How to Connect to a Wi-Fi Network

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The first thing most people want to do when they get a new computer or work someplace new (e.g., traveling with your laptop or visiting a friend's house) is get on the wireless network for internet access or to share files with other devices on the network. Connecting to a wireless network or a Wi-Fi hotspot is pretty straightforward, though there are slight differences between the various operating systems. This tutorial will help you set up your Windows or Mac computer to connect to a wireless router or access point. The screenshots are from a laptop running Windows Vista, but the instructions in this tutorial include information for other operating systems as well.

Before you get started, you'll need:

  • A wireless network adapter for your computer. This is built-in on every modern laptop, but if you don't have one built in or you want to upgrade your laptop to faster Wi-Fi, you can purchase a USB wireless adapter or a PC card that you just plug in to install.
  • You should also make sure you have a firewall installed and turned on (Windows and Mac both have ones built-in and on by default), as well as the latest antivirus updates and operating system patches. This is especially if the network you're connecting to is a public one. (Open wireless networks or ones that just use WEP password encryption are really not safe).
  • If the network is secured with a password or the administrators have hidden the network name (SSID) from being broadcast, you'll also need to find out that information to get connected.


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Connect to an Available Wi-Fi Network

  1. First, find the wireless network icon on your computer. On Windows laptops, the icon is in the bottom right of your screen on the taskbar, and it looks either like two monitors or five vertical bars. On Macs, it's a wireless symbol at the top right of your screen.
  2. Then click on the icon to see the list of available wireless networks. (On an older laptop running Windows XP, you might instead need to right-click the icon and select "View Available Wireless Networks". On Windows 7 and 8 and Mac OS X, all you have to do is click the Wi-Fi icon.
  3. Finally, select the wireless network. On Mac, that's it, but on Windows, you'll need to click the "Connect" button.

If you can't find the wireless network icon, try going to your control panel (or system settings) and the network connections section, then right-click on the Wireless Network Connection to "View Available Wireless Networks".

If the wireless network you're looking for isn't in the list, you can manually add it by going to the wireless network connection properties as above and clicking on the selection to add a network. On Macs, click on the wireless icon, then "Join Another Network...". You'll have to enter the network name (SSID) and the security information (e.g., WPA password).

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Enter the Wireless Security Key (If Necessary)

If the wireless network you're trying to connect to is secured (encrypted with WEP, WPA, or WPA2), you'll be prompted to enter the network password (sometimes twice). Once you enter the key, it'll be saved for you for next time.

Newer operating systems will notify you if you enter the wrong password, but some XP versions didn't--meaning that you would enter the incorrect password and it would look like you connected to the network, but you didn't really and couldn't access the resources. So be careful when entering the network key.

Also, if this is your home network and you've forgotten your wireless security passphrase or key, you may be able to find it on the bottom of your router if you didn't change the defaults when setting up your network. Another alternative, on Windows, is to use the "Show characters" box to reveal the Wi-Fi network password. In short, click on the wireless icon in your taskbar, then right-click on the network to "view connection properties." Once there, you'll see a checkbox to "Show characters." On a Mac, you can view the wireless network password in the Keychain Access app (under the Applications > Utilities folder).

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Select the Network Location Type (Home, Work, or Public)

When you first connect to a new wireless network, Windows will prompt you to select what kind of wireless network this is. After choosing Home, Work, or Public Place, Windows will automatically set up the security level (and things like firewall settings) appropriately for you. (On Windows 8, there are just two types of network locations: Private and public.)

Home or Work locations are places where you trust the people and devices on the network. When you select this as the network location type, Windows will enable network discovery, so that other computers and devices connected to that wireless network will see your computer in the network list.

The main difference between Home and Work network locations is the Work one won't let you create or join a HomeGroup (a group of computers and devices on a network).

Public Place is for, well, public locations, such as the Wi-Fi network at a coffee shop or the airport. When you choose this network location type, Windows keeps your computer from being visible on the network to other devices around you. Network discovery is turned off. If you don't need to share files or printers with other devices on the network, you should choose this safer option.

If you made a mistake and want to switch the network's location type (e.g., go from Public to Home or Home to Public), you can do so in Windows 7 by right-clicking on the network icon in your taskbar, then going to Network and Sharing Center. Click on your network to get to the Set Network Location wizard where you can choose the new location type.

On Windows 8, go to the networks list by clicking the wireless icon, then right-click on the network name, and select "Turn sharing on or off." That's where you can select whether to turn on sharing and connect to devices (home or work networks) or not (for public places).

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Make the Connection

Once you've followed the steps previously (find the network, enter the password if required, and select the network type), you should be connected to the Wi-Fi network. If the network is connected to the internet, you'll be able to browse the web or share files and printers with other computers or devices on the network.

On Windows, you can also go to Start > Connect To > Wireless Network Connection to connect to your preferred wireless network.

If you're connecting to a Wi-Fi hotspot at a hotel or other public place like Starbucks or Panera Bread (as shown above), make sure you open your browser before trying to use other online services or tools (like an email program), because most times you'll have to accept the networks' terms and conditions or go through a landing page to actually get Internet access.

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Fix Wi-Fi Connection Problems

If you have trouble connecting to a Wi-Fi network, there are several things you can check, depending on your specific type of issue. If you can't find any wireless networks, for example, check if the wireless radio is on. Or if your wireless signal keeps dropping, you may need to get closer to the access point.

For more detailed checklists for fixing common wi-fi problems, select your type of issue below: