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

Woman working from home in her garden
David Woolfall/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Wi-Fi wireless technology simplifies the sharing of network connections between multiple computers and people. Even if you don't subscribe to Internet service, you can log on to public hotspots or to a neighbor's wireless access point to get online. However, using someone else's Internet service isn't always a good idea. It may even be illegal.

Using a public Wi-Fi hotspot is normally legal when you have the service provider's permission and follow their terms of service.

These terms may include the following:

  • restrictions on time of day when, or locations where, the public Internet may be accessed
  • limits on the amount of network bandwidth that may be used
  • restrictions on viewing of inappropriate Web sites or engaging in questionable online activities

Using a neighbor's wireless access point may not be legal even with their permission. The answer varies depending on the policies of residential Internet service providers and plans among other factors.

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

  • A Michigan man was fined for using the Wi-Fi hotspot of a local cafe, from his car (2007).
  • An Illinois man was fined for unauthorized use of a local agency's Wi-Fi access point (2006).
  • A Florida man faced felony charges for piggybacking onto a neighbor's Internet connection without their permission (2005).

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

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

      Just as entering a home or business without the owner's permission is considered trespassing (even if the doors are unlocked), likewise 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 their service. Read any online Terms of Service documentation carefully when signing on, and contact the owner offline if necessary to ensure compliance.