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Internet access

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Internet access

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    This article is a travel topic

Internet access has become a basic need for many leisure travelers. You may be glad to be free of it for a while, but keeping in contact with family and friends can be cumbersome without it. It is essential for most business travelers, and there's no doubting the value of accessing for information wherever you are in the world.


Travellers have a wide variety of expectations and expertise regarding the Internet. Some will carry a device with them, such as a laptop or a phone, and they are just looking for a means to connect it. Some need to be online as much as possible, whereas others may be happy to check their email every week or so.

This article gives an overview of what options there are for travellers to connect to the Internet while travelling.

Access types

Public access computers

The simplest form of access for the broadest range of users are computers made available to the public, usually for a fee or included as a service for patrons of a hotel, restaurant, or cafe. These are often available even the most remote regions of the world, often driven by local demand for access to the Internet. In fact, they are often most common in areas where private, individual access to the Internet is least common. However, there can be difficulties:

  • The only application you can generally count on being fully functional is a web browser but there are times that some plug-ins in them may be disabled. You will want to make sure you can use a web interface to read your email. They may lack support to connect your camera, to use Skype or MSN, or to read IMAP/POP based email.
  • In many places, language is an issue. Even if you know Windows well, using an Arabic or Chinese version will probably pose problems. Usually you can get a web browser to work, but not much else. Also, it is worth it to be familiar with the keyboard layout of the country you are in as the position of some punctuation keys differ, even if their language is the same as in your home country.
  • Security is also an issue, as a cafe computers could potentially deploy a keyloggers and other nasty forms of spyware to capture passwords. If particularly concerned about using public computers, changing passwords frequently can help provide some security: especially if passwords can be changed without using public computers. Public libraries are a good source of public access computers that should be generally trustworthy. Avoid using important passwords on a public computer. If you are saving or downloading a file, transfer it to your memory stick/thumb drive and delete the file on the computer's hard drive after use; while some computers automatically do this others do not.

Cellular phones

For GSM phones, the worldwide standard pretty much everywhere except Japan and South Korea, GPRS (packet data) is common. The successor to GSM, UMTS is also widely available. While GPRS offers basic modem speeds suitable for email and some browsing (particularly text-heavy rather than graphics-heavy sites), UMTS offers speeds comparable to DSL broadband. Most modern GSM phones, even very cheap models, are GPRS enabled. Using it may require activation with the provider.

There are two basic ways of getting online with your phone:

  • Use GPRS/UMTS to download mail directly to your phone and surf the web. While this can be done on most any modern phone, you will want a iPhone/Blackberry/Communicator-type device with a large screen to make this practical.
  • Use GPRS/UMTS to connect another device, typically a laptop, to the Internet.

Note that international GPRS/UMTS roaming can be ludicrously expensive, so check with your operator at home before you start downloading those multi-megabyte attachments.

In the USA and Canada, CDMA (the system used by Verizon and TELUS) is widespread, and arguably the most available service outside of metropolitan areas. CDMA phones can frequently be used as a computer modem with the purchase of an adapter cable, or increasingly they can provide Internet access to your laptop via their built-in Bluetooth. While not part of their basic cell phone service package, Verizon's "Quick 2 Connect" service provides 14.4 kbps Internet access at no additional charge to their customers using the phone and cable combination, and their BroadbandAccess and NationalAccess packages with additional laptop tethering add-on can be used to provide Internet access through many of their current phones.

Prepaid mobile internet

If you're travelling, prepaid internet plans on mobile devices are increasingly becoming more affordable. For best results, purchase a prepaid 3G sim in the country you are visiting. Make sure your phone is not locked to your carrier back home otherwise there are plenty of mobile phone shops that can unlock it for you at a reasonable price (the warranty may become void though). These plans come in the form of purchasing data bundles for a fixed price good for a certain number of days. An example of a plan is 200 MB for 3 days available for $4. You usually need to key-in something on your mobile phone (via the dialling keypad) or send an SMS. The cost is immediately deducted from your prepaid credits and service becomes active instantly. Check with the mobile provider if one day is equivalent to 24 hours or is good until midnight. If the provider says one day is defined to last until midnight regardless of when activation happened, it's best to purchase the plan first thing in the morning. Having bundled prepaid mobile internet will come in handy if you have a smart phone with apps that helps you navigate around the city or check social messaging sites.

