Whether it's your local bar, a city-wide access scheme, or hotspots from your phone carrier, public Wi-Fi networks continue to proliferate. Especially in urban areas, you're more and more likely to find a high-speed network you can connect to when you're away from home.
However, accessing that network usually requires that you give up some personal details. Once connected, you'll often find yourself sharing the network with a host of other people—some of whom might want to peek at your online activities. Here are five tips for using a public Wi-Fi network and protecting your information at the same time.
Know the risks
Public Wi-Fi is inherently less secure than the private network you've got at home, because you have to share it with dozens or even hundreds of strangers, rather than a handful of people you know and (we presume) trust. So, if you want to absolutely 100% guarantee your privacy and safety on public Wi-Fi, just don't use it. And if you absolutely must have that sweet, sweet internet hookup, then be aware that you're taking the risk of having total strangers snoop on your browsing session.
How does knowing the risks help you? Well, with some common sense and caution, you can be reasonably confident that you'll survive your public Wi-Fi session unscathed. Wherever possible, avoid doing serious business like banking or accessing your work email. Stick to the lighter activities—checking sports scores, browsing news sites, and so on—where it won't matter so much if someone peeks at what you're doing.
As well as being careful about what you do on public Wi-Fi, follow these rules: Keep your browsing time down to a minimum, disconnect from the network when you're finished, and make sure your laptop or phone software is always up to date. These tips will prevent your device from getting more exposure than you want.
Read the small print
Reading the small print is something we all know we should be doing—not that we actually follow that advice. But this is particularly important when you're connecting to a public Wi-Fi network. What are you giving up in exchange for your wireless access? How will your email address or phone number or whatever else you're surrendering be used?
You're essentially putting your trust in the company or person who's set up the network to not spy on you. Take a big-name coffee shop chain: The brand is less likely to secretly monitor its customers' web browsing activities, but more likely to collect a little personal data for marketing purposes. So weigh up the options and make your choice accordingly.
Look for HTTPS connections
When your web browser hits a site whose URL starts with "https://", a green padlock will appear. This means you're on a site marked as Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure, or HTTPS—internet jargon that means you've got an encrypted connection with the site you're talking to.
Essentially, the tech behind HTTPS encrypts your activity on a given website. This makes it much harder for someone sitting behind you at the coffee shop or running the router in your hotel to listen in on the information you're sharing. So stay on HTTPS sites whenever you possibly can.
As we mentioned above, it's best to stick to general purpose web browsing when you're on public Wi-Fi, rather than diving into your social networks or email. However, if you must access more sensitive sites, look for the green padlock and the HTTPS header to make sure you're safe. Fortunately, most big sites that require you to log in, from Google to Facebook, now use HTTPS.
Install a VPN
Installing a VPN (Virtual Private Network) program is perhaps the most effective method of all for staying safe on public Wi-Fi. Again, however, it doesn't offer a complete guarantee of safety. As well as letting you spoof your location and watch foreign TV, a VPN encrypts all the data traveling to and from your laptop or phone. As with the HTTPS tech, it makes it much harder for other people on the same network to see what you're doing.
You need to take time to pick the right VPN though, because you're trusting its developers with all your internet traffic. It's generally worth paying for a service to make sure you get something reliable and reasonably quick. To pick a service with a solid, long-standing reputation, start looking at AirVPN, IPVanish, NordVPN, Opera VPN, ExpressVPN, or Private Internet Access, though that's by no means an exhaustive list.
For more information on choosing a VPN, check out our guide to protecting your online privacy.
Pick networks selectively
Not all public Wi-Fi networks are created equal. Because you've got a lot of them to choose from nowadays, you can be picky about which ones you hook up to. Any network that's harder to access—it requires that you buy a coffee, ask at the counter for a password, or pay a small fee—will probably be safer than a completely open network anyone can use. That's simply because those extra barriers limit the number of people using it.
For the same reason, stick to Wi-Fi networks offered by reputable, well-known companies and brands wherever possible, and avoid any Wi-Fi network that appears to have sprung up out of nowhere. For instance, if you can find hotspots offered by your phone carrier or cable company, those would be preferable.
Finally, while you're on your travels, we'd recommend sticking to the same coffee shop chain, or the same series of hotels, or even the same single hotspot. The fewer access points you're hooking up to, the fewer companies you're giving your personal details to, and the fewer network security setups you'll be at the mercy of.