Readily available internet access is the lifeblood for laptops, netbooks, tablets, and other portable devices. Whether your travels take you to the local coffee house or across the country, never be without free Wi-Fi again.
Every year the sheer number of locations you can score free Wi-Fi increases, but that doesn’t mean that finding a connection is as easy as booting up your laptop. Read on as we outline tips, tricks, and apps to help you surf the web for free.
Proper Security Is a Must
The Wi-Fi spectrum is pretty much the wild west of data usage. It is extremely easy for people with malicious intent to skim your data, intercept your wireless transmissions, and even outright set up honey-pot Wi-Fi nodes with the express purpose of collecting your private information.
While the super majority of free Wi-Fi nodes you’ll connect to are benign (offered legitimately by businesses, left open by home users, etc.) there’s always the risk that the node you’re connecting to is malicious. Since there is no way to effectively distinguish between nodes the best thing you can do is configure your connection to encrypt your entire session.
If you have a speedy broadband connection at home you might consider setting up an SSH server on your router. Alternatively you might want use a commercial encryption solution like Hotspot Shield. The goal in both instances is to create a secure tunnel for your data so that nothing (not the web sites you visit, the data you send to them, the data you download, your instant messages, your email, or any of your digital activity) is sent unencrypted.
With a properly configured tunnel (whether to your home router or computer, to your server, or to a commercial SSH/VPN solution) there is no chance that your login credentials or personal information will be leaked no matter how compromised the Wi-Fi node might be.
We don’t want to sound alarmist but given how simple it is to set up a basic encrypted tunnel and what an enormous headache it is if your identity/credentials are compromised, there’s really no reason to not take the small steps necessary to secure your mobile browsing sessions.
Let Your Antenna Be Your Guide
If you haven’t planned ahead to be somewhere you know there is free Wi-Fi, the easiest way to find free Wi-Fi is to use your electronic devices to look for it. If you’re in a big enough location (such as a café on a busy city street or in a major airport) there’s virtually no chance that you’ll be outside the range of a free Wi-Fi node. This is where our first missive, proper security is must, comes into play. It’s nearly impossible to determine the security and origin of Wi-Fi nodes you don’t directly control. With a properly secured connection you can just poke away at the open nodes in your environment and pick the first one that lets you in. If your connection is not secured it’s best to stick to nodes that appear to be associated with legitimate organizations like the restaurant you’re sitting in.
Firing up your laptop just to check for Wi-Fi nodes is a waste of power. Rather than suck down all the energy it takes to power the screen, hard drive, and other components, it’s easier and more battery friendly (a rather important goal when traveling) to use your smart phone or tablet. Pull out your device and use the Wi-Fi function to look for nodes. Use the following sub-menus for your respective device:
iOS users should navigate to Settings –> Wi-Fi to check out available Wi-Fi nodes.
Android users should navigate to Settings –> Wireless & Networks –> Wi-Fi Settings.
Blackberry users should navigate to Applications –> Set Up Wi-Fi –> Scan for Networks.
Windows 7 Phone users shoulder navigate to Start –> App –> Settings –> Wi-Fi
iOS, Android, and Windows 7 all support active notification of Wi-Fi networks. When in the aforementioned settings menus look for an option like “Ask to Join Network” (in iOS) and “Network Notification” (in Android). Keeping the Wi-Fi antenna on and searching does tax the battery more than usual but it also gives you up-to-the-minute updates on available Wi-Fi networks.
Using Wi-Fi Finder Apps and Web Sites
Barring easily finding Wi-FI nodes by pulling out your phone and scanning for them, you’ll need to do a little digging. Fortunately there are a plethora of Wi-Fi hotspot finding applications available for a variety of mobile platforms and as web-based apps.
iOS Wi-Fi Finders: Because of restrictions in the App Store submission guidelines, iOS Wi-Fi finders cannot actively scan Wi-Fi nodes. As a result of this limitation popular Wi-Fi finding apps don’t actually actively scan your local networks; they use your location (as provided by the GPS chip) and existing databases of hotspots to alert you to locally available nodes.
- Wi-Fi Finder: The most popular Wi-Fi finding app in the App Store, Wi-Fi Finder taps into the vast JiWire database to help locate both free and paid Wi-Fi hotspots in your locale.
