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Data and Device Security for Travellers

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

Data and device security during travel is essential. Most modern travellers depend upon our devices to keep track of our lives. Our tickets, itineraries, and instructions are often digital and we need to be able to access that information while travelling. We research and book excursions online. We may need to do banking transactions. Every time we make an insecure connection (such as public WIFI), our data is at risk from bad actors. We have become used to being connected and rely on our various apps for communication, organization, navigation, and entertainment. On the other hand, especially for North Americans, adding international data roaming onto our phone plans can be expensive.

a graphic showing an stylized security schematic

Luckily it isn't difficult nor does it need to cost a lot to keep yourself safe. It is well worth it to avoid having your data and identity stolen or your accounts hacked. Here are some tips to give you some peace of mind.



Data and Device Travel Security Basics

Back-Up Everything

For many travellers, our devices are essential to our travel. In the awful event that we lose, break or have our devices stolen we would be truly in trouble. Back up all your documentation in your email, notes, Dropbox, Cloud, or files folder before leaving home. Some people may wish to use an external hard drive.

Set up your storage system to automatically save to your preferred external storage location. Download photos frequently. A piece of advice I was given years ago is "Anything stored online in one place is not stored". Unfortunately, I got this advice after I lost over 1,000 photos of an amazing European trip.

Install Anti-Virus Software

Make sure your devices are updated with all security updates. Most modern phones and tablets plus some laptops include pre-installed anti-virus software. Ensure it is activated in your phone's settings. If your device doesn't have it, install anti-virus software. AVG has been popular among users and even the free version gets excellent reviews. It is available at no cost for PC/Android users but there is a cost for the Mac version. Avast offers a free (and a paid) version for Mac users.

3 children's letter blocks with A on top of B and C

Enable Two-Step Authentication

Enable two-step authentication on all your devices and programs. Two-step authentication requires an extra step when logging in, combining a password with a code or biometric scan to provide single-use passwords. With this authentication process, no one can get into your systems. Be aware however that two-step authentication through text requires you to access your home number's SMS messages. Using an e-sim or hotspot and switching phone settings to WIFI calling and SMS, in combination with WhatsApp (heavily used outside of North America) has kept me connected using my regular phone number. Google Authenticator is an option to do the entire process online.

Use a PIN or Password

It takes less than a minute to set up a password on each of your devices. Use a strong password with capital letters, symbols, and numbers as long as possible. Enable biometric scanners if available on your device.

Enable Encryption

To prevent determined bad guys, encryption is another layer of protection should your device land in the wrong hands. With encryption, even if the bad guy somehow bypasses your PIN or removes the hard drive, your data will still be protected. This is very easy to do in the security settings of your device. Newer devices often enable encryption by default.

Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network)

Simply stated, a VPN is an app or program that creates an encrypted connection to the internet. There are many options available, most of which offer at least a month of free service. If travelling to China, look for one that specifically states it will work there. I have used ExpressVPN and have been pleased. An added benefit to a VPN is that you can set the server as if you were in your home country to access your streaming services such as Netflix.

graphic of floating laptop, phone, padlock, key, and wifi symbols

The newest phones may have a VPN pre-installed. My Pixel 7 phone includes Google One, user-friendly cloud storage, backup, and VPN app. iPhones include a VPN client that users use to connect to an outside VPN service. I expect that including VPNs will become more common with each new phone edition released.

If you don't have a VPN be aware of the pages you visit. Most webpages nowadays are secure but there are still some out there that aren't. Look for the little lock in front of the URL in the menu box or a URL that begins with https rather than http.

Options for Device and Data Security

In an ideal situation, you would not need to connect to public WIFI, or even better, all WIFI would be secure. However, as we all know, ideal situations are rare. If a network is open, it is insecure: anyone can connect. Places that post their passwords publicly may have hundreds or thousands of people who have access to the network. Never, ever access personal or financial data on public WIFI without a VPN.

