Reader Question – Checking Email Abroad

How do I access my email from a foreign country?

In most countries you can check your email just like you do in the US. If you are using a web mail provider like Gmail or Yahoo, you just have to find an internet connection. Many countries have internet cafes where you can use their computer for the internet by paying an hourly fee. If you are in China or another country where they limit citizen’s access to certain sites on the internet, it might be more difficult to check your email.

If you are traveling with a laptop and want to download your mail, things should still work about the same as in the US. Many internet cafes will let you connect into their network with your laptop for the same hourly fee.

When you are using another computer, be sure to clear all your browser settings. Be especially careful not to let the browser remember your password when you check your mail. If you are using your laptop, it is a good idea to make sure that you check and send email through a secure connection and that you aren’t sending your password as clear text where others can see it by watching the network. Also if your email provider offers SMTP on a port other than 25, you should use the alternate port. That way if some of the providers block port 25 to fight viruses that send spam, you’ll still be able to send messages.

A few weeks ago I had a discussion with some people who were missionaries going into countries where they were not allowed. The wanted to know how to avoid the government viewing their emails. I told them that if they used something like Gmail over the web on their personal computer, they were probably pretty safe. The traffic is encrypted between their laptop and the Google servers in the US. However, they would need to be careful about any unencrypted sites the visit.

Another problem would be using a public computer. Even if the connection to the email service is encrypted, the computer itself could be recording your interactions. If using a standalone mail program (instead of web based email) they would need to make sure that all of their traffic was going over SSL for both sending and receiving.


  1. Dave R. says

    If you start entering your passwords into publicly accessibly computers, you are asking for trouble. It’s a really dumb thing to do.

    If you absolutely have no choice, open Notepad or similar and type the entire alphabet (upper- and lowercase) and all the numbers, plus all punctuation marks if you use punctuation in your password, and then COPY AND PASTE your password character by character into the password field.

    That should defeat most keyloggers, but you should nevertheless assume that someone else will be able to read any messages you write.

  2. says


    you might point out to your M friends (and other readers) that by default, gmail has a secure LOGIN page, but then the mail is actually displayed at a non-secure page. You can see this by noticing the presence or absence of S after http in the location bar, or a lock on the page (just to the right of the location bar in Firefox) and possibly a color change in the location bar.

    However, you can still browse Gmail securely – just add the S after http. It will switch to a secure server — then you can bookmark this and it will take you directly there from the login in the future.

  3. says

    Dave R. does have a good point – basically you have to decide what level of risk you’re willing to take on. Another measure of security could be running your own browser from a memory stick, but even this would not prevent a keyboard logger — if you’re using someone else’s hardware, there is still a risk.

    If you’re not sending launch codes, you might decide that you can still use a public computer, but be aware.

  4. Jess R. says

    Even with an https connection (SSL), it is still possible to decrypt a web session with an inline SSL decryption (which is a fairly expensive piece of hardware).

    If you really want true encryption, you should consider using PGP between you and your recipient, as that can add a much stronger layer of message encryption.

    Additionally, tunneling your traffic through a trusted source (say, your computer at home), using a strong encryption strength would be one of the best methods, but would also require additional setup and knowledge about these things.. or follow a guide here:–encrypt-your-web-browsing-session-with-an-ssh-socks-proxy-237227.php (note, I have not tried their guide, but the directions seem sound).

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