How to Get Free Wi-Fi Wherever You Go

Figuring out how to get free Wi-Fi when you're on the go isn't always easy. This step-by-step guide can help.

Children of the ’90s likely remember the agony of those early dial-up Internet years. The waiting. The connecting. The tone that told them they were almost there. The wires. So many wires. Today, connecting to the Internet can happen in a matter of seconds. And though we might still wonder what Wi-Fi stands for, we know without a doubt that Wi-Fi requires no cords. But a wireless Internet connection usually comes at a cost—unless you follow this expert advice on how to get free Wi-Fi.

Create a mobile hot spot

Setting Up A Mobile Hotspot On Iphone Screenshotsrd.com, via iPhone

“If your phone has a mobile data connection available, you can use it as a Wi-Fi hot spot and let other devices connect to it and access the Internet just like they would with a normal router,” says Patrick Sinclair, founder and tech blogger at All Home Robotics.

This is just about the easiest Wi-Fi you could hope to access, he says. And while it isn’t necessarily free (you are paying for the data plan, after all), it is a source that is already available to you.

To use your phone as a hot spot, open Settings and then click on Cellular. At the top, you’ll see a Set Up Personal Hotspot option. Clicking it will get you started. “Set a password and turn it on,” Sinclair says. “Then you can connect to the hot spot from other devices as normal.” Be careful, though, as making your device a hot spot could open you up to unwanted guests. You may want to keep an eye out for these signs that someone is stealing your Wi-Fi.

Check city websites

Cathy Mills, director of strategy for Net Influencer, is often on the hunt for her own Wi-Fi connections while traveling. “An excellent tip to get free Wi-Fi wherever you are is to check the official websites of the places you are going to visit,” she says. According to Mills, many cities offer free Wi-Fi to people passing through town, whether for business or pleasure.

“All you have to do is register to have your own username before you log in,” she explains. Just make sure you don’t use one of the passwords hackers often guess. “On these websites, you will also find information about tourist sites and restaurants.”

Those information pages can also point you toward other places around town where you might be able to get free Wi-Fi.

Connect at common establishments

Aerial View Of Woman Using Laptop And Drinking Coffee at a coffee shopTom Werner/Getty Images

As an SEO consultant, Daniel Foley has had to hunt down his own free Wi-Fi a time or two. He says that while using your device as a hot spot is usually convenient, you can also look for open hot spots to connect to if you want a truly free experience.

“Many hotels, coffee shops, and gas stations will let you use their Wi-Fi networks without having to pay for data,” he explains. These locations will often give access to paying customers for free, although they may try to charge you if you aren’t already using their services.

Use a Wi-Fi map app

Let’s say you’ve been looking for one of those free Wi-Fi connections, but you haven’t had much luck. “Using a Wi-Fi map has been of huge help to me,” says Sally Stevens, cofounder of Fast People Search. “You can always find a free Wi-Fi connection if you have an app that provides a database of free Wi-Fi connections within the area.”

Whether you’re using an Apple or Android device, there are plenty of Wi-Fi map apps to choose from. In fact, the WiFi Map app is available on all devices. (Using iOS? These iPhone tricks will make your life so much easier.)

If your standard Wi-Fi map apps aren’t providing much, don’t lose hope. Free Wi-Fi is still within reach. “Instabridge and Wefi are two apps that let you identify networks that aren’t well-known,” Foley says. These apps can lead you to the free Wi-Fi hot spots you might not otherwise find—or the ones that others aren’t already flocking to.

Connect at unexpected locations

Sometimes all your tricks just run dry, which is when you might have to get creative. “There are a few additional popular locales with clandestine networks,” Foley explains. “Because companies need to display merchandise, most electronic stores, for example, supply Wi-Fi.”

Sometimes it’s just a matter of thinking outside the box, he says. If you’re in an airport, for example, he suggests moving closer to the luxury lounges to see if you can connect to anything there.

Don’t be afraid to ask

In all this searching, we’ve left out the most basic solution for how to get free Wi-Fi: Ask. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into a business and simply asked for the Wi-Fi password and received it, even if they don’t advertise that they have it,” says Imgkits CEO and tech expert Robert Johansson.

And in the event you can’t connect to a business’ Wi-Fi? He says you should move on to asking a stranger if you can connect to their hot spot. Yes, really. “People aren’t always that frugal with their Wi-Fi, believe it or not,” Johansson says.

If all else fails, you can prepare ahead of time by asking people on the Internet. Foursquare and Facebook can help you figure out which airports offer free Wi-Fi, Johansson explains. In other words: The kindness of strangers may prove to be your most valuable tool for finding free Wi-Fi.

How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi

young woman using her smartphone with public wifiPollyana Ventura/Getty Images

Of course, no matter what your solution is for how to get free Wi-Fi, you want to make sure you’re protecting yourself—and your devices, passwords, and accounts. Because the answer to the question “Are open Wi-Fi networks safe?” is no, not really. And there are some things you should never do on a public Wi-Fi network.

Monica Eaton-Cardone, COO of the fintech company Chargebacks911, says that while there are several ways to access Wi-Fi without paying for it, users still need to be smart about the risks they are exposing themselves to. “If you need to look at something online immediately—like a map, or your hotel’s street address—then free Wi-Fi can be a lifesaver. But beware: Wi-Fi that’s open to you is open to others as well.”

If you’re sending or receiving sensitive information (think: financial data or personal passwords), the network you’re connecting to may be vulnerable to cybercriminals. “Just because something is free doesn’t mean it’s safe,” Eaton-Cardone explains.

She suggests a few simple steps to give yourself an added layer of protection:

  • Try to stick to https websites, instead of http. The S in the URL denotes a higher level of encryption.
  • Make sure you’re logging into the right Wi-Fi—the official one from the library or restaurant—and not just a random Wi-Fi network that could be created by a hacker.
  • Don’t transmit your password, credit card data, or other private info. Wait until you’re on a secure connection before you make online purchases.

She further suggests setting up a fake email account specifically for times when you need to use public networks, as this can help create some separation between you and any potential fraud threats.

And whenever possible, using a VPN is one of the best options you’ve got for keeping your information safe and secure while online.

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Leah Campbell
Leah Campbell covers technology for Reader’s Digest as well as sites including Reviewed.com. She has a degree in developmental psychology and has written extensively on topics relating to infertility, dating, adoption and parenting. A single mother by choice after a serendipitous series of events led to the adoption of her daughter, Leah is also author of the book Single Infertile Female. She lives in Alaska. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Linkedin.