How Does Netflix Work?

By Aaron Parson

Man holding Netflix envelopes
i Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Back in an era of video rental stores, Netflix started out as a subscription service that sent DVDs by mail. Netflix still offers a mail service, but it has been largely eclipsed by Netflix's online streaming service. Video streaming provides nearly instant, on-demand access to any of the site's TV shows and movies.

Netflix Streaming

Netflix's most popular service, with over 39 million subscribers in the United States as of publication, streams TV shows and movies over the Internet. Video streams transfer shows from Netflix's servers to your computers, smartphones and Internet-connected TVs. Streaming services, including Netflix, play and download videos at the same time, so you don't need to wait for an entire movie to finish downloading before playing.

Netflix's main subscription plan provides unlimited access to all videos that Netflix offers, on up to two devices at once, for $8.99 per month as of publication.

DVDs by Mail

Netflix also offers shows and movies on DVD and Blu-ray disc by mail. As of publication, Netflix has around 6 million DVD subscribers in the U.S. This subscription provides unlimited access to any DVDs that Netflix has available, with pricing tiers based on how many discs you can check out at one time. As of publication, a one-disc-at-a-time plan costs $7.99 per month, or $9.99 to add Blu-ray discs. Netflix also has a two-disc monthly plan for $4.99, or $5.99 with Blu-ray.

With a DVD subscription, Netflix sends movies from your queue -- a wish list of videos -- through the USPS. Each includes a prepaid return mailer. When you're done with a disc, put it in the mailer and drop it in any mail box. Netflix automatically ships the next DVD from your queue when it receives the last disc back.

Netflix Streaming Requirements

To watch Netflix on your computer, you need either the free Silverlight plugin or a browser that supports Netflix's new HTML5 video player: Internet Explorer 11 on Windows 8.1, Safari on Mac OSX 10.10 and above or an up-to-date copy of Chrome. Netflix also recommends an Internet connection speed of over 5 Mbps for streaming HD video. At minimum, you need at least a 0.5 Mbps connection for Netflix to work.

Watching Netflix on other devices requires the Netflix app. The app is available for free on all major platforms, including iOS and Android, all current game consoles and most smart TVs and streaming sticks.

Explore Netflix Listings

Even before you join Netflix, you can browse through the DVD offerings on the Netflix DVD site. The site doesn't provide similar access to its streaming site -- you have to subscribe before you can search streamable titles. As a workaround, many fansites offer searchable lists to members and non-members alike. Options include Allflicks, Netflix Around the World and Instantwatcher. As you search, make sure you're looking at the correct country -- Netflix streams different content in different regions.