VPNs are really flexible applications, providing privacy, security, and entertainment unlocking capabilities all in one package. Still, some people may not put that much value on privacy benefits. Or, on the contrary, they want something even more secure. Whatever your needs, we’ve rounded up the best VPN alternatives below.
Keep in mind that you won’t enjoy the same flexibility as with a VPN – most of these alternatives are laser-focused on a single purpose.
- Best VPN Alternatives for Content: Smart DNS
- Best VPN Alternatives for Privacy
- Best VPN Alternatives for Businesses
- Best VPN Alternatives – The Verdict
Best VPN Alternatives for Content: Smart DNS
If you’re just looking to bypass geo-restrictions without the privacy and security benefits of a VPN, a Smart DNS is just the thing for you. Before we get into the specifics, let’s take a look at what a DNS is.
What Is DNS?
The Domain Name System (DNS) turns IP addresses into domain names (for example, www.findyourvpn.com) and vice-versa. This makes it easier to access websites than typing in their associated IP address in your browser, considering how long they can get:
- IPv4 address – 18.104.22.168
- IPv6 address – 2001:0db8:85a3:0000:0000:8a2e:0370:7334
Think of DNS as the contacts list of the Internet – it’s easier to look up a friend’s name than their phone number, right?
Now, by default, your devices use your ISP’s DNS servers to perform this task. Basically, when you type in www.google.com in your browser, your device sends out a DNS request. Your ISP’s servers then look up the associated IP and respond back with the requested info.
The issue with DNS requests is they contain small pieces of data that could point to you or your ISP’s true location. This is why VPNs usually use their own DNS servers – to prevent what’s known as a DNS leak.
Not only are they harmful to your privacy, but such leaks could prevent you from unblocking streaming platforms like Netflix. So what does smart DNS do to let you unblock stuff?
How Does Smart DNS Work?
When you use a smart DNS provider (such as Smart DNS Proxy), the first thing that changes is the DNS address assigned to you by your ISP. Smart DNS dynamically changes your DNS address to reflect the region you’re connecting to.
Now, if you’re curious about how a DNS request and response look like and what details might be revealed, take a look here. Those few revealing bits of data about your connection are also replaced with something appropriate, so websites believe you’re in the “correct” region.
Say you live outside the US and want to watch US Netflix – all you’d need to do is select the US region from your smart DNS provider’s list, and you’re set. It may seem similar to what a VPN does, but there are a few notable differences between the two.
Smart DNS vs. VPN: Key Differences
- You don’t need to install any software to use smart DNS.
- A smart DNS doesn’t encrypt your network data like a VPN, meaning you are exposed to potential cyber attacks. On the other hand, it also means you’ll get better Internet speeds while using smart DNS.
- Smart DNS doesn’t mask your real IP address, either, which leads us to our next point.
- Not all region-specific websites will be unblocked from the get-go. Most common services will work, but if you’re looking for something a bit more obscure, you may need to contact your provider and have them unblock it for you.
- Your ISP may prevent you from using smart DNS if they use a transparent DNS proxy. More info here.
That’s about it. Next on the list, we have the best VPN alternatives for varying stages of privacy requirements. There’s something for everybody, whether it’s personal anonymity or corporate security you’re after.
Best VPN Alternatives for Privacy
Let’s make this clear from the start: if you’re mostly after something that can bypass geo-restrictions, then you’re better off with Smart DNS or a VPN. This next option focuses on the privacy and security aspect and is unfit for entertainment purposes.
Tor gets a bad rep because the network is misused for criminal activity, thanks to the high level of anonymity it provides for no cost whatsoever. That’s like blaming Google because criminals also google things.
We have a more in-depth guide to Tor if you’re curious about project details, history, funding, and more. Here’s the gist of how it works, for those short on time:
- Your network traffic is rerouted through several random “nodes” (run by volunteers from all over the world) before arriving at its destination.
- As it passes through each node, your data is encased in several layers of encryption.
- Nodes are randomly chosen every 10 minutes, to minimize the chances of a traffic analysis attack or similar cyber attacks.
How does your anonymity benefit by routing your traffic through multiple nodes like this? Two key points:
- The first node in the circuit can see your IP address, but not the services you’re trying to access.
- The exit node can see what websites are being accessed, but not by whom. Well, each node can see the previous (and the next) one in the chain, but that’s about it.
Depending on what exit node your traffic lands on, you might be able to access blocked content in your area. However, this is terribly inefficient, considering nodes are constantly randomized to preserve anonymity.
This is a heavily modified version of Mozilla Firefox, which is actually managed by the same people as the Tor Network (Tor Project). It includes several extra security features, such as built-in script-blocking (through the NoScript extension) and anti browser fingerprinting capabilities.
While you can use the Tor network without this browser, it’s generally not recommended since you’re not getting the full privacy enhancements available. Moreover, using the Tor browser is the only way to access .onion websites.
We recommend checking out this guide to the Tor browser, which includes installation and configuration steps, as well as some extra security tips.
Using Tor and VPN Together
It’s possible to combine VPN and Tor to obtain an even higher level of online security, though at the cost of greatly reduced connection speeds. Although, if you’re that concerned about your safety, slower speeds are probably the least of your concerns.
