Free Wi-Fi: Where to Connect, and How to Protect Yourself

Free WiFi advertised on a news kiosk

Free Wi-Fi sign | Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images

It’s happened to just about everyone: You really need to finish a project, download a file, or track down some information, but you don’t want to burn through the last of your data allotment for the month, and you really need to connect to some Wi-Fi. The problem? You’re not at home or at your office, or you may even be traveling in an unfamiliar city, and while you know that there are bound to be free Wi-Fi networks all around you, you’re not sure where to look. Unless you have a mobile carrier like Google’s Project Fi, which makes it easy to use Wi-Fi instead of mobile data to prevent unnecessary consumption, it may not be immediately obvious how you can find free Wi-Fi hotspots.

But fortunately for you, there are some easy ways to find Wi-Fi access, whether you’re a mile from home or traveling halfway around the world. From the businesses that you can count on for free Wi-Fi to the best apps to track down a connection to the security precautions you should take with public networks, we’ve got you covered. Here’s what you need to know about tracking down and connecting to free Wi-Fi hotspots, and what you can do to protect your privacy when you do.

Where to look for free Wi-Fi networks

A Starbucks customer uses free WiFi to sync an iPad with his laptop computer

Connecting to free Wi-Fi at Starbucks | Tom Pennington/Getty Images

If you know where to look, there are likely plenty of free Wi-Fi networks within close proximity of the places where you work, shop, live, and commute. Many businesses offer free Wi-Fi, including popular destinations like Starbucks, Panera Bread, McDonald’s, Barnes & Noble, Apple stores, and FedEx. If you’re looking for a Wi-Fi network to use on your commute, you may be happy to learn that both Megabus and Bolt Bus offer free Wi-Fi to their passengers, and public transportation organizations like New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority are beginning to equip buses and subways with free Wi-Fi, too.

Parks and other public spaces are increasingly equipped with free Wi-Fi hotspots. Many airports, train stations, and bus stations offer free Wi-Fi which can be handy if you’re traveling internationally without a data plan as do many university campuses, public libraries, museums, and cultural attractions. And whether you’re looking for free Wi-Fi at home or while traveling, you may be able to take advantage of free Wi-Fi hotspots offered by your Internet or cable provider. In many cases, you can check your provider’s website or mobile app for a map of nearby hotspots; for instance, if your home Internet service is through Xfinity, Time Warner Cable, Optimum, Cox, or Bright House, you can use Cable WiFi to find out where you can get free Internet access.

Apps that can help you find free Wi-Fi

People use free WiFi at a Starbucks in San Francisco

Starbucks customers use free Wi-Fi | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Another useful way to find free Wi-Fi networks, aside from mentally maintaining a running list of the places you’ve found a connection in the past, is to download an app that will help you find free networks when you’re away from home. WifiMapper from OpenSignal, for instance, claims to offer the world’s largest database of Wi-Fi networks, with nearly 500 million Wi-Fi networks worldwide and more than 2 million recommended free hotspots. The app, available on both iOS and Android, can tell you what kind of venue a hotspot is located in, how reliable the Internet connection is, and will even show comments confirming whether the hotspot is actually free (a plus if the entire reason you’re looking for free Wi-Fi is to avoid the overage fees you’d pay if streaming that Netflix show pushes you over your monthly data allotment).

WiFi Map aggregates passwords and comments for more than 2 million Wi-Fi hotspots around the world. All of the hotspots listed in the app are added by users, who can share passwords and comments, or add new places and update passwords for the networks they use. The app is available for both Android and iOS users, and it even enables you to access Wi-Fi information when your device is offline, which, is useful if you’re without a data plan. getWiFi enables you to search more than 500,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots via a simple map (and offline maps that you can use on your smartphone are currently in the alpha phase of testing).

