Guide to Free Wi-Fi Hotspots

How to find free wireless internet access

Although public Wi-Fi connections known as hotspots were once relatively rare, they are cropping up just about everywhere. Public Wi-Fi connections are convenient and usually easy to use, but you need to know where to look for them and be aware of the risks of using public hotspots.

What Are Free Hotspots?

Hotspots are physical locations where people can gain internet access, usually through a Wi-Fi connection. Free Wi-Fi connections are provided by companies for the convenience of their customers, who bring their laptop computers or other devices to the location. The hotspots are not password protected so anyone can log on and use the access whenever they are within range. Restaurants, hotels, airports, libraries, malls, city buildings, internet cafes and many other types of companies have set up free public Wi-Fi.

What Company First Offered Free Public Wi-Fi

Although many people assume Starbucks was the first free public Wi-Fi hotspot, others smaller coffee shops, libraries, bookstores and restaurants adopted the technology long before Starbucks. What Starbucks did was simplify the use of the public network and popularize it by making it easy for customers to log on. 

How to Find Public Wi-Fi Connections

In addition to coffee shops and restaurants, you are likely to encounter free hotspots wherever you go. There are several ways to find free hotspots.

  • Use a hotspot database. Check out  Wi-Fi Free Spot, which lists hotspots organized by state in the U.S. You can also run a computer search for free Wi-Fi hotspots in any state.
  • Look for hidden networks. Lurk near electronics stores, premium lounges in airports and other types of businesses that provide internet connections to their customers.
  • Sign up for the loyalty programs of any hotel where you frequently stay while traveling. Kimpton and other hotels offer their loyalty program members free Wi-Fi.
  • Use a free Wi-Fi hotspot locator app to find Wi-Fi hotspots near you. These apps are often socially-powered, so other users just like you help to build their database of free hotspot locations.

Wi-Fi Requirements

You'll need a laptop computer, tablet or phone to take advantage of a public hotspot. If you can connect wirelessly with your computer or mobile device at your home or office, you should be able to get online at a public hotspot.

Security Concerns

When you are using a free Wi-Fi connection in public, security becomes an important concern. Open wireless networks are targets for hackers and identity thieves, but there are steps you can take to protect your privacy and data.

  • Position yourself so your screen is facing a wall and isn't visible to the person sitting closest to you.
  • Log on only to secure websites (HTTPS and SSL sites).
  • Use a Virtual Private Network to connect to your home or company computer.
  • Enable your firewall.
  • Turn off ad-hoc networking.
  • Avoid entering passwords into sites. Those passwords can be picked up by someone nearby.
  • Avoid logging on to online banking sites or websites that store your credit card information.
  • Protect your computer with anti-malware software.
  • Before you connect, know whose network you are connecting to. Hackers sometimes set up networks with nondescript names to tempt people to log on to their network.
  • Use two-factor authentication whenever you can.
  • Turn off file sharing on your computer.
  • When you're done, log off any services you were logged into and then tell your device to forget the network.

Just keep in mind that you are using an unsecured wireless network whenever you use a free public Wi-Fi connection.