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How to find and use public Wi-Fi hotspots

Wi-Fi hotspot zones

Thanks to fast 4G and 5G mobile internet, it's never been easier to stay connected on the move.

But what if you find yourself without a mobile signal? Or perhaps you want to save mobile data. In those situations, a public Wi-Fi hotspot can offer fast, cheap, even free, broadband access.

In this guide, we'll cover the following questions:

  • What is a hotspot?
  • How do you use hotspots?
  • How do you stay safe when connected to a hotspot?

Wi-Fi Hotspots: The Key Points

  • A Wi-Fi hotspot is a location where Wi-Fi internet access is available.
  • Some hotspots are completely open and free, but most require a password, and some need payment.
  • There are thousands of hotspots all over the country.
  • Some broadband deals include free Wi-Fi hotspot access.

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 or you're waiting at an airport, you may see a sign letting you know free Wi-Fi is available. These are public wireless hotspots, or public hotspots for short.

Hotspot just means it’s an area where wireless access is available.

What's a personal Wi-Fi 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 surrounding area 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 to have to enter a password, or you might need 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’. Anyone can see it if they want. And with the tools and the expertise, they could also "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. You're 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 the most common places to find them, you can now access wireless in other creative 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, cafés, 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, but you might need to provide your email address to access certain hotspots. Remember to uncheck any marketing boxes if you want to avoid emails from the venue, network provider, or other partners.

Free Wi-Fi hotspot providers

Several broadband and mobile services operate national Wi-Fi hotspot networks and provide free access if you're a customer.

Each of these will be labelled with its provider name and will require you to log in. You'll usually need your broadband or mobile account login and password to access each of these networks.

BT Wi-Fi

If you're a BT customer, you have access to a vast network of free public wireless networks through BT Wi-Fi (previously known as BT Openzone). On demand is available to anyone from £4.99 per hour, too. You can find BT Wi-Fi hotspots in hotels, shopping centres, service stations and in towns and cities across the UK, and you also get access to around millions hotspots outside the country too. 

BT broadband customers 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. If you don't like this idea, you can disable it in your router settings.

O2 Wi-Fi

O2 Wi-Fi operates thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots across the UK. It's commonly found in pubs, banks, supermarkets 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.

If you’re not an O2 customer, you can still access them for free, but you'll have a 10GB usage limit per month.

Sky Wi-Fi

Sky Wi-Fi is a national hotspot service using The Cloud network, which is owned by Sky. Sky has arrangements with fast food chains such as KFC, Caffe Nero, Costa Coffee, and most train stations. These hotspots are widely available.

If you’re a Sky broadband 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.

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 do this job for you. There are also websites to help you find one quickly and easily. BT also offers its own Wi-Fi app.

All you need to do is download the app you want to use, allow it access to your device, and use it to scan for available networks. If you log into the app using your provider account, it will sign into the network for you.

There are also third-party apps and sites, such as Wi-Fi Map that can scan and catalogue Wi-Fi hotspots from across providers. Each includes a list of available free networks you can connect to from your device.

Staying safe on public Wi-Fi hotspots

Staying safe when using public Wi-Fi is simple - be 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. This data can then be stored and analysed for passwords, logins and credit card numbers. Sniffing is most likely to occur on an open hotspot that doesn't use encryption, but it's 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. If you always use the VPN when you connect to a hotspot, you'll be 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.

Don't just choose the first VPN you find! While a VPN protects you against hotspot hackers, you're trusting your data to the VPN provider, so research the firm before signing up.

Our introduction to VPNs can help get you started.

Encrypted sites and common sense

Always to check you're connected to a real network and use the same precautions you usually do when browsing the internet.

That means: 

  1. Checking the Wi-Fi hotspot name
    Make sure it matches the name given by the network operator exactly.
  2. Use security software
    Scan your device regularly for viruses and malware.
  3. Try to avoid websites that don't use HTTPS encryption
    Never enter personal details into an unencrypted site, otherwise, everything you send to that site can be easily intercepted.
  4. Don't visit websites you’re not sure about
    Always check you're connected to a genuine site.
  5. Don't click links in emails if you don’t know the sender
    Be cautious even if it appears to be genuine.
  6. Don't buy anything from web stores you don’t recognise.
  7. Use strong and unique passwords.
  8. Always use two-way authentication (2FA) when it's available.

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!

Meet the author:


Jamie worked as a NOC engineer with a national telecoms provider for over a decade before deciding he preferred writing for a living. He is passionate about making technical subjects understandable to all. He has written for PC Gamer, Tom's Hardware, Hilton Hotels, DHL, Dyson and others.

Specialist subject: As an ex-engineer, it has to be networks and installation

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