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Stay connected when traveling: Are Public WiFi Networks Safe?

Should you avoid connecting to public WiFi networks when traveling?

· 6 min read

Public and free WiFi networks are often a saviour during your travels. Perhaps it is the fear that we might run out of data from our data pack, or maybe we just don't want to rake up our roaming charges, or it could really just be that we need to connect our laptops to WiFi so that we can get some work done. Whatever the case, connecting to public and free WiFi during traveling is very, very common. But with the rising concerns on data privacy and security, and with the prevalence of stolen personal information or even credit card frauds, perhaps there is also a concern on how safe it really is to connect to public WiFi networks when you are traveling.

Free WiFi

Prevalence of Public WiFi Networks

Public WiFi refers to wireless networks that are available in public spaces such as cafes, hotels, airports, and libraries. Governments all over the world have been working with network providers to build up the infrastructure to enable a more connected society, resulting in an increase in public spaces that provide free WiFi networks.

These networks allow users to connect to the internet wirelessly for free, allowing anyone to connect to them using their devices. When you connect to a public WiFi network, your device communicates with the access point, allowing you to access the internet. But since it is a public WiFi network, you can also expect that there are many other devices that are also connected to the same network and access point - which is where your concerns of security and privacy would stem from.

How Does Public WiFi Work?

When you connect to a public WiFi network, your device sends a request to the access point, asking to join the network. The access point then sends a response, granting or denying access based on certain criteria. Once your device is connected, it can send and receive data through the access point, allowing you to browse the internet, check emails, or stream videos.

Public WiFi networks use various technologies to transmit data wirelessly, such as Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n), Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), and the latest Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax). These technologies improve the speed, range, and reliability of the wireless connection, ensuring a smoother browsing experience for users.

However, it's important to note that public WiFi networks can be vulnerable to security threats. Since these networks are open and accessible to anyone, they can be targeted by hackers who may attempt to intercept sensitive information transmitted over the network. This is why it's crucial to take precautions when using public WiFi.

The Risks of Using Public WiFi

Using public, unsecured WiFi exposes you to potential threats such as hackers, malware, and phishing attacks. Hackers, equipped with sophisticated tools and techniques, can intercept your internet traffic and gain access to your personal information, including passwords, credit card details, and email conversations.

If there is a bad actor who is connected to the same public WiFi network as you, it isn't very difficult for them to intercept your data packets and capture sensitive information without your knowledge. They can also inject malicious software that can propagate through the network, infecting all devices that are connected to the same network.

Many providers of public WiFi attempt to minimise this risk by imposing password-controls or restricting access to the networks. However, it is often not very difficult to obtain these passwords or to gain access to the networks — after all, these public networks are there to offer better connectivity for the general public.

Be careful which network to connect to

Phishing attacks, too, are prevalent on public WiFi networks. Hackers can create fake WiFi hotspots that mimic legitimate networks, tricking users into connecting to them. Once connected, these attackers can launch phishing campaigns, attempting to steal your login credentials or other sensitive information.

Before you connect to a public network, double check to be sure that it is a legitimate network! It's also a good idea to disable automatic WiFi connections on your devices. This way, you can manually select and connect to trusted networks, reducing the risk of accidentally connecting to a malicious or insecure network.

Safety Measures When Using Public WiFi

While using public WiFi is inherently less safe than if you were to use your home or personal network, there are ways to mitigate the risks.

Practicing Safe Browsing Habits

While using a VPN and keeping your security software up to date are important steps in protecting yourself on public WiFi, it's also crucial to practice safe browsing habits.

First and foremost, ensure that the website you are browsing is encrypted. Today, most sites are encrypted to protect your browsing information. However, there are some which don't. To confirm if the website is encrypted, look out for the lock symbol in the address bar, or check that the website is a https site. You will also want to confirm that the certificate of the website is up-to-date. Modern browsers today will typically warn you if a website has potential to be a risky website — do not ignore these warnings.

You should also avoid accessing sensitive information or conducting financial transactions while connected to public WiFi networks. This includes activities such as online banking, shopping, and entering personal information on websites. Additionally, be cautious when clicking on links or downloading files while connected to public WiFi. Hackers can sometimes create fake websites or use malicious links to trick users into revealing sensitive information or downloading malware onto their devices.

Using VPNs for Secure Connection

One of the most effective ways to secure your connection when using public WiFi is by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN encrypts your internet traffic and routes it through a secure server, making it difficult for hackers to intercept or eavesdrop on your data. By using a VPN, you can ensure that your online activities remain private and secure, even when connected to public WiFi networks.

When selecting a VPN, it's important to choose a reputable provider that offers strong encryption protocols and has a strict no-logs policy. Additionally, consider using a VPN that offers features like automatic WiFi protection, which will automatically connect and encrypt your data whenever you connect to a public WiFi network.

Updating Security Software Before Travel

Another crucial step in ensuring your safety when using public WiFi is to keep your devices and security software up to date. Regularly updating your operating system, antivirus, and firewall can help protect against known vulnerabilities and keep your devices secure. Before embarking on your travels, make sure you've installed the latest updates to stay one step ahead of potential threats.

In addition to updating your security software, it's also a good idea to make sure your browser is updated to the latest version. Modern browsers regularly release patches to fix any vulnerabilities, and keeping them up to date will reduce the risks when browsing.

Personal Hotspot vs Public WiFi

Public WiFi comes with its risks, but you don't have to avoid it at all costs - as long as you are aware of the risks and put in place sufficient safety measures. However, there also exists other alternatives that can provide a safer and more secure browsing experience.

When it comes to staying connected on the go, personal hotspots have become increasingly popular. A personal hotspot is a feature available on many smartphones that allows you to create your own secure WiFi network. By tethering your device and using your mobile data plan, you can ensure a private and encrypted connection wherever you go.

One of the advantages of using a personal hotspot is the added layer of security it provides. Unlike public WiFi networks, which can be easily accessed by anyone nearby, personal hotspots require a password to connect. This means that you can control which users have access to your network, reducing the risk of unauthorized access and potential data breaches.

On the other hand, a personal hotspot will mean that you need to have sufficient data on your data plan. Setting up a personal hotspot using your phone is also likely to drain your device's battery.

Get a Travel eSIM

You can solve your data and connectivity woes with a travel eSIM! Many providers of travel eSIMs offer data plans at near-local rates, making it more affordable than if you were to turn on international roaming. And if the volume of data that you have in your data pack was a concern, you would be glad to know that many provider of travel eSIMs also offer options of unlimited data, so you don't ever have to worry about running out of data. And in the event where you do not get an unlimited plan, it is also easy to purchase add-ons to get more data when you need to.

With such convenience and affordable rates, you probably no longer need to connect to a public WiFi when you are traveling! And if you need to use your laptop, you can simply use your device as your personal hotspot. Or if your laptop is eSIM-compatible, it might also be worth considering getting an eSIM for your laptop so you can work on the go without ever needing to connect to a public WiFi.

💡Check out our previous blog posts to learn more about eSIMs and how they work!