How to Find Wi-Fi Hotspots

It’s hard to get anything done in today’s world without an internet connection. Fortunately, free public Wi-Fi has been popping up all over the country, saving us all from draining our data plans. Known as hotspots, these helpful connections make getting Wi-Fi access on the go easy.

But how exactly does a hotspot work? And how can you find one near you?

Update: Since the outbreak of the new coronavirus, internet providers across the country have responded by opening up their public Wi-Fi hotspots for free use to the public. Providers include Xfinity, Cox, AT&T, Spectrum, and many more. The hotspots will stay open until mid-May.

See our guide to internet during the COVID-19 outbreak for more information, and enter your ZIP code in the tool below to find providers with open hotspots in your area:

Woman using Wi-Fi image

What are hotspots?

Internet hotspots are Wi-Fi access points that are generally available to the public. They let you connect your devices online when you’re out and about, freeing you from the limitations of mobile data caps.

Hotspots work just like any other wireless network: find the network name in your device’s Wi-Fi settings and connect. Some may take you to a website or pop-up to enter some additional details before letting you use the connection, but that’s about as complicated as they get.

Types of hotspots

Free Wi-Fi hotspots

Many hotspots are free, including those in restaurants, shopping malls, airports, and other public places. Sometimes you’ll be asked to enter an email address to connect—this is almost always for advertising purposes, and shopping centers are especially bad about this.

But here’s a little secret: most of these networks don’t actually verify the email. If you want, you can just make one up to avoid the spam. In other words, this is your chance to finally put to good use.

Just be aware that free hotspots also sometimes come with a higher security risk. If the public Wi-Fi network is unsecured—meaning it doesn’t require a password to log in—then anyone could be on it, including potential hackers looking to sneak into your system or spread malware. So take extra precautions and avoid doing anything too sensitive on your computer if you can.

Paid hotspots

Occasionally, you’ll need to pay up to get hotspot access. This seems to be most common on flights and hotels, and the prices can get downright ridiculous. It’s an expensive option that might be worth it only for dedicated business people or social media mavens. But if you’re really in a pinch and need to get online, it’s nice to at least know you have the option.

Portable hotspots

If you don’t want to hunt around for hotspots, bring your own. There are dedicated Wi-Fi hotspot devices that function like portable routers (Huawei makes a nice one) and use a SIM card for service. But these days it’s more common to just turn your phone into a hotspot instead. This option has pros and cons, but we’ll get more into that in a bit.

How do you find a Wi-Fi hotspot?

The easiest way to find a Wi-Fi hotspot is to open up your phone and go to the list of Wi-Fi networks available for you to log onto.

The name of the network usually indicates whether it’s something you can access (either for free, for a fee, or simply by going to whoever’s in charge and asking nicely for a password). Let’s say, for example, that you’re having a coffee at a place called Joe’s Cafe. Well, if there’s a Wi-Fi network called “Joes Cafe–Guest,” then that’s the one for you.

If you haven’t left the house yet and you’re looking for a place to go that has internet, then there are some reliable resources to help you find what you need. Read on for our recommendations.

Use an app.

There are a number of smartphone and web apps that can be used to help find hotspots. Some of the more popular include Wefi, Wi-Fi Map (iOS and Android). These apps use crowdsourced data to build global hotspot maps. Wi-Fi Map is especially impressive, with over 100 million hotspots in its database.

Wi-Fi Space is a good web app, so it can be used from your laptop, which can be handy if you’d rather not hunt for a hotspot on a tiny screen.

Visit restaurants and cafes.

It’s actually becoming rare to find a restaurant that doesn’t offer free Wi-Fi. But in case you’re not sure, most will have a sign in the window letting you know. Coffee shops make great spots for a couple hours of studying or work outside the office. Starbucks and McDonald’s are two major chains known for their hotspots, but even small mom-and-pop coffee shops have them too.

Go to the library.

