This story is part of Home Tips, CNET’s collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.
If you’ve ever experienced the heart-sinking feeling of your internet suddenly blinking out during an important Zoom meeting, you know how vital a strong internet connection is in our modern world. We learn online, work from home on laptops and entertain ourselves with our favorite shows and movies on streaming services. Stable Wi-Fi is crucial, day in and day out.
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 quickly get online 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.)
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.
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.
Read more: How to Save Up to $75 per Month on Your Internet Bill
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.
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.
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 Wi-Fi 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 pandemic. Additionally, providers like Comcast extended free public Wi-Fi to anyone (customers and noncustomers) during 2020. Many providers have extended benefits like that — 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: