You’re away from home but want to access your files, use your computer, or otherwise interact with your home network like you’re at home. Here’s how to access your stuff when you’re not at home on your computer.
Let’s say you’re away from home and need access to something on your home network. Maybe you need some files that are stored only on your desktop computer at home, or you want to interact with your non-cloud connected security camera system as if you’re sitting there on the couch. Or maybe you self-host some services like an audio or ebook library, a password manager, or even a personal cloud service, and you want to access them away from home.
Whatever the reason, you’re out of luck if you don’t haven’t configured your home network for remote access. Without a way to remotely access your network, you’ll be stuck waiting until you get home to grab that audiobook, sync your passwords, or access your Nextcloud notes system.
And maybe even if that’s all a bit beyond what you need, perhaps you want to host a game server for you and your buddies or your kid and their friends to play on. One of the first roadblocks you’ll run into is getting the people outside your home access to that game server because, by default, your router will reject incoming connections.
There are multiple ways to configure your home network for remote access based on your needs and your goals. Let’s take a look at how to do so safely.
Before we look at concrete solutions to enabling remote access to your home network in any capacity, it’s important to talk about the best practices for doing so.
The last thing you want to do is configure your home network in a way that you can access the things you want, but so can malicious or uninvited users.
The first thing you should do is to clearly define what you’re trying to accomplish by configuring remote access to your home network. It might seem silly, but take a moment to list what you want to do while you’re away from home.
For instance, do you want the ability to use the desktop computer in your home office while you are traveling? Do you want to access a self-hosted media server? Do you want to share that same server with your friends?
Accessing a personal computer and sharing a media server are two different goals with completely different methods for configuring your network. More importantly, you need to know what you want to accomplish so you can opt for the most secure way to do it.
Before investing a lot of time in this project, look at the list you made. Investigate whether the apps and tools you’re already using support remote access without a lot of heavy lifting on your part.
For example, if you’re using Plex Media Server to host your TV shows, movies, and music, it’s really easy to set up for remote access without a lot of work. In fact, if you have UPnP active on your router (most routers do by default, even though we recommend you turn it off because of security risks), then you can configure Plex remote server access with a button click.
If whatever you want to access on your home network is already accessible (or can be with a simple toggle), you can stop there and skip setting up more advanced options.
However, you choose to configure your home network and whatever services you choose to expose, we recommend selecting the method with the least public exposure of your router to the internet that still accomplishes your goal.
For example, if your child wants to play Minecraft with their friends using a locally hosted server, the least exposure for that situation would be only turning on port forwarding to allow access to the locally hosted server when the child and their friends are actually gaming.
In the same vein, if you’re the only one that needs access to any of the things on your network, then there is no reason to use methods intended for multiple users, and you should stick to the most secure method you can use.
Because opening your home network up in any capacity poses a security risk, it’s always best to ensure your hardware is up to date.
While you can use the techniques we’ll describe later in the article with an older router, we would strongly encourage you to consider upgrading your router if yours is old enough that it no longer receives security updates or lacks features that make remote access easier to set up and configure.
The majority of residential internet connections have a dynamic IP address. This means that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) gives you an address from their pool of addresses the same way your router gives an available address to devices on your network as they come and go.
That’s a problem if you’re trying to connect remotely to your home network. Let’s say, for example, you took note of your public-facing IP address, but after heading out for a business trip or vacation, your ISP changes it. Now what? You have no idea what the new IP address is and no way to connect to your home network. You can’t go home, virtually speaking, because your house was scooped up and put on a new block.
The solution to this problem is a simple one: Dynamic DNS (DDNS), a service that assigns an easy-to-remember address like yourname.someDDNS.net to your IP address.
A device on your home network will update the Dynamic DNS service whenever your IP address changes. The DDNS host will change their records to reflect that and you’ll never have to remember your IP address again, just the address the DDNS host gave you.
It’s great for always knowing where to connect to your home network and great for not having to update friends with the new IP address for your game server. Check out our detailed guide to DDNS to learn more about it, get some DDNS host recommendations, and learn more about the ins and outs of DDNS.
Now that we’ve covered the best practices and how DDNS will make your life easier, it’s time to look at different ways to access your home network.
Like many computer-related things, there are many ways to set up remote access to resources on your home network, just like they are many ways to transfer photos from your iPhone to your PC or back up your computer.
Each method offers different benefits and tradeoffs, and you may find yourself only needing one or using all of them differently for different remote access needs. Here’s a quick summary of each method, followed by a more in-depth look at each.
- Remote Desktop Software: You want to connect to one or more individual computers as if you are using them directly while away from home. Good for individual users or family members. Not suitable for people you wouldn’t give direct access to your computer.
- Local VPN Server: You want to connect a remote computer, phone, or tablet to your local network so that it behaves as if you are right in your home. Good for individuals or family members. Not suitable for people you wouldn’t give direct access to your home network.
- Opening Ports on Your Router: Allows direct access to the individual services you have forwarded the port to. Useful for tasks like forwarding internet traffic to a Minecraft server hosted on your PC. Should be used sparingly. Suitable for granting access to a single resource for personal use or for friends and family to enjoy. Not useful for PC access or broader network access unless you’re opening a port for a tool that offers that.
- Reverse Proxy: Puts all your open ports (and their respective services) behind a proxy server to increase your privacy and decrease the security risk of running open services on your home network. It’s a less risky version of just opening ports and can be paired with SSL for increased security. Ideal for minimizing your router’s internet profile while making it easy to securely login self-hosted services.
If your primary goal is to access your desktop computer as if you are at home but while away from home, remote desktop software best fits your needs.
Remote desktop software is exactly what it sounds like. You run a remote desktop server on a home computer and then install a remote desktop client on the computer you plan on using away from home.
You can then connect the remote desktop client to the remote desktop server, switch the client to full-screen mode, and it will feel like you’re using the home computer as if you were sitting there with it.
By far, the best thing about using any kind of remote desktop software is that as long as you can do whatever it is you want to do while sitting at your computer normally, you can do it while remotely controlling the same desktop. No additional configuration or tools are required.
Windows has built-in remote desktop software, and it’s very easy to configure remote desktop for Windows 10 and Windows 11. There are other Windows, Mac, and Linux solutions, so check out our cross-platform remote desktop recommendations.
Although you can use remote desktop solutions as a stand-alone solution, we strongly recommend pairing your remote desktop software with a VPN, so keep reading.
You may be familiar with Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) because your work laptop requires your company’s VPN to be connected for you to log in and access company resources. Your company has this security practice in place because they want your work laptop to have a secure connection to the home office to protect your laptop and their network—and you should absolutely take a page out of their playbook.
A VPN creates a secure tunnel between the VPN client and the companion VPN server. All traffic passes through that tunnel in an encrypted state. When you run a VPN server on your home network, you can phone home from anywhere in the world, and the remote device will think that it is back home, connected right to your network. If you’ve ever wanted to use your laptop or phone as if you were sitting on your couch connected directly to your Wi-Fi, even if you’re in an airport lounge, a home VPN server is the perfect solution.
Many routers support VPN servers based on OpenVPN or WireGuard—a newer and better-optimized VPN platform. While running it on your router is ideal, you can also run a VPN server on computer, NAS, or Raspberry Pi on your home network.
Running a local VPN server is the security gold standard for connecting securely to your home network and unless you have a compelling reason to not route all your traffic through a VPN to securely within your network, we recommend you always default to using a VPN.
Opening ports, or port forwarding, to allow remote connections direct access to a resource behind your router’s firewall is a less-than-ideal solution, though it does have its time and place.
As a general rule, you do not want to give anyone direct access to something hosted in your home, even if that something seems benign. For example, you might host an ebook server and think to yourself, “It has a login, and it’s just a little book project I’m working on. Why would it matter if I opened a port to access it away from home? The worst case scenario is some hacker gets some free ebooks?”
But what if the software running the self-hosted ebook server is buggy or has an unpatched vulnerability, and someone outside your home can exploit that to gain access to the rest of your network? Now it isn’t just someone seeing you have a large collection of steampunk romance novels. It’s someone with the ability to probe all the computers on your network, sniff your traffic, and so on.
We don’t want to scare you away from ever opening ports for anything. Opening a port temporarily to play a game with a friend online is very low-risk. So is opening a port and redirecting traffic to a Raspberry Pi you’ve set up for some project and otherwise isolated from your home network. But opening up ports for every service you’re self-hosting is far from a security best practice, and we don’t recommend it.
Ideally, you want to leave as few ports open as possible. If you find yourself with a plethora of self-hosted services, you should consider a reverse proxy to act as a gatekeeper.
Let’s say you find yourself in a situation where a VPN isn’t the right fit and you’d prefer to connect directly to the different resources and services you’re hosting.
If you took the advice in the last section to heart, you know that opening up a port for the dozen services you’re self-hosting isn’t a great idea and exposes you to all sorts of potential security complications.
In that situation, you should consider hosting a reverse proxy if you want to share those resources with a friend without using a VPN and giving them total access to your network. A reverse proxy is a service you run on your home network that acts as a central connection point. The proxy accepts traffic from the outside world and then directs it to the appropriate internal resource.
