How to Use Internet Cafes and Wifi Hotspots Abroad Safely
Practical Tips when Connected in Public Places Abroad
|The same security concerns about internet cafes, also called cybercafes, often apply to cafes offering WiFi.
Not long ago, travelers wrote letters and postcards and made the occasional phone call back home. Still, today's travelers depend almost exclusively on the web to communicate with friends and family using email, text, or social media. Travelers also use the internet to upload and share their digital photos and videos, publish travel blogs, stories, and journals, and do their banking online while away from home. Although the internet has made staying in touch and paying bills easier while traveling, some drawbacks should keep enlightened travelers cautious but safe.
In some remote locations, where public WiFi is not available to you as a traveler and no public or private WiFi is available where you are staying, internet cafes are more challenging to find. Security and access speed might only partially meet your expectations at home. However, access speed in countries such as the U.S. is now being equaled or surpassed by 12 countries worldwide (Hong Kong, Denmark, Switzerland, Netherlands and Sweden are among those that offer almost 50% internet access speed increases over the U.S.).
Are Internet Cafes Common Abroad?
As the importance of the web has grown worldwide, so has the number of internet cafes. However, the need and supply have been vastly declining in recent years in many parts of the world due to the omnipresence of public WiFi hotspots and the usage of smartphones to access the web, preferably using Virtual Private Network (VPN) software to protect sensitive information from hackers.
Internet cafes are also called cybercafes, PC bangs, or Net cafes and increasingly provide computers with high-speed internet access for gaming and other tasks. There are an estimated 20,000 internet cafes in the world on the low end, but far more internet cafes are reported to exist just in China, according to other statistics.
Importantly, in some more remote travel destinations with less available public WiFi, such cafés remain a familiar sight. In some countries, people cannot easily afford a computer or even a smartphone with web access, so internet cafes also serve the local population. This explains why even small towns may have several such cafes that are often crowded.
In Europe, as in the U.S., the few remaining internet cafes also serve as actual cafes that sell drinks and snacks, or even alcoholic beverages, but in most other parts of the world, they are primarily an extension of an existing business, such as a photo store, print shop, or convenience store, with a few computers set up in a back room. The spaces may be dark and small, and they are often crowded.
Using internet cafes for gaming is also extremely common in countries such as South Korea and certain other areas of Asia like India, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Philippines.
Feel Comfortable at an Internet Cafe: Be Informed and Use Common Sense
When using an internet cafe abroad, you often purchase a voucher and receive a password, ideally on a computer whose link to the internet is locked, but some have the locking icon turned off. It is always wise to ask and know the technical setup for any internet cafe at home and abroad and follow the general precautions experts suggest.
Optional Backup Methods for Use in Internet Cafes Abroad
Given all the advances in technology and password protection, infallible ways to backup critical data at home and while traveling are still not without significant risks not to be taken for granted as most people want to avoid exposure to the "dark web" in a time of security breaches by major companies countered by software to warn you about such security dangers. Paranoid people change or reset "strong" passwords, but even that recommendation is being debated. Even some very technical people have their preferred methods of backup storage, ranging from basic to creatively complex. Multiple copies of backup in different safe locations is a recommendation before embarking on your travels if you do banking, purchases, use social media, or even email sensitive information online. If I could afford to, I would have copies in paper or encrypted in a flash format in a 10,000-pound safe—but that is not the most practical solution for the broad population, especially for digital nomads.
Here are some possible practical solutions for the traveler:
Some people use the address book built into their email software, but bringing an actual address book or printout as a backup with essential email addresses might be a good idea. If you regularly access your bank or credit card accounts online, you should bring a list with the user names and passwords, hiding it carefully in a small "password book," which you guard like a passport and store in a secure place when at home—and many are passport size. Ensure you encrypt such information in a way only known to you so nobody else can access your accounts if you misplace your book.
Many online and offline software providers offer password managers with various levels of promised protection. Still, the risk of some of those services being subject to hacking at some point makes me nervous in these days of breaches of even very dependable clouds hosted by the largest tech companies. However, LassPass has a superb reputation among 33 million users for superior encryption, works well for me across all devices, generates passwords, auto-fills passwords on all devices, works for single users and families where each member has their own "vault," assesses your security behavior and monitors for data breaches on the dark web, has zero knowledge of
your encrypted Master Password, among other features.
You can also bring small external USB flash drive(s) containing important information and files you would like to take with you on your trip. Ensure that the flash drive and the files are encrypted on your flash drive by you and password protected so nobody else can use your personal information. Remember that the many forms of encryption software, often provided by your PC or Mac, work only on that platform.
In addition to portable flash drives, you can also store files on secure online data storage services, which are now known as "cloud" services, such as Google Drive, which is accessible through Gmail and defaults to 30 free gigabytes per user, can be expanded to 2 terabytes of storage for about $12, storage can be increased, and is accessible via apps on most devices. Sign-in allows you to access your files from any computer or other device. Cloud storage is a secure way to access important files, documents, and addresses without carrying an external drive or disk.
A less desirable backup option is to leave your important files at home and retrieve them through remote access by connecting to your home computer via its IP address. All you need to do is configure your home computer to allow remote access and set up a username and password to access it from anywhere in the world. Check your computer's manual and help function to find out how to connect to your computer remotely. The disadvantage to this approach is that your home computer must always be up and running, and you need someone to ensure it is.
