How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi

A smart phone connecting to WiFi in an airport

Even if you’re not quite a digital nomad, when you’re an expat, you’ll still probably be doing a considerable amount of traveling. Whether that’s to go back home for a visit, to meet with colleagues or clients internationally, or just to explore new places. That means that you’ll probably be using public Wi-Fi regularly as you won’t always have access to a secure private Wi-Fi network. Besides typically being excruciatingly slow and often a pain to use, public Wi-Fi hotspots can be dangerously unsecure and easy targets for hackers, putting your online privacy and data security at risk if you’re not careful.

Hackers and cybercriminals often target public Wi-Fi hotspots in order to snoop on unsuspecting internet users connected to the hotspots and intercept sensitive information like passwords, credit card numbers, bank account information, contact information, health data, private correspondence, and whatever else a user may share with the websites they interact with or the people they communicate with while connected to public Wi-Fi.

What’s perhaps even more frightening is that cybercriminals are liable to set up what are known as ‘evil twin’ hotspots that impersonate legitimate public Wi-Fi hotspots but are designed specifically to spy on anyone who connects to them and steal their data or redirect users to malicious websites that can inject malware or harvest personal information. Cybercriminals often deploy evil twin hotspots in places like airports, cafes, and hotels – places where lots of people are connecting to a public network. Yeah, it makes sense, even for criminals, to cast a wide net and maximize their opportunities for success.

This means you need to be vigilant and know what to look out for and how to protect yourself.

Take care when connecting to public WiFi networks

A while back, when I was at the airport in Brussels waiting on a connecting flight to Atlanta when I needed to get online to take care of something for work before my long-haul flight to the States. I remember firing up my laptop and seeing a list of four or five different Wi-Fi networks that I could have hopped on to get online. Now, I don’t quite remember exactly what they were named, but each one looked like it could be official. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that these Wi-Fi networks were named “BrusselsAirportWifi”, “BRUWifi”, “BrusselsFreeWifi”, “AirportWiFiGuest”, and “AirportWifi2”. How would you know which one to use? How would you know which one, if any, is an evil twin hotspot? The truth is, you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at the names, but there are a few things you can do and a few red flags to look out for.

First, you can do what I did and simply go to an information counter and ask the representative which network is the official one. That’s probably the surest way of figuring out which one you should connect to. But if asking an employee is not an option for whatever reason, there are a few things to keep in mind that may tip you off to the presence of a malicious network. Be wary of public Wi-Fi networks that don’t require a password to join and look out for Wi-Fi names that are spelled or styled slightly differently (like using a numeral ‘0’ in place of the letter ‘O’). Even if a public Wi-Fi network supposedly requires a password and prompts you to enter one, it is suspect if it lets you connect, even if you enter a completely random string of characters. If that happens, you’ll definitely want to disconnect from the network immediately.

Even if you’re connecting to a legitimate public Wi-Fi hotspot, you’ll need to take the necessary precautions to protect your privacy and security. It’s always a good idea to disable any kind of “Wi-Fi auto-connect” feature on any of your devices, as doing so will prevent you from inadvertently connecting to an evil twin hotspot and prevent you from automatically connecting to any other public Wi-Fi network without your knowledge. You’ll also want to make sure you have your firewall enabled on any device you’re using to connect to public Wi-Fi so that you can properly regulate incoming and outgoing connections and stay safe from potential attackers. Additionally, you should make sure to only visit sites that use HTTPS. You can check if the site is using HTTPS by looking at the address bar; if you see a lock icon in the address bar or see that the web address begins with ‘https://’ then your connection to the site is secure [but please bear in mind that this doesn’t mean the site itself is safe. Check out ProPrivacy’s article on spotting fake websites for more information.

And, of course, one of the best ways you can protect yourself on public Wi-Fi is to use a VPN.

Using a VPN to stay secure on public WiFi networks

A virtual private network (VPN) will encrypt your internet connection by routing your traffic through an encrypted tunnel to a secure server in a remote location. The VPN’s encryption will effectively hide everything you do online from anyone trying to snoop on what you’re up to – from hackers looking to steal your sensitive personal data, as well as from network administrators monitoring your traffic to potentially sell your data on to others.

When considering a VPN for public Wi-Fi, you’ll want to make sure the VPN you go with is up to the task of keeping you fully safe and secure while connecting to networks in airports, hotels, cafes, trains, public parks, or wherever else you’re likely to be using public Wi-Fi. If you ask me, I’d say the best of the best is ExpressVPN. ExpressVPN is the service I rely on whenever I connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot because it offers everything I need to keep me safe and secure online and my activity hidden from hackers and network administrators. When you use ExpressVPN, you’ll benefit from military-grade encryption standards to secure your connection as well as vital security features like DNS leak protection and a kill-switch to ensure none of your data is leaked.

The one thing with ExpressVPN, though, is that it’s not exactly the cheapest provider in the game, so if you’re on a budget and need something a little less expensive, then I’d suggest checking out Surfshark or Ivacy. I’ve used both of those providers as well and I can tell you that they’re both incredibly easy to use and more than capable of getting the job done protecting you on public Wi-Fi – and you won’t have to pay an arm and a leg to sign up. There are also some decent free services out there. Check out my free VPN for expats blog for more details about these services.

Staying secure on public WiFi networks as an expat

As an expat, you’ll probably have to rely on public Wi-Fi more than your average internet user would. You’ll find that public Wi-Fi can be incredibly convenient and a real lifesaver in many different situations when you’re an expat living abroad. But when you’re using public Wi-Fi, you’ll need to be careful and take the necessary precautions not only to keep your personal data secure but also company data if you’re doing anything work-related. By connecting to a VPN on public Wi-Fi, you can feel safe logging into your social media accounts, taking care of your online banking, sending emails, conducting business, or doing anything else involving sensitive data. Your VPN will give you peace of mind knowing that you’ll be able to keep hackers and cybercriminals at arm’s length and your online activity and sensitive information out of the wrong hands. I never use public Wi-Fi without a VPN and you shouldn’t either – it’s the best way to protect your privacy and maintain your digital security, and it’s absolutely imperative in mitigating the risks associated with using public Wi-Fi.

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