How to Get Free Wi-Fi

Michael Kwan
Using an iPhone at a cafe

Whether you're heading across town, across the country, or around the world, getting connected to the internet to check email, look up information, or update your social media can be a rather important priority. You may have a fast and reliable Wi-Fi network at home, at work or at school, but what about when you are somewhere else? The good news is that free Wi-Fi is more plentiful than ever before! There are many places where you can get online in a matter of moments.

Where to Find Free Wi-Fi

Most internet-enabled devices - like smartphones, tablets, laptops and handheld game systems - are equipped with Wi-Fi capabilities, so it is fast and convenient to detect and connect to a nearby Wi-Fi access point. You just have to know where to start looking.

Coffee Shops and Restaurants

Cafes and restaurants are common and popular options for free Wi-Fi. For example, Starbucks, McDonald's and Panera Bread typically all offer free Wi-Fi access for customers, through no proof of purchase is required. Simply search for the associated Wi-Fi access point, connect to it, and open a web browser to view the splash page and accept the terms and conditions.

  • Pro: Given that locations for these chains, and others like them, are plentiful in many cities and towns, you're never too far away from getting online.
  • Con: Since the network is not secured, open Wi-Fi connections like these may not be safe.

Hotel Lobbies

Not all hotels offer wireless Internet and, even among those that do, many still charge their guests a fee in order to use it. However, many hotels do have complimentary Wi-Fi access and some do not require you to enter any guest information, like a room number, in order to get online.

For example, Starwood properties, like the Westin and Sheraton, sometimes have free Wi-Fi access in the hotel's public areas, such as lobbies or restaurants. Larger hotels with larger lobbies likely will not mind if you spend a few minutes in there, as you may be indiscernible from one of their guests.

  • Pro: Depending on the property, connecting to the hotel Wi-Fi can be just as straightforward as connecting to other public, free Wi-Fi.
  • Con: It can be hit and miss, as many hotels restrict their internet access to paying guests only.

Cable Company Bundles

Companies that provide cable TV are often the same companies that provide in-home Internet access too. They may also offer additional services, like home security or a landline telephone. As an added perk, some bundles also include free access to Wi-Fi access points in their service areas. You simply have to check to see if your plan and provider include this.

In Canada, customers with Shaw gain access to the Shaw FreeRange TV mobile app, as well as to Shaw Go Wi-Fi locations around town. In this particular case, you will need to enter your Shaw login credentials the first time you connect a device to a Shaw Go access point. After that, the device will be saved to your account. Similar services are offered by some other cable and internet providers, including Xfinity (Comcast) in the United States.

  • Pro: The network is generally more secure and allows for seamless handover between access points.
  • Con: You must be a paying customer with the cable company and have a compatible plan.

Apple Store Locations

Apple Store locations are more than happy to accommodate people who want to try out the latest Macbook, iPad or iPhone - all of which are fully functional and connected to the internet. Additionally, Apple Stores also have a free and open Wi-Fi network. The range of the network easily reaches outside of the confines of the store, so it's easy enough to sit on a bench close to the Apple Store and connect your smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer.

Pro: Get online with virtually no restrictions, as the network is free and open for everyone to use.

Con: Like connecting through the Wi-Fi at Starbucks or McDonald's, this connection may not be particularly safe and secure.

Free Wi-Fi Finder Apps

It's not uncommon to encounter plenty of Wi-Fi networks during your daily travels, but many of these are going to be secured with a password. You also might not know where the free Wi-Fi access points are in another city or another part of town. Online communities have developed around this conundrum, crowdsourcing information about available networks and packaging them up in mobile apps like Wi-Fi Map for iOS and Wi-Fi Finder for Android. These directories list the networks in the area and provide passwords where available.

  • Pro: The database can help you find a nearby Wi-Fi network that is currently out of range of your mobile device.
  • Con: The apps may not necessarily provide completely up-to-date information and the networks listed may not be secure.

Smartphone Tethering

Most smartphone users already have a data plan, but they might wish to connect another device (like a tablet, smart camera or notebook computer) to the internet. It may be possible to use a smartphone as a mobile hotspot, taking the 3G/4G wireless signal and converting it into a Wi-Fi network that other devices can access.

Check with your wireless provider to confirm before attempting to do this, as your plan may not incude smartphone tethering.

  • Pros: Accessing the internet this way is just as secure as surfing the Internet directly on your smartphone. If you have access to do this, you can access the internet anywhere you have a cellular signal.
  • Cons: Not all cellphone plans support tethering and even among those that do, the data consumed as a result will count against your monthly allotment. Additionally, your iPhone may need to be jailbroken and your Android device may need to be rooted in order to access tethering.

FreedomPop Wireless Internet

One of the more unique companies in the United States is FreedomPop, which offers free wireless Internet access, as well as a free mobile phone service. It piggybacks primarily on the Sprint network to provide wireless service. Coverage is roughly identical to what you would get with Sprint.

You must first purchase a wireless hotspot, which start at around $49.99. The free basic plan includes 500MB of 4G service each month. Upgrades are available to access to the 3G network, which has better coverage, as well as to increase the monthly allotment of wireless data.

  • Pro: The convenience of a mobile hotspot means that several of your wireless devices can get online at the same time at no cost.
  • Cons: FreedomPop 4G coverage is not as widespread as some other major networks. You must first purchase the hotspot (or another device) to use the service.

Stick With Trusted Names for Free Internet

It may be tempting to open your Wi-Fi settings and connect to any unsecured network you see. However, this is an ill-advised practice, as you could be making yourself vulnerable to hacking and other malicious activity. If you are going to use free Wi-Fi, it is best only to use networks that you know and can reasonably trust. Using Wi-Fi provided by a retailer, such as Starbucks or an Apple Store, is safer than connecting to a questionable network (like linksys123) that mysteriously shows up in your settings.

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How to Get Free Wi-Fi