You’d be forgiven for thinking the home of Google and Apple would be a world leader in terms of connection speeds but if you don’t plan ahead, you could well find yourself stuck at a crawl. This guide gives you the lowdown not just on making sure you get online and at a good speed but other great tips on being a tech-savvy traveller in the US.
We cover everything from how to get online and mobile data that won’t break the band to must-have gadgets and app downloads, and even how to save on exchange rate charges.
Public Wi-Fi coverage is good
The US is a vast country but the good news is that public Wi-Fi coverage is excellent. So good in fact that it’s not worth bothering with a personal Wi-Fi hotspot (like a MiFi) unless it’s critical for work purposes.
You’ll typically find free Wi-Fi in the following places:
- Coffee shops
- Hotels / motels / campgrounds
- Big stores (like Target, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble etc) and shopping malls
- Tourist information centers
- Truck stops
- Tourist attractions and parks
Public Wi-Fi is slow (with some exceptions)
You should be prepared though that speeds are less than impressive in many locations, with 2-4Mbps download speeds being common.
You do have a couple of options though if you really need to get online at zippier speeds:
- Starbucks – 9+Mbps
- McDonalds – 4+Mbps
Starbucks is actually a better option than most hotels when it comes to speed. Most offer a pretty ordinary service, even at the more expensive hotel chains like Hyatt, whose download speeds have been measured at 4.5Mbps, below what you need to stream HD video. Budget chains like Comfort Inn and Days Inn are worse: expect speeds closer to 3Mbps.
If you’re watching Netflix or YouTube in your hotel room, be ready to switch to low/medium quality for smoother playback. You might also want to avoid leaving downloading those big files for your big meeting until the last minute.
Of course, average Wi-Fi speeds vary depending on where you go. These stats are for general Wi-Fi, not just public hotspots, but they still give a sense of what to expect and how it gets pretty poor, pretty quickly once you get beyond the home of Capitol Hill
Top 10 states for Wi-Fi speed
- Washington DC: 24.57Mbps
- California: 10.09Mbps
- Illinois: 8.7Mbps
- New York: 7.3Mbps
- Georgia: 7.25Mbps
- Colorado: 7.23Mbps
- Kansas: 7.14Mbps
- Pennsylvania: 6.64Mbps
- Florida: 6.29Mbps
- Texas: 5.49Mbps
Source: Rotten Wi-Fi
Consider a VPN
While free availability of Wi-Fi is a wonderful thing, you absolutely should be highly security conscious if you are going to use it for anything but the most trivial web surfing.
These public hotspots are often open networks and are therefore completely unencrypted. Your data is being transmitted in plain text and is simple to intercept using freely available software. Not a problem if you’re checking the latest news headlines, definitely an issue if you doing anything private.
Even hotel Wi-Fi can be as lacking in security. If the only password you enter is in your browser then it’s still an open network and very vulnerable. Even if you have to enter a password into your Wi-Fi connection settings, your encrypted connection is shared with other guests, who could easily gain access to your data.
Definite no-no’s on an unprotected Wi-Fi hotspot:
- Online banking
- Email (both log-in details and sensitive data)
- Social media
- Accessing anything password-protected online
Using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) gives you security by creating an encrypted “tunnel” over the internet between your computer, phone or tablet and whatever website or app (such as your bank or email) you are accessing.
All you need is a cheap monthly VPN subscription. Use a service like Top10VPN.com (that’s us!) to find the best one. For travel to the US, security should be your main concern, so look for a VPN with good privacy features, such as a wide range of security protocols, killswitch and DNS leak protection. For more info on this, see our in-depth beginner’s guide to VPNs.
3 more reasons you need a VPN in the US
- The US lags behind the rest of the world in data privacy
- The NSA monitors web traffic and has extensive snooping powers
- Google is forced to hand over tens of thousands of data requests to the US government each year
Beef up your online security toolkit
For the same reasons that a VPN is vital for the tech-savvy traveller, making sure you have the full spectrum of online security apps installed is a sensible move. There are some great free apps that you should install immediately (whether or not you are going to the US in fact):
- Never type your passwords (or write them down). Use a free password manager like LastPass and install the browser add-on. Use it to generate secure passwords and autofill them for you.
- Scan regularly for malware with free software like Malwarebytes.
- Make sure your anti-virus software is working and up-to-date
- Have tools installed to remove spyware, such as SpyBot
- Consider encrypting any important files with a free tool like Veracrypt
4G mobile speeds may disappoint
Much like public Wi-Fi, 4G coverage is very good in the US but download speeds are very much subpar, due to an oversubscribed and ageing network.
A recent Open Signal report showed that three of the four biggest mobile operators (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile) each boasted between 75-85% coverage nationally, putting the US in the top 10 globally. However, the fastest reported speed was a measly 12Mbps (T-Mobile) with 6-8Mbps being the norm.
How US 4G speeds compare globally:
- US: 6-12Mbps
- UK: 12-18Mbps
- Australia: 12-21Mbps
- Canada: 17-21Mbps
- NZ: 29Mbps
- South Korea: 26-34Mbps
- Denmark: 18-35Mbps
- Singapore: 30-38Mbps
There’s a good number of European countries that at 25Mbps can offer 4G that’s more than twice as fast as the best the US has to offer. 4G in the States is slower than Peru, Dominican Republic and Latvia for example and is in the bottom quartile globally.
