It’s often said that the best things in life are free, but sadly this doesn’t include Wi-Fi. Free Wi-Fi is inherently compromised, if it’s even available at all. When it is an option, though, making the most of free Wi-Fi can save a considerable amount of mobile broadband data. Even if a specific connection is slow or patchy, it’s still worth taking advantage of free Wi-Fi hotspots in the UK. It’s also worth noting that some internet service providers (ISPs) offer exclusive public hotspots to their home broadband customers. This allows existing customers to benefit from free public Wi-Fi spots.
When you’re out and about, you might notice public Wi-Fi networks sending push notifications to your mobile devices, inviting you to sign in. If these don’t appear automatically, check available Wi-Fi connections and see which accounts or networks are listed as available.
Most public Wi-Fi spots will have unambiguous names like “CafeGUEST” or “CustomerFreeWifi”, while they rarely require a password. Some may request a password that’s prominently displayed above the tills, or handed out by staff on request. This is convenient, but as we explain below, it also reduces the safety offered by these open Wi-Fi networks.
Most public Wi-Fi spots will automatically provide a connection to your device once network access has been requested and any passwords have been input. In some cases, your web browser will automatically be redirected to the provider’s online portal to sign in.
Signing in may involve one of the following processes:
A one-time login that requests a name and email
A longer login that requires a name, email address and password to support automatic reconnection on subsequent visits
A simple ‘get online’ button that needs to be clicked
A two-factor authentication login code supplied via text message to a valid mobile number
A social media login, which ties your visit to that social media platform and can be used for future marketing purposes.
Businesses like Transport for London go even further by requiring you to identify your ISP and mobile number before a connection can be made. That’s because this service is provided by Virgin Media, and is only offered for free to customers of the following networks:
Other customers can use the service, but they must buy a pass. This prevents Virgin’s broadband competitors from enjoying their services free of charge, without locking them out entirely.
There are several ISPs currently offering public Wi-Fi. Below, we explain how to access them:
Sky’s Wi-Fi hotspots are offered by a subsidiary called The Cloud. Sky customers can create an account and then stay logged in on a specific device, ready to automatically connect whenever there’s a Wi-Fi hotspot nearby. Non-Sky customers can also use The Cloud and connect to individual hotspots without requiring an account.
Virgin Media hotspots are commonly found in transport hubs including the aforementioned London Underground stations and airports. Virgin Media customers can use an app to identify nearby hotspots, including ones located abroad.
Formerly known as BT Openzone, BT Wi-Fi hotspots are free to BT customers, but everyone else will reach a paywall when they try to connect. Many urban areas are serviced by BT Wi-Fi, and regular visitors or city workers can buy a monthly access pass without having to be a BT broadband customer. Although this might seem a worthwhile price to pay for public broadband, you’re likely to find much better deals on a mobile phone data plan that offers a personal broadband connection.
It won’t be possible to access free Wi-Fi without a nearby hotspot. However, if being connected on the go is important, look for a home broadband deal with mobile phone offers included. While this is neither free or a Wi-Fi option, it does represent the best solution for accessing the internet both home and away. Plus, overall performance will be superior to any shared public connection.
There are usually limits on usage, which may include any combination of the following:
Loss of connection after consuming a certain amount of data
Access cuts off after one hour
Video and audio streaming are prohibited
Downloads are disabled
Adult/controversial/untrusted sites are blocked.
It’s usually obligatory to accept terms and conditions that will involve marketing emails from the retailer or business providing the Wi-Fi, requiring you to unsubscribe at a later date. It’s also worth noting that speeds across public Wi-Fi won’t compare to the speeds achievable over fibre broadband.
This is an option, though it’s unwise to conduct online banking or other potentially sensitive activities over a public connection. There’s a risk that someone with the right hardware and the wrong intentions could snoop on information being distributed over an open Wi-Fi network. This is a risk in any shared connection, but especially so in a location where other people can come and go without being monitored. If you have to carry out sensitive tasks like banking on a public connection, consider installing a VPN app for greater privacy.
If the Wi-Fi network’s administrator wishes to do so, each user can be tracked using their connection. Transport for London has done this to help understand customer behaviour, and retailers may use similar information to understand how people interact with their premises. While there isn’t anything particularly sinister about this, you might want to stick to using a personal data plan if you’re uncomfortable knowing the provider could be monitoring your online activities.
Although it’s not entirely free, it’s possible to create a hotspot using a smartphone with a mobile broadband plan. This allows other devices to connect over the mobile device’s broadband. For customers on an unlimited mobile data plan, this is the closest thing to free Wi-Fi. A good mobile broadband plan can eliminate the hassle of finding public Wi-Fi (or needing to ‘borrow’ it from a friend).
Finally, if Wi-Fi hotspots aren’t dependable or accessible enough, you could also consider a no contract broadband deal. This means you’re not locked into a lengthy contract, while bringing a stable and reasonably fast connection into your home. A mobile broadband hub is another option, offering full portability and potentially keeping several Wi-Fi-enabled devices online simultaneously.
Last updated: 14 December 2020