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Take home along: How a VPN can help travelers connect wherever they go

It can be difficult to access your home Internet services and resources when you travel out of the country. Here are six ways a virtual private network can help.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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A VPN (virtual private network) service can help protect your security while you're away from home or your office. By encapsulating and encrypting data packets between your computer and the VPN provider's servers, you're able to protect your communication from hackers and criminals.

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We've often talked about how a VPN can protect Wi-Fi communications at local coffee shops, hotels, and in airports, but there's a lot more a VPN can do for you. In this article, we'll show how you can use a VPN while traveling out of country to access services and resources as if you were at home.

This sort of remote access is often quite a problem. All the services you normally use from IP addresses associated with your home region will see that access is being attempted from another country. Best cybersecurity practices on the part of those services would typically flag that access as a potential hacker or criminal.

But, if you're the one doing the traveling, and all you want to do is what you usually do from home, a VPN can really help things out. Let's look at six such situations.

1. Stop your debit or credit card from being blocked

Let's say you live in Paris, Texas, and all of a sudden your credit card appears to be being used from Paris, France. You're likely to get declined. Yes, you can let your card provider know you're traveling, but that might not trickle down to all the vendors you use.

Instead, while you're in Paris, you could simply log into your VPN provider, set your VPN host server to Texas, and go on with your day.

2. Shopping and shipping to home

If you're out of the country, and you need to order something for home, you're often out of luck. Most shopping services will route you to the local version of their online store.

Read also: A VPN will not save you from government surveillance | Google parent's free DIY VPN: Alphabet's Outline keeps out web snoops

If you're trying to order something you want delivered to your house, just fire up your VPN, once again set your VPN host server to your home region, and order as if you were sitting on your couch.

3. Watch your own streaming services

Speaking of sitting on your couch, how about watching some flicks? It's really frustrating to be in a foreign country, have a paid-for account on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, Prime Video, and so forth, and not be able to watch your video. This is especially true when you factor in the exorbitant price of hotel movies (and the usually terrible quality).

Solve the problem: Fire up your VPN service, connect to a host server back home, and go ahead and Netflix and chill.

Be careful here, though. Some content is illegal in certain countries for religious regions. Even if your communications are protected, if someone sees you watching banned content, you could be whisked straight to a foreign jail (or worse). For all these tips, be sure you know the legal restrictions and occasionally brutal penalties of your host country and be smart.

4. Use home VOIP services from another country

Have you ever looked at your hotel bill and gasped at the per-minute pricing for phone calls back home? It can be shocking. What's worse, some countries make it difficult to use VOIP services like Skype to call home, or you have to pay rather stiff international calling fees to make a VOIP call.

Read also: VPNs can still be used in China despite March 31 ban | Online security 101: Tips for protecting your privacy

If you have a telephone calling plan back home on Skype or some other service, you can use your VPN to help out. Simply tunnel back to a server in your home region, fire up Skype, and call away. Let your fingers do the walking and flap your jaws to do the (much less expensive) talking.

5. Open access to social media in restrictive countries

Facebook is censored or restricted in certain countries. So, is Twitter. Here, my earlier caution needs to be doubly heeded: If you're trying to bypass censorship in a restricted country, the long arm of the law could respond with fierce brutality. I never advise doing this, and only mention it for those people who, for the sake of something deeply important, feel the need to gain access.

Here it is, then: If these social networks are restricted in the country you're in, and you need to connect with family back home, you can use a VPN to access your home region, and then connect to your favorite social network. Just watch your back. Be safe.

6. Hide your trail back home from nation-state spies in-country

Some companies provide VPN access to their employees while traveling. Employees are given software or configurations that allow them to create encrypted tunnels between their laptops and home servers. These enterprise VPN clients do a great job of hiding the content, but they fail in one critical way: They often let a spying nation state know the IP address of those VPN end-points.

Read also: The 10 best ways to secure your Android phone | Want more privacy online? ProtonMail brings its free VPN to Android

By using a VPN service provider, you can obfuscate the path back to work, as well as the data you're transmitting. This is a very good idea to make it just a little harder for nation-state spies and the organized crime hackers that often work with them to find your company's servers.

Again, the same caution applies: Be careful. Check with your home office to determine if you should even be trying to connect back home in a restrictive country.

Good luck, be safe, be smart

VPNs can be very powerful tools, but you need to be careful. Sophisticated tracking tools can detect some VPN usage and some nations take the use of VPNs very seriously -- and in not good ways. Be smart. Be safe.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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