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You’ve probably heard it already (we certainly go on about it a lot): a VPN is one of the best investments you can make in your online security.
This is true at any time, but especially when you travel. From dodgy public Wi-fi to blocked websites, government surveillance to locked bank accounts, a good VPN will make your travels safer and easier for just a few bucks a month.
The whole thing can be a bit confusing, though, which is why we’re here to demystify it all. Below, we explain what a VPN actually is, and why you’d want to use one when you’re on the road. We also cover exactly what they are (and aren’t) good for, and what we recommend as the best VPNs for travel.
Let’s get started!
So What Is a VPN Exactly?
A VPN (virtual private network) is like your own secure, private tunnel to the internet. All the information you send and receive online is scrambled and encrypted before it flies through the air and over the wires, keeping it safe from prying eyes.
In practical terms, this means that all your activity (the sites you use, login information, your online messages and calls, everything) is kept private. With the possible exception of the VPN company itself, nobody will know what you do online, or have access to anything you type or view.
Why Travelers Need a VPN
Bypass Censorship and Blocked Sites
Depending on where you’re traveling to, you may find the internet to not be the unrestricted free-for-all you’re used to. Many popular online services are blocked in certain countries, including several you probably take for granted in daily life.
Google, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Skype, and others are simply unavailable in some places due to local laws. You’ve probably heard of the Great Firewall of China (if you haven’t, here’s a handy primer), but while it probably has the most effective blocks, China isn’t the only country with restrictions.
Other Asian nations have them as well, as do several Middle East and Gulf countries, Australia, the United Kingdom, and many others.
A VPN can help you access blocked sites by routing your connection via a server in a different country. Most VPN companies have servers around the world, so your visit bypasses the filter in whatever country you’re in, and appears to come from (eg) Canada or Sweden instead.
This also works for websites that work differently (or not at all) based on where you’re accessing them from. If a site you want to visit is only accessible from a specific country, you can set your VPN to a server within that country, and voilà, you’re in.
Equally, if a multilingual site detects your location and insists on showing content in the local language, try using a VPN to make it appear like you’re browsing from somewhere else in the world.
Avoid Being Locked Out of Your Bank Account
Have you ever tried using your debit or credit card abroad, only to have it declined and your account locked for unusual activity? Yes, me too. It never stops being annoying. Telling your bank in advance that you’ll be traveling helps with this, but trust me, it’s not foolproof.
Granted, this security is at least somewhat for our protection. If my card is ever stolen, I’ll be happy if my bank flags weird purchases right off the bat. But if it’s really just you booking a hotel in Budapest while you’re in Prague, you really don’t want to spend the next half-hour on hold with the fraud department. Enter the VPN.
Your bank knows where the transaction is taking place, based on the IP address. So, if you set your VPN to make it seem like you’re logging in from your home country (or even better, home city) instead of Prague, it’ll raise fewer red flags. There’s less risk of your account being frozen, or having to jump through extra security hoops.
This applies to other financial services as well. PayPal is notorious for freezing your account because you’re logging in from a different country, and getting it unblocked can take forever. A VPN is a simple solution that can save you a lot of phone calls, messages, and wasted trip time.
Secure Your Online Activity
Insecure connections like these come with a big drawback, though: they can expose your data and online activity to anyone else on the network who knows how to look for it.
The rise of secure (HTTPS) websites has helped reduce this risk, but there are still plenty of insecure sites, apps, and services out there. Fire up a VPN on your device, however, and you’re protected from snoops on even the dodgiest of airport networks.
Because VPNs encrypt all your data before it gets sent over the Wi-fi, it just appears as incomprehensible garbage to anybody trying to see what you’re up to.
Protect All Your Devices
In the past, VPNs were typically associated with corporate road warriors connecting back to head office from their laptops. That’s definitely not the case now, especially for leisure travelers who often aren’t carrying a laptop at all.
