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The best ways to find free Wi-Fi if you can't connect at home

No home internet? You've still got options for getting online -- here's how to take advantage of them.

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A reliable internet connection has never been more critical than it is today. 

Global Workplace Analytics estimated that 25%-30% of the workforce would be working from home or working remotely multiple days a week by the end of 2021. Many schools are now engaged in virtual learning, at least part-time. Apart from work and school, people all over the US are cutting the cord on cable and satellite packages and opting for streaming services to save money. 

All of these things have one crucial thing in common: a need for reliable internet. So, what does this mean for people who cannot get a reliable internet connection at home? It's definitely not an ideal situation, but there are still things you can do to get yourself online. 

In this guide, we'll give you a quick rundown on how to quickly get online using a hotspot, and how to find free Wi-Fi anywhere in the world.

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 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.  

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. 

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

Brad Wagner/Telstra

OK, so 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 is going to 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.

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, 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 with 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 cup of joe 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. 

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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

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 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 options does my internet provider offer?

In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission created the Keep Americans Connected initiative to help people keep their broadband and telephone connectivity during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, providers like Comcast extended free public Wi-Fi to anyone (customers and non-customers) during 2020. Many providers have extended benefits like that into 2021 – if you're struggling, it's worth checking with the providers in your area to see what your options are. 

Whatever avenue you take, the bottom line is that you've probably got more ways of getting online than you might realize. Hopefully this guide helps you find and take advantage of them -- in the meantime, here's some further reading you might also find helpful: