You’ve probably heard it already (I certainly go on about it enough): 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 makes your travels safer and easier for just a few bucks a month.
That’s not the only reason to use a VPN, however; in fact, for many people, it’s not even the most important. With the right service, you’ll be able to keep watching your favorite streaming shows from back home, even when they’re usually unavailable in whatever country you’re in.
The whole thing can be a bit confusing, though, which is why I decided to try and demystify it all. Below, I explain what a VPN actually is, and why you’d want to use one when you’re on the road. I also cover exactly what they are (and aren’t) good for, which one I personally use, and a few worthwhile alternatives.
Let’s get started!
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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 Estonia 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 credit or debit 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 just me booking a hotel in Budapest while I’m in Prague, I really don’t want to spend the next half-hour on hold with the fraud department. Enter my 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 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 workers 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 I 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 set it to connect automatically. 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.
They 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 civil unrest, 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 internet 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.
Many Are Blocked by 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.
It’s often a different story these days, unfortunately. Netflix now detects the vast majority of commercial VPN services, for instance, especially the free and cheap ones. If you’ve got one of these running, you’ll just get an error message, accompanied by error code m7111-5059. 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.
Fortunately, a (very) small number of VPNs do manage to bypass this block by using special servers, however, including the one I use: ProtonVPN. It’s an endless game of cat and mouse as streaming services block each server one by one, but with the right VPN, it’s still possible.
Other services do run with VPNs on, such as YouTube Premium. 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.
We talk a lot more about using VPNs with Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services in this article.
Which VPN Is Best for Travel?
Now, the big question: which VPN service should you choose as a traveler?
I’ve used many of them over the years, and while there’s one that stands out above the rest, several others also score consistently highly, both with me and other travelers. These are my current picks for speed, features, price, and ease of use.
Best Overall: ProtonVPN
After putting ProtonVPN through its paces for several months on the road, I’m happy to recommend it as the best VPN for travel. Why? I wrote a detailed review of my experience, but in short: it was fast, reliable, and let me stream my favorite shows while avoiding censorship and government surveillance everywhere I went.
I’ve used many other VPN services over the years, including all of those mentioned below, but ProtonVPN outperformed them all where it mattered. It’s developed and run by a company that’s more transparent and trustworthy than most in this space, and there’s no logging, with the independent security audits to prove it.
It barely slowed down my internet speeds, and despite being continually enabled on both phone and laptop for months, I didn’t notice a single dropped connection. I was always able to watch shows on Netflix and BBC iPlayer without errors or buffering, and it supports many other streaming services as well.
This level of streaming performance is something I’ve never experienced with other VPNs in the past. If watching your favorite shows is important to you when you travel, ProtonVPN would be my pick above anything else.
With 3100+ servers in 70+ countries, a wide range of supported platforms including Linux, gaming consoles, and more, and high-security options like Secure Core and Tor support, it’s clearly a premium product, and that’s reflected in the price as well.
While there’s a basic free tier to get you started, the Plus version is what you’ll need to use streaming services while overseas. You’re allowed ten simultaneous connections with this plan, and will pay $5-10/month depending on how long you sign up for.
It’s not the cheapest option out there, but for me, it’s been more than worth the money. I renewed my subscription when it ran out, and will do so again in the future.
Before switching to ProtonVPN, I used ExpressVPN for several years. With servers spread across 100+ countries, high speeds, and nearly two dozen supported platforms that you can run it on, it’s a pretty compelling option.
It’s been one of the best VPNs 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 crackdowns, the company continually monitors the network and has worked 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 I 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 around $7/month. You’re allowed up to eight simultaneous connections per account.
It takes the runner-up place for me mostly due to price: unless you get it on a particularly good sale, it’s more expensive than ProtonVPN for a similar level of service. That’s what caused me to switch in the first place, and I’ve been more than happy enough with Proton that I haven’t wanted to change back.
If you happen to be buying when there’s a sale on, though, you won’t be disappointed by ExpressVPN. Basically, just get whichever of these two options is cheapest on the day!
Budget Pick: VyprVPN
If both Proton and ExpressVPN are too expensive for you, and you looking for a cheaper option that still has good performance, check out VyprVPN. I used to use it several years ago, and while I ultimately moved on to other services, I’d be more than happy to switch back if I had to.
While it doesn’t have quite the same global reach (700 servers, 70+ countries) as some of the others, it owns all of its own infrastructure, giving it the edge in performance and security over some of the other lower-cost providers that just rent server space.
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 how long you sign up for and whether any sales are running, but it can be extremely competitive. I’ve seen long-term subscriptions as low as $2.50/month at times, but even at standard pricing, it’s only $60/year ($5/month). You’ll pay double that if you sign up by the month, though.
The company simplified its plans recently, so all new subscriptions now include five simultaneous connections and the proprietary “Chameleon” technology that helps work around attempted VPN blocking.
Alternative Budget Pick: NordVPN
If you’ve ever watched a YouTube video from anyone in the travel space, there’s a better-than-average chance they were sponsored by NordVPN. The company seems to spend a lot of its marketing budget there, at least based on the videos I watch!
This site definitely is not sponsored by NordVPN or anyone else, but I still used the company’s service for a while. There are a remarkable number of servers on offer, nearly 6000 of them in total, but the geographic spread isn’t as high as some of the others: those servers are only in 60 countries.
Speeds were generally good in my testing, and when they weren’t, swapping servers typically solved the problem. I found both Proton and ExpressVPN to be reliably faster, but there’s not always a lot in it.
Security features are good for a lower-cost VPN like this. As well as a strict no-logging policy, you’ll get things like “Double VPN,” where your data travels via two different VPN servers, and “Onion over VPN,” where your connection goes over the 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 $13, that drops to a bargain $2.99/month if you pay for two years upfront. You’ll get up to six simultaneous connections, slightly better than most of the budget 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, at least, accessible from within the app.
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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 2GB of data per month to test the service out at no cost, with no other restrictions. If you’re not streaming or using it a lot, that might be all you need.
While it doesn’t have the same global reach as some of the competition, Tunnelbear still maintains 5000+ servers in around 47 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 as little as $3.33/month if you sign up for longer. Paid options let you connect an unlimited number of devices, choose a specific city rather than just a country to connect through, and more.
In my testing, I found that speeds varied quite a bit, between “ok” and “very good”. If one server was particularly slow, switching to a different one usually improved the situation.
In short, Tunnelbear is a good, cheap option that’s reliable and easy to use, with a more-than-useful free tier. Sometimes, that’s all you need!
Not sure which one to choose? Go with ProtonVPN. It costs a bit more than the budget options, but has the best mix of speed, reliability, and security I’ve come across, plus the ability to consistently stream your favorite shows no matter where you happen to be.
It works on any device you’re likely to be traveling with, has top-notch support, and is developed and run by a company that’s a lot more trustworthy than most in this space.
While choosing the right VPN for your needs is important, the most important thing is that you use 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?