How to use a VPN to stay safe on public Wi-Fi

How to use a VPN to stay safe on public Wi-Fi
(Image credit: Paul Hanaoka)

Protecting yourself when connected to public Wi-Fi is one of the most widespread reasons to use the best VPN – and one of the simplest VPN uses that could make a big difference to your life.

Public Wi-Fi is a hugely useful service that’s available everywhere from coffee shops and bars to trains and planes – and many of these networks are entirely unsecured. That means that any enterprising hacker is able to intercept your data, see what you’re viewing and – if worst comes to worst – steal your private data.

If you’re ever likely to spend any time connected to these hotspots, doing a bit of research on how VPNs can help and which one to go for could be invaluable. To help get you started, here’s our guide to staying safe on public Wi-Fi.

What are the risks of public Wi-Fi?

The biggest risk of connecting to public Wi-Fi is the possibilty of man-in-the-middle attacks. There’s a chance that the sites you’re accessing aren’t legitimate, and also that the network you’re connected to is either run by or has been compromised by an attacker for the purpose of skimming unwitting members of the publics’ details.

That means that if you briefly check your online banking, anyone lying in wait could extract that data and use it against you. Also, if your social media becomes compromised alongside that, there’s a huge amount of damage that could be done – just think about all the sites people sign into through Facebook these days.

How can a VPN keep me safe on public Wi-Fi?

A VPN works routing your traffic through its own servers which use powerful encryption to both anonymize you, the user, and also make it impossible for anyone who does manage to intercept your traffic to read it.

That means that if you were to connect to a compromised network and enter any login details, the hacker in the middle wouldn’t be able to read what they had intercepted – and the industry-standard AES-128 or 256 encryption is as good as uncrackable. (For reassurance, it’d take longer than the universe has already existed for any modern computer to decode your data.)

Our top-rated VPN is ExpressVPN. That's thanks to its military-grade encryption, great connection speeds, 24/7 support and apps for pretty much any device. If you're sold and want to check it out in more detail, Tom's Guide readers are entitled to claim three months free on a 12-month contract, plus you'll have 30 days to request a no-hassle refund if it isn't for you.

A hacker at a desk

(Image credit: Jefferson Santos)

What makes a good VPN for staying safe on public Wi-Fi?

If you’re considering getting a VPN for when you use public Wi-Fi, it’s worth thinking about what you do online, and for how long. While a free VPN might seem very tempting, many are hamstrung by data limits or throttled speeds.

If you’re only going to be using it for ten minutes on the bus every once in a while that might work for you, but if you regularly camp out at your local coffee shop for a few hours each day to work, you’re going to need something a bit more fully-featured.

It’s also useful to have a VPN that’s able to access streaming sites, because even though you might not be going abroad or want to watch geo-restricted content, it's possible you'll want to watch something while having a break.

While many people might resent paying for a VPN, especially if they’re not going to use it as a torrenting VPN or streaming VPN, prevention is absolutely better than a cure in this case. Even if you only pay around $2 a month for a cheap service like Surfshark, you can browse and work in the knowledge that your data is anonymized and protected, safe from the prying eyes of who knows who.

  • More: A fast VPN can help you get more out of the web

Save 49% and bag three free months of our top-rated VPN

Save 49% and bag three free months of our top-rated VPN
The best provider for staying safe on public Wi-Fi (and pretty much anything else, for that matter) is ExpressVPN. Packed full of in-depth features to help you customize your experience, it's still easy to use and simple enough to get protected in just one click of tap.

You'll get great speeds so you won't even notice it's running, and if you encounter any problems the 24/7 live-chat support is the best in the business.

Tom's Guide readers can also claim three months free on a 12-month plan, which works out at 15 months for the price of 12. And, if you're not happy with the service, you're covered by a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Mo Harber-Lamond
VPN Editor

Mo is VPN Editor at Tom's Guide. Day-to-day he oversees VPN, privacy, and cybersecurity content, and also undertakes independent testing of VPN services to ensure his recommendations are accurate and up to date. When he's not getting stuck into the nitty-gritty settings of a VPN you've never heard of, you'll find him working on his Peugeot 205 GTi or watching Peep Show instead of finally putting up those shelves.