If you need quick Internet access, you’ve got options. You can use data from your phone plan, pay for time at a local Internet café, or — for free and easy access — connect to a public Wi-Fi network. Public Wi-Fi networks are especially great resources for those who need Internet connections on the go. Whether you’re working, studying, or just surfing the web, you can benefit from these networks.
Want to know more? Here’s our guide to public Wi-Fi and where you can access it.
What Is Public WiFi?
Public Wi-Fi hotspots are physical spots where public wireless Internet connections are available. Just about anyone with a Wi-Fi enabled device can get onto a public Wi-Fi network — usually for free.
To connect to a public Wi-Fi spot, you’ll need to turn your device’s wireless capabilities on and search for available networks. Most public networks have names like “FreeWiFi” or “WiFiGuest,” though you’ll want to confirm the exact name with an employee of the organization that sponsors the network.
Do proceed with caution on public Wi-Fi, as there are some security risks. Information you send over a public wireless network — like an e-mail for your business, payment for an online purchase, or a picture on a social media site — could be accessed by someone else. Public networks are not as safe and protected as home Internet networks. To ensure you’re staying as secure as possible, follow the Federal Trade Commission’s tips for using public Wi-Fi.
Which Businesses Have Public WiFi?
Today, Internet hotspots can be found all over the country. Places like libraries, colleges, and cafes usually offer public Wi-Fi. In fact, 98% of libraries in the U.S. offer free public Wi-Fi. You’ll find Wi-Fi in unexpected places as well, including mall food courts, hospital cafeterias, public parks, and grocery stores.
Many businesses also offer wireless Internet to their customers. Though most are accessible merely by being close to the sponsored Wi-Fi hotspot, some companies have stipulations as to who can use the connection. For instance, Burger King asks customers to buy something to gain access, many hotel chains requires users to pay a one-time use fee, and Panera Bread limits session time during busy hours.
If you’re looking for a quick wireless connection without the extra conditions, select locations of these major national chains offer free Wi-Fi: Starbucks, McDonald’s, Target, Dunkin’ Donuts, Chick-Fil-A, Barnes & Noble, Staples, Jimmy John’s, Krispy Kreme, Applebee’s, Kroger, and Safeway.
Which Cities Have Public WiFi?
Dozens of cities are going digital and providing free municipal Wi-Fi, especially with AT&T and Panasonic’s smart cities initiatives with a number of American cities. Progressive government leaders feel free connectivity is the wave of the future — it facilitates innovation, provides help for the economically disadvantaged, promotes tourism, and markets the city as a tech-friendly hub. Though no American city offers completely comprehensive free Wi-Fi, there are plenty of locales where you can park your laptop and enjoy the public wireless.
If you’re lucky enough to live in one of these major cities, you can enjoy public Wi-Fi.
- New York, New York
- Santa Monica, California
Wi-Fi is available in most outdoors areas in Santa Monica, as the city now has 25 City Wi-Fi hot zones.
- Houston, Texas
Under the WeCAN Houston initiative, there are 10 Houston Neighborhoods in the downtown area that receive municipal Wi-Fi services.
- Minneapolis, Minnesota
Minneapolis offers free wireless in 117 hotspots throughout the city.
- Raleigh, North Carolina
Free outdoor Wi-Fi is accessible throughout Downtown Raleigh, Pullen Park, and the Annie Wilkerson Nature Preserve, though it’s only approved for outdoor use.
- Honolulu, Hawaii
Four Honolulu Internet hot zones provide free Wi-Fi around the city and county government buildings, city hall, and community center.
- Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Create an account at WiFiPittsburgh.com, and you’ll have free Wi-Fi access for two hours a day throughout the downtown area.
- San José, California
The Wickedly Fast WiFi network provides free wireless connectivity throughout San José’s downtown core.
- Cambridge, Massachusetts
Cambridge Public Internet access points are available all over the city, from the government buildings to the major streets.
- Charleston, South Carolina
Many of Charleston’s public parks feature free Wi-Fi, including areas in West Ashley and Daniel Island.
These lesser-known cities are offering public Wi-Fi, too.
- Williamsburg, Virginia
The colonial city offers free public Wi-Fi in its downtown core, ranging through Merchants Square and Prince George Street.
- Santa Clara, California
This city’s free wireless services are accessible in most outdoor areas across the city.
- Lexington, North Carolina
The free CityWiFi network in Lexington is available outdoors in the central business district.
- Miami Beach, Florida
The free Miami Beach Wi-Fi system is accessible around the convention center, two youth centers, and the city’s major parking structure.
- Amherst, Massachusetts
Amherst offers the largest open public Wi-Fi network in the state, and it can be accessed in various outdoor locations throughout the city.
- Longmont, Colorado
Longmont’s free Wi-Fi services are available during downtown events and at several public parks.
- Fenton, Michigan
The Tri-County Wireless system provides free wireless to Fenton’s downtown areas and many of the city’s public parks.
- Decatur, Georgia
Various public spaces in Decatur have free Wi-Fi, including downtown, the business district, and a few public parks.
- Chattanooga, Tennessee
Chatanooga’s NOOGANET provides free WiFi access around the city’s public buildings and outdoor areas.
- El Paso, Texas
Free public WiFi is available in downtown El Paso, encompassing areas around City Hall, the convention center, and the courthouse.
Though free public Wi-Fi is convenient, remember that it’s not always the most safe or reliable. If you want to guarantee quality Internet that is secure and accessible at all hours, invest in an affordable Wi-Fi plan for your home today.