Wi-Fi VPN: Security tips for free public networks

Public Wi-Fi at hotels, airports, and cafes exposes you to real privacy and security risks. Learn how ExpressVPN keeps you safe, even on unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

Stay safe on public Wi-Fi: using a laptop in a coffee shop.

6 types of public Wi-Fi security risks

Using the internet over unsecured, public Wi-Fi networks puts you at risk of specific types of cyberattacks and other criminal acts.

A laptop giving data over Wi-Fi to another laptop with a skull and crossbones.

Packet sniffing

A hacker records all the data that passes between you and the unsecured Wi-Fi router by examining data packets. Generally, network administrators use packet sniffing tools to monitor and protect network traffic. However, hackers use these tools to steal information.

A router with skull and crossbones stealing data from a laptop over Wi-Fi.

Rogue Wi-Fi networks

A hacker sets up a fake network that masquerades as a legitimate one to steal information from unsuspecting users who connect to it. This method may also be used to infect a user’s device with malware and viruses.

A laptop giving connecting to the cloud with a skull and crossbones laptop intercepting it.

Man-in-the-middle attacks

A hacker secretly relays and possibly alters the communication between two parties who believe they are directly communicating with each other. There are several types of man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks. The most commonly used MITM attack is IP spoofing, where a hacker tricks unsuspecting users into thinking they're interacting with a website, hoping they'll give up personal information that could be stolen.

Identity theft

Using man-in-the-middle attacks, hackers can steal personal information found on a device connected to public Wi-Fi. Identity theft usually involves stolen information that hackers can then use to impersonate a victim. With enough financial information, a hacker could withdraw money and make purchases in their victim's name.

Data breach

A hacker uses an unsecured Wi-Fi router to illegally access personal information from unsuspecting users. Personal data like photos, videos, and credit card information might be at risk during a data breach.

Malware infection

A hacker could distribute malware or viruses to unsuspecting users on any device connected to an unsecured router through Wi-Fi. If on public Wi-Fi, avoid clicking on pop-up ads or videos as they might harbor dangerous viruses that could infect your devices.

How a VPN stops hacking through Wi-Fi

Let’s suppose someone is trying to hack your phone through Wi-Fi with a packet sniffing program. If the Wi-Fi is unsecured, this public Wi-Fi hacker may be able to read your traffic directly. A VPN can help secure an unsecured Wi-Fi.

ExpressVPN prevents this kind of Wi-Fi hacking by creating an encrypted tunnel between your device and a secure VPN server:

What is a VPN? image.

Is it safe to use public Wi-Fi with a VPN?

Public Wi-Fi hackers will be unable to read any data inside this encrypted tunnel.

Now let’s say you’re trying to connect to hotel Wi-Fi, but you accidentally connect to a hacker’s rogue Wi-Fi network instead. Without any additional security, the hacker can read and alter any unencrypted communication, or even inject malicious code onto your device.

With ExpressVPN, however, the encrypted tunnel prevents hackers from reading, injecting, or altering any data.

Wi-Fi hackers can also use a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack to break encryption and impersonate sites you are visiting so they can intercept your traffic without your knowledge.

Wi-Fi security protection on every device

VPN for Windows, Mac, iPhone, iPad, iPod, Android, and routers.

ExpressVPN has apps for every device you connect to Wi-Fi, including Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, and more.

Looking for VPN Wi-Fi security on your router? You can install ExpressVPN software on compatible routers to protect every device in your home, such as smart TVs and game consoles. Alternatively, get our Aircove router with ExpressVPN functionality built in. Setup takes five minutes.

If you’re using public Wi-Fi and want to ensure online security, consider our Aircove Go portable router. Connect it to any Wi-Fi network, and all your devices using the Aircove Go will enjoy full ExpressVPN benefits of strong encryption and location changes. (Note that Aircove users must have an ExpressVPN subscription to use the VPN functionality.)

Tips for using public Wi-Fi securely


1. Use a VPN

A VPN can help you stay private and safe on an unsecured public Wi-Fi connection by encrypting your internet activity and shielding it from snoops. Your online traffic gets sent through an encrypted tunnel to prevent interception.

2. Avoid accessing bank accounts

Possibly the most sensitive accounts you access online are banking and other financial services. Best not to log in to them over public Wi-Fi and wait until you are on a network you trust (such as your home Wi-Fi).

3. Don’t stay permanently signed in to accounts

An attacker over Wi-Fi could more easily affect your online accounts if you are logged in to them. This is one reason it’s always a good idea to log out of a website or app after you’re done using it.

4. Set your device to forget previously used Wi-Fi networks

Just because you used a public Wi-Fi service once doesn’t mean you’ll want to connect to it again. Forgetting the network prevents your device from automatically connecting to it when you’re nearby, lowering your risk of unknowingly using an unsecured network.

5. Keep your operating system and apps updated

Vulnerabilities in outdated software or apps are often exploited by threat actors. It is best practice to keep them up to date to ensure they have all the latest security patches.

6. Check for a secure connection

While it’s hard to tell if a public Wi-Fi network is secure, at the very least it should require a password to log in. Also check for the padlock symbol when you are using a browser, which indicates HTTPS encryption. When in doubt, turn on a VPN.

7. Connect via LAN

Attacking a device over an Ethernet connection requires a hacker to gain access to its cable and router, so it’s not as easy as intercepting Wi-Fi traffic. Ethernet would be a good option when you are in a hotel room, for example.

8. Stick with HTTPS

HTTPS sites use the SSL/TLS protocol that encrypts all communication and traffic to prevent malicious third parties from stealing your data. You can tell that a web page uses HTTPS if there is a padlock symbol next to the URL. Leave a site immediately if it does not use HTTPS, especially when you’re using public Wi-Fi.

9. Avoid using AirDrop and other file-sharing tools

Apple’s AirDrop function allows for easy fire sharing across devices, and while that’s great, it can also make it easy for someone to send you infected files. If someone unexpectedly sends you something by AirDrop, do not accept it.

FAQ: About public Wi-Fi security

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