Most plans that feature more than 30 MB for at least one day is more than enough for mobile internet surfing, just make sure you go easy on the graphics. If you however wish to use a mobile tablet computer like an iPad, you may want to go with a heavier data plan; getting a micro-SIM (as opposed to a regular-sized SIM) card is also required.

Once a plan is purchased, the only thing you will have to worry about is to ensure your device has sufficient battery life. As you know some smart phones can run out of battery very quickly especially if 3G functionality is on. Finding a place to charge your mobile device can be very difficult outside your hotel and most restaurants/snack shops are not very open to the idea of patrons charging their device. Coffeeshops like Starbucks are an exception and won't mind as long as you buy some food or a beverage from them. If free Wifi is available and your device is capable of Wifi, you can save battery by switching-off the 3G capabilities of your phone and turning-on Wifi.

Wired Ethernet

Virtually all laptops manufactured in the past decade have provisions for wired ethernet. Otherwise USB ethernet sticks can be purchased from leading computer stores.

Some hotel rooms and some other locations will provide standard RJ-45 Ethernet jacks which you can plug your computer into. With a dynamically-assigned IP address, you can be online in seconds. In case this is not possible, you can purchase one at a computer shop back home.

Internet cafes, libraries, etc. may not allow this kind of access, instead offering public access computers or Wi-Fi (see the next session).

Ironically however, high-class business hotels are more likely to charge for wired internet and at really high rates. Choose at least a 24-hour or 1-day rate as hotels charge less than 2-3x the per hour rate (e.g. the hotel may offer internet of $15 good for 1 hour but also $25 good for 24 hours, in this case choose the latter). If you're staying for 3 days or more, then it can be cost-effective to choose a higher-denominated plan as there are savings compared to purchasing several 24-hour rates individually.


Virtually all laptops and PDAs manufactured in the mid-2000s, as well as most smart phones launched in the late 2000s have Wi-Fi provisions. The downside of Wi-Fi is that even if it is wireless in nature, the coverage of a Wi-Fi access point or hotspot is limited compared to that of 3G or GPRS. Once you leave the building, you also lose the Wi-Fi signal provided to you. Wi-Fi Wireless access come in different types:

  • Free and open public access points, permit any device to access the Internet via Wi-Fi. These are sometimes provided by hotels, airports, restaurants, malls, libraries, transportation networks, or even sometimes across entire city centres such as Bristol, Cadiz, and Marseille. Often these require you to start up a browser to accept some terms and conditions before you can access the Internet. They may impose limits on the amount of hours you can connect or the amount you can download in a day. They may restrict access to browsing and email. They may also require registration. Ironically, budget accommodations, including many hostels are more likely to provide this service to guests than their 4- or 5-star luxury counterparts.
  • Free but secured public access points also work in the same way as free and open access points but will require a password (like a WEP or WPA-PSK key) to connect to the network. The passwords are in place to discourage non-patrons of the establishment from using it. These are more likely to be found in restaurants and many budget accommodations.
  • Commercial public access points. They usually charge per hour or day — and fees can vary widely even within the same locale and often can occur right alongside completely free service. In fact a provider may provide free and fee-based Wi-fi access at the same access point at the same time with the latter's advantage being that they can provide faster speeds. Such commercial access points are growing increasingly common, especially in areas where travellers are 'trapped' (airports for example). Payment can be by credit card at the time of use, or by prepaid card/voucher, or through an arrangement with your mobile/cell phone carrier.
  • Community access points. You become a member of a Wi-Fi community (usually by donating your own access point) and use the community's access points for free.
  • Private open access points left open by their owners sometimes inadvertently and other times as a friendly gesture to the community. Theoretically though permission needs to be obtained from your internet service provider as the terms and conditions state that only users in your property can enjoy internet access provided to you.
  • Roaming gives you guest access to private or commercial access points on the basis of some contract or relationship that you have with an institution or company at home. An example is eduroam [1], a service that gives members of universities access to the wireless networks of other universities.


