This must sound familiar...
You’re sitting in a coffee shop and you decide to check your Facebook account or go online to find a pharmacy. You click that little WIFI icon at the top of your phone and there it is: CoffeeSlurp_WIFI.
And you connect.
Or you’re at the airport and you want your email, NOW. The icon says FreeAirportWIFI. Of course you click. (If you don’t, congratulations!)
I suspect you’ve done this because… I have.
Unless you're protected by a VPN. Let me explain.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is just a fancy name for a hidden pathway along which you can communicate. It makes sure all your online traffic goes through a hidden channel - an encrypted channel – so no one can track you and see what you're doing online.
If someone unscrupulous wants to steal your data, they won’t be able to.
Because yes, there are thieves who do that: they stalk people online and search for connections that aren't protected. Then they electronically tap into those connections, which gives them access to your information. And they steal it. And use it.
This is the reality of the 21st century if you happen to spend time online, and it's not going to improve. So while I use a VPN at home, I especially use it when I travel.
Because once you leave your house, your information is wide open.
To communicate with others via email or the web, you have what's called an IP address (everyone has a different one). It's a bit like snail mail: if you want to send someone a letter, you need their street address. Online, if you want to communicate with someone, your computer needs their electronic IP address. (Don't worry, you don't have to do anything yourself - your computer does all this automatically.)
But an increasing number of electronic thieves are able to grab your IP address and find their way into your connection, computer and information. They can even grab your precious credit card numbers and your identification details if they're smart enough. That innocuous person sitting next to you in the coffee shop could well be harvesting your information this second, gaining access to your money, infiltrating or emptying your bank accounts, or stealing your identity. So hiding your IP address from snoops by using a VPN is a good idea.
Think of how many times you’ve logged on from that coffee shop, from an airport or train station, or through an open network in a hotel lobby. I shudder to count the times - it's a miracle I haven't been seriously hacked.
You absolutely need a VPN in these circumstances:
We’ve covered that and yes, you need a VPN if you’re getting online in a public place where anyone could be lurking, waiting to grab your unprotected data.
Until recently, I only used my VPN to access TV channels when I traveled.
Today, I switch on my VPN the second I decide to log on, wherever I am. That way, I can surf without having to worry. When I check my email, I know my information is encrypted and that gives me peace of mind. And I can look around at everyone else without too much suspicion...
Cambridge Analytica, anyone? Privacy breaches are no longer the exception...
I have no idea who’s listening or watching. I oppose censorship on principle and would simply rather not come under a watchful government eye, so I like to cloak what I do online. I may have have nothing to hide, but I do feel strongly that my information is mine, and I’d like to keep it that way.
The Edward Snowden leaks went a long way towards dispelling any thought that the US government (just to name one) wasn’t paying attention. The way governments handle our data isn't much safer than if we hung it out to dry in public.
But that’s not all. In the US, internet service providers now have permission to sell your data (it’s supposed to be anonymous) to anyone - usually marketing companies. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t exactly make me comfortable.
This probably isn’t you but as totalitarian or extremist governments become increasingly common, protesters and dissidents who want to exercise their right to dissent or to speak up need a way to do it more safely. A VPN helps them do that (although some countries are cracking down on these, as I’ll explain below).
I have no idea whether Netflix in your country allows you to take your account abroad with you but I was delighted to find out that Netflix France (where I live) let me login from West Africa. That was a first! But if it hadn’t, I would have used my own VPN – which does let me do that. I've paid for the subscription, after all - why shouldn't I use it when I travel?
Take China, which blocks Facebook. A VPN allows you to bypass that constraint and log on. Or if you can't bear to miss the final episode of Master Chef you’ve been following at home. Or if you’re in a country that blocks Skype or WhatsApp – a VPN will get you around that.
Mind you, it’s always a race to see what new blocking technology will work better than the last one but for now, using a good VPN is a reliable way to access networks that you normally can’t access.
You may have done most of your banking before leaving home but things happen and emergencies do arise. However safely you keep your cash (my favorite ways are by using an anti-theft bag or a money belt), things happen, cash is stolen, and bank accounts need to be accessed.
If you all of a sudden login from a foreign country, your bank will likely notice and a fraud alert will go up – and freeze you out.
Some banks will allow you to alert them about your travels – but not all of them. I speak from experience, having once landed penniless in Bangkok with my bank refusing me access to my account and freezing my card at the airport ATM. I’m lucky I have friends in that city!
I’ve never had this experience myself – but people swear you can get better online prices if you log on from different locations and that search engines vary their airline ticket prices accordingly. I need to try this!
A VPN is super simple to use at your end: subscribe, and then simply download an app or log into a service online. Then click your VPN icon, and voilà. Or nearly. While your VPN may connect to the nearest server automatically, sometimes you have a choice. Recently in Italy, I could choose whether to connect via Rome or Milan. Since I was closer to Rome, I thought my connection might be faster so I clicked 'Rome'.
Here's what it looks like:
A VPN used to be a techie luxury, but now it’s a travel necessity for everyone who uses the Internet – for travel, in a hotel room or on a phone, or yes, at home.
There aren’t many but there are a few.
One of them is speed: Depending on where you are, a VPN may slightly slow down your Internet connection – at least that’s what is said. I haven’t found it to be the case for me and I’ve been able to watch movies, which are notorious bandwidth hogs, without problems. Nor have I noticed any slowdown at home but I can't vouch for everyone else.
