As travel season gets into full swing and everyone starts shuffling across the country, it’s time to think about how to secure the devices that come along with you. Holiday travel is stressful enough—you’re running around, attempting to keep track of everything—without your having to worry about what happens if you lose your smartphone or laptop. By taking just a few simple steps, you can help guarantee that your smartphone and laptop are trackable and encrypted, and therefore safe from theft and loss (and nosy family members).
How to enable phone and laptop tracking
Before you leave for a trip, you should enable tracking on your phone and laptop. This way, if your item is lost or stolen, you can track its whereabouts. If you can’t recover your devices, these tools also allow you to remotely wipe them. It’s important you enable these features before you lose your device, so do it now.
- Android: Open Settings > Security > Find My Device, and make sure Find My Device is turned on.
- iPhone: Open Settings, tap your Apple ID > Find My, and make sure Find My iPhone is enabled.
- Windows: Click Start > Settings > Update & security > Find My Device. Click Change and enable it (if you don’t have a Microsoft account, you will need to sign up).
- macOS: Open System Preferences > iCloud (or in macOS Catalina click Apple ID and then click iCloud in the sidebar), then select Find My Mac and click Allow.
Don’t forget to back up your devices before you leave, in case you lose them.
Use a VPN when connected to public Wi-Fi
It’s best to use a virtual private network (VPN) when connecting your devices to public Wi-Fi, including the Wi-Fi at airports, hotels, coffee shops, and Airbnb places. A VPN creates a secure connection between your device and the Internet so snoopers can’t see what you’re doing online.
We recommend TunnelBear as the best VPN, partially due to how easy it is to use on smartphones and laptops. Once you sign up with TunnelBear and install the software, enable the VPN anytime you connect to public Wi-Fi. You can also set it up so that it turns on automatically when you connect to unfamiliar Wi-Fi networks. If you don’t travel frequently enough to justify the yearly subscription, you can pay by the month to cover holiday travel.
Speaking of airports, you may have also seen stories about “juice jacking,” the idea that a random airport USB charger could affect your smartphone with malware. Despite such warnings, there’s no evidence of this happening in the real world, and modern smartphones protect against this type of attack. Regardless, it’s always best to travel with a portable charger.
How to enable password, passcode, or biometric protection
If you don’t travel often, you may have never bothered to set up login passwords on your devices. You should enable password protection in case you lose your phone or laptop.
- Android: Open Settings > Security, and select a PIN or password. If your phone supports fingerprint or face unlock, enable that feature as well.
- iPhone: Open Settings > Face ID & Passcode (or Touch ID & Passcode on older devices), and set up a passcode along with whichever biometric lock your phone supports.
- Windows: Click Start > Settings > Accounts > Sign-in options, and set a password. If your laptop supports Windows Hello, enable the facial-recognition login.
- macOS: Open System Preferences > Users & Groups, and then make sure Automatic login is set to Off. If you have a MacBook with Touch ID, open System Preferences > Touch ID and click the checkbox for Unlocking your Mac.
This is also a good time to check the auto-lock timing on your smartphone and laptop. If you forget to manually lock or sleep a device, a passerby—a stranger, a nosy brother-in-law—can easily gain access to all your data.
- Android: Open Settings > Display > Advanced > Screen Timeout, and set it to 30 seconds.
- iPhone: Open Settings > Display & Brightness > Auto Lock, and change the setting to 30 seconds.
- Windows: Click Start > Settings > Power and Sleep. Set the sleep setting to one minute.
- Mac: Open System Preferences > Security & Privacy, and then make sure Require password after sleep or screensaver begins is checked. Then head back to the System Preferences main page and open up Energy Saver. Set the Turn display off after setting to one minute.
With these options set up, it will be much harder for anyone who comes across your lost or stolen device to get into it and access your files.
How to enable encryption on your laptop
If your laptop is stolen or lost, a thief can get into your computer if they’re willing to put in some work, even if you set a login password. Encryption jumbles up the data on your storage drive so no one can read it without a key, which makes it nearly impossible for someone to access the data without your password. Modern Android phones and iPhones have encryption enabled by default, but on a laptop you need to turn it on manually.
Follow this guide from The New York Times (Wirecutter’s parent company) to enable encryption on your Windows or Mac laptop. The process can take up to an hour on larger storage drives, so do it before you leave on your trip. When you enable encryption, it’s important that you never forget the password you set, because without that password you’ll never access your data again. If you don’t have a password manager already, now is a good time to sign up for a password manager to handle that for you.
Disable AirDrop on Apple devices
If you’re anything like me, you don’t use AirDrop often, but when you’re visiting family, you might turn it on to share photos and then forget to turn it off. I’ve received several unsolicited messages, usually containing some dumb meme, at airports after having left AirDrop enabled by accident. Leaving AirDrop on is asking to get trolled by someone, so it’s best to disable that feature when you’re not using it. Android doesn’t have a feature like this, so you don’t need to worry about getting unsolicited photos on an Android phone.
- iPhone: Open Settings > AirDrop, and then set it to Contacts Only or Off.
- macOS: Open Finder, click AirDrop on the sidebar, and then set the Allow me to be discovered by option to Contacts only or Off.
- Windows: Windows doesn’t have AirDrop, but it does have “Nearby sharing,” which works similarly to AirDrop. Click Start > Settings > System > Shared experiences, and toggle Nearby sharing off.
Note that the tips above will help keep your devices secure during domestic travel in the United States. If you’re traveling internationally to higher-risk countries, such as China, consider using tools such as 1Password’s Travel Mode, which removes sensitive login info for border crossings, or skipping traveling with your electronic devices altogether, if you can.