12 Tips to Protect Your Privacy When Traveling to the U.S.

Diverse employees of airport checking passports and biometric data working with passengers.
Data security and privacy are weakest when traveling. Learn how to protect your personal information while visiting the U.S.

The vast majority of travelers now travel with at least one personal device. Smartphones, tablets and laptops have revolutionized travel, making planning, booking and working online a smooth and convenient business. However, they have also opened up a new realm of risk.

The level of risk that your tech use may expose you to varies from country to country. Different countries have different privacy laws and different levels of motivation for monitoring online activity.

Here we will focus on traveling to the United States, providing you with 12 essential tips for protecting your personal information and finances, and generally making your tech life on the road simpler and safer. 

1.Be Extra Cautious When Using Public Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is almost everywhere in the U.S. If you see people hanging out and there are places to sit down, chances are that there will be public Wi-Fi available.

But, the catch is that public Wi-Fi is just that—public. Your data is transferred without encryption within the network, making it available for anyone to view with the use of simple, free software. Sometimes even hackers setup free Wi-Fi spots, making users even greater targets.

Public Wi-Fi networks—and this includes hotel networks—should only be used for generic internet searches such as checking the weather or reading the news. You should assume that anything you do while connected to a public Wi-Fi network is not private. This means you should avoid logging into any personal accounts including social media, email and especially internet banking.

To be safe, log out of all profiles and delete any saved passwords from your browser before using public Wi-Fi.

2.Make Sure Your Antivirus Software Is Up to Date

Make sure that your device is updated along with your antivirus program before you travel.

If you don’t have an antivirus program installed, it’s not too late to get one. It’s worth spending some time researching in order to get the best antivirus software for your specific needs.

3.Consider Using a VPN

VPNs encrypt your data and make it almost impossible for any outsiders or hackers to watch your activity.

You may not know where you will be when the need to log in to your social media or online banking arises. If you have a VPN, you can use public Wi-Fi networks without running the risk of your personal information becoming public.

Another reason to get a VPN is the aggressive approach and power of the NSA (National Security Agency) in the U.S. If you want to ensure that your privacy is maintained, a VPN is a must.

Choose the best VPN according to your particular needs and then check how secure it is to be extra safe, as some VPNs have been known to leak personal information.

4.Manage Your Passwords

Making sure that you use strong and unique passwords for each different login profile is a basic but essential step in protecting your privacy.

Use long passwords without meaningful phrases, including numbers, symbols, upper and lower case characters. Wherever possible, use two-factor authentication, change your passwords regularly and don’t have them written down anywhere on your computer.

Consider getting a password manager for your device. Free password managers such as 1Password remember all of your passwords for you and are a safer option than having them stored in your browser. They can also be useful for creating strong, unique passwords.

Also consider adding a password to apps which open your login profile by default when they run like Gmail, Facebook or any other social media app.

5.Turn off WebRTC

Even with a VPN running on your device, if it is not optimized to block the WebRTC protocol, then your IP address and, in turn, your location will be leaked. It is best to turn off WebRTC traffic in your browser.

You’ll have to follow slightly different steps depending on your browser. For Chrome, WebRTC Leak Prevent or ScriptSafe are good options. For Firefox, the NoScript add-on should block requests.

6.Consider a Travel Router

A wireless travel router isn’t necessarily a must for the average traveler unless you need constant access to high speed Wi-Fi. But, in saying that, it’s a pretty amazing little device for the number of functions it provides, and public Wi-Fi in the states can be slow.

Man's hand put a pocket wifi in his jeans pocket.Modem wireless internet accessory
A wireless travel router is a mini gadget that can boost the available Wi-Fi signals and create an encrypted Wi-Fi network out of a public hotspot.

A wireless travel router is a mini gadget that can boost the available Wi-Fi signals and create an encrypted Wi-Fi network out of a public hotspot. It can also help you connect to multiple devices, may provide storage, memory card reading ability and charging for USB-based devices, doubling as a power bank.

7.Back Everything up in a Safe Place

In the event that your devices are breached either by malware or theft, you’ll save yourself a huge headache if you’ve backed everything up. Copy all important documents and photos into an external hard drive that you leave at home or with a friend and back everything up in the cloud.

Similarly, it’s good practice to carry a photocopy of your passport somewhere separate from the original. Store the photocopy and the passport in separate places from other valuable items so that if you do experience theft, you’ll likely still have your passport, or at the very least a photocopy of it.

8.Manage Your Social Media

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently testified that the relinquishing of social media passwords can be considered a condition of entry at U.S. borders. This basically means that anything you publish on social media, whether publicly or not, could be used in order to restrict your entry. To be safe, avoid getting involved in political discussions prior to your U.S. travels.  

Some people also set up fake accounts in order to have something to show border officials who require it. Alternatively, traveling with a cheap Android phone with just the essentials and leaving your primary phone at home could be a safety hack worth considering.

On the same note, anything of dubious origin on your devices should be removed. If you have downloaded movies or other data that may be considered illegal or even questionable in the U.S., delete it.

9.Universal Adapters and Power Banks

This isn’t a privacy tip, but it is a key point when traveling overseas. You can purchase plug adaptors once you’ve arrived, but they may be more expensive and you may as well save yourself the hassle by sorting one out before you leave.

Traveling with your own means of charging your devices can also be a lifesaver when you get caught out. Most airports and long distance busses in the U.S. have power outlets for charging, but if being connected is essential  for work or planning your travels, it’s safer to not rely on always finding somewhere to recharge.

10.Make the Most of Available Apps

Apps like MiFlight give you updates about security wait times while flight assistant apps like App in the Air help to coordinate your flight itineraries so you know exactly when you should be arriving at the airport, checking in and going through security, while keeping track of delays, wait times and cancellations.

From apps that may help you find a place to stay at night like Airbnb to platforms such as TripIT which helps you organize your itinerary, there are a lot of useful apps that can help you in different stages of your travel.

However, there are downsides to using applications. Many apps, even some of the most famous ones,  collect data without your knowledge. It’s best to delete surplus apps and only keep the ones which are necessary or you use often.

11.To Roam or Not to Roam

Data roaming is notoriously expensive in the U.S. You could be charged anywhere from $1/MB to $8/MB depending upon country of origin.

Furthermore, roaming may not actually be necessary. Social media and communication apps have reduced the need for classic connectivity from GSM service providers. You could simply keep your mobile as a smart device without any cellular network and use your social media apps and a Wi-Fi connection to stay connected with your friends, family and work.

However, it is best to know your destination, route, and purpose of travel. If you know there may be places where you probably won’t have any Wi-Fi connectivity and you still want to be able to connect to the internet then do consider 4G connectivity.

Another alternative to roaming is to purchase a local sim card and pay local rates. Purchasing a prepaid sim may give you unlimited data usage without any risks of unforeseen bills. 

Businesswoman with short haircut sitting in airplane cabin and chatting online on smartphone while checking email on laptop computer with mock up area.
Data roaming is notoriously expensive in the U.S. You could be charged anywhere from $1/MB to $8/MB depending upon country of origin.

12.Check out Apple Pay and Android Pay

The Apple Pay and the Android Pay systems seem to work faster than the credit/debit card systems currently employed in the U.S. As a result, they may save you money on currency exchange fees.

If you do take your credit card, check the fees in advance so that you don’t end up with a hefty bill at the end of your trip. 

Applying these tips on your U.S. travels should help to keep you and your information safe. But remember, public Wi-Fi poses the biggest risk to travelers, so if there’s one thing you’ll take away from this, it should be to be extremely careful with public networks.

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