If you've brought your laptop with you, you may be able to use the phone socket in a hotel room to connect to the Internet using standard dial-up technology. Some hotels use their own private digital phone switches, which will not work with analog modems. The phones may be hard-wired, or the sockets impossible to get at. It can be very expensive to use modems on hotel phone lines, especially if it requires a long-distance or international call to access your ISP.

Many countries use nonstandard connectors for telephone lines, and you may need to buy an adapter between the jack on your laptop (the shape of which is called RJ-11) and the jack used where you are staying. Sometimes you can borrow the adapter used on the room telephone, and other times you must provide your own.

If you are staying in private accommodation with phone access, or having an extended stay, it may be possible to get an account with a local ISP. Dialup accounts can be very cheap at around US$10 per month or less. Pre-paid dialup is a good solution, as since you will not provide ongoing billing details there is definitely no risk of ongoing charges. Otherwise some flat-rate ISPs may be no contract, meaning you can cancel at any time; however you need to remember to cancel!

If you are traveling internationally, it is possible to set up a "global roaming" dialup account that has local access numbers in numerous countries. Depending on the location, there is often a choice between local numbers and country-wide toll-free numbers, the toll-free numbers costing more per hour in Internet fees. Before leaving, you will want to make sure the global roaming "dialer" software is loaded on to your computer, and that you can connect successfully from your home. Doing so will also ensure the most recent list of local access numbers gets downloaded onto your laptop.

A global roaming provider has contracts with a network of local Internet service providers in each country, rather than operating a worldwide network itself. With any such provider, hourly rates vary by country and depend on whether you use a local or national access number. Before considering signing up for any type of global dialup roaming, ensure that the service provider offers service in the countries you intend to visit.

Some places may not support "touch tone" dialing. If after your modem dials, you continue to hear the dial tone (which could sound different where you are visiting) instead of getting a connection, change the settings on your computer to use "pulse" dialing.

Many modems don't recognize the dial tone in other countries. If your modem reports "no dial tone" you should disable dial tone detection on your modem, usually by adding ATX0 to the modem initialisation string.

Wireless broadband modems are also becoming widely available. These modems are plugged to a desktop or laptop computer via a USB port and will receive a signal from a mobile phone provider. A program to connect to the internet usually starts-up automatically after plugging. If not printed instructions to install software are provided. Oftentimes modems are locked to a particular mobile provider and you must purchase the modem and a data SIM card (either prepaid or plan) from that provider's service centre or authorised dealer. SIM cards and top-up/recharge chards are also usually available at convenience stores. Mobile broadband plans on a PC are generally affordable and can come as either time-bound or data-bound plans or both. For instance time-bound plans will last you for several hours or days while data-bound plans give you allowance of several hundred megabytes or a few gigabytes. Once your time is up or you have consumed the allowed data of your plan, the service is terminated or you may be charged at the "pay as you go rate" which is much more expensive than the bundled rates.

Accessing email

In many countries it is easier to use email to keep in touch with friends and family back home than it is to call home regularly. Email has advantages over phone calls: it doesn't require you to account for time zone differences before contacting your family, it doesn't cost any more to send e-mail around the world than down the street, and it's possible to contact many people with a single email. Just make sure that the recipients check their email regularly or let them know you will be sending them email from time to time.

Another advantage of email is that messages are easy to document. This comes in handy when you need written proof of accommodations or other arrangements as you can just print it out from a shop or save it on your smart phone.

Webmail provides access to your email over a web interface, and is necessary if you are going to be accessing email from a variety of locations and equipment. An increasing number of email providers such as ISPs are setting up webmail interfaces for their users so that they can check their mail on the road. But many people choose to use one of the dedicated webmail providers, many of whom provide a free service.

Some web access points will restrict access to sites known to host webmail. Examples include some research libraries, universities and private businesses who wish to discourage users from checking their personal email during work hours. However, almost all Internet cafes and other access points aimed at the public will allow you to access your webmail: for many of their users, webmail is the reason they are there.

Using dedicated email software like Outlook, Lotus Notes or Thunderbird or the Mac's may be restricted if your ISP or the access point blocks access or requires access through a proxy server.

