I recently stumbled into a coffee shop in a nearby town following a meeting, looking forward to a nice mug of hot chocolate and marshmallows (it was winter). As I was paying for my order, I noticed a small promotional card informing me of the presence of free Wi-Fi. As you can imagine, this proved a hit with me. My mobile Internet service was particularly poor in the town I was visiting, so the chance to catch-up with emails and news was too good to miss.
Public wireless networks are becoming more and more popular as a means of attracting people to a particular business or service, and this is just one of the many ways in which free (or almost free) Wi-Fi can be accessed. It seems, in fact, that there are many ways in which you can connect wirelessly to the Internet, almost anywhere…
Note: please observe the title and the use of the word “almost”. We’re really looking at built up areas, conurbations and city centres. If you’re expecting to get free Wi-Fi in Death Valley, we’ve got news for you…
Shop In The Right Towns, Visit the Right Businesses & Malls
A visit to any large city should reveal many places with free Wi-Fi. For instance a trip to London will yield great results from chains such as Starbucks, Pret a Manger, McDonalds and at many railway stations. Hotels, too are a great place to get free WiFi anywhere in the world you might be.
Hotels and airports are also good places to find free Wi-Fi. Airport shops might display a card advising you how to get online (a purchase may be required) and the same is often true of exhibition centres and museums. As for hotels, it seems that the lower the price you pay for the room, the more free Internet you can get.
In September 2012, Boingo partnered with Google Play to offer a free month of wireless hotspot access in 4,000 locations across the USA. While this offer has long since ended, you should look out for similar offers in the future.
Such a provision was rolled out across the UK in 2012 – free Wi-Fi in coffee shops thanks to the o2 mobile company. It was in a branch of Costa Coffee that I discovered free Wi-Fi, and its provision has proved useful to millions of people.
Hotspot Databases & Hidden Networks
Using your smartphone or tablet you should be able to find wireless hotspots using a service such as WeFi, which offers apps for Android and iPhone. With this you will be able to find the free hotspots and avoid the locked ones.
There are alternatives to this app, of course, and you might prefer to make a search of the web before you head out to find somewhere that definitely offers free Wi-Fi before travelling.
Failing this, there is the dark side approach. I personally wouldn’t advocate borrowing/stealing someone’s wireless connection, but let’s be realistic – people do this, using sniffer software to detect hidden networks and other tools to break passwords. If you’re really lucky, you might even find hidden networks with no password.
Loyalty Programs & Coupon Codes
If you are aware of a business (perhaps a shop, supermarket, coffee chain or hotel) that offers a loyalty card, it might be the case that they also offer free Internet as part of their rewards for your subscription. You’ll need to carry out some research into this in order to find out which businesses you regularly visit offer such a service.
Furthermore, you might be lucky enough to find coupon codes for a free Wi-Fi when visiting a particular business. Again, this will require some planning ahead, either running a search on their website or following the company concerned on Twitter.
Cable/Telephone Companies Offer Free Hotspots
Depending where in the world you are, you may be able to connect to free hotspots provided by national telephone and cable companies. Note, however, that these hotspots are usually provided for existing customers. For instance, if you use “Network X” at home, you might be able to connect to one of their wireless hotspots next time you’re out in the city.
To check if your domestic cable or telephone company provides this service, check their website or call their customer support line for further details.
Don’t Forget You Can Tether Your Phone!
If none of the above work for you but a mobile phone is in easy reach, then there is always the tethering option. This means that you use your smartphone’s mobile Internet connection to provide online access to a laptop or tablet.
Two types of tethering are available – cabled and wireless. The first typically uses a USB sync cable, whereas the other requires your mobile phone to have Wi-Fi broadcast capability, and a suitable app to provide access to the required settings (some phones have Bluetooth tethering, but this is rare and draining on your batteries).
All new smartphones have wireless tethering built in, while older devices will have support for cabled tethering, although a fee may be involved.
Conclusion: Wi-Fi Is Free & It’s (Almost) Everywhere
You don’t have to have an expensive 3G or 4G contract with your mobile phone or tablet to get Internet access outdoors. There are an increasing number of wireless networks provided for your benefit across North America and Europe, offered as an incentive by businesses keen on your patronage.
It might be a hotel offering free Internet or a café, it might even be a supermarket, but if you need an Internet connection and you don’t want to pay for it, these places and methods described here will get you online, for at least 30 minutes.
Do always bear in mind that even though free, public Wi-Fi can come at a price. If poorly secured, they can be an easy target for hackers looking to steal your data. Luckily, there are some tips you can keep in mind for how to spot fake public Wi-Fi networks.
Having trouble with your Mac not connecting to Wi-Fi at all? Follow our guide to get back online.