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How to Protect Your Data When You Travel with Macs and iOS Devices

November 11, 2017

Travel season is upon us. Throughout Summer, and again for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and school, people are travelling a lot. With travelling, comes extra risk for your data and your privacy.

At many borders, in particular the U.S. border, customs officials are asking for your passwords to unlock and search your devices and specifically search your social media accounts. While you can probably legally refuse, this could cause practical problems for you.

Devices can be seized and held, or the data can be copied, and if you’re not a resident, you may be denied entry altogether. Of course, you shouldn’t be afraid of travelling with your technology, but keep in mind: the less data on hand, the less exposure you’ll have.

As if that wasn’t stressful enough, there is the increased risk of cyber-crime while travelling to consider. When you travel, you are using public computers, public Wi-Fi, and you are exposing yourself to a greater risk of theft.

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Again, you shouldn’t be scared to travel with your devices, but you should try to strike a balance between using your devices freely, and being security conscious.

In this guide, we’ll cover ways to reduce the risk of having your data combed through by security agents, as well as reduce the practical risks of data theft and device theft while travelling.

Safety Tips for Travelling with Your Device

Gadget theft is an issue literally everywhere. It’s totally possible to have your iOS device stolen right in your home town, but it’s far more likely when you are out travelling.

Why? Well, you are weighed down with a bunch of other things, you’re in an unfamiliar place, and you’re not always thinking about where you phone is – or your wallet for that matter. Thieves know this and will target susceptible travellers.

There are a few things you can do to a) reduce the risk of this happening and b) make it less painful if it does happen. Here are our tips:

Make sure that your iOS device has a password on it.

This seems obvious, but it’s always suprising how many people neglect to secure their iOS devices with passwords and Touch ID. In our opinion, you should turn on a passcode and enable Touch ID.

This will make you phone very hard to break into for a thief.
If you already have a password, consider reducing the amount of time it takes for the screen to lock.

This will make it less likely that thief could get at your phone while it was unlocked, thus making your password useless.

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To do this, open up the Settings app and tap on Display & Brightness.

img  display settings - How to Protect Your Data When You Travel with Macs and iOS Devices

Tap on Auto-Lock (as you can see I have it set on Never – not a good idea when travelling).

img  auto lock  - How to Protect Your Data When You Travel with Macs and iOS Devices

Change the Auto-Lock setting to 30 seconds or 1 minute instead.

img  lock quickly - How to Protect Your Data When You Travel with Macs and iOS Devices

It’s annoying to have to enter a password all the time, but not nearly as annoying as having your phone and potentially your identity stolen.

One last note on passwords: it may be worth changing the passwords to valuable accounts like Facebook and email, just so that if one password is compromised, it doesn’t compromise your other passwords. We hope you don’t just use one password, but hey – no judgement.

Turn off location broadcasting apps.

Certain apps will broadcast your location to the world or at the very least to your friends. For example, if you make a Facebook post while travelling, it may tag the place you’ve posted from. In a more extreme example, Snapchat now shows your exact location all the time if you have location services turned on.

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To turn off these services, open up the Settings app and tap on Privacy.

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Tap on Location Services.

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Each app that is using Location Services is listed here. Tap on the app and turn off their access to your location. Most of these apps don’t really need your location anyways.

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Turn on Find My iPhone.

Find My iPhone is a must when you a travelling and you should definitely consider having it turned on all the time. It’s an incredibly useful and practical feature.

Basically, Find My iPhone allows you to track almost every Apple device. If it’s connected to the internet in any way, it will show you it’s location. If it’s not connected to the internet, then it will show you it’s last location.

Perhaps the best part of Find My iPhone, is that you can remotely wipe the device, remotely lock the device, and remotely put a message on the device if the device is merely lost. When the device is connected to the internet, it will awaken, receive its directions and wipe itself or lock itself.

To turn on Find My iPhone, open up the app from the Home screen.

img  open Find iPhone  - How to Protect Your Data When You Travel with Macs and iOS Devices

If Find My iPhone isn’t turned on, it will walk you through the necessary steps.
Buy a travel bag or an iPhone holder.

It’s always better to carry your valuables around your neck or in a waist pouch on the front of your body. You can also get a pocket iPhone holder, that keeps you phone locked into it and is on the front of your body.

Storing your iPhone like this will make it less susceptible to being stolen.

How to Reduce Your Risk of Cybercrime While Travelling

Anytime you are travelling, you open yourself to cybercrime more than usual. There are several steps, some simple, some more complicated, that you can take to help reduce the risk.

