Traveling isn't just about discovering new cultures, food, and beautiful landscapes. It's also about going out of our everyday comfort zone—whether this is a long flight, a confined bus journey, problems communicating with locals, or extreme and unfamiliar weather.
However, in a digital age, troubles can occur as much online as they do offline. When traveling, people need to connect to unsafe public Wi-Fi networks to browse the web, for example.
Even worse, some governments heavily control and restrict what users do on the internet. All this means that tourists may be risking their digital privacy—or worse—every time they go online overseas.
To equip tourists to better fight back against these risks, we investigate which of the 41 most popular tourist destinations are the most and least cyber-safe. Below, we dig into the results of our exclusive research and explain how security tools like a virtual private network (VPN) can help.
What makes a country a tourist cyber trap?
When it comes to tourist cyber-traps, travel-related online scams might be the first thing that comes to mind. Criminals are very active in phishing campaigns of all sorts, with tourists being one of the main targets.
Action Fraud—the UK’s national reporting center for fraud and cybercrime—registered a staggering rise of more than 120% in the 2021/2022 period compared to previous financial years. This means that victims lost a total sum of over £7 million in the UK alone.
✅ Cybersecurity: the likelihood of tourists being targeted and the cyber-crime rate in the country.
✅ Data privacy: the level of online surveillance for each country—keeping in mind the data privacy regulations being enforced.
✅ Internet access: the overall level of internet access and performance that a country has.
❌ Censorship and risk of punishment: some governments enforce a strong grip on the open internet. We evaluated censorship levels and the risk for tourists.
Despite cyber attacks like phishing, DDoS attacks, and malware (viruses) being big issues, these risks aren't necessarily linked to the tourists' destination, and there are many factors that can put your digital life in danger when traveling.
We recommend using a VPN service before connecting to public Wi-Fi networks. These networks are common targets for cybercriminals looking to infiltrate your device. Some online activities, like browsing certain social media apps, are also illegal in some countries—take TikTok in India for example—meaning you could risk a fine or worse. Standard web tracking also differs from country to country, too. Legislation such as the EU's General Data Protection Regulation doesn't exist in many non-European countries.
Sadly, the internet isn't free everywhere either, with the governments of many top travel destinations being very active on the online censorship front. This means that tourists might also be prevented from using some of their usual apps, making downloading a circumvention tool a necessity to ensure access to the open internet during their stay.
Which popular destinations are the least cyber-safe?
We found that China and Cuba are the most cyber-unsafe tourist destinations in the world, obtaining an overall score of 15.15% and 20.15% respectively.
This might not come as a surprise, but China scored especially low on both the cybersecurity (2.91%) and censorship (1.89%) fronts. The Great Firewall is indeed notorious for heavily restricting what people can do and see online, as well as for its invasive surveillance techniques. That's why we recommend using a trustworthy China VPN to secure your data and bypass restrictions.
By far the most popular tourist destination for US travellers, Mexico is in the top 20 most cyber unsafe tourist destinations in the world. Some of the favorite holiday getaways for UK and EU tourists scored even worse, deserving a place among the 10 least safe countries worldwide. These include the UAE, Egypt and Turkey.
Some of the most popular spots for both gap years and digital nomads also appear among the worst countries to be online. In order of score obtained, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and India all performed poorly.
Countries of note
As mentioned before, China is the country where tourists risk the most in terms of censorship and punishments for breaking the rules. Westerners seem, in fact, increasingly scared of traveling to the country amid a growing threat of detention—CNN reported.
Vietnam comes right after. Branded as the world's third-largest jailer of journalists by Reporters Without Borders, the so-called "Bamboo firewall" is very active in censoring content deemed illegal or offensive by the government, as well as tracking down users that breach the law. Luckily, Vietnam VPNs aren't illegal to use.
The third worst for censorship and fourth on the overall index, Egypt is another country that, while attracting millions of tourists each year, could become a cyber-nightmare without the right online protections.
In terms of web tracking, the United Arab Emirates is the country with the worst data privacy score (8.33%).
Andreas Theodorou, TechRadar's in-house digital privacy expert, offered the following tips and tricks to help you stay digitally secure when traveling abroad:
"A reliable VPN is a non-negotiable essential if you plan on using public WiFi abroad. There are so many opportunities for your information to be stolen and your device to be compromised—it's like playing Russian roulette with your digital privacy."
He explained that the most dangerous online activities to do abroad (especially on public WiFi) include:
- Booking travel/accommodation
- Buying/selling crypto
- Using social media
- Streaming shows from abroad
He further added that "protecting yourself at every step of the journey is vital. If you don't properly secure your data while you're travelling, you risk having your identity stolen, as well as your bank details, logins, passwords—anything and everything that could leave you stranded and penniless, far away from home.
"Once you're using a VPN, however, that doesn't mean you can do whatever you want. In countries like China, tourists have been imprisoned over 'misunderstanding' a documentary a tour group were watching. If you want to stay safe at all times, keep the geopolitical standing of the country in mind, and be aware of their laws around social media and content. Once you're aware of these rules, you'll be better prepared to keep yourself safe, and less at risk of accidentally opening up a banned social media app in front of a particularly xenophobic cop."
Where in the world are you safest online?
Our data suggests that Estonia is overall the safest travel destination to be online, scoring a total of 91.48%. Especially positive were the scores on cybersecurity and internet access, both obtaining 100% rating.
In order of scores, Canada, the UK, Germany, France, Costa Rica and Kenya are among the top 10 safest countries in the world.
The US obtains a place in the 20 safest countries, despite falling below Japan, South Africa, Hungary, and Italy, and only slightly above South Korea. The top 20 also includes Argentina, Colombia, and Singapore.
Such results were mainly the outcome of stricter data privacy regulations, better internet access across the country, and minimal levels of censorship online. However, this doesn't mean that you shouldn't protect yourself when visiting such countries.
Even the "safest" nations collect data about internet users, especially for commercial reasons. Think about surveillance agreements like the 5 Eyes Alliance, for example, of which the US and UK are founding members.
As a rule of thumb, you should use the best privacy tools every time you go online—even at home or when visiting the most cyber-safe nations.
How to stay safe online while traveling
A VPN might be just the best travel companion to protect your online activities on the road and ensure you'll be able to access all the apps and websites as you would when at home.
Short for "virtual private network", a VPN is security software that encrypts all the data leaving your device to prevent any snoopers from spying on what you do online. It also allows you to access otherwise censored content by spoofing your IP address location. All you need to do is connect to one of its many secure international servers to appear on the other side of the globe within seconds.
Beside privacy and security, VPNs are also hugely useful for tourists who wish to keep up with their favorite TV shows or sports matches when abroad. While some are more effective than others, the very best can unblock tons of geo-restricted content from anywhere in the world.
Having one of the best antivirus running on your smartphone or laptop at all times is also handy as there are even more chances to access dangerous websites and/or download infected files when traveling. A secure, tracker-free browser might be of help too, here.
Besides the tech, you should also check your devices' privacy hygiene prior to departure. This includes making sure the operating system is up-to-date, with the same going for all the apps installed. It's best to download and install all your security software before leaving as these might be blocked in the country you'll visit.
As our exclusive investigation found out, there are many factors that could transform your holiday into a cyber nightmare. Among the most relevant, online surveillance and censorship could quickly snowball from digital risks to real-life consequences if overlooked.
Don't think you're safe just because it's hotel or airport Wi-Fi. You don't know what's going on behind closed doors.
However, despite the very real threat to your online security, don't let that stop you from visiting countries like China and India. They're beautiful countries with wonderful people and rich cultures. But, just like anywhere in the world, there are people who want to commit crimes, and if you're not protected, you could be their next victim.
Our research focused on how safe tourists are likely to be from cyberattacks, censorship, surveillance, and risk of punishment related to online activities usually protected by human rights, such as freedom of expression. We also investigated the degree of data privacy as well as access to the internet for each country.
Our ranking is based on an average of four key scoring factors:
- Cybersecurity score: the percentage of mobile users experiencing hacking or cyber attacks;
- Data privacy score: whether or not the state and/or companies monitor internet activity and collect user data that infringes on the right to privacy;
- Censorship and risk of punishment: whether the level of censorship in a country could prevent tourists from accessing reliable information online. This includes considering whether tourists could be punished for breaking censorship rules;
- Access: internet connectivity, speed, quality, and potential restrictions.
In our final ranking we included only countries with over 1 million annual international arrivals, where data was available.
The score aims to find the biggest tourist cyber traps, so we omitted countries that are not currently recommended for travel.
- Freedom on the Net Index: The annual report from the US non-profit organization group Freedom House which assesses the level of internet freedom in 70 countries around the world through ground-breaking research and analysis, fact-based advocacy, and on-the-ground capacity building. It features a ranked, country-by-country assessment of online freedom, a global overview of the latest developments, as well as in depth country reports.
- The OECD Going Digital Toolkit: This indicator measures the share of Internet users who experienced online privacy violations. Privacy violations refer to the abuse of personal information that has been sent via the Internet and/or other violations such as the abuse of pictures, videos or personal data uploaded onto community websites. It provides one measure of trust in the Internet.
- Global Cybersecurity Index: The Global Cybersecurity Index (GCI) is a trusted reference that measures the commitment of countries to cybersecurity at a global level—to raise awareness of the importance and different dimensions of the issue. As cybersecurity has a broad field of application, cutting across many industries and various sectors, each country’s level of development or engagement is assessed along five pillars—(i) Legal Measures, (ii) Technical Measures, (iii) Organizational Measures, (iv) Capacity Development, and (v) Cooperation—and then aggregated into an overall score.
- Comparitech's Surveillance States Index: Researchers given each of the 47 countries analyzed a score per category based on a number of criteria. These are: constitutional and statutory protection, privacy enforcement, ID cards and biometrics, data sharing, visual surveillance, communication interception, workplace monitoring, government access to data, communication data retention, surveillance of movement, finances and medical data, border issues, leadership, democratic safeguards. To gain an overall score, they added up the total of these scores before dividing by 14 (the number of categories in total).
- Comparitech's Social Media Surveillance Index: A 2022 research through the top 50 countries by GDP to see what evidence there was of social media surveillance and what legislation was in place to govern the use of surveillance tactics and/or tools.
- Statista's Most Popular Destinations for U.S. Travelers Abroad Chart: The chart shows the most popular destinations for U.S. resident travelers in 2019 as well as the countries where traveler volume most increased between 2014 and 2019.
- World Tourism rankings: An index compiled by the United Nations World Organization (UNWTO) as part of their "World Tourism Barometer" publication, which is released up to six times per year. In the publication, destinations are ranked by the number of international visitor arrivals, by the revenue generated by inbound tourism, and by the expenditure of outbound travelers.
- Gap Year Statistics UK: Teaching Abroad ranked the favorite travel hotspots for gap year takers.
- Top gap year Destinations: ABTA revealed the most popular gap year destinations.
- Dubai Tourism Statistics: We gathered digital marketing firm GMI's data from the 2023 Dubai Tourism Statistics report.
- Statista's Number of UK residents' visits to Turkey: The data refers to data gathered between 2012 and 2019.
Andreas is the Editor-in-Chief of Tech Software and an expert on digital privacy, VPNs, antivirus software, and other cybersecurity tools.