Whether to en­hance the se­cu­rity of on­line trans­ac­tions or to en­able ac­cess to cer­tain web­sites wher­ever you are in the world, VPNs are a use­ful tool for trav­ellers

Business Traveller - - CONTENTS - WORDS DAVID PHE­LAN

The ben­e­fits of VPNs for trav­ellers

You’ll have prob­a­bly heard the ab­bre­vi­a­tion VPN, and you may know that it stands for vir­tual pri­vate net­work. Per­haps you are aware of its rep­u­ta­tion for en­abling il­le­gal down­loads or other dodgy stuff. Although this rep­u­ta­tion is well-earned, VPNs can also be used for le­git­i­mate pur­poses, such as mak­ing sure blockchain trans­ac­tions are about as pri­vate as they can be. The deep web, com­pris­ing those sites not found via stan­dard search en­gines, can also be ac­cessed more se­curely us­ing a VPN.

So what, ex­actly, is a VPN? At its sim­plest, a VPN is a se­ries of com­put­ers net­worked to­gether across the in­ter­net. It cre­ates a vir­tual tun­nel be­tween your com­puter and a server op­er­ated by the VPN com­pany. This tun­nel is en­crypted so ex­ter­nal in­ter­net traf­fic can’t see your data.

When your com­puter is con­nected to the VPN, your IP ad­dress (the net­work ad­dress for a com­puter on that net­work at that mo­ment) is masked by the IP ad­dress of the VPN server, so your iden­tity is hid­den, too.


Most of the time, we don’t think about any of this and just con­nect to a ho­tel or cof­fee shop’s wifi net­work. It’s very hard to know who might be watch­ing the traf­fic on these net­works. In ex­treme cases, it’s pos­si­ble that a ne­far­i­ous party could have set up a net­work in or­der to steal per­sonal data. This could be pass­words, credit card de­tails or even just the email you’re send­ing to change your re­turn flight. While a rep­utable ho­tel may be trust­wor­thy, us­ing an in­ter­net café is less cer­tain.

Once a VPN is in place, how­ever, nei­ther those op­er­at­ing the net­work nor those try­ing to hack into it are able to in­ter­cept your data. So, that soppy mes­sage to your sig­nif­i­cant other re­mains as pri­vate as you’d like it to be. The same is true for the busi­ness-crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion you’re send­ing as well.


Ad­di­tion­ally, in coun­tries where cer­tain web­sites are blocked, us­ing a VPN means ac­cess to them is pos­si­ble. In a coun­try such as China, where it’s hard to get on Face­book or even Google, a VPN pro­vides a way around this.

A VPN dis­guises where you are in the world, so if you are try­ing to ac­cess data only avail­able to US res­i­dents, then an Amer­i­can VPN gives the im­pres­sion you’re there and not in Tot­ten­ham or Tim­buktu. This could be for some­thing as sim­ple as ac­cess­ing the dol­lar prices on prod­ucts in an on­line store in­stead of be­ing re­peat­edly redi­rected to the Euro­pean or UK sites.

On the other hand, it might be that you want to watch Net­flix, iPlayer or Sky Sports over­seas – even work trips need to have down­time. Stream­ing ser­vices such as Net­flix try to pre­vent users watch­ing UK con­tent over­seas due to vary­ing rights is­sues be­tween coun­tries. How­ever, some VPNs al­low you to slip un­der the net. If you do want →

In coun­tries with less lib­eral at­ti­tudes, the gov­ern­ment may ban some VPNs with­out warn­ing

to use one, an on­line search for “VPNs that work with [insert name of site]” will of­fer up a few op­tions. Be aware that you may be break­ing the rights agree­ments if you de­cide to do this, how­ever.

In coun­tries such as China, Egypt and Turkey, which have less lib­eral at­ti­tudes, the gov­ern­ment may ban some VPNs with­out warn­ing. Ear­lier this year, Ap­ple ejected sev­eral VPNs from the App Store be­cause the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment ruled them il­le­gal, not sur­pris­ingly as they’re a way of leapfrog­ging the Great Fire­wall of China. Ex­pressVPN, how­ever, is ap­par­ently ig­nored by Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties be­cause its more ex­pen­sive pric­ing and lack of Chi­nese-lan­guage sup­port mean that Chi­nese cus­tomers don’t use it.

One rule of thumb is to down­load VPN apps and soft­ware be­fore you travel to coun­tries that have strict rules. In such coun­tries, you may also find that ho­tels aimed at for­eign tourists have fewer re­stric­tions on which sites you can visit, though don’t imag­ine that means your traf­fic is not be­ing mon­i­tored.


VPN con­nec­tions tend to be slower than stan­dard con­nec­tions, not least be­cause data is en­crypted and routed through mul­ti­ple servers.

Gen­er­ally speak­ing, the more servers the VPN of­fers, the bet­ter chance you have of find­ing one near you, which helps speed-wise. It’s hard to pre­dict speeds be­cause that de­pends en­tirely on your line, but a good VPN shouldn’t slow it too much.

Speak­ing of which, should you be pay­ing a price at all or are free VPNs good enough? This is a mat­ter of de­bate. VPNs are not cheap to run, so the or­gan­i­sa­tions need to pay for them some­how. This can be through ads, which may not be the ex­pe­ri­ence you’re look­ing for, or even by sell­ing data to third par­ties, which rather de­feats the point.

There are also paid-for VPN com­pa­nies, which have a free tier, say 500MB a month. You’d be sur­prised how quickly this data is used up and then you’ll be in­vited to pay for an up­graded ser­vice.

A VPN isn’t per­fect: if all you are try­ing to do is catch the lat­est Net­flix or Sky Sports pro­gramme it may be rather more has­sle than it’s worth. How­ever, the value it of­fers in terms of pri­vacy of data and iden­tity means, at the least, it’s worth con­sid­er­ing.

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