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Smart DNS and VPN: A Guide for Complete Beginners

Are Smart DNS and VPN the kind of terms that make your eyes glaze over and make you wish we’d just speak English?

Here are SmartDNS.com we appreciate that you may have no desire to become a technical expert, so we’ve put this guide together to teach you how these technologies can help you, whilst avoiding jargon as far as possible.

What can Smart DNS and VPN Actually Do?

Let’s begin by putting the technology aside completely, and explain exactly what Smart DNS and / or VPN services can do for you. Here are some examples:

tv  You can watch the latest episodes of your favourite TV shows, often completely free, before they’re launched in the country where you’re located. (See our Ultimate Unblocking Guide for details).

netflix    You can unblock Netflix (and Spotify, BBC iPlayer, Hulu and many more) and use it as if you were in another country – giving you a whole extra selection of TV shows and movies to watch

lock   You can hide your online activity, and keep what you do away from the prying eyes of the security agencies.

internet  You can experience the Internet as you would from a completely different country, bypassing all regional censorship and customization.

anonymous    You can use various web services with genuine anonymity.

Hopefully we’ve got your attention now you know what these VPN and Smart DNS services can do for you? We’ll now move on to telling you what kind of service would suit you best, and do what we can to demystify how the services work, without blinding you with too much science.

IP Addresses: The Basics 

The most important principle to understand is that all the time you are online, you have an IP (Internet Protocol) address.

The chances are that in the past you’ve visited websites that have detected quite accurately where you are located, and you’ve found it rather spooky? This is because your IP address is visible to the websites you visit.

what's an ip address

The best analogy to use to explain what an IP address is to liken it to a postal code. If you’re on a typical home network, the IP address you’re showing to the world is assigned to your Internet router. In the same way that all the residents of your house share your postal code, all the computers and devices on your home network share the same external IP address.

(Please note that we a generalizing a little here, and that it would be possible to write hundreds of words about internal vs. external IP addresses, but we’re trying to keep things simple!)

How do Smart DNS and VPN Work?

The fact that websites know (at least roughly) where you’re located is the cornerstone of the ability to control what you can see and access online depending on where you are.

As an example, if you are in the USA and try to access the popular BBC iPlayer streaming TV site, you’ll be told you cannot watch any content as you’re in the “wrong” place. This is known as a “region lock.”

The core purpose of both VPN and Smart DNS services is to either make it difficult for websites to work out where you’re located, or to make it appear as if you’re somewhere else entirely.

That brings us neatly on to the difference between Smart DNS and VPN.

Smart DNS, which is the main focus of this site, is a reasonably new technology. It uses clever technical trickery to fool specific sites and services into thinking you’re in the correct place to use them. Its primary purpose is to open up the entire world’s worth of streaming video and musical content to you, regardless of where you’re located.

This means, for example, that you could be located in Portugal, where both BBC iPlayer and US Netflix are blocked, and access both of them, and many other services, with nothing but a simple change in your settings. It’s extremely inexpensive and works not just on computers, but on everything from Smart TVs to games consoles and iPads.

SmartDNS

What Smart DNS doesn’t do is offer you any specific benefits in terms of security and privacy. Your Internet service provider still knows what sites you are visiting and there’s no encryption going on. For the general consumer of online media, this isn’t a massive problem.

VPN can fulfil the same purpose as Smart DNS, but works very differently, and can provide numerous extra security and privacy benefits.

If you use a VPN (Virtual Private Network), you connect to a server in a specific country. Once you’ve done so, websites you visit will “think” you’re connecting from that country.

So – you can connect to a US-based VPN server, and you’ll be able to access US Netflix, Hulu, CBS, ABC, and all kinds of other American content. But if you want content from the UK or another nation, you’ll need to connect to a different server in the relevant country.

vpn connection

Having heard this, you’re perhaps wondering why people would choose VPN over Smart DNS? It’s clearly not quite as straightforward as Smart DNS (and we’ve not yet mentioned it can be a little slower too!)

Well, it’s because of those security and privacy benefits we mentioned. When you connect using a VPN, you use a private and encrypted “tunnel” on the Internet. Nobody can see what you’re doing. And if you’re particularly privacy-conscious, you can even choose a provider who keeps no logs of your activity – or take it a step further and use a super-secure provider who’ll let you pay with an anonymous payment method like Bitcoin for complete anonymity.

In a world where people are increasingly concerned about their online privacy, VPNs can offer peace of mind, and the return to the sense of Internet freedom that the World Wide Web was initially built on.

So Which Should I Choose?

Please take a look at this handy flowchart that we’ve produced to help you make the decision between Smart DNS, VPN, or a service offering both options.