The upshot is that you’ll notice a drop in performance on your arrival. If you are on a slow mobile data connection, try some of the following tips:
- Turn off Background App Refresh (iPhone) / restrict background data (Android)
- Toggle off mobile data use for your hungriest apps.
- If you usually stream music at the highest quality on Spotify you’ll want to dive into your settings and reduce it to Streaming Quality to Normal.
- Turn off “Use mobile data” for iCloud
- Turn off automatic app updates – or restrict to Wi-Fi only
- Use Data Saver in Chrome (Android only) to compress web pages
- Search Google Maps for locations in advance and save them for offline use
Decide your mobile data strategy in advance
Long before you board the plane, you should decide how you plan to access the Internet on the move when there’s no Wi-Fi available. Depending on your mobile provider, continuing to use your phone as normal could result in a large bill when you get home.
International data roaming charges in the US can be shockingly expensive, particularly from UK providers. The worst offenders charge as much as £8 for a single MB (Orange, although O2 is almost as bad at £6 per MB). At that rate, simply streaming a single song on Spotify would set you back over £25.
The best thing to do is to check your mobile provider’s website. If you only expect your mobile data use to be occasional, you might be able to live with the data charges. Australian providers for example charge between 50ȼ and AU$3 per MB while UK operator Three allows it customers to use their domestic data allowances while in the US with excess charges of only 3.3p per MB. It’s for Advanced Plan customers only though and is speed-restricted to 3G. For general web browsing on the move though, that’s perfectly serviceable.
Many operators allow you to purchase international data roaming bolt-ons to reduce the cost of getting online abroad. However, they aren’t always great value. EE/T-Mobile/Orange charge £7-10 for 100MB, which is pretty steep. O2 Travel bolt-on gives you unlimited data for 24 hours, with a caveat that speed may vary, for £4.99 each day you use your phone in the US. However that fee can also be incurred by a single text or phone call.
A great tactic for longer trips or if you like to stream music or video is to buy a prepaid T-Mobile SIM once you arrive in the US. $40 gets you unlimited data for a month, although 4G is capped at 3GB (you can drop an extra $20 to increase to a 10GB cap). You also get unlimited local calls and texts. You can buy them from a T-Mobile retail store and use your hotel address. Top-up after a month if you need to. You will need an unlocked phone to use it of course.
Of course if you don’t want to spend extra for the convenience of getting online wherever you are, turn off data roaming in your smartphone settings.
5 tips for using mobile Internet in the US
- Don’t get caught out – check your provider’s charges before you go
- Consider a bolt-on for light mobile data usage and buy before you leave
- Buy a $40 pre-paid T-Mobile SIM when you arrive for unlimited data
- Turn off data roaming if you want to avoid any charges at all
- Disable voicemail as you can be charged for receiving messages
Don’t forget to pack/buy/download…
- ESTA – You’ll need to apply online for an ESTA to enter the US if you are from a country in the Visa Waiver Program (which includes the UK, Australia, NZ, Ireland, France, Italy and other European and Asian countries). You must apply at least 72 hours before travel and hold a machine-readable or e-passport. Apply directly through the link above to the Homeland Security website (there is a $14 charge) and avoid any sites offering ESTA application assistance for a fee as it’s a very simple process and not worth the premium.
- Universal adapter and a powerboard – you’ll never be caught short with flat battery and nowhere to charge it with an adapter and powerboard combo – as long as there is at least a single power outlet of course.
- Laptop – if you plan to take lots of photos or work, a laptop is a must for back-up purposes and productivity. Look for a unibody ultrabook as they are tough and light, with 13 inch screen maximum to save space.
- Tablet – an iPad Mini or a Google Nexus 10 are both perfect for travellers. Great battery life and small enough to tuck in a carry-on bag.
- Wireless Travel Router – for the hardcore tech-savvy traveller, a device like the HooToo TripMate Titan is a must. This pocket-size multi-use gadget boosts Wi-Fi signals, converts a wired network to wireless, streams media, backs up files and can even charge your phone or tablet.
- MiFlight – this free app is great for giving you the heads up on security wait times, which can be a pain point for US travel.
- App in the Air & Tripit – these two apps play together nicely. Forward all your confirmation emails to the Tripit app to generate an all-in-one itinerary and then import your flights to App in the Air to track them – even when you’re offline. The app, which bills itself as a personal flight assistant, breaks flights down into check-in, boarding, take-off and landing to help you manage your time.
Be savvy with your cash
The US is a decade or more behind Europe with its rollout of Chip and PIN technology still in early stages and suffering teething troubles. Card machines are often very slow to verify cards, if they even work properly at all. Ironically, it’s often more convenient to pay with the more recent tech of Apple Pay or Android Pay. The latter being much more common in the US than elsewhere.
Rather than using your everyday card, look for a credit card with no currency exchange fees and add that to Apple/Android Pay. Think about whether you prefer cash withdrawal or making purchases on the card and go with a card with the lowest rates for that activity. It’s important to pay your balance in full obviously to avoid wiping out any savings with interest charges..
Travelex Supercard is also good for the tech-savvy UK traveller. It’s managed exclusively via an app where you link your normal credit or debit card. When you make a purchase on the Supercard, you get the Mastercard wholesale exchange rate (the best available basically and better than high street rates) and are charged in pounds. There are no bank charges on purchases. While there is a steep 2.99% fee on cash withdrawals, it goes on your credit card as a normal purchase so you avoid the higher interest rate.
Pay for your ESTA on one of these cards to avoid being stung for foreign exchange.