Whether it’s a business trip or a backpacking adventure, the last thing you want to worry about is the security of your internet connection.  Turns out, that gateway to the glorious world wide web may not be as safe as you thought.

 

(Where the internet sees you are from…)

 

What is a VPN?

A VPN (virtual private network) is like your own secure, private tunnel to the internet.  That means that all of the information you send and receive over the internet is scrambled and encrypted before it heads along the information superhighway, keeping it safe from prying eyes.  As an added benefit, many VPN providers have servers all over the world that you can connect to, which we’ll get to below.

Here are 5 reasons you should be using a VPN when you travel.



Prevent Online Banking Lockouts

When you travel abroad, most of us know that it’s a good practice to call your credit card company beforehand and let them know.  That way, when you pay for your hotel on the beaches of Brazil, they don’t freak out and block your card thinking it may have been stolen.

When you log into your bank online, they already know where you are by your IP address.  If it happens to be that you’re somewhere new, you might be flagged, and may be asked some security questions to verify that your account hasn’t been hijacked.  At worst though, you might be locked out, requiring a phone call to the bank and some hoops to jump through before regaining access to your money.

Paypal has its share of horror stories.  Travel to a new country (without their special security key), log in, account frozen.  Fight with Paypal.  Rinse, Repeat.  Unlike your bank at home, Paypal isn’t a phone call away, and has been known to keep thousands of dollars locked away until it sees fit.

With a VPN, you can connect to any number of servers and countries around the world, and the site you are visiting will see you from there.  For example, you can be traveling inside Burma (where banking sanctions are still in place) and be denied access to your account by your bank.  If you connect your VPN through your home country instead, they see you as being in there and not Burma, and it’s smooth sailing.

 

Surf Securely Over Open Wifi

Free wifi is everywhere, from hotels to airports to little cafes.  However, free & open wifi often comes with a hidden cost: your security and privacy.  More specifically, if there is no password to access the wireless network, only WEP encryption, or a login/password combination required that you often see at hotels and airports on their hotspots, you are especially at risk.

Your data can often be snooped at these unsecured hotspots, and the information you send and receive is ripe for the taking.  This could be e-mail you send and receive, websites you visit, files you send, and even passwords you log in with.

A VPN encrypts your data, keeping it safe and away from prying eyes.  If someone were to snoop it, it would just be a bunch of gibberish.  It’s an easy way to stay safe on suspected networks.

 

Access Media Across Borders

If you’re a media junkie, especially with TV, you’ll often find your access blocked when you’re outside your country.  Complicated rights agreements mean that someone else might own the rights to broadcast in the country you are in, so they can’t show it to you while you are there.  This is yet another way that the consumer gets screwed online.

Between two ferns

 

A few examples of this are Hulu, which is available in the USA (and Japan) only, popular music service Spotify, and many country-specific TV networks (for me, I often use CBC.ca, svtPlay.se, and Showcase.ca) .  If you try to connect outside of where they are available, you’ll often find yourself faced with an error.

Instead of buying a plane ticket back, connect with your VPN to another country.  For example, if there is something I want to watch on Hulu or Comedy Central, I connect to a server in the USA.  Since I have a Spotify account from Sweden, I connect through a server in Scandinavia for access.  Finally, if I want to watch documentaries from the CBC in Canada, I connect through there and I’m set.

 

Bypass Censorship

Some governments around the world are doing their best to dictate what their citizens should and shouldn’t see on the internet. The most famous among the group is China and the “Great Firewall of China.”  Blogs and bloggers can disappear right off the map.  “News” is only what it allowed to be shown to the public.

I ran into this problem during my recent trip to Burma.  Searching for something a little too political would often bring to a screen saying that access was being denied by the ISP.  Some countries are worse offenders than others, with countries in Asia & the Middle East being the worst offenders.  Even Australia is battling with an internet filter.

We wrote a few months ago about the SOPA and PIPA bills that were up for vote in the USA, and Canada has tabled its version for a future vote as well.  Nowhere is immune, it seems.

