If you value your online privacy, using a VPN is one of the easiest ways to protect your personal information on the internet from all those peering eyes who want to look at what you are doing.
So what is a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, anyway?
A virtual private network (VPN) extends a private network across a public network, and enables users to send and receive data across shared or public networks as if their computing devices were directly connected to the private network. Applications running across the VPN may therefore benefit from the functionality, security, and management of the private network. (via Wikipedia)
For a quick visual explanation, here’s a video from PC Magazine that uses LEGOs to explain how a VPN works.
So you can see how valuable it is to use one when you are traveling. Just think of how often you log into a WIFI network at the airport, or on an airplane, at your hotel, in a restaurant, a museum or even in a park. All those networks are public and anyone with enough know-how can look at what you are doing online if you don’t protect your information. You may even accidentally log directly into a hacker’s computer. Did you ever use “FREE AIRPORT WIFI” network? Did it occur to you that it’s really easy for a hacker to make a network with that name and let people log into it? Scary, isn’t it?
If you’re just downloading a map or looking up what time a show is starting, then you should have no worries. However, does your phone download emails in the background? What about Facebook and Twitter? Someone could get your account information and spoof your profile. What if you need to log onto your bank website because you set off a fraud alert because of your travels? Now that password is out there, as well. If you use a VPN, you can keep your information private even if the network you’ve logged into isn’t private at all.
The more you know about how hackers can get your information, it just gets more worrying. Let’s stop thinking about that and find out how we can protect our information instead. Just doing the simplest of protections will make you a less favorable target and the bad guys will just go to the next person who is less protected.
I’ve been using a VPN since 2014 when we were traveling to Australia and Japan. I knew we’d be away for three weeks and I’d need to connect to my bank to pay bills as well as to check emails with personal information in them. Having a VPN just seemed to make sense since we’d be using hotel WIFI networks to connect to the internet. I did some searching online and wrote to some travel bloggers to see what they felt were the best services available.
At the time, I went with WiTopia and I’ve been using them ever since. Their VPN is easy to set up (they give detailed instructions on their webpage and update it often). I’ve installed WiTopia VPN onto an iPhone, iPad, MacBook Air, iMac and a Chromebook with no problems. They offer 24/7/365 tech support which is helpful if you’re unable to connect when you’re halfway around the world,
They have two different plans – PersonalVPN ($49.99/year) and PersonalVPN Pro ($69.99/year). You can also sign up for a 6 month plan or ones of longer duration (2 or 3 year plans give a slight discount over the yearly price). I signed up for the PersonalVPN plan and it’s been working fine for us. I’ve never had a country where I couldn’t connect (United States, Japan, Australia, United Kingdom, Austria) and the connection speed was fast enough for me to stream video on my iPad. The Pro plan gives extra features but I don’t know enough of the tech speak to know what the differences are.
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I’ve read this means if you’re visiting a country that likes to block internet access (China, Russia, etc.), you’d need the Pro plan to get online.
If you sign up with my referral link, you’ll get a 15% discount on your purchase of a new plan, and I also get a referral bonus that is always appreciated.
Of course, WiTopia isn’t the only VPN in town; there are literally hundreds of companies that offer VPN services at various price points. The one that really seems to be on the top of every list right now is ExpressVPN. Their price is a little higher than WiTopia, at $99.99 for a yearly subscription. Here’s a review of the service from Travel With Grant. He also has a referral link that will get you a 30 day free trial. When Witopia wouldn’t work on Sharon’s new laptop, we got her a subscription to TunnelBear, which has been working great for her (we also love the mildly snarky sense of humor they have at TunnelBear). If you use this link, you can save 50% of off a 1-year TunnelBear subscription (regularly $119.88 but with our link, $59.99) (again, if you sign up with our referral link, we get a small kickback that helps pay the bills here at YMMV).
Besides protecting your personal information on the internet, VPNs have other useful features.
- If you’re outside the US, your subscriptions to web services like streaming video (Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu) may not work. With a VPN, you can log into a server in the U.S. and that’s where the internet thinks you are. The same works if you want to stream video from other countries, like shows on BBC. Just set your location to London and you’re good to go.
- If you weren’t aware, in March 2017, the US Congress changed the regulations that allow Internet Service Providers (ISP) to sell your browsing history. You can stay one step ahead of them and use a VPN from your home. The ISP’s can’t sell any of your information if they can’t see any of it. Just a little way to stick it to the man.
If you’ve never heard of a VPN or didn’t think you need one, I hope this article sheds some light on a easy way to keep your information private. The prices are reasonable and you can even find some free services you can use. They have data limits and other restrictions but if you’re a casual internet user, they’ll be fine for you.
Personally, I’m going to stay with WiTopia for our needs. It has worked everywhere we needed it and the comfort of round the clock tech support is nice to have. I already have it installed on all of our devices so there’s also a time consideration to set up all of our devices again.
Do you use a VPN? If so, what service do you use? If you’re happy with the service you have, feel free to share a referral link (to any service not already listed in this article) in the comments along with why you like using them.
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