Connection: If the internet is crawling along at a snail's pace, you may not be able to connect to your VPN at all. This hasn't happened to me yet so it's rare - but it CAN happen.
In some countries, using a VPN is illegal. A few countries ‘restrict’ their use but tend to turn a blind eye, while others forbid their use altogether. Some countries like North Korea or Turkmenistan (and others) have strict censorship laws so using a VPN, while physically possible, might land you in trouble. Other countries have gone further and banned or blocked VPNs, like Iraq or Belarus. And yet others, like China, allow you to use only government-approved VPNs.
In countries where they are legal – the USA, Canada, Europe and other Western countries – using VPNs to camouflage illegal activities is, of course, illegal.
Most reliable VPNs are secure but nothing is 100% safe - anywhere; an evil vandal with the time, means and determination to burrow into your accounts would probably be able to do it. Still, I’d rather be extremely safe than not safe at all, and a VPN makes it an awful lot harder to break into your life. (Plus, I can’t think of anyone who would be so interested in me that they would make such a major effort.)
In past, unreliable VPNs have been known to sell your data, but that doesn’t happen with reputable companies (ExpressVPN is the one I use). Companies that supply VPNs for free should be particularly scrutinized and I would probably steer clear. Some have been involved in scandals and it's a chance I'm not willing to take.
A final note about security - many VPNs have their headquarters in countries where they cannot be forced to hand over your data to authorities (that is the case for mine, which is based in the British Virgin Islands).
Everyone has their favorite, including me. To be honest, it seems to me that the top three or four VPN networks tend to provide similarly good service.
One of the reasons I chose ExpressVPN is because of the number of countries to which it can connect (3,000+ VPN servers in 160 VPN server locations in 94 countries) and because it aligned perfectly with all my criteria below.
These are some of the criteria to consider or questions to ask when shopping for a reliable VPN:
Can you use it on all your devices and is that included in the price?
I can install my VPN on as many devices as I want.
How many countries can you use it in?
I haven't been to a country yet where I couldn't use it, although in a very few countries, VPNs are illegal.
How fast is it?
Now you're getting technical - all I can say is that I haven't noticed any change in the speed of my wifi connections. At home, where my bandwidth is low, using my VPN hasn't slowed anything down.
How secure is it?
What kind of reputations does it have?
Excellent - of course I did my research before signing up and it consistently ranks in the top 3 (and often at #1) for best VPN at all levels.
Is it easy to set up?
If you can download an app, you can set this up.
Is it easy to use?
Delightfully so. Click Connect. And that's it.
Does it reconnect automatically if your WIFI disappears?
This is one of the things I love most about it - whenever my connection drops (it happens often at home), my VPN doesn't disconnect. This was a major pain with one of my previous services.
I can only tell you what I use, and why.
I’ve used three different VPNs so far and my best VPN for traveling abroad is ExpressVPN because it’s easy to manage, has tons of security features, and has never yet stopped working. I just leave it on permanently and nearly forget about it, which is how I like my electronics: simple and safe.
It has 24/7 chat support, which if you're a technophobe (or not particularly at ease with technology) is comforting. All my devices can be logged on at the same time (which is great if you happen to want to work on your laptop while watching Netflix on your cell...) And it doesn't keep a log of my activities.
It's also the best VPN for China, by most accounts (although last time I visited China there was no such thing as a VPN yet!)
So far, I've tried two other VPNs, both of them quite good.
MyExpatNetwork was great in many ways and I used it for years to watch foreign television. But it was a bit harder to use. I do have to say their email support was stellar, but I was ready for something a bit more streamlined. (It was also more expensive.)
I also tried Bitdefender VPN which I got for free because I already protect my computer and data with the same company (their security system is absolutely the best in my book). Their VPN, on the other hand, wasn’t always responsive and cut out a bit too often, so I protect myself with their shield but don't use the VPN.
ExpressVPN is my third try and I’m very happy with it. I've traveled to Asia, Africa and through Europe with it and it is smooth and seamless to operate. There are cheaper (and more expensive) VPNs, but you get 35% off if you sign up for a year in advance so that brings the price down considerably. To me, it's absolutely worth every penny to keep my data – my entire life – safe from prying eyes.
At home, your Internet is somewhat safer than out in the world because it’s a private connection. You have a password, and your Internet provider builds in security to your network. Your machines can talk to one another - your printer and your computer and your laptop - but no one outside your network can see them or 'break in'. In theory.
Admittedly, getting hacked at home is rare: hacking is complicated, and the return on investment for the hacker is low for one single account. Hardly worth it. (Although, as you'll see in the box below, you are in no way immune just because you're at home!)
In some countries, your Internet service provider – the ISP, or the company that provides your home Internet – has certain legal obligations. They may have to keep logs, and be required to hand them over to the government if requested. Those logs can contain plenty of information about your browsing habits. That information is often sold to marketing companies, which is how you receive all those tailor-made solicitations and ads. And then there's the government itself, which in some countries monitors its population directly...
Your service provider has tons of information about you including your address, credit card and bank details. I'm not sure what they do with that information, but I'm not comfortable knowing profit-based corporations actually have it. By using a VPN, I make sure all this information is cloaked. Yes, the company that gives me my Internet still has my credit card details - I am a customer, after all - but not my browsing history, my likes and dislikes... all of that is hidden from them and can't be resold.
Once I started reading about everything that happens online, I was shocked - and hooked! If you want to learn more about some of these issues, try these articles: