On the first
Tuesday Thursday of each month, Dave Dean from Too Many Adapters gives us great tips and advice on travel tech and gear. In this month’s column, he delves deep into VPNs, what they are, and why they are important.
Computer security seems to be always in the news, whether it’s revelations of governmental spying, stolen credit card numbers, enormous privacy breaches, or even the ease of tracking an NPR reporter’s digital life.
As an Internet-using traveler, you’re often risking security problems. Rather than your password-protected home or work network, you’re often using public or semipublic Wi-Fi (airports, train stations, cafes, and hotels all fall into this category) or, even worse, shared computers.
Anybody on the same network (which in some cases could be thousands of people) can easily grab your unencrypted data as it flies through the air. Usernames, passwords, credit card numbers, browser cookies, and other identifying information can be ripe for the picking from your web browser and mobile apps (I talked in detail about this problem here). A VPN (Virtual Private Network) protects you from all of this, with one click.
VPNs also allow you to get around Internet filtering. I’ve come across blocked sites in Vietnam, Spain, Portugal, China, Thailand, and many others. Simply connect your VPN to a country that doesn’t block the site you’re after, and the problem disappears. I’ve used this method to read blocked news stories from Chiang Mai, watch Vimeo videos in Bali, update my Facebook status in Hanoi, and visit the Uber ride-sharing site while staying in Porto. Additionally, it lets you access blocked content like Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and the BBC while overseas.
How do VPNs work?
VPNs were originally created for business use, but it didn’t take long before consumer versions started appearing from dozens of different companies. After all, security matters to everyone, whether they’ve got an expense account or not.
To understand how they work, think of the Internet as a river. Drop a load of dye into the river — that’s your (unencrypted) data. Anyone standing along the riverbank can see that dye: what color and consistency it is, and where it ends up.
Now, put a small pipe in the river, running from wherever you are to somewhere along its length, and tip your dye into that instead. Until it emerges from the end of the pipe, nobody on the bank can see the dye or knows anything about it. Your VPN is that pipe.
Using them is quite simple — you download and install a VPN app for your phone, tablet, or laptop, then start it up after you’ve connected to the Internet. Choose the server (or “endpoint”) you’d like to use — good VPN apps offer several different locations — and after a few seconds, all of your data is encrypted and passing through the virtual network.
VPNs are generally designed to protect all of your Internet traffic, regardless of its type. This includes email, streaming music and video, voice calls, and anything else you can think of.
In the last few years, proxy services from browsers like Hola and Zenmate have also appeared, which only protect web-based traffic. They’re typically free and easy to use, but for most travelers, there’s little reason to choose them instead of a real VPN. They provide less security, and at least one of them (Hola) has been caught doing some pretty shady stuff with its users’ connections.
What should I look for in a VPN service?
With so many different VPN providers and plans, it’s not all that easy to figure out which one’s best for your needs. These are the features that matter most.
Has apps for the platforms you use – Make sure that all of the devices you’re taking with you are supported. If you’re carrying a Mac and an iPhone, look for MacOS and iOS versions of the VPN software. If you’re using Windows and Android instead, make sure you’ll be able to download apps for those.
No restrictions or extra fees for simultaneous connections – Restricting the number of devices that can simultaneously use your VPN account is annoying. Phones, tablets, and laptops are all equally at risk from insecure networks, and you don’t want to disconnect one and connect another every time you want to use them. Look for a service that lets you connect several devices at the same time.
Works in as many countries as possible – Not all VPN software is created equal, and some types are easier to block than others. Look for support for the OpenVPN protocol and user reviews that mention an ability to work in China in the last few months — the government there is probably the best at blocking VPNs, so if it works there, it’ll work anywhere.
Has acceptable speeds – Using a VPN will usually slow down your connection, mainly because your data are going via another server rather than direct to their destination. How much it decreases depends on all kinds of factors, including distance, bandwidth restrictions, and overloaded networks. As an example, my speeds in Spain dropped by about 20% when using a VPN endpoint in Madrid, and 40% when using one in New York. Try to use a trial version of any VPN before paying for it, and run speed tests to see how fast or slow it really is.
Includes an autoconnect feature – VPNs only protect you when you use them. It sounds obvious, but it’s an easy thing to forget when you’re in hurry. Look for an autoconnect feature, either for every network or at least unsecured ones. Enabling it will enable your VPN within a few seconds of connecting to a Wi-Fi network, keeping you protected even when you’ve got other things to think about.
Has endpoints where you need them, and as many as possible – The more endpoints a VPN service has, the better. Occasionally, one particular endpoint can be blocked by a site you’re trying to use — if you’ve got others to choose from, it’s nothing more than a minor inconvenience. This happened to me recently when trying to watch a video on Hulu: the New York endpoint was blocked, but the Chicago one worked just fine.
Easy to install and use – The best software in the world isn’t much use if it’s hard to use or install, and VPNs are no exception. On Mac and Windows, this would mean you just download and run the installer from the company’s website. On Android and iOS, you grab it from the App or Play Store. If you didn’t sign up for an account beforehand, you’ll be asked to do so during installation. You might be asked a few questions about how you’d like to use the VPN (automatically or manually, and perhaps what kind of connection it should make), but the default options are usually fine.
Using it shouldn’t be any harder — either the software connects automatically, if you’ve set it that way, or doesn’t need more than a couple of clicks or taps to get it going.
Unfortunately, not every company makes it this simple. Setting up mobile VPN apps, in particular, can sometimes be surprisingly difficult. Read reviews and install trial versions where possible, to make sure the service is user-friendly enough to keep you using it.
The best VPN services
The first decision you need to make is whether to go for a free or paid option. Free VPNs generally exist as a way to get you to upgrade to the paid version, and they come with one or more of the following restrictions: bandwidth and speed limits, advertising, fewer endpoints, time limits, and busier (read: slower) servers.
If you’re trying to decide if you need a VPN, or only think you’ll use it now and then, check out the free services first. Well-regarded options include TunnelBear, CyberGhost, and proXPN. Hotspot Shield is also popular, although it can be slow. They all have restrictions, but paying a few bucks a month upgrades you to the full version.
Paid services remove all of the above restrictions. Some of the better VPN apps aren’t available on a free or trial basis, although they all at least offer a single-month subscription. Good options include Hide My Ass, WiTopia, Astrill, and Private Internet Access, as well as the full versions of the free services above.
How to use your VPN
Once you’ve chosen a VPN service, here are a few things to remember:
Don’t forget to use it (or turn on the autoconnect option mentioned earlier)! Yes, this includes when you’re using Wi-Fi on your phone or tablet, using any hostel, airport, or other public or semipublic network — especially anything that requires extra security, like banking, online shopping, or email.
Use nearby locations for better speeds if you can. If you don’t need to connect via a specific country, use an endpoint close to you instead.
Realize that as a traveler, there are times your connection will be too slow to use a VPN. If your connection is horribly slow to start with, your VPN may not even connect, or be unusable if it does. In such cases, just limit what you do online to things that don’t require high levels of security.
If you’ve got an unreliable Internet connection, make sure your VPN stays active. If your Wi-Fi drops out, or the Internet stops working, your VPN will disconnect — and it won’t always reconnect automatically afterwards. Always keep an eye on the app’s icon in your task or notification bar, and reconnect if you don’t see it.
Finally, understand that most VPNs provide security, not anonymity. You’re protected from hackers and other malicious people anywhere between you and the VPN endpoint you’re using — but most VPN companies do log the sites and services you connect to, along with your account and credit card information. In such cases, especially if they’re U.S. based, those details can be provided to law enforcement in certain situations. Long story short: don’t do anything stupid.
Even though VPNs aren’t anywhere near as exciting as, well, almost any other aspect of your travels, they’re a cheap, easy way to protect yourself online, keep up with the Kardashians (and any other TV show you might like), and get around governments that would like to monitor and block your Internet usage. They’ve been an indispensable part of my digital travel toolkit for years, one that I use every day on the road, and I simply wouldn’t travel without one.
I’d strongly suggest you don’t either.
Dave runs Too Many Adapters, a site devoted to technology for travelers. A geek as long as he can remember, he worked in IT for fifteen years. Now based out of a backpack long term, Dave writes about travel and tech from anywhere with half-decent Internet and a great view. You can also find him talking about the life of a long-term traveller at What’s Dave Doing?