When I packed up and moved from the United States to Budapest, I was excited to trek across Europe and explore this beautiful continent – to make the most of my expat experience and absorb as much culture and discover as much adventure as possible. And I can say that I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do just that over the years that I’ve lived abroad as an expat.
From skiing the mountains of Transylvania, Slovakia, Austria, and Switzerland, to relaxing on the sun-kissed coasts of the Canary Islands, Greek Isles, Sicily, Slovenia, and Croatia, to immersing myself in the rich and vibrant cultures of Bavaria, Barcelona, Belgrade, Dublin, Palermo, Trieste, Krakow, Venice, Vienna, Athens, Amsterdam, Ljubljana, and Luxemburg, to boating on Lake Bled, Lake Balaton, Lake Garda, and Bear Lake, my expat experience thus far has been amazing and entirely transformative.
I’ve learned a few things along the way – not just about the places I’ve visited and the people who live there, but also about how to stay safe and protect my digital security while traveling. So, I wanted to share with you my top five travel security tips for expats so that you can keep your privacy intact whenever, and wherever, you travel as an expat.
Let’s get to it…
Use a VPN when you go online
This is, by far, the most important thing you should be doing to protect your privacy while traveling. When you’re out on the road, you’re not always going to have access to secure private Wi-Fi networks, and you’ll need to rely on public Wi-Fi networks to give you access to the internet when you need it. Sure, public Wi-Fi can be super convenient, but it’s definitely not super secure by any stretch of the imagination. Public Wi-Fi networks often lack the basic security measures necessary for protecting internet users’ privacy. This makes them an attractive target for hackers and cybercriminals looking to snoop on what users are doing online and ultimately steal their sensitive personal data. Network administrators will also often monitor what users are doing on their networks to build detailed user profiles and sell the information to third-party advertisers.
If you want to protect your sensitive information – information like your usernames and passwords, travel itineraries, passport numbers, bank account details, credit card numbers, contact lists, health data, and more – from cybercriminals, and you don’t like the idea of network admins snooping on your activity and selling your data on to the highest bidder, then you need to use a VPN whenever you connect to a public Wi-Fi network. A VPN will fully encrypt all of your internet traffic and keep your data safe by completely hiding what you’re up to online from whoever may be interested in snooping on your activity or stealing your sensitive data.
The VPN I’d personally recommend (and the one I use regularly) for keeping you safe on public Wi-Fi is ExpressVPN. It really is the best of the best for all kinds of use cases, and if you want the best digital privacy protection while using public Wi-Fi, you can’t get any better than Express. Fair warning, though: Express is a tad on the pricier side when compared to others in the industry, but even so, the quality of the product more than lives up to its premium price point and you’re really getting what you pay for. If you’re looking for something a little more budget-friendly but still excellent and fully capable of securing your data on public Wi-Fi, then I’d say take a look at Surfshark or Ivacy. Both are top-class VPN providers that go the distance in securing your digital privacy, without breaking the bank.
And you’ll not just be protecting your privacy when you use a VPN on public Wi-Fi, you’ll also be able to unblock all kinds of content from all over the world by connecting to VPN servers located in different countries. After a long day of exploring a new place, you’d probably enjoy a bit of downtime in your hotel room while watching your favorite movies and shows on Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, or any other streaming service. Just connect to a VPN server located in a country where the content you want to watch is available and you’re all set.
Watch out for fake booking websites
In searching for the best possible travel deals online – if you’re like me – you likely rely on the simplicity and convenience of various travel websites to book anything travel-related, like flights, hotels, rental cars, cruises, and even experiences. While there’s no doubt that genuine, reputable third-party travel aggregator websites available on the internet, you need to be aware that there are also scammers out there who are setting up fake travel websites with the express intent of tricking unsuspecting travelers into giving up their personal and financial information.
This means that instead of securing your reservation, the scammers running the fake booking websites are stealing the credit card information you enter into the site, along with whatever sensitive personal information the site may request like your full name, date of birth, address, passport number, and more. Basically, these scammers are after exactly the kinds of data that can fetch a nice price on the dark web and the kinds of data that can lead to financial ruin or identity theft.
Whenever practical, it’s best to book directly with the airline you’re flying with and the hotel you’re staying at to avoid falling victim to these types of travel scams. If you do find a better deal and decide to book through a third-party travel website, then make sure that you stick to those that are well-known. Steer clear of any booking website that looks dodgy in any way or contains misspellings or other obvious grammatical errors. And always remember that if a deal seems too good to be true, then it probably is. These are clear red flags that and looking for things like these will help you spot fake websites. If you’re an expat, check out my article on the most common expat scams and how to avoid them.
