Being connected to the internet has become such an integral component of daily life that it can be frustrating when high-speed connectivity isn’t available. Public Wi-Fi hotspots provide a dependable workaround if you find yourself outdoors without mobile data – and some are free to use.
In this guide, we explain how to connect to Wi-Fi hotspots, and offer tips on staying safe while doing so.
A Wi-Fi hotspot provides an internet connection that members of the public can log onto while away from their home broadband service. Public Wi-Fi spots are common in eateries, libraries, train stations and even museums, while they’re ubiquitous in hotels and B&Bs. Look out for signs advertising free Wi-Fi — you’ll often have to log in by providing basic user data to gain access.
Unfortunately, there’s no definitive way to find reliable, free public Wi-Fi in the UK. No national database exists, and published guides are often out of date. However, lots of companies, spaces and venues do offer free Wi-Fi hotspots. You might even have access to a Wi-Fi hotspot network without knowing it, thanks to your choice of home broadband or mobile phone provider.
As mentioned above, mobile networks and internet service providers (ISPs) often host networks of Wi-Fi hotspots for free. Non-customers may also be able to connect for a small fee:
Also known as The Cloud, Sky Wi-Fi has a huge network of hotspots across the UK which provide free and unlimited use and downloads for Sky customers. Other ISP clients will need to register for Sky Wi-Fi; some hotspots will require paid access, while other venues offer a few minutes of free access before you need to pay. That’s ideal for accessing a booking confirmation email, or sending a ‘where are you’ message via social media. Sky claims The Cloud has over four million weekly users.
Virgin Media has a global network of 20 million Wi-Fi hotspots, including 3.5 million here in the UK. The Virgin Media Connect app provides fibre and mobile customers with free and automatic access when in range. Unlike other ISPs, Virgin doesn’t offer a ‘find your nearest hotspot’ service.
Virgin Media Wi-Fi hotspots also power free internet services throughout 250 London Underground stations and 80 Overground stations, although there’s no coverage in the tunnels between stations. To connect to the London Underground Wi-Fi for free you need to be a Virgin, O2, EE, Three or Vodafone customer. Users of other networks can buy a Wi-Fi Pass to get online, which requires registering an account.
O2 Wi-Fi boasts a network of more than 16,000 hotspots across the UK, which are completely free to use even for non-O2 customers. O2 Wi-Fi prides itself on being really easy to use, with no usernames or passwords required to get online.
Existing O2 customers automatically connect once registered. Customers of other mobile networks have to agree to receive offers from O2 and its selected partners before they can access the network.
BT claims to have over five million Wi-Fi hotspots across the UK, making it the largest provider of public Wi-Fi. BT broadband and BT mobile customers can access them all for free, while non-customers need to buy access to use a BT Wi-Fi hotspot. This can be done hourly, daily, weekly or monthly, with prices ranging from £4 to £39.
It’s increasingly commonplace for high street brands to offer internet connectivity to their customers. There will be free Wi-Fi hotspots near metro stations, in cafes and restaurants, in shops and banks, and many other places. Indeed, the following UK high street brands are among many other customer-facing businesses to have committed to providing their customers with Wi-Fi access:
Marks & Spencer
Free public Wi-Fi is really convenient, but it can pose security threats. Because hotspots are so freely available and easy to join, they can attract hackers. There are two main attack vectors conducted across public Wi-Fi hotspots which you need to be aware of:
A man-in-the-middle attack is when a hacker interjects themself between your device and the public Wi-Fi network you’ve joined, intercepting any details you put into websites that you visit. This can include passwords, credit card details and browsing history.
Hackers can also create authentic-looking public Wi-Fi hotspots. These spoof networks are designed to entice the unwary into joining, providing the hacker with clear sight of any sensitive information distributed online.
Given the risks associated with connecting to public Wi-Fi hotspots, we recommend the following steps to minimise your risk of being targeted by hackers or criminals:
Prevent devices from automatically connecting to Wi-Fi networks, which reduces the risk of joining a fake hotspot.
Don’t buy anything while connected to a public Wi-Fi network.
Avoid accessing websites that hold sensitive personal details like online banking sites.
Always check websites use https, rather than http, for encrypted communications (look for a padlock icon in your browser’s address bar).
Use a VPN service, if you have one, to securely encrypt incoming and outgoing data. Read more about VPNs here.
If finding and using a public Wi-Fi hotspot is too much hassle, but you want to get online while on the move, consider using a MiFi device or a personal hotspot.
A MiFi device creates a Wi-Fi hotspot by connecting to a mobile network and then distributing data wirelessly like a home broadband router. Because it creates a Wi-Fi hotspot, you can link a number of devices to a MiFi connection at the same time. This portable and personal hotspot will connect anywhere with a decent network signal, and it’s more secure than using public Wi-Fi hotspots.
Mobile phones can be redeployed as personal hotspots, creating a Wi-Fi connection for other devices to connect to. This is also more secure than using public Wi-Fi hotspots, but it can quickly burn through monthly data allowances, with top-ups potentially proving costly.