You don’t need to rely on home internet. Here’s how to get free Wi-Fi anywhere

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

Our lifestyles are increasingly dependent on having one good internet connection. We learn online, work from home on laptops and entertain ourselves with ours favorite programs e movies on streaming services. Stable Wi-Fi is crucial day after day.

So what happens when you are away, away from your own home wifi? Or what if the internet in your home it’s not that fast in the first place?

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In this guide, we’ll give you a quick rundown on how to connect quickly using a access point, and how to find free Wi-Fi anywhere in the world. (You can also learn how to know if your wifi is slow due to internet throttling, how to speed up your wifi and our options for the best VPNs.)

What is a hotspot?

An access point 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 right access. Depending on your cell phone provider and plan, you may be able to use your own smartphone as an access point.

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

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

A public access point is usually set up by a business to provide internet service when visitors, clients and customers are on site. Many free public Wi-Fi connections are hotspots. But for the sake of accuracy, it’s important to note the difference between standard Wi-Fi and a hotspot.

What is 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 that protects all your wireless devices and an Internet service provider that connects that router to the Internet.

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

Read more: How to save up to $75 a month on your internet bill

A Telstra technician installs a 5G-capable public Wi-Fi access point

An access point is a central location or device that provides wireless access to the Internet.

Brad Wagner/Telstra

How to find free Wi-Fi or free public hotspots

While this probably isn’t 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 in businesses like coffee shops, libraries, etc. hotels, restaurants, fitness centers and more.

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

Apps like these will display a map of your area with a list of available free public Wi-Fi or hotspots. Most will also allow you to track login requirements and access point revisions.

Some locations, like libraries, often have free public Wi-Fi, but if you’re not using a Wi-Fi finder app, it’s a good idea to call first to make sure.

How to set up and use free Wi-Fi

Make sure the device you want to use is Wi-Fi compatible. If so, make sure Wi-Fi is turned on.

Once you arrive at the location where you will use the public Wi-Fi or hotspot, open a browser, then open your computer’s network settings or click the Wi-Fi icon on the screen. Next, select the public Wi-Fi connection you want to use. If the connection is public, you will now be connected, but watch for an activation site to appear in your browser. Some companies require you to agree to their terms of service or provide an email address before they’ll let you use their free Wi-Fi.

Some companies provide a login and password to their customers and provide a secure network. If the connection you want to use appears as secure, find the login and password posted at the company or ask someone for help. And yes, if you’re somewhere like a coffee shop, it would be nice to buy a pastry or a cup of coffee while you’re at it.

If you have set your computer to automatically connect to available networks, the next time you visit that company, your computer will automatically join their 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’re not free, but if you need an Internet connection at home and you have a good cell phone signal, a paid hotspot might be the place to go. For example, maybe you live in one rural area with limited ISP optionsor maybe the internet plans in your area are beyond your budget.

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

After considering the prices, you will have to decide whether to use your smartphone as a hotspot or buy a dedicated Wi-Fi access point device.

Check your phone’s settings for hotspot capabilities.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Should I use my smartphone or a standalone hotspot device?

A hotspot device will be considered an independent 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 using your smartphone eating up your hotspot data. Another positive: if you set a secure password, using an access point device to connect is just as secure as any ISP-provided Wi-Fi connection, and will often provide a greater range of coverage as well. We are also seeing an increasing number of full Wi-Fi routers and mesh routers which are designed to get their incoming signal through 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 can be more convenient, especially if you’re just trying to get your laptop into line for a few minutes.

What Wi-Fi options does my internet provider offer?

In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission created the It keeps Americans connected initiative to help people maintain their broadband and phone connectivity during the pandemic. Also, providers like Comcast extended free public Wi-Fi to anyone (customers and non-customers) during 2020. Many providers have extended these benefits to 2022; if you’re struggling, it’s worth checking with providers in your area to see what your options are.

Whichever path you take, the bottom line is that you probably have more ways to connect online than you think. We hope that this guide will help you find them and take advantage of them; in the meantime, here are some readings that you may also find helpful:

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