Before you read my ExpressVPN review, you should know that I am a digital immigrant.
What I mean by that is that I didn’t grow up with computers like digital natives; the only computers I knew of as a child in Connecticut were the ones that filled whole rooms in banks and government offices. As far as I was concerned, they were equivalent to the ones on Star Trek.
My digital life
I didn’t use a personal computer until I was in college, when I borrowed one to type my senior essay. A friend gave me the key to her room so I could use it while she was away over Easter: no laptops in those days!
I typed the essay into it, then realized it needed to be double-spaced. I could not for the life of me figure out how to take this single-spaced document and make it double spaced. Frustrated, I printed it out (remember dot matrix printers?) and returned to the safety of my own room and my electric typewriter. I retyped the whole thing, double-spaced this time.
I think the internet existed at that point, but I didn’t know anything about it except that it was some mysterious network called “the information superhighway.”
Fast forward to today, and I manage pretty well. I still don’t understand anything about computers or the internet but using them (and other devices like smartphones) is another thing. I can do that quite well.
I am pleased to say that, when I was approached to write a review for ExpressVPN, I actually had an inkling of what a VPN is. Not that I understood it, mind you! I don’t. I’d never used a VPN, but I knew just enough: I knew that I should be using one.
Disclosure: I received a free subscription to ExpressVPN, which makes this a sponsored post. Nevertheless, all opinions are my own and ExpressVPN has no influence over what I choose to write. Additionally, this article contains affiliate links to ExpressVPN. If you click on one and buy a subscription, I will get a small cut of what you spend.
VPN as I understand it
VPN stands for “Virtual Private Network.” While I’ve already admitted to not really understanding how it works, here is my extremely over-simplified explanation of the process, i.e. VPN as my brain understands it:
Every device such as a laptop or desktop computer has what’s called an IP address: a series of numbers that is assigned to it. Your home WiFi company (a.k.a. your internet service provider) has a server, which is, essentially, a powerful computer somewhere nearby, that communicates with your computer and with the world. When you send an email, visit a website, or do anything else online, it’s your server that sends your data out, from your IP address.
If you use a VPN, it disguises that address, making it seem as if you are using a different one in a different location. It does this by running its own servers. You get online and the VPN bounces your signal from your server to its server and then to wherever online you meant to visit. This makes the internet world think you are somewhere else and using a different IP address.
A good VPN also encrypts your data, so it stays private and secure. A hacker can’t get past the VPN’s servers to steal your information because he can’t see who you are or access your computer or phone. Even if he could, he couldn’t read it because it’s encrypted.
At the same time, there’s a secondary benefit to using a VPN. Normally, the VPN will bounce your data to a server near you. The smaller the distance, the faster that bounce happens. If you prefer, though, to look as if you are in a different country, you can choose a server somewhere else, still hiding your data so that it’s harder to hack into. I’ll explain why that’s an advantage further on.
Why use a VPN for travel?
Despite my extremely limited understanding, I do know that you should use a VPN when you travel because using a public WiFi network is risky. Whenever you go online through a public network – over a coffee in Starbucks, for example, or from a hotel room – you open your computer or phone up to all sorts of nastiness, since it’s now using a server that isn’t well-protected.
Basically anyone, when you use a public WiFi connection, can hijack your information: find out your passwords, for example, and use them to steal your identity. They can access pretty much any information you have on your computer or phone. They can even hack into your bank accounts and steal your money.
I have no idea how likely any of this is to happen, but it’s not something I want to risk. Yet I have been taking that risk for years when I travel:
- I have, on occasion, ducked into a Starbucks or similar just to check my mail: usually this involved open WiFi with no password at all.
- Airports often have free WiFi, available without a password to anyone. What else is there to do in an airport besides play on your phone?
- Some cities have free public WiFi, and I get on my phone to look up addresses, recommendations and so on.
- I use hotel WiFi very often. Sometimes they have passwords; sometimes they don’t. Even when they do, it’s usually something like “hotelname2016” and they haven’t changed it since 2016. Anyone who’s ever asked for the password can still use it … or hackers can easily just guess it.
I’ve at least been savvy enough not to carry out financial transactions over public WiFi. I turn on the data roaming on my phone and use that, which is a bit safer, I think, though I’m not really sure. If a hacker gets to my passwords because I used an open WiFi, he could still get to my accounts.
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Access to content
In some countries, some websites are blocked. To get around this censorship, you can log into your VPN and choose a server in a different country.
(Be warned, though: in some countries – China, Turkey, Russia, the UAE, and probably more, like North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Belarus – using a VPN is illegal, or else you may only use a government-approved VPN company.)
For a traveler, accessing the internet as if you are somewhere else can have advantages. Try, for example, comparing airline pricing. Let’s say you want to fly to Greece. Check out the prices for that flight using your local server, but also look while you’re on a Greek server, or really any country with a lower cost of living. It might very well be cheaper. It might not, but it’s certainly worth checking.