SmartDNS or VPN

Whatever you choose, the great news is that this is a highly competitive industry. This means that prices are low and free trials are routinely offered. You can be up and running with Smart DNS or VPN in minutes, and you don’t need to be a techie to get started.

So why not try a service right now? Signing up is risk-free and will cost you nothing. We suggest UnblockUS if you’ve chosen Smart DNS or Express VPN if VPN is more of interest. Welcome to a whole new world of privacy, security, and unrestricted content.

IMAGE CREDITS: Shutterstock.com/ProfitImage, enciktepstudio


Ben Taylor Written by Ben Taylor

Ben is a former government IT Director turned Internet entrepreneur. He runs several websites of his own, and provides bespoke IT consultancy to a range of UK clients. He also writes regular IT, business and lifestyle articles for a range of publications, both online and offline.

27 responses to “Smart DNS and VPN: A Guide for Complete Beginners

  1. I reside in Costa Rica and am using Safer VPN but can not access USA Netflix programing. Will your DNS allow this and can I install it to my router or does it only work via my computers? Thank you, Charles

  2. Hi
    I have had unblock-us successfully operating with a Samsung Smart TV for over a year now and am an avid watcher of BBC iplayer. However about 4 weeks ago when I tried to open a programme the circular buffer sign for say 15 secs and then a dialog box appears saying that there is an error which is usually temporary but if persists you should change the quality or internet connection. The quality is on standard settings and the internet is fine and fast. This occurs each time I try to open a programme.
    I have contacted unblock-us but they have so far been unable to suggest a remedy.
    Could it be that BBC have blocked unblock-us? If so how do I check? Any ideas about what is the problem?
    Regards
    Ian

    1. There is quite a cat and mouse game going on but UnBlockUs should be able to tell you if it’s still working for others. You could also try using a different device and see if you still have the issue.

      Good luck
      B

  3. This looks like a site on which to seek expert opinion, so here goes!
    I have tried a number of Smart DNS providers, mainly in the hope of gaining access to a greater number of Netflix films. Earlier this year the service worked fine but as the months passed there have been more and longer blockages of access.
    Has Netflix finally got the better of the Smart DNS providers or is it still an ongoing battle?
    Do you have any recommendations for a Smart DNS provider that is smarter or more reliable/technically savvy than the rest?

    Good wishes, Corky

    1. Hi Corky,

      It’s basically a cat and mouse game, with some providers staying one step ahead more reliably than others. Some VPN providers are managing to keep on top of the situation reasonably well too. I’d suggest making as much use as possible of free trials and guarantees, and sticking to monthly subscriptions so you can switch as required.

      Best wishes

      1. Ben,

        Keep it to yourself but to date ExpressVPN seems to be doing a good job of “…staying one step ahead…” although one must wonder for how long it will last.

        Good wishes, Corky

  4. I live in South Africa..all the VPN, etc. info is completely alien to me…but am reading as much about it as possible..and would REALLY appreciate your input before I make a decision…

    I have been using Kick Ass Torrent, which got shut down..so then I’ve been using Extra Torrent and Pirate Bay, however, what I am finding is that some of the shows that are uploaded on these sites will not actually convert from UTorrent using Smart Converter..there is no content and a big red “X” on the file in Smart Converter. I am specifically talking about the show Power.

    With that said, I am wondering if with either a VPN or DNS (I just want the fastest) I can get that show?

    I am currently using BDC Internet located in Onrus/Sandbaii/Hermanus, South Africa…I have 1024K 50G service..wondering if that is fast enough. I think I can get a faster service, but not sure

    If I use a VPN, would I be able to access Direct TV in California?
    If I could access Direct TV, does that give me access to all shows that are subscribed to on whatever package I have signed up for in California?
    If I can’t get Direct TV, will I be able to get all channels on California tv?

    I know I sound like a total non-understanding person, which I am – and have nobody here to ask anything of as I am new here…hoping you will help me!

    Thanking you in advance

    Lee

  5. I am interested in accessing out-of-market sports broadcasts. I am about to relocate to another west coast state but would like to be able to watch – maybe online – the regional sports network I see here in Califormia via my satellite service. Will I be able to achieve this with Smart DNS that identifies me as still in California? Many thanks

    1. Hi Greg,

      Assuming the regional network has an online service that only lets you access it from California, I’d suggest a VPN solution with servers specifically in California. Express VPN has servers in Los Angeles, Santa Clara, San Francisco and San Jose. You’ll find a review on our sister site here: Express VPN Review

  6. One of the reasons I chose UnoTelly (now seemingly DOA) is because it offered both SmartDNS & VPN services bundled.

    So, two questions:
    – Do any Smart DNS providers still work w/ Netfilx US?
    – If yes, do any of those offer both SmartDNS and VPN as a bundle?

