Is It Legal to Use Open-Access Wi-Fi Internet Connections?

It depends on permission and terms of service

Person using MacBook in home office

PeopleImages / Getty Images

Wi-Fi technology simplifies the sharing of network connections among computers, mobile devices, and people. Even if you don't use an ISP (internet service provider), you can log on to public hotspots or to a neighbor's unprotected wireless access point to get online. Using someone else's internet service isn't always a good idea, however, and it might be illegal.

Using Public Wi-Fi Hotspots

Many public places such as restaurants, airports, coffee shops, and libraries offer free Wi-Fi connections. It is usually legal to use these services. Using any public Wi-Fi hotspot is legal when you have the service provider's permission and follow the terms of service. These terms may include:

  • Restrictions on the time of day when, or locations where, you can access the public internet.
  • Limits on the amount of network bandwidth you use.
  • Restrictions on the viewing of inappropriate websites or engaging in questionable online activities.

Using a Neighbor's Wi-Fi Connection

Using a neighbor's unprotected wireless access point without their knowledge and permission, known as piggybacking, is a bad idea even if it isn't illegal in your locality. It might not be legal even with permission. The answer depends on the policies of residential internet service providers and plans. If the service provider allows it and the neighbor agrees, using the neighbor's Wi-Fi connection is legal.

Wi-Fi Preferred Networks list dialog screenshot
Coyote Moon, Inc.

Legal Precedents

Many U.S. states prohibit unauthorized access to computer networks, including open Wi-Fi networks. Although interpretations of these laws vary, some precedents have been set:

  • A Michigan man was fined for using the Wi-Fi hotspot of a café from his car in 2007.
  • An Illinois man was fined for unauthorized use of a local agency's Wi-Fi access point in 2006.
  • A Florida man faced felony charges for piggybacking on a neighbor's internet connection without the neighbor's permission in 2005. 

Similar restrictions on using open Wi-Fi networks exist outside the U.S.:

  • In Singapore, a teenager received a probationary sentence for wirelessly accessing a neighbor's internet connection without permission in 2006.
  • In the U.K., a young man was fined and his computer confiscated for using a local resident's internet service illicitly in 2005.

Just as entering a home or business without the owner's permission is considered trespassing even if the doors are unlocked, accessing wireless internet connections, even open-access ones, can be considered an illegal activity.

At a minimum, obtain consent from the operator of any Wi-Fi access point before using the service. Read any online terms of service carefully when signing on, and contact the owner offline, if necessary, to ensure compliance.

Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) of 1986 expanded U.S. law 18 U.S.C. § 1030, which prohibits accessing a computer without authorization. This cybersecurity bill has been amended several times over the years. The CFAA is not limited to computers. It also applies to tablets and cellphones that access network connections illegally.