Walk through any town and you’ll encounter dozens of wireless networks. Hotels have free Wi-Fi, cafes, restaurants, laundromats, and more, all providing quick and easy access to the internet so we have something to do while we wait. Those open hotspots are extremely convenient, but they carry a host of hidden risks most people never even think about. Connecting to public networks can be a gamble, which is why you need to take steps to protect your privacy whenever you’re out and about.
- 1 Why Are Public Wi-Fi Hotspots Dangerous?
- 2 Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi with a VPN
- 3 Finding the Best VPN for Wi-Fi Hotspots
- 4 Other Benefits of a VPN in Public and at Home
- 5 VPNs aren’t All-in-One Privacy Solutions
- 6 Free VPNs vs Paid VPNs
- 7 Other Ways to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi
Why Are Public Wi-Fi Hotspots Dangerous?
The biggest variable in the safety of using public Wi-Fi is that you simply don’t know anything about the connection. Who controls it? Who is the service provider? Who is connected to it and what programs are they running? It’s surprisingly easy to sit in a cafe and prod devices for their secrets. The issues below are just some of the more pressing problems with using public Wi-Fi.
- Unencrypted browsing isn’t private – When you connect to any network, your device starts sending information. Every URL you type, e-mail you download, and image you view involves a two-way communication that bounces requests from your PC to a local internet provider’s servers then to the internet at large. That data is normally sent without any sort of encryption, which is the equivalent of mailing a letter without an envelope. Anyone can see what information you’re looking at, and it doesn’t take much effort to do so, especially on public Wi-Fi.
- ISPs can log and sell information – Closely tied with the unencrypted data issue, ISPs in most countries are allowed to keep logs of what data their users access as well as the location and other identifying pieces of information. Those ISPs can monitor or even sell that data without your permission. When you connect to a public hotspot, you’re willingly sending data to an unknown ISP.
- Free Wi-Fi might be a trap – Scammers have taken to setting up fake Wi-Fi hotspots as a sort of honeypot. Users see a free and open connection, log in, and unwittingly start sending their passwords and private information to a malicious device. The connection seems to work as normal, but in reality some scammer is gathering tons of data in the background.
- Other users on the network may be infected – The dangers of public Wi-Fi aren’t limited to the connection itself. Other people logged into the network might be carrying viruses or malware, things that can actively search the connections they’re using to locate and infect other devices. Even if you feel like you can trust the Wi-Fi provider, can you trust every single stranger that logs into the same network?
Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi with a VPN
One of the easiest and most fool-proof ways to protect yourself while using public hotspots is to install a virtual private network. VPNs create a safe path from your PC or smartphone through the internet. When you request a website in your browser, the VPN first encrypts the request, scrambling the data so that even if a hacker intercepted it they couldn’t tell what information it contained. Only your device and the VPN network is capable of decrypting the information, which means everything you do while on a VPN is private.
VPNs work on a wide range of devices. Software is available for laptops, tablets, smartphones, Chromebooks, TV box sets, even e-readers and gaming consoles. Since you’re on the move and connecting to public hotspots with a mobile device, running a VPN is an easy way to keep your data locked down. You don’t have to configure anything, just sign up, log in, and stay safe.
Finding the Best VPN for Wi-Fi Hotspots
Choosing the best portable VPN solution can take some time. There are a lot of features to weigh, including things like logging policies, encryption strength, and server distribution. If you own a lot of devices that travel with you, you’ll also need a lightweight VPN that performs well on smartphones. It’s easy to get tangled up in a web of complex information, which is why we did most of the heavy lifting for you.
Below are the most important factors you should consider when looking for a VPN for accessing public Wi-Fi hotspots.
- Compatibility – A VPN has to be active and logged in on the device you’re using in order to take advantage of the encryption. If you use your phone on public Wi-Fi, that phone needs to have a VPN installed. The same holds true for laptops, tablets, Chromebooks, smartphones, and every other piece of technology that goes online. Our recommended VPN services below all deliver custom software that works on just about every device on the market.
- Logging – VPNs can theoretically keep logs just like an ISP. If a government agency demands access to those logs, your browsing habits and private information could be forfeit. If a VPN doesn’t keep logs, however, your data can’t be shared. The gold standard of online privacy is a strict zero-logging policy.
- Jurisdiction – VPNs operate servers around the world, but the company itself has to be registered somewhere. Which country hosts the entity makes a huge difference, especially when privacy is concerned. No matter a VPN’s policy on keeping logs, if their jurisdiction requires logs be stored, the VPN has to comply. All of the services featured below are based in countries with more relaxed privacy policies. No logs means no logs, end of story.
- Blocked file types – A common practice many VPNs engage in, especially no-cost VPNs, is to block different types of traffic and file types. P2P networks and torrent files are commonly restricted on lower tier VPN services, for example. If you try to stream a video or download a torrent on a public network through your VPN, you might lose access. All of the VPNs featured below allow P2P and torrent traffic for complete streaming freedom.
