Extra points go to those services that've been audited!
- Leak protection - nope, this has nothing to do with rainy days and roofs! The worst thing about DNS and IP leaks is that they can be happening without your knowledge, but the best VPNs put a stop to this, and ensure you aren't leaving an identifiable trail across the net.
📱 What about mobile phones?
We can take our American friends with us anywhere we go, thanks to phones and tablets, but it's important to keep these devices secure, too. Luckily, most VPNs come with feature-rich apps for portable devices, and they're incredibly easy to install and use. If you're going to be traveling or relying on public Wi-Fi hotspots, then a VPN is practically a necessity.
My friends in America mean the world to me, and the VPN I use is invaluable whenever we talk, stream, game, or connect on the go. The internet is not as open or as safe as we'd like it to be, and absolutely nothing makes the distance between the US and the UK feel wider than when content isn't available in both places, or when ping makes a match unplayable. It should be just as easy for friends on opposite ends of the earth to binge a Netflix series as it is for roommates, and a VPN certainly takes a lot of stress out of the situation!
There's a million and one VPNs out there, and the provider that's right for you is going to be an objective choice. Hopefully, the topics I've covered today have helped inform your decision - just remember that all-important criteria!
So, what's next? Take a gander at our best VPN recommendations for 2021, check out our gaming pages, or unleash your inner privacy advocate by keeping up with the latest industry news. Otherwise, send a few links to your friends in the US, and maybe write up a mushy message telling them how much you care - even if it's 80% emojis, it'll be a wonderful surprise to wake up to.