Let’s be real: internet access can be expensive.
As technology advances and consumer demands increase, however, more free wifi hotspots are popping up all over the place.
If you live near any sort of established community (aka not in the middle of nowhere), chances are there are at least a few locations near you with free, public wifi.
Read on to learn all about where you can find free wifi and how to stay safe while on a public network.
There are a number of free wifi hotspots if you look hard enough. Many big chains that you frequent probably have some of these hot spots.
Coffee shops are a classic location to sit down, get some caffeine in you, and crank out some work on a laptop.
Coffee shops know their market very well. You can find free wifi at tons of coffee shops, from the biggest coffee chain down to the smallest local cafe.
Here’s a few of the bigger coffee shops that provide free wifi to their customers:
- Tim Hortons
- Dunkin’ Donuts
- Krispy Kreme
If your favorite place to get a hot cup o’ joe is your local cafe, you may not be out of luck! Just ask the staff or management if they have free wifi.
Chances are, they do!
Fast Food/Casual Restaurants
Similar to coffee shops, fast food and casual restaurants provide a decent location and environment to plop down, get a quick meal, and hop on your laptop.
Some fast food/casual restaurants with free wifi include
- Taco Bell
- Buffalo Wild Wings
- Panera Bread
- Jimmy John’s
Hotels are more limited in their free wifi offerings, but some do have free public wifi that you can use even if you aren’t a guest.
- Marriott Hotels
- Best Western
- Country Inns & Suites, Radisson
- Holiday Inn
If coffee shops or restaurants are too loud for you, many hotel lobbies offer a fair amount of quieter space for you to focus on what you’re doing online.
Believe it or not, many retail stores have free wifi networks. Some seem more obvious (like the Apple Store), but you’ll be surprised by some of these:
- The Apple Store
- Best Buy
- Whole Foods
Other Public Places
Take a walk through the city, and free wifi is all around you! Bet you didn’t think to check if these places had wifi at no charge:
- Public library
- Some airports
- Some parks
- Public transit (buses, trains)
A common rule of thumb is “you get what you pay for”. Follow that rule to its logical end, and you’d expect that all this free wifi comes with a few caveats.
Well, if you think there is a catch (or two) to free internet, you’d unfortunately be right.
Perhaps the most obvious issue with using public wifi is the crushingly slow speed on many of them.
If you’re in a highly-populated area with free wifi, you’re competing with potentially thousands for one wifi network.
Naturally, the network can’t handle that much traffic at once while operating at full capacity. Thus, everything slows down.
This can be particularly infuriating if you’re trying to do something that requires more data, such as stream a video.
You’ll be left with a blurry screen and the ever-annoying buffering symbol if you try to do anything intensive on public wifi.
Even if you aren’t doing anything more than browsing some websites, your experience can be quite frustrating.
It’s very likely that many of the hundreds or thousands of other users are also doing internet intensive activities.
“Oh yes, our wifi’s free! That is, if you’re a member…”
Hoping to access free wifi at many locations can leave you quite disappointed.
Earlier, we said that many hotels have free public wifi for anyone.
However, that’s not the case for all of them.
Take the Ritz-Carlton, for example. The wifi is free… but only if you meet the following criteria:
- Reward member
- Be at a participating hotel
- Book a room at said hotel
You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get the “free” wifi.
And since you have to book a room, it’s not even free anyways!
You know how if you want to use YouTube for free, you have to deal with ads? That’s how both YouTube creators and YouTube itself make money.
Although not the exact same thing, hotels may blast you with ads if you want to use their wifi.
It can be annoying, but you’re getting what you paid for.
In this case, you’re paying with your time and temper.
Safety And Privacy Concerns
In our modern, high-tech society, more information than ever is stored in digital form.
To those ill-intentioned individuals that understand the inner workings of computers and networks, it’s like heaven on earth.
Going out and using a public wifi network poses risks to your privacy and security. Hackers are likely to target these free public networks since there are plenty of targets to choose from and it’s easier to catch random unsuspecting people on public wifi.
The higher the amount of internet traffic, the more likely someone is out there trying to crack into someone’s data.
And since the networks are not secure, these public wifi hotspots are gold mines for personal data.
On that note…
Let’s talk about some ways hackers can steal your data and how to protect yourself against these hackers on free public wifi networks.
How Can Hackers Steal Your Data?
There are multiple ways hackers steal your identity, so it’s critical that you know of these types of attacks.
This kind of attack is exactly as the name suggests.
Man-in-the-middle attacks occur when hackers take advantage of security flaws in the wifi network. They get to observe the data exchange between you and the server, allowing them prime access to your sensitive data.