As we’ve started to use our smartphones and tablets for, well, everything, the need to protect our data and online activity on them has increased dramatically.
Most good VPN services offer dedicated iOS and Android apps, including all the companies we recommend below. They won’t protect you if you don’t use them, though.
Make sure the app is installed on each device you’re traveling with, and connect the VPN (at least) whenever you’re on public Wi-fi. Most VPN subscriptions allow several simultaneous connections from a single account, so there’s really no reason not to.
Do VPNs Have Any Drawbacks?
VPNs do a good job of protecting your data and making your travels easier, but they’re not a magic bullet. As they’ve become cheaper, simpler, and more popular, repressive governments and profit-hungry media companies have started paying attention to them.
VPNs Don’t Work in Every Country
While VPNs can help get around internet censorship, they’re not a global panacea. Some countries have banned the use of VPNs, or require them to be registered with the government (meaning most travelers wouldn’t be allowed to use them). Examples include Belarus, Russia, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Uganda, and Oman.
This doesn’t mean that standard VPNs don’t work at all. In many of the above countries, their use is actually quite common among citizens. It does mean, however, that you could get in trouble if you’re found using one while you’re inside the country.
Several Middle East countries, including Qatar and Bahrain, allow VPNs on their networks but block access to the VPN providers’ websites. As long as you download and install the software before reaching these countries, they should work just fine.
Some countries, like Venezuela, have tried blocking VPNs. Most haven’t succeeded at this point, but China is a special case. The country has been somewhat successful at blocking VPN usage in the past, but these blocks usually go in cycles.
During times of unrest like the protests in Hong Kong, important government meetings, or country celebrations, VPNs often stop working well or at all in China. They’ll typically return to normal after a few days or weeks.
Frequent travelers and expats in China are very familiar with the situation, as it’s been the case for several years. Some of the VPN providers listed below specifically cater to China, so be sure to pick one of them if the Asian giant is in your travel plans.
They Usually Cause Slower Connections
The one big drawback of all VPNs: they’ll usually make your connection more sluggish. While there are a few cases where they’ll improve the situation, those are rare. The rest of the time, expect slower speeds.
There’s really no way around it, but the degree to which things slow down depends on the VPN service you use, the location of the server you’re connected to, and the speed of the connection wherever you physically are.
Changing servers to one that’s geographically closer can help, as can switching the VPN protocol. The exact method for doing this varies by app, but is typically straightforward.
They’re Blocked by Some Streaming Services
Once upon a time, VPNs were a great way of getting country-specific content from streaming services. If you wanted to access US Netflix, or BBC iPlayer, you just used your VPN to connect to a server in the right country, and away you went.
Sadly, that’s rarely still the case. Netflix, for example, now detects the vast majority of commercial VPN services. If you’ve got one running, you’ll just get a proxy error message, accompanied by error code m7111-1331-5059. You’ll have similar problems with Hulu, BBC’s iPlayer, and others.
With Netflix, at least you can still access whatever content is available locally, since it operates in 190+ countries. With others that only offer service in one or two countries, you’ll be out of luck anywhere else.
Some VPNs claim that they can bypass this block by using special servers. It’s an endless game of cat and mouse, though, as streaming services block each server one by one.
Other services do run with VPNs on, such as Amazon Prime or YouTube Red. Keep in mind, however, that the video will be slowed down significantly. You’ll need a faster connection than usual to have any chance of a smooth viewing experience.
Which VPN Is Best for Travel?
Now, the big question: which VPN service should you choose as a traveler?
We’ve used many of them over the years, but there are four that score consistently highly both with us, and other travelers. These are our current picks for speed, features, price, and ease of use.
Best Overall: ExpressVPN
Routinely topping the best VPN lists, we’ve been recommending ExpressVPN for a long time. With over 3000 servers across close to 100 countries, fast speeds, and nearly two dozen supported platforms, it’s our top pick for international travelers.