Don’t get juice jacked
Since USB cables generally have the capability not only to charge devices but also to transfer data, hackers have developed a clever scam commonly known as “juice jacking” that takes advantage of this and allows them to steal data from unsuspecting users’ devices. Basically, juice jacking works by loading malware onto a USB charging station or onto a USB cable left plugged into a port in places like airports, planes, trains, cafes, or hotels. Then, when someone plugs their device into an infected charging station, malware is automatically loaded onto the victim’s device.
Juice jacking can be a deviously effective scam that can harvest all kinds of data from your phone if you’re not careful. Data like your passwords and login information, contact phone numbers, email addresses, bank account information, photos, videos, notes, text messages, emails, voice memos, and much more can all be stolen from your phone if it ends up getting juice jacked.
While there’s no real way to tell for sure if a USB charging port is infected with malware just by looking at it, the latest mobile operating systems will typically alert you if you plug your device into a USB port that has the capability of transferring data and not just delivering power to your device. So if you get an alert like this on your device when you plug it into a USB port in public, then it’s best to disconnect it immediately. And it’s never a good idea to plug your device into a USB cable that is just hanging out of a port on a wall unattended – that’s just a huge red flag right there that something’s not quite right. Yeah, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that someone may have simply forgotten their USB cord plugged into the wall, but it’s just not worth the risk, so don’t be tempted to plug in for a charge even if your phone’s battery is hanging on by a thread.
There are a couple of other things you can do to mitigate your risk of falling victim to a juice jacking attack. You can avoid plugging your device into public USB charging stations altogether, or simply use an AC power outlet with your own USB adapter instead. You can also use your own portable USB power bank. It’s also important to make sure that your mobile operating system is fully up to date and includes the feature that alerts you to a USB power outlet’s data transfer capabilities. Additionally, you can use what is called a “USB condom” which attaches to your USB cable and essentially disables the data transfer pins on the cable and only leaves the power pins enabled, keeping you safe from inadvertently transferring data to and from your device when plugged into a port.
Secure your phone with a strong password
Remember back in the day when you’d lock your phone with a measly 4-digit passcode and thinking it was Fort Knox? Well, as it turns out you were doing next to nothing in securing your phone because a skilled hacker would have no issues cracking a 4-digit passcode – all in less than ten short minutes. So your next logical thought may be that you’ll use a 6-digit passcode, because that’ll keep the hackers at bay for sure, right? But you’d be wrong again, because that same hacker could easily break your 6-digit passcode in under a day.
If you add letters and symbols to the mix, you can make your phone exponentially more difficult, if not virtually impossible for a hacker to break into and steal your data – an alphanumeric passcode could take hundreds of thousands of years to break, so take the time to create a strong password to lock your phone.
Sure, nowadays you’re probably used to simply unlocking your phone using your face or your fingerprint, and you barely ever need to use your passcode, anyway. But if your phone gets lost or stolen, or otherwise ends up in the wrong hands for any other reason while you’re traveling, you’ll be happy that you’ve made the effort to create a strong alphanumeric password to make it impossible for an unauthorized individual to break into your phone and access all the highly sensitive data contained on it. Password managers are great tools that help you securely store complicated passwords.
Get a privacy filter for your laptop and smartphone
One more privacy issue you may not think of when traveling is the risk of “visual hacking”. This is when you’re using your device in public and, unbeknownst to you, someone is looking over your shoulder at your screen and snooping on what you’re up to. If you’re sitting on the plane, on the train, at the airport, or at a cafe, you don’t really know if anyone around you may be slyly keeping tabs on what you’re doing on your device. Without the proper protection, someone could easily watch your screen and steal sensitive personal, financial, or company data, depending on what you’re up to.
The best way to prevent these visual hackers from spying over your shoulder and stealing your information is to use a privacy filter screen protector on your laptop and smartphone. A privacy filter will only allow you to see what’s on the screen when you’re looking straight at it. Anyone around you attempting to look at your screen will see nothing but a completely black screen, effectively protecting your privacy and securing your data from visual hackers. It’s a nice analog solution to help protect your digital privacy wherever you may be traveling.
When you’re traveling as an expat, whether for business or leisure, you’ll need to take care to protect your digital privacy. There’s too much at stake for you to be negligent about keeping your devices and your personal data secure, especially in a foreign, unfamiliar environment. I hope that you’ll take my advice to heart and that you find my expat travel security tips useful next time you head out for a trip. Be safe, keep your guard up, and travel the world with peace of mind.