What Is a Wi-Fi Hotspot?

Connect to the internet wirelessly when on the go

Wireless hotspots are wireless access points, typically in public locations, that provide internet access to mobile devices such as your laptop or smartphone when you are away from the office or your home. Typical Wi-Fi hotspot venues include cafes, libraries, airports, and hotels. Hotspots make it possible for you to get online wherever you go, but they come with some security concerns.

How to Find a Hotspot

Your wireless-equipped laptop and other devices, such as tablets and smartphones, may notify you when you're in range of wireless networks. If you don't receive a notification that there are available wireless networks in the area, go to the network settings to find area hotspots.

Screenshots of an iPhone and Android being asked to join a new wi-fi network

You'll find hotspots in many places. For example:

  • When you walk into a Starbucks or one of the many other coffee shops, your smartphone notifies you of the presence of a Wi-Fi hotspot. Each store has a home screen for its hotspot. After you accept the terms of the hotspot agreement, you're connected.
  • Restaurants that offer a hotspot post the information on a table tent card or at the entrance. You may need to ask for the password to sign on to the service.
  • When you stay in a hotel, ask the desk clerk for the Wi-Fi password or sign-in process. The service may be complimentary, or you may be charged a daily fee for its use.
  • Most airports offer free hotspots and display the login procedure throughout the terminals. Shopping malls also offer hotspots and may post login information around the mall.
  • Many bookstores have hotspots for their customers.
  • Libraries and other public buildings often have Wi-Fi hotspots.

A quick internet search for hotspots in [your city] (or in a city you are about to visit) will turn up a list of locations where you can access the internet. Although many are free, some hotspots require a fee or subscription.

Connect to a Hotspot

When you connect to a hotspot to use the internet, your web browser displays a web page that identifies the hotspot and lists the terms of use. If the Wi-Fi hotspot network is encrypted or hidden, get the security key and the network name (SSID) information from the hotspot service provider to locate and properly establish the network connection.

When a password is required, enter it and agree to the usage terms, which usually require you to be a decent, law-abiding internet citizen. Then, accept or initiate the connection to the hotspot's wireless network, which is identified in the network name.

Take Security Precautions When Using a Hotspot

The problem with using public hotspots is that they are open to the public. You could be sharing a connection with anyone at any time. A hotspot isn't your home or office password-protected Wi-Fi router. Hackers can hack a public hotspot easier than a private access point.

Here are some precautions you can take before you sign on to a hotspot:

  • Understand how your laptop or mobile device shares files and tighten the privileges. Mac laptops, for example, use AirDrop. Depending on your settings, a hacker could send a file to your Mac over AirDrop without your knowledge.
  • Turn off file sharing for public access folders on your laptop and other devices.
  • Install anti-virus protection for your Android phone, iPad, or any other device you use with a public hotspot. Also, activate the firewall on your device to prevent the transmission of malware from an infected device that is also connected to the hotspot.
  • Install a VPN on your device. A virtual private network encrypts all your web traffic, so even if you are hacked, your data is impossible to read.
  • Turn off automatic connections to nearby networks.

Turn Off Automatic Network Connections

Some laptops and mobile devices automatically connect to a hotspot when it is in range, but this is a bad idea for security reasons, particularly when the hotspot isn't password protected. In most cases, you can use a menu setting to prevent this. The location varies by device.

On an iPhone, click Settings > Wi-Fi and turn on the Ask to Join Networks toggle switch.

Screenshot showing Wi-Fi and Ask to Join Networks interface in iOS

Many Android devices have a network notification setting under Settings > Network & internet > Internet > Network preferences that can be disabled.

Screenshot showing Advanced and Network Notification screens

On Macintosh computers, go to System Preferences > Network and select the Ask to join new networks checkbox.

Screenshot of macOS system preferences focusing on Ask to join new networks checkbox

About Mobile Hotspots

When you're in a location that doesn't have a hotspot and you need to be online, your smartphone may be able to act as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot. If your smartphone has this capability, connect to the internet using the cellular signal on your phone, then share that connection with your laptop.

Most cellular providers require that the mobile hotspot capability be set up ahead of time and charge a monthly fee for the service.

Using a mobile hotspot drains a phone battery much faster than usual, and the hotspot may use a significant portion of your data limit. Depending on the cellular network, the speed of the connection may not be as fast as your home connection, but when it's the only internet connection available, it may be worth it.

If you don't want to drain your smartphone battery, buy a stand-alone device that provides mobile hotspots. These devices require cellular connections and contracts. Also, the device must be able to access a cellular signal. If there is no cell coverage, look for a hotspot at a coffee shop or shopping mall.

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