With prepaid mobile internet plans becoming increasingly affordable, you can buy a local SIM card and insert it to your phone. There are plans that can be tailour-made to popular mobile email devices like a Blackberry. (see prepaid mobile internet section above for more information)

Security Concerns

Network Security

If you are using your own device, but connecting to a public wireless or wired network (any unfamiliar network) the provider of the network can eavesdrop on any unencrypted communication and read confidential data. However, many websites where this might be a concern — such as banks and corporate sites — make use of encryption to prevent eavesdropping. Use https (look for the ending "s" in "https:" at the start of the address and the key icon in your web browser conveying to you that your connection is secure and the address of the site your connected to is certified as secure). Take seriously any warnings your browser may give about unsecure certificates.

Public Computer Security

If you are using a public computer, a common threat to a traveler's internet security is key loggers and other programs designed to monitor the user's activity for information that can be exploited, such as online banking passwords, credit card numbers, and other information that could be utilized for identity theft. For this reason public internet terminals (such as those found at libraries, hotels, and internet cafes) should not be used to make online purchases, or access banking information.

If a traveler must use their online banking or send credit card information using a public terminal the following precautions should be taken:

  • Check for virus and spyware scanning software on the computer, and ensure it is enabled.
  • Talk to your bank ahead of time, many banks can enable limits on your online banking profile that, for example, restrict the ability to transfer money to third parties who have not been pre-approved.
  • Obtain a credit card with a provider that can issue you temporary, one-shot credit card numbers specifically for use in online purchases.
  • Always be certain you have logged out of your online banking, and shutdown/restart the computer before walking away.

Circumventing Censorship

Types of censorship

Content Filters

Some Internet cafes and Internet providers may restrict access to certain websites based on content. Common restricted content includes: sexual content, content unsuitable for children, commercial competitors and political content of certain types. The blocks can be wide-ranging, blocking for example, any site that includes the word "breast". They may also block access to certain types of traffic (for example, HTTP/web, POP or IMAP, SSH).

Political firewalls

Several countries (for example China) have a policy of blocking access to different areas of the internet at a country level. The description below is based on China's access policy, but applies to several other countries (namely Cuba, Myanmar, Syria, South Korea, North Korea, Iran, Thailand, Singapore, ...).

Typically the following sites may be blocked: human-rights NGOs' sites; opposition sites; universities; news outlets (BBC, CNN, etc); blogging / discussion forums; webmail; search engines; and proxy servers. Often they will duplicate the sites that have been blocked but (not so) subtly modify the content. Pages or URLs containing certain banned keywords may also be blocked.

Note that blocking may not be limited to stopping you from seeing certain pages: if you trespass on a blocked page in China, other sites may also be temporarily blocked for up to 30 minutes.

IP Geofiltering

An increasing number of services on the internet are restricted to IP address ranges corresponding to a certain country. If you try to access those services from outside that country, you will be blocked. Examples include video-on-demand (Movielink, BBC iplayer, Channel 4), web radio (Pandora), and News. Content providers want to make sure their service is only available to residents within its legislation, usually to avoid possible copyright breaches in other countries. IP geofiltering is a simple, if somewhat crude way of achieving this. For travellers this can be very frustrating, since the system discriminates based on where your computer is located, not on who you are and where you live. So even if you have legitimately signed up for a movie rental service in the US, you can no longer use it while you are spending a week in the UK.

Fortunately there are straight-forward ways of getting around IP-geofiltering. Your best option is to re-route your internet traffic to an IP address in your country of origin. The service will then think that your computer is located there and allow access. One way of doing this is to sign up with a VPN provider. See below for details.

VoIP blocking

Certain internet providers and hotels around the world have started the practice of blocking all VoIP traffic from their networks. Though they usually justify this with esoteric explanations such as "to preserve network integrity", the real reason is normally much simpler: VoIP allows travellers to make free or very cheap phone calls over the internet, and the authority/company in question wants to force the user to make expensive phone calls over its plain old telephone land line. In the worst case, VoIP traffic can be blocked in a whole country (unsurprisingly this tends to happen in countries with a state telephone monopoly). Saudi Arabia is an example for this.

The best anti-VioIP-blocking measure currently available to an average traveller is a VPN provider (see below). Make sure that you choose a VPN provider with sufficient bandwitdh, otherwise your phone calls may suffer from poor quality/disconnects/delay.