So what are the options to keep our data and devices safe?

A graphic of a robber peering over the top of a WIFI symbol with the words "Free public Wi-Fi"

Upgrade Your Cell Plan

Check with your provider to add international calling and data to your phone plan. Ask about the security of the connection outside of your home country. This is often the most expensive but most convenient solution. You can connect to the internet through your phone plan and can create a secure hotspot for your tablet or laptop. Your home phone number will remain the same and you will be able to send and receive texts and calls using that number. Be aware that businesses in your destination country may not want to return calls to an international number.

Get a Personal Hot Spot Device

Adding international data to my phone plan is more money than I want to spend. In years past, when costs were even more prohibitive, I purchased a portable hotspot device. These devices offer a secure connection for multiple devices. Different companies offer different packages: some are based on data used and some offer daily/weekly/monthly rates.

A small orange electronic device roughly the size of a hockey puck with a camera lens sitting on the edge of a wooden table

I use the Solis Skyroam. It also includes a camera for stills, video, or streaming, a port for charging other devices, and a flashlight. Their passes go on sale regularly and I stock up when they have their 40% off sales. I have found it works everywhere that there is a cell phone connection. I can connect up to 10 devices... not that I've ever done that but it is nice to share a secure connection with a travel partner. This has been my preferred connection when travelling for years. It's small, discrete, powerful, easy to use, and less expensive than my provider.

Buy a Burner Phone or SIM card

Consider a SIM card or burner phone purchased at your destination. It is possible to get full-service or data-only plans. Apps such as WhatsApp, Facetime, iMessage, Skype etc can be used to make VOIP calls. There are often kiosks in airports to purchase phones and SIM cards that can help you get everything set up. If you are planning on using your regular phone, ensure it is unlocked and that you know the unlock code. For destinations outside of North America, likely, you will only need data since most calls and messages flow through WhatsApp. Downloaded e-SIM cards are compatible with newer phones. These can be downloaded at home before you travel and activated upon landing. If you are carrying multiple devices you will want to make sure that the e-SIM you choose allows hotspotting. Airalo e-SIMs have been my choice on recent travels. (Note please: None of my recommendations are sponsored) I combine my hotspot and an e-sim to stay securely connected while travelling. The unlimited data passes offered by my hotspot are perfect on the days I am processing photos, blogging or streaming movies. An e-SIM with less data is used for my regular daily needs.

Travel Tips for Device and Data Security

Avoid Shared Computers

The dusty computers tucked into the corner of the lobby of your hotel or hostel have been used by many people over the years. They are typically slow because so many travellers and staff have installed all sorts of software, possibly even key-logging software that captures everything you type, including user names and passwords. Security and updates are rarely maintained. If you must use a public computer, try to find a local library.

A row of broken early-2000s era computers

Don't use these computers for anything other than random browsing. Always use private/incognito browsing mode so your details will not be saved. For extra protection, don't forget to log out of all the sites you logged into, then reboot the computer. Don't log into your financial institutions, email, or social media. Don't do anything involving money or where you need to enter your credit card information.

Consider Trackers

Sadly, our devices may go missing, get stolen, or misplaced. Using a tracker won't prevent that but it may assist in locating the missing item. Add all your devices to the "Find My" (Apple) or "Device Manager" (Android). For camera bags or totes, consider using a GPS tracker such as AirTags or Tile. Set up the trackers for testing before leaving home.

These programs allow you to remotely delete all data if you decide that your device is gone forever.

A hand holding a round Apple AirTag between the thumb and index finger.

Final Thoughts

Planning to keep our data secure isn't the most exciting part of travel but it is crucial. VPNs, anti-virus software, automatic backups, location, and encryption need little to zero effort, beyond updates, once installed. Avoiding dodgy WIFI connections can take just a couple of extra clicks to get on secure pages. It doesn't cost much time or money to take steps to prevent the loss of important data but it does take an awful lot of headache and effort to recover from the attention of a bad guy.

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