Updated: August 24, 2014
In today’s mobile economy, more consumers are seeking to stay connected while on the go. For this reason, there are more options for accessing free Wi-Fi than in the past.
According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), a leading global market intelligence firm, sales of mobile devices reached 301.3 million during the second quarter of 2014. This is a significant increase over 271.4 during the first quarter. The increased use of mobile devices has been steadily on the rise within the last few years as more people are relying on smartphones, tablets, and portable laptops to get them through the day.
Because mobile devices allow people to work from just about anywhere, the options for accessing free Wi-Fi have been increasing, especially within the last few years with the explosion of the mobile device market. Regardless of what your situation is, you do not have to pay for Wi-Fi if you prefer not. Additionally, if you know what your options are and where to look for free connectivity, this can add a lot of convenience in terms of connectivity while you are on the go. Here are a few tips on where you can find access to a free Wi-Fi connection.
Restaurants and Coffee Shops
When you visit the downtown area of many towns and cities, you will find multiple locations that are wired for public Internet access. Most coffee and sandwich shops offer free Wi-Fi, in addition to eateries such as Panera Bread, MacDonald’s, Burger King, and other well-known restaurants. Most coffee shops are outfitted for comfort since they expect their customers to spend some time on the Internet while enjoying their favorite cup of coffee.
In terms of restaurants, if you prefer not to take up space for a prolonged period of time when the establishment is busy, typically you can still get online outside of the restaurant. Usually the Wi-Fi signal is accessible from any location within 100 to 150 feet of the establishment.
Many shopping malls provide free Wi-Fi to their patrons. If there is no centralized Wi-Fi access, many of the internal stores provide free Wi-Fi which can be accessed from a centralized seating area. The stores use free Wi-Fi as a marketing tool to attract customers
Additionally, individual shopping venues such as Wal-Mart, Lowes, Home Depot, and other major companies provide free Wi-Fi to their customers. The connection is used to help customers locate products and reviews, check the latest sales and offers, and read product reviews before deciding on a purchase.
Use a Wi-Fi Sniffer
If you are unsure where the public Wi-Fi access points are in your town or city, you can purchase a Wi-Fi sniffer in your local electronics store. This is a small pocket-sized standalone device that will locate Wi-Fi access points for you as you walk around your local area or a location where you are visiting.
Wi-Fi sniffers are also available in the form of software that you can download on your mobile device. One you download the app, it will automatically scan for the nearest available Wi-Fi connections.
Keep in mind that Wi-Fi sniffers are controversial and are often largely replaced in favor of legitimate Wi-Fi access directories such as WeFi discussed later in this article. A few years back, Google had to replace its Google Maps Street View software in its trucks when the company was accused of sniffing information from the wireless connections in businesses and households. On the upside, a Wi-Fi sniffer can provide you with information on where a broadband signal is the strongest to ensure you can establish a strong and reliable connection.
Libraries and Educational Institutions
Most libraries, especially the public ones, offer free Wi-Fi which you can access with a Wi-Fi enabled device. If you happen to be located in an area that is large enough to offer a public library, this is another option you can pursue for free Wi-Fi access.
Additionally, you may be able to find free Wi-Fi access at a local community college or larger college campus. Although this is not true for all educational institutions, some of them do have free Wi-Fi in specified areas of the campus, where other areas are password protected solely for student and staff access. Other institutions of higher learning password protect all wireless connections on campus to provide students and staff with privacy since the wireless connection is a primary form of communication.
Public Transportation Hubs
More transportation hubs are offering free Wi-Fi access for people who are waiting for their ride. The transportation hubs include airports, train terminals, bus terminals, and any other areas where people have to spend time waiting for the transportation service.
Although free Wi-Fi is not offered in every location, if you scout around, you can usually find a location where you can get online. A service such as Boingo Wireless offers maps on their website that will tell you where free Wi-Fi is located in transportation hubs. If the hub is not on the map, chances are the Wi-Fi is paid.
Stadiums and Arenas
More athletic stadiums and concert arenas are offering free Wi-Fi to their patrons. This includes basketball, baseball, hockey, and football stadiums, as well as concert and event arenas.
The free Wi-Fi is offered to patrons of these venues. However, it is also used to accommodate the multiple purposes for which stadiums and arenas are used. When not being used for their intended purpose, these locations are typically used for conferences, expos, tradeshows, and other events.
