Wi-Fi, like most things in life, is never fast, free and easy; two out of three is the best you can hope for. If your primary goal is free Wi-Fi, it likely won't be fast if it's easy to find, and it won't be easy to get if it's fast. But given these inherent limitations, there are ways to find free Wi-Fi.
Free Wi-Fi can come with a bite: Hackers can use unsecured Wi-Fi connections to access your data, distribute malware or otherwise cause havoc. Take precautions: Be sure to use a VPN, a secure connection for any websites you visit, and turn off Wi-Fi when you don't need it.
Public and Business Places
Free Wi-Fi often comes with strings attached. Go to Starbucks, for example, and you're expected to make a purchase if you intend to linger — although you may be able to nurse that latte for hours. Go to a public place, however — such as a government building or a public park — and as long as free Wi-Fi is available, it's truly free. Though you might need to find out the password to access it.
Free Wi-Fi With Strings
In addition to the ubiquitous Starbucks, most coffee shops, cafes and even some upscale restaurants now provide Wi-Fi to paying customers. Ask the staff or check to see if the location is listed in your available network connections.
Many fast-food chains have free Wi-Fi, including McDonald's, most Taco Bell locations, Burger King, Subways, Quiznos and Arby's. Other restaurant chains have joined the Wi-Fi bandwagon: Panera Bread, Denny's and some Applebee's.
Bookstores are a slam-dunk for Wi-Fi (hint: many people in bookstores are not reading books). Many big-box chains offer it, including Target and some Staples and CompUSA stores — and it is becoming more common. During the holiday season, some retailers like Gap, Gap Factory, Banana Republic, Old Navy and Athleta stores in the U.S. have offered free Wi-Fi service.
Many unexpected places also offer free Wi-Fi these days. Gas stations, laundromats, electronics stores — surprising, right? Your local Apple Store won't provide you with somewhere to sit down and surf the Net, but it has always offered free Wi-Fi.
More shopping malls are offering free Wi-Fi, and here, you don't have to purchase a thing: Just find a bench to sit on and pull out your laptop.
Free Wi-Fi for the Taking
Your library almost certainly has free Wi-Fi, as well as most other government buildings, such as city halls, courthouses and some public parks.
Some cities are developing city-wide Wi-Fi, called Muni Wi-Fi. Widely touted as the next-best-thing a decade or so ago, municipal Wi-Fi has not expanded as expected, largely due to cost, security issues and the advent of common 3G and 4G networks. However, there are renewed efforts to work out the kinks, and free Wi-Fi may be coming to a city near you sometime in the future.
Finding Free Wi-Fi
Multiple websites and smartphone apps can help you identify free Wi-Fi in your area, and the list will surprise you — it also keeps getting longer. You need to perform some advance research if your goal is to hang out wherever you can get some free downloads.
Use one of the many websites or smartphone apps that provide free Wi-Fi listings:
Free Wi-Fi is one thing, but free and fast Wi-Fi is harder to find. The Internet abounds with analyses of a wide range of free and paid Wi-Fi connections. One excellent report from Open Signal analyzes various public Wi-Fi speeds in the U.S., focusing on restaurant and hotel chains. The upshot: Starbucks' switch from AT&T to Google almost doubled its Wi-Fi speed, while McDonald's and Best Buy trump Target, Lowes and Dunkin' Donuts for fast downloads.
Hard as it is to find a fast and free connection, sometimes the stars align. When your computer or smartphone displays several free available connections, use an app to determine which has the best speed or strongest connection:
Not-So-Free: Cable and Cell Phone Companies Hot Spots
Cable companies advertise to their customers a network of locations fueled by free Wi-Fi. While not technically free — after all, you're paying for cable — if you already have a cable provider, it's worth checking out one of its hot spots if you're traveling or need to use Wi-Fi outside your home. Just have your username and password ready: Some cable providers require you to set up a connection on your device before using the service. Check out the following finder maps: