Yesterday Ben wrote about how China’s government may start cracking down on VPN services, which may have caused you to wonder “What the heck is a VPN, and what does it have to do with travel?”
What it boils down to is that no public internet connection is inherently safe or secure. Sure, you might be taking extra precautions on your home network, or using firewalls on your devices, though in my experience most people aren’t.
Whenever you’re using a public connection you’re exposed to flaws in the network, and are a bit at the mercy of anyone using that same network. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re at a coffee shop, a hotel, or on an airplane.
That’s where a VPN (or Virtual Private Network) comes in. It helps protect your data, and is so inexpensive and easy to use that there’s really no reason not to.
Frequent travelers are exposed to a broader range of internet connections, so should be especially aware, but this really applies to everyone.
How do VPNs work?
At the most basic level, a VPN acts as a bit of a shield between your devices and the greater internet. We’re going to keep this explanation very simple, so if you’re an internet security expert of any kind (or if you’ve been around for my previous VPN explanations) you probably want to stop reading now.
When you connect to the internet, your communication with various websites is either encrypted or open based on what site you’re visiting.
Things like Gmail, your bank, Facebook — those are always encrypted (that’s what the https means at the beginning of the URL). So in theory those should be safe, but you’re relying upon the destination site and your internet service provider (ISP) to keep that connection secure. If you’re at home, you can probably trust your own network, but even https can potentially be circumvented by the ISP forcing you to use an alternate certificate (that’s why you sometimes see that padlock with the slash through it in the navigation bar, because the site certificate is suspect).
It gets complicated, but the takeaway is that even normally encrypted sites aren’t necessarily secure when you’re accessing them from a public network.
And everything else is potentially open-season.
Once you’re using a VPN, everything is encrypted to the server of the VPN provider. So it doesn’t matter as much what the security level of the individual sites is, because your VPN creates a shield for your device.
The VPN shield protects you from people reading your data when on public or shared WiFi (whether it’s Starbucks or Gogo). It also prevents less-legitimate sources from looking at your data (be it the guy hacking from the row behind you or the Chinese government), because all they can effectively see is the connection to the VPN. The rest of your internet usage goes into an opaque tunnel.
While obviously better, a VPN still isn’t perfect — it’s like drawing the curtains over your activities versus hanging out with the blinds open and lights on. That’s sufficient for the vast majority of us, and is likely a big improvement over whatever you’re already doing.
How are VPNs useful for travel?
Beyond the security reasons (which should be your primary motivation), VPNs are useful in that they let you circumvent geographic restrictions.
That’s because when you connect to your VPN, you can typically also choose the location of the VPN server you’re connecting to.
So if you’re in China, but you configure your VPN to connect to Hong Kong, you basically get the Hong Kong version of the internet, instead of China’s censored version.
It’s worth noting, however, that the countries that restrict internet access often aren’t terribly keen on VPNs either, so you’ll want to read up on any rules in advance. A VPN can also slow your connection down, which makes sense when you think about how it works, but it’s generally not that bad.
What’s the best VPN?
Honestly, there are hundreds, and as long as the company is reputable and trustworthy, they all work about the same (unless you’re going to China, where the internet is more complicated in general). The VPN company can theoretically see any unencrypted traffic, so you don’t want to use a fly-by-night operation. I’ve used a few different ones:
Last year I used ExpressVPN almost exclusively, and it worked really well. No problems in a variety of geographic locations, and the one time I did have a slight technical issue their customer service was fantastic.
If you’re going to be traveling internationally, especially if you’re going to China, this is the service I would use.
TunnelBear is cheap, and for people who just want more security at the coffee shop or for domestic travel, this is a great option. The basic version is free!
The premium version is less than $4 a month if you buy the annual package, and allows you to use up to five devices.
TunnelBear works on my computer and my phone, and I appreciate their commitment to the bear theme, which I find hilarious.
Vypr is a highly reputable service in China, and was the one endorsed by my geek friends when we went a few years ago. It worked well, though the app was a bit fussier than I’d like, and we had to change servers pretty frequently.
If you’re going to China and need to rely on Google services, I’d sign up for Vypr as a backup to ExpressVPN. The internet situation in China is volatile, so having access to two VPN services could be important.
How do you setup a VPN?
It’s easy. With any of these services you’ll install a program on your computer or phone. Once you connect to the internet, you then open the VPN app to create the network “shield.”
They all have great tutorials should you run into issues, but it generally takes less than five minutes to configure a VPN service.
The one caveat is that you’ll want to set them up before you’re traveling. There are many countries where you can’t access these websites to download a VPN, and it’s better to install these kinds of things from a reliable internet connection anyway.
If you’re accessing public WiFi, ever, you really should be using a VPN.
The services aren’t that expensive, a VPN is easy to setup, and the extra protection is well worth it. I also recommend a password manager to create unique and complicated logins for individual sites (we use LastPass) as an added measure.
Do you use a VPN when you travel? Which one?