Here’s another example of why this is a nice feature of VPNs: do you enjoy Netflix? When you’re on the road, using a VPN will enable you to access Netflix from your home country to get the same choices you have at home.
This rather long-winded explanation of VPNs is meant to explain my one-month trial of ExpressVPN.
ExpressVPN has servers in 160 cities in 94 countries. As I explained in my “VPN for dummies” above, ExpressVPN disguises your IP number by giving it another one from one of its servers. This way, you can’t be identified as the one accessing or sharing information. At the same time, all your information gets encrypted.
An additional feature of ExpressVPN is a promise: they will not log or record any data that could potentially help to identify you or the websites that you visit. That means that if, even with all the extensive security they use on their servers, one was breached by a hacker, that hacker would not be able to get your information because it simply doesn’t exist anymore.
My ExpressVPN review
I installed ExpressVPN on my Android phone and my Samsung laptop: just a one-month trial at first. I traveled in Scandinavia for three weeks while I used them both.
My biggest concern about using a VPN was how much it would affect internet speed. I was pleased to find that, for the most part, it didn’t have any significant effect.
On my phone, there was no noticeable difference at all. I could even stream videos with no effect on the images. I set mine to connect on startup, but you can also set it to connect only when you choose to connect it. (But don’t forget!)
On my laptop, it took a bit longer. Sometimes, when I started it up, my laptop would attempt to connect with the WiFi, but the ExpressVPN program would stop it from connecting to protect my data. (I had set it to do that.)
Laptop as stroppy teenager
My laptop seemed to get confused and slow down (I see computers as very similar to stroppy adolescents: smart and insightful much of the time, but very easily frustrated and angry.). The internet got cut off because it hadn’t connected to VPN yet, but it couldn’t connect to VPN without internet.
The issue, I realized eventually, was not the stroppy teenager; it was my own lack of patience, always a problem for me when dealing with
If I just waited, it sorted itself out (or, rather, to return to the adolescent analogy, it calmed down and started playing nicely again) within less than a minute: just ten seconds or so when the laptop had been put on “sleep,” more when it had been completely shut down.
Once the laptop made the connection, I noticed no difference in internet speed when I used my laptop.
I should point out, though, that if the WiFi you’re trying to use is weak, it won’t work well. I was at one hotel that had a weak WiFi signal. Whenever it faded, I lost the connection to the VPN. Then, when the WiFi signal got a bit stronger, I had to wait for both the WiFi and the VPN to start playing well together again.
Installing and using ExpressVPN
Installing ExpressVPN was easy: very user-friendly and with clear step-by-step directions. I set it up on both devices with no problem, set my preferences, then could use it. It has apps for a whole list of devices, and their subscription allows you to put it on five different devices.
Once you’ve installed the app, you don’t really have to actively use it anymore. Set it to operate automatically, and it connects to a server on startup and maintains that connection unless the WiFi fails or you actively decide to disconnect. It automatically chooses what it calls a “smart location,” generally nearby.
You only ever need to open the app if you want to choose a different country’s server, which is easy enough to do. You can see a list of recommended locations and, on a separate tab, a list of all locations. Generally the “smart location” is the best one to use, unless you have a specific reason to want to operate from another country.
You can also do a “speed test” on a laptop which checks the speed of all of the recommended servers. You can then choose to connect through the fastest server on the list, which may not be the nearest.
A tip: Set it to automatically start up when you turn on your computer or phone. That way, you won’t make the mistake of forgetting to use it when you send confidential information or make a financial transaction.
You can sign up for ExpressVPN using this link.
Is ExpressVPN safe?
Before I agreed to this sponsorship, I did some research. It turns out that ExpressVPN has an excellent reputation: praised for its level of security, the sheer number of servers it uses, its speed and no-logging policy. It’s consistently in the top VPN lists, more often than not at #1. These are written by people who actually understand VPNs and can test the accuracy of their claims in a way that I can’t.
Here’s one of these sites and here’s another. Some older articles rate it a bit lower because, at the time, ExpressVPN only allowed three devices to be connected to one subscription. That has changed and it can now be used on five devices.
I did go ahead and use WiFi to make some financial transactions on my bank’s app on my phone. All I did, just to be sure, was check ExpressVPN’s app to make sure it was connected to one of its servers. It always was. My transactions went through without a hitch, and I felt safe making them.
The only real downside that any of the reviews lists is that the price is a bit higher than some of the other top-rated VPNs.
You can pay for ExpressVPN by the month for $12.95 (about €12) a month, though the first month is a free trial period. The cheapest deal they offer is if you buy a whole year at a time, in which case it costs about $99.95 (about €90) for the year.
You can sign up for ExpressVPN using this link.
If you ever use WiFi outside your home system (which I hope you protect with a strong password!), you should seriously consider getting a VPN. I can’t compare ExpressVPN to other ones from first-hand experience, but it works well (and easily) for me, so I’m sticking with it.
Have you ever been hacked? What happened? Do you use a VPN? Leave a comment below!