But there’s a catch: when you connect to public Wi-Fi, you run the risk of hackers and other malicious actors exploiting the shared network to steal your information.
The good news is that it’s possible to enjoy the convenience of public Wi-Fi and stay secure, simply by using a VPN. Here are the top 10 reasons to use a VPN when connecting to public Wi-Fi.
1. Encrypt your traffic from third parties
When you use a VPN provider to connect to a public Wi-Fi network (or a private Wi-Fi network, for that matter), your connection is fully encrypted. The VPN provider encrypts your traffic between its VPN servers and your device, preventing hackers and other snooping third parties from using ‘packet sniffers’ to read the data you transmit.
Top VPN providers like ExpressVPN offer a variety of encryption protocols that you can switch between to optimize for speed and security. For example, PPTP offers the best speeds but the poorest security. L2TP/Ipsec is more secure but can struggle to get past some firewalls. OpenVPN is the fastest and most secure overall but requires some manual configuration before use. If you’re in doubt, you can let your VPN Wi-Fi provider automatically choose the best protocol for each situation.
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2. Protect against fake Wi-Fi networks
A common tactic of cyber-criminals is to set up a rogue network masquerading as a legitimate network. These rogue networks are set up in ways that are difficult to detect, e.g. by giving it a seemingly legitimate name such as ‘Starbucks Wi-Fi’ or ‘Central Station Public Wi-Fi’. When an unsuspecting user connects to the fake network, the cybercriminal can then see the user’s traffic or even insert malware onto their device.
A VPN can’t prevent you from logging on to a rogue network, but it can eliminate the risks of being on such a network. By directing all your traffic through an encrypted tunnel, your VPN provider prevents hackers from seeing or altering your data. The end result: you get to use the hacker’s network for free without the harmful consequences (and probably without ever knowing you were using a rogue network in the first place).
3. Protect against ‘the man in the middle’
In addition to sniffer programs and rogue networks, another common tactic of cyber-criminals is what’s known as a man-in-the-middle attack, or MITM. This is a term for when an attacker positions themself between your device and Wi-Fi connection, enabling them to monitor your activity, fool you into entering sensitive information, or even plant viruses or other malware on your computer.
These types of attacks usually take place on unsecure networks, and no network is as insecure as a public Wi-Fi connection. The encryption provided by your VPN provider adds a much more serious layer of protection – one that is virtually impossible for cybercriminals to penetrate.
4. ‘Kill’ your connection when exposed
A VPN establishes a secure and private connection between you and the internet. Like any internet connection, a VPN can disconnect without warning at any time. If your VPN disconnects while you’re on public Wi-Fi, then you could potentially be exposed to suspicious third-parties – right?
Enter the ‘kill switch’, an ingenious invention now offered by all the top VPN providers. If you lose your VPN connection, a kill switch automatically disconnects your device from your internet connection. This keeps you protected from malicious actors until your VPN connection is restored.
5. Anonymize your browsing activity
Your IP address is assigned to your device by your internet service provider (ISP), which in the case of a public Wi-Fi network is the public Wi-Fi provider. But when you use a VPN to access a public Wi-Fi network, your traffic reaches its destination under a virtual IP address assigned by the VPN provider. Now the only party that can see your real IP address is the VPN provider.
6. Reduce the threat from malware
VPNs do not offer direct protection against malware. However, by encrypting your traffic, they do reduce the probability of hackers planting malicious links or files on your device.
If you do somehow click on a malicious link or download a virus while using the internet, then what you need is antivirus software, not a VPN. Thankfully, many of the top VPN providers bundle together their VPN service with antivirus protection. For example, NordVPN offers malware and spyware detection as part of its VPN plans.
7. Get protection for every device
In these days of remote work and interconnected devices, you want to know that all your devices can be protected on public Wi-Fi. Thankfully, the top VPN Wi-Fi providers offer apps for all types of devices, including Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, Chromebook, Kindle Fire, and various smart TVs and game consoles.
For obvious reasons, people use laptops on public Wi-Fi more than any other device. However, if you’re planning to use your Android smartphone or tablet on public Wi-Fi, then we recommend checking out this guide to the best VPNs for Android.
8. Share your VPN
If you’re heading down to meet a friend or colleague at a coffee shop or other public place, then chances are you’ll both end up on the same public Wi-Fi network. Naturally, you want to ensure your friend/colleague has the same amount of protection against you.
Most VPN providers allow you to connect multiple devices simultaneously. If your friend/colleague doesn’t have a VPN, then you can offer to hook them up so that they get the same level of protection you have. If the experience helps your friend/colleague to see the benefits of using a VPN, you can encourage them to sign up for your VPN provider with a free trial. Some VPN providers even offer refer-a-friend bonuses.
9. Potentially increase your speed
There’s a belief among some people that VPNs decrease your speed, but this isn’t necessarily true. Really, it depends on your VPN provider and on the VPN server you choose (the top providers have literally thousands of servers to choose from).
In many cases, a VPN may increase your speed, especially when you’re on a slow public Wi-Fi network. Free public Wi-Fi providers don’t always send your traffic on the most efficient path, and this can slow the internet down significantly. A VPN hides where your traffic is coming from and where it’s going, which might fool the Wi-Fi provider into sending it on a different path. If this happens, the VPN could actually increase your internet speed.
One of the major benefits of public Wi-Fi networks is their convenience. VPNs are also extremely convenient. After you register for a VPN service, download their app to all your devices and choose your preferred server. Then, you’ll be able to connect and disconnect to the server with one click at any time.
VPNs serve a number of important purposes, not least that they protect you from harm when using public Wi-Fi. As with any consumer product, it’s always a good idea to compare VPN providers before committing to one. To see a list of the best VPN Wi-Fi services, click here. Many of these providers offer free trial periods, allowing you to check out for yourself whether they offer the right level of protection on public networks.