It’s been the best VPN for travel in China in recent years, often continuing to work when others are struggling. While there are never any guarantees when the government does one of its regular crackdowns, the company continually monitors the network and has managed to quickly work around most blocks in the past.
There’s 24/7 chat and email support if you’ve having problems, and no logging of your connection or activity data. The app is straightforward to install and use, with minimal configuration needed to get up and running.
One feature we particularly like is being able to run a speed test across the entire ExpressVPN network. This means it’s easy to find the server with the best performance wherever you are right now.
This level of service and support comes at a price, of course. ExpressVPN is more expensive than many of its competitors, especially if you pay month-by-month. That cost roughly halves if you sign up for a year, though, to under $7/month. You’re allowed up to five simultaneous connections per account.
Best for Speed: VyprVPN
If you’re looking for a VPN provider with a focus on speed, check out VyprVPN.
While it doesn’t have the same global reach (700 servers, 70+ countries), it owns all of its own infrastructure, giving it the edge in performance. We’ve used it for years, and it’s been consistently at least a little quicker than the others.
The app interface is straightforward and easy to use, with support for all the usual suspects (MacOS, Windows, iOS, Android, and more.) There’s 24/7 support, and the service has been audited to back up its “no logging” claims.
VyprVPN is another top performer in China, using a variety of approaches to ensure the service stays available over time. The company has been quick to respond to new or more aggressive blocking techniques over the years.
Pricing depends on the version you choose and how long you sign up for, but starts at $5/month. A discounted first year is often available as well.
The Premium service is our pick. You’ll get five simultaneous connections instead of three, and the proprietary “Chameleon” technology that helps work around attempted VPN blocking.
Best for Security: NordVPN
There’s plenty to like about NordVPN. You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to servers, with well over 5000 of them spread across 60+ countries. Speeds are generally good, and when they aren’t, swapping servers typically solves the problem.
Security is, in a word, impressive. As well as a strict “no logging” policy, NordVPN offers security features that others don’t. These include things like “Double VPN,” where your data travels via two different VPN servers, and “Onion over VPN,” where your connection goes over TOR network.
Pricing is good with Nord, at least when you sign up long-term. While the month-by-month price is unexciting, at around $12, that drops to a bargain $2.99/month if you pay for three years upfront. You’ll get up to six simultaneous connections, slightly better than most of the competition.
Performance is typically good in countries with serious censorship like China and Saudi Arabia, although NordVPN has had a few problems in China in the past. The company does maintain a special list of servers for use in heavily-restricted countries, accessible from within the app.
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Best Free Trial: TunnelBear
Want to dip your toes in the VPN waters before you commit? Go with TunnelBear, one of the few good VPNs out there with a useful free offering. You’ll get up to 500MB of data per month to test the service out at no cost.
While it doesn’t have the same global reach as some of the competition, Tunnelbear still maintains 1000+ servers in around 20 countries. The app (available for the main desktop and mobile platforms) is cute and very easy to use, and you can get set up with just a few clicks or taps.
The company has a strong privacy focus, with a no-log policy and regular independent audits. Clearly aimed at those just getting started with a VPN, the focus here is on simplicity rather than high-end features. As a result, don’t necessarily expect it to work well in China or for streaming services.
Once you’ve used up your free allowance, you’ll pay $9.99 for a single month, or $4.99/month if you sign up for a year. Both paid options give you five simultaneous connections.
Not sure which one to choose? Go with ExpressVPN. It costs a bit more, but has the best mix of speed, global coverage, and availability in countries like China where other VPNs struggle.
It works on any device you’re likely to be traveling with, and has top-notch reliability and support. There’s even a 30-day money-back guarantee if you’re not happy for any reason.
The most important thing when it comes to VPNs, however, isn’t which one you use. It’s using one at all. Your travels will get easier, your data will be safer, and you’ll be able to keep accessing your favorite sites no matter where in the world you are.
If that security and peace of mind isn’t worth a few bucks a month, what is?