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Internet access

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Revision as of 10:31, 15 September 2008 by Freundesstern (talk | contribs) (vpn)
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Internet access

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    This article is a travel topic

If you're traveling for pleasure, Internet access may be the last thing on your mind. You may even be glad to be free of it for a while. But it can be convenient way to keep in contact with the folks back home (without worrying about time zones or making appointments to talk by phone), it can be essential for business travelers, and there's no doubting the value of accessing for information wherever you are in the world.


Internet users have a wide variety of expectations and expertise regarding the internet. For some, a simple web browser and advice for where to find one is sufficient; for others, their needs may be more esoteric and technical, and they may be willing and able to jump through elaborate hoops to accomplish them. So in places this article will be simplistic to some, and technobabble to others. Sorry.

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 "free" service for patrons of a hotel, restaurant, or cafe. These are spreading quickly to 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:

  • Most will be running Microsoft Windows, which is widely familiar, but often plagued by limitations. In particular, they might be running an older version of Windows, which may have limited support (if any) for uploading pictures from a digital camera.
  • Other services that are commonly missing: IMAP clients for reading mail, microphones, and Internet-phone software. The only application you can generally count on being functional is a web browser.
  • 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.
  • 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'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. (In olden days hackers would get around this using acoustic couplers, but this probably doesn't happen much anymore.) 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.

One provider of international global roaming is, based in Spain, which requires no contract but only offers service on a prepaid basis. A provider like this one 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.

Many places do 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 North American computers don't recognize the dial tone in other countries, and will refuse to dial saying there is "no dial tone". If this is the case, you should be able to disable dial tone detection on your laptop.

Cellular phones

For GSM phones, the worldwide standard pretty much everywhere except Japan and South Korea, GPRS (packet data) roaming is becoming more and more common around the world. The successor to GSM, UMTS is also widely available. While GPRS offers basic modem speeds suitable for email and some browsing, UMTS offers speeds comparable to DSL broadband. As of 2007, the vast majority of phones is GPRS enabled, but 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 Blackberry/Treo/Communicator-type device with a large screen and keyboard 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.

Wired Ethernet

Businesses, universities, and perhaps private homes 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. Internet cafes, libraries, etc. may not allow this kind of access, but it is increasingly common to provide it (sometimes even for an extra fee) given the growing popularity of laptops.


WiFi Wireless access is increasingly common, but often comes with strings (instead of wires) attached. They fall into five basic types:

  • Completely open public access points, essentially permitting any device to access the Internet. These are common in hotels and restaurants. Free public access points with area-wide coverage are provided by some city councils such as Bristol, Cadiz, and Marseille
  • Open access points that require you to accept some policy in a browser before letting you connect to the Internet. That is, if you only want to read email with POP3 or some other protocol, you have to start a web browser and access a web page (being redirected to their policy-agreement page instead). This is a problem for hardware Internet phones.
  • Community access points. You become a member of a wifi community (usually by donating your own access point) and use the community's access points for free. The most notable wifi community is FON
  • Commercial 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. Such commercial access points are growing increasingly common, especially in areas where travellers are 'trapped' (airports for example).
  • Private access points left open by their owners sometimes inadvertently and other times as a friendly gesture to the community.

Lists of wireless accesspoints

  • WiFi411 - you can search a distance from city center

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 a lot of people with a single email.


Webmail provides access to your email over a web interface. For most email users this is very convenient, as it means that they can check their email wherever they can get access to a web browser. Webmail interfaces are growing more sophisticated and suitable even for people managing high volumes of email (>50 messages per day).

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. Recommended dedicated webmail providers are:

  • Yahoo! Mail - One of the most popular webmail sites, it offers webmail in several languages.
  • Gmail - With the more space than any other webmail site (2.5+GB) it is one of the best out there. GMail no longer requires an invintation to sign up.
  • Lonely Planet Ekit webmail integrated with phonecard, SMS, Fax targeted at travelers.

A very limited number of web access points will restrict access to sites known to host webmail. Examples include some 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 your normal email tools like Outlook or Thunderbird or the Mac's may be restricted if your ISP blocks access to their SMTP servers when you are off their network, or if the hotel or other network blocks access to "Port 25", the port normally used to send email. If you want to continue to use your familiar tools and not Webmail, you can either install and maintain a Virtual Private Network like LogMeIn or use a secure service like Loa PowerTools.

Shell accounts

A shell account allows you to login to a remote server's command line interface and use a text mail client (such as Pine or Mutt) which runs on the remote server. The advantage of a shell account, if you happen to have one, is that it is a alternative way to access email some your existing addresses that don't have webmail set up. If you have shell access you may not have to set up a special travelling webmail account and maintain two sets of inboxes. Another advantage is its usefulness with very slow Internet connections, an important feature when using a cell phone as a computer modem. It's uncommon for ISPs to provide shell access to your mail account, but if you buy web and/or email hosting through a dedicated provider, you are more likely to have shell access.

There are two normal ways to access a shell account:

  • telnet: an unencrypted, uncompressed connection, usually over port 23
  • ssh: an encrypted and optionally compressed connection, usually over port 22

Few Internet cafes will have port 22 blocked. Most use Microsoft Windows, so Putty is probably the easiest ssh client to use, assuming the computer's security will permit you to install it. Mac OS X workstations have the standard OpenSSH client available through the Terminal app. Depending on where you are, you may find the bandwidth horribly slow, making ssh almost unusable. Putty has an option to compress the connection, which may improve matters a little.

Security Concerns

Network Security

Using a public wireless or wired network (any unfamiliar network) can create a potential security breach because the provider of the network can eaves drop on unencrypted communication: basically sniffing the data traveling over the network for pearls of confidential data. However, many websites where this might be a concern — such as banks and corporate sites — make use of Layer Security (SSL/TLS) encryption so that anyone sniffing the data will only receive strongly encrypted data, in practical terms, impossible to decrypt. Most email servers and clients can also be configured to make use of TLS security to keep prying eyes out of your email communications. Methods of providing security include:

  • TLS/SSL security
    • over 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 with no monkey in the middle)
    • configured through your email or chat client software

In using TLS/SSL be sure to take seriously any alerts from your software about incorrect or unfamiliar certificates. This can be a sign that someone is attempting to gain access to your secure communications (such as your bank passwords and confidential communications) For most travellers these measure should provide confidence of security for most internet communication over unfamiliar networks.

Public Computer Security

The more 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:

  • 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.
  • Do not use third-party money transfer services such as PayPal. These services tend to have very one-sided user agreements that do not protect you if your account is compromised.
  • 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 straigh-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. is a list of public anonymous (or transparent) proxy servers, these can come and go quite rapidly however, and this list may not be up to date. 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 foward 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.

Here is a list of popular VPN providers


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 1000 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.

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 technial 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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