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Find Free Wi-Fi Almost Anywhere Your Travels Take You. Here's How

Whether traveling near or far this summer, here's how to stay connected. CNET explores free wireless networks you can connect to on the go.

Ashlee Valentine CNET Contributor
Ashlee is an MBA business professional by day and a dynamic freelance writer by night. Covering industries like banking, finance, and health & wellness, her work has been published on sites like bankrate.com, thesimpledollar.com, interest.com, womens-health.com and more. Ashlee specializes in personal finance and is passionate about helping others achieve greater financial freedom.
Trisha Jandoc
Trisha Jandoc is an associate writer at CNET covering broadband and everything related to home internet. She graduated from St. John's University with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a focus on multimedia reporting. She was born in the Philippines and resides on Long Island. In her free time, Trisha loves to travel and support nonprofit and advocacy work she's passionate about.
Ashlee Valentine
Trisha Jandoc
6 min read

A reliable internet connection is a non-negotiable no matter where you go.

DragonImages/Getty Images

A vacation is the perfect opportunity to disconnect, but that's mainly from work and other responsibilities, not everything. You'll undoubtedly still want a good internet connection for keeping in touch with friends and family on social media, researching local places to eat or streaming your favorite shows when you have the downtime.

So what happens when you're out and about, away from your home Wi-Fi? Or what if your home internet isn't that speedy in the first place?

In this guide, we'll give you a quick rundown on how to get online quickly using a hotspot and how to find free Wi-Fi anywhere in the world. (You can also learn how to tell if your Wi-Fi is slow due to internet throttling, how to speed up your Wi-Fi,  and our picks for the best VPNs.) 

Locating local internet providers

What is a hotspot?

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A hotspot is a central location or device that offers wireless access to the internet, and any network device can connect, provided it has the right access. Depending on your mobile provider and plan, you may be able to use your smartphone as a hotspot

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

Locating local internet providers

In the above scenario, where you've paid your mobile provider 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, like laptops, desktop computers, and streaming devices. This is an example of a private hotspot. 

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

What's the difference between Wi-Fi and a hotspot?

Whereas 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 quarterbacking all of your wireless gadgets, and an internet service provider that's connecting that router to the internet. 

So 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 it's a good idea to use a VPN or some other security measure if you need to do anything sensitive, like shopping or sending money.

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

A hotspot is a central location or device that offers wireless access to the internet.

Brad Wagner/Telstra

How to find free Wi-Fi or free public hotspots

While this probably won't be possible at home (unless you happen to live really close to someone who has an unsecured network), there are usually lots of options for finding free Wi-Fi or public hotspots in businesses like coffee shops, parks, libraries, hotels, restaurants, fitness centers and more. 

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

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

Some locations, like libraries, are generally a given 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 make sure. 

How to set up and use free Wi-Fi

Make sure the device you plan to use is Wi-Fi capable. If it is, be sure Wi-Fi is turned on. 

Once you've arrived at the location where you'll use public Wi-Fi or hotspot, open a browser and then either open up your computer's network settings or click on 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 watch for an opt-in site to pop up in your browser. Some businesses 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 businesses provide a login and password to their customers and offer a secured network. If the connection you intend to use shows up as secured, look around for the login and password posted in the business, or ask someone for help. And yes, if you're somewhere like a coffee shop, it'd be polite to buy a pastry or a latte while you're at it.

If you've set your computer to automatically connect to available networks, then next time you visit that business, 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 for nearby wireless devices.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

How to set up and use a private hotspot

They aren't free, but if you need an internet connection at home and have a good cellular signal, a paid hotspot can be one place to turn. For example, maybe you live in a rural area with limited ISP options, or maybe the internet plans in your area are all beyond your budget.

Depending on your mobile provider and the plan you pay for, you might already have personal hotspot capabilities. If not, speak with your provider to determine how much they'll charge you for that option. Be prepared to pay more if you're seeking unlimited data

After you've considered pricing, you'll need to decide between using your smartphone as a hotspot or purchasing a dedicated Wi-Fi hotspot device

Hotspot settings page on an iphone
Enlarge Image
Hotspot settings page on an iphone

Check your phone's settings for hotspot capabilities.

Screenshots 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 eating up your hotspot data. Another positive: If you set a strong password, using a hotspot device to get online is just as secure as any ISP-provided Wi-Fi connection, and it'll often provide a greater range of coverage, too. We're also seeing a growing number of full-fledged Wi-Fi routers and mesh routers that are designed to get their incoming signal over a cellular connection, such as LTE or 5G.

Both smartphone hotspots and dedicated hotspot devices can be used anywhere, though using a smartphone hotspot in public places may be more convenient, especially if you're just trying to get your laptop online for a few minutes. 

What Wi-Fi options does my internet provider offer?

In response to the pandemic, the Federal Communications Commission created the Keep Americans Connected initiative to help people keep their broadband and telephone connectivity in 2020. Additionally, providers like Comcast, Charter Communications and Altice USA extended free Wi-Fi to anyone (customers and noncustomers). Some of these programs are no longer active in these post-pandemic times, but it's still worthwhile to check with your local ISP.

What's the bottom line?

Whatever avenue you take, you've probably got more ways of getting online than you might realize. If you're still struggling to find free Wi-Fi on your travels, it's worth checking with the providers in your area to see what your options are. Hopefully this guide helps you find and take advantage of them.

For more, check out our tested picks for the best Wi-Fi routers, and how to tell if your router is in the wrong spot.

Find Free Wi-Fi FAQs

What's the difference between Wi-Fi and a hotspot?

Hotspots are a physical location or device that offers wireless access to the internet. In contrast, Wi-Fi is a wireless technology that devices can use to send information to each other. In most cases, Wi-Fi is accompanied by a Wi-Fi router and an internet service provider that connects all your devices to the internet.

Where can you find free Wi-Fi?

There are many ways to find free Wi-Fi. First, knowing the difference between a public and private hotspot is essential. Private hotspots are not free. The good news is that most public establishments -- such as businesses, coffee shops, parks, libraries, hotels and restaurants -- typically offer free public hotspots. Certain apps like Instabridge can help narrow your search for free Wi-Fi hotspots available near you.

Are private networks more secure than public hotspots?

Yes. Public hotspots are open to anyone within range, which means you're more susceptible to hackers stealing your personal information or other risks. Incorporating a VPN as an extra layer of protection is a good call when using public Wi-Fi.