How to Safely Use Public Wi-Fi

Where to find hotspots, and what precautions to take while using them

Woman using laptop in a coffee shop.

Omar Havana / Getty Images

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 them.

Many people assume Starbucks offered the first free public Wi-Fi hotspots, but, in truth, smaller coffee shops, libraries, bookstores, and restaurants adopted the technology long before the coffee giant. Starbucks did simplify Wi-Fi use, making the practice highly popular among its customers.

What Are Hotspots?

Hotspots are physical locations where you can gain internet access through a Wi-Fi connection. These connections are often provided for free by businesses for the convenience of customers or visitors who want to use their devices at that location. Hotspots are often not password protected (or, if they are, the password is clearly posted), so anyone within range can log on and use the connection. Restaurants, hotels, airports, libraries, malls, government buildings, internet cafes, and many other entities have set up public Wi-Fi access. In fact, it's becoming unusual to find a store, restaurant, or other place of business that doesn't offer access to Wi-Fi.

How to Find Public Wi-Fi Connections

There are several ways to find hotspots.

  • When you're in a public place, ask an employee if there is public Wi-Fi and, if so, what the name of the network is (hackers may set up similarly spelled dummy networks to steal your data, so it's important to know the exact name of the legitimate network, including the spelling).
  • Sign up for the loyalty program of hotels where you frequently stay while traveling. As a member of these programs, you get to have your Wi-Fi fee (if there is one) waived.
  • Some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) provide free hotspots for their customers. If you use a service like XFINITY, you can check their website or app to find Wi-Fi access.
  • 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 Security Concerns

When you use public Wi-Fi, security is important. Open wireless networks are easy targets for hackers and identity thieves, but there are steps you can take to protect your privacy and data.

Keep in mind that, when you use a public Wi-Fi connection, you're using an unsecured wireless network.

  • Position yourself so your screen isn't visible to others.
  • Log on only to secure (HTTPS and SSL) websites.
  • Avoid logging on to online banking sites or sites that store your credit card information.
  • Avoid entering passwords into sites.
  • Use two-factor authentication whenever you can.
  • Use a Virtual Private Network to connect to your home or company computer.
  • Turn off ad-hoc networking.
  • Turn off file sharing.
  • Protect your computer with anti-malware software.
  • As mentioned above, before you connect, know whose network you're connecting to. Hackers set up networks with nondescript names or names similar to legitimate networks to tempt you to log on.
  • When you're done, log off any services you were logged into, and tell your device to forget the network.