Instabridge‘s app for iOS or Android will automatically connect you to nearby networks, thanks to its database of 3 million hotspots and passwords provided by what it claims is “the largest WiFi sharing community.” The Wefi app is a great choice if you’re traveling internationally. It’s an Android-only app for finding free Wi-Fi hotspots near you, with a global database of more than 200 million hotspots, and can automatically connect you to the strongest Wi-Fi network available. Wi-Fi Free Spot is a directory of free hotspots that you can easily navigate to find free Wi-Fi in your city. Another useful tool is the Cricket Wi-Fi app, which helps you connect to more than 15 million free Wi-Fi hotspots. And if all else fails, you can always search a website like Yelp for local business with free Wi-Fi.

Risks of connecting to free Wi-Fi networks

A cafe customer uses free WiFi access in San Francisco

A customer uses free Wi-Fi at a cafe in San Francisco | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

While free public Wi-Fi networks are popping up all over the U.S., using a free Wi-Fi network generally entails trading your personal data, location, and activity information for free Internet access. You may be wondering: What’s the big deal? That sounds pretty similar to the compromises we all make daily to use our favorite apps and websites. While trading personal data may be standard practice for Internet-based products and services, particularly free ones, most people aren’t really informed about who’s getting their data, and what the privacy and security implications really are. In experiments, people put a relatively high value on access to information like their location data, while in reality, they’re giving away their data for very little when they connect to public Wi-Fi networks.

As Joanna Stern reports for The Wall Street Journal, there are security risks even when you connect to public networks that use Passpoint, a technology that’s sometimes referred to as Hotspot 2.0. and uses the same WPA2-encryption as your home or office’s network. While Passpoint hotspots protect your data with encryption, your browser traffic and mail and social media data still need to be protected via SSL encryption. If you don’t see HTTPS and a padlock icon on websites where you input personal data or passwords, your data may be vulnerable. Major public networks, like the one being deployed across New York City, are going to be an obvious target to hackers. While there are times when you’re going to want to connect to a free network to download a file or otherwise save your data, there’s no reason to do so without some basic protections in place.

How to protect yourself when using free Wi-Fi

People use their laptops at a Starbucks that offers free WiFi

People connect their laptops to Starbucks free Wi-Fi | Jewel Samad/ AFP/Getty Images

Ensuring that the websites you’re using are secured is a good first step. But in addition to ensuring that your traffic is encrypted by using HTTPS and SSL whenever possible, you should also use a virtual private network (VPN), which enables you to route all of your traffic through a secure, private network, if you’re going to make a habit of using free Wi-Fi hotspots. You can configure your VPN to automatically connect as soon as you join a Wi-Fi network, and it will protect you even when the websites you’re using aren’t fully encrypted. To best protect your privacy and security, look for a VPN service not a proxy service, which can disguise your device’s identity but won’t always encrypt your connection one that offers U.S.-based servers and doesn’t keep logs of your activity.

There are also a few settings you should change before you connect. It’s a good idea to prevent your smartphone from remembering or automatically joining public networks. If you haven’t already, it’s also important to secure all of your accounts by setting up a password manager, changing repetitive or insecure passwords, and enabling two-factor authentication on accounts that support it. (It may seem like an unnecessary hassle, but it makes your accounts significantly more difficult to compromise.) Additionally, Lifehacker recommends taking precautions like turning off sharing and enabling the firewall on your laptop. Other precautions you should take include turning off your device’s Wi-Fi when you aren’t using it. To make all of this easier, the best thing you can do is to automate your Wi-Fi settings, which is relatively easy to do on a Windows or Mac laptop.

It also bears mentioning that there’s no reason to take on more risk than necessary when you’re using a free Wi-Fi network. If you can wait to complete tasks that involve sensitive information, like your banking data, credit card information, or Social Security number, then you definitely should wait until you’re connected to a secure network at your home or office. But once you assess the risks and take the proper precautions, you’re well on your way toward enjoying that free Wi-Fi hotspot whether you’re going to use it to get some work done or just catch up on the next episode of your favorite Netflix show.

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