How to Get Free Wi-Fi Anywhere If You Can’t Connect at Home

This story is part home tipsCNET’s collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

work from home and virtual learning has become the norm since the beginning of the pandemic. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon, considering many employees want to continue remote work at some level, even as offices reopen and health metrics improve. In addition to work and school, people across the US are cutting the cord cable and satellite packages and opting for streaming services save money.

All these trends point to one crucial thing: the need for a reliable internet. So what does this mean for people who can’t get a reliable internet connection at home? It’s definitely not an ideal situation, but there are still things you can do to get online.

In this guide, we’ll give you a quick summary of how to get online quickly using a hotspot and how to find free wifi anywhere in the world.

Read too: How to Tell If Your Wi-Fi Is Slow Due to Internet Throttling

What is an access point?

A hotspot is a central location or device that provides wireless access to the Internet, and any network device can connect as long as it has the correct access. Depending on your mobile carrier and plan, you may be able to use your smartphone as hotspot.

There are two different types of hotspots: public and private.

In the above scenario where you paid your cellular provider for the ability to create a hotspot with your smartphone, the smartphone is the physical device that creates wireless access for other Wi-Fi enabled devices such as laptops, desktop computers and streaming devices. This is an example of a private hotspot.

A public hotspot is usually created by a company to provide Internet service when visitors, customers, and clients are in place. Many free public Wi-Fi connections are hotspots. But for the sake of accuracy, it’s important to note a difference between standard Wi-Fi and a hotspot.

A Telstra technician installs a 5G-compatible public Wi-Fi hotspot

A hotspot is a central location or device that provides wireless Internet access.

Brad Wagner/Telstra

OK, so what’s the difference between Wi-Fi and a hotspot?

While hotspots are a physical location or device, Wi-Fi is a wireless technology that devices can use to send information to each other. If you have Wi-Fi at home, it’s because you have a Wi-Fi router controlling all your wireless devices and an ISP that connects that router to the Internet.

As long as you set a strong password, a private Wi-Fi network like this will be more secure than a public hotspot because you control who and what connects to it. Public hotspots, on the other hand, are open to anyone within range, which is why it’s a good idea to use a VPN or some other security measure if you need to do something sensitive like shopping or sending money.

How to find free WiFi or free public hotspots

While this is probably not possible at home (unless you live very close to someone who has an unsecured network), there are usually plenty of options for finding free Wi-Fi or public hotspots at businesses like cafes, libraries, hotels, etc. restaurants, fitness centers and more.

If you’re about to head out for the day in search of free internet, here are some handy apps to try:

Apps like these will display a map of your area with a list of available free Wi-Fi or public hotspots. Most will also let you keep track of login requirements and hotspot reviews.

Some places, like libraries, are usually provided for free public Wi-Fi, but if you’re not using a Wi-Fi locator app, it’s a good idea to call first to be sure.

How to Set Up and Use Free Wi-Fi

Make sure the device you plan to use supports Wi-Fi. If it is, make sure Wi-Fi is turned on.

Once you get to the place where you will be using public Wi-Fi or hotspot, open a browser and open your computer’s network settings or click the Wi-Fi icon on the screen. Then select the public Wi-Fi connection you intend to use. If the connection is public, you are now connected, but watch out for an opt-in site to appear in your browser. Some companies require you to agree to terms of service or provide an email address before allowing you to use free Wi-Fi.

Some companies provide a login and password to their customers and offer a secure network. If the connection you intend to use appears as secure, look for the login and password posted by the company or ask someone for help. And yes, if you are somewhere like a cafe, it would be polite to buy a sweet or a cup of coffee while you are there.

If you have configured your computer to automatically connect to available networks, the next time you visit that company, your computer will automatically join the network.

htc 5g hotspot device

This hotspot device from HTC uses an incoming 5G connection to provide Wi-Fi internet access to nearby wireless devices.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

How to set up and use a private hotspot

They aren’t free, but if you need an internet connection at home and you have good cell signal, a paid hotspot might be a place to turn. For example, maybe you live in a rural area with limited ISP optionsor maybe internet plans in your area are beyond your budget.

Depending on your mobile carrier and the plan you pay for, you may already have personal hotspot capabilities. If not, speak with your provider to determine how much they will charge you for this option. Be prepared to pay more if you’re looking for unlimited data.

After considering pricing, you’ll need to decide whether to use your smartphone as a hotspot or buy a dedicated Wi-Fi hotspot device.

Check your phone’s settings for hotspot features.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Should I use my smartphone or a separate hotspot device?

A hotspot device will be considered a separate device on your mobile plan with its own separate data limit. The downside is the extra cost, but the upside is that you won’t have to worry about your smartphone usage consuming your hotspot data. Another positive point: If you set a strong password, using a hotspot device to go online is just as secure as any ISP-provided Wi-Fi connection, and often offers greater coverage range as well. We are also seeing an increasing number of full-featured Wi-Fi routers and mesh routers that are designed to receive their incoming signal over a cellular connection, such as LTE or 5G.

Both smartphone hotspots and dedicated hotspot devices can be used anywhere, although using a smartphone hotspot in public places may be more convenient, especially if you are just trying to get your laptop online for a few minutes.

What options does my internet provider offer?

In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission created the Keep Americans Connected initiative to help people maintain their broadband and phone connectivity during the pandemic. In addition, providers such as comcast extended free public Wi-Fi to anyone (customers and non-customers alike) through 2020. Many providers have extended benefits like this through 2022 – if you’re struggling, it’s worth checking with providers in your area to see what your options are .

Whichever route you take, the bottom line is that you probably have more ways to go online than you think. We hope this guide will help you find and enjoy them. In the meantime, here are some additional readings that you may also find helpful:

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