- Boingo Wi-Finder: Shows free and Boingo sponsored hotspots near your location.
- Free Wi-Fi Finder: Another location-based free Wi-Fi finder.
- WiFi Get Lite: Includes a large offline database so even if you’re having trouble getting connectivity you can still search for free Wi-Fi locations.
Android Wi-Fi Finders: Unlike the App Store restrictions Apple developers work under, Android developers have full access to the Wi-Fi component of the device. When selecting applications for Android you have your pick of Wi-Fi database apps and Wi-Fi scanners.
- Wi-Fi Finder: The same popular app from iOS, now available for Android devices.
- Free Zone Wi-Fi: In addition to helping you locate free hotspots, Free Zone Wi-Fi will automatically connect you to free Wi-Fi nodes, sync your data, and disconnect you in order to cut down on cellular data charges.
- WeFi PRO Beta: WeFi offers an interesting twist on hotspot discovery. The WeFi app both scans available hotspots and simultaneously reports them back to WeFi while showing you the best local connection.
- Open WiFi Scanner: Unlike the previous two apps, Open WiFi scanner is simply a scanning tool that enhances Android’s built-in scanning/notification tools.
- Wifi Analyzer: Although intended to diagnose networks, Wifi Analyzer is a popular and robust Wi-Fi analyzer.
Web-based Wi-Fi Indexes: Although it’s far more convenient to access Wi-Fi lists via an app specifically customized for your phone, web indexes can be useful tools for scoping out free Wi-Fi—especially if you’re already on a Wi-Fi spot and want to plan ahead for later connectivity.
- JiWire Web Search: Index of over 680,000 free and paid hotspots around the globe.
- Boingo Hotspot Search: Index of over 300,000 free and paid hotspots around the globe.
- Hotspotr: Smaller index (around 18,000) but includes reviews of locations.
- Open WiFi Spots: Catalogs 65,000+ spots in the US.
Between the phone-based and web-based apps you should have little problem finding nearby hotspots.
Tether Your Devices to Your Phone
This isn’t exactly in the same class as finding free Wi-Fi but when you’re desperate for internet access sometimes you bend the rules a little. If you don’t already have a phone/data plan that supports tethering (with your provider’s blessing) you can use third-party tethering apps to connect your phone’s data stream to your laptop.
One of the most popular and long standing option is to use PDAnet and your sync cable. We shared a detailed guide to setting up PDAnet here. It’s, by far, the most popular tethering app around and is compatible with Windows/Mac computers and Android/iOS/BlackBerry/PalmOS/Windows Mobile phones. It comes with a 14-day free trial after which it continues to work but doesn’t allow you to visit secure HTTPS web sites. The full app will set you back $15. Again, PDAnet requires that your device either be connected with the sync cable or synced via Bluetooth; it’s a really solid solution for tethering your laptop but not a viable solution for multiple devices.
If you’d like to turn your Android phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot for multiple devices, you’ll need a rooted phone (the Android equivalent of jail breaking) and a copy of Android Wi-Fi Tether installed.
iPhone users, unfortunately, don’t have any easy no-jailbreak solutions for temporary tethering short of paying extra money for hotspot service. For those who have or are willing to jailbreak their phones, MyWi is an excellent jailbreak only application that enables both sync cable, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth tethering between the iPhone (and the iPad with 3G) and supported devices. It comes with a 3-day trial if you’d like to take it for a test spin before shelling out $20.
There are a few things worth noting about tethering your phone to your other mobile devices. First, it most certainly violates your cellphone contract (even though most providers completely ignore casual usage). Second, it’s really easy to chew up data usage when you’re using a laptop and/or multiple other devices—while your provider may not care that you’re using a third-party tethering app they most certainly will care when you exceed your data usage for that month. Finally, both sync cable tethering and (especially) Wi-Fi tethering are rough on battery life. Expect your battery usage to sky rocket while tethering and plan for frequent charging or keeping your phone plugged in while tethering.
Between using your phone as an active scanner, using hotspot cataloging apps on your phone and laptop, and—in a bind—using your phone as a roll-your-own Wi-Fi hotspot, you’ll never be without internet access again.
Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on Google+ if you'd like.
- Published 12/6/11