Many public libraries across the country offer free Wi-Fi to visitors. Even if the library isn’t open (due to the new coronavirus closures, for example), you may still be able to access a Wi-Fi signal from the parking lot. Just reach out to your friendly neighborhood library branch and see if you can log on.

Ask your ISP.

Many ISPs (internet service providers) offer hotspot networks for customers to use when they’re out. This includes most of the big names, like Cox, Spectrum, and Xfinity. These hotspots are free to connect to, and many are completely open to the public until mid-May 2020, as ISPs have been eager to help out because more people are using the internet to work and study from home.

But when this is no longer in effect, these hotspots will go back into being usable only for subscribers. You’ll need to enter the account name and password you use with your ISP to actually get online.

There are tons of these public hotspots—Xfinity claims there are millions of hotspots in its network. This makes Xfinity hotspots a nice perk because not only are they readily available, but they’re also more reliable and secure. Xfinity even offers a convenient app to locate hotspots near you, available for iOS and Android.

How to turn your phone into a mobile hotspot

Most smartphones offer a mobile hotspot feature that allows you to share your phone’s cellular internet connection with other devices. For iPhones, just go to Settings > Personal Hotspot and toggle it on. For Android devices, it’s not quite as straightforward but still not bad: Settings > Network & Internet > Hotspot & Tethering > Wi-Fi Hotspot.

You can also change the network name and password if you’d like to customize it more. The way to configure your hotspot may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but it’s fairly straightforward whatever device you’re on.

The upside to using a mobile hotspot on your phone is that you have a secure hotspot with you pretty much wherever you have cell service—no need to hunt down a good connection. However, many cell providers limit hotspot usage and charge additional fees to get more. It also uses up your battery power and data, so this works better as a quick fix than a long-term option.

Stay connected on the go

Hotspots are an easy, convenient, and often free way to get Wi-Fi access while you’re away from your home or office. There are apps that can help you find one, and you can even turn your phone into one. They’re great for remote work, saving data, and passing time while you’re waiting for your food, your flight, or your appointment. It’s never been easier to stay connected—the hotspot hunt is worth it.

Many home internet connections—like Xfinity, Cox, and Spectrum—come with hotspot access. Enter your ZIP code to see available plans near you.

FAQ about Wi-Fi hotspots

How do Wi-Fi hotspots work?

Hotspots are basically public Wi-Fi networks, so they work just like your home or office network. Just connect, fill out any forms that pop up, and you’re good to go.

How do I turn my phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot?

Follow these directions in your settings app:

  • iPhone: Settings > Personal Hotspot
  • Android: Settings > Network & Internet > Hotspot & Tethering > Wi-Fi Hotspot

You can toggle the hotspot on or off and adjust the network name and password from there.

How do I connect to a hotspot?

If you’re on a computer, just find the Wi-Fi menu on your device. (It’s an antenna icon at the bottom right of your screen on Windows PCs and at the top right on Macs). With your phone, you can usually find available networks through your Settings page. Once you find the network list, select the one you want and enter the password if required.

Are hotspots free?

Many hotspots are free—they’re offered by businesses and ISPs as an added convenience for customers. Many places will have a sticker or other sign advertising free Wi-Fi in the window. If the hotspot isn’t free, you’ll have to provide payment information before you can connect.

Author -

Dave has written professionally for tech companies and consumer technology sites for nearly five years, with a special focus on TV and internet. He uses his industry expertise to help readers at get the most out of their services. No matter the project, he prefers his coffee black (the stronger, the better).

Editor - Cara Haynes

Cara Haynes has edited for for three years, working with smart writers to revise everything from internet reviews to reports on your state’s favorite Netflix show. She believes no one should feel lost in internet land and that a good internet connection significantly extends your life span (buffering kills). With a degree in English and editing and five years working with online content, it’s safe to say she likes words on the internet. She is most likely to be seen wearing Birkenstocks and hanging out with a bouncy goldendoodle named Dobby, who is a literal fur angel sent to Earth.

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