Making good use of Wi-Fi is one of the simplest ways to reduce your data usage. You probably already use it at home and, if allowed, at work.
However, if you’re not actively scouting out Wi-Fi connections around the places you shop, eat or hang out, you’re missing an excellent opportunity to shave a chunk of data off your bill.
In this guide we’ll go over all the opportunities you might overlook, show you a few tools you can use to sniff out open Wi-Fi connections and discuss some Wi-Fi best practices to ensure you can use your new connections safely.
Common Places You Can Find Free Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi is popping up everywhere. We all know the stereotypical coffee house Wi-Fi. But there’s a good chance that many of the other places you visit offer Wi-Fi as well.
Before you start throwing your data allowance around, check nearby for some of these common hotspot locations.
- Chain restaurants
- University and school campuses
- Shopping malls
- Libraries safe
- Hospitals and clinics
- Airports, train stations, bus stations
- Mobile carrier stores
What? You don’t want to walk all over town waving your phone like some sort of paranormal investigator?
Well that will take a little planning. Fortunately, there’s a wealth of online resources available to help you out! We’ll break down the major options and have you online (and off your data allowance) in no time!
Carrier & ISP Hotspots
Your mobile phone carrier or home internet service provider (ISP) may offer free Wi-Fi access at bill pay locations and other locations thoughout the city.
You’ll use your account credentials or a mobile app to authorize access. Once they’ve verified your account, you’re free to browse the web, listen to music or send emails just like if you were at home.
If you’re not sure where to look, these lists cover most of the major carriers and ISPs in the US, Canada and the UK.
Carrier-specific directories include:
- T-Mobile USA (Mobile App)
- O2 (UK)
- EE, Orange, T-Mobile (UK)
- Telus (CA)
- Bell Mobility (CA)
- SaskTel (CA)
Internet Service Provider directories include:
Use Online Wi-Fi Directories To Find More Connections
Featuring an endless sea of hotspot listings around the world, online Wi-Fi directories are the easiest way to quickly search out Wi-Fi in your area. Most use a map system to make it simple to see exactly where to hotspot is as well. This makes them great for use while traveling or when you’re debating if scoring free Wi-Fi is worth the walk.
Many of the directories listed below also match hotspots to contact information about the business in which they’re located. This lets you know what to expect when you get there. While a sports bar might be perfect for grabbing a bite and checking Facebook, it’s less than ideal for trying to squeeze in some work time or video chatting with a colleague.
Keep in mind that most of these databases rely on users to update information. Always check the date that a hotspot was posted or last verified. Unless it was updated in the last month or so, be sure to call ahead and confirm that Wi-Fi is available if you’re planning to travel a considerable distance.
Popular online directories include:
- EZGoal Wi-Fi Hotspots
- Wi-Fi Free Spot
- BT Wi-Fi
- The Cloud
- myHotspots UK
Depending on where you’re located, you might find that there is a municipal Wi-Fi network available as well. While they don’t always offer unlimited access or 4G-like transfer speeds, they’re great choices for checking email or performing other quick tasks. Wikiwand has a good collection of these types of networks from around the world.
If you can't find an option on the previous lists, you can choose a paid Wi-Fi hotspot provider. While these won’t be free, you’ll find that their rates are probably cheaper than your carrier’s overage fees and they’re a simple way to keep access around for emergencies. Of course, to be useful, they must offer a hotspot in your area.
Leading paid providers include:
Create A Custom Map Of Free Wi-Fi in Your Area
Online databases are prone to errors and outdated information.
Worse still, if you live in a rural area or small city, you might not find any listings in your area.
By far, the most reliable way to find a comprehensive set of available Wi-Fi connections in your area is to get out and make a map yourself.
Mapping Wi-Fi with Android Devices
If you’re an Android user, you’re in luck with a free app called WiGLE Wi-Fi Wardriving.
While the name might sound a bit sinister, there’s nothing to worry about there. Wardriving is simply the term for driving around an area scanning for Wi-Fi networks.