Some data that is vulnerable to these attacks include
- Login information
- Online purchases
- Web browsing history/activity
- Other financial data
Another type of attack that you need to look out for is a rogue hotspot.
Hackers will study the existing wifi hotspots in the area and determine which one gets the most/“best” traffic for them to target. They will then set up a new hotspot with a very similar name to the real hotspot in an effort to lure in unaware victims.
Once you accidentally join the wrong hotspot, it’s all over. Hackers can gain control over your data and send malware directly to your device.
Just thinking of the risks public wifi poses to your personal data can be unnerving if not downright frightening.
Fortunately, there are a myriad of safety precautions you can take to keep your precious data out of the filthy hands of hackers.
Public WiFi Safety Tips
Using public WiFi can expose your data to malevolent figures (such as hackers or identity thieves) if you aren’t careful.
Here’s some tips on how to keep yourself safe when using public WiFi.
When you pull up the list of available wifi networks in a public place, you’ll get quite a hefty list of network names.
Never jump on the first available wifi network that isn’t locked; it could be a hacker trying to bait people with free wifi!
Instead, ask staff for the network name and password. Even if they have a sign up, it never hurts to ask directly.
If you still feel unsure, ask for more detailed information such as the IP address. Wifi network names aren’t unique to the network, but their IP addresses are.
Lastly, check to make sure any sharing functions on your devices are turned off. If you leave them on, you’re giving hackers a wide opening into your personal data.
VPNs Are Very Helpful
A virtual private network (or VPN for short) will put up an extremely tough wall between data thieves and the data they want to steal.
Here’s how they work:
VPNs have their own IP address that is located somewhere you’re not, so it throws off anyone who has malevolent intentions.
They provide a safe path between the server and your devices by encrypting your data. This renders your data safe from hackers, as they won’t be able to see any of it.
Keep Your Antivirus Software Handy
Another line of defense against hackers on public wifi is antivirus software.
You probably use these already to detect viruses that come along with downloads, but they can defend your data against hackers.
As we mentioned earlier, hackers don’t just try to steal your data and scram; sometimes, they like to play dirty and upload malware to your phone.
Make sure you update your antivirus software whenever you get the chance so it’s ready to stop the latest malware.
Stay Secure With HTTPS
If you do any online shopping, you’ll notice the checkout screen probably has HTTPS instead of HTTP.
That’s because similar to VPNs, HTTPS sites use encryption to protect your data (like credit card information) against hackers.
Not everyone has access to VPNs, so HTTPS sites are the next best option.
There are two things to look for when ensuring you’re using an HTTPS site:
- The “S” at the end of the normal http
- A padlock symbol to the left of the URL (in the leftmost part of the URL bar)
See those things?
You’re all good to browse without putting your data at risk.
Turn Off Your Wifi When You Don’t Need It
Switching off your device(s) wifi connection(s) is perhaps the easiest tip to follow on here, but it can save you a whole lot of problems.
If your wifi isn’t on, hackers don’t have a chance to get into your devices for very obvious reasons.
Don’t Download Anything
Downloading large files on public wifi slows things down for everyone else, and it’ll be slow for you too.
But that’s not the only problem.
Downloading files onto your devices gives hackers another easy way to your data. They can also give you malware if you try to download anything while using a public hotspot.
Beef up your browser’s security with some browser extensions!
You’ve probably heard of (and use) ad block, but there are many useful extensions beyond that. Some of these extensions help you by blocking things, while others help stop people from hacking your devices.
(Note: We recommend uBlock Origin)
These don’t take very long to install, just make sure to do it while on a secure network if you have one.
Avoid Certain Websites
I know you’re looking for ways to use public wifi in a completely unhindered fashion while staying safe, but sometimes it’s safer to avoid certain websites all together.
Avoid sites like these:
- Ecommerce stores
- Social media
- Online banking
- Any other sites with login information
Despite the convenience of accessing these types of sites in public, it’s best to browse more sensitive sites from the safety of your own secure wifi network.
The Wifi Is Free, But Keep Yourself Safe Out There
The proliferation of free public wifi is an underrated technological advancement.
You no longer have to pay every month to use the internet; just head over to your local cafe whenever you need to browse and you’re set!
But with progress comes downsides.
Hackers have so many opportunities to get their hooks into your devices and robbing you blind of your sensitive data.
But there are plenty of ways to keep your data out of the virtual hands of such criminal elements.
Make sure to follow those tips and you’ll be able to safely access wifi at a variety of locations for free!