[V]irtual Private Networks, or VPNs, sound like something exclusive to the realm of technogeeks, hackers, and Chinese dissidents, but they are an interesting and useful service to those backpacking and traveling overseas.
A VPN is a group of computers networked together over the Internet that will allow you access to private data.
Think: employees accessing their company's network and files while away from the office, universities and their students, etc, all while providing a secure and encrypted connection between the two.
You can use a VPN to securely protect your data and privacy while using public WiFi networks across the world, to block those cookies we all know the airline websites use to jack up the price for visitors who return at a later date, and other cool things like connecting to proxy servers in other countries.
The security and privacy aspects of a VPN are things that we all know are important, yet most of us neglect until something bad happens.
Instances of a breach in privacy data are rare and thus don't prompt us into action until it is too late, but there are some compelling and practical reasons for using a VPN service on a more day-to-day basis.
After a period of nomadic travel and backpacking across Colombia, I decided to settle down into an apartment in Medellin.
It was around that period with my increased downtime and a steady connection to the Internet that I was reminded about all the awesome things I missed about the world wide web and couldn't access properly while overseas.
Turns out there are quite a few websites and services that are restricted to international visitors.
I recently downloaded the TunnelBear VPN service which is a handy little program that allows you to cloak your IP address as if you were in another country.
TunnelBear is super easy to use and is totally accessible to non-techies–my mom could even use it. All you do is click the On/Off button in the program and select the country of your choice.
A funny little bear digs his way out of the country you're in and pops up in the country where you want to appear to be.
Three Practical Reasons Why I Use a VPN
You can access Netflix in many countries across the globe, but the content selection is totally different and can be quite limited.
On one hand, it is really cool to be able to access more Spanish language movies and television series (as well as US shows dubbed into Spanish), but sometimes I grow tired of the limited selection here in Colombia.
With the click of a button I can be back in the United States and have full access to their instant library as well as some features that they restrict like adding movies to your watch list.
Having access to good instant streaming music was something I really missed down here during my downtime. My MP3 selection always gets a little tired with time, and streaming things from YouTube or other services is often less than ideal.
Pandora was always my favorite service back home, but it is simply not available outside of the US, Australia, and New Zealand due to their licensing restrictions.
But thankfully, again with the click of a button, I can be back in the US with all my channels and my full music selection so I can pop in the headphones and enjoy like normal.
3. The Onion
Here's one I didn't expect to run into upon traveling… The Onion, if you're not familiar, is an amazing satirical newspaper. I used to read the Onion with some regularity while working in Washington DC politics, and I really missed reading their witty take on the news of the day.
I don't know about your friends, but I was constantly seeing hilarious headlines from the Onion in my Facebook feed, so I'd click through to read and then check out a few more articles.
Inevitably I would hit the dreaded restriction for international readers which only allows five articles in 30 days. But again, using a VPN like TunnelBear to cloak your identity will allow you unfettered access to “America's Finest News Source”, even while browsing from your smartphone.
There are all sorts of compelling reasons related to privacy and security to use a VPN, but yeah, those are my actual practical reasons for using a VPN–being able to access my favorite sources of diversionary entertainment.
There are tons of VPN programs and services out there and it can be hard to know what to look for. If you're looking for simplicity, you can't go wrong with TunnelBear.
It's just a flick of the switch to turn it on or off. There are no complicated settings or other hurdles while setting it up or in order to keep it connect and working properly.
As you would expect, the program is available for Windows and Mac, of course, but what is also extremely cool is that you can get it for your Android, iPhone, or tablet as well.
This allows you to use your phone apps as if you were in the United States as well (again, practical for Pandora music, Netflix, and accessing certain websites).
Free users get 500mb of data per month, while the upgraded and unlimited account runs only $4.99 per month, or $49.99 per year–a very modest expense for the benefits it provides as well as the ease of use.
Check out TunnelBear today for your VPN needs.
What about you? Do you use a VPN service on a regular basis? Other favorite websites, programs, or services that you have found to be restricted while traveling?
This post was brought to you in partnership with TunnelBear.