The beauty of this system, for our purposes here, is that it makes it very easy to have a high-security checkpoint that all connections pass through before being forwarded onto the appropriate internal resource (such as your ebook server or file share). Instead of worrying about the security and configuration of a dozen different self-hosted projects, you merely have to worry about selecting a good proxy server and configuring it correctly.
There are quite a few ways to set up a reverse proxy. If you’re considering it, we’d recommend checking out our guide to setting up a basic Apache reverse proxy. That will give you a sense of what the basics entail.
Hosting a reverse proxy using Apache or Ngnix can get pretty arcane pretty quickly. While we’d encourage anyone planning to host a reverse proxy to do their homework because it’s a serious security undertaking, we also understand that sometimes you want to get started without getting an amateur degree in network administration. With that in mind, the Nginx Proxy Manager project is worth checking out. It makes it easy to set up a Nginx proxy and SSL support thanks to a user-friendly GUI.
If you’re new to the world of remote home network access, we’re sure you have some additional questions (or maybe you just love a good FAQ list and jumped right down here). Either way, here are some of the common questions people ask us about remotely accessing their home networks.
Anything you do that configures your router to accept incoming connections from the greater internet is inherently a risk. Think of it like adding a door to a sturdy wall. Doors are useful things, but if you put a door with no lock or a very flimsy door in an otherwise secure wall, you defeat the purpose of having the wall there in the first place.
With that in mind, you always want to keep security in mind when configuring remote access to any resource on your network. Keep your router updated, keep your remote access services updated, and don’t open more things up than you absolutely need. For some additional ideas on increasing network security while self-hosting things, check out the security precautions section in our guide to port forwarding.
Technically, you don’t need a DDNS provider to access your home network remotely. It’s just a very convenient thing.
Given that there are many good free Dynamic DNS hosts and it’s not much hassle to set it up, we strongly recommend you use a DDNS provider. There’s really no good reason not to do so and any time you save skipping the basic setup process now will be lost later on when you’re wasting time calling home to see if someone can check the new IP address for you (or, worse, not having access to your network until you’re back home again).
You can remotely access your home network if your home doesn’t have broadband, but you will find that the slower your connection, the more difficult it is to use remote access in a meaningful way.
Low-bandwidth activities, like logging in to make changes to your home network because your family calls you on a business trip to complain something isn’t working right, don’t require a high-speed connection. Although if your connection is really slow, even using a remote desktop application is painfully laggy.
But if your goal is to stream video or music in real-time from your home network, you’ll need a broadband connection that supports that with a suitable upload speed. Download speed is largely irrelevant for remote connectivity.
For example, with a home broadband connection that’s only 5-10 Mbps upload, you’ll likely struggle to stream a video smoothly for even a single remote connection. It’s the same low-upload-speed issue that plagues cloud-based security cameras.
But if your upload is 300 Mbps or higher, you shouldn’t have a problem streaming the same content. If your remote access goal is streaming movies to your phone while you’re in a hotel across the country, you need a good upload speed.
For the purposes of connecting to your home network to use it as if you are there and to have unrestricted access to your home network resources, you absolutely need to run a local VPN server.
While opening a port for a single service or game server you want to share with a friend is one thing, it is a security nightmare to configure your home network for remote access and not wrap your connection in the encryption and security a VPN provides.
Barring though, however, you can host a VPN server on just about anything on your network from an old laptop to a Raspberry Pi. If you already have a NAS of some kind, there’s a good chance you can run it on there too.
You sure can! Your initial goal with setting up a VPN might have been to get secure, easy access to local network resources. But by the very nature of the VPN, when you connect to your home network, it’s like you’re physically at home as far as the device is concerned.
That means whether you’re using a VPN at a coffee shop to keep your browsing secure or traveling out of the country for work and want to watch Netflix as if you are in the U.S., you can VPN into your own home and do so. While streaming companies block many commercial VPN services—which is why we made a list of VPNs that work well with Netflix—you won’t have to worry about that because it’ll look like you’re just watching Netflix at home.
Using your home internet like a VPN, however, comes with the same limitations we talked about in the broadband question above. If your home internet is very slow, you won’t get the same speeds you would get from a commercial VPN service.
If your router only supports OpenVPN, then you should use the tools you have. But if your router supports WireGuard or you’re willing to go to the extra effort of hosting a WireGuard server installation off your router and somewhere on your home network, you should.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with OpenVPN—it’s been around forever, and it’s a VPN gold standard—WireGuard is much faster and less resource intensive. For folks running a VPN at home who need to squeeze every ounce of speed and performance out of their local VPN while minimizing losing what precious upload they have to VPN overhead, every bit of performance gain counts.
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