Getting access

In general, if using someone else's connection you will need to be careful about evading their filters. Doing so will almost certainly end your contract to use it if you're discovered evading a firewall through a connection you're paying for, and might upset someone even if you aren't. In some areas evading firewalls may be a criminal offence; this even applies in some Western countries when evading content filters aimed at blocking pornographic content.

Proxy Servers

The most common (and straight-forward) way to avoid blocks on certain websites is to connect to a proxy server and have that proxy server connect to the blocked site for you. However, the organisations doing the blocking know this, and regularly block access to the proxy servers themselves. If you are likely to need access to sites which are commonly blocked at your destination, it is most likely that you will be able to get access through an unadvertised proxy server you set up yourself or have a friend set up for you. There is a risk if you search for too many 'naughty' keywords (like 'counter revolution') you'll get the proxy taken down or blocked. Proxies that use the https protocol are immune to this however.

Some gateways (for example, that in China) are much more sophisticated than this: even when using a proxy server many sites are not accessible. One workaround is to use an ssh tunnel to connect to a proxy server outside the country via an ssh server, from a local port (eg 4321), then to connect to the proxy server like that.

If you're interested in seeing what might be blocked from inside the firewalls before you leave, it is sometimes possible to surf through a proxy server in the country you're going to be going to.

Personal VPN providers

Personal VPN (virtual private network) providers are an excellent way of circumventing both political censorship and commercial IP-geofiltering. They are superior to web proxies for several reasons: They re-route all internet traffic, not only http. They normally offer higher bandwidth and better quality of service. They are encrypted and thus harder to spy on. They are less likely to be blocked than proxy servers.

Most VPN providers work like this: You sign up with the provider who gives you an account name and password. Then you use a VPN program to logon to their server. This creates an encrypted tunnel that re-routes your internet traffic to that server. Prices range from €5-50 per month ($7-70), depending on bandwidth and quality.

Loging on to a VPN is very straight forward on Windows machines since they have a built-in VPN program. As long as you know your username, password, and server address, you are likely to able to use VPN from most internet cafes. Since VPN is encrypted, there is no way for the computer owner to filter the sites you are accessing. However, VPN offers no protection against snooping software installed on the internet cafe's machines, so it's always a better idea to use it from your own laptop.

VPNs are routinely used by millions of business travellers to connect securely to their office computers or to access company documents. Therefore they are tolerated in all but the most repressive dictatorships. It is unlikely that simply connecting to a VPN will attract attention in China for instance. Since VPN providers are niche companies, it is also unlikely that their IP addresses are blocked. Warning: In a small number of autocratic regimes (Cuba, Iran) the mere usage of VPN is illegal and can land you in prison, no matter what you use it for.


Tor is a worldwide network of encrypted, anonymizing web proxies. It is designed primarily for the purpose of making an internet user untraceable by the owner of the site he/she visits. However, it can also be used for circumventing filters and firewalls. Unlike other methods explained in this section, Tor automatically rotates the servers used to access the internet, making it harder to discover your identity. However, there are only around 3000 Tor servers in the world, and their IP addresses are public knowledge, making it easy for governments and organizations to block them. Even so, new Tor servers join the network all the time, and if you wait patiently, you may connect to one that isn't blocked yet. Although the Tor Project introduced a function which allows for connection to unlisted bridges (no public database), preventing oppressive governments from easily blocking TOR.

Using Tor requires installation of software and usually also a plug-in for the browser.

SSH access

SSH (Secure Shell) is a good way of tunneling traffic other than http. However, you will normally need access to a server to use SSH. If not provided by your university, this can be expensive. An alternative is to enable your home PC for SSH access, but this will require a special internet connection (static IP) and some technical knowledge.

  • if you control the server to which you want to connect, you can have your processes listen on ports that are unlikely to be blocked. A common technique is to have an SSH daemon listening on port 443, the secure HTTPS port, which is rarely blocked. This must be set up before going to the location with blocks on usual connections.
  • if you have SSH access to a third server, connect via SSH to that server, and utilise SSH port forwarding to open up a tunnel connection to the target server
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