Mobile Work: What Is a Wi-Fi Hotspot?

Connect to the internet wirelessly when you are away from home or office

Wifi symbol
Wikimedia Commons

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

Screenshots of an iPhone and Android being asked to join a new wi-fi network
Android (Left) and iPhone (Right).

Your wireless-equipped laptop or another device, such as a tablet or smartphone, may notify you when it is in the range of wireless networks. If you don't see an information prompt that there are available wireless networks in the area, you can go to your network settings to find area hotspots. You can find them in many places. For example:

  • When you walk into a Starbucks, it isn't long before your smartphone notifies you of the presence of a Wi-Fi hotspot. Each store has its own home screen. You just click Accept & Connect. Hotspots aren't limited to Starbucks, though. Just about every coffee shop has jumped on the Wi-Fi wagon.
  • Usually, 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. Although hotels usually offer wired internet access, some are converting to wireless, particularly in their public areas.
  • Most airports offer free hotspots and display the login procedure throughout the terminals. Shopping malls do the same thing.
  • Many bookstores have hotspots for their customers.
  • Libraries and other public building 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 long list of locations you can use to access the internet. Though many are free, some hotspots require a fee or subscription.

Connect to a Hotspot

Connecting to a hotspot to use its internet connection usually starts with a webpage that identifies the hotspot and lists the terms of use. If the Wi-Fi hotspot network is encrypted or hidden, you need to 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, you enter it and agree to the usage terms, which usually require you to be a decent, law-abiding internet citizen. You then accept or initiate the connection to the hotspot's wireless network, which is usually identified in the network name. 

Take Security Precautions When Using a Hotspot

The problem with using public hotspots is just that: they are open to the public. You could be sharing a connection with just about anyone at any time. A hotspot isn't your home or office password-protected Wi-Fi router. Nefarious hackers can hack a public hotspot much easier than a private access point. You can, though, take certain precautions before you ever sign on to your first hotspot:

  • Turn off file sharing on any public access folders on your laptop or other devices.
  • Install antivirus protection for your Android phone, your iPad or any other device you're using with a public hotspot. Also activate the firewall on your device to prevent the transmission of malware from an infected device that is sharing the hotspot with you.
  • Understand how your laptop or mobile device shares files and tighten up the privileges. Mac laptops, for example, use AirDrop. Depending on your settings, a hacker could send your Mac a file over AirDrop without you knowing about it. 
Screenshot showing AirDrop options in macoS
  • 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.
Screenshot of TunnelBear website showing
  • 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. Examples include:

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

On an iPhone, click Settings > Wi-Fi and move the slider next to Ask to Join Networks to the On position.

Screenshot of Android device showing Connections and Wi-Fi options

Many Android devices have a setting under Settings > Connections > Wi-Fi > Advanced that can be disabled.

Screenshot showing Advanced and Network Notification screens

On Macintosh computers, go to System Preferences > Network and click the box next to Ask to join new networks.

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

About Mobile Hotspots

Suppose you are driving down a long stretch of empty highway with no coffee shop, bookstore, or airport in sight, and you desperately need to get on the internet. If you've prepared for this moment, you know that some laptops and smartphones can be set up to act as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. Pull over the car, connect to the internet using the cellular signal on your smartphone, and then share that connection with your laptop.

With most cellular providers, you need to set up the mobile hotspot capability ahead of time and pay a monthly fee for the service. 

Using a mobile hotspot drains your phone battery much faster than usual, and your data limit could take a big hit, too. Depending on the cellular network — 3G, 4G, or LTE — the speed of the connection may not be as fast as you are used to (with any except LTE), but when it's the only internet connection available, it may be worth it to you.

If you don't want to drain your smartphone, you can buy a stand-alone device dedicated to a life of providing mobile hotspots. These devices also require cellular connections and contracts. 

Of course, your device has to be able to access a cell signal. If there is no cell coverage, you are out of luck. Keep driving. You'll hit a Starbucks soon.