Once you’ve installed the app, launch it and you’ll be greeted with a black screen. If you’re at home, you should also notice that your wireless network (and possibly your neighbors’) is listed as well.
If you take a walk or drive with the app running, you’ll see this list increase quickly. All it does is scan for Wi-Fi connections and make a list of their coordinates. It also notes if there is any security on the network and the name of the network.
Once you have some networks listed, a tap of the map icon at the top of the page is all it takes to see a high-quality map of all the networks in your area. This information is saved on your phone for easy access whenever you need it. Just pop open the app and tap the map icon again. When you’re done scanning, be sure to tap the menu button and exit the app.
The scanning process rapidly activates your Wi-Fi radio and logs GPS data. Leaving it running can deplete a battery shockingly fast.
Mapping Wi-Fi with Apple Devices
If you’re on iOS, you’ll have a harder time of this. Rules for apps in the iTunes store tend to make it very difficult for developers to publish Wi-Fi scanning tools. However, you can still use your phone or tablet’s Wi-Fi settings page to scan for connections manually.
Whenever you’re in an area that it would be handy to have Wi-FI, open up your Wi-Fi connections in the Settings and see if there’s anything open. Once you’ve made a connection the first time, your phone will automatically connect again when you’re nearby and your Wi-Fi is enabled.
While it might take a little time, it’s still very possible to create a canvas of connections in your area that your phone automatically uses to avoid running up your data charges.
Stay Safe & Be Nice - A Few Hotspot Best Practices
With all of your newfound Wi-Fi connections, you should find it much easier to enjoy your phone or tablet without piling up expensive data bills. But before you go wild with your usage, you should keep a few things in mind.
No Online Banking Or Sending Private Info
First, and most importantly, if you can just tap your network list and access a network, so can anyone else. This means that anyone could be eavesdropping on your sensitive data while you use the hotspot. Banking apps, bill payment apps and other sources of sensitive personal information should probably be avoided on free Wi-Fi connections. If you must use these types of apps and services over public Wi-Fi, we’ll get to a reliable fix in just a moment.
Don't Be A Bandwidth Hog
Second, be a good Wi-Fi friend. While many spots offer unlimited data and speeds, you’re sharing it with everyone nearby. If you’re going to sit and watch a two-hour HD movie, buy a small snack or item from the store and consider limiting the quality of your stream. This helps the business pay for the Wi-Fi connection and ensures everyone does not have to deal with a slow connection.
Don't Steal From Residential Connections
Finally, don’t use connections that are obviously residential. You wouldn’t like it if someone was zapping your bandwidth while you were trying to watch YouTube or check your email at home. Even worse, if they’re on a metered connection, you could really wreak havoc on their monthly bill. Not only is this annoying to whoever owns the connection, but the legality is questionable as well. Just don’t do it.
Use A Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) For Greater Security
We mentioned above that you should be careful what you do with your data on public networks. If you’re looking for added peace of mind and extra security, a VPN is a good idea. Many run less than a latte a month and allow you to use your phone, tablet or computer without worries of people snooping.
While we won’t get into the specifics, VPNs essentially encrypt your data and then transmit it through another server. This means that if anyone is digging around on a network that you’re using, they won’t be able to intercept your information.
VPNs were once high-tier geek stuff. These days, with all the concerns about privacy, they’re super simple to use.
Popular options with both iOS and Android apps include:
They even offer free trials or limited data usage per month to make it easy to try them out and find the best fit for your usage habits.
You now have everything you need to safely and easily get out there and make the most of the Wi-Fi signals flying around you. The little bit of time spent finding the best networks in your area is well worth the potential data savings and added convenience. We hope this guide has helped you.
P.S. Did we miss something? Have a tip you can share with others? Let us know in the comments below. If you found this guide helpful, we'd appreciate it if you shared these tips with your friends.
P.P.S. If you’re often using your phone or tablet on the go, you know how frustrating it is to find a good connection only to run out of battery five minutes later. Our Buyer’s Guide for Battery Packs will help you avoid the crowds fighting over power outlets and get more use out of your mobile devices.