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

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

Our lifestyles have become increasingly dependent on having a good internet connection. We learn online, work from home on laptops and have fun on ours favorite programs and movie Up streaming services. Stable Wi-Fi is essential day after day.

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

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We’ll send you the fastest internet options, so you don’t have to find them.

In this guide, we’ll give you a quick rundown on how to get online quickly using a access pointand 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 wifi and our picks for the best VPNs.)

What is a Hotspot?

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

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

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In the scenario above where you paid your mobile carrier 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 set up by a company to provide Internet service when visitors, customers, and contractors are on site. 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.

What is the difference between Wi-Fi and hotspot?

While hotspots are a physical location or device, Wi-Fi is a wireless technology that devices can use to exchange information. If you have Wi-Fi at home, it’s because you have a Wi-Fi router that supports all of your wireless gadgets 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 you control who and what connects to it. Public hotspots, on the other hand, are open to anyone within range, which is why using them is recommended a VPN or some other security measure if you need to do something sensitive, like shopping or sending 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 hotspot

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

Brad Wagner/Telstra

How to find free Wi-Fi or free public hotspots

While this probably won’t be 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, hotels, restaurants, fitness centers and more.

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

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

Some places, like libraries, are generally available for free public Wi-Fi, but if you’re not using a Wi-Fi finder 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 intend to use is Wi-Fi compatible. If so, make sure your Wi-Fi is turned on.

Once you arrive at the location where you will be using public Wi-Fi or hotspot, open a browser and then open your computer’s network settings or click the Wi-Fi icon on your screen. Next, select the public Wi-Fi connection you intend to use. If the connection is public, you will now be connected, but note that an opt-in site is displayed in your browser. Some companies require you to accept their terms of service or provide an email address before allowing you to use their 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 to be secure, look for the username and password posted in the activity or ask someone for help. And yes, if you’re somewhere like a coffee shop, it would be polite to buy a cupcake or cup of joe while you’re at it.

If you have set your computer to automatically connect to available networks, the next time you visit that business, your computer will automatically connect to their network.

htc 5g hotspot device

This hotspot device from HTC uses an incoming 5G connection to provide Wi-Fi internet access for 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 have a good cellular signal, a paid hotspot may be a place to go. For example, maybe you live in a rural area with limited ISP optionsor maybe the internet plans in your area are all beyond your budget.

Depending on your cell phone carrier and the plan you pay for, you may already have personal hotspot capabilities. If not, talk to your provider to determine how much they’ll charge you for that option. Be prepared to pay more if you are 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 hotspot device.

Check your phone settings for hotspot capabilities.

Screenshot 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 good thing: if you set a secure passwordUsing a hotspot device to get online is just as secure as any ISP-provided Wi-Fi connection, and often provides even greater coverage. We are also seeing an increasing number of full featured Wi-Fi routers as well mesh routers designed to receive 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’re just looking to get your laptop online for a few minutes.

What Wi-Fi 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. Also, vendors such as Comcast Free public Wi-Fi expanded to everyone (customers and non-customers) during 2020. Many providers have extended benefits like this in 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 get online than you might realize. We hope this guide will help you find and take advantage of them. In the meantime, here’s some further reading you might find useful: