Free Wi-Fi hotspots and where to find them

The best things in life are free. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Wi-Fi. Free Wi-Fi, if you do manage to get it, is often time-consuming to connect to and not that reliable once you do. That said, when you’re out and about, making the most of free Wi-Fi can save you a lot of data on mobile broadband, so, patchy connection or not, you should still take advantage of the abundance of free Wi-Fi hotspots in the UK. Plus, some providers even offer exclusive public hotspots to their home broadband customers, so you can enjoy much better performance from completely free public Wi-Fi spots – here’s how to get started.

Woman using WiFi hotspot in cafe

How do I find free Wi-Fi near me?

When you’re out and about, you might find a lot of public Wi-Fi options will send a push notification to your phone asking you to sign in. If these don’t appear automatically, just check your available Wi-Fi connections in your phone setting and see what pops up. You can also use The Cloud to see if there are any nearby.

Most public Wi-Fi spots will be named something like “CafeGUEST” or “CustomerFreeWifi” and won’t have password protection. Some may still have password protection but you can find this posted around the bar/café/shop you are in, or you can ask staff. 

How do I get online with free public Wi-Fi?

As mentioned above, most public Wi-Fi spots will connect once you select them and input any password, however, even after this step you may be automatically taken to the retailer’s online portal to sign in. Signing in can come in several forms:

  • A one-time log-in that requires only your name and email

  • A longer log-in that requires your name, email and a password so you can revisit and reconnect any time

  • A simple “get online” click button

  • A security code log-in that needs your mobile number and will then text you a code to connect with

Some public Wi-Fi spots require you to log-in through social media so you essentially have to give the business a like/follow to get online.

Businesses like Transport for London require you to tell them your provider and mobile number before you can connect, as this service is provided by Virgin Media and only offered for free to the following network’s customers:

  • Virgin

  • EE

  • Vodafone

  • O2

  • Three

Other customers can use the service but must buy a pass. 

Which providers offer public Wi-Fi?

Sky Wi-Fi hotspots

Sky’s Wi-Fi hotspots are offered by The Cloud, which it owns. As a Sky customer you can log in, create an account and be ready to auto-connect whenever there is a Wi-Fi hotspot nearby. Non-Sky customers can also use The Cloud and connect to individual hotspots without an account. 

Virgin Media Wi-Fi hotspots

Virgin Media hotspots are commonly found in transport hubs including London Underground and airports. Virgin Media customers can access an app to show the nearest hotspots and can even access those located abroad. 

BT Broadband Wi-Fi hotspots

BT Wi-Fi hotspots, also known as BT Openzone, are free to BT customers, but others will hit a paywall as soon as they try to connect. If you work in an area that is a BT Openzone (many major city centres, for example, are serviced by BT Wi-Fi spots) then you can also buy a monthly pass so you can access Wi-Fi without having to be a home broadband customer. While this might be a price you are willing to pay for public broadband, you’re likely to find much better deals on a mobile phone data plan that gives you a personal broadband connection. `

What if there aren’t any free Wi-Fi hotspots near me?

Short answer: then you can’t access free Wi-Fi. However, if being connected on the go is important to you, then see if you can find a home broadband deal with mobile offers thrown in. While this isn’t exactly free or a public Wi-Fi option, it does offer the best solution for broadband both at home and while out and about, plus overall performance is sure to be better than any shared public connection. 

Are there limits on public Wi-Fi hotspots?

Yes, usually there are. The precise limits can vary but tend to be any of the following:

  • Loss of connection after using a certain amount of data

  • Access limited to 60 minutes

  • Video and audio streaming blocked

  • Downloads blocked

  • Adult/controversial/untrusted sites blocked

You will also usually have to accept the terms and conditions that will almost always mean you can look forward to plenty of marketing emails from the retailer or business. 

Are Wi-Fi hotspots trustworthy?

Generally, yes, though for the sake of your own security you shouldn’t do anything like online banking or inputting your bank card details while on a public connection. There is a risk that someone, if they were so inclined, could access the information of other devices on the same connection. This is a risk of any shared connection and would require someone with technical knowledge to actively try and compromise your security. If you find you have no choice but to carry out sensitive tasks like banking on a public connection, consider a VPN. 

Do public Wi-Fi spots track you?

Yes, if the administrator chooses to, you can be tracked using your connection. TFL has done this before to help understand customer behaviour and retailers may use this information to do the same thing to help them better understand the way you interact with their shop. While there isn’t anything particularly sinister about this, if you don’t like knowing that the retailer could choose to see what you’re doing, you might want to stick to your personal data plan.

Other hotspot possibilities

While it’s not entirely free, you can hotspot from a phone with a mobile broadband plan. This allows other devices to connect to its broadband without needing direct connection to the SIM. If you are on an unlimited mobile data plan then this is the closest thing to free Wi-Fi, especially if you’re just piggybacking off someone else’s phone plan. A good mobile broadband plan can save you the hassle of finding public Wi-Fi or needing to steal it from a friend, just use a comparison tool to find the best deal.