How to Watch BBC iPlayer Outside the UK

By | February 22, 2017
(Last Updated On: February 22, 2017)

The BBC iPlayer is loved by millions, but there are some unfortunate restrictions that can be a real pain the rear and prevent you from viewing your favorite content. If you’ve recently tried accessing iPlayer from abroad for the first time, you’ve likely been presented with the irksome warning message that reads, “BBC iPlayer only works in the UK. Sorry, it’s due to rights issues. In the UK? Here’s some advice.”

“The reason for this error message is due to digital media rights regarding the content hosted on iPlayer.”

Basically, iPlayer is forced to follow strict guidelines, and makes intelligent decision about which connections to accept – and which ones to reject. The BBC’s iPlayer makes these decisions based on your public IP address. You’ve likely heard this term before, but for those of you who have not, bear with me for a cursory explanation.

Your public IP address is a numeric and globally unique value used to differentiate between different computer systems. This address is how computers address data to each, much like a home address in the public mail system. For instance, 25.1.254.40 is an example of an IPv4 (Internet Protocol Version 4) address. Furthermore, note that IP addresses are distributed in contiguous blocks based on geographic location.

By examining the location-identifying portion of the address, a web server can make intelligent decisions based on the location of the computer initiating and incoming connection. So, for example, if you tried to connect from New Zealand while on holiday, the iPlayer would be privy to your location and be able to clock the connection.

Option #1: Use a VPN Tunnel

The obvious and easiest solution for accessing content that has been restricted or censored is to use a VPN tunnel. The beauty of it is that it works in both directions; not only will it help an individual access content restricted from within their home country, but it will also help a user access information and services hosted in their home country that blocks foreign IP addresses.

Since the target service in question is the BBC iPlayer, you simply need a VPN provider that hosts servers in the UK. Normally I’d recommend looking through a VPN provider’s list of servers before making a subscription, but every quality service is going to host servers in the UK – it’s just a given. But how is a VPN tunnel able to unblock the BBC iPlayer?

The answer lies in a process called IP address masking. Basically, the VPN server is able to disguise and hide your true IP address, and make it look like a local UK-based server’s address is initiating the connection with the BBC iPlayer. In all actuality, a UK-based server is initiating the connection. You see, the VPN server uses its UK-based IP address to collect the content from the iPlayer, and then it sends the data back to your computer.

In its most basic form, a VPN tunnel endpoint (at least in our scenario) is nothing more than a middle-man. It makes all requests on behalf of your computer, and then relays the collected data back through the VPN tunnel to your location. The iPlayer server is completely blind to the existence of your real IP address and your computer. From the BBC server’s perspective, it only knows that it’s interacting with the VPN server.

Using a VPN will unblock iPlayer as long as you use a service that hosts servers in the UK, but let’s take things one step further. If you wanted to access content hosted in another country, but is blocked in the UK (such as Hulu), you can simply connect to a VPN server from the host country to unblock content. It’s also worth taking a moment to discuss connections options. Consider that some devices can’t run VPN tunnel software. For instance, some Roku and Kodi media streaming devices lack the ability terminate a VPN tunnel.

In these instances, the best option is to connect your wireless router to the VPN server, which will then route all network data through the VPN server. If you really wanted to get fancy, you could setup exclusions on the firewall to send some data through your local ISP, and some data through the VPN server.

In addition to unblocking iPlayer (as well as other websites, media, and services), note that a VPN tunnel adds encryption to your connection. When your data is in an encrypted format, third parties like hackers and ISPs can’t capture and read your data. While it’s true that they can still capture it, there’s nothing they can do to unscramble the data to an intelligible format without the encryption key.

And since the traffic in the tunnel is hidden, local network restrictions can be completely circumvented. For example, it’s not uncommon for some networks to restrict video traffic’s speed to conserve the available bandwidth for more critical types of traffic. But once data is in a VPN tunnel, most firewall’s can’t see any clues to the type of data inside, with the exception of some sophisticated measures like DPI.

Option #2: Use a Proxy Service

The second most popular alternative is to use a proxy server. Proxy server connections are extremely close to using a VPN tunnel for several reasons. In fact, in a way, VPN servers are acting like a type of proxy server. But proxy servers have a few drawbacks, such as the lack of encryption and poor reliability. Because most proxy servers don’t encrypt your data, the connections can be slightly faster than a VPN connection, but your data is exposed for anyone to capture and read.

And even though proxies act as a middle man and mask your IP address, they’re much easier to block. Most VPN providers have banks filled with tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of IP addresses. Individual proxy servers only have a handful of addresses, though. Naturally, it’s much harder for an online service to block a VPN provider’s IP addresses since they come from many geographic locations.

I’d advise you to use a VPN though, because some proxy services are a little shady. If you do opt for a proxy server, make sure you know who is running it. Since data is sent in an unencrypted format, the owner of the proxy server (such as an independent organization, or some Joe in his parents’ basement) could potentially read all of your data. If you need a quick proxy server to simply check out some information, web site, or try to access streaming media, I’d look into HMA VPN’s free proxy service.

Option #3: A Less Elegant Solution

If you still can’t access the BBC iPlayer, there’s another solution; but I’ll warn you, it isn’t the prettiest solution. Still, it will work at some level, which can really help you out of a bind. The problem remains that some countries and networks block proxy server connections and VPN tunnels. For instance, only a handful of VPN services are able to penetrate the Great Firewall of China due to special technologies and encryption methods that prevent deep packet inspection.

One alternative is to remotely access a computer that resides in the UK. For instance, let’s pretend that you are on a business trip abroad, and want to access the BBC iPlayer. Unfortunately, VPNs are illegal in the country you’re currently in. So, why not simply use a service like LogMeIn or TeamViewer to remotely control your server or desktop computer back home?

There are a few problems with this, however, as we’ll now discuss. The first problem is that you may not want to leave your UK-based computer running the whole time you’re away. The easy solution to this problem is to coordinate your efforts with a friend or family member back home. You can either request remote access to their computer or have them power on a computer that you’ve already configured for remote access.

The second problem, however, is that the video quality may be sub par. This depends on a great many factors, though. For instance, one factor that will affect picture quality is the type of remote access software you’re using and how it’s configured. Applications like TeamViewer can save bandwidth by lowering the resolution on images, removing desktop backgrounds, compression, and other similar tactics. These settings could contribute to a poor picture.

In addition, you’ll have to consider the bandwidth of both systems. If you’re on an extremely slow Internet connection, you may not be able to smoothly stream data. Be warned: the picture quality could be awful depending on your situation and configuration. But when no other options are available, it’s better than nothing.

Final Thoughts

Few things in life are more irritating than being blocked online, especially if you’re from the country in question. Legal disputes and licensing rights have given rise to some truly enraging and contrived laws that don’t always make sense. The good news is that you can still access content, such as content hosted on the BBC iPlayer, with a VPN service.

I’d recommend at least using a free trial of a VPN service, since it’s the preferable and most secure solution. On the other hand, if you’re opposed to using a VPN, you can always try a proxy service. Last but not least, if you can’t use a VPN or proxy service because they’re blocked or illegal in your current location, you can always try to establish and remote session with a computer in the UK. Bear in mind, however, that the iPlayer experience isn’t going to be excellent, but it can help you out of a bind.

Category: Hacks

About Conner Sinclair

Conner is a self-professed tech nerd, obsessed with digital security and privacy. He loves debugging "lost causes" and thwarting hackers. When not in his depressing cubicle in Corporate America, he's blogging here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *