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How to Use internet Cafes and Wifi Hotspots Abroad Safely

Practical Tips when Connected in Public Places

internet cafes and WiFi hotspots
The same security concerns that apply to internet cafes often apply to cafes that offer WiFi.

Not that long ago travelers wrote letters and postcards and made the occasional phone call back home, but today’s travelers depend almost exclusively on the web to communicate with friends and family. Travelers also use the internet to upload and share their digital photos and videos, communicate via many forms of social media, publish travel stories, journals and blogs, and do their banking online while away from home. Although the internet has made it easier to stay in touch and pay bills while traveling, there are also several drawbacks abroad that should make travelers somewhat cautious. In some remote locations, where Wifi is not available to you, internet cafes are not as easy to find, and you might find security and access speed not quite up to your expectations at home, though access speed in countries such as the U.S. is now being equaled or surpassed by several countries of the world (South Korea offers almost 35% internet speed increases, on average, for example, and Scandinavians are used to very fast connections).

As the importance of the web has grown worldwide, so did the number of internet cafés for a time, though the need is vastly declining of late in many parts of the world due to the omnipresence of WiFi hotspots and the usage of smartphones to access the web. In some more remote travel destinations they remain a familiar sight. In some countries people cannot easily afford a computer or even a smartphone with web access, so internet cafés also serve the local population, which explains why even small towns may have several such cafés that are often crowded.

In Europe, as in the U.S., the few remaining internet cafés also serve as actual cafés that sell drinks and snacks, or even alcoholic beverages, but in most other parts of the world they are mostly 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, small, and they are often crowded. Using them for gaming is also not uncommon.

What to Bring With You

  • Most people use their address book built into their email homepage, but it might be a good idea to bring an actual address book or printout as a backup with the most important email addresses. 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, of course. Make sure you encrypt such information in a way only known to you, so nobody else can access your accounts.

  • You can also bring a small external USB flash drive containing important information and files you would like to take with you on your trip. Make sure that the drive or the files are password protected, so nobody else can use your personal information.

  • In addition to portable external drives you can also store files on secure online data storage services, which are now known as "cloud" services. You can access your files from any computer by signing in, which is a secure way of having access to important files, documents, and addresses, without carrying an external drive or disk.

  • You can also 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 user name and password to access it from anywhere in the world. Check your computer’s manual and help function to find out the details about how to connect to your computer remotely. The disadvantage to this approach is that your home computer has to be always up and running, and you need someone there to ensure that it is.

Finding An internet Café

Most travel guidebooks today list internet cafés, but I usually just walk around town and take a mental note of the ones I pass or of regular cafes or laundromats with Wifi. I usually 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 cafés before making a choice.

Find out what the internet café is primarily used for; that way you know if you can get the desired silence and privacy.

  • In Brazil I have found internet cafés equipped with microphones and headsets, and people were using the computers mostly for phone calls via the internet.

  • Some internet cafés 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 may be crowded in the afternoon after classes.

  • Almost all hostels and budget hotels are also providing 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 are conveniently located, the computers can be outdated, and security is somtimes 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 a 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 Café Services

The services offered also vary drastically. Some internet cafés with older equipment are not set up with USB ports, CD burners, or even disk drives. Pay attention, inspect the computer, or tell the employee which features you need on the computer. With viruses easily spreading from one external drive/disk to another, some have disabled their USB ports and floppy disk drives. 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 own computer with a disk drive, since none of the public computers had them. He quoted security concerns with viruses as the main reason why he did not let people connect external devices to the computers. But for the most part, it is now 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 few employees at internet cafés who are computer experts and can quickly troubleshoot problems. The most common response to problems is to simply turn the computer off and post an "out of order" sign on it.

Connection speeds vary greatly and you should be prepared for very slow access speeds depending upon where you are. Many internet cafés—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, which further slows 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 that in remote locations in developing countries internet access is intermittent, as servers are often down. These factors make internet access somewhat difficult, slow, and unreliable. If you are traveling to remote areas you should not count on reliable access. The fasted internet connection you will find are available in urban areas.

WiFi access is harder to find outside airports and major international hotel chains, so if you are bringing your own computer you are better off with bringing a cable modem or 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 cafés usually reflects the overall cost of living of 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 for burning a CD or DVD is usually low, but I have found that you will be charged for burning a CD even if you bring your own CD and burn it yourself.

Security Considerations

Security is a problematic issue at internet cafés and WiFi hotspots worldwide. In Argentina, a few years ago, a friend of mine had his Paypal account compromised after he signed on at an internet café. He found out 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 make sure that you sign out of every secure website, so that nobody can use the browser’s history menu to access secure websites. I usually try to delete my web browsing history before leaving the computer and I also 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. If you connect external or portable devices devices such as USB flash drives or floppy disks, 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 cafés are those where the computer is reset to its default settings whenever someone logs off from an internet session. That way all records of your browsing history are deleted when you sign off. In some countries I have found chains of internet cafés that operate with a prepaid card. This is 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 service which is very useful, if not indispensable for your piece of mind, both at home and overseas. You never want to lose photos and documents, and there is no reason anymore if you have a decent internet connection. 

Make use of Google Drive Apps (including Google Docs, Spreadsheets, Slides) and more to save your data, your 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, though more and more people are storing all their data on the Cloud.

Related Topics
Independent Travel
Best Staying Connected Websites
Traveling With Your Laptop Computer Overseas

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