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Should I Connect To Foreign WiFi Networks While I Travel?

We are rapidly becoming a more connected species, digitally at least. Whether through international travel or open WiFi networks, we are never more than a few hours or a few clicks away from the rest of the world. That increased connectivity leads to increased productivity, and also increased risk.

A simple rule of thumb is to never do anything on a public WiFi network that you wouldn’t announce to the room you’re in. Most people would be comfortable saying things like “I like that photo” or “this article is great.” Most people probably wouldn’t want to shout that they are checking their bank balance or entering their credit card info to buy a new widget. Very personal transactions should be relegated to the safety of your home network, but if you can’t wait here are a few tips on how to stay safe on public networks.

Should I Connect To Foreign WiFi Networks While I Travel

Avoid Obscure WiFi Networks

As I write this article, there are 36 WiFi networks within range. Most of them are labeled in a way that I can logically infer where the network is located and what I should or should not access. If you have to connect, look for a network that is managed by the facility you are in. Hotel XYZ is probably a better choice than Doug’s Free WiFi, no offense Doug.

If possible, try connecting to a smaller managed network like a coffee shop instead of a broad network like a mall or airport. Smaller networks will likely have a faster connection, and often require a password. These passwords are typically public knowledge, in that they are posted on the cash register or you simply have to ask, but it’s at least some minor level of security. With any luck, instead of logging into your Facebook, you’ll end up meeting someone interesting in that coffee shop and having a profound conversation instead.

Limit Access to your devices

Many laptops and phones have file sharing capabilities enabled from the factory. There’s no way to control who is accessing the public network you just connected to or what their intents are. When active on the public network turn off any file sharing capabilities, such as Bluetooth or Airdrop, and enable your devices firewall. Take security one step further by disabling your WiFi when you are not using your device for the internet. Not only does this minimize risk, but it also saves battery.

Don’t skimp on protection

Sometimes we just have to connect, sketchy network or not. In these instances it’s best if our antivirus and malware protection is completely up-to-date. If you’re going to take the risk, it’s best to maximize protection and limit exposure. In addition to protecting your device, try only using sites that protect you. If a site does not have an SSL installed, or it is outdated, your information is not safe. This is not critical if you are simply browsing, but if you are transmitting personal information like a credit card, banking info, or address; don’t risk it!

Use a VPN

A VPN, or virtual private network, allows users to connect to a private network from across a public network. This means you can set up your home network as a VPN and connect to your home network remotely. There are also paid VPN services available from sites like PIA. Whether you decide to harness your home network as a VPN, or a third-party vendor, you can be sure your data is encrypted and minimize your risk when connecting to the web while you travel.

Be your own internet provider

If you find yourself consistently in need of WiFi while out and about, you may consider paying for a mobile hotspot. There are stand-alone units, if you don’t mind adding an extra device to your repertoire, or you can shell out some extra cash on your cell phone bill. Be conscious of your cellular provider’s plan though, as once you hit your max data you might incur large costs for additional data or be throttled to the point of inefficiency.

Obviously, the best way to stay safe while traveling is to avoid connecting to WiFi at all. In the real world, this option might not be on the table though. Keep these tips and tricks in mind the next time you venture down the street for an Americano, or the next time you’re in Italy for an espresso. Anything we missed? Drop your tips and tricks in the comment section below.