- Speed – VPNs have a reputation for being slow. Speed is often reduced due to the encryption process, not to mention the extra distance data has to travel to reach a VPN’s worldwide network. To ensure you don’t sacrifice speed for security, we’ve tested the below VPNs and selected only the fastest on the market.
Fast connections and a private internet are two of ExpressVPN’s biggest selling points. The service delivers amazing speeds around the world, all thanks to its large network of servers positioned in 94 different countries. ExpressVPN doesn’t sacrifice security to achieve these speeds, either. Data that travels from your device is wrapped in ultra tough encryption, and ExpressVPN doesn’t keep traffic logs, which ensures your activity can’t fall into the wrong hands.
Device availability is another one of ExpressVPN’s strong points. Whether you’re accessing public Wi-Fi from an Android tablet, iPhone, iPad, laptop, or even a Blackberry, ExpressVPN has you covered. You can even install the VPN as a Chrome or Firefox extension!
A few other excellent ExpressVPN features:
- Built-in speed tests for multiple versions of its software.
- No restrictions on traffic, including P2P and torrents.
- No speed caps or bandwidth limitations
- Unblocks US Netflix, BBC iPlayer and other streaming services
- Fastest servers we have tested
- No DNS/IP leaks found
- Keeps no logs of personal data
- Great support (24/7 chat).
- Limited configuration options
- Power-users configuration options.
Every ExpressVPN plan is competitively priced with some great discounts for yearly subscriptions: $6.67 per month and get 3 months FREE! All are backed by a 30 day 100% money back guarantee.
The best thing about NordVPN is its incredible security. The company uses an amazing double encryption process that wraps important data in 2048-bit SSL encryption, code so tough NordVPN claims even supercomputers can’t crack it. There’s also an extremely thorough zero-logging policy that promises no traffic, no time stamps, and no logs of any type are ever kept. This makes NordVPN one of the most secure VPNs on the market, which is perfect for frequent travelers or anyone who uses public hotspots often.
Even though it has an intense focus on security, NordVPN manages to hold its own in terms of speed. The company’s server network is constantly growing. At the time of writing users can choose from over 1,000 servers in 59 different countries, which is an absolutely massive number. To top it off, many of these servers are designed to support specific types of traffic, allowing you to stream movies or download torrents at amazingly fast speeds, all without having to switch servers.
More benefits of NordVPN include:
- Custom apps Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, and Android, with support for home devices such as gaming consoles and smart TVs.
- Reliable access to sites like Netflix that frequently block VPNs.
- No restriction on speed, file downloads, or traffic types.
- Unlimited bandwidth on every device.
- Works with Netflix, BBC iPlayer without breaking a sweat
- 5,400+ servers globally
- Strong encryption is used on all connections
- Strict zero logs policy on both traffic and metadata
- Money back guarantee policy.
- They can take 30 days to process refunds.
IPVanish is one of the more user-friendly VPN providers. The service focuses on providing fast and secure connections to help make the internet an open resource for everyone. IPVanish does this with a network of 850 servers in 60 different countries, all of which work with strong encryption protocols and a great zero-logging policy. Speed is rarely an issue with this many options at your disposal, which means you’ll be able to take full advantage of any connection you use, public or private.
Device accessibility is another high point of the IPVanish experience. Mobile apps include custom solutions for both Android and iOS devices, and they’re extremely straightforward to use. You’ll also get software for Windows, Mac, Windows Phones, and Chromebooks, which covers nearly every kind of device you could be traveling with.
IPVanish also offers the following features:
- Bypass censorship with a massive number of IP addresses to choose from.
- Connect up to five devices to the IPVanish network at once.
- No bandwidth restrictions or traffic monitoring of any type.
- Use VOIP in countries that actively block the service.
The number one benefit of VyprVPN is its incredible privacy. The company owns and operates its entire network of servers, over 700 spread across 70 different locations. This means outside companies never access the server racks, which puts VyprVPN in complete control. Software and hardware configurations have been tweaked to deliver faster speeds without sacrificing security. The end result is a better internet connection for you, even when you’re on a public network.
Another great feature VyprVPN offers is Chameleon. This unique and proprietary technology helps beat deep packet inspections, a common tool used by governments and corporations interested in blocking access to certain websites. This means VyprVPN users can beat network throttling and access the world wide web even in countries like China and Turkey, all without restriction.
More benefits of VyperVPN:
- Great custom apps for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and smart TV devices.
- Unlimited bandwidth and completely unmonitored traffic.
- Zero-logging policy for improved privacy.
VyprVPN is one of the few VPN providers that offers a 3 days free trial and 50% OFF first month. Try one of its easy to use plans and discover what a private browsing experience is like!
Other Benefits of a VPN in Public and at Home
VPNs are excellent multi-purpose tools that make life in the digital age safer for everyone. They’re the perfect solution for regaining your privacy on public hotspots, but they also have a number of other benefits you can take advantage of while at home or on the road.
