Thanks to fast 4G and 5G mobile internet it's never been easier to stay connected on the move. But sometimes you may find yourself without a mobile signal, or perhaps you want to save mobile data, and in those situations, a public Wi-Fi hotspot can offer fast, cheap — even free — broadband access.
But what exactly is a hotspot, how do you use them, and how do you stay safe? This guide to public Wi-Fi hotspots will answer all your questions.
What is a Wi-Fi hotspot?
Wi-Fi hotspots are locations where wireless network access is provided for public use. For example, if you stop at a coffee shop, you may see a sign alerting you to free Wi-Fi. Or when you’re in the airport and see a "Wi-Fi available" sign. These are public wireless hotspots or public hotspots for short. Hotspot just means it’s an area where wireless access is available.
What is a personal WiFi hotspot?
You may also hear about personal Wi-Fi hotspots. These mobile Wi-Fi dongles are portable devices that let you connect Wi-Fi enabled devices to mobile internet. The dongle connects to a mobile network and then broadcasts a wireless signal. Wi-Fi dongles are useful if you need to connect multiple devices to mobile internet, or if you have a device that can't support a USB dongle.
How do I connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot?
To use a Wi-Fi hotspot, you only need a wireless-capable device. That could be a smartphone, tablet, laptop or anything else which supports Wi-Fi. To connect, simply enable Wi-Fi on your device and let it find available networks. When you turn on Wi-Fi on any device, it will scan the area around you to locate nearby wireless networks; this may take a minute or so.
Once scanning has finished, your device will present a list of available networks. Select a Wi-Fi hotspot from that list, and your device should connect. In some cases, you might be able to access the internet right away without logging in or entering a password, but it's common for hotspots to need a password or require you to log in or register to connect. This setup process will often ask for your email address in return for allowing you access. If you create an account during this process, you can probably use the same details later to log in to another hotspot on the same network.
What’s the difference between open and closed Wi-Fi hotspots?
Open wireless hotspots
An open Wi-Fi hotspot means it is freely available and not protected. This means you can connect without a password. However, it also means that all internet traffic on the network is sent ‘in the clear’ — meaning anyone can see it if they want to and have the tools and expertise to "sniff" your traffic. Sniffing is where another device on the network will collect and make a copy of traffic so they can see what you’re doing.
Closed wireless hotspot
A closed wireless hotspot requires authentication to access. If you are prompted for a password, login, or payment before gaining access, this is a closed hotspot. The network will use encryption to protect users so you are less likely to fall prey to hackers (though you should still follow the usual rules for safely browsing the internet).
How to find free public Wi-Fi
Public Wi-Fi networks are very common. While coffee shops, restaurants, and airports are where you are most likely to find them, you can now access wireless from many places. Some cities, like Glasgow, London, and York, even offer citywide Wi-Fi, where you can connect to wireless from almost anywhere in the area.
Other places to access free Wi-Fi include libraries, cafes, banks, public transport, museums and all manner of locations. Hotspots are also operated by mobile and broadband network operators.
The cost of using public Wi-Fi
Most public Wi-Fi will be cheap in monetary terms but could involve a cost in other ways. As mentioned above, you may have to provide an email address to access certain hotspots, and this is one of the potential costs. Unless you unsubscribe or specifically disallow marketing emails, you could receive marketing from the venue providing the network or that venue’s authorised partners.
Free Wi-Fi hotspot providers
Several broadband and mobile services operate national Wi-Fi hotspot networks and provide free access if you are a customer. These may be dedicated hotspot access points or may use broadband customer’s routers via a separate network. Each of these will be labelled with its provider name and will require you to log in. You will usually need your broadband or mobile account login and password to access each of these networks.
If you are a BT customer, you have access to a vast network of free public wireless networks through BT Wi-Fi (previously known as BT Openzone). You can find them in hotels, shopping centres, service stations and in towns and cities across the UK, and you also get access to around 7 million hotspots outside the country too.
If you are a BT broadband customer, you may even be providing access to other people from your own router by sharing a portion of bandwidth with BT Wi-Fi. But don’t worry, it’s secure and kept separate from your own network, and you can disable it in your router settings.
O2 Wi-Fi operates around 15,000 Wi-Fi hotspots across the UK. It's commonly found in pubs, McDonald’s, Café Rouge, Debenhams, All Bar One, Costa Coffee and other venues.