  7. I’m in Crete at a up market hotel were the TV offering is abysmal. I subscribe to ipVanish that has worked for me in other countries for watching uk content but here it is blocked as is access to both your links above. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi there,

      By the sounds of it I think your hotel is blocking VPNs so a Smart DNS service could be a way around it – suggest a free trial of one to find out!

      All the best

  8. Hi Peter……I am living in South Africa with horrendous ISP speeds. I teach English to Chinese and Taiwanese students via the Internet. I have had enormous issues with broadband leaks and constant breaks during classes. I use a wireless LTE router which gives me good speeds but is not consistent in strength.
    I desperately need smooth consistent communication between Taiwan and my country and have been directed to VPN or DNS as a solution. I do not need optimum security but I DO need online communication that will be constistently strong with no blocks and very high speeds. I would also like to have my internet connection go through the fastest and most direct route to my clients in China or Taiwan.
    Your speedy advise on which product to use, would be much appreciated.

    1. Hi Pat,

      I’m sorry to say that your performance is going to depend on your underlying Internet connection. If anything, VPN will slow down your connection even further. As far as we’re aware there are probably no direct fiber optic cables to SE Asia from SA. Your only solution is to explore options for a better Internet connection.

      Best wishes,

      Ben

  9. Hi Ben

    Sounds like this smart DNS just hijacks the DNS to point your browser to a stealth proxy server for some sites which is something I do with my Samsung TV on my LAN because they are spying on everything and don’t offer the option of connecting to a proxy server like Sony TV’s offer.

    The trouble is today that browsers like Firefox are using DLNA to query devices on the LAN and the XML data that gets returns includes MAC addresses and the device serial numbers so these are like super cookies that get uploaded using SSL to servers.

    Even our XBox ones with the latest update are being used to pull the MAC address of devices that are in the house and turn on a wifi hotspot about every 20 minuites using a hidden SSID even when the X-Box looks like it is turned off which i learned about because mine keeps disconnecting other wifi devices on the network.

    Our machines are being push the O/S and have become little more than remote terminals for microsoft and Google and these devices are leaking MAC addresses all over the place even when using the Tor network because none of the browsers can be trusted and thats without Ajax, Json,JQuery scripts running in the browser.

    We the people need our own open source browser that can be trusted and you won’t get that from the Chrome rendering engine because Google has it’s dirty hands all over the development.

    Best Regards

    Peter Pan

  10. Hello. I have been reading a lot of stuff these days about vpn and dns and i really like your two sites. I am very interested to know some good provider who offers vpn and smart dns all in one. If you have some suggestion, that would be great. Thanks

    1. Hi
      We actually have a list for this here, the article is slightly old but I stand by the recommendations. Another one that we’ve reviewed since is LeVPN which is worth taking a look at.
      Peter

      1. LeVPN I had a lot of issues with using Windows 8 their software would not work they had me try other downloads only to find it did not work. When I tried to cancel within the 7 days they just ignored me. I filed through PayPal and that pissed them off and sent me an email that they blocked me from signing back in prior to that they were not going to refund my money. My Advise is stay away from LeVPN

  11. Firstly thank you for a very good, easy to understand Guide and Review of available DNS services.
    I am temporarily in Germany (UK Resident) whilst currently use a VPN (ukproy.tv service which costs 9USD/Month) to access BBC and ITV through the repective Players, and have experienced “juddering”, “time lapses”, “loss of Picture but the sound continues” all of which led me to use your site to evaluate which/if a SmartDNS would suit my needs better. Have utilised most of the DNS suggested sites and can not differentiate or see any visible difference between them. The set-ups are all similar and some Dashboards are better than others. The biggest hurdle I have encountered with sites is the frequent IP address changes from German Telekom. Is there an advantage in having both VPN and DNS to overcome this problem? Or would choosing a DNS provider with DDNS be better?.

    1. Hi Charles

      Firstly, I’d recommend completely stopping the use of UKProxy. I had a brief look at it and it’s absolutely not worth it as you could get a SmartDNS for cheaper or really good VPN for that price.
      From what you describe it sounds like it’s an issue with speed loss being caused by the proxy service you’re using. If you just want the best streaming then go straight for a Smart DNS with a DDNS – luckily UnblockUs and Blockless have this built into their clients if I recall correctly.
      If you are worried about security or do occasionally torrent then I’d recommend a VPN for which our sister site BestVPN.com can help.
      There are also combination services (you get a VPN and SmartDNS all in one), if this is something that interests you then let me know and I can suggest some for you.

      Peter

  12. if I want to use hulu will have to subscribe to the Hulu site or does dns get around this as part of the fee for subscribing to dns thx

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