Fortunately for you, we have a great guide on how to use Tor and VPN together. It’s an amazing start for high-stakes journalism work, whistleblowers concerned about their communications, and other high threat actors.
Best VPN Alternatives for Businesses
Once again, if you’re looking for the best VPN alternatives that can unblock content for entertainment purposes, we recommend Smart DNS or sticking to VPNs.
Virtual Private Server (VPS)
Regular servers are physical computers that can host a wide variety of websites, services, and so on. VPSs, on the other hand, are a type of virtualized servers that run on Virtual Machines (VM).
VPSs may be run in a shared environment with many others of its kind. Think of it as multiple little computers running inside a larger, physical one (called a host machine). Despite being run on a shared device, VPSs are completely separate.
What that means is that they have their own allocated system resources, disk space, operating system, and so on. You can install pretty much anything on your VPS within the allocated space, while also having the option of upgrading to better system specs without having to migrate bulky physical servers.
They serve pretty much the same purposes as a dedicated server, with a few limitations – such as not being able to install custom hardware. Moreover, you do not have the full control guaranteed by a dedicated hosting server.
How Does VPSs relate to VPNs?
While both technologies have to do with servers in some way, that’s about it for the similarities. VPSs are mostly useful for businesses (or individuals) looking to host their websites, online shops, apps, and so on.
The best VPN services out there don’t seem trustworthy to you? Then you may also use a VPS as a platform to host your own VPN server. However, keep in mind that you’d have to place your trust in the VPS providers instead – not to mention the technical prowess required to set up your own VPN server.
Of course, if you have access to an IT expert that can help you set things up, it could be one of the best VPN alternatives for those who want more control over their data. A similar scenario would involve setting up a VPN server on your own PC. In that case, you would have full control over everything, with no third parties involved.
However, hosting it on a VPS might let you bypass geo-blocks if the host machine is located in another country. You can’t do that with a VPN that’s set up on your device, since there’d be no way to obtain a foreign IP address.
Even so, having only one server outside your area greatly limits your options when it comes to unblocking content. You’re basically restricted to a single country unless you plan on setting up multiple servers around the world. In which case, you’d be better off with a regular VPN.
Software-Defined Perimeter (SDP)
Also known as Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) – based on the cybersecurity principle of “never trust, always verify,” SDP is a security solution that basically acts as an authentication system for user devices before they can access a server.
The difference lies in where SDP sets its virtual boundary. Instead of having that boundary at the application layer like most systems, SDP establishes it at the network layer – which handles the routing and sending of data across different networks.
How SDP Works
If all the above sounds a bit confusing, you’re not alone. Here’s a simplified version of how such a system might work in an enterprise environment:
- Employees go through the authentication process in a dedicated SDP application. Basically, they input their login and password, with an optional (but highly recommended) multi-factor authentication process involved.
- User devices need to pass a series of security checks, such as a malware scan, verifying if the device is running up-to-date software, etc.
- If the authentication is successful, the application sets up a connection to an SDP controller. This controller decides which server the user device can connect to, and negotiates an encrypted connection between the two. Think of it as the employee receiving a keycard which can only open the door to their own office (and nothing else) within the facility.
- The controller sends word to the SDP gateway that the user and their device are approved for a connection. This gateway has the final say in the matter (i.e., whether the user can receive access or not).
Once the user reaches this stage, two secure network connections are established on both sides of the SDP gateway:
- One with the user device
- One with the resources the user can access (as determined by the SDP controller)
No other users or servers can access this dedicated network connection. The user device and server mutually verify their identities through the use of Transport Layer Security (TLS), the same protocol used to secure HTTPS connections nowadays. VPNs may also be incorporated into an SDP architecture to secure these connections.
SDP vs. VPN: Which One Is Better?
For its intended purposes in an enterprise environment, an SDP is undeniably better than VPNs – even enterprise ones – simply because of the strict authentication processes involved.
VPNs are more vulnerable in the sense that if a staff member has their device or VPN account compromised, a cyber attacker could gain access to your entire company network (as opposed to a tiny fraction of it).
It’s also easier to handle multiple levels of network access with an SDP. Since every authenticated user gets their own separate network and resource allocation, you don’t need to create multiple accounts for every department.
The optimized resource allocation might also mean fewer bandwidth expenses for your business. Finally, SDP architecture can be combined VPN functionality – but not the other way around.
Best VPN Alternatives – The Verdict
So which choice best serves as a VPN replacement? To recap, this is what you get from each option:
- Smart DNS – cheaper than VPNs; you get to bypass geo-blocks and better network speeds, but at the cost of no encryption or IP-masking.
- Tor network + browser – completely free; high degree of anonymity and encryption, but unreliable unblocking capability and poor speeds. It can be combined with VPN for greater security, although network speeds may get considerably slower.
- VPS – same benefits as a dedicated physical server for hosting web-based apps and sites. Can be used to set up your own VPN server in a different country (with patience and a guide – or an IT expert handy).
- SDP – extreme degree of security and granular control over user activity on your enterprise network. VPN functionality can be added to SDP architecture for extra security.
As you can see, all these technologies serve their own purposes. We’ve done the research, and now it’s up to you to decide which are the best VPN alternatives for your needs.