Finding and Using Wi-Fi Hotspots

Get online when you're out and about

A Wi-Fi hotspot is a wireless access point that provides internet access to network devices in public locations such as downtown centers, cafés, airports, and hotels. Businesses and schools are increasingly using Wi-Fi hotspots for their internal (intranet) networks. Home wireless networks also use similar Wi-Fi technology.

Requirements to Use Wi-Fi Hotspots

Computers (and other devices) connect to hotspots using their internal Wi-Fi network adapters.

If your computer doesn't have an internal Wi-Fi adapter, install Wi-Fi network adapters separately. Depending on the type of computer and personal preferences, you can use a USBPC Card, ExpressCard, or PCI card adapter.

Public Wi-Fi hotspots sometimes require paid subscriptions. To sign-up with these hotspots, you'll provide credit card information online or by phone and choose a service plan. Some service providers offer plans that work at thousands of hotspots throughout the country.

Businessman working with mobile phone and laptop computer
 Busakorn Pongparnit/Getty Images

Service providers supply the profile information required to access their Wi-Fi hotspots. This information includes:

  • The network name (also called SSID) distinguishes hotspot networks from each other.
  • Encryption keys (a series of letters and numbers) scramble the network traffic to and from a hotspot.

Finding Wi-Fi Hotspots

Computers can automatically scan for hotspots that are within range of their wireless signal. These scans identify the network name (SSID) of the hotspot and allow the computer to initiate a connection.

If you don't want to use a computer to find hotspots, use a separate gadget called a Wi-Fi finder. These small devices scan for hotspot signals and might indicate signal strength to pinpoint their exact locations.

Before traveling to a faraway place, find Wi-Fi hotspots using online wireless hotspot finder services.

Connect to Wi-Fi Hotspots

The process of connecting to a Wi-Fi hotspot works similarly to home, business, and public wireless networks. With the profile (network name and encryption settings) applied on the wireless network adapter, initiate the computer's connection. Paid or restricted hotspot services require you to log in with a username and password the first time you access the internet.

Dangers of Wi-Fi Hotspots

Wi-Fi hotspots are generally safe, although a hacker with the technical skills can break into a computer through a hotspot and access personal data.

A few necessary precautions help ensure safety when using Wi-Fi hotspots:

  • Research the public hotspot service providers and choose only reputable providers who use strong security settings on their networks.
  • Check the computer settings to ensure you do not accidentally connect to non-preferred hotspots.
  • Be aware of your surroundings, and watch for suspicious individuals who may be reading your screen or paying too much attention to your device.