Wi-Fi Access Using Your Mobile Phone
If you already have a mobile phone, most plans offer access to Wi-Fi which is provided by your mobile phone service provider. Depending upon the terms of your plan, you can access Wi-Fi for no additional cost at any location that contains coverage by your service provider. For example, if you use T-Mobile as your mobile phone service carrier, any areas that are within reaching distance of the T-Mobile signal will allow you to access a Wi-Fi connection at no extra cost.
Use Free Wi-Fi Tether
Depending upon the type of smartphone you have, there are a selection of apps that allow you to activate the hotspot on your phone and then use the tethering app to establish free Wi-Fi. This allows you to share the connection with another device without having to pay additional fees for the tethering service.
If you are using an Android device, it may be necessary to have root access on the device. The Android operating system is based on Linux and typically, the device is restricted to standard user access. Root access means that the user can perform administrative tasks which allows you to modify system files and permissions. It is similar to the administrator account on your PC.
Check Out Sites Online for Free Wi-Fi Maps
There are a number of websites online where you can find out in advance where the free public Wi-Fi hotspots are. This is especially helpful if you are traveling and you are in a location that is unfamiliar. Additionally, some of the websites will tell you whether or not the connection is free, password protected, or is available for a small fee.
One of the websites online that has grown in popularity is known as WeFi which helps you locate and connect to a wireless connection at any location around the globe. WeFi offers one of the largest maps of free wireless access points and offers a software platform for download which is compatible with Windows, mobile, or Mac devices. The software helps you to locate free Wi-Fi access points, regardless of your location.
Once you download the app from WeFi, you can locate and connect to the nearest Wi-Fi connection automatically. The site map on the WeFi site is built by WeFi users to help others identify public Wi-Fi access points, including the free ones. If you happen to find a Wi-Fi access point that is not on the map, the WeFi app will automatically add that access point to the database to help other users of the WeFi platform find the nearest available Wi-Fi connections.
Many of the main highways offer service areas where tired motorists can stop and refuel, take a bathroom break, and get something to eat. More of these service areas are offering free Wi-Fi to allow their patrons to surf the Internet while taking a break on a long trip.
Other highways that do not offer fully equipped service areas, provide text stops to encourage motorists not to text and drive. Text stops typically offer free Wi-Fi and advertise the stop on road signs prior to reaching it. In a lot of cases, the signs say, “It can wait! Text stop in 3 miles.”
Use a USB Wi-Fi Adapter with High-Gain Antenna
If you are looking for free Wi-Fi access and there does not appear to be any networks readily available in the area, it may be because the networks that are nearby are out of reach of your device. The Wi-Fi adapters that are built into a lot of devices sometimes are not very adept at picking up weak or distant connections.
In this case, a USB Wi-Fi adapter used in conjunction with a high gain directional antenna will help your device to cast a wider net to find free Wi-Fi access points. Depending upon where you purchase the device it can be a little pricey. However, if you are going to use it a lot, it may be worth the investment.
More public parks are providing access to free Wi-Fi to allow workers to use the Internet during their lunch hour. If you scout around your local area or an area where you are traveling, you may be able to find free Wi-Fi outdoors in a public park. Provided the weather is good, you can enjoy the outdoors and access the Internet at the same time.
More on Free Wi-Fi
Here is a video that will provide you with more ways to find free Wi-Fi access.
A Word of Caution
As a final note, it is important to keep in mind that public Wi-Fi access points are usually unsecured and they are always shared networks. For this reason, you should use caution when accessing free Wi-Fi in public places.
Hackers know that public Wi-Fi networks are the perfect place for eavesdropping on the activities of other users. They can be hanging around the area where free Wi-Fi is offered or they can be accessing the network from a remote location.
Additionally, you should be aware that hackers are capable of creating bogus SSIDs. SSID stands for Service Set Identifier and is the name of the network you see when you are viewing the list of available networks on your mobile device.
Hackers are good at making SSIDs look like the real deal or they may entice you to log on by naming the network something like “Free Wi-Fi.” Then they configure the network for use with applications that spy on your online activities. For this reason, be very careful what network you are connecting to since public Wi-Fi access is an easy target for cyber criminals.
Before you log onto a free Wi-Fi network, make sure your device is protected with a firewall and antivirus/anti-malware protection. Whenever possible, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that provides you with a secure connection to the Internet. When this is not possible, remember to avoid the temptation to access your email and do not enter passwords for important accounts such as your bank account. You should also avoid accessing other accounts that can potentially lead hackers to your personal information and remember to encrypt the files you need on your device as well.