You can maintain your safety on free public Wi-Fi networks by
- improving your device’s internet security
- not sending any important data across the connection
- using a VPN
- only accessing HTTPS websites
Following these steps will reduce the risks, but public networks are unsafe overall, so consider using your cellular network instead when traveling.
Traveling often means you have to log into unknown networks, such as coffee shops, airports, internet cafés, and hotels. While using free Wi-Fi is certainly convenient, it could lead to data compromises for all connected devices because almost anyone can access the same network as you and view your online activities.
So, it’s crucial to maximize your safety and use common sense if you’re going to connect to free Wi-Fi on public networks at any time while on the road.
5 Tips to Use Public Wi-Fi Safely
1. Improve Your Device’s Security
Before you leave on your journey, take some time to improve the internet security of your device.
Start by turning off automatic connections so your device will not automatically connect to a public Wi-Fi network without your authorization. So, turn off things like Bluetooth, and check that you are satisfied with your firewall and antivirus setup.
Next, update your security software, so you are operating on the newest, most secure versions. In general, software updates on most devices patch identified vulnerabilities, so running on the old versions leaves you at risk of cyber-attacks when using public Wi-Fi.
Finally, turn off all file sharing, printer sharing, and AirDrop options before traveling and increase any security setting you can access. You should follow this step because hackers can use file share to send you malware.
You can turn off file sharing on a PC by going to the Network and Sharing Center. On Macs, visit System Preferences to inhibit the file sharing option.
Meanwhile, for both iPhone and Android users, you can find the same options under Settings.
2. Don’t Send Important Data
The data you send to the public Wi-Fi network, even hotel Wi-Fi, is often visible to others, making it dangerous to connect to public Wi-Fi networks. You should therefore avoid sending any sensitive data if you can so you don’t become the victim of identity theft or other crimes.
Thus, you should not log into banking websites or even email accounts unless you’re using mobile data. Also, ensure none of your accounts use the same passwords because if a shared password gets compromised, thieves can access several of your accounts.
It may also be worth increasing the security of email and bank account passwords, even if you don’t intend to use these while traveling.
Even things like social media can lead to issues, although the real problem is sending financial transactions or information. So, whenever possible, browse without logging in on social sites and don’t send any information about yourself to websites or mobile apps.
But, if you do have to log in to an account, make sure you log out again when you have finished. Don’t stay signed in while traveling, and definitely don’t tick the “remember me” box on any public computer.
3. Use a VPN or Wi-Fi Hotspot
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is an excellent tool for keeping yourself safe online and is the biggest step you can take toward protecting your online privacy when using public Wi-Fi. A secure VPN encrypts data traveling between your laptop and the VPN server, preventing anyone else from viewing what you are doing online.
There are many VPN options, and using one can be a great way to improve your privacy, even on your own home network. But, you should definitely consider having a VPN when you use public W-Fi networks.
VPNs do cost money to use, but they are worth investing in if you travel a lot because they are the best security option you can utilize. So, unfortunately, you may have to forgo the free internet access at the local coffee shop in order to make sure you’re on a secure network.
Also, remember that some free VPN services are available, but not all VPNs are created equal, and free options are not trustworthy. Many are simply a means of gathering data, which is the opposite of extra security because they invade your privacy.
Similarly, you can also use a hotspot. Just make sure you only use Wi-Fi hotspots that come from your own device and that you have a password on them.
The reason you should only use your own is that hackers can set up a fake Wi-Fi hotspot to steal sensitive information. Thus, ensure you only use Wi-Fi hotspots that you know.
4. Only Access HTTPS Websites
HTTPS websites are usually a secure option.
So, don’t browse HTTP websites when you are on public networks, including the one in your hotel room, because these are not safe, and anyone can see all the data you send. The information on HTTP websites is not encrypted, so it is crucial not to log in to these sites.
By contrast, HTTPS sites encrypt the data traveling between your computer or mobile device and the server.
However, do not assume that a site is safe just because it contains the “S” at the end. In the past, all HTTPS websites were secure, but many unsafe websites now use the “S” because they know this reassures people.
So, HTTPS sites may have encryption, but this doesn’t mean the site is legitimate. Therefore, be wary even if you see the “HTTPS.”
Finally, some browsers will inform you if the site you are using does not have a secure connection. If you can’t see the full URL, look for the padlock symbol and the word “secure” at the start of the address bar, which most browsers use to keep you safe.
5. Make Sure Your Passwords Are Strong
If you have to use a password to access something while traveling, make sure it’s a strong password with a combination of letters and numbers. Strong passwords decrease the risk of hacking, and if it is unique to that site, it will minimize the damage if your credit card information, for example, gets compromised.
You may also wish to change your passwords before and after you travel, especially for sites you know you are likely to access in insecure locations. Changing passwords ensures that there is only a limited window in which a hacker can use any information they manage to gather, which reduces risk.
Using public Wi-Fi when traveling always carries some risk because you don’t know who else is connecting to the public network and what they might be doing. So, being aware and taking precautions like using a VPN and avoiding public Wi-Fi hotspots, and not sending essential data can help to ensure your information stays safe when traveling.