If you’re trying to circumvent geographical restrictions on certain websites, you have two major options. A VPN, which creates a tunnel through the internet, or a Smart DNS that can reroute specific traffic to the regional server of your choice.
How VPNs Work
A VPN or Virtual Private Network uses encryption to conceal the traffic leaving your home network. A VPN server at the other end of this encrypted “tunnel” stands in for your network on the public internet.
From the perspective of other devices on the internet, the VPN server is the device sending and receiving data on the web. That also means whatever country that VPN server is in will register as your location, no matter where you are in the world.
How Smart DNS Works
A Smart DNS is simply an alternative DNS server. DNS (Domain Name System) servers are like internet phone directories. When you type in an address like “howtogeek.com” your DNS server looks up which IP address is associated with that URL (Uniform Resource Locator).
Unlike a web address, a URL points to a specific device on the network. So your local DNS server would route you to the regional server with the content you’re looking for. Regional server use is especially common these days thanks to CDNs (Content Distribution Networks) where sites are hosted by a network of servers across the world to improve speed, reliability, and responsiveness.
A Smart DNS intercepts a web address request and instead of pointing you to your local server, routes you to the server in the region of your choice, through a proxy server. The remote site sees the proxy server instead of your network and thinks the request is coming from its own local region.
Smart DNS or VPN: Which Should You Use?
Each of these technologies has its own pros and cons. The right choice depends on what you need them to do, what equipment you currently have, and how complex they are to operate. The good news is that there are only a few key differences between Smart DNS and VPN technology that will make it clear to almost anyone which service they should choose.
VPNs Offer Privacy, Smart DNS Doesn’t
A VPN encrypts your entire internet connection. That is unless you use an advanced feature known as split tunneling, which only routes selected data through the VPN. With a VPN your real IP address and internet activity are only known to the VPN provider. Most good VPN services do not keep any logs of their user’s activities. There’s also no way for your ISP (internet service provider) or anyone else monitoring your connection to know what you’re doing.
A Smart DNS offers no extra privacy protection at all. Although your individual data packets are encrypted on a per-site basis (assuming the site offers it), your ISP and anyone else watching your connection knows exactly which sites you’re visiting and what you’re downloading. If you need privacy in addition to geographical unblocking, a VPN is the right choice.
VPNs Can Degrade Internet Performance
If you use a VPN server that’s physically close to you, your internet performance shouldn’t suffer much if at all. There is some overhead from the extra encryption and routing steps, but in general, your bandwidth is preserved.
Unfortunately, if you want to change your virtual location, you need to use a server that’s in that part of the world. Inevitably this adds latency and reduces your available bandwidth. The severity of the degradation depends on many factors, but inevitably your connection will take a hit.
Smart DNS Works With Virtually Any Device
In order to use a VPN, the device in question has to support a VPN app or it needs to support VPN settings. If you want to run the VPN for your entire network, your router has to be configured to use it. Most mainstream routers don’t have native support for VPNs, or at least not the most secure VPN protocols you’d actually want to use. You also need a router with a relatively beefy CPU to handle the encryption and decryption work. This is why most VPN services offer multiple connections under one subscription since users will most likely connect to the VPN using individual apps on multiple devices.
Smart DNS, on the other hand, is trivial to set up on any router. As long as the router allows you to specify custom DNS server addresses, it will work. The same goes for any device or computer. If it lets you add custom DNS server addresses, Smart DNS will work, and virtually all devices let you do this. The only small hiccough is that you have to register your IP address with the Smart DNS service, which usually just requires visiting a site and clicking a button. Unfortunately, most people have an internet service that uses dynamic IP address allocation, so you’ll have to do this every time your IP address changes.
Selective Routing Can Be Hard With a VPN
One major advantage of a Smart DNS is that it only affects the websites you choose. After all, you don’t want your bank thinking you’re trying to access your account from another country, triggering a security flag.
It is possible to use split tunneling to only route some traffic through your VPN, but setting split tunneling up can be complicated. These days some VPN apps, especially those running on set-top boxes, have an easy split tunneling feature built-in. All you have to do is specify which apps are routed. When it comes to specific websites or IP address ranges, however, the process can get technical.
Picking the Right Service in a Nutshell
To sum all of this information up, here’s who should choose a VPN as their geo-unblocking solution:
- Users with high-speed connections to the remote server in question.
- Users who need privacy at the same time as geo-unblocking.
- Users who are using services that Smart DNS doesn’t work on.
A Smart DNS is the best option in these cases:
- You have limited bandwidth or a slow connection to VPN servers in the target region.
- You have a router or device that doesn’t support VPNs.
- You don’t need VPN-grade privacy.
Smart DNS services are usually less expensive than VPN services as well, so if you don’t specifically need a VPN it may be worth trying a Smart DNS first to see if the less complicated option works for you.