Use a USB Wi-Fi Adapter

It’s not difficult to mimic a public Wi-Fi access point from an establishment. These fake Wi-Fi networks often have generic or vague name and are without password protection. Sometimes they will require that you give up information to access the Wi-Fi.

Depending on your situation, you may be tempted to use a network like this (as safe public Wi-Fi does exist to some extent), but we encourage caution. Make sure that the network name is exactly as described by the restaurant or hotel, and it’s always safer if the network has password.

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Better yet, use a private USB Wi-Fi adapter. This takes care of most of these issues. You can buy them before you leave on your trip and buy a set amount of international travel to use it with.

Using a Wi-Fi adapter ensures that the Wi-Fi network is only being accessed by you and that it is connected to the internet directly. If you’re on a business trip and handling sensitive information, this may be very worth it, and potentially covered by your company.

Avoid Public Computers

It’s always best to avoid using public computers. There is really no way to know if a keylogger, malware, or a virus has been installed on a computer, so it’s best to just avoid them.

It’s also worth avoid plugging a device into the USB port of a public computer. There have been instances of public USB ports being set up to steal data and information from the devices that e plugged into them.

When Using Public Computers, Take Precautions

That said, sometimes using a public computer is your only option. And for certain things, it’s totally fine to use a public computer. Basically, if you’re not logging into an account or accessing personal information, you should feel welcome to use a public computer.

Checking maps, train schedules, hours of businesses, researching restaurants and things to do – that’s all fine. You’re not putting any private info at risk. It’s when you’re signing into personal account that your data becomes at risk.

If you are in a desperate situation and you need to log into a personal account, take precautions here as well. Make sure you open the site in a ‘private’ or ‘incognito’ setting. Ensure that you do not have “remember me” or “stay signed in” on.

Some sites have a ‘public computer’ setting that will keep your data more secure.
After you’re done, clear the computer’s history, the cache, and the cookies. This way fewer records of your session remain.

Buy A Travel Device

If you have a bunch of sensitive information stored on your devices, consider buying cheap travel version of the devices. This way, you can have a phone that doesn’t have your banking info, credit card info, and email all loaded up.

You can have a cheap Chromebook or other laptop that is free of sensitive documents and things you wouldn’t want to lose. You can use it for travel and surfing purposes only, and feel much safer.

Use a VPN

You can set up a VPN with your home wireless router, so that your internet access is routed through your home access point not matter where you are. This is cheap to do, but not overly simple.

Instead, you can use ExpressVPN or a similar service, which will encrypt all of your internet traffic – in and out of a browser. Even if you’re working within an app (e.g. a banking app), all of the information will be encrypted.


Some websites have HTTPS set up for you already (like Facebook and Gmail) but others won’t. There is an HTTPS Everywhere browser add-on that you can use to encrypt all of your internet traffic within the browser that the add-on is installed on.

HTTPS protects you against many standard types of surveillance and account hijacking. The add-on is available for Firefox, Chrome, and Opera.

You can also use the super-secure Tor browser, as HTTPS is the standard means of connecting for that browser.

Make Sure You Have Two-Factor Authentication Set Up

If you haven’t already, set up two-factor authentication. This is a service provided by Apple as well as other companies like Gmail, wherein you have to authorize any new sign in by confirming the sing-in’s location and verifying the confirmation with a unique number code.

These makes it very unlikely that somebody will break into your Apple ID or break into your email account. Without that code (which only you will have, ideally) there is nothing a thief can do to break into your account.

Do Your Research

You can always search around online for reports of common scams within a certain country. It’s easy to find out based on other people’s experiences what to look for and expect. There are a great many scams in the world, but they’re not always ingenious!

Understanding how frequent theft and cybercrime is in various countries is also important, and may inform you on how much to prepare for your trip. The countries with the highest rates of reported cybercrime are:

United States of America

Knowing how common cybercrime is should inform you on how cautious to be.

Also, research the practices of customs officials. If you know that at a certain border, the officials want to get all of your passwords and search your devices, you can be prepared for that. You can wipe data, bring travel devices, etc.

Being well-prepared gives peace of mind and it will also allow you to skate through customs quickly, to get on with your trip.

Using Public Wi-Fi Safely

If you must use public Wi-Fi, and have made sure that the network you are connecting to is the right one as provided by the hotel or restaurant, there are steps you can take to reduce the target on your back.

Disable network sharing. People will have a harder time seeing your device and knowing that it is connected to the Wi-Fi. You can find this in your System Preferences under Network Preferences.

Disable Bluetooth. Bluetooth can be just as vulnerable as Wi-Fi, depending on what you’re using it for. Turn it off, and this will eliminate a few means of attack.

