How to find free Wi-Fi when you really need it | Popular Science
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How to find free Wi-Fi when you really need it

Without compromising your security.

man on laptop in cafe

Cafes aren't the only places where you can access a free Wi-Fi network.

We’ve all had that moment when we’re far from home and low on data, but still need to finish up some work (or catch up on some Netflix episodes). Free Wi-Fi is everywhere, yet paradoxically, it’s hard to actually find a hotspot when you really need one. Even if you locate a network, you may not trust that it’s secure. Here’s how to find free Wi-Fi wherever you go, without compromising your privacy.

Know the chains with free Wi-Fi

You probably know you can find Wi-Fi at most coffee shops. But a lot of other chains offer their customers free internet too. If you can remember the big ones, then next time you’re in any urban area, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find a network within a block of where you’re standing.

We collected some of the most popular chains with free, open Wi-Fi at many or all of their locations.

Those big chains should cover a lot of the occasions when you need Wi-Fi but can’t find a Starbucks across the street. And if you plan to sit down and work, remember that coffee shops and restaurants will have more seating than retail stores.

Check a hotspot map

Big chains aren’t the only places that offer free Wi-Fi. You can also find it at local libraries, laundromats, parks, restaurants, and churches—though they don’t always advertise it. Even more annoyingly, some of them are protected with passwords so only customers can access the network. That’s where the app WiFi Map (for iOS and Android), comes in.

WiFi Map

WiFi Map

This app displays nearby hotspots—and the passwords you'll need to access them.

Screenshot by Whitson Gordon

WiFi Map shows you a crowdsourced list of Wi-Fi hotspots all over the world. When you launch the app, it detects your location and shows you a list of hotspots near you. If the hotspot has a password, WiFi Map will list it for you, letting you connect to just about any business’ network. Occasionally you’ll find an old listing that isn’t valid, but I found it to be pretty up-to-date here in San Diego, where I live.

The app is free, but it’s crawling with ads, so I recommend paying the $1.99 in-app purchase fee to remove them. (If you’re traveling or worried about running out of data, you can also pay $4.99 for a pro version with more offline features.) If you prefer a less intrusive app, check out OpenSignal’s Wi-Fi Mapper (for iOS and Android)—it boasts a much better design, but in my testing, didn’t have as many networks and passwords. Depending where you are—a city versus a more rural area, for example—your mileage may vary.

If you’d rather not download a separate tool, Facebook’s mobile app has a built-in Wi-Fi finder—just open the menu and go to See More > Find Wi-Fi. However, it doesn’t contain passwords for closed networks, so it isn’t quite as useful as dedicated apps like WiFi Map or Wi-Fi Mapper.

Connect to networks run by your internet provider

Cox Connect

Cox Connect

Connecting to a Cox hotspot.

Screenshot by Whitson Gordon

If you subscribe to cable or fiber or really any internet at home, you probably have free access to thousands of Wi-Fi networks around the country. Internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Cox, Time Warner, and others provide their customers with vast webs of hotspots. You can access your ISP's networks for free just by logging in with your subscriber account.

For example, I have Cox cable internet at home, so I downloaded the Cox Connect app. Through this, I can see all the Cox-owned hotspots around me. When I reach a hotspot, I just connect to CoxWiFi, log in with my account—the same one I use to pay my cable bill online—and I’m good to go. You can do the same with Comcast’s xfinitywifi hotspots, Time Warner’s tcwwifi ones, AT&T’s attwifi network, and so on. Just download your provider’s respective app to see its networks near you. When I checked the Cox Connect app in my hometown, I found locations everywhere.

Stay safe on public Wi-Fi

Most of the public Wi-Fi you’ll find using these methods is “open”—meaning, it isn’t encrypted with a WPA password. Even if you have to type in a password on a web page, a network still counts as “open” if you don’t see the little lock icon next to it. And open networks come with security risks.

So whenever you’re connecting to these networks, make sure you follow all the guidelines in our guide to staying safe on public Wi-Fi: Read the fine print, use HTTPS wherever possible, and—if HTTPS isn’t available on the site you need—set up a VPN to keep your personal info safe. (If you have a Nexus or Pixel phone from Google, you can enable Wi-Fi Assistant to automatically connect to Google’s free VPN service on open networks.) Free Wi-Fi isn’t worth the trouble if it puts your personal information at risk, so be vigilant.

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