It's incredibly frustrating when you're trying to browse the web only to find yourself blocked by a filter, whether it's run by your office, school, ISP or even a government. Of course, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to set up - and abide by - filters for internet access, but even the best filter sometimes gets it wrong, and blocks the wrong stuff.
Whether you're the victim of an over-eager filter that's flagged some content it shouldn't have, or just want to work around a block that’s working as it should, there are a few ways to get around a filter and access whatever content you'd like.
We'd recommend opting for a paid VPN, but we've also run down some of the other options available right now. As always, be safe and smart, and we don’t condone or encourage using these methods to access content illegally. Here's how.
Anonymise web traffic with a VPN
One of the most popular methods to work around a web filter is to use a VPN. A VPN routes your traffic through another private computer network, usually anonymously, allowing you to browse as if you were using a different device in a different location.
Unlike a simple proxy (see below) it routes all of your internet access through this connection, rather than just your web browser. That might be more than you need to just get around a web filter, but there are other reasons to want a VPN.
There's a huge range of VPNs available, and setup varies from provider to provider. Typically though, you’ll have to download and install software to your PC, Mac, phone, or tablet, which will then allow you to configure some settings and select where you would like to appear to be browsing from. Then you can simply start browsing as you normally would, free of any access filter.
One downside is that using a VPN can slow down your internet access, and speeds vary depending on the VPN provider. Costs also vary - there are free options, but they're limited (and sometimes collect data on your browsing habits), and pricing varies for the paid VPNs.
We’d generally recommend opting for a decent paid service, simply because you’re likely to enjoy better service and better privacy and security, and we’ve tested the biggest VPNs on the market to figure out which ones are worth your while.
Run your browser through a proxy
The simplest way to get around a web filter is to use a proxy service. Like a VPN, it routes your traffic through another network, but unlike a VPN it tends to only work with specific applications (e.g. your web browser or torrent application) rather than your whole connection. . That might be fine if you just want to quickly get around a web filter, but for ongoing browsing there are some downsides to a proxy.
You can see our pick of the best browser proxies and VPNs here
Proxies are often used by people hoping to access region-locked content like Hulu or US Netflix, or iPlayer if you're not in the UK, and they also offer some extra anonymity while browsing. But they can also often be used to avoid local content filters by circumventing them, hopefully allowing you to browse the web freely.
The easiest-to-use proxies simply run entirely through a webpage or a browser extension, but that also means that only the traffic from your browser will be routed through the proxy - not from any other apps or services. You also want to make sure that you find one that uses HTTPS encryption rather than SOCKS or HTTP - that’s the only way to have your traffic encrypted.
There are free public proxies, but many have a bad reputation for collecting or selling user data, inserting ads into web pages, or stripping away encryption. With that in mind, we wouldn’t recommend using a proxy service for regular browsing - you’re better off with a VPN - but if you only want to get around a web filter on a few specific occasions, a free proxy is probably your easiest option.
HideMyAss is one of the best known free proxies, and if you’re a fan they also offer a VPN service. Otherwise, if you find another proxy service you can use this online Proxy Checker tool to cheaply check if it’s a safe service, or one that’s manipulating your web traffic.
Use Tor to browse the internet anonymously
One of your other options is to use Tor, a.k.a. ‘The Onion Router’, to browse the web. Tor is the best known example of an ‘anonymity network’, and uses layered (hence the name) encryption and peer-to-peer networking to bounce your traffic around, allowing you to browse with almost complete anonymity.
There’s one major downside to using Tor however: it’s slow. Relaying your traffic around the world a few times takes time, which means you can expect to experience much slower speeds when you browse through Tor. That’s the sort of trade-off you might be willing to make for increased privacy, but it’s not necessarily worth it if all you want is to bypass a filter - especially since the slower speeds will make streaming any sort of HD video difficult.
There are also concerns that it’s not quite as 100% secure as people once thought, especially if the site you’re trying to browse to doesn’t use SSL. And dependent on how paranoid you’re feeling, you might worry that using Tor will put you on some sort of government watchlist, given how popular it is with political dissidents and whistleblowers.
On the other hand, it’s totally free, and we’d recommend Tor over any of the free proxies or VPNs for long-term browsing (though a paid VPN service still wins - or do both!) - the added security and privacy is well worth the drop in connection speeds.
Use open proxies
Open proxies are more complicated, and we don't recommend their use. For the record, open proxy servers require you to configure your browser's proxy settings. Because they don't have to modify the webpages in transport they tend to work universally. But it's a complicated process that could leave you vulnerable to web-based attack.
Some commercial enterprises will sell you client-side software that sets up an open proxy server on your behalf, and puts your connection through a virtual private network. The same caveats apply - it may work well, but you are taking a risk.
Try Google's Public DNS
One final way to get around web filters is to instruct your PC or laptop to use different DNS tables. Google Public DNS is a free, global Domain Name System resolution service. Every time you visit a website, your computer performs a DNS lookup, converting the numerical address of that web page to the site you see. If web filtering is applied to your system and network those domain names that pertain to tainted sites will be blocked from resolving the page you are expecting. Using an untainted DNS such as Google's gets around this.
Google Public DNS will speed up your browsing experience and improve your security. More importantly, it will let you see the results you expect from a URL with no redirection.
Google explains how to use Google Public DNS here.