If you’re an O2 customer, you have unlimited access for free, plus the option to connect to additional 'Wi-Fi Extra' networks which your device can automatically connect to when the signal is better than mobile. O2 customers can also use Virgin Media Wi-Fi in London’s tube network.
If you’re not an O2 customer, you can still access them for free but will have a 10GB usage limit per month.
Sky Wi-Fi is a national hotspot service using The Cloud network, which is owned by Sky. Sky has arrangements with Marks and Spencers, Eat, Pret a Manger, Wetherspoons, Caffe Nero, and most train stations, so these hotspots are widely available.
If you’re a Sky customer, you can enjoy unlimited access. If you’re not a Sky customer, you will have either time-limited access, data-limited access or face a charge.
Virgin Media Wi-Fi
Virgin Media Wi-Fi can mainly be found in London tube stations and rail stations throughout the country. The provider does have arrangements with coffee shops, libraries and some public transport providers too, though its a smaller network than The Cloud, O2, or BT Wi-Fi.
It’s the same deal here as for these others: free access for some, limitations or charges for others. Virgin Media broadband, Virgin Mobile, EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three customers gain free access to Virgin Media Wi-Fi, while non-customers may face time or data limits or even a charge.
How to find a Wi-Fi hotspot
You can let your device scan for available networks in specific areas, or you can use third-party apps to scan for you. There are also websites that collate known Wi-Fi hotspot locations for you to find one quickly and easily.
Some providers also offer their own app to find their respective hotspots:
All you need to do is download the app you want to use, allow it access to your device’s hardware and use it to scan for available networks. If you log into the app using your provider account, it will log into the network for you.
There are also third-party apps and sites that can scan and catalogue Wi-Fi hotspots from across providers. They include OpenWi-FiSpots, The Wi-Fi-FreeSpot Directory, and Wi-Fi Map. Each includes a collated list of available free networks you can connect to from your device.
If you decide to find your own app, avoid the app called ‘Wi-Fi Finder’ at all costs. It was linked to a huge data breach earlier this year that exposed network passwords and network names.
Staying safe on public Wi-Fi hotspots
Staying safe when using public Wi-Fi is actually very simple; you just need to be a little vigilant and use the same precautions you would on any device when accessing the internet.
The risks of public Wi-Fi
There are two main risks with public hotspots. The first is that anyone with the right skills and tools can sniff Wi-Fi traffic. This means using a computer to suck all the wireless data in the area, storing it and analysing it for passwords, logins, credit card numbers and the like. Sniffing is most likely to occur on an open hotspot that doesn't use encryption, but it is still possible on a closed network.
The other main risk is a fake hotspot. These are designed to look and feel just like a real public Wi-Fi hotspot but are configured to help the operator collect data.
Both of these present a significant risk to your privacy, but there are simple ways to protect yourself against them.
VPNs and public Wi-Fi
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) creates a secure encrypted tunnel between your device and the VPN server. It means your data is secure against any hackers listening because all your internet traffic is scrambled.
Using a VPN is easy. You just sign up for a VPN service and install an app on your device. Always use the VPN when you connect to a hotspot, and you are protected.
Most leading VPN providers offer apps for most operating systems and device types, and as long as they provide at least 256-bit encryption, it should protect your traffic whatever connection you use. But don't just choose the first VPN you find; while a VPN protects you against hotspot hackers, you are trusting your data to the VPN provider, so research the firm before signing up.
Encrypted sites and common sense
The second rule of hotspots is always to check you're connected to a real network and use the same precautions you usually do when browsing the internet. That means:
- Check the Wi-Fi hotspot name exactly matches the name given by the network operator.
- Use security software to scan your device regularly for viruses and malware.
- Try to avoid websites that don't use HTTPS encryption (and never enter personal details into an unencrypted site), otherwise, everything you send to that site can be easily intercepted.
- Don't visit websites you’re not sure about, and always check you're connected to a genuine site.
- Don't click links in emails if you don’t know the sender, and be cautious even if it appears to be genuine.
- Don't buy anything from web stores you don’t recognise.
- Use strong and unique passwords.
- Always use multi-factor authentication when it's available.
As long as you always use a VPN when connecting to public Wi-Fi and follow the usual safe internet use rules, you can freely use these services wherever and whenever you like!