VPNs – What Are They? and Why You Should Have One (Plus a Tip for Pretending to be American)

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If you’ve ever connected to a corporate network from your home or hotel, you might be familiar with VPN technology without even noticing. If you’ve ever visited China and wondered how you were still able to access your Facebook and Google accounts, it is because the hotel has installed a VPN behind the scenes. You might also have read some comment or article suggesting that you just “use a VPN”, whether to watch your favourite BBC shows on IPlayer from outside the UK, or to sign up for some service aimed at residents of another country. But what exactly is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. I am no IT geek able to explain the mechanics, but essentially it is an encrypted tunnel between your laptop, phone or tablet and a server operated by the VPN provider. Some VPN providers offer a free service, or an introductory trial period, but in general you need to pay to have a flexible choice of servers. You should search online and read reviews for yourself as I don’t consider myself qualified to guide you in any specific direction.

With a VPN, you will install a piece of software on your computer, phone, etc. You can usually choose whether to connect automatically to a nearby server, or to manually select a server in a specific country. It is hard to generalise because each VPN provider has a different user interface but, after a few seconds, you should receive confirmation that your “IP address” is now somewhere different from your actual location.

VPNs are very useful for the following reasons:

  • If you tend to use open wi-fi hotspots in airports, hotels, Starbucks etc., anybody with sufficient technical skills can intercept your internet traffic, including passwords, credit card details, etc. A VPN encrypts that traffic and helps protect it from prying eyes. I have had credit card details hacked by booking an Avios reward ticket over a hotel’s wi-fi, so even if you think it’s safe it might not be…
  • If you are travelling overseas and the country you are visiting has restrictive policies on internet usage. This doesn’t need to be sinister. I’ve been in countries where foreign newspapers are banned or I’ve been unable to access my own blog, simply because it was easier to ban all WordPress blogs (potentially subversive) than review their content. A VPN sets up a tunnel between your computer and a server in a “free” country, allowing you to surf or work freely.
  • Spoofing your location. When travel hacking, you might want to sign up for something that is aimed at the residents of another country, such as Joe looking for love (or Avios) in the United States or signing up for a cheaper version of the Economist. I also need to spoof a location in the UK to access my Tesco Clubcard account from overseas.

So, if you travel overseas or like to dabble in some advanced travel hacking, you need to get a VPN service.

What About Paying For Things?

When certain promotions are restricted to residents of a certain country, you might find that your UK credit cards are not accepted. Not only might you be unable to enter the correct billing address (causing your own bank to decline the transaction), the seller might also recognise (from the first four to six digits of your card number) that your card has been issued by a UK-based bank. Your first recourse is probably going to be Paypal, but it is relatively easy for the seller to block a foreign Paypal account as easily as a foreign credit card.

So here’s a simple tip for you. The next time you are visiting the United States, drop into a supermarket, office supplies store, shopping centre, etc. and look for the gift card rack. You know what it looks like, since we all had fun emptying the Tesco shelves of 3V cards a few years back.

Look for a prepaid Visa, Mastercard or American Express. Buy a low denomination one and test the sign-up / identification requirements. Assuming you are able to register using the address of a friend, family member or hotel, you now have a prepaid debit card issued by an American bank and can buy higher denominations. Accordingly, the next time you need to pretend to be American, you will have no problems paying with your U.S. card number…


    • Craig Sowerby says

      True, but so is using Skype, drinking alcohol, wearing a bikini and any number of different activities that are perfectly acceptable in practice (most of the time). The question is what is the authorities tolerate, especially by foreign visitors.

        • Craig Sowerby says

          In the UAE it’s about protecting the local telecom company and potentially so that they can listen in on phone conversations. There are so many things that are “illegal” and not just those that the Daily Mail screams about every once in awhile.

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