Fortunately, a VPN will let you access the internet from another server in another country, bypassing any censorship that the country you are currently in.  It was the only way to check CNN.com from inside Burma when I was traveling there during the election in April.





Access Restricted Websites & Services

Prominent websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and even entire networks of Google’s services may be blocked in a country you visit.  Not only that, but Skype and other VOIP services are blocked in many countries by telecom providers afraid of losing revenue, or governments who wish to monitor calls.

P2P (or peer-to-peer) traffic is also being cut, often times at the more local level.  This technology is now most famous for BitTorrent, but started with the likes of Napster and Kazaa.  Though those are often associated with pirated music and movies, P2P is used by a host of legitimate technologies these days.

The apartment building I’m living in has begun blocking P2P traffic, preventing me from using a new file sharing feature app for Facebook called “Pipe

Pipe blocked

 

Once again, VPN to the rescue.  By encrypting the internet traffic, the local blocks on my P2P traffic no longer work and I can access the internet like I would without them in my way.  I can also review Pipe for you in an upcoming post!

 

So where do I get a VPN?

Although there are some free alternatives out there, they are often slow, and wrought with performance issues.  I recommend Witopia Personal VPN which I’ve used in 20+ countries over the last 2+ years.  This service will set you back about $5.99 / month or $49.99 / year.  Tunnelbear is also a good option — super-easy to set up, and with a free 500MB/month to get you started.

Either way, it’s a small price to pay for piece of mind, and access to all that is the internet when I’m traveling.

 

Do you use a VPN when you travel?

Image via Anne Worner

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34 Responses

  1. Colin Burns

    Hey mate,

    So do you get performance hit (or at least one that is perceivable) from a VPN?

    What about uploading and downloading files to websites etc?

    For the other reasons though you have me convinced. Do you have an affiliate link I could use when I sign up?

    Cheers,
    Colin

    Reply
    • Dustin Main

      Hey Colin,

      Depends. Sometimes I get *better* connections with Skype, as well as other times I’m being throttled.

      I rarely notice a major performance hit, though there has got to be even a little one regardless as you’re adding another point of connection. Nothing noticeable day to day, but I suppose that depends on how fast your connection is to begin with. If you had a very fast connection, I’m sure you would be more apt to notice.

      Sorry for me, no affiliate program.

      Reply
      • lissie

        I’ve tried from New Zealand – for Hulu – and even though I have reasonable broadband VPN makes it far too slow to stream video. Burma was at dial-up speeds so I’m even more curious to know if you have actually used a VPN in any of these countries and if so what speeds you got

      • Dustin Main

        Hey Lissie,

        To be fair, New Zealand has the worst internet in the first world. It was horrible 3 years ago when I was there last, and I’ve already made arrangements for an internet backup plan when I’m back there next month.

        Technically, by the nature of having a middleman on your internet connection, you can never be faster than your slowest part. What I mean is that if your internet connection itself is slow, realistically connecting to a VPN shouldn’t be any faster. That said, if your internet provider (or country) shapes packets (VOIP, torrent etc), a VPN could make your connection faster for those purposes.

        I’ve used a VPN in over 20 countries now, and for 3 months in Burma this past year alone. Of course, it really depends on your connection, but connecting to the VPN should use very little data (less than 100kb) so after connecting there shouldn’t be much issue.

        Lastly, the quality of your VPN provider, and where you connect to will certainly play a role in how well a VPN works for you. I hear from many people who have used a free VPN-like service and remarked how horrible their experience was. Of course, your mileage will vary depending on more than a few factors. Think of it like an art rather than a science.

        Hope that helps, Thanks for the comment.

  2. Geraldine

    Awesome post, Dustin. My husband Kevin and I are fellow travelers (been on the road for 7+ months) and came across all of the pain points you talk about. Since we’re nerds, we decided to build our own VPN service. Would love your feedback if you don’t mind checking it out: gigabadger.com. We’re trying to differentiate ourselves from other providers by using a “pay-as-you-go” business model, where users only pay for the bandwidth they use. No recurring fees, long-term commitments, etc. Anyways, not trying to be spammy but just excited to see excitement for VPNs from other travelers. Cheers!

