Why you need to use a VPN on public Wi-Fi

Why you need to use a VPN on public Wi-Fi
(Image credit: Marcus Spike)

VPNs, or virtual private networks, are a key tool in your internet armory when it comes to boosting privacy and anonymity online. This is particularly important when using public Wi-Fi services, which often offer lower levels of security than those provided in your home or place of work.

In this article we’ll run you through the key reasons why you should consider using a secure VPN when accessing public Internet services. For more information on which VPNs to use, check out our list of the best VPN services available in 2021.

Public Wi-Fi is vulnerable

These days, public Wi-Fi is a near ubiquitous service found at airports, coffee shops, hotels, shopping malls and other public spaces in almost every city around the world. Easy to use and offering a speed sufficient for standard web browsing, these Wi-Fi services are popular with the public for granting free access to the internet without incurring any roaming or data charges.

However, in order to be accessible, these public Wi-Fi services are rarely sophisticated in terms of security protocols. Unlike a domestic or business Wi-Fi setup, public Wi-Fi rarely requires passwords and many of the networks are unencrypted. And if it’s easy for an average member of the public to log onto, it’s likely to be even easier for a hacker to manipulate.

Hackers see it as an easy target

Hackers with nefarious aims are known to target public Wi-Fi hotspots to gain access to users’ private information. Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attacks occur when a hacker manages to intercept the data being exchanged between your device and the public server.

Another common technique is to launch a rogue hotspot that masquerades as an authentic public service. When you log into the hacker's rogue network, your information risks being discovered and used by those with criminal intentions.

It is for this reason that users should never access sensitive apps or documents (such as your online bank or email accounts, for example) when using public Wi-Fi services. It’s also a smart move to ensure your smartphone is not set to auto-connect to public networks, so that you are required to manually connect only to networks you know and trust.

Why you need to use a VPN on public Wi-Fi

(Image credit: Song_about_summer/Shutterstock)

Your data is not secure

It’s not only hackers who want to capture your key information. Commercial entities providing the Wi-Fi service can, and do, grab as much information as they can while you’re using their service.

This can include everything from your IP address to your browsing history and even location data, which they can use to optimize their marketing and communications with their customers. Unlike the hackers, however, it is perfectly legal for them to do so, having usually obtained explicit consent from users following the acceptance of their terms and conditions of service.

Remember, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. And the same goes for free Wi-Fi: for which the price paid is usually your data.

How a VPN will offer additional security

The good news is you needn’t be put off from using public Wi-Fi. In addition to the steps mentioned above, regarding increased vigilance around the web pages and apps that you use when logged in to a public network, you can also consider using a VPN to increase your security and protect your identity.

A VPN encrypts all data sent from your device to the server, keeping everything you do on a public Wi-Fi completely private and safe from the prying eyes of criminal or commercial operators.

Bottom line

Hopefully, this article has opened your eyes to some of the dangers of using public Wi-Fi services. While we don’t intend to scare you from using what is often a convenient service, you should only do so knowing the risks and dangers involved, especially regarding the prevalence of bad actors ready to take advantage of vulnerable services and naive users combined.

Being savvier with what services you access when on a public network is one way of reducing your risk, but a more effective way is to employ the services of a good VPN. For more advantages of using VPNs, read our guide on other VPN uses. Also check out our in-depth reviews of two VPNs, ExpressVPN and NordVPN.

What do we recommend?

Tom’s Guide readers can claim three months absolutely free

ExpressVPN stands out from the competition in terms of price, features, and value. With servers in nearly 100 countries, all the security features we mention above, blazing connection speeds, and reliable access to multiple streaming services, ExpressVPN is an excellent choice for those after security with no compromises.

While some users may prefer certain features of other top VPNs, it’s the best overall option for most users – and now Tom’s Guide readers can claim three months absolutely free.

Alexis James

Alexis is a freelance writer and podcast producer with a Master's degree in Journalism. His love for creative technology stems from the day he was gifted his first ever digital voice recorder (a beloved Olympus WS 110), which brought with it the wonderful realisation that he'd never again have to rely on his iffy shorthand.  Alexis has over 16 years of experience crafting articles for industry-leading print and online technology publications, including Tom's Guide, Creative Bloq, and TechRadar. When he's not writing, Alexis combines his love for travel and sports, interviewing adventurers and athletes all over the world.