Hide your IP address – Every piece of data you send from your computer is tagged with a unique IP. That set of numbers is used to deliver information to your device, but it can also be used to track your location and create a detailed log of your online activity. With a VPN active, your data is assigned an anonymous IP address that has no connection to your identity or location. You get unrestricted access to the internet, and you don’t have to share your information with the world to do so.
Watch Netflix from other countries – Geo-restricted content is a common feature in online streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, BBC iPlayer, and more. If you can’t gain access to a TV show or video because it’s blocked in your country, all you have to do is open your VPN and change your virtual location. It’s as easy as clicking a couple of menu items.
Access blocked content – Censorship is another issue VPNs provide a workaround for. If you can’t access websites like Facebook or Wikipedia from work or school, or if you live in or travel to countries like China or Turkey that restrict their citizens’ online activity, a VPN might be able to help.
Stop surveillance and tracking – VPNs neatly prevent government agencies from tracking you. The combination of anonymous IP addresses and encrypted data packets makes it extremely difficult to follow a single person’s activity.
VPNs aren’t All-in-One Privacy Solutions
Just because you have a VPN doesn’t mean your computer is impervious to malicious attacks. Hackers can still gain access to your device, viruses and malware can infect your system, and your activity can sometimes be traced. Using public Wi-Fi enhances all of these dangers. Even if you have a VPN active, don’t let your guard down.
The following are some of the privacy and security issues you should always keep in mind.
- Mobile devices can still be hacked – Smartphones hold a ton of private information. If someone gains access to your device, they can see your photos, check your e-mail, even log into your bank and credit card accounts. A VPN will protect this information over the network, but if someone hacks your physical device, the VPN won’t help. The best way to fight against this is to encrypt your Android phone or encrypt your iPhone.
- VPNs can’t protect you from malware – Malware is still a problem with VPNs. Viruses can slip through undetected, and programs like keyloggers aren’t stopped by a little encryption. If you’re using a public Wi-Fi hotspot, make sure you have a firewall, anti-virus, and adblocker enabled.
- VPNs anonymity isn’t perfect – Encryption and anonymous IP addresses go a long way to provide online security, but they aren’t end-all security solutions. If a skilled hacker or a government agency is trying to locate you, a VPN might not be sufficient protection. And if you’re planning to access the deep web or dark web, you’ll need to significantly up your security measures.
- VPNs can be blocked – When you’re using a VPN nobody can tell what websites you’re accessing or which files you’re downloading. They can, however, tell that you’re using a VPN. Some websites and governments use this to block access to certain sites and content. Netflix is one of the most famous for doing this. Even if you switch servers on your VPN, you still might not be able to watch your favorite videos. The top VPNs actively work against this restriction, which is good news for VPN users.
Free VPNs vs Paid VPNs
When some people see the word “VPN”, they immediately think of the swarms of no-cost VPNs that fill every browser extension market and app store in the world. These free services make all sorts of promises to their users. All you have to do is install them and you’ll get unlimited bandwidth, the best encryption, and access to video streams from around the world. That can’t be a bad thing, can it?
The problem with free VPN services is you can’t trust their intentions. Not only do many of them collect and sell user data, others are known to inject ads into browsers, apply speed caps, limit bandwidth, and even spy on their users. Free VPNs have no obligation to their users, as they still have to find ways to make revenue so they can stay in business.
Paid VPN services are in the business of privacy. They have an active incentive to fight for users and keep their promises about data retention and encryption. When you pay a VPN you contribute to their business. It’s a small investment with huge returns, and when it comes to online security on public hotspots, you can’t afford to take any chances.
Other Ways to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi
Running a VPN is a fantastic and all-inclusive method of keeping your data safe while online. Open hotspots can carry all sorts of dangers, however, which means you can’t be too careful. The tips below are a few extra precautions you can take to ensure your public surfing doesn’t endanger your private life.
- Always access secure sites – Most websites that deal with private information such as online banking, e-mail, or shopping use the secure version of the HTTP protocol. HTTPS encrypts data from that site, making it more difficult to monitor. Make sure the sites you access use HTTPS while on public networks. Download the free browser extension HTTPS Everywhere to force this mode on many popular websites.
- Use a firewall – Firewalls are extremely important in public hotspot situations. Not only do they stop unauthorized access from outside programs and ports, but they also prevent certain pieces of data from leaving your computer. Both Windows and Mac operating systems come with a built-in firewall that offers great protection on public hotspots.
- Label the network as public – Windows users will notice that each network connection can be set to home, work, or public. The former disables certain security features in favor of accessibility, while the public option keeps Windows on high alert. Set this option when you first connect to the network, or follow the instructions below.
How to make a Windows connection safer on public Wi-Fi:
- Click on the Wi-Fi icon in the system tray.
- Click on the network you’re connected to. It should be at the top of the list.
- Click “Properties”
- Under the “Make this PC discoverable” option, toggle the slider to “off”