How to Choose the Best Wi-Fi Channels for Your Network

Pick the best from 10 or more different channels

The Wireless Connection
The Wireless Connection

All Wi-Fi network equipment including client devices and broadband routers communicate over specific wireless channels. Similar to channels on a television, each Wi-Fi channel is designated by a number that represents a specific radio communication frequency.

Wi-Fi devices automatically set and adjust their wireless channel numbers as part of the communication protocol. Operating systems and utility software on computers and routers keep track of Wi-Fi channel settings being used at any given time. Under normal conditions, you don't need to worry about these settings. However, you may wish to change their Wi-Fi channel numbers in certain situations.

2.4 GHz Wi-Fi Channel Numbers

An illustration of different WI-FI channels that can be used on a network.

Wi-Fi equipment in the U.S. and North America features 11 channels on the 2.4 GHz band:

  • Channel 1 operates at a center frequency of 2.412 GHz.
  • Channel 11 operates at 2.462 GHz.
  • Other channels operate at frequencies in between, evenly spaced at 5 MHz (0.005 GHz) intervals.
  • Wi-Fi gear in Europe and other parts of the world also supports channels 12 and 13 running at the next-higher frequency levels of 2.467 GHz and 2.472 GHz, respectively.

A few additional restrictions and allowances apply in certain countries. For example, 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi technically supports 14 channels, although channel 14 is only available for old 802.11b equipment in Japan.

Because each 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi channel requires a signaling band roughly 22 MHz wide, radio frequencies of neighboring channels numbers significantly overlap each other.

5 GHz Wi-Fi Channel Numbers

WiFi set channel

The 5 GHz band offers significantly more channels than does 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi. To avoid problems with overlapping frequencies, 5 GHz equipment restricts available channels to certain numbers within a larger range. This approach is similar to how AM/FM radio stations within a local area keep some separation between each other on the bands.

For example, popular 5 GHz wireless channels in many countries include 36, 40, 44, and 48 while other numbers in between are not supported. Channel 36 operates at 5.180 GHz with each channel offset by 5 MHz, so that Channel 40 operates at 5.200 GHz (20 MHz offset), and so on. The highest-frequency channel (165) operates on 5.825 GHz. Equipment in Japan supports an entirely different set of Wi-Fi channels that run at lower frequencies (4.915 to 5.055 GHz) than the rest of the world.

Reasons to Change Wi-Fi Channel Numbers

Many home networks in the U.S. use routers that by default run on channel 6 on the 2.4 GHz band. Neighboring Wi-Fi home networks that run over the same channel generate radio interference that can cause significant network performance slowdowns. Reconfiguring a network to run on a different wireless channel helps minimize these disruptions.

Some Wi-Fi gear, particularly older devices, may not support automatic channel switching. Those devices will be unable to connect to the network unless their default channel matches the local network's configuration.

How To Change Wi-Fi Channel Numbers

To change channels on a home wireless router, log into the router's configuration screens and look for a setting called Channel or Wireless Channel. Most router screens provide a drop-down list of supported channel numbers to choose from.

Other devices on a local network will auto-detect and adjust their channel numbers to match that of the router or wireless access point with no action needed. However, if certain devices fail to connect after changing the router's channel, visit the software configuration utility for each of those devices and make matching channel number changes there. The same configuration screens can also be checked at any future time to verify the numbers in use.

Choosing The Best Wi-Fi Channel Number

In many environments, Wi-Fi connections perform equally well on any channel: Sometimes the best choice is to leave the network set to defaults without any changes. Performance and reliability of connections can vary greatly across channels, however, depending on the sources of radio interference and their frequencies. No single channel number is inherently "best" relative to the others.

For example, some users prefer to set their 2.4 GHz networks to use the lowest possible (1) or highest possible channels (11 or 13, depending on the country) to avoid mid-range frequencies because some home Wi-Fi routers default to the middle channel 6. However, if neighboring networks all do the same thing, serious interference and connectivity conflicts result.

In extreme cases, users may need to coordinate with their neighbors on the channels each will use to avoid mutual interference.

Three Android screens for Wifi Analyzer app

More technically-inclined home admins run network analyzer software to test a local area for existing wireless signals and identify a safe channel based on the results. The Wifi Analyzer app for Android is a good example of such an application, which plots the results of signal sweeps on graphs and recommends appropriate channel settings at the push of a button.

Less technical people, on the other hand, may simply try and test each wireless channel individually and pick one that seems to work. Often more than one channel works well.

Because the effects of signal interference vary over time, what appears to be the best channel one day may turn out later to not be a good choice. Periodically monitor your environment to see if conditions have changed such that a Wi-Fi channel update makes sense.