Updated – January 30th, 2014
If you signed up to Study Abroad for the Spring 2014 semester you’re probably busy getting adjusted to your new life abroad. If this is your first time living abroad brace yourself, this will undoubtedly be one of the most memorable experiences of your life!
By now you’ve already spent countless hours packing and preparing for your 4-6 month trip abroad. You probably checked and double-checked that everything was in order. You ensured that your laptop is packed, you have your passport and visa documents ready, and you probably purchased a few converters for your power cables. You’ve made arrangements to get a foreign sim card (or at least a pay as you go phone) to keep in touch with the countless new friend you’ll meet abroad and you’ve notified your bank about your travel plans (so they won’t freeze your accounts after seeing foreign transaction).
On the way to the airport your parents probably ran through a mental checklist with you, confirming that you have your passport, boarding pass, and some spending cash.
“Yes, Mom and Dad,” you reply, confident that you have everything you need.
But you already forgot something. Something you didn’t even know you needed. Don’t worry, I did too.
You see, I went to live abroad for the first time in the summer between by junior and senior year of college. It was the summer of 2010 and I couldn’t have been more excited to start my summer program in Budapest, Hungary.
Like you, I started packing early, not wanting to forget anything important. Sitting on the runway with my seat-belt buckled – tray table and seat back in the upright and locked position – I was confident I had everything I needed to depart on this incredible adventure.
I got settled in Hungary and everything couldn’t have been more perfect! The people were friendly, I was in a great part of town, and the city was everything I expected and more.
It wasn’t until I connected my laptop to the WIFI and logged onto the internet for the first time that I realized I forgot something: An American IP Address.
What I quickly realized is that the Internet isn’t the same everywhere in the world. As Americans we enjoy unrestricted and uncensored internet access. Outside the US, censorship is prevalent and depending on where you go, you may not have access to social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and even communication tools like Skype.
When logging onto the internet from outside the US, you also wont have access to services like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Spotify, and many, many others. Even if you’re a subscriber to these services they’ll still be blocked due to the fact that you’re trying to login from outside the US.
The good news is that there’s a very easy solution to this problem and it’s completely legal as well. The solution is called a Virtual Private Network or VPN for short. A VPN is a private and secure network through which you connect to the world wide web. Essentially your computer establishes a secure connection to a remote server in the United States for example. Upon connecting to this remote server your computer is able to send all internet traffic through this server, thus allowing you to access the internet as if you physically present in the United States.
This accomplishes a few things at the same time. Not only do you get the benefits of an American IP address which will allow you to access geo-restricted sites (Netflix, Hulu, Pandora etc.), a VPN connection also encrypts your data so your information is secure. This is great if you plan on logging onto the internet from Airports or cafes.[box type=”note” style=”rounded” icon=””]Pro Tip: Never log into an online banking account or another personal account from a public wifi connection unless you’re also connected to a VPN. It’s far too easy for hackers to gain access to your information over an unsecured wifi connection.[/box] Don’t worry if this is confusing to you. There are many guides online which can help you understand how a VPN works. The Wikipedia page on Virtual Private Networks is also a good reference page.
Many Colleges and Universities actually supply their students and faculty with VPN accounts. Even Harvard does it. Check with your IT department to see if you have a VPN account available to you. I’m sure the I.T. staff at your school will be more than happy to give you this information.
In the event that your school does not provide you with a VPN connection, you shouldn’t worry. There are many reputable VPN services available that you can subscribe to while you’re abroad.
Personally I used a service called ExpressVPN, but you could also use IPVanish, VyprVPN, or many others. Do a quick Google search for “Best VPN Software” and read some reviews before deciding on which service to choose.
Your semester abroad is going to change your life in more ways than you know. Enjoy every moment of it and soak it all in!
For me, my summer program in Budapest, Hungary completely changed my life. After my senior year I accepted a full time job in Budapest and headed back to Eastern Europe where I still live today. I’ve been living abroad for over 2 years now and I couldn’t be happier. By the way, I still use my VPN account on a daily basis. Take my advice and get yourself a VPN account sooner rather than later.
I hope you found this helpful and if you have any questions about VPN technology or life abroad you can contact me through my blog JordanFried.com or by sending a tweet to @JordanFried. Enjoy and safe travels!