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I’m going to be honest with you. This isn’t going to be the sexiest post you’ll find on this site. But it’s an important one for anyone who travels, lives abroad, or pretty much anyone who uses the internet. And since you’re reading this page right now, I’m going to assume that includes you.
As travelers, we pride ourselves on preparing for every trip and situation. We make and agonize over checklists to eliminate, or at least minimize, the possibility of inconvenience.
“A new camera? Check.
Travel insurance? Check.
One of those awesome travel pillows that kind of look like a neck brace? Check.
Something to protect you and all of your precious personal data while traveling abroad? Wait, what?”
Don’t sound so surprised. If you’re not using a VPN when traveling internationally, you’re forgetting a major tool in your digital nomad toolkit.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. Put simply, a VPN is a private tunnel between your computer and the websites that you connect to. Using a VPN can encrypt your data, change your location and IP address, and allow you to use apps that might otherwise be restricted in your host country.
Dave Dean from Too Many Adapters offers a really helpful analogy for what a VPN does.
“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.”
As travelers and digital nomads, we are constantly connected to public and semi-public wifi networks in places like hotels, train stations, cafes, and airports. But these sweet, sweet free networks don’t come without risks.
On these networks, anyone can gain easy access to your unencrypted personal data. That means things like your usernames, passwords, and credit card numbers are all at risk of being out there for anyone to see.
If you’re using a public wifi network without a VPN, your personal data is vulnerable and out there for anyone to see. A VPN hides your IP address and encrypts your internet traffic, providing you with a layer of anonymity so that you can browse securely.
A lot of streaming content is geographically restricted. This means that even if you pay for HBO in the States, you might not be able to access it outside of the country.
Streaming services like Netflix also have geographically specific content as well. So if you’re in Thailand and hoping to watch The Office, you might be out of luck. Or worse, you could end up stuck watching the UK version. Gasp!
Certain banks won’t allow you to use their services while abroad. For example, my bank won’t let me deposit a check by picture unless they can “confirm” that I’m in the States. No problem. When things like this happen, I just switch my VPN to say that I’m in the US and I’m good to go.
Even worse, in an effort to prevent fraud, some banks may completely freeze your count if they see any international activity. If you forget to tell your bank that you’re traveling or neglect to specify each and every country (which can be difficult as a digital nomad with a flexible schedule), you could find yourself in the nightmare scenario of being abroad without access to your own money.
Using a VPN allows you to essentially trick your bank into thinking that you’re in your home country.
Countries around the world, especially in Asia, all have their own rules according to what websites users are able to access. Depending on what country you’re in, you may not be able to access your favorite news or social media website.
A VPN is helpful because sometimes the restrictions can seem downright arbitrary. I’ve lived in places that block access to major news sites like bbc.com. In China, unless you use a VPN, you’ll be without apps that you use every day like Facebook and any of the Google apps like Maps, search, translate, etc.
Certain companies and airlines base their prices on your location. For example, someone in Thailand may see a completely different price for a flight than someone in the UK. Even it it’s for the exact same flight.
Because a VPN allows you to “trick” websites into thinking that you’re somewhere else, you could use it to score significantly cheaper prices and better deals online.
All VPN’s aren’t created equal. So here’s a rundown of what to look for in a VPN provider.
Whenever I bring up the need for a VPN people always ask me what the best free option is. To be fair, I totally get this line of thinking. As travelers, we always want to get the best deal possible. But security over my personal information is not something I’m willing to be cheap with.
While there are several free options out there, they should be avoided for a few reasons.
We do almost as much work on our phones as our computers. So it’s an absolute must that we are protected on all of our devices. Be it a phone, tablet, or laptop.
Being that there are two of us, we require a VPN that allows us to connect at least 4 devices at once. However, a single person would be fine with 2 or 3.
Because restrictions vary from region to region, you’re going to want a VPN that has a lot of server options to choose from.
For instance, if I want to watch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I have to connect to Netflix UK. Other times, I need to connect to a US or Canada server for North American specific content. Occasionally, you’ll even need to try different cities in the same country. So even if the New York server isn’t working, Denver could be working just fine.
Let’s face it, though a VPN is designed to keep you safe, you’re still placing a lot of trust with the VPN provider itself. Be sure to sign up with a reputable company in the industry that explicitly states their strict policy against logging and sharing your data. You want to know that if they were ever pressured by any institution or government for your data, that they wouldn’t just simply hand it over.
Because you’re adding another layer to your internet connection, using a VPN can decrease your internet speed.
Most of the time, this is unnoticeable. But generally speaking, the further the connection needs to travel, the longer the delay will be. So unless you’re trying to access region-specific content, connect to an endpoint in the same country you’re in.
In places where your wifi connection is weak, your VPN may slow your connection down so much that it’s virtually unusable. Or it just may not connect at all.
In these instances, just be smart and don’t enter any personal or sensitive information until you can be sure that you’re on a secure network.
If you’re looking for a secure, easy to use VPN, we recommend either Nord VPN or Express VPN. They’re the two most recognized and respected names in the industry for a reason. Having gone through trial and error with a few VPNs in our time as digital nomads, we can safely say that these two stand in a class of their own.
In addition to industry-best security and anonymity, both providers offer:
Currently, we use NordVPN simply because it allows us to connect up to 6 devices at once time. Though if I’m being honest, we usually only have 4 devices — 2 phones and 2 laptops — connected at any given time.
As digital nomads, a VPN has become an absolute must-have for us. We do virtually everything online and the peace of mind that comes with knowing our information is safe in an airport in Hong Kong or a cafe in Vietnam is worth it.
When the monthly cost of a quality VPN is about as much as a cup of coffee, you simply can’t afford to not be using one.
We are a couple that travels the world full time while running our own online businesses. We want to be your one stop shop for a location independent lifestyle full of travel inspiration and useful tools and knowledge to grow your own online business.