Finding An Internet Cafe Abroad
Some travel guidebooks and often dated online directories list internet cafes. Still, I usually walk around town and take mental notes of the ones I pass or of regular cafes or laundromats with WiFi. I typically peek inside to see if the computers are new if I do not have one. I also check to see if there are booths or space that provides sufficient privacy. Prices usually go up with the quality of the equipment, but it is best to compare rates at several cafes before making a choice.
Find out the primary use of the internet cafe; that way, you know if you can get the desired silence and privacy.
In Brazil, I have found internet cafes equipped with microphones and headsets, and people were using computers primarily for phone calls via the internet.
Some internet cafes may cater to a teenage crowd playing online video games—not the best environment if you need to concentrate or work as a travel writer.
- Others may be near a university and crowded in the afternoon after classes.
- Almost all hostels and budget hotels also provide internet access, often as hotspots, sometimes by offering one or two computers set up in a common area should you not have a laptop or smartphone. While they can be conveniently located, the computers can be outdated, and security is sometimes suspect. Most higher-end hotels also provide computers with internet access for their guests, especially hotels that cater to business travelers, though WiFi is increasingly ubiquitous.
- There are many options for free internet access as well. Public libraries often have such computers, and regional or city governments in some countries fund free internet centers to promote its usage among the local population. Some countries are providing public WiFi in many locations via the government or provided by private stores, cafes, restaurants, etc.
The Quality of Internet Cafe Services
The services offered also vary drastically. Some internet cafes with older equipment need USB ports, CD readers, or burners. Pay attention, inspect the computer, or tell the employee which features you need on the computer. With viruses quickly spreading from one external drive/disk to another, some have turned off their USB ports and any external inputs. In France, a few years back, it took me a long time to convince the owner of such an establishment to let me use his computer with a disk drive since none of the public computers had them. He quoted security concerns with viruses as the main reason he did not let people connect external devices to the computers. But for the most part, it is much more common for computers to have USB ports than only a few years ago, probably in keeping with the demand of users, who increasingly want to upload photos, videos, and other multimedia files.
If you have problems with internet access or your computer is unresponsive, it is best to switch computers. I have found a few employees at internet cafes who are computer experts and can quickly troubleshoot problems. The most common response to concerns is to turn the computer off and post an "out of order" sign.
Connection speeds vary greatly; depending on your location, you should prepare for very slow access speeds. Some internet cafes—especially in developing countries—still use dial-up telephone modems to connect to the internet. Depending on the internet infrastructure of your travel destinations, the ISP servers might be far away, further slowing down connection speeds. In a small town in northeastern Brazil, there was no local Internet Service Provider at the time, and I had to pay long-distance telephone charges to connect to the server from the nearest city a few hundred miles away. I have also found intermittent internet access in remote locations in developing countries, as servers are often down. These factors make internet access somewhat tricky, slow, and unreliable. If you are traveling to remote areas, you should not count on reliable access. Generally, the fast internet connections abroad that you will find are available in urban areas.
WiFi access is harder to find outside airports and major international hotel chains, so if you bring your computer, you are better off r using public computers for internet access altogether. That is not to say that more and more smaller hotels, rentals, and regular cafés are not now offering the services as availability and demand grows.
The Cost Factor
The hourly rate at internet cafes usually reflects the overall cost of living in the country. In South America and parts of Asia, you can get an hour of internet access for a dollar or two, but in Europe, you will pay five times that much or more. The cost of burning a CD or DVD is usually low, but I have found that there is a charge for burning a CD even if you bring and burn it yourself.
Security can be problematic at some internet cafes and WiFi hotspots worldwide, so see if you can run through a VPN account if possible. In Argentina, a few years ago, a friend of mine had his PayPal account compromised after he signed on at an internet café. He discovered that someone had been trying to withdraw his funds to an Argentinean account. Fortunately, PayPal blocked the unauthorized transaction, and my friend did not lose any money. Use PayPal's and other banks' security tools to cover yourself to the maximum, and likewise when using public email.
Always ensure you sign out of every secure website so nobody can use the browser's history menu to access certain websites. I usually delete my web browsing history before leaving the computer and close the browser. But you never know if a computer might have spyware installed, which might gain access to your passwords and personal information via logging your keystrokes. Connect external or portable devices such as USB flash drives or floppy disks. In that case, you should also be concerned about viruses, worms, and Trojan horses, especially if you copy files to your external device. Run scans with the latest security updates after each download to be sure. Better to be safe...
The most secure internet cafes are those where the computer is reset to its default settings whenever someone logs off from an internet session. That way, all browsing history records are deleted when you sign off. In some countries, I have found chains of internet cafes that operate with a prepaid card, and this is a very secure way to have internet access since the computer is reset to its default settings as soon as you sign off.
For more information about staying connected, check out our Staying Connected While Abroad resources. If you prefer to use your own laptop when traveling, see my article on Traveling With Your Laptop Computer Overseas for some practical inside tips.
For More Info
Online Data Storage Services:
See reviews and links to the many great options for cloud backup storage, a convenient and powerful service, if not indispensable, for your peace of mind at home and abroad. You always want to retain photos and documents, and why not do so if you have a decent internet connection?
Make use of Google Drive Apps (including Google Docs, Spreadsheets, Slides) and more to save your data, documents, email, and many other forms of media. Try to use two-step verification where possible for added security.
Apple iCloud backs up files on Macintosh computers to an online server, but files can be retrieved while traveling. Try to use two-factor authentication where possible for added security.
GoToMyPC offers a secure way to access your home computer from any web browser or wireless device while traveling. However, hackers can use it according to my antivirus software, and more and more people are storing all their data in the Cloud.