As tech savvy travelers, we’re constantly stressing the importance of traveling with a good VPN; about the dangers of using public WiFi, why your privacy is otherwise at risk, and the best ways to keep your data safe and protect your tech.
A Virtual Private Network is the most important thing to have for internet use while traveling. It encrypts your traffic and sends it through a secure server, which means you can browse the internet securely and anonymously.
There are many perks of using a VPN, like accessing country-restricted websites (like Netflix), skirting around Government censorship (like China), and finding cheaper flights (airline websites will use your browsing data to know how much they can mark up the price on your ticket).
These are all fabulous features, though the reason a VPN is actually essential is a matter of safety; using a secure connection means that no-one can hack you to steal data like they could on an open, public network (think free internet in airports, cafes, and hotels).
It also means that no-one can track your internet activities, like an overbearing Government (not every country in the world values free speech).
So, having established that a VPN is right up there with your passport in terms of what not to forget, the following are things you need to know about using one when traveling.
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Things to Know About Using a VPN While Traveling
You Should Get One BEFORE You Travel
It’s important to organize your VPN before you travel, as you’re vulnerable to cyber security threats from the minute you leave your house and arrive at the airport.
By the time you’ve quickly connected to airport WiFi to check if your flight is on time, or post that boarding pass selfie, it’s too late.
Most of the public networks we connect to while traveling (cafes, airports, hotels etc) are open networks, which aren’t safe, and allow anyone using them to access your information. They can see data like your usernames, passwords, and credit card numbers.
Sound far fetched? It’s not.
It’s become a trend for cyber criminals to set up public WiFi hotspots in high traffic areas, specifically to trick people into connecting, so they can then proceed to hack or infect your device with malware.
Normally, when you connect to the internet you first connect to your Internet Service Provider (ISP) which then connects you to your websites. All of your internet activity passes through your ISP servers and anyone using the same network (which could be thousands of people if you’re connected at a busy airport) can easily see your data.
If your phone is set to automatically connect to open WiFi, you might not even realize that you’re transmitting data. So it’s essential to download a good VPN for travelling before you leave.
Make Sure it’s Downloaded on ALL Devices
Downloading a VPN for your laptop is great, but you need to make sure that you’ve downloaded the VPN for all devices you’ll be connecting to the internet from.
This includes your mobile phone, your iPad, iPad mini; the simple fact is that most of us now travel with multiple devices, and all of these devices contain sensitive data cyber criminals could get their hands on.
Most services these days will have an Android VPN app as well as a version you can download for your laptop, and it’s as easy as searching the Google Play store for the VPN of your choice, installing it, and then opening it to surf the web.
Smartphones actually overtook laptop and desktop surfing back in 2017, and travelers in particular use their phones for all kinds of tasks, from using Google maps to navigate through cities, to booking hotels, checking the weather, and keeping on top of your flight details.
So make sure you’ve downloaded it across multiple devices. It’s worth noting that if you have an older device with outdated software, your mobile operating system may not be supported. So make sure that you check that your app will work with your phone.
Look For a Server Location in Your Home Country
Connecting to the internet from a server based in a different country is one of the biggest perks of using a VPN. The way a VPN works is that it permits you to switch your IP address and route your traffic through any country you like.
It’s this feature that allows you to skirt around things like internet censorship, and factors that determine whether content is available in a particular country; it essentially tricks the websites you’re using into thinking that you’re surfing the net from your chosen location.
Not every country believes in providing free and open internet to their citizens, and you might find when traveling that your internet access is limited, and the government has blocked certain websites. There are actually a lot of restrictions and legalities involved with what kinds of content you’ll be able to access in specific parts of the world.
Getting access to your full Netflix library is definitely one reason to use a VPN; if you’re traveling in countries like Japan, Italy, or France, your Netflix library might only be 20% of what you get in countries like the US, or the UK.
But, the number and range of countries available to choose from will vary from VPN to VPN; they actually have to have a server set up in that country. While you want a VPN which has a good range of location choice, you also want one that includes a server in your home country.
While you might be logging in via popular countries like the US or Canada for that sweet Netflix library, banks and email providers freeze accounts all the time if you’re logging in from somewhere unusual. Your account gets flagged, and while banks are a lot better at restoring access, you might have an uphill battle when it comes to restoring your email account.
But, connecting to the internet via a server in your home country means you’re effectively able to trick your bank or email provider, into thinking that you’ve never left the country.
Certain VPN’s Work Better in Certain Countries
Most VPN’s will work perfectly throughout the majority of the world, but, if you’re traveling to a country like China, Cuba, or Saudi Arabia, where the Government controls the internet, certain VPN’s will work better for certain countries.
The most common example of a government controlling the internet is China; censorship here is so rife that the world has coined the phrase ‘The Great Firewall of China’ to describe the censorship.
You won’t be able to access popular Western sites like Google, Instagram, or anything that goes against the approved political message, so news sites like the NY Times are also blocked. Here is a list of blocked websites in China.
Routing your internet through a server in a country which doesn’t have any censorship fixes this, but of course, the Government doesn’t want you doing it.
Governments are onto the most mainstream and well advertised VPN’s, and quite a number just won’t work in China, for instance. It’s much better to know this before you go, because getting there and finding out that the VPN you chose doesn’t get around the kind of restrictions that the country has in place is pretty frustrating!
So if you’re heading to countries that are known for restricting the internet (ie Belarus, Cuba, Iran, Libya, the Maldives, Saudi Arabia), research which specific VPN’s work best.
Governments are updating their lists of blocked services all the time, so something that worked for someone last year, might not be working today. It’s therefore important to pay attention to the review date.
You Don’t Always Have to Pay for It
Price is a factor that varies greatly when you’re choosing a VPN, but getting set up doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. In fact, you can find good VPN’s which don’t cost anything.
You can find a wide range of VPN plans, from those which are free, to those which might cost $12 – $20 a month. We recommend starting out with a free VPN to see how it goes for you.
You might actually find that while it’s free, it’s still fast, secure, and with enough choice of server locations to be perfect for your needs.
Download the Browser Extentions
Modern platforms also offer VPN extensions for Chrome and other popular browsers, which makes it even easier to switch on; you just click a button on your browser and you can toggle between server locations, and swiftly activate / deactivate.
This is also a great idea, as you’ll be able to instantly see if there’s been any interruption to the service and the device can’t access the VPN server anymore.
As opposed to a program running behind your internet browser which you have to manually click into to check on, a browser extension means you have an icon that flashes right there in the corner of your screen.
Download For Travel, Keep it For Home
While you’re more vulnerable to cyber attacks when you travel and connect to open networks, it’s never a bad idea to use a VPN at home.
Your connection at home is likely to already be private, though if you live in a share home or an apartment block where everyone uses the same network, it’s worth having for that extra level of privacy.
And of course, you’re still likely to need a way around certain geo-blocks from time to time, to access content that may be restricted, even in your home country (Netflix!).
So download a VPN for travel, but keep it for home!