    Reply
  3. Dani

    Great post, Dustin! We are using Witopia too, mainly to log onto Paypal (decided to invest in a VPN after our account was frozen the second time) and online banking.

    Reply
  4. Greg

    Great post. Guess I’m investing at least $5.99 for my month in Burma! Now if only a vpn could make the actual connection a bit faster…

    Reply
  5. Amy Scott

    This is so helpful, thanks, Dustin! I’ve managed to scrape by without getting locked out of PayPal or my bank accounts while in the U.S. and Argentina, where I spend a lot of time, but it sounds like something I need to be careful about. And the added security for open Wi-Fi connections is also appealing. I just got my first smartphone – can you also use VPN on Android?

    Reply
  6. Talon

    Great info! I’ve been able to use a couple of the free ones occasionally, but Amazon has some stuff for Prime members I’d really like to be able to access when we have good bandwidth, but their system is smart enough to know it’s been tricked and blocks it.

    Reply
    • Amy Scott

      I’ve had this problem with some sites too! So far I’ve only used free VPNs (mostly Hotspot Shield), so I wonder if the paid ones don’t have this problem? Would love to hear others’ experience with that.

      Reply
  7. dave

    I use vpnguard.net. They have servers in the U.S. and across Europe and you can choose which IP you want to surf through. this also lets you pick the fastest one.

    Reply
  8. chris A

    Just considering the security aspect only, is there any advantage to using a VPN when accessing a HTTPS web site? Most of the sites that I care about security with (banking or purchasing) are HPPS.

    Reply
    • Dustin Main

      Good (and geeky) question Chris.

      While a website using HTTPS (and there are a lot more than there were a couple of years ago) is good, it’s still not 100%.

      First, there are still many sites that don’t use HTTPS (as you mentioned).

      Second, some sites use HTTPS for the main login, but not afterward. This is something that sites sometimes do to lower overhead on their servers, but it can potentially put your information at risk.

      So given those two things, I would definitely still recommend using a VPN. It just takes one bad bit of code to put you at risk, and that’s too much to leave to chance.

      Reply
  9. Sally Croft

    I use PureVPN to access Geo restricted content like Netflix outside USA.

    It works really great!

    Reply
  10. rmpiedra

    Can I be a numbskull and ask for clarification of a few things?

    We’re off to Vietnam soon and as such access to Social Media (Facebook), communication apps (WhatsApp) and bank privacy (checking online accounts) are all pertinent issues! I also aim to use NetFlix if I can ever find good enough WiFi access!

    Will a VPN like Hola cover stuff like this or do I need something a little more ‘professional’ sounding such as the VPNs mentioned here?

    Reply
    • Dave Dean

      I definitely wouldn’t be using Hola when accessing anything to do with your finances — they’ve been doing some pretty shady stuff recently.

      While technically a proxy service (like Hola and others) will let you do all the things you’re talking about, there’s no real reason to use one over a VPN — especially since you can get free VPN accounts with services like Tunnelbear that may well do everything you need while you’re away. If not, they cost very little for the full-service accounts.

      Reply
      • rmpiedra

        Thanks for getting back so quickly!

        So, to paraphrase!!
        If I use something like TunnelBear, it is more security-safe than Hola.
        And, if I use TunnelBear, I will be able to use sites like USA NetFlix in Vietnam, use FaceBook and also check my bank account whilst over in Vietnam too.

        I don’t mind paying a fee as, I’m only there for the month; in your opinion which is better (safer and easier to use), TunnelBear or Witopia?

        Thanks again!

  11. Dave Dean

    Yup, Tunnelbear etc is safer than Hola, and you’ll be able to access anything you can at home (assuming you’ve got a decent Internet connection, of course).

    Tunnelbear is probably easier to set up, and they’re both easy to use.

    Reply

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