If you travel, you shouldn’t leave home without a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
A VPN is an application that runs on your computer or phone. It encrypts your data and conceals your location. That makes it harder for hackers to steal your password and other valuable data. It also allows you to access websites that may be blocked in the country you’re visiting.
Russia, China, and Iran heavily restrict or ban VPNs. Other countries that monitor their citizens and visitors hope you’ll go VPN-less when you travel. Remarkably, only 41 percent of Americans use a VPN, according to Security.org.
“A VPN is the only way to ensure that all data you send from your computer or phone over the network is secure and not being read by other people,” says Eli White, chief technology officer at smarTours.
White says VPNs are especially useful for international travelers. Some countries block websites (for example, you can’t access YouTube from mainland China). So if you’re traveling abroad and want to continue watching your favorite videos, you’ll need a VPN.
I’ve been thinking about VPNs a lot lately
During the recent COVID protests in China, protesters reportedly saw police checking the cell phones of passersby. They asked them if they had installed VPNs that could be used to circumvent China’s internet firewall. In Iran, anti-government protestors are using a combination of VPNs and TikTok to get their message out during a violent government crackdown.
Even the World Cup in Qatar has brought back memories of my last visit. The Qatari government does not ban VPNs but blocks VPN websites to prevent its residents from viewing online content that’s government-sanctioned. So when I opened my web browser in Doha, I often ran into a digital dead end.
Here’s my view: What’s on my phone or computer is absolutely no one’s business. I certainly don’t want any foreign government snooping around on my devices. I’ll tell you when you need a VPN, and I’ll also cover some of the disadvantages of a virtual private network. Plus, I’ll tell you about some of the VPN mistakes to avoid.
When you should use a VPN
Some travelers wouldn’t go anywhere without their VPN. One of them is travel and technology expert Mike Slone.
Slone, who pays $99 for a one-year subscription to ExpressVPN, says he can easily connect to his U.S. sites from Nice, France, where he currently lives.
“Many U.S. websites or applications don’t allow you to access them from Europe or abroad,” he says. “For example, Netflix in France doesn’t have the same TV shows or movies as in the USA. If you want the Netflix USA experience, you must have a VPN connection to an American location so you appear to be in the USA.”
Slone also uses his VPN for work. Many companies restrict access to their internal networks to U.S. locations. With a VPN, he can set his location in the States.
And there’s another benefit for travelers that few people know about. If you’re fare-shopping, switching your location allows you to access rates that are limited to a particular country or region. Slone has saved money on hotels and airfares by setting his location to another country.
The downsides of using a VPN for travel
“Generally, VPNs are limited in the speed they provide, so they can make your online experience slower than usual,” says Bob Bacheler, managing director of Flying Angels, a medical transportation service.
Why do VPNs slow down your connection speed? Experts say real-time encryption adds a delay, so you’ll pay for the extra security with a little extra lag time. However, the best VPNs don’t have any noticeable latency under most circumstances.
I’ve used ExpressVPN during my overseas travels. On my recent visit to Turkey, Facebook had a meltdown because I accessed it from a VPN. It locked me out of two of my pages until I could “verify” my location. Turning the VPN off had no effect — I was locked out of my account for weeks.
Other countries try to block your internet access if you log in with a VPN. I couldn’t connect using my VPN in Dubai. It turns out the United Arab Emirates government had forbidden the use of a VPN and was blocking my VPN provider’s IP address.
How to determine if you need a VPN for your next vacation
Here’s when you should consider a VPN, according to experts.
If you’re worried about your privacy
“Whether you’re concerned about your browsing being surveilled or just want to minimize your exposure to hackers, a VPN is an essential tool for protecting yourself on the web,” says Mark Rapley, General Manager of KWIC Internet, an internet service provider.
If you need extra security
“VPNs can’t protect you from every type of attack on a foreign network,” says Paul Tracey, author of Delete the Hacker Playbook. “But they offer protection from basic sniffing and data exfiltration or decoy networks.”
If you don’t want anyone to know where you are
A VPN allows you to change your location online, giving you access to geographically restricted sites like Netflix and Hulu, say experts. If you’re on a VPN, you could be anywhere. “You can feel relatively secure that someone with nefarious plans can’t find you,” says Carla Diaz. “I recognize that’s some real James Bond-level of thinking, but that’s the way of the world right now.”
For some travelers, a VPN is a must. Brian Oberquell, a special-effects assistant from Port Moody, Canada, uses SurfEasy VPN when he’s on the road. He says it protects his privacy and allows him to watch his favorite TV shows.
“There might be times I’ve started watching something on a U.S. streaming service which isn’t available at home on the Canadian version,” he says. “So I’ll set my VPN to show I’m still in the U.S. so I can finish watching.”
Don’t make these VPN mistakes when you travel
VPNs are easy to install, but they’re not foolproof. Here’s what you need to remember when you travel with VPN.
Don’t go for the cheapest one
When it comes to VPNs, you get what you pay for. “A free VPN provides minimal protection,” says Joe Silverman, CEO of New York Computer Help, a computer warranty service. Free VPNs often have data limits, and some even sell data to third parties, experts warn. Make sure your VPN has a verified no-logs policy. Instead, go for a reputable VPN with solid endorsements from customers.
Don’t turn it off
“If you don’t keep it on all the time, it’s pointless,” says Cornelius Fichtner, a frequent traveler and IT expert who runs an educational consulting company in Tucson, Ariz. “You shouldn’t only use it to scroll through your Instagram page.”
Don’t assume it’s all you need
Artur Kane, chief marketing officer of VPN provider GoodAcces, says some travelers have a false sense of security when they use a VPN. “They assume that a VPN is all they need to be protected,” he says. It isn’t. You still have to use strong passwords and be careful when opening emails from people you don’t know.
Bottom line: If you’re traveling abroad, you should consider getting a VPN before you go. Even if you’re not leaving the country, you might benefit from a VPN — if, say, you log on to an unsecure WiFi network at the airport. The bad guys are always trying to find a way to access your personal information and governments are trying to monitor you. Don’t let them.