Connect to a proxy or VPN. Buy a subscription to VPN site before you leave and use it whenever you’re logging into sites with personal information. Or better yet, avoid entering personal information at all until you are on a private Wi-fi network.

Practical Considerations to Make Life Easier

All this seems like a lot of work, but you may actually have a lot of these things set up already. Passwords, Find My iPhone, etc. are all strongly encouraged within the iOS system. It’s important to realize that you needn’t take all of these precautions, it’s just good to have a background knowledge of data security.

That said, there are a few really simple things you can do that will make every-day life easier, as well as make travelling safer. Here are a few tips that we strongly recommend.

Make Backups Consistently – Even While Travelling

We probably sound like a broken record when we talk about backups (as does every tech website) but we cannot stress enough how useful they are. If you lose your data or lose your entire phone, having a backup is a total lifesaver.

Getting into the habit of regularly backing up your computer is something you should be doing, now.

The key thing is to continue your backup habits even while on vacation.

Of course, it’s boring backing up data while on holidays – there are about a hundred things you would rather be doing. But, if you’ve been in the habit of backing up, you’ll know that it’s not actually hard.

ou can set your phone to back up every night while it’s plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi. Simply go to the Settings app and tap the Apple ID header at the top of the page.

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Then, tap the iCloud section.

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Tap on iCloud Backup, and make sure it’s turned on. This means your phone will automatically back up every night.

img  icloud backup - How to Protect Your Data When You Travel with Macs and iOS Devices

Similarly, by merely taking a small hard drive with you on your trip, you can easily back up your Mac while you’re getting ready for bed or taking a shower in the morning. It doesn’t take long, and will save you a lot of stress.

Bad things happen – people drop their phones in the ocean, have them stolen, lose them on busses, drop them out of balconies – all the time. If this happens to you, be prepared.

Consider Using a Password Keeper

If you’ve made new, complicated passwords for all of your accounts, it may be worth using a password keeper to keep them all straight.

This gives you the ability to remember one, complicated, but memorable password which will give you access to all of your protected accounts.

The password app 1Password has a Travel Mode option for its paid user base that removes all password vaults except those deemed safe for travel. You can turn this on and off at the border depending on what you want to give up.

Store Important Documents in the Cloud

There are many could-based storage services now that will make accessing important documents much easier. For one thing, iCloud Drive can be set to automatically store any document you make in the cloud. These documents can then be accessed anywhere by visiting iCloud.com.

However, iCloud Drive is not as customizable or shareable as many would like. We are big fans of Google Drive and Dropbox. You can upgrade both for relatively little money, and have virtually limitless amounts of storage.

You can store music, videos, pictures, documents – literally whatever you want in these cloud programs. What makes them even more useful, is the ability to share them with friends and colleagues.

If you’re working on a group project for school or work or whatever else, you can share folders and have friends add to them freely. You can keep tabs on how the work is coming along and do it all without ever downloading the files to your physical computer, making the files impossible to lose due to theft or damage or whatever else.

Install Updates and Anti-Virus Software

It’s always helpful to keep all of your devices fully upgraded, as upgrades usually include security repair and advances. Always update over secure, private Wi-Fi and back up before you do so.

Also consider downloading or updating your anti-virus software. AVG makes a free and well-respected anti-virus system for Windows and Android devices. It’s not free for Mac users, but may be worth it anyways.

Use Common Sense

These technical considerations are important and useful, but you should above all be using common sense.

If you’re using a shared computer, don’t leave it alone while you’re logged in. Don’t allow people to look over your shoulder when you’re typing in passwords. Be aware of the people around you.

Be mindful of what you’re opening. If you suspect an attachment is full of financial info or otherwise sensitive information, don’t open it in a public place. Don’t open or visit potentially NSFW attachments or websites on public computers either.

Know that there is no way to be sure that a public computer is totally safe. It may have adware, malware, or a keylogger, and you would simply be unaware.

Keep your wits about you in public places, especially crowded tourist attractions and public spaces like subways, buses, airports, and museums or events. Keep your valuables around your neck and in front of you, not in your back pocket.

Be responsible with your passwords and make sure to keep your computer free of viruses. Don’t pick easy password or security questions, and don’t visit questionable websites.


Cybercrime, identity theft and gadget theft are real. Criminals will often take advantage of unsuspecting or naïve travelers. Before you go overseas, consider the risks and take some of the appropriate actions we’ve suggested here.

This article originally appeared